Updates from Khorog

 in no specific order:

I’ve developed a love for Golden Roasted Nescafe Instant coffee – an amazing feat considering I rarely drank brewed coffee before coming to TJK  (I’m a tea girl).   I drink three cups a day – sometimes with cocoa – and I’ll probably get an ulcer before I leave.  


I went to visit the doctor last week.  I’d finally had it with the 60 or so bites on my body and needed some answers.  I’d tried self-diagnosing and had determined through a careful process of elimination that I had worms.     Bed bugs just didn’t fit the symptoms: the bites weren’t in a neat little line and they were swelling up.  And I’d read that a possible symptom of worms was itchy bite-like bumps.  Rachel – my go to with anything medical related because she’s the only one on a health-related fellowship  – was not convinced.   So, before heading to the pharmacy for de-worming meds, I decided to put the “Lonely Planet – Diagnose yourself – Healthy living Africa” book down – this was Central Asia after all – and visit the doctor. 

The doctor, a lovely Pamiri woman, took one look at me and said:  “kike!”    Well, she said a lot more than that – but kike was the one word that she kept repeating.  She didn’t speak English so she decided to bring  in a couple of  the doctors that had been lurking in the doorway hoping to get in on the action.  After a second and third opinion it was confirmed –I had something called kike.    Since the other two doctors also couldn’t communicate with me- I still had no idea what it was.   All I could get from them was that I didn’t have to wash my clothes and it would go away.  She wrote me a prescription and I was on my way. 

And what is KIKE you ask?  Good question – it took me another two days to figure out that it was fleas.     It seems that I had brought some souvenirs back with me from Murghab (a remote town six hours from Khorog near the Kyrgyzstan border).   

Apparently in six weeks, one flea can turn into about a hundred billion and take over every piece of fabric in your room. In the land of carpets and yak wool that’s a lot of coverage.    Looking back, it explains why I had woken up with new bites every day.  I’m an idiot for not taking care of it sooner but after my trip to Murghab I’d made another trip to the field – this time to Darvaz (5 hours in the other direction – down the mountains on the way to Dushanbe).  There, I had spent a  night in the village with one eye open, banging my hand against the floor trying to keep the mice at bay,  while cowering in my sleeping bag counting down the minutes until daylight (our beds were located on the floor and directly in front of the kitchen….).   

But that’s another story.  The point, is that I figured I’d just picked up more bed bugs from that evening.   

But after six weeks of being dinner – my nerves were frayed, I was feeling tired (probably from all of the poison in my body) and grumpy (because I wasn’t getting any sleep).   I’d seen a doctor but still didn’t know what kike meant. I’d applied the bright green liquid that they’d given me, but  I was still getting eaten alive.  

I finally went to see a doctor friend of Rachel’s who spoke Enlish and after a two minute examination explained that I had flea bites.  “They call it kike in Tajiki.”


 My landlady – bless her heart – came to my rescue and took everything out of my room.  From the bed, to the carpets (and I’ve got 3), to my slippers.   It all had to go.    It turns out, that through our limited communication, the first doctor assumed that  since I’d encountered the kike staying in  Murgab…the problem would have remained there.  To my detriment – not at all the case.    

I moved in with Persia for a couple of nights.   She was ecstatic to have me…I had to remove all of my clothing and change into a pair of her pink PJs before being allowed to enter her room.  The poor girl could barely sleep for fear of touching me and catching it (fleas don’t live on the human body- but she wasn’t convinced).  I finally moved back into my room this weekend.  I’m still waiting for most of my clothes but I have a bed and no more bites so I’m pretty much in heaven. 


We have a mouse.   We can hear it dancing the mamba in our walls at night. It’s pretty gross.  I envision it crawling all over our dishes and snacking on our food.   So, I’ve laid down a strict –  no food allowed anywhere in the house –  policy which pretty much serves to simultaneously annoy my roommate and give me an ulcer when someone leaves something lying around (including myself!).   I never realized how anal I can be.  I always thought that I was very easy going…..ha.  I’m learning a lot about myself on this journey let me tell you.

In order to rid the house of our new friends.    We – correction – our landlady has laid down a trap.   It’s in the kitchen.  She put bread in the trap.  People love bread here.  It’s  treated with a great deal of respect – you aren’t allowed to throw it away. I dropped a piece on the ground once and there was a collective gasp around me.  I quickly picked it up, kissed it and apologized profusely.  But, apparently, it’s ok to put in mouse traps…I’m still  learning the rules…

Persia and I have both agreed that if we were a mouse we wouldn’t go near stale bread.  So, I’ve since added homemade honey and nuts to the concoction, which aside from leaving a nasty mess, seems to be doing the job.   

We now live is a state perpetual fear and hope.   Hope, that we’ll catch it and fear that we’ll have to actually see it happen.   We can’t even enter the kitchen without first checking from the staircase if there is something in the trap.   To date, we’ve given ourselves at least a couple of heart attacks- thinking we see a dark shadow and imagining that the mouse is there, or washing the dishes and feeling something brush against our feet.   

It’s been quite a drama let me tell you. 


