Dushanbe – Tajikistan, First Impression

Just across the river border, even the grilled meat looks very different, despite of the same name, kabab. Oh, it also gets a Russian name here, sashlik.

Just across the river border, even the grilled meat looks very different, despite of the same name, kabab. Oh, it also gets a Russian name here, sashlik.

Before actually physically stepped on the country, I had heard, and seen Tajikistan when I was still in Afghanistan. It is the country idolized by many people in the Badakhshan province. It is the country of freedom, flourished by goods, electricity, and public services. It is the country where women can walk on the streets freely without fear of not covering properly.

Now, I am in Tajikistan, seeing and experiencing what man of the northern rural Afghans dreaming about. But for me, Tajikistan is not about dream. According to a reference, the average salary of the people in the country was only 61.81 Somoni (US$ 19.93/month, 2005) and average pension was as low as 16.92 Somoni (US$ 5.23/month, 2005). Life cost is not cheap at all, at least in Dushanbe, compared to the low income statistics. Long distance transport was incredibly expensive, comparable to Afghanistan, as oil costs almost 1 US$ per litre.

93% of Tajikistan’s land is mountains, making it only 7% inhabited and potential for agriculture. It has distinctive four seasons and the extremely cold winters denied all kinds of agricultural activities. It’s not a rich country. Oil has to be imported and world trend of high oil price beats the economy badly. Among the five ex-Soviet Central Asian republics, economically Tajikistan is the poorest, geographically is the smallest, and in terms of political stability it’s not the best.

Right after independence, Tajikistan fell into civil war. Fuelled also by the situation in the fundamentalist neighbour, Afghanistan, Tajikistan also experienced movement towards an Islamic Republic when the rebels with turbans and veils dominated the capital. The bloody war forced the CIS soldiers, mostly Russians, to step in the country and control its long border with Afghanistan, from where not only religious ideas were imported, but also opium was smuggled.

The scars of wars are almost not visible at all in Dushanbe, the capital where long main road of Rudaki with its pastel-colored architectures dominated the scene. It is a peaceful, lazy city, with not many vehicles and people walked leisurely in the parks. Despite of Ramazan, the food stalls in the parks were still busy during the days. Apparently many Muslims here choose not to observe fasting during the fasting month. There are some schools and universities along the road. Students of Tajikistan, if I may say, are the most beautiful and handsome ones I have ever seen. It’s compulsory for the boy students, from elementary school until university, to wear white shirt with tie, a black Western suit and pants. It might be a certain burden for the purents to invest on suits for the children’s school dress, as it should not be cheap at all (remember that average income values).

Rudaki Street also houses the presidential palace, just next to the street. The main landmark of the capital is a huge statue of Ismail Somoni under high golden arches. Who is Ismail Somoni? He was a king from Samanid dynasty 1200 years ago. The Samanid kingdom was a great Persian kingdom with two capitals: Samarkand (in present-day Uzbekistan) and Balkh (in present-day Afghanistan), both are outside the modern-day Tajikistan. While Tajikistan now regards Ismail Somoni as its father, by the time of the great king, the present-day of Tajikistan was just merely periphery of the kingdom. Coming to Tajikistan, I saw statues of many Persian heros. It was a surprise after almost a year in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where due to Islam restriction, statues of idols are prohibited.

Dushanbe, of which name means ‘Monday’ – named after the Monday Bazaar, had a strong atmosphere of a city of an eastern block country: long avenue with trees, trolleybuses traversing avenues, and museums theatres with similar, if not boring, Russian style block architectures. The road was very clean, and almost no beggars visible. It didn’t reflect at all the 61.81 Somoni average income as the people I saw are mostly elegant men and ladies enjoying lunch in luxurious open restaurants.

There was indeed a need for the new government to re-invent their national identity. We can see how the streets are then ‘nationalized’. Rudaki, whome the main road is named after, was a great Persian poet, who was claimed by Tajikistan, Iran, and Afghanistan as their hero. Ismail Somoni was another example. Also the Ainy Square, named after Ainy, writer who invented the Cyrillic alphabet set for the Tajik language. Tajikistan also tried to dig up the history of being part of the Persian Empire. The Persian great men like Ibn Sino (Avicenna), Firdaus, Omar Khayyam, and al-Khorezm are respected as Tajik heroes as well.

In regional relationship, aside with Afghanistan, Tajikistan has quite a problem with Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan imposes visa for Tajik citizens to cross its border, and vice versa. The Uzbek government also often closes the border. It was not only caused by the resentment of the Tajiks of the lost in their historical heritages (Samarkand and Bukhara with big Tajik population is now part of Uzbekistan). The bad relationship between these two neighbours is mostly caused by the international politics. Uzbekistan also played in internal politics of Tajikistan during its Civil War, and now Tajikistan is accused by Uzbekistan to support fundamentalism in the Ferghana Valley.

The border of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is also highly artificial. The northern part of Tajikistan, Khojand city – the second biggest city in the country, was actually ‘chopped’ from the Ferghana area to be added to the Tajikistan Soviet Socialist Republic to add its population. The border with Uzbekistan is very complicated, specially designed by the Soviet leaders so that the republics would be always linked to each other forever. There are some Uzbek and Tajik ‘enclaves’ in Kyrgyzstan area, making small villages of the countries to be completely surrounded by other country. The main road and railway cuts the area of other countries, making travel is highly difficult as all of the countries now request visa for transiting vehicles.

Despite of the inability of being separated from its neighbours, the language of Tajikistan is distinct from other ex-Soviet Central Asian republics. While others speaking Turkic languages, the Tajiks speak Persian. The Tajik dialect is closely related to Dari of Afghanistan and Farsi of Iran, but is written in Cyrillic script instead of Arabic. The Tajik dialect didn’t experience much change in its pronunciation like that in Iranian Farsi, which makes the speech of Tajik more Persian original. In Iranian Farsi, the pronunciation changes didn’t followed by the script evolution, making pronunciation doesn’t always suit the spelling (just like English spelling problems). Afghan Dari also has the same trend, in much lesser degree. But the Tajik language still pronounces the words as it is written in old Persian script.

With highly artificially formed country’s borders, with periods of identity blurring in its history, with most of historical gems annexed by the rival neighbour, Tajikistan is now working hard to re-build the new national identity, the picture of their past, today, and future.

About Agustinus Wibowo

Agustinus is an Indonesian travel writer and travel photographer. Agustinus started a “Grand Overland Journey” in 2005 from Beijing and dreamed to reach South Africa totally by land with an optimistic budget of US$2000. His journey has taken him across Himalaya, South Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, and ex-Soviet Central Asian republics. He was stranded and stayed three years in Afghanistan until 2009. He is now a full-time writer and based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Contact: Website | More Posts

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