Posts Tagged ‘Dushanbe’

цирк du Dushanbe

Shane has a really nice post up on his blog about our trip to the Tajik State Circus last week.  He exactly describes the vibe as we found our seats in the faux-futuristic spaceship of the circus arena:

Inside a smiling rotund lady in a purple overcoat guides us to our grooved seats. We sit amongst the buzz of excitement and balloon-dogs, the masses are anticipating a comedy, and the three westerners are expecting a tragedy.

Our fears were misplaced.  As Shane points out, watching this circus transported us, jaded Westerners, back to the 1940s, or earlier.  There were lots of simple sight gags and simple tight rope routines, and nothing with glitz or gloss.  Yet the Tajiks loved it and we found it oddly endearing.

You could do nothing other than be taken in by a level of humour our grandparents appreciated. Sat on my left a Tajik father burst into uncontrollable laughter as a coin, miraculously discovered behind a small boys ear, bounced into a tin. His laughter was infectious.

It was the sort of event that would have bored the average American kid to tears and which would have left me disappointed at home.  No lions or elephants?  No super-dangerous high wire flips?  No funny jokes, just a succession of broad slapstick from the clowns?  Only one midget?  No, no, no, that would not do in a world of Gameboys and ADHD.  But here in Dushanbe, well, that was a different story.

Just coincidentally, us housemates watched the 29th Monte Carlo Circus Festival on the Polish television station TV Puls last night (which raised a few questions: when did Princess Stephanie get so old looking? why are they showing dubbed circus festivals from 2005 in 2010? would they ever show anything like this on American TV nowadays?), and that performance highlighted all the technical deficiencies of the show in Dushanbe.  But the show we saw last week made up for it in a commodity we don’t always value in the go-go West: charm.

(Photo from Suratgirak’s photo stream on Flickr.  Unfortunately, my camera is not working for some reason, so no photos from the circus by me.)

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Asia-Plus, a Tajik weekly that also publishes in English online, informs us:

DUSHANBE, January 8, 2010 — More than 80 million somoni worth [about $1.82 million — ed.] of shares in open joint-stock company (OJSC) NBO Roghun were sold in Dushanbe on January 6, when a large scale Roghun share sale campaign was launched in the country, Shavkat Saidov, a spokesman for the Dushanbe mayor’s office, told Asia-Plus today.

“The shares were sold both in cash and by written order on account,” said Saidov, “The mayor’s office appreciates Dushanbe resident’s active support for the construction of the Roghun hydroelectric power plant (HPP).”

Because we hear about Roghun all the time here — it is trumpeted on banners festooning the main streets of Dushanbe, the president harangues passers-by about it from huge “L.A. Story“-style (or is it “1984”) video screens, locals talk nervously to us about affording the shares in the dam company that they are expected to buy, my friend Cedric has Facebook updates about it — it can be easy to forget that that rest of world knows next to nothing about this dam which, allegedly, can change Tajikistan’s destiny, according to the authorities.

The dam itself isn’t necessarily a bad idea.  While short of fossil fuels, Tajikistan is blessed with water and a lot of it.  Due to its surprisingly heavy precipitation and to glacier melt, Tajikistan has water supplies that its wealthier, more powerful neighbors do not.  Unfortunately for Tajikistan, its water resources are difficult to harness as they require the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to build hydro-power stations.  Doubly unfortunate is that what Tajikistan has in water resources, it lacks in other energy resources.

Uzbekistan, one of Tajikistan’s wealthier and more powerful neighbors (and with whom it has a not innocuous rivalry), in particular, has tried to use this energy disparity against Tajikistan’s government by alternately threatening to and actually cutting off natural gas supplies to the country, as the majority of the natural gas used in Tajikistan comes from Turkmenistan and must transit Uzbekistan via a pipeline to reach the country.

This is where Roghun Dam comes in.

Where the Roghun Dam will be built

Construction of the dam fulfills two strategic goals for Tajikistan’s current government: 1) become more energy self-sufficient and 2) obtain some leverage against Uzbekistan, for an operational Roghun would allow the Tajik government to significantly reduce the flow of river water to Uzbekistan, if it so chose.

