One Last Tajik Hurrah: Khujand Trip

First, a story:
On Sunday, Chris and I were in Istaravshan. We asked an old man if he knew how to get to the 15th century mosque and madressa. He lacked teeth, but more than made up for that in character. He offered to take us to the mosque, and along the way a large group of pre-teen boys joined our little party. When we got to the mosque we met the care-taker, who informed us that some ruffians had stolen her key. Which happened to be the only key to this 15th century Timurid mosque. She suggested we hop in through a window.

With my new friend, the toothless impromptu guide of Istaravshan

So that’s what we did- Chris, the old man, the group of pre-teen Tajik boys, and me. And then we climbed up the disintegrating stones steps of a spiral staircase- which clearly hadn’t been touched since the year 1500- to the minaret, where we all huddled on a tiny perch over looking some 500+ year old graves.

And I thought: Holy crap, I never want to leave Tajikistan!
I quickly came to my senses- I’m quite excited to go home in less than two weeks!- but it was a nice reminder about why I picked the Taj as a study abroad locale.

A view from the outside of the 15th century Timurid mosque

Getting there:
In the spirit of adventure and cheapness, we decided to drive to Khijand, instead of flying (we flew back to save time). A driver who also took us to the Pamirs offered to drive us. We shared his car with an under-18 boys wrestling team, and their gruff coach. In the middle seat sat four wrestlers, and Chris and I shared the back of the jeep with another wrestler.

We drove together for 8 hours, over an unpaved mountain pass that had been mostly washed away with the heavy rains this year and through the “Tunnel of Death,” where we got stuck behind a construction crew doing “pavement” work. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride I’ve ever taken, but then it definitely wasn’t the most uncomfortable, either (that was an overnight bus between Dharamsala and Delhi in 2009). The wrestling team wasn’t great at sarcasm. Chris and I convinced them that we ate hamburgers for every meal in the US, and that since pavement didn’t even exist in the US, the unpaved roads didn’t bother us. Everything they’d ever seen in movies was lies!

Where we stayed:
We stayed at the Hotel Leninabad in Khujand (Leninabad is the Soviet name for Khujand). It is the type of place where a lost old man will wander over to your room at 9pm and ask your TV works. When you say yes (a bit of an overstatement, it gets 4 very fuzzy Russian channels), he asks if he can take it. And waddles back down the hallway, television in hand. It will probably not win any awards for comfort. It may win awards for best Soviet throwback, though.

Khujand Bazaar

What we saw (in Khujand):
On Saturday Chris and I split up for a bit to go exploring independently. I musuemed for a while, and then walked across the Syr Darya to go find THE BIGGEST LENIN STATUE IN CENTRAL ASIA. I couldn’t remember how to say “statue” so I just asked strangers to show me where “Big Lenin” was. It worked. I met a young government worker (who swore he wasn’t corrupt), who offered to show it to me.

Khujand was embarrassed about the giant 22meter Lenin in the middle of their city nearly 20 years after independence, so last year they moved it to a field slightly set back from the town. The tallest Lenin in Central Asia shared the field with a hungry cow and a couple of stay dogs.

Biggest Lenin in Central Asia + a cow in a field.

After he showed me Lenin, my not-corrupt friend and I had this conversation:
Him: “You should visit my family’s house now. My parents will slaughter a goat and make Osh”
Me: “Where does your family live?”
Him: “In Penjikent.” (That’s 6 hours away, assuming the road is good).
Me: “When would we go?!”
Him: “Now.”
After that, I took my leave and went back to meet Chris.

What we saw (in Istaravshan):
Well, you’ve already heard about our mosque/madressa adventures. The other great thing about Istaravshan was its bazaar. Outside there were lots of live chickens. Inside, there were lot of old yogurt makers who let us sample their fresh yogurt (delicious!). The smells of a million kabobs. We went to the bazaar in Khujand too, and that was also wonderful. In fact, it is apparently among the best and largest bazaars in Central Asia, and was situated in a picturesque central city square. But I preferred the bazaar in Istarvashan. We ate a wonderful lunch of Tabaka (chicken grilled on a spit), in the middle of the bazaar.