 I’m back in the office and out of the field.  But I can’t complain.   I love the field.  It’s the best part of the job – but it’s exhausting – especially the distances that we drive and the type of work that we do.   We’ve spent the past six weeks crisscrossing the region, hiking up mountains to visit projects, interviewing communities and holding meetings with stakeholders.  It’s really a great job.  But I’m excited to summarize their thoughts and transform the information that we’ve collected into solid recommendations for this project.

The report is due at the end of October and if I can just stop procrastinating  – by doing research on the amazing trip that I’m planning at the end of this fellowship (an epic journey!) – and get to the actual writing, I’ll be happy. 

So much more to tell you but that’s it for now.

Looking forward to some email updates on your lives as well.  😛


Kids everywhere. And they just appear out of nowhere. Adorable.

Kids everywhere. And they just appear out of nowhere. Adorable.









I met this family on the way down the mountain.


Women listening to the training on  natural disasters in their community.

Women attending the training on the natural disasters in their community.


The third gender

I’m back from Afghanistan.
The view of Tajikistan from Afghanistan


And, I feel kind of silly that I was even nervous about going!

Everything went as planned: I left the office with the team (social mobilizer, geologist, GIS specialists, Engineer and driver), loaded down with supplies (mostly food – because it’s Ramadan and people are fasting in AFG ) and my overstuffed backpack.  I still haven’t learned how to pack light.

I can’t communicate with Raja, the head geologist (he doesn’t speak English), but the look he gave me when I showed up for the two day trip with 2 backpacks and a hand-bag was universal.


  I mean what do you pack for a trip to Afghanistan?!  I brought a pair of long johns, a sweater, two scarves – one to cover my head and one to cover my butt – just in case the pants were too tight. A long-sleeved shirt, baggy pants, a head lamp, two chocolate bars (for the 5km hike), three bottles of water (for after the 5km hike), a sleeping bag (I had learned my lesson on my last field visit – bed bugs…tons of bed bugs).   A journal to record every moment and a book just in case I got stranded.  Money, passport, cell phone etc. etc. etc.  I double- checked my pack for anything suspicious – paranoid I know – but after my experience in Nicaragua with a pack of ferocious-looking dogs sniffing and licking my bags as I crossed the border – it felt warranted.

With the car packed, we headed for the border. I had a huge smile on my face the whole way. It took a total of 20 mins. to get there!   About half way there a wind storm broke out.  This was my first wind storm – and it was INTENSE. Sand flying everywhere.    I’ve never seen anything like it.  I’d heard that the winds can pick-up quickly in Khorog but I had no idea what that actually meant.

It was nuts.


I found this man to have such an elegance about him.

This man had an air of elegance about him.


I was trying to simultaneously cover my head, grab my bags and hand over my passport to the border guards.  Eventually, everyone gave up and took cover in the border station.     

Going through customs was amazingly easy.   I love working for an NGO.   It’s like traveling first class as opposed to coach: the border guards know the organization and the people on the team (the fact that they are from the same area and speak the same language also helps!).  They are happy that NGOs are implementing projects in their communities and generally want everything to go smoothly.

Not necessarily the experience that I have had as a traveler trying to cross borders!

I left everything in their capable hands and attempted for the twentieth time to put on my head scarf (Afghan style). Finally, Muni (the social mobilizer) came to my rescue.

Border crossings are funny things.   There is always an expanse of no-man’s land between countries where vehicles are prohibited.  So, you have to get out the car, grab your stuff and walk the 100 meters or so to the other side.  Once there, you are told to halt, hand over your passport and await permission to enter.

At the end of the bridge, we were greeted by the Afghan border guards.   Again, friendly hand-shakes, smiles and “Salam Alaikums” all around.   Aside from a few curious stares in my direction – things went smoothly.  The passports were quickly stamped and we were on our way.

Right away, I noticed differences between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.


Houses are built on rocky terrain. Land shortage is a problem so people build where they can.

Land shortage is a problem - communities want to keep as much land available for cultivation as possible. Therefore, houses are built on rocky terrain where cultivation isn't an option.


Not in the landscape  – both are breath-taking –  but in the conditions of the roads.   On the Tajik side, the main road built along the Amu river (the river divides this part of Tajikistan from Afghanistan) has two lanes with vehicles driving in both directions.   It’s well paved and in the course of a day you’ll see a variety of vehicles driving in both directions – including Mashukas(white mini-vans used by locals for transport within Khorog).

The Afghan side is the complete opposite.

The roads – where they exist -are terrible.  The trip wouldn’t be possible without a 4×4.   Other than one other vehicle, I saw no form of public transportation.   In fact, in certain directions the road doesn’t even extend far enough.   Driving to our guest house (we rented a local family’s home for the visit) took about 45 mins., at 20 km an hour – and it was bumpy.    On the other side, the same distance would take about 15 min.  Vehicles drive at 60 km -80 km an hour – if not faster.

As usual, I had my head hanging out the window – snapping everything in sight.

And there was a lot to take in:

–  Red-haired children dressed in simple cotton clothing, running after the vehicle as it passed.   At first, I thought that perhaps people in the village were very closely related – I mean red hair is not a common trait.   But I soon discovered that the people here enjoy using henna (a dye) to colour their hair (the men do it as well) It’s quite fashionable.

