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Posts Tagged ‘Tajikistan’

The center of Gharm

Gharm is nestled in between the mountains, 200 km east of Dushanbe and essentially half-way down the Rasht Valley.  The town is known for being conservative, both socially and religiously, and for being independent-minded.  Most of the worst fighting in the Tajik Civil War in the ’90s took place around here, and the area is still only tenuously under the control of the central government.  This lack of actual control may be the reason for the ostentatious displays of state authority all across Gharm, including the de rigeur and ubiquitous photos of the President throughout the town.

At least the backdrop is nice

Although the town center was relatively bustling when we arrived just after noon on Friday, it was because the shops and offices emptied as the men (and it is only the men) walked to Friday prayers.  The mosque on the edge of town was perhaps the nicest building in the settlement, with a burnished dome but no minarets.

The mosque in Gharm

With all the development problems in the Rasht Valley and Gharm, it was disappointing to see how much money was invested in religious structures rather than into people’s lives.  Gharm was not the only town I’ve seen where tens of thousands of dollars were spent on a religious building while people within a stone’s throw didn’t have enough to eat.

After we poked around for a hour or so, we saw pretty much all there was to see of the sights of Gharm.  We were ready to get onto the road east of town and head to the buzkashi match.  But that had to wait for Saturday.

The road to buzkashi . . .

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Seen in Dushanbe recently

Sometimes the overwhelming shoddiness of Tajikistan strikes me.

Finish painting (see below)?  Nah.  Finish paving (see above)?  Nope.

It’s impressive when a hole in the road manages to swallow a decent-sized chunk of truck.  It is even more impressive when this happens within sight of the so-called “Palace of Nations,” the president-decreed and Orwell-named monstrosity that resulted in the razing of an entire neighborhood.  Sure, let’s spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a gauche eyesore that looks like Versailles as designed by Imelda Marcos that no one even uses.  Let’s do this while people in the countryside starve, huddled in their dark, mud brick hovels.  But to not even bother to pave the road a couple hundred feet from the gates of said “palace” and across the street from the KGB headquarters?  Well, that’s just laziness.

Actually, I probably shouldn’t rule out ineptitude.  It is entirely possible that this road was paved relatively recently, but that that workmanship was so bad that it just disintegrated post-haste.  Living around civil engineers for years at university didn’t teach me what subsidence means; within weeks in Tajikistan I couldn’t help but learn what it means, as I traveled over road after sunken road that were sinking due to poor engineering.  I googled potential ways to avoid this in about 0.45 seconds, but why bother when you can just let the road fall apart, right?

There’s lots to love about this odd, little obscure mountainous country.  The inability to make things work ain’t one of them.

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A SIDE NOTE: According to the VOA, among others, there was a significant earthquake in the Vanch district of Tajikistan, about 400 km from Dushanbe.  If my friends who read about the earthquake from abroad hadn’t asked if I was okay, I wouldn’t have known a thing about it.  We didn’t feel a thing in Dushanbe.  Luckily, it doesn’t appear anyone was killed in this latest quake.

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This weekend was the hash camping trip to Tigrovaya Balka, a nature preserve south of Dushanbe, not far from the borders of Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.  B____ (a/k/a Flasher) organized the trip and handled all the formalities, which, as usual, were not inconsiderable; and I’m glad he did because it’s tough to get the proper permits for this area and it is a beautiful place.

A truck misjudged how a bridge was, we helped the driver out.

A truck misjudged how wide a bridge was, we helped the driver out.

First we had to get down there, which was a decent drive from the capital.  Aside from the poorly paved roads and kamikaze drivers, Tajik regulars both, we also had to deal with the above: a bridge reduced to one lane, rubble everywhere, and a truck that got itself wedged between a pile of concrete and the side of the bridge, thereby blocking the whole damn thing.  Luckily, the intrepid Religious Adviser organized the Tajiks who had been milling about and our band of expats to push the truck free.  The road thus cleared led straight to the preserve, where we were confronted with the following sign:

I don't come cheap.