I asked if I needed to cover my hair while visiting the 15th century mosque. Our new friends said no, but then decided it would be hilarious if I wore the old man's hat.

Later, we sat on a tiny bridge over the small, fast flowing river in the middle of town, and watched the afternoon and some goats stroll by. Chris also played soccer with a bunch of kids in the middle of the old town. Many of the kids insisted that I take about a thousand photographs.

Chris on the soccer pitch

Coming Home:
Quick flight on Somoni Air. Comfortable half hour spent on a 737. No teenage wrestling team. Back to Dushanbe in time to relax with my host family on Sunday evening.

Here are some verses by Nima Yooshij, a relatively modern Persian poet from the early 20th century:

I stand opposite the sun
I cast my gaze upon the sea.
And the entire world is desolated and ravaged by the wind
And the ever-playing piper progresses onto his path
In this cloudy world.

تا دوشنبه آینده

A trip to Kulob: The Land of 1,000 Emomalis

On Saturday we were lucky enough to take a trip to Kulob, the third largest city in Tajikistan and the birthplace of everyone’s favorite Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon. Actually, we learned, he wasn’t born in Kulob but in a village nearby, which we drove through on our way to Kulob proper.

He looks so young in this photo! Awe.

Kulob is a decent distance away from Dushanbe. About three and a half hours. But the trip was punctuated by interesting scenery, and odd stops. We stopped at a beautiful reservoir to eat rhubarb. There was basically an entire market in the middle of the Tajik “highway” just devoted to rhubarb. This is a great country. Also, rhubarb is delicious!

Near Kulob, we stopped at an old fort. Now, generally I really like old forts. But I hadn’t had any coffee, and we left Dushanbe at 6am. So I was grouchy and mostly stomped around the fort, which has clearly been rebuilt within the last 5 years. I managed to take nice photographs though.

Putting on a brave face, despite being uncaffeinated.

After a lunch that involved a cup of coffee, I was feeling much happier and genuinely enjoyed visiting the mausoleum of Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, which was in Kulob town. He seemed like an interesting fellow: He was born in Hamadan in Iran, and traveled all the way to Kashmir, where he spread Islam and Sufi thought. On one of his travels between Kashmir and Hamadan, he died hear Kulob. Hence, mausoleum.

The park around the mausoleum was certainly among the most pleasant places in Kulob, if not Tajikistan. It also featured the young Rahmon picture from above. Because, you know, what goes better with 14th century Sufis than 21st century post-Soviet personality cults?!


Afterwards, it was time to head back to Dushanbe. The other excitement of the day was stopping to find animals as we drove along the road. We stopped in the morning and found turtles. In the afternoon we found a snake. Actually, a legless lizard. Not poisonous.

With the legless lizard

Next weekend, we’re going to Khujand. The second largest city in Tajikistan, and supposedly also one of the most pleasant places here. Chris and I went to buy plane tickets on Friday. In a reminder that Tajikistan is pretty much the definition of cash-based economy, you can’t even buy flight tickets with a credit card here. We will drive there, because the idea of Tajik mountain roads after a tough winter is just so exciting. And then we’ll fly back to save time.

Here’s a poem by Manuchehri, an 11th century court poet:

Get up and bring fur clothes as Autumn is here
A cold wind is blowing from the Khawrazm yonder
Look at that vine leaf hanging on the vine bough
It looks like the shirt of dyers
The farmer is biting his finger with wonder
As in the lawn or garden is left no more rose or lavender

تا دوشنبه آینده،


Long Walks and Depressing Zoos

Have you ever had a nightmare in which animals escape from the zoo, and are upset about their maltreatment and charge around the zoo in a mad frenzy?

In Dushanbe, this happens. Sort of. On Saturday, we went to the zoo. My friends had already been, and warned me against it, but I was insistent. It is The Most Depressing Place on Earth. Only in Dushanbe would the “reptile house” consist of a bunch of cages filled with dead snakes. Only in Dushanbe would a house cat qualify as a zoo animal. Only in Dushanbe would it be appropriate to keep two bears in a tiny enclosure about half the size of my bedroom. The whole place is filled with the howls of forlorn animals. I’ve never felt particularly strongly about zoos, but the Dushanbe zoo Should Not Be Allowed to Exist.