–  Women, head-covered, working, combing their children’s hair, or picking fruit.


Ring around the Rosey - Afghan style.

Children playing in the field.
A ybig sister holding her younger brother's hand in the village.

A big sister holding her younger sister’s hand.



DSC04165The women in Tajikistan do not carry things on their heads.  The women here do.



 Cleaning grain.  The label on the bag reads: World Food Program

A girl cleaning grain - note the label on the bag: World Food Program.



A co-worker with the Afghan team.

– Men, in traditional Afghan dress ( white cotton pants and top and colored vest), walking along the road with donkeys in tow, harvesting their fields – often by hand-  or lounging in their stalls’ in the bazaar.

 Interesting fact: Women aren’t allowed in the bazaars.

International women are exempt from this social norm.  My friend David describes the space that international women occupy as a “third gender”.  I thought that was interesting and quite accurate  – at least in this part of AFG.  

Respecting the culture and traditions of the people is important to me.  But in this case,  I had no choice.  The road to the village we were visiting had been wiped out by a combination of rock fall and flooding.  And the only way up to the village was through the bazaar.  It was a 5 km hike to get to the village.

And it was worth it – a truly beautiful hike.

Once we reached the village, I was exhausted.  Due to a fairly rigorous daily work-out routine with my neighbor/roomie Rachel – I’m in fairly good shape.  But the air is very thin at this altitude so even a short hike can be exhausting. 

Or at least that’s what I told myself…

I had on $200 hiking boots, a visor, sunblock, sunglasses, a bottle of water, nuts and sweat proof everything and still couldn’t keep up with my Afghan colleague -(the woman pictured earlier)- she was wearing platform boots (SERIOUSLY!) and a dress/pant combo (Afghan style) and that’s about it.

And she didn’t even break a sweat!

At the village, we were greeted by the village council members  and directed to have lunch.  The governance system in Afghanistan is different from Tajikistan – they don’t have Village Organization leaders (VOs), instead they have a village council system  that I’m still not entirely clear on, so I won’t elaborate.

We’d brought some supplies with us for lunch because we didn’t want to burden the community with having to feed us.  And many (but not all) members of the community were fasting.  This is an Ismaili area and fasting isn’t as strictly adhered to as in other parts of Afghanistan.

For lunch, we ate raw Maple Leaf chicken dogs (ah, a taste of home….), bread and yogurt.  There are many types of yogurt here – all homemade.   And I’m ashamed to say that I still can’t bring myself to eat it- the lumpiness of it reminds me of sour milk.   I loath sour milk.  At home, I even struggle to drink milk the day before the stated expiration date on the box.

I’ve eaten a lot of things here.  And I’m pretty good about just going with it – but I hesitated with the raw dogs.   It’s one thing if it’s foreign food – but something else entirely when it’s from home and you KNOW it’s supposed to be cooked.  And let’s face it  – the best parts of the meat are not usually reserved for the dogs.

But after a 5km hike I was famished.   So, I sucked it up,  ate and waited 30 mins. to see what would happen.   Thankfully, nothing  too out of the ordinary for Tajikistan…

After lunch it was back to work.

My job was to take photos and video of the training. I obviously didn’t understand what was being said so I couldn’t monitor the content of the training.   But I enjoyed watching the community soak in the information.  They asked a lot of questions about the disasters that we had mapped in their community.  The goal of the training is to provide them with concrete mechanisms for survival when –not if- the disasters occur.   In Afghanistan and the Pamirs, natural disasters are a part of life.

In Tajikistan, most of the communities are aware of the type of disasters they face: mudflow (from the mountains destroys homes), debris flow (water carries debris to destroy lands and houses), rockfall (huge boulders roll down the mountain taking out everything in their way), under-flooding (under ground water seeps into homes causing extreme dampness which leads to illnesses among other things) avalanche, earthquake, Lake Sarez (this one is insane – if this lake bursts it would flood all of Central Asia!).   Some communities that I work in have only 20 minutes to evacuate if the Lake bursts…

Our organization, teaches people what to do in case of a disaster, how to prepare ahead of time and where to go to be safe.   We also help the communities form response teams to rescue people that are trapped by the disaster.  When we have the funding, we build mitigation projects to protect communities from disasters:  walls to guard against debris flow, reinforced schools to protect against earthquakes, irrigation projects to contain underground water and redistribute it for harvesting of the lands, terracing of the land to slow down avalanches and give people a chance to get to safety etc.


This picture puts a smile on my face.


In Afghanistan,  the communities are aware of the disasters  but due to serious social problems they don’t pay much attention to them.  There is certainly a very stong need for development projects here in all sectors :  health, education, civil society, rural development – I’m sure I’ve missed  quite a few, but you get my point.

The literacy rate in TJK is 99.5%, in AFG it’s 28% (and men are twice as literate as women…).   Life expectancy in TJK is 66.3 years and in AFG it’s 44 years (both are too low!);  the maternal mortality rate is 100 per 100,000 (live births) in TJK and 1, 356 per 100,000 in AFG… Unacceptable.

Many homes are  unstable and decaying.  People die here due to their homes crumbling on top of them during an earthquake.

There is no real infrastructure.  And the lower level of hygiene is evident.



