Tajikistan: Off to see ‘Monday’

Early June 2017

Yes the trip was short. Time stands in my way.  I envy those with enough time on their hands where they are able to immerse themselves with their host countries and cities. Tajikistan was not the most well-planned trip that I’ve made. It was more of a panic where ” I don’t want to return back to work yet so I’m going to just fly off and see something new.” Dushanbe, the capital of this lesser known Central Asian country turned out to be quite a calm and peaceful trip. This is definitely something that I need before the work confinement. The Air Astana flight left on time from Almaty and although it was a short flight, you can tell a lot about a country by looking out the windows of the airplane. Tajikistan is not as green as her neighbours and well behind in terms of economic growth. The visa process was easier than I’ve imagined it to be. Money was exchanged at the airport before the counter closed ( Sheraton Hotel is close to the airport and is a great + safe place to exchange money.)

It’s not every day that the capital city of a country means a day in the week.  Dushanbe or Monday was named after the city formed from a village renowned for their popular Monday market. With a population of close to 800,000 people, the capital was previously known as Stalinabad from 1929 to 1961.  June in Tajikistan is hot. I stepped out and melted but there are always nice places throughout the capital to hide from the heat where I could get a sense of the country, learn the history and munch on cherries. June is cherry season in Tajikistan- grown by local farmers who sell them by the side of the road, they have got to be the tastiest and cheapest cherries ever.

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Tajikistan, a country where over 90% is covered by mountains has a population of 8 million people. 96% are Muslims (majority Sunnis). The government introduced some anti-radicalization campaigns which encourage all citizens to openly practise their religion but only if it does not jeopardise secular traditions. Therefore, not a lot of men have long beards and the hijab is not compulsory (in one province, officials shaved the beards off from the men and asked the women to not cover themselves up). Tajikistan is a relatively young country since 70% are under the age of 30. Like other Central Asian countries, it was home to multiple ancient empires and rulers in Central Asia before her independence in 1991 (after the collapse of the Soviet Union). Modern Tajikistan can be said to have started with Russia’s expansion into Central Asia during the late 19th century. Apart from expanding the empire’s influences, another reason for venturing into Tajikistan was Russia’s interest in having access to supplies of cotton. Clashes between Russian troops and various groups trying to find independence led to various policies and Soviet campaigns. Russians moved into the country (1% in 1926 up to 13% in 1959) which led to expulsion of 10,000 people and Russia started to dominate party positions at all levels. Many were conscripted into the Soviet Army and participated in the World Wars. Right after the country’s independence, a civil war started and lasted for 5 years. It all came down to a power struggle where different parties accused the other of being corrupted. After talks and a ceasefire, Tajikistan became relatively stable after a peaceful election in 1999 which saw the country’s one and only President in power. All seems peaceful on the surface yet issues linger which may or may not erupt into macro-instability.  DSC09886

Given her proximity to Afghanistan, drug trafficking along with an influx of terrorists from the region are two social challenges for the country and certainly the region. Yet, the main hurdle to overcome for the government comes down to improving the economic situation of Tajikistan since it is one of the poorest countries in the region. Although official figures differ and remains incomplete,  20% of the total population (on average) live on less than 1.25 USD per day. The healthcare system is underdeveloped and poor with shortages in supplies (170 doctors for 100,000 ppl). Although education is free and the system is the remnant of the Soviet-Era, enrolment (especially at a tertiary level) is low. Many discontinues their education due to a lack of proper employment opportunities to match the skill set. The country also does not dedicate enough GDP towards education and due to gender bias, many girls do not finish school. 47% of the country’s GDP comes from the remittance (locals working in Russia). This means that the economy is fragile since any downward performance in Russia will result in Tajikistan seeing a drop in their performances. Toss in corruption and mismanagement and you have an even more fragile economy. Yes there are problems but that is not to say that there are no potentials since the country does have sizeable coal deposits and small reserves of natural gas and petroleum. She is also a part of the silk route hence the country will surely see some project from China’s OBOR and AIIB initiatives. Tajikistan also produces aluminum and cotton (60% of agricultural output). Foreign investments have been entering into the country but such implementation and effectiveness remains debatable since the country is never shy from corruption and mismanagement.

My wandering around Dushanbe started in the center of the city.The flagpole bearing the flag of Tajikistan is located behind the gates and within the same compound as Parliament House. Closed to the public and very very empty, this is right next to the steppe monument right behind the fountain (in front of an amuseument park)  which divides Rudaki Park to the left and the National Library to the right. And… which statue is like the ‘starting point’ or the center of the city? – Statue of Ismail Somoni (a historical ruler of Tajiistan and very important since Somoni is also the name of Tajikistan’s currency).

