Friday, February 8, 2008

A Cry for Tajikistan

This time the beggar was an old man. The young women with their babies stayed home this morning. It is far too cold to venture out for even those whose only means of eating is provided by the generosity of strangers.

His cap and beard and torn thin coat were his only protection from the biting cold. He stood because he could not bear to sit on the frozen ground. His feet moved up and down, each in its turn pleading for relief from the pain his thin shoes could not keep away. His outstretched hand trembled with shivers, his other hand clutching at the neck of his coat to keep the killing cold out. For the pittance I put in that outstretched hand he wished me the blessings of Allah.

Will he survive? Will Tajikistan?

We use the term "infrastructure" so clinically. We neglect to understand that sometimes, in some places, it is the means of life and death. What infrastructure Tajikistan has left is being crushed, and its people are suffering and dying.

It is not an abnormally cold winter here by the standards of northern countries. While daytime temperatures have rarely gone above freezing for the past month, places in, say, Idaho deal with colder winters every year. But the power system here, the water pipes, the gas lines, the roads, are failing and failing rapidly. What managed to survive the civil war here may well not survive the peace.

Water lines were commonly placed above ground here, where the winter climate, not unlike that of the Carolinas, for example, was mild enough to let this be. Now, they are frozen, they are burst, and much of even the capital city is without running water, and has been for several weeks. Several weeks with no running water, nothing with which to bathe or clean, old women hauling buckets of water from any available source, to take home and ration because every drop of water used is one more drop that needs to be carried. In the countryside, where there never was running water, the streams have frozen.

Tajikistan depends almost entirely on hydroelectric generation. Its reservoirs are empty, there is no snowmelt or rain to fill them. Today, all power to most of the capital city was cut off, not to be restored until the day - perhaps in mid-March? - when a long thaw arrives. In the countryside and in many other cities, there simply is no power. Gas supplies, provided primarily by Uzbekistan when that country is in the mood to provide them, have dwindled to the point where a small pot of water may take an hour to boil, and to the point where there is not enough to provide heat. Electric space heaters, of course, will not work without electricity. There are no forests at all here, and people have a difficult time finding any fuel to burn, and for the residents of the cities, they have no place to burn it anyway.

Food prices have tripled recently, and now there is no milk available. Many roads are blocked by the snowfall and by avalanches, and getting food to the villages has become difficult. Newborns have died in the maternity hospitals because there was no power, and the aged generators failed.

This country is facing catastrophe.

The people of Tajikistan have suffered many hardships before; they are a patient people who, because they really have no choice, take adversity in stride. They are not encumbered by any sense of entitlement. And yet, now, there are grumblings. No people will let its children and elders starve, and freeze, for long.

The world watched endless news coverage of the enormous tragedy endured by China recently because people could not get home for the holidays.

The world pays scant attention to Tajikistan, where the people suffer and have no place else to go.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bless the snow, obliterator of banality

Awakening this morning in my cold, running-water-less house in Dushanbe, I staggered to the TV and saw that the morning's greeting on CNN International was the flapping mouth of GWB in live coverage of his SOTU address. Having determined that my civic duty to listen to this lying you-know-what exceeded my private duty to go to work, I allowed myself to sit and listen, grating as it was, a small sacrifice to the perpetuation (restoration?) of democracy.

And then the snow started.

And the satellite dish began to fill up.

And the signals weakened.

And the voice broke up, and the picture stuttered.

And finally, a blank screen, no signal being able to penetrate the snow cover on the dish.

I am saved. I tried, I truly tried, to put my disgust aside and listen to what this imbecile had to say.

And the heavens and their snow, they saved me.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ice Cream and the Invisible Man

Two constants of Dushanbe life in the summer are heat and dust. Despite cloudless skies and practically non-existent humidity, the dust is such that a permanent haze fills the air, the mouth and the lungs, dust from the dirt kicked up and sprayed about by machines, dogs, cows, goats, people, and from the belching of the cement factory at the north end of the city, coating the nearby world in a fine bitter powder.

About the dust I could do nothing; but I resolved to ameliorate the heat - and improve my prospects at an impending business meeting - by the simple expedience of a haircut. Simple, I thought; forgetting, of course, that simplicity is a complicated thing.

