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Archive for April, 2009

I get a daily update of Tajik news in my e-mail that is published by ASIA-Plus.  It appears to me that ASIA-Plus is the only Dushanbe-based news service that regularly publishes in English, so this is as good as it gets.  And unfortunately, the daily news briefing from ASIA-Plus isn’t exactly world-beating muckraking.  It’s more like demure press release repeating.  Here’s a typical entry from their e-mail of today:

DUSHANBE PROSECUTOR REPLACED

DUSHANBE, April 30, 2009, Asia-Plus /Nargis Hamroboyeva/ — Saydmurod Qodirov, who had previously served as the first deputy prosecutor of the Khatlon province, was appointed the Dushanbe prosecutor, replacing Qurbonali Muhabbatov, according to the Dushanbe prosecutor’s office.

Muhabbatov who had served as the Dushanbe prosecutor since 2007 is currently at disposal of the personnel department within the prosecutor-general’s office, the source said.

Cryptic and not exactly hard hitting, no?  I feel there’s a story there just waiting for a journalist.

Today’s e-mail had something of interest to Americans, however.  “Montana University,” which my sleuthing (aka Google) determined to be University of Montana at Missoula, recently opened a “Tajik Corner” in its student union.  A bit more online digging led to my discovery of UMT’s Central and Southwest Asia Program, which is one of a precious few of its kind in the U.S.  The University of Montana Press even published a new book just about Tajikistan.

There must be some professors at Montana who have an interest or expertise in the area, because otherwise, I can’t really see the connection.  I must admit that this view of the UMT campus does look a bit like it could be in Tajikistan (if there were neo-Gothic buildings anywhere in Tajikistan):

View of the University of Montana

View of the University of Montana

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So, notwithstanding my love of rail travel, I have to say that I had a pretty crappy rail experience on Sunday.  It started with the Amtrak agent’s sincere disinterest in helping me make the 11 o’clock Acela, which would have saved me from two hours of fiddling in Union Station.  But that was a minor annoyance compared with what happened with Acela 2254 when we got to New York Penn Station.

As anyone who has ever traveled on Amtrak knows, station stops are typically brief, under a couple of minutes.  Sometimes stops can be a bit longer at big stations, like Penn Station, but they are unlikely to last more than 5 minutes unless something is wrong.  And so, after an uneventful trip from DC to NYC, when my train on Sunday was stopped for 10, then 15, then 20 minutes at NYP, I didn’t need to have Spidey sense to know something was wrong.

An announcement confirmed it: “The Acela 2254 to Boston has been canceled, and this train will now be heading to Washington, D.C.  Boston-bound travelers, please exit the train and proceed upstairs for more information.”  I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist.  Not a word about why or what contingency plans were.  Ugh.  And a double ugh when I went topside and encountered the mob scene created by the just-finished Rangers game.  And a triple ugh when I noticed that 350+ people were in Amtrak’s customer service line.

Strangely, I didn’t find myself consumed by rage.  I figured that the Amtrak drones had no information anyway, so why wait in that hell-line or yell at people who’s fault this wasn’t (although they could’ve stowed the surliness).  I asked the regular 34th Street district info booth where the nearest car rental place was, and, to my relief, it was a Hertz around the corner on 34th between 8th and 9th.

Unfortunately, that Hertz had no cars and it did have two people in front of me who also wanted a car so they could drive to Boston for the exact same reason.  Perhaps chastened by an unexpectedly high blood pressure reading recently, I continued my Zen approach, took a number and a seat.  Forty-five minutes later, I was ensconced in a surprisingly-nice Kia Sportage that someone had been kind enough to return.  An hour after that, I had navigated free from the departing MSG hockey crowd, wended my way crosstown to the FDR, realized that the Triboro is now called the RFK, and made it onto the Hutch.  A few, relatively painless hours later, I was home.

Apparently, the cause of all the agita was a power outage on the line between NYC and New Haven that was fixed some four and half hours after I left the City.  This is, natch, no surprise, but the fact that it occurred is a shame and the way Amtrak mishandled the situation (not exactly Alitalia-esque, but still botched) is a shame.  This is one person’s anecdote, but I fear that it is telling.  There are a lot of people who would ride the rails on a regular basis; there’s lots of reasons to do so.  Plus, we’re now in a political climate in this country that seems receptive, at least, to reducing our dependence on oil by promoting trains.  But until Amtrak gets its act together, especially by addressing its customer service failings, it will squander this golden opportunity.

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A week in DC

I’m sitting in the gate area of Union Station, still lamenting that the incredibly slow line at Amtrak ticketing kept me from catching the 11 a.m. Acela and shaving two hours off my trip back to Boston.  But I’m one to make lemonade out of lemons, you know, so now I see this extra time with poached wireless to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude and to update the blog.