Due in part to the embargo on Southern cotton during the American Civil War, Russia and then the Soviet Union extensively irrigated the arid desert flatlands of Uzbekistan to grow cotton, and lots of it.  Cotton is an extraordinarily thirsty crop and requires massive amounts of water to grow.  Being in the desert, Uzbek cotton farmers, primarily students press-ganged by the Uzbek government, depend on the rivers flowing down from the mountains of their neighbor — you guessed it — Tajikistan to water their vast fields of cotton.  That its economy is based on a cotton monoculture only makes the dictatorial Uzbek regime even more touchy about the construction of any Tajik dams that may interfere with Uzbek water supplies.

For years, Russia used the potential construction of the Roghun station as a way to play Tajikistan and Uzbekistan off against each other, and enhance its own leverage against the former Soviet provinces, by first supporting and then withdrawing support for the project.  Flustered by Russia’s fickleness, unable to secure other investors, and lacking the cash to build the dam within the governmental budget, the president decided to ask for (impose a) voluntary (mandatory) donations (taxes) on the Tajik people to pay for building Roghun.

As construction of Roghun is expected to cost $600 million just to get the first of six planned power stations operational, and Tajikistan’s population is about 6.8 million people, this donation/tax could come to $88 for every man, woman, and child in the country.  This is a place where the average monthly salary is $60, meaning that most working people live on a dollar or two per day.  And remember that the unemployment rate is about 30%, not including the 50% of the population that is under the age of 18.

Long story short, $88  is a heck of a lot of money for an average Tajik citizen.  And the government is leaning on people here to pay up, as Shane details in his blog, if not for the whole $88 yet.

The hypocrisy is astounding, if not surprising.  I’d be interested to know how many somoni in cash the president is contributing to the construction of Roghun, considering that news reports indicate that he has potentially hundreds of millions of dollars squirreled away in secret bank accounts around the world.  More on this here and here.  And the president isn’t the only one who’s bent, many people in government are on the take.  How much have they “donated” to the building of these power stations?

As far as anyone knows, they haven’t contributed a single Tajik dinar diram* to the project.  That’s disgusting, and disgustingly typical.

*Edit to use the correct currency.  100 Tajik dirams = 1 Tajik somoni.

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Last Sunday, Saidbek (Corny’s old landlord and the guy who helped us find our current house) took Shane and I out on an excursion to the countryside north of Dushanbe.  Countryside is a bit of a misnomer, for it recalls, to me, softly rolling hills or well-tended fields.  As we took the road out of town, we headed instead up into the craggy mountains that surround the city.

I knew we were going to some sort of resort, but I became increasingly dubious as we drove through the resort town of Varzob, where the Tajik president has one of his many dachas, and continued on.  Eventually, about an hour north of Dushanbe, we took a left.  With my basic Cyrillic reading skills, I deciphered that the sign said we were several kilometers from “Khoja Obi-garm.”  I had heard of the Obi-Garm to the east of Dushanbe, which is the playground, in a manner of speaking, for many of the governmental elite.  And I knew that the phrase “obi garm” meant “hot water” in Tajik.  But I had never heard of this place.

After we turned, the road headed up and the snow lay more and more thickly on the ground.  After several sharp switchbacks and after barely outrunning a couple of riled-up chuponi dogs in Shane’s Niva, we turned the corner and we confronted with this:

The Soviet era spa hotel at Khoja Obi-garm

Unexpected, to say the least.

Immediately I was reminded of the Soviet-era monstrosity that looms over the otherwise elegant spa town of Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, which I visited with both my schoolmates and my folks.  Unlike that brutalist structure, however, the one in Khoja Obi-garm had telling Tajik touches: the lack of electricity, indents that showed where furniture had been pilfered, and, of course, the facade painted a vigorous yellow.

Perhaps the most telling touch is the last, as the yellow stops halfway across the front of the building.  When you get close, you can see that, for no apparent reason, they just stopped painting; you can even see the individual brush strokes where they stopped.  Maybe they ran out of paint, or money to pay the painters.  Maybe they just got bored.  Who knows?  And who knows how long it is has been, or will be, like that.

While the tour of the hotel (600 somoni, or about $136, for a 12 night stay, three squares a day included) was somewhat amusing, and the lunch avoided catastrophe (which can sometimes be a minor miracle), the true highlight was when we took the waters at Khoja Obi-garm.  People, apparently, have been coming to the spring there for years, even before a hotel was constructed for tired proletarians from the city, to bathe in radon-infused water and breath in radon-infused steam.

Yes, radon is radioactive.  So there’s that.  But it is also, perhaps relatedly, good for your aching bones; in particular, radon spas have been used to treat arthritis.