The Afghans I was fortunate enough to speak with were extremely kind and hospitable.  People walking along the side of the road always stop to greet you with one hand across the chest as you drive or walk by.   I was invited in for tea on many occasions and accepted as many invitations as I could.  It was clear from the weak tea and stale biscuits served that life here is very hard in this village.

And the Afghans are also well aware of the differences in the two countries – even though many of them can’t get visas to cross the border.   From the Afghan side you can see the development on the Tajik side- the roads, the cars, the houses, the infrastructure:  telephone polls, hospitals, the SERENA 5 STAR HOTEL!

I wonder what it must have been like for the people on this side  to watch as the Soviets built roads, schools and hospitals –  transforming Khorog from a place that resembled their own country-  to a “developed” town.

My colleagues at our partner organization in AFG haven’t been able to get visas to cross into Tajikistan.   I was told by one staff member I interviewed that he will have to walk for 2 days to get to a village in another district to conduct a training.

This is because on the Afghan side the road has yet to be constructed that far.  On the Tajik side – this same trip would take six hours.    If he were allowed to cross the border – he could drive to that district on the TJK side and then cross the bridge over to the Afghan side once there.

It would simplify his life and allow him to do important work in that district.   But visas are not given out very easily to Afghan citizens.




Trying to carve a road into the side of the mountain.


I had the opportunity to engage in a few discussions on the Afghan elections and of course the war.   Everyone I spoke to had voted and experienced no problems with this process (including the women).   One man was quite angry that the Americans ( he associated the  war with the US primarily) hadn’t won the war yet – he asked me if I thought it was a conspiracy because war is good for the US economy.   He asked me if I knew that it was the Americans that supported the mujahedeen to defeat the Soviets – and that these were the same people terrorizing Afghans now.

We had quite an intense discussion on the Taliban.    One of my Afghan colleagues talked a lot about the number of Afghan civilians being killed in the war and how the tide is turning against the Americans for this reason primarily.  Not news – but interesting to hear from an actual Afghan as opposed to political commentary in the news.

Tragically,  the day following  that conversation a NATO airstrike killed 70 people – many were civilians…






Crossing the River

I’m leaving for Afghanistan this afternoon. 

I’ll be crossing the river, driving four hours into one of the valleys and then hiking 4km to a village.   I’m going with our team (Engineer, GIS specialist, Social Mobilizer and Driver).  They are conducting a training for communities on how to prepare  against natural disasters.  And I am monitoring it.  

Roxy was supposed to come with me but she didn’t get her visa in time.  I’ve gotten used to traveling with her pretty much everywhere so this will be new for me.   Luckily, the social mobilizer speaks a bit of English, so I’ll be able to communicate somewhat with my colleagues. 

I’m excited.  And a little nervous. 

But really looking forward to spending a couple of days living in an Afghan village.  It’s an amazing opportunity.  

I plan to use my broken (read: non-existent) Tajik and a lot of gesturing to communicate with people.  I have no idea what the dynamic will be like.   

That whole religion, gender, enemy combatant thing. 

Wish me luck.  🙂


Afghan VISA

Afghan VISA

The Civil War

In 1992, the civil war broke out.  The causes of this war were complex and relate to some extent to the ethnic and regional tensions that emerged from the formation of the new Soviet Republic in 1924 (once again artificial lines on a map – created by outside forces – lead to conflict!) and to premature attempts to liberalize the Tajik political system.  

At the end of the Soviet period, power in Tajikistan was tightly guarded by representatives of the Leninabad district in the North.  Other regions of Tajikistan were demanding:  equal participation in the political process; and the communist party to abandon its monopoly on political power, in favor of a multiparty system.

The refusal to share power coupled with a lack of political maturity on the part of the opposition- led to civil war.

The war was devastating.  

It compounded the economic disruption caused by the break-up of the Soviet system and the people of GBAO  (the Pamirs) and Karategin/Rasht found themselves virtually isolated from the outside world.   People were starving.   The mountainous terrain that protected them from the majority of the violence also contributed to their inability to access food. 

Many had lost family members during the war and the country was crippled economically.  Jobs were almost impossible to find. Public services, like schools and hospitals were in a shocking state and business nearly non-existent.  The feeling of unease was perverse –with gunmen openly walking the streets, murder, robbery and kidnapping rampant.  Gas , electricity and water were often cut and the winters long, dark and cold.

20,000 people died (of a population of 5 million) and around one in ten had fled their homes. 

The organization that I work for is well respected in this region not only for the projects that they currently fund but for the humanitarian assistance they provided during the war.     The crisis was largely ignored by the rest of the international community: few had heard of Tajikistan and many considered it Russia’s problem.   

Help was not on its way.


In 1997, a peace agreement was reached.  And to date, the peace process had been very successful. A result of the war has been a push for promoting cultural pluralism.  

The economic situation in Tajikistan remains the most precarious of all of the Republics, however, the high level of literacy and the secular education achieved under the Soviet Union coupled with the political maturity of the parties since the 1997 peace agreement, offers hope that Tajikistan will prove more stable than its neighbors.   

