Posts Tagged ‘vodka’

(entry from July 14, 2009)

The Russians left more behind than a proud but crippled nation, rusted tanks and decrepit buildings.  Despite having a predominantly Muslim population, Tajiks  (my Pamiri friend has just corrected me on this) Pamiris drink vodka.  Under the Soviets, vodka became somewhat socially acceptable and regularly makes an appearance at Pamiri meals (if there are guests present) and gatherings (weddings/parties/celebrations).

From what I’ve observed, Pamiris drink vodka like the Russians:  a bottle, shot glasses and a steely resolve to get the job done.  Guests are considered a special honour  and are often celebrated with shots of vodka.   In Tajikistan, the unspoken rule is that everyone drinks until the guest refuses.  Guests  (especially foreigners trying  not to offend) tend to be hard-wired to accept rather than refuse offerings, which can lead to some very drunken gatherings.

On a serious note, men tend to drink a lot more than women and in some communities alcoholism has become a societal problem (so has heroine use but more on this later).

I’m not a connoisseur of vodka – I much prefer a glass of red to hard liquor-but I am one to throw myself into a new cultural experience.

And this time, I nearly drowned.

After a long day of picture-taking, Rachel (roommate) and I were aching for a break from the sun.   We found a nice terrace, filled with people sitting under parasols and enjoying the spray of the water fountains.   Tall pints of cold DRAFT beer and bottles of vodka dotted the tables.

Off to the side was a huge barbecue serving up delicious looking shashleek (beef kebabs on a skewer).

I was sold.


En route to a free table by the fountain, we eyed a group of expats with twice the number of pints as people at their table.  A quick exchange of eye contact and we were invited to join them.  Turns out they were from England.

Now, I hate to judge but I have yet to have an encounter with an expat from the UK that did not descend into a drunken mess.   This has not, however, stopped me from looking forward to these random encounters.  They are a hilarious people the Brits  –  and they know how to have a good time!   They also have no limits and an extremely high tolerance for all types of alcohol.

A generalization I have yet to have proven wrong.

These three young chaps in their mid-20s managed a mining company about six hours outside of Dushanbe.  Yup, miners – interesting company for two development workers, I know.

They’d spend two weeks in the mountains and then four days in Dushanbe.   One of them – a handsome brown-eyed, blonde with a great tan matched by an equally great smile – had been in Tajikistan for over a year and planned to stick around for another year or so.

I’m not sure how it came up but at one point – somewhere between round 2 and 3 of the local brew- we mentioned that we hadn’t tried the local vodka.   This was met with looks of incredulity, another round of pints, a bottle of vodka (quickly downed and replaced), and a tray full of shashleek (beef kebabs).  According to the Brit to my right – they were beginning to blur into one being- it was customary to take a shot of vodka, followed by a piece of shashleek.  I’m not quite sure where the beer fit into that equation…



This went on… And on… And on…And at some point, with the sun going down, four full pints of beer on the table in front of me, the remnants of cold shashleek to my right and my dear friend Rachel- head in hands – moaning to my left, I realized that it was time to make a discreet exit.

By then, two out of the three Brits had mysteriously disappeared (they’d had a head start on the festivities).   And I was having some difficulty deciding on the best course of action. Tajikistan. Public place. Early evening. Rachel = a mess. Me = holding it together, barely.  Home?  Good question …where was that again?!…

I decided to prolong serious decision-making for the time being and started feeding Rachel glasses of water.   I left  the remaining Brit in charge of this duty to make a third trip to the bathroom – I also made some calls – I needed back-up.

I don’t know how long I was gone. I got distracted by the fried chicken served at the fast food joint across the street.  But when I got back, our roommates had shown up (somehow I`d communicated our location), the final miner had disappeared and Rachel….well… apparently, we’d given her too much water…



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The Twilight Zone

(Entry from July 12, 2009)

I had one of the strangest evenings of my life here the other night.  We were on a quest for food.  A few nights in Dushanbe and we’d had some pretty bad experiences with the local cuisine.  Tajiks use A LOT of oil when cooking…

Most of our meals had been pretty bad and we’d basically given up on eating all together.  No joke, I’d already lost five pounds.   We’d attempted to make our own meals which basically consisted of a lot of watermelon, nuts and dried fruit (the produce in Dushanbe is AMAZING!).  But fruit and nuts just weren’t cutting it.