I like camels, even when they're in depressing zoos

And then, just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, we saw one poor ram, desperately trying to get out of his enclosure. “It looks like it might escape,” I said. And then it escaped. It mostly looked confused about its newfound freedom, and I’m sure they sent someone to put it back in the cage and duct-tape up the hole soon enough, but we didn’t stick around to find out.

Escaping Ram! Watch out before it rams you.

Alright, enough with this depression. Sometimes bad things happen to good rams. Lets move on.

On Sunday, I wanted to walk. I like to walk long distances. I particularly like to walk between cities or towns. So I decided to walk to Varzob, the village where we often go for hiking or relaxation by the river. Spoiler alert: I didn’t make it all the way there. After walking for about 2.5 hrs. my friend passed me in a mashruka (share van), and I decided it was time to hurry up and get somewhere, so I caught a ride the rest of the way.

But I wasn’t particularly concerned about making it the whole way. It was just wonderful to get out of the city, and see some villages. I rode the bus out to the edge of the city, where it turns back into the collection of small villages it really is at heart. Dushanbe, for those who didn’t know, was founded in 1924. Before then, “Dushanbe” was a village of about 215 people. Where the city sits now was a collection of 10 or so small villages.

I’m very sunburnt now. I explained the concept of a “farmer’s tan” to my host mom, and she told me that I had a “farmer’s red.”

The other bit of excitement this week was teaching English at the National Library. The National Library was supposed to open in September. But it didn’t. It opened last month. Which, given that this is Tajikistan, is actually pretty much on time. The English class that Joey and I teach through the U.S. cultural center was moved there.

The weird thing about the Tajik National Library is that I didn’t see any books there. I’m told they do possess books. In fact, I know they do, since every school child in Tajikistan was required to donate 5 books to the library (this policy is exactly as terrible as it sounds). But I’m going to have to go back and search for said books. The Tajik National Library also has an escalator (the second in Tajikistan as far as I’m aware) but its not yet in operation.

Here’s a conversation I had in a share taxi the other day:

Driver “What’s your name?”
Me: “Amanda.” (Usually I Tajik-ify my name to Umida, but I forgot this time).
Driver: “Commander?”
Me: “Erm, yea sure, Commander.
Driver: “Did you know that Commander is Russian for ‘Farmandah?'” (That’s Tajiki for Commander).
Me: “Really?! That’s so strange! Alright, let me out here.”
Driver: “Goodbye, Commander.”

Here’s a quote from Shams Tabrizi, a Sufi teacher of Rumi

Joy is like pure clear water;
wherever it flows, wondrous blossoms grow
Sorrow is like a black flood;
wherever it flows it wilts the blossoms.

تا دوشنبه آینده

Qoratogh Dreaming

Thank you, spring time, for reminding me that I often genuinely like living in Tajikistan!

In addition to everything simply being more pleasant, we took a trip out to this beautiful place:

O wait, sorry. Wrong photo.

That's more like it!

Anyways, the day trip got us out of Dushanbe for a bit, and we were able to see everything the Qoratogh valley regional tourism board recommended! Huzzah!

Aqueducts were built into the side of this mountain.

So then, what does the Qoratogh regional tourism board recommend? There’s this one aquaduct/tunnel, that was supposedly built in the 10th century (or the 9th. Or maybe the 11th. Our guide wasn’t super sure), and is called the “Tunnel of Shirin and Farhad.” Shirin and Farhad is a famous love story from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. Think Romeo and Juliet, but more Persian. No one knew why the tunnel was called that.

Joey and I in the tunnel/aquaduct. It was cramped.

After the aquaduct of Shirin and Farhad, we headed to the mausoleums of some guys who were supposedly decedents of the Prophet Muhammad. There was not any particularly clear information on what they actually did, but one of them had a father who was from Kashgar, in Western China. So that’s exciting. The real excitement was the view.

Hoorah for pretty places!