DSC00036As the heat intensified, I went into hiding at the National Museum of Tajikistan. There are two buildings. One contains the antiquities and the other is the Etnografic Museum. Foreigners pay ten times more than locals but at 10 som, it is cheap when compared with many other museums in the world. The Antiquities Museum is a two storey modern building with exhibitions displayed in a chronological fashion.  Out of the many artefacts on display (e.g. sculptures and frescoes), the 1600 yr-old Buddha in Nirvana is no doubt THE top thing to see. Taking up half of the second storey and the most iconic artefact in Tajikistan,  the 14m Buddha is a prized artefact because it is fairly well-preserved and most importantly, it documents the spread of Buddhism in a predominantly-Muslim country. Tajikistan is the only country in Central Asia with the largest Buddha statue. If the Talibans didn’t blast and destroy the 57 m Buddha in the Hindu Kush mountains of Bamiyan, then the 300-400AD built standing Buddha would be the largest in the world.

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 11.15.05 AMThe sleeping Buddha was uncovered by Soviet archaeologists in 1966 from a 5th Century AD Buddhist Monastery complex in Ajina Tepa ( South of the country) and on the ancient Silk Route connecting China with Central Asia, Europe and India. 300 km North of Bamiyan and the center for the spread of Buddhism in Central Asia and the region, Ajina Tepe belonged to the Kushans. The Kushans created an empire around the trade routes and were major patron of Mahayana Buddhism. Such discovery  was huge news but back then, the Soviets only excavated it to hide it. Why? The Soviets want the Tajiks to know that they had no history before the 1917 Russian Revolution. Apart from the sleeping Buddha, archaeologists also found many smaller Buddhist statues and murals but they shipped it to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg . The huge Buddha was divided into 100 pieces, stored in boxes and left in the basement of the museum. It was not just Buddhism that was hidden but also signs of Zoroastrian, Greek and Roman influences.  I guess admitting that the country had any Pre-Islmaic history was a big no no back in the days. In 2001, the Buddha was restored and then put on display. Eventhough that only 0.1% of the total population in Tajikistan are Buddhists, no one can erase the presence of Buddhism from history nor the long history that graced the land of the Tajiks.

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After the Museum, I headed off to the last place of interest on the list: Hissor. Located 30km from the capital, lies a sleepy town renowned for the Hissor Historical Reserve which contains Hissor Fort and several madrassahs. Since I went during Ramadan, many of the old Madrasahs remained close to the public.  Built in the 16th Century, it used to be the residence for a deputy of the Bukhara Emir. With walls that are 1m thick and slots for cannons, a garden and pool also existed within the walls. There used to be stairs and brick terraces which led visitors into the main entrance. What remains are the monumental beautifully carved wooden gates and the two towers with a lancet arch which is the typical architectural style for most Bukhara buildings. Overlooking a large square, caravanserai and numerous stores also used to be scattered throughout the area outside the fort. The wooden gate is perhaps the most impressive thing that exists from the once grand Fort. The rest is either brand new or being restored. Yet looking back at my trip to Hissor Fort and very much the whole of the country, the one thing that offered the most comfort and became something quite touching was the hospitality and warmth displayed by the friendly locals. I remember walking back to my hostel and meeting a group of kids picking cherries from the side of the road, we ended up chatting and playing paper, scissors and rock!  The family who sold me a bag of cherries greeted me with lovely smiles. A nice couple at Hissor Fort invited me into their shop so that I could cool off from the summer heat. A young mother proudly showed me her one-month old daughter and a nice girl who sold ice cream and drinks with her father at Rudaki Park sat next to me and asked for a hug. Not economically well-off, they remained large at heart and most importantly, kind. I guess this is what spirtual wealth and happiness is. This is why I love travelling- since it helps me to know what life is and what life can be. This sense of feeling can only be achieved by walking the streets of a foreign country and then, leaving with so much knowledge of the place.

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Although it is underdeveloped, the country and the locals are lovely. However, one thing to bear in mind is the airport scams that I unfortunately witnessed. So, be prepared to either witness these scams or be scammed yourself. Be on alert and most importantly, don’t let this turn you off from visiting Tajikistan.

The scam: you will not encounter any problems when you land in Tajikistan unless something is wrong with your visa. The problem begins at baggage inspection and border passport checks (immigration round). So long story short, I was flying to Urumqi, China. The 40 or so Chinese passengers were called into the office one by one ( men into one room and women into another). The officers came up and asked  ” Where are you going? Oh china? Do you have RMB or USD on you? How much?. I was taken into the office and they started to go through my bag. They asked for my passport then opened my wallet however they were a tad disappointed since they only found local currency and about 50 Chinese yuan. The other Chinese lady behind me had alot more than me and in the end, she gave them 300 rmb or 50USD because her bag ‘exceeded the dimension’ ( BS). For the men, some of them ended up paying because 1) You can’t bring so many things out of Dushanbe- give us money 2) You didn’t fill in any exit forms, give us money 100 rmb 3) You didn’t have a receipt for the stuff that you have purchased, not allowed- give us money 4) Did you drink alcohol? not allowed- give us money [ One of the officers said that one man had been drinking….sigh- he was clearly not drunk]….all in all, they are always right and they will walk away with some cash.