There is a barber shop about a half-mile from my office, a short and not unpleasant walk past the bazaar, sambusa stands, teahouses and beer gardens. It is literally a hole in the wall, a tiny room built into the front of a supermarket, its one chair attended by a single barber who has the great fortune to be rail-thin so as to fit between the back of his barber chair and the wall. As one might expect when one purposes to get a haircut at lunchtime, I arrived to find the one chair occupied and recently so, presaging a long wait outside (no room to wait inside!) in the hot sun and dust. Not being one to permit myself such suffering, or for that matter to go too long without indulging my murmuring stomach, I determined to cross the street to the rather large beer garden fronting the Soviet-style opera house. I quickly found a table that allowed an unobstructed view of the barber shop so that I could gauge my predecessor's progress on the tonsorial throne and prepare myself to seize the same at first opportunity. Well, he sat, and I sat, he at least attended to; thrice the waitress passed me by without so much as a nod and after a long interval of absence returned to my vicinity for the sole purpose of waiting a table just then occupied by three young men, directly next to mine, then flitted away on taking their order oblivious to my pleading eyes and now-growling stomach.

Well, says I, so much for my putative shashlik and Baltika 3. Having no intention of remaining where I evidently could not be seen or heard by persons only inches away from me, and having noted that the activity in the barber chair had moved along a bit, I crossed the street back to my strategic position in front of the barber shop, ready to take my honored place the moment it became vacant.

Of course, a ragged old woman chose exactly that moment to plead her life's woeful story to me (not that I understood a word of what she said, mind you; she could just as well have been calling me unflattering names and commenting on my ancestry; but I chose to believe something less to my disadvantage) and thus beg a mere Somoni (29 cents US). At least to the point of that sum, I am not without generosity, and besides, her begging was annoying, so of course I gave her a couple of Somonis to send her own her way, she calling down the blessings of every attending deity on me. Well, I suppose no deity was in fact attending at that moment, for as I turned from this momentary distraction, just at that very instant, of course, out slips the one customer and in snivels another, two feet and half a second in front of me.

At that event of course I should have been deterred from further commerce in this part of the city, but being the fool I am, in a burst of unjustified optimism I wagered that this sniveller, having rather short hair to begin with, would occupy only a very brief portion of the barber's workday, and thus allow me to achieve the purpose of my venture after only a momentary delay. My stomach now threatening a riot, I ducked into the supermarket and liberated an ice cream cone from the freezer, separated from its enjoyment only by the checkout lines.

There were two checkout lines, conveniently; that to the left looked rather longer than the one to the right, so being naive, I got in the shorter line. Smart people, they were, those who weren't in this line; for no observable reason whatsoever, both the checker and shoppers moved as if they were encased in strawberry Jell-O, dawdling despite the rapid (no air conditioning, of course) melting of the creamy object of my alimentary desire. In the fullness of time the person ahead of me gathered up her provisions and moved off to clog some other line elsewhere, and I turned to hand my single purchase to the clerk to scan, when the female person (surely no lady) behind me pushed her groceries forward on the conveyor, past me and into the scanning hands of the clerk, who smiled innocently at me as she rang up my tormentor's goods and left me dripping sweetness onto my hands and anger out of my eyes.

I could not, of course, remain in that line without engaging in, if not homicide, at least mayhem; and a glance to the left informed me that the other line now contained but one customer, so I bolted over behind the other shopper, who was to my great joy having her last item scanned. Naturally, my joy was misplaced, for this woman was utterly ignorant of the fact that it would be necessary for her to exchange money for her purchases, as she had none whatsoever with her and bade the checker wait while she sauntered over to an ATM to procure some cash. How much time this took I measured not in minutes but in centiliters of frozen stuff eloping from its appointed post at the top of my cone and assuming new quarters on my shirt and shoes. But how my heart leapt! upon the return of the now cash-suffused shopper, who by some miracle managed to complete her purchase and move on perpetrate her remaining daily allowance of imbecilities. Seeing my opportunity, I glanced back to prevent those behind me from repeating the perfidy done me in the other line, and quickly presented my ice cream cone to ... no one. As I should have at this point expected, the clerk had simply abandoned her post and gone off to do something else that suggested no improvement to my prospects of ever enjoying frozen ice cream. How long I stood there, too dispirited to do more than watch the drip, drip, drip of my melting lunch, I did not note, but presently a new checker appeared, glanced at me with a combination of amusement and fear, and deigned finally to take my money, freeing me to tear off the wrapper, fly outside, and stuff what little was left into my waiting mouth.