Afterwards, we were told that the village want to give us tea at their Nowruzgah (literally, place of Nowruz). “Tea” turned out to be a full meal involving a delicious mint soup and some fantastic raisins. The Nowruzgah was next to the river, and we relaxed next to the water for nearly an hour before moving on to our final stop, the home of the famous Tajik poet Mirzo Tursunzoda.

Tursunzoda was a Soviet era poet, probably the most famous Soviet era Tajik poet. He is considered a Hero of the Nation. There is a poster in my classroom that explains this. His museum was pretty neat. It featured some old Soviet stuff (coins, pictures of Stalin, etc), some old pre-Soviet Central Asian things (coins, pictures of camels, etc.), and lots of paintings and photos of him. Tursunzoda is on the One Somoni bill. One somoni is worth about 20 cents.

Depictions of different times of Tursunzoda's life

In other news, I have just about a month left here in Taj. That means that after 9 months, I’ll finally get a hair cut! I don’t know why I’ve developed an aversion to Tajik haircuts. It also means that in the coming weeks, you should expect a combination of excitement and nostalgia from this blog.

In preparation for the end of the year, I’ve been hard at work on my term paper, which is an examination of the role of the city of Bukhara in the revival of Persian language and culture in the 9th and 10th centuries. I don’t think anyone really wants me to go into much detail here, but its pretty awesome.I hit the 1,500 word mark earlier this week, which is way more invigorating in Persian than in English.

Here is a poem by Sheikh Ahmad-e Jami, a 11th-12th century Sufi.

Don’t be like axe and don’t offend anyone
Don’t be useless like a plane
Just be like a saw in your life
Do something for yourself and something for others 

تا دوشنبه آینده،

A Study in Being Absurdly Foreign

I was interviewed on the Tajik news twice this week. Which really, when you think about it, is probably the most anyone could ever hope for out of life.

Being on the news in Tajikistan is a little different than being on the news at home...

The first time was much more exciting (and infinitely more awkward), so lets start there. On Tuesday one of my professors took me to the Nowruz party at the National University. Yes, it was a little late: Nowruz was last week, but because of all the snow, their party got delayed. I was one of very few foreigners at the event, which featured everything from a camel to young men dressed as Achaemenid (ancient Persian) Kings to a rooster fight. Thousands of students gathered on the hills around the performance green, and were roughly divided by their academic departments. I sat with the Asian Languages students, most of whom were studying either Farsi or Hindi.

I miss some things about home. But the lack of camels there is pretty disappointing.

I was perfectly happy to relax on the grass and make friends, but hospitality intervened. Another professor insisted that her top student accompany me on a tour of the Nowruz party. This mostly involved stopping at every department and snapping pictures with the exhibition they had created. Along the way I met a reporter, who was amused by my traditional Tajik dress and ability to say things in Persian. He insisted that I wish all of Tajikistan and the world a Happy International Nowruz Day. In case you don’t watch Tajik state TV, Happy International Nowruz Day.

Two different people interviewed me, actually. I don't really recall why.

After that excitement, I wasn’t expecting ANOTHER chance to be on the Tajik news to pop up that very week. But waddayaknow?! Friday, Joey and I were walking down the street after teaching our English class. And the Tajik News was producing a segment where they ask people on the street random questions. They asked us what we did when we had a fever and wanted to feel better. It was a little confusing. But, good little foreigner that I am, I answered. I said I sleep a lot.

The other exciting news is that it is spring. Winter in Tajikistan is hard. Just freaking difficult. Spring, on the other hand, is lovely. I stayed out past 10pm for the first time in weeks. There are outdoor bars and cafes cropping up throughout the city again. The smell of fresh grilled shashlik (kabob) fills the streets. People walk around outside. I only have to wear one pair of pants, instead of three. My feet aren’t constantly wet from stepping in melting snow. Children don’t pelt snowballs at my silly foreign self. We’ve had electricity all week. In class, I sit on a chair, instead of on top of a space heater. Its really wonderful.

Springtime in Dushanbe! View from the new National Library.