The People of the Pamirs

The Pamirs has been mostly protected from outside influence and occupation due to its isolated geophraphic location.   This mountainous area, a large part of which is located in Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan, is one of the most inaccessible in the world.  

Local tradition holds that the Pamirian people descended from the leaders of Alexander the Great’s invading army, who reached the area in fourth century B.C. 

This may in part be true but their ethnicity can also be traced to the tribes that lived in Eastern Iran.  Today, the Pamiris live in southern Central Asia, primarily in southeastern Tajikistan and northeastern Afghanistan.

The Pamiris are not a homogeneous group.  They are composed of people who speak the Pamiri languages, (some are quite similar, others not easily understood among the different groups) the indigenous languages of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan region and in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous province in Tajikistan, and adhere to the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam (followers of the Aga Khan).  Aside from the Kyrgyz-speaking people in Murgab (more on this later) most people that live in the GBAO are Ismaili.

The Pamiris share close linguistic, cultural and religious ties with the people in Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan, the Sarikoli speakers in Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County in Xinjiang Province in China, the Wakhi speakers in Afghanistan and the Wakhi speakers in Upper Hunza Gojal region of Northern mountainous areas of Pakistan.

During the Tajikistan Civil War from 1992–1997 the Pamiris were targeted for massacres, especially those living in the capital Dushanbe and Qurghonteppa Oblast.

In the early 1990s there was a movement amongst Pamiris to separate Gorno-Badakhshan from Tajikistan. This did not happen but the Pamirs remain an autonomous region of Tajikistan (you need a visa to get in).


Up until now, I have avoided going into too much detail about the history of this fascinating country.  Mostly, because I am still trying to wrap my head around it.

I’ve met a lot of people over the past couple of months who’ve been kind enough to share their stories and insights with me on a range of issues.  And I’d like to share these with you.  But first, I thought that I should make an attempt at providing some sort of historical context.

I’m guessing that most of you know about as much about this region as I did when I first arrived:   it has a large Muslim population, it’s next to Afghanistan and it was once a part of the former Soviet Union. 

Not bad, but there is so much more to it than that. 

I’ll do my best to keep it concise.  I’m not an expert on this region so all of this information is borrowed from the book:  Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, by Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas.  


A complex beginning

Over the past 3000 years, a lot of different ethnic groups have passed through or settled in the territory that is today known as Tajikistan.  The Scythians, Persian dynasties, Macedonian/Greek armies under Alexander the Great, Parthians, Kushans, Chinese, Huns, Hephtalites, Mongol hordes, Arabs,  Russians, Nestorian Christians, Jews and the British ( they always seems to show up 🙂 have all left their mark on this region.

The Tajiks are a Persian-speaking people of Iranian origin.   They occupied a large part of Central Asia until they were displaced by waves of Turkic invaders.  They are known as the sedentary inhabitants of the region as opposed to the Turkic peoples who were nomadic.  

Today, the Tajiks are the main ethnic group in Tajikistan (80%) but there are also large populations of Tajiks living in northeastern Afghanistan and in Kabul, Mazar-iSharif and Herat.  In fact, they make up over ¼ of the Afghan population.  

There are also a lot of Tajiks in Uzbekistan and Western China (in China this small community lives in Sarikol, Xinjiang Province and are mainly Shia Ismailis). 

They are also a lot of Tajiks living in Russia – a substantial number fled from the war in Tajikistan and more recently Afghanistan, as well as economic migrants that have found their way to Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Northern Pakistan.


Soviet Rule

Tajikistan was born out of the collapse of the Bukharen Emirate in the early 20th century.   When the imperial Russian army began its march through central Asia in the 19th century, Bukhara became a Russian protectorate.  Because of its geographical location at the edge of the Russian empire and its proximity to China and British India, the territory had considerable strategic importance.  

In 1920, the Soviet Army began bombing Bukhara.  People were fascinated by the Soviet planes in the sky (having never witnessed this) and shocked as the bombs destroyed their mud brick homes.

It took only three days for Bukhara to fall. 

With the dissolution of the Bukharen state, the Soviets set to drawing up a new map of Central Asia.  The “Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic” came into being in 1924 – incorporating what is now Uzbekistan with Tajikistan as an autonomous adjunct with its capitol at Dushanbe.   

They started to build – transforming the rural land that was once home to weavers, tanners and horse-traders into a model Soviet city.   Electric lights were built powered by a new electricity plant and telegraph poles were erected.    Local building materials (wood and mud brick) were discarded for glass and more modern materials brought in (by train and then donkey) from elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet influence in Central Asia did not lead to the total destruction of local culture and religion: the region was located far from the centre and comprised a lot of rural communities where traditions remained strong.   However, the Arabic and Persian alphabet once used by the people of this region was banned, making outlaws out of countless intellectuals, clerics, lawyers and other literate people.   The Soviet occupation successfully severed the region from the Muslim world (and their entire literary canon).  

People who used the old script were sent to prison camps in the Russian Far East.  Many hid their literacy and their books.   In place of the Arabic script, came the Latin alphabet, later replaced by Cyrillic – the Russian lettering that is still used in Tajikistan today.

The capitol:  Dushanbe

Dushanbe (means Monday) became a booming metropolis.  By the early 1920s, the first cars, newspapers and school text books appeared. The style of dress changed to reflect the Russian/European influence.   

