Dushanbe is much smaller than the other Central Asian capitals we’ve been to, quieter, and much more soviet. There are no real tall buildings so the skyline is dominated by a set of neo-classical pale yellow “twin towers” and the world’s now second-largest, 165 meter flagpole complete with a flag that apparently weighs 700 kilos. Authoritarian flair also shines through in some of Dushanbe’s boastfully ambitious projects such as the world’s biggest teahouse and a moon being named after it. When we were there, Facebook was blocked because of backlash against the government when a man who had a birthday party –which is illegal in Tajikistan— posted pictures of it and then received a fine. Yet Dushanbe still managed to grow on us. Slow days and new, close friends made the Tajik capital seem familiar and a chance to actually try to understand Tajikistan made a week waiting for visas into an opportunity to figure out what defines this country at Central Asia’s southern edge.
Sights-wise, two main spots made up my highlight reel of Dushanbe. The first is Chaykhona Rohkat. Spending an afternoon sitting at this open-air, marble column, terraced, soviet-era restaurant is one of the most enjoyable dining experiences I’ve ever had. The place is refined and elegant, but yet utterly un-pretentious and cheap like a cafeteria. The sun drenches almost every table, and wind coming across from Rudaki, Dushanbe’s main street, manages to regulate any trace of summer heat. Every demographic of Dushanbe seems to eat here, which is completely understandable because it’s the best choice by far. Even on the worst of days in the city, when we had to wade through bureaucratic pools thick with uncertainty and disappointment, this place put me in unshatterably good mood.
In Dushanbe, what we do get a chance to do was to actually meet more Tajik people and really learn about Tajikistan. The capital and the west of Tajikistan are much more conservative than the rest of Central Asia. Black hijab’s and beards are both punishable by fine in an effort to curb radicalis, but headscarves and are still common with Tajik women and both genders seem to tend to roam in separated groups. Traditional practices, like the family of newlyweds gathering to see the blood on the sheets on wedding night, mean that relationships, dating and virginity are still taken very seriously. Pets are not common and dogs are considered dirty.
Tajikistan itself is also the least developed of the Central Asian nations. Cut off from Uzbekistan because of bad relations, resource-poor Tajikistan has to resort to trade and exchange through border crossings in the Pamir, just like the one we entered in Kyzl-art. Aid makes up a big portion of the budget and Chinese products have flooded the local markets. In search of economic opportunity, large portions of Tajik men work as migrants in Russia. However, upon arrival, many often find themselves discriminated against and exploited, some working illegally and some not speaking good Russian, they find themselves working low rung construction jobs and living in terrible conditions to support their families. Because of the adversity they face in Russia, there has been an increase of Tajik participation in extremist groups. Being constantly harassed, they find community and support in groups that promise to, and do, help them –but also push them towards radicalism.
The second place is the green bazaar. The bazaar itself is pretty stereotypical of Central Asian markets, but it buzzes with energy, fun people, and very good, fresh produce. Most anything you can put in your mouth the bazaar has: fruit, vetgables, grains, dairy, candy, naswar a local chewing tobacco popular with Tajik men, and even an assortment of toys and tools that you probably shouldn’t put in your mouth but definitely could.
Jie and I end up here a lot, buying an assortment of food including Okra (!) and the probably the best nan I’ve ever had in my life (Tajikistan as a whole is a veritable bread wonderland)
The people our age that we met in Dushanbe though, give us a very different picture of the city. Nusha, who works at the UN combating human trafficking, is one of those. When we first meet her, she comments that it’s a bit strange for her to be wearing traditional Tajik dress –it was her last day of work before going to do a Masters in the UK and she wanted to do something for her Tajik colleagues. She talks quick and directly, her sentences peppered with American idiosyncrasies and allusions to phrases in rap songs –a remnant of her time in the U.S. where she went to college and part of highschool. She has two tattoos, despite them being illegal in Tajikistan, the latter of which she got in an underground tattoo parlor in Dushanbe. Life here, she says, is enjoyable, even great most of the time, but inevitably wholly different from the rest of her experience abroad. Now that she’s back, she finds herself spending most of her time with other Tajiks with a similar experience or in the local expat community.
Another now good friend is Sher: an extremely friendly, and obviously very smart young guy who works in U.S. embassy helping to decide which education programs in Tajikistan receive funding from the U.S. government. He himself was a part of this system through the FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) program (as was Nusha), which sends Tajik students on scholarship to study in the U.S. for a year in high school. Uniquely, the program sends most of the recipients to small place; Sher studied in rural Montana, almost on the border with Canada. Sher sits with us for dinner the first time we met him and jokes with us about all the problems he sees in modern Tajikistan. He seems so upbeat, and we’re curious as to how he maintains a positive attitude. The mood turns grim when he replies, “I used to be more serious about these issues. But maybe now I’ve just lost all hope so I can finally laugh about it.” He tells us a story about when he worked as a camp counselor one summer for young kids from rural areas. Years later, he ran into the same kids on the street, the ran up to him and hugged him, but when they said goodbye he was filled with an overwhelming sadness. “I realized that that camp might end up being the highlight of their whole lives.”
That same night, we go out to a small parking lot, where we start to teach Sher how to ride a motorcycle. Halfway through, we run into Sasha, an older guy who we met earlier in the day at Dushanbe’s one motorcycle club. He had arrived on his homemade, tiny motorcycle which he calls “the little bastard.” He talks to us for a while, taking a break from his late night ride, and invites us over to his house where he says he wants to help us build a cooling unit out of a tea kettle. His parting words to us ring out into the Dushanbe night with a laugh: “Better ride before they bury you.”
The next day, Jie visited Sasha at home:
Sasha was born in 1953, a time when Soviet presence was still very strong in Central Asia. He is of Russian descent, but was born and raised in Tajikistan. At 17, he finished his army service and went on to work as a truck driver, his work taking him all across this part of the world. 10 years later, he got a mechanic degree and began to work in a garage. I didn’t understand much of what he said about the details from then until the present day, but gathered than he was divorced three times, and is content to be single again, living now in his childhood home with his sister.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians returned to Russia, but Sasha iostayed. His mother told him “Дом твой крепость” – [your] home is your fortress/strength, and he still lives by it. Although the money here is not good – his recent, three-day job only earned him $100 - here in Tajikistan he at least has a house, a place where he can retreat to. In Russia he would have nothing.
The combination of not much money and his own smarts has led him to a very DIY lifestyle, and allowed him to see value in waste. Sasha’s house is filled with old scraps, things that other people have thrown away –things he wants to breathe new life into. He put made his own motorcycle from junkyard parts, turned old jeans into motorcycle boots, built his third floor rooftop terrace out of discarded tin roofs and wood planks, and makes his own wine.
Underlying all of it is an optimism and a sense of peace. Sasha’s life has not been easy, but he doesn’t complain, he just makes the best of the situation his presented with. At 62, he’s not looking to change the world, but he hasn’t given up either. The used items piled up in his house are his dreams, waiting to be tinkered with.
I left with a sense of melancholy. I see so much potential in everyone that I meet and such a lack of opportunities. Why do I have this opportunity to travel when others don’t? I haven’t done anything to deserve this. This trip is turning out to be harder than I had expected. We’ve met so many people that I want to spend more time with, and each time we part I leave unsatisfied.
Before I left, he imparted me with another tidbit of wisdom: If you’re riding in the cold and you don’t have a jacket, you can keep warm by putting a plastic bag under your shirt to both block the wind. It actually works really well