From Wednesday through Friday, I had training at the ABA offices around the corner from the White House to prep for the trip to Tajikistan.  A lot of the time was taken up with administrative explanations: here’s how you fill out a reimbursement request and the like.  Then another big portion of time was devoted to versing us in the alphabet soup of funding agencies that provide the dough to make the various rule of law programs happen: OPDAT, DRL, INL, AID, and those are just the U.S. Government ones that I remember.  Luckily, my role provides me with a degree of separation from the bureaucracy of donor funding as my job will be focused on the implementation of an already funded program.

Aside from the scheduled training, simply being able to meet with the folks in the DC office and get a sense for the dynamics there made the exercise worthwhile.  The staff covering Central Asia seem smart, engaging, and competent, which is a good combo.  It should be fun to work with them.

Plus, it was a terrific time to be down here in DC.  I got to see so many people who it is a joy to hang out with, and I got to have that frisson of pride that I always get in DC when I turn the corner and see the Capitol or the Washington Monument or the White House (or all three).  Yeah, I know that this country has its demons and they are reflected in its monuments, but we’re working on it, and seeing those places always gives me a lump in my throat.

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Like $50 cab ride far.

And I didn’t see any damn cherry blossoms either.

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Yesterday, I mentioned that there seems to be a significant number of websites dedicated to chronicling long distance travels on the bicycle.  Below are three that I have run across just over the past few days that have to do specifically with biking across Tajikistan:

What is it about travelling by bike that engenders these sorts of sites?  Is it something intrinsic to the type of person drawn to biking long distances?  Or does the mere fact that the bicyclist is seeing all sorts of beautiful/amazing/different/bizarre things that compels memorializing their trip in this way?

These are not rhetorical questions, by the way.  I am genuinely curious about this phenomena.  Maybe I have simply run across these cyclists’ sites by chance and they are not as widespread as I think.  But I wonder if there isn’t something about people who take any sort of longish trip by an atypical mode of transport that leads to them writing about their experiences.  In my bibliography, you’ll see a book called Through Russia on a Mustang. That’s the horse, not the car, and it tells the story of Thomas Stevens, an American who rode his trusty steed from the West through the wooly East of rural Russia in 1890.  People thought he was crazy (and some rural Russians thought he was a demon), but he perserved and got the New York World to publish his missives from the trail.

This has clearly been going on for some time.  By the way, Stevens also rode a bicycle around the world in 1886, “seeing the sights in Europe, out-racing a mob in Persia, and baffling the Japanese in Yokohama,” according to the back of the book.  Some people just have a compulsion to travel exotically and write about it, and it’s plain, from the Victorian era to the present, that other people want to read about it.

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Today is Patriots’ Day, which is also Marathon Monday here in Boston.  Tonight, my dad and I are going to the Celtics game.  I’m planning when to go to Santarpio’s for their “BBQ” and when to play trivia at the Druid with DJ Dave.  Maybe I’d be thinking of doing all these things anyway, but now, each one of these trips, these events, have a little more meaning attached because I know it’ll be the last time for awhile.

I don’t feel maudlin about it; Tarps’ll be around when I get back.  But the sense of actually leaving home, of going halfway across the world, it hits when thinking about these last chances to go and do the things that make this place home.  After giving my notice at work this week and signing the lease to rent my condo, now it’s clear that some doors are closing and others opening.  It’s exciting to be going off on an adventure.  But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m a bit apprehensive too.

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Apparently, lots of people like cycling through Tajikistan, or at least it seems that way because I’ve run across a bunch of websites dedicated to cyclists’ trips across the country.  First I read about the guy who biked from Japan to England over the course of three years, now I’ve found the Barneses.  Tim Barnes took the photo below after arriving in Dushanbe in 2006.  He and his wife ended up cycling 3,500 km across Central Asia that summer.

That’s Rudaki Avenue, and it’s my understanding that it is the main street through the center of the capital, flanked on either side by government buildings, embassies, and monuments.  It used to be called Lenin Street, natch, and was renamed after independence for the ninth-century Persian poet Rudaki.  He’s widely regarded to be one of the most influential and beautiful poets in Central Asian history.  There’s a lot of his poetry in translation available on the web, and below is an excerpt from a poem of his talking about the Oxus River, which flows through Tajikistan and is now called the Amu Darya:

The sands of Oxus, toilsome though they be,
Beneath my feet were soft as silk to me.
Glad at the friend’s return, the Oxus deep
Up to our girths in laughing waves shall leap.

Not sure that the over wide Soviet road populated by brokedown Ladas and flash Land Cruisers does the guy justice.

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