Imagine the speed with which that transformation occurred! Within a decade, people that were once living in mud brick homes in a rural village found themselves in a Soviet modern city!

Outside of the capitol, things were quite different.  The Red Army has secured a great deal of territory, often quite violently, and many villagers had lost their lands and livelihoods.  A great number fled to Afghanistan. 

Some men took up arms – they were known as the basmachi.   The Red Army carried out violent reprisals on surrounding villagers in response.  Close to a third of the population in the rural areas disappeared, of these about half were thought to have gone to Afghanistan and the other half killed.  Few places were hit as hard by the coming of communism as rural Tajikistan.

Soviet rule brought economic and social benefits to the Republics of Central Asia, especially for Tajikistan, the poorest among them.  Universal education and health services achieved a level of literacy and public health far superior to that achieved in the former British Empire just across the Wakhan Corridor to the South.  

The subsidies from Moscow provided a standard of living and social services in Tajikistan that bore little relationship to the actual economic development or potential of the region (this would come back to haunt the country once the Soviet Union fell) .

Dushanbe had grown into a major Soviet city with people emigrating from across the Soviet Union in search of work and a fresh start following the war.  Women cut their hair, wore Western style clothes, and got married at a later age (closer to 21).   The lingua franca was Russian and many Tajiks grew up speaking Russian better than their native language.  Those that didn’t speak Russian had no chance of finding a good income and a steady job.

“Village” Tajiks were disproportionately disadvantaged by this since many did not speak Russian well, and could not advance beyond a job as a manual laborer.   Educated Tajiks faced discrimination as well; they hardly ever got senior posts in other parts of the Union, in the army or in the political apparatus around the Kremlin. 

However, most Tajiks did not stop to question the Union. Life was fairly prosperous, cut off from the outside world, with nothing to compare their lives against but those of their parents.  They considered themselves immensely privileged.

In the 1980s, things started to change.   Tajik intellectuals wanted to revive Tajik language and culture.  They wanted to mend ties with Iran and Afghanistan – the other Persian –speaking countries.  The proximity to Afghanistan gave an extra dimension to this. 

The Soviets had fought a disastrous war in Afghanistan and some Central Asian conscripts had been changed profoundly by the experience.  They not only saw a world outside of the Soviet one, but they met Afhgans who spoke their own language, shared their traditions and even, occasionally were related to them through the generation that had crossed the Amu (river) for fear of the Bolsheviks in the 1920s and 1930s.

From the villages, emerged devout young men bent on reviving Islamic beliefs and learnings.  For generations, Tajiks had been saying their prayers and teaching their children the Qur’an in secret (religion was prohibited under the Soviets).

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Tajikistan became an independent state but was immediately faced with the economic problems caused by the breakdown of the centrally planned Soviet economy:  withdrawal of subsidies, disruption of former guaranteed markets, exchange instability etc.   

Tajikistan declared its independence on September 9.   Thousands of demonstators arrived in Dushanbe from the villages.  Protests were staged.  The political leadership was not able to lead a brand new country.  And almost all Tajiks were poor and impatient for change.  More than half the population was under sixteen years old. 

Side note: I received a lot of comments about the pictures that I took in Dushanbe.  People were surprised to see such a developed city.  Don’t be fooled: outside of the capitol people struggle to survive and Tajikistan ranks among the poorest countries in the world. 

To be continued…

Navigating the office environment is fairly easy at home.  Understanding and respecting the cultural taboos and norms comes naturally.   

Here, however, I likely do something to offend someone in the office on a daily basis. People are generally just too polite to say anything.

 My office has two cleaning ladies – one on the main floor and one on the second floor.   They don’t speak English but we say hello and even joke around – as well as you can with sign language and expressive facial expressions. 

Yesterday, I noticed that  the cleaning lady on my floor was giving me the cold shoulder. 

I tend to interact with her a fair bit since there is usually no water in the office and I drink mad amounts of coffee and usually need to use the bathroom at least twice a day.   No water = no toilets.    I’ll do the – I really gotta go dance – and she’ll magically appear with a huge bucket of water.  

 Those of you who’ve traveled a lot or lived in the developing world (where water shortrages are common-place) know that dumping a large quantity of water into the bowl from a high enough distance makes the toilet flush.

Anyway,  yesterday she barely acknowledged me.  And she’s usually quite friendly. 

So it got me thinking  – what did I do now ?  

Roxy – my colleague – happened to mention to me the other day that Tajiks seperate their garbage.    Apparently, a lot of people around here own animals – cows, goats etc., – which  I was actually pretty surprised to learn  considering that we live in a town and not a village.   I’ve lived here for two months and never so much as heard a mooh.   

Where would you even keep a cow?  We live in houses and apartments…  

But last week, I was walking down Lenin Street – on my way to the park- minding my own business and a brown cow strolled right past me.  No  joke.   Down the middle of the street – and straight into oncoming traffic – without a care in the world. 

Anyway, the point of the two garbage system is to seperate the food for animals from regular waste.  But no one tells you these things – you’re just supposed to know them.   Persia and I have been dumping all of our garbage together for the past two months- we leave it outside and the landlady’s kids take it to the dump.    A couple nights ago we discovered that the kids had been secretly seperating our garbage!  Roxy confirmed that in fact it’s a great insult to waste food here – especially when animals could eat it.  