On Saturday, we took advantage on the nice weather by hitting up a bazaar and marveling over the fruits. I’ve been thinking lately that I couldn’t live anywhere without a good bazaar. Not a wimpy farmer’s market. A proper bazaar, where giant slabs of concerning meat hang next to the freshest fruit, and people yell at you from every corner. Someone has to sell ready-to-eat corn for less than 25 cents. There should probably be some stray cats. After buying some nuts, and also investing in some spices, we trekked up to the World War II Monument. Really pleasant place, on top of a hill, with a great view of Dushanbe. Pretty mountains, rustic houses, smoke stacks emitting black ash.

The WWII monument. The writing says "No one and nothing is forgotten" in Tajiki and Russian

Here’s  poem by Bedil Dehlavi, a 15th-16th century Sufi poet from the Mughal Empire:

At time’s beginning that beauty
which polished creation’s mirror caressed every atom
with a hundred thousand suns.
But this glory was never witnessed.
When the human eye emerged,
only then was it known.

تا دوشنبه آینده


I may have had some odd expectations when I first came to Tajikistan. I may have thought that I was going to spend the year riding on yaks, defending Sogdiana from Alexander the Great. In reality, I spend most of my time sitting in cafes, trying to explain that I don’t speak Russian.

But sometimes, Tajikistan lives up to my weird stereotypes. On Saturday, we went to see Buzkashi. Buz means goat, like what we often eat for dinner. Kashidan means to pull, like on a goat.  Before I tell you about it, maybe just watch the video I took. It probably captures the whole thing better than I can:

Buzkashi involves a bunch of dudes riding around on horses, trying to steal a goat carcass from each other. They have these crazy whips that they use to pick up the carcass , and to whip everything in sight (including each other). They also wear cool hats. The crazy whips are cow intestines. The cool hats are Soviet tank helmets.

Action scene

The point of the game is to get the goat carcass into the goal. On Saturday, the goal was a big hole dug in the ground between two Tajik flags.

When you watch a Buzkashi tournament, you stand up on mountains or hills. Then, down in the valley, all the dudes kash the buz. You can walk down closer to watch. In fact, you can walk down on the field. Many people do this. It greatly increase their chances of being trampled. Some guy decided to set up his snack stand too close to the field, and it got trampled. Good-bye, candy-bars.

View of the "stadium." Note the camel in the corner. More on him in a minute.

Now then, how would you go about organizing a Buzkashi match? On first gland, it didn’t seem like it needed any organization at all. Anyone who wanted to play could, as long as they brought their horse (or mule. or yak, maybe?). There were not teams. Everyone just wanted to get the buz for himself and shove it in the goal. The game took place in a big valley between two villages about an hour outside of Dushanbe.

More action

But, it is actually really well organized. Somebody had to dig up the floor of a valley and turn it into a giant buzkashi field. Somebody had to invite all the villagers and all the foreigners and also the President’s son. Somebody had to organize the prizes.

On Saturday, the prizes were mostly rugs. But the “grand prize” was a bactrian camel. I don’t know who won the camel. It was not me. Unfortunately.

This Bactrian Camel was the grand prize.

I was pretty excited about Buzkashi. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I kept waking up to see if it was time to go yet, like a little kid before Christmas.

Buzkashi feels pretty much like a sporting event anywhere in the world. Kids walk around selling coca cola and seeds and hot dogs. Young people get far too worked up. Basically, Buzkashi was like my version of March Madness. For me, in both cases the fun is not so much the competition itself, but the atmosphere and festivities that accompany it.

Except usually at sporting events back home there aren’t teenagers goofing around on horseback in the stands. Back home, said teenagers also usually don’t lend you their horse to take pictures with, which is a shame.

A young boy lent me his horse in order to snap an awesome photo.

I guess Buzkashi wins. Sorry, basketball.

The other exciting news is that NOWRUZ IS NEXT WEEK (Reminder: Nowruz is Persian New Year. And the first day of spring). My special Nowruz clothes should be ready by Monday. The seamstress ripped me off, but then she made me feel better about it by inviting me to her house for her Nowruz festivities.  I am going to make a mighty fool of myself in the Nowruz show. I have very enthusiastic professors so, somehow, I have agreed to do Dari-language Karaoke and be the Nowruz Princess. If you’re lucky, I’ll have embarrassing photos to share with you all next week.