I don't come cheap.

Okay sure, it’s a mistranslation of “dear,” but we thought it was pretty damn funny.  We’re immature.

After a whirlwind tour of the small museum displaying the flora and fauna (wild boars! photo of the last tiger at the preserve, shot by the Soviets in the ’50s! ferns!) and meeting the deer that the wardens kept in a stable for some reason, the wardens took us to their hideaway and fed us a great lunch of deep fried goat and deep fried fish while on a tapchan (which is apparently also called a “dastarkhan,” though I’ve never heard anyone call it that).  Here’s the view from the tapchan:

Imagine me munching on goat and looking at this.

Imagine me munching on goat and looking at this.

Properly satiated, we then went on a long and dusty road to our campsite.

View through the windshield on the way to the campsite.

View through the windshield on the way to the campsite.

Once there, I was confronted with setting up my tent.  Bought with great anticipation and at least a little fanfare prior to the trip, this was the first opportunity for me to actually set the thing up.  Yeah, yeah, I had meant to practice the set up in my living room or in the backyard, but the guy at REI made it look so easy and I’m so lazy, that I never did that.  To my relief, C________ (thanks Necro!) and K______ (thanks No Name K______!) were there to guide me through it, and whaddya know, it is fairly easy to set up.  I still should probably practice at some point in the future, however, lest I be without handy beauties to help me.

Looks good, huh?

Looks good, huh?

Thus situated, we were geared up to go on our hash run through the savanna, but I was able to snap a pic of the view from my tent before we took off.

This is the Vaksh River, in which I swam post-hash.

This is the Vaksh River, in which I swam post-hash.

Following the longish run, the numerous mosquito bites (who needs bug spray?), a refreshing swim, the hash circle, the many beers, the roaring campfire, more beer, the silliness at said campfire, a surprisingly restful night of sleep, a “hangover hash” in the morning, and another refreshing swim, we got a good taste of a cool area that not too many people get out to.

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I’m going to go a bit out of order, and instead of writing about the waterfall and pond near Iskanderkul, I’ll show you something from the hike we did the next day on Sunday.  Our guide, Dilovar, grew up in the region surrounding Iskanderkul and now lives in a small village called Saratok (or perhaps Saratag, it’s unclear to me how it’s actually spelled or pronounced as I saw several variations while we were up there).  Dilovar took us through the countryside and to an oul.  This is where people from a village come in the summer to live, and it is located near the summer pastures of their livestock.  It looks like something out of the Middle Ages, plopped into a gorgeous mountain setting.

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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:

http://worldtravelnotes.wordpress.com/2009/07/22/a-taste-of-russian-opulence/

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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Yesterday I had the great good fortune to escape the 108 degree heat of Dushanbe and head out to the Romit Valley.  Along the Sardai Miyona River, which furiously rushed by powered as it was by glacial and snow melt, we frolicked in a pool that, for once, was not grody to the max.  Unfortunately, the river icy cold was too much even for me; my memories of swimming at Nauset Beach in June as a child didn’t make it easier to swim in a 45 degree heaving river currently.

The resort in Romit

The resort in Romit

Just on the left you can see the dastarkhan, or low-slung Tajik table, at which we reclined and nosed on shashlik.  You can even see M. of our group lounging there and reading a rare copy of In Style.  The pool is in the background to the right near the umbrellas.

Another view of the Romit resort

Another view of the Romit resort

The above view shows the scene from the balcony of the hotel.  In case you’re wondering, rates start at $60 USD a night but go all the way up to $24o for the suite.  Posh.  Only foreigners and mobsters can afford those prices.

Looking down the river

Looking down the river

Finally, take a look at the river and the surrounding countryside, even though the photo doesn’t do justice to the strength of those rapids.  For about two months of the year in the summer, the Sardai Miyona would be spectacular for whitewater rafting, but apparently there are no companies that take rafts out on the river.  There was a rumor that a rafting outfit was going to start up according to S., but that’s it.  Yet another Tajik business opportunity for all you entrepreneurs out there.

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