Putting all of this together, my cleaning lady’s cold shoulder finally made sense. Last week, I had thrown some mouldy raising and nuts in the garbage – along with regular paper.  I wasn’t even thinking – just tossed it in the pail. 

She was quite offended.  But I’ve since apologized and we are back on good terms.

And Persia and I, now have a two garbage pail sytem (sorry still no recycling –    non-existent here).

I can only imagine what I’ll do  to offend tomorrow.

The Flight

Where to begin.The flight from Dushanbe was one of the most intense experiences of my life.  No joke. I thought I was going to die at least twice.  I’m not particularly known for my calm under pressure but even the most avid adventurer would have said a little prayer before getting on that flight.

As soon as you get in you are strapped down, passed a pair of gigantic earphones and a paper bag.  I tend to get motion sickness and in all the excitement had forgotten to take my extra-strength gravol. There is a 15 pound weight limit to get on the flight and my bags were a bit over the limit….

The security guys  at the airport refused to budge on the rules (not even by a pound!).  Tajikistan has a lot of rules – a relic from the Soviet Era – but that’s another post.   Anyway, the gravol  ended up packed and on its way to Khorog via land cruiser.

When the heli took off  it hovered in mid-air before making a hard left and starting its ascent. It’s amazing how maneuverable they are – when it turns it actually turns on its side.  Hence, the necessity of being strapped in.

It’s nuts.

As you can probably tell – this was my first time on a helicopter.  And what a strange sensation – you can feel every single bump and its VERY loud.   Admittedly, I’m used to having my air travel coated with a pleasant feeling of motionlessness –  chased down by a strong drink.   And this experience was the exact opposite of that.

A) no booze allowed.

B) even if there was booze you wouldn’t want to drink it (Oh, the stomach)

C)  I was aware of every moment:  every sound; every bump; every air pocket; every hover.


Once we were in the air for about 15 minutes, I started to relax a bit.   Big mistake..  Up until then we’d been cruising through open air.  Nothing in the way but clouds.   At one point, patting myself on the back for being so brave – I ventured a look out the front window and was rewarded with enormous mountain peaks looming in front of me.


The Pamir mountains are a mountain range in Central Asia formed by the junction of the Himalayas, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun, and Hindu Kush ranges. They are among the world’s highest mountains and since Victorian times they have been known as the “Roof of the World”.


There are two ways to get to Khorog – you can drive for 12 hours ( a beautiful journey across the country) or you can go by air (commercial flight or helicopter –  1hour).  The helicopter is known to be the safest of the two flying options.  That whole maneuverability aspect.

Both are insane.

During the Soviet  Era, the pilots were paid danger pay to fly this route.  Thankfully, its safety record isn’t bad: one flight went down in the 1980s, and that was hit by a rocket from neighbouring Afghanistan (slim chance of that happening now – what with the war and all…).    Since then, “tales abound about the crazy turbulance,  snow-scraping near misses and rubber-shredding landings.”

As we approached the mountain peaks, I started to feel a bit uneasy.  The pilot does this three times a week.  He’s a highly trained expert who is used to flying around royalty, dignataries and diplomats.  Unfortunately, the highest ranked individual in the heli was me – a lowly intern.   I figured if he was going to drop the ball – this might be the day….

I think the pilot’s assitant could tell that I was a bit nervous – he kept looking at me, giving me the thumbs-up sign and grinning like an baboon.   I loved him for it.

The pilots' assistant

The most terrifying part of the flight is last the 20 minutes.  There are some very narrow  (read: deadly) mountain passes to get through.   And helicopter pilots have a lot to worry about – air pockets, altitude – and other techincal jargon.

The point is –  it takes some serious concentration and skill.    And A LOT of hovering.

At times, we were just hovering in mid-air as the pilot  attempted to shimmy (yes, SHIMMY!)  the craft through 35 meter-wide mountain passes.   That doesn’t leave a lot of room on either side.  I could see black sand on the peaks shimmering in the sun – not just patches of dirt –  but individual GRAINS of sand.   That’s how close we were.

And lots of snow.

And jagged edges.

 And it was incredible.

DSC00841And beautiful.

In between the mountains, I could see green valleys with villages built on the edges of the bluest rivers.   You can’t help but feel the ancientness of the place.  People have been living in these valleys – in this remote part of the world – for thousands of years.


That said, I am planning a trip back by car.

Not because I’m scared   – and I am – but because the drive is supposed to be an adventure through shallow lakes and winding mountain roads.

Lots of gravol.

A good friend of mine, Zahra, is currently working with an Indian NGO in Jaipur.   Over the next six months her work will take her across the country to assess projects and visit marginalized communities.

Her most recent post (http://india.zahraesmail.com/2009/08/the-excluded/) is a stirring account of her latest trip to the field to visit families living “Below the Poverty Line (BPL) and families that are largely marginalized and belong to the Scheduled Caste / Schedule Tribe (SC/ST) or Other Backward Caste (OBC)”.