Here’s part of a  poem by Attar, a 12th century Sufi from Nishapur:

“Don’t be dead or asleep or awake.
Don’t be anything.

What you most want,
what you travel around wishing to find,
lose yourself as lovers lose themselves,
and you’ll be that.”

تا دوشنبه آینده

At Home in Tajikistan

I’ve been living with my host family for about six months now, and yet I realized I haven’t written much specifically about life here in my big pink house near the Agricultural University. And given that February is still slowly rumbling along, I thought I’d treat all those out there avidly reading this blog to tales from my surrogate home.

One of the odder things about living with a host family in Tajikistan is that even after half a year I’m still officially referred to as “mehmon-e ma” or “our guest.” As in “Don’t take tea before you give some to Amanda, she’s our guest.” Or, “Amanda, don’t you dare consider trying to be useful, you’re our guest!” I’ve mostly gotten used to this by now, but being hollered at for attempting to vacuum is disconcerting.

After spending so much time here, I’m pretty much over the culture shock of being plopped down with a family several thousand miles away from home. But occasionally, there are things that remind me that my host family and I sometimes have different ways of seeing the world. My host family doesn’t talk about politics often, but when they do I’m always surprised. My host dad says “Why are they protesting in Kazakhstan!? Everyone is Kazakhstan is rich!” My host mom says “Of course we like Putin. Because he’s not like Yeltsin. Yeltsin drank too much vodka.” On a non-political note, my host sister says “Amanda, are any of your friends boys!? I saw you walking with some boys!!”

Before coming to Tajikistan, I hadn’t spent large amounts of time with small children, at least not since I was a small child myself. Nine year olds are a special kind of crazy. My host brother constantly wants to teach me Sambo, which is a sort of wrestling/martial arts popular in the former Soviet Union. This is not my favorite activity.

My host family really makes an effort to speak to me only in Tajiki (as opposed to Russian or Uzbek). But my host brother isn’t really old enough to understand how much Russian he mixes in. We spend a lot of time staring at each other, looking confused. I’m confused by the Russian words, he’s confused by the weird foreigner who can’t understand basic sentences. But we’ve bonded recently because he’s taken an increased interest in his Farsi homework (or, “Classical Tajiki Alphabet” homework) and requested my help.

Of all the members of my host family, I guess I’ve told the most stories about my host baby. That’s because she is adorable. Lately, she’s started calling me “Aoity-Boon,” which is her mispronounced way of saying “Aoity-Joon,” and apparently means “dear big sister” in a Tajiki dialect.

My host baby also drinks a concerning amount of tea. She chugs the stuff. Doesn’t matter how hot it is. My host family usually calls her “mymoon” which means “monkey.” When she’s being really naughty, they say “in parazit ast” which means “this one is the pest.” I taught them how to say “monkey” in English, and occasionally they call her that, too.

After all this time here, life at my host family’s house feels pretty normal. There are mornings when I feel grouchy about the fact that I can’t make my own breakfast, or weird about the fact that people ask me where I’m going and when I’m coming home whenever I leave the house. But mostly, I’m pretty glad I got such a great host family.

This year so far would have been pretty hard without the excitement that goes on at my host family’s house. I can’t imagine a dinner without a baby crawling on me, my host siblings competing for my attention for help with English homework or my entire host family breaking out into a giant 3-hour long argument about whether to buy an aquarium. If nothing else, my host family has certainly succeeded in keeping me entertained and engaged throughout this slow cold month.

Here is a quote by Nazami Ganjivi, a 12th century Persian poet from modern-day Azerbaijan.

Seek knowledge, for through knowledge you effect that doors to you be opened and not closed.
He who shames not at learning can draw forth pearls from the water, rubies from the rock.
Whilst he to whom no knowledge is assigned—that person you will find ashamed to learn.
How many, keen of mind, in effort slack, sell pottery from lack of pearls to sell!

تا دوشنبه آینده،