Not wanting to judge an entire culture’s cuisine on a few bad restaurants, we decided to give it another shot before succumbing to hunger and the expat joint across the street serving spaghetti Bolognese.

We headed for a restaurant owned by a Tajik that was supposed to be Chinese-Euro fusion (OK not exactly local but owned by a local).  A little Russian, a little Tajik, a little Chinese.  I had my heart set on some chicken balls.

The restaurant was darkly lit and decorated with elaborate gold drapes and old crystal chandeliers.   Red and green strobe lights danced off the walls, Tajik music blasted in the background and a heavy layer of smoke hung in the room.   Only a few of the tables were full, a mix of Russian and Tajik customers.

Ordering food here is always an adventure. The menus are generally in Russian (sometimes Tajik but rarely in English).  Russian is not a language that you can try and decipher – you can either read it or you can’t.   We can’t.  And the waitress didn’t speak English, or much Tajik.

We have one person is our group who speaks Farsi/Tajik (and she has been an amazing asset). But even she was having a hard time figuring out the menu (she can’t read Tajik because they use the Cyrillic alphabet as opposed to the Arabic script used in Iran) and couldn’t communicate with the waitress very well.

In the end, I ordered chicken kebabs and rice.   There must have been some sort of miscommunication since I’d asked for a side of yogurt (similar to Indian Raita) but got ketchup instead.   And the rice never came, which was fine by me since the chicken had a nice layer of oil on it.  I cut my losses and washed it all down with a beer.

About half way through the meal, the music changed, the strobe lights got more intense and a petite Russian belly dancer stepped into the middle of the dance floor.   I haven’t seen a lot of belly dancing in my time, but I’m pretty sure that it isn’t usually done to Shakira.

At the table next to us, a group of Russians were on a double date.   The table was filled with food, beer and a couple bottles of vodka.  Not to mention about six packs of cigarettes.  They’d take a bite of their food, down a shot of vodka and take a puff of a cigarette. Another bite, another shot, another puff….

Once the music started they were up and on the dance floor.   I was quite fascinated by them.  There are quite a few Russians around but not as many as there used to be (most went to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union).

Regarding those that still live here, I’m interested in better understanding the relationship they have with Tajiks.   I’ve heard a lot of different things from Tajiks regarding Russia. In many ways, the situation for women was better under Soviet rule (more equal rights, less religious conservatism, etc).  All were educated, which is why the literacy rate in Tajikistan is so high (over 90%), jobs were available, food was abundant and the country was fairly developed.  Of course, there was racism and religious oppression as well.

After one week here, I don’t pretend to know much.    But it’s an interesting history.

Back to the Russians.  They found us quite entertaining.   Apparently in Russia my name is a boy’s name.  The girl version just doesn’t exist.   With broken Russian, I found out a little about them.  The men were on leave.  They’re in the Russian military.   Not the first time I’d bumped into Russian military in Tajikistan.   The women worked here.  And they knew and liked Canada.

At one point during our “conversation” one of the girls mentioned her love of Lenin.  The largest of the males stopped what he was saying, slide his finger across his throat and started laughing hysterically.   The stench of vodka was overpowering.  We didn’t hang  around to hear his views on the matter.  We’d had enough excitement for one evening.

We paid the bill (they’d added an extra $10 US charge for the entertainment….) and headed for the door.

At one point in the evening, sitting in that smoke filled room with oily chicken in front of me, a group of drunken Russians to my right and a belly dancer giving her all to Shakira on the dance floor, I started to laugh.  And I couldn’t stop.  I was in Tajikistan.  T-A-J-I-K-I-S-T-A-N.

And it felt like the twilight zone.

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