We hear a lot about the poverty (and the wealth) in India.  But even the most informed among us will be disturbed by what Zahra describes in her post.


Update from me – coming soon!

I’m playing catch-up.

This is my last post about Dushanbe.  I wrote it the night before I got on one of the deadliest flights in the world to Khorog (Pamiri Mountains).  I’ll get to that exhilarating terrifying experience in my next post (hopefully with video attached!).


(July 16, 2009)

I had my first encounter with the mafia the night before leaving Dushanbe.

Tajikistan is a transit route for drugs coming out of Afghanistan and headed to Europe, North America – you name it.    The budget that the police and drug enforcement agencies have to fight this problem is paltry at best.

Before moving to a country that you’ve barely heard of – located in a region that you’ve barely thought of –  you tend to do your homework.  So it wasn’t a shock to learn that there are Mafia walking the streets of Dushanbe.  Yet, you still don’t expect to actually bump into them at your favourite cafe, while enjoying  a glass of Moldavian red and desperately trying to upload pictures to facebook.

I’d had a long day.  It was hot.  I was grumpy and looking forward to a last meal and some internet.  I met up with Persia (she picked that pseudonym herself!) late in the evening at the cafe across from our flat.  Aside from us, there was a middle-aged couple enjoying each other’s company, some business men having a beer and a group of  men enjoying a meal and some vodka.

There were a ton of waiters working the floor but it still took about 15 minutes for me to order a glass of wine. The large group of gentlemen in the back were keeping them busy.

I didn’t think much of it.  I was too busy obsessing over the slow internet connection.  It was 10:00pm, the cafe closed at 11 pm and I had a ton of photos to upload.

At 11:05 pm, I had uploaded 40% of the 200 photos I had selected as my “best work”….

I looked around. Most of the tables had been vacated with the exception of the couple –  clearly in love and clueless,   the group of gentlemen behind me, and Persia and I.   I was packing up, cursing the internet, Facebook, myself and Tajikistan in general, when a group of five very large men walked past my table and plopped themselves down like they owned the place.

It was a strange scene.  I sensed a heightened tension in the air.  The cafe was obviously about to close …

There was a momentary lull in activity before the waiters soared back into action.  The chairs – that had moments ago been cleared – were pulled down.  The lights were turned back on and the place was bustling once again.

Drinks, food and snacks were delivered to the new arrivals.  The couple – still focused on each other – continued to enjoy their evening.  The group of men behind me made no effort to move.  The new arrivals greeted these men and then made themselves comfortable at a table of their own.

I called over the waiter that spoke English – a South Asian guy from Kashmir (more on this to come).   Before I could open my mouth he said, “stay as long as you want, we will have to stay open now.”

Persia and I sat in fascination.   Slightly paranoid about drawing too much attention to our table, I secretly IM’d her.

Me: Mafia?….

Persia: No!….Really?

Me: Holy Crap!

Persia: Should we go?…

Me: No way! I’m at 46%!


A couple of the guys looked over at us – we avoided eye contact.  Then decided to move.

Samir, the waiter from Kashmir, supported that decision.

We moved to the steps near the exit – close enough for me to still have access to the wireless connection but far away enough to feel as if we could bail at any time.

Persia and I wasted no time asking him about the new arrivals.  He was kind enough to fill us in.

Yes, they were Mafia. No, not Russian as I first assumed, but Tajik.

He went on to complain about the fact that they’d shown up so late.  Now they had to stay open until they left.  The staff was tired. They worked 12 hour shifts, six days a week.

While the internet crawled along, we asked him to tell us about himself.  How did a young man from Kashmir end up in Tajikistan?

He was 27 and had grown up in Kashmir.  He’d left home a while back to find work.

That search had taken him on a great adventure across the globe.    He spent a couple of years in Kazakhstan before the cost of living got too high.    He then moved to Kabul for 2 1/2 years before heading to Turkey and then finally ending up in Dushanbe.

Since his departure from Kashmir he’d picked up a  quite a few languages: Turkish, Tajik, Russian and Pashtun.  This in addition to the three he already spoke:  Hindi, Kashmiri and English!

I was impressed.

I’d been struggling to wrap my head around Tajik – a language that insists on putting the verb at the END of the sentence!

But more impressive than his obvious gift for languages was his love of travel.  He was crazy about visiting new places.

He’d only settled down in Dushanbe to pursue his studies in medicine.  He had a year to go before becoming a doctor.   He was working at the local cafe because it was good money – a lot of tourists ate there (in search of internet!) and left decent tips (not a regular custom in Tajikistan).

By the time Samir had finished recounting his adventures it was pretty late.   I had a flight to catch the next morning and Persia was getting impatient.   My pics were at 75% but my computer battery was at 11%.   Some quick math revealed that this was a hopeless battle.

We were packing up to leave when ‘the boyzs’ stood up, paid, and walked down the stairs to their car:  a silver SUV, double parked on the wrong side of the street.  They loaded in, started up the engine and sped off – making the stereotypical screech as they quickly accelerated into a U-turn down the street.

I have to admit that I felt some relief when they’d driven away.   We headed home -still a bit uneasy about our close encounter -but excited to share the news with our roommates who had opted for a quite night at home….

Next stop: Khorog.