And then back to the barber shop, where to my incredulity the barber was finishing with the head of his customer, eager no doubt to begin the considerable adventure of attending to my ragged locks. Or so I thought. Imagine, dear reader, my upheaval upon watching the customer rise from the barber chair, remove the draping from his person, and ... stick his head in the sink for a shampoo and rinse! Another half hour of waiting at least! And this with spotted clothing and sticky hands from my mostly-liquid lunch! No, that was too much to bear, I could wait no longer, I had a meeting in only twenty minutes at my office, a fifteen-minute walk away. I would have to attend that meeting haircutless, a self-conscious sheepdog, hot, hungry and sticky.

Of course, in the meantime, the meeting had been canceled.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Camping in the Fan Mountains

Jet lag causes one to do strange things. Instead of spending a quiet weekend getting some much-needed rest after a 33-hour sleepless journey back to Dushanbe from the US, I allowed myself to be persuaded to don a heavy pack and climb up into the Fan Mountains for an overnight. And this, with a group of committed birders who find no peak too high, no crag too rough to scale in pursuit of the rara avis. Well, anyway, I survived despite the cold and lack of oxygen and found the most wonderful camping spot I've ever seen (at a mere 3,300 meters - 11,200 feet altitude!). A few pix (click on the image to enlarge):

On the drive in (about an hour over a dirt-and-rubble road) we came upon this train of donkeys hauling hay. It's the haying season now up in the mountains, with winter obviously not to far off up here.

About halfway up (400 meter/1350' ascent) the path from where we parked the cars we encountered a herd of goats directly in our way and who would not under any circumstances make room for us. Can't blame them; it was a lovely spot for sunning oneself under the hot Tajik sun. The goatherder scowled at us for presuming that the goats might actually make way for us. In the event, we made a wide detour along the slopes of the ridge.

Our alpine campground at 3,300 meters. A clear brook bounded it on two sides and small rises on the other two. The daytime temperatures here got to perhaps 20C (68F) but at night it went below freezing. (In Dushanbe, only a few miles south, the daytime high was around 40C [104F] and nighttime low about 18C [64F]. Of course I was wholly unprepared for the nighttime cold and spent the night shivering. My tent is the one to the extreme left. But the ground was soft with no backbreaking rocks, and the nighttime sky - incredible! One of the birders brought a telescope and we saw three of the moons of Jupiter quite clearly. We heard dogs or wolves howling at night and something prowled around the campsite in the dark. I don't want to know what it was!

Ascent to a pass between peaks at about 3,800 meters (13,000 feet).

A random glacier. One supposes that it is never summer up here...I want to return before, say, October for some true winter camping, if it's not snowbound.
One of my coworkers came up here the following weekend to see the Perseids. It must have been quite a show!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Women & Children First

One who wants to get to know Tajikistan is well served to take a Tajik Air flight between Dushanbe and Khujand. It's a short flight, about 45 minutes in reasonable weather, a scenic hop over high mountains of stunning beauty, almost close enough below (!) to touch, and bubbling with air pockets providing the passenger with the opportunity to gain some unexpected thrills and lose the remains of lunch. The small jet - a YAK-40 - holds somewhere around 50 people, although it was designed for far fewer and seats have been added where convenient things like emergency aisles used to be. The seats themselves were clearly designed to be sat upon by 84-year-old Japanese grandmothers or other people the approximate width of vaulting poles, and not by the Tajiks, who are not to be confused with small people. Carryon regulations, of course, are very strict, given the tight space: I have yet to see anyone bring aboard a backhoe or a head of cattle, for example. Short of that, though, one gets the impression that one has wandered into the midst of some massive smuggling ring, as passengers stuff themselves in along with numerous shopping bags full of indiscernable goods; suitcases of wildly varying age and condition and size; boxes; crates; gigantic handbags and briefcases large enough to house the entire home office of, say, Microsoft. Finding an aisle seat (and depriving oneself of the ability to meditate on the beauty of the mountains and thereby to ignore the searing pain of one's seatmate's elbow grinding into one's ribs) permits the passenger a closer inspection of the passing baggage as it is slammed, bumped, grazed, shoved and ground into one's face and other upper regions. Taking the window seat, of course, allows one truly to enjoy the design of this marvellous aeronautical achievement, whose creators obviously realized that window-seat passengers would be overjoyed to have the curvature of the floor require that passenger to insert said passenger's knee into his or her nostril for the entire flight.

