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.

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Wildlife, Independence, Parades

Until Saturday this was as close as I’d come to the famed wildlife of Tajikistan:

Fighting Goats at the New Tajik National Park

Fortunately, Saturday brought gorgeous mountain vistas and plenty of photos of real live mountain goats.

However, before I fail at describing the natural beauty of the mountains, let me back up a bit, to THE REPUBLIC OF TAJIKISTAN’S 20TH BIRTHDAY PARTY!

Independence Day: The Parade

It was quite the occasion, as I’m sure you can imagine; its not every day that a country turns 20.  Tajikistan went all out. Perhaps most notably, Dushanbe became the home of the longest flag in the world. Not the longest flagpole, which was already here, but the longest flag itself. It stretched about two kilometers across the city, and made crossing the street difficult.

The parade featured pretty much everyone ever associated with the government of Tajikistan. From public Kindergarten students to Olympic athletes, they were all there. I don’t really know how they found people to watch the parade (besides silly firangis like myself), since everyone was busy marching in it.

Cool Jumper Guys at the Parade

Independence Day: The Fam

Although I watched the parade with friends from class, I spent Thursday and Friday evenings doing independence day things with my host family. Thursday night, we went to the opening of a new national park.

As a foreigner new to Dushanbe, everything that is interesting and strange about this city seemed embodied in the park. LED-lit dancing fountains lined the paths for a full kilometer. There was a haunted house, and a play house, shaped like a traditional Samarkand or Bokhara-style mausoleum. And there were thousands upon thousands of people there, all marveling over the fountains and climbing on the playhouse and swimming in the lake and all seeming to know each other in some way.

Friday night was my introduction to my massive extended host family. On my host father’s side, there is a seemingly endless supply of small children, all of whom seem to be in a cute-ness competition. The celebration at my host grandmother’s house was not unlike my experiences with independence day gatherings in the U.S.  There was a barbecue (Kabobs, or in Tajikistan, “Shashlik”), and plenty of juicy watermelon, and a dash up to the roof to watch the fireworks.

We also watched the laser light show and national dances on TV. Best parts: Rahmon, the president of Tajikistan, breaking out the dance moves, and a dance  titled “Exercise: it makes your country strong!” (I think that was what it was called, anyways. Language issues.) Also, the massive laser portrait of Rahmon.

Hiking, Swimming, Walking, Donkeys and Goats

Tajikistan is 93% mountains. That means I am probably going to get really sick of mountains by the end of this year. But for now, I find them very exciting! They are nice for climbing, looking at, standing on top of, etc.

On Saturday, our group took a trip out to Varzob, about 25 miles north of Dushanbe. We hung out at a sort of holiday resort along the Varzob river, hiked, ate delicious Osh and watermelon, dipped our toes in the river, and attempted to swim in a freezing cold pool.I jumped in off the “high dive” (really, sort of a short porch over the swimming pool), and nearly froze to death before hastily returning to dry land. This could be a good metaphor for something, but I promised not to attempt cheesy metaphors anymore.

While hiking, we ran into a number of young kids tending some donkeys, and also saw a large herd of mountain goats!  Since I’m skeptical that my vocabulary is large enough to describe the scenery, I’ll just post some pictures:

With a Donkey

Chilling by the Varzob River

Chilling by the Varzob River

I climbed up on a big rock

Up the mountain

Herd of Mountain Goats

Giant plate of Osh. All for me. Naw, for share-zies.

Other updates:

Although today this blog makes my life sound like its all adventure and excursion and whatnot, most of my time is spent studying Persian or talking to my host family. I’ll definitely have lots of posts coming up on these topics, but for now I’ll say, the best feeling has been realizing, in hindsight, when I speak Persian without thinking about it. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, it just hops out of my mouth, before I’ve had time to form a complete thought. And its great knowing that sometimes, something clicks. I hope it happens more often.

Before I leave you, a quote from Saadi,

“There is no point to talk of bees
with one who has never felt a sting.
Until we live the same experience,
words will show you only its empty shell.”

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