Shane shares his take on our experience in the steam bath on his blog.  I enjoyed it a bit more than he, I think, buried under clouds of radon steam and dunked in radon water that seemed on the verge of boiling at any second.  For someone who has heat regulation issues, I do like a schvitz.  After a longish lay in the recuperation room, and fortified by several cups of mint tea, we headed back to Dushanbe calm and content.  I managed to maintain the zen as I dozed in the back of the Niva; Shane had to drive.

The Soviet era spa hotel at Khoja Obi-garm

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Confronting Tajiks in the streets of Dushanbe

Confounding Tajiks in the streets of Dushanbe

Super-busy at work in the run-up to a week in the field in Muminabad followed by a week of vacation in London (to see the Pats play at Wembley, natch), so I have precious little time for blogging.  So to satiate your collective need for this blog to be updated, here’s a photo of me and the “hounds” hashing in Dushanbe a few weeks back.

Yes, that’s a look frequently on my face, if you’re wondering.

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Actually not a Tajik herself, but a Canadian who’s working for a local NGO in Khorog in the Pamirs. I liked her first in-country post about her initial impressions of Dushanbe:


I haven’t done a lot of the sort of post linked to above, and maybe I should do more impressionistic stuff. In the meantime, enjoy this one; I did.  I also added a permalink to her site on my blogroll under the “Tajikistan” section.

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When Tajikistan became independent in 1991, it had no history as a nation state.  Before being overrun by the Tsar’s armies in the nineteenth century, the area that now comprises Tajikistan belonged to a variety of emirates and principalities.  Most prominently, the Emirate of Bukhara vied for control of the region with the King of Afghanistan and the Khan of Kokand.  Of course, none of those places were based in the current territory of Tajikistan, whose crazy-quilt borders, along with those of the neighboring states, were drawn to deliberately destabilize Central Asia by Stalin in the 1920’s.  Along with the jigsaw shape of the country, Stalin’s machinations insured that Tajikistan and the Tajiks therein had no common heritage or heroes upon its independence, as the historic seats of Tajik power and culture were outside of the new nation’s borders.  Enter Ismoil Somoni:

The Ismoil Somoni statute in downtown Dushanbe

The Ismoil Somoni statute in downtown Dushanbe

Ismoil Somoni was an emir who unified a goodly chunk of Central Asia around 900 A.D., and was the first local ruler in the region to be de facto independent of the Arab caliphate, in this case from the Abbasids in Baghdad. Upon Tajikistan’s independence, while groping for a unifying figure, the Tajik leadership seized upon Somoni. Somoni was refashioned by the Tajik political class, changing from an obscure leader from a millennium ago, known mainly by scholars, to the proud ruler of a proto-Tajikistan, free from outside control. Part of this nationalistic transformation of Somoni included the construction of the enormous Somoni statue in downtown Dushanbe.

Close up of the Somoni statute, notice the symbols of independent Tajikistan held by the old ruler

Close up of the Somoni statute, notice the symbols of independent Tajikistan held by the old ruler

According to one journalist,

The Somoni monument, which cost $20m, was inaugurated in 1999, when the state budget was $250m. Symbols are highly valued in central Asia, and the cult of this long-lost dynasty is taken seriously in Tajikistan and beyond.

Signs of Somoni are everywhere in Tajikistan, as the national currency is named after him and he appears on its largest bill, the 100 somoni denomination (which is worth about $23).  One of Dushanbe’s main streets, and the one on which the U.S. Embassy is located, is now Avenue Ismoil Somoni.  Restaurants, shops, you name it, are now called Somoni.  Even my credit card from Orienbank features the iconic Somoni statute.

The Visa Classic from Orienbank

The Visa Classic from Orienbank

Has all this nation building by creating a national mythology worked?  That’s hard for me to gauge not speaking the language and being so new to the country.  Maybe to an extent it has worked, the country has been relatively peaceful for over a decade.  But when I see Lenin statues throughout the countryside and hear taxi drivers wax nostalgia for Soviet times, I wonder.

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Lower Rudaki Avenue on a beautiful June day

Lower Rudaki Avenue on a beautiful June day

One of the beautiful June days we had here in Dushanbe, looking to the north on Rudaki with my back to Rudaki Park.  This is about halfway in between the Hotel Tojikiston (sometimes the name of the country in transliterated from Tajik Cyrillic with an “o” rather than an “a”) and the Ismoil Somoni statue.  I have some decent Somoni statue pix on my hard drive, so I’ll share one of those soon.

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