Appropriately, one enters the YAK-40 through what would be, were it a living creature, its anus, up a rough ramp wide enough only for one person at a time, which is to the good, as upon entering the plane one finds oneself squeezed between an attendant (who has nothing else to do but stand in the way) and the overflowing stowed luggage racks in an aisle no wider than a human foot. One looks in desperation for the opportunity to sit down and perhaps take another breath and there, up ahead, it is, an empty seat to sqeeze into, just past the potted plant and just below the birdcage shoved into the overhead compartment and just behind the screaming baby, there it is, a seat, in the aisle. And, of course, directly next to the evilly-grinning winner of the Largest Man In Tajikistan contest.

However, civility is preserved. As one attempts to climb up into the nether regions of the plane, one is politely informed by the flight attendant that women and children must board first. Pity them: they spend more time in the plane.

Sunday, April 1, 2007


For nine days in a row - one entire workweek and the better part of two weekends - the rains have fallen on Dushanbe, not the soft and cleansing rain of Ireland, or the angry but thrilling downpours of the tropics, but a persistent, nagging, everpresent hard drizzle, driving heads under umbrellas, turning the streets to slippery mud, and dripping, dripping, dripping in a debilitating water torture. For nine days in a row, dirty wet clothes stayed dirty and wet for lack of clean hot water in which to wash them, and for lack of electricity to heat the water. Four days ago, the demigods of thermal comfort determined that the interests of someone would be best served by turning off what little heat my apartment building had, and, of course, the weather immediately turned cold. With no electricity, of course, space heaters won't work, so one does what one must: shiver.

But today, with the suddenness of the houselights after a sad drama, sunshine replaced the rain. Umbrellas went back to their hiding places and people appeared on the streets like some dark precipitate in a warmed jar of liquid. Nearby, four little girls, two in jeans, two in rainbow Tajik dresses, played by the curb, taking weeds recently pulled by some city worker or other from the planting strip and carefully replanting them, one by one, along the edge of the curb, drowning their roots with cupsful of water drawn from the storm drain, laughing and giggling at the sight of their accomplishments. The boys in the back yard resumed their endless soccer game, the booms of foot against ball and ball against concrete echoing through the neighborhood. Women bundling against the cold wind unrelieved by the strange new warm sun went about their errands. Young men took their places once more in their designated spots on corners and in doorways, cradled in the camaraderie that only unemployed young men can share. It is day again after a seemingly endless night, and one dares to call life good.

It will rain again tomorrow, they say, that this sunshine is only a cameo. No matter. Sunshine taken for granted, like a stranger growing accustomed to a far land, is bittersweet.

Friday, March 23, 2007


(Blessed New Year!). Navruz (alt.: Norouz;it literally means "New Day") is an ancient Persian celebration of the new year starting with the first day of spring. This joyous holiday, which has been observed for something like 15,000 years, is celebrated in all Persian and Turkic areas of Asia, including of course Tajikistan. We were fortunate to be able to travel out of Dushanbe into the countryside of Khatlon Province to observe some traditional Tajik Navuz activities:

In Kulob, the main celebration took place at the local athletic stadium. Leading up the entranceway to the stadium was a veritable midway of exhibitions, one from each village in the area, of local costumes, cooking and crafts. Here is an about-to-be bride having her hair carefully combed by, evidently, her mother.

Madonna and Child. She took a break from exhibiting to hold her son, which I thought was the best image of all.

All of the school children in the district took part in a costumed show on the athletic field. Here, the white tarp on the stage, which represents snow in the mountains, covers schoolgirls dressed in blue robes, representing the spring snowmelt. Below the stage, the circle of boys with the radiating arms of girls represent the cycle of the seasons.

The tarp is removed as the "snow" melts, and the rain dances over the fields, sprouting the tulips the girls hold in their hands.

These little girls giggled so hard at the sight of a Westerner, I just had to take their picture. When I showed the photo to them and their father, they were all fascinated and delighted! I'm going to get a print of this photo to them.

A long ride back over the mountains, treated to scenery like this. This is an incredibly beautiful country!