We’re kind of hopping back and forth over the Tian Shen mountains – north of the range in Bishkek, south in Uzbekistan, north again in Almaty, and south now in Dushanbe. What has been interesting to me, in part at least, is that while the area is relatively small and the cities are relatively close, the people are quite different. While north of the mountains people are decidedly Eastern Asiatic, south of the mountains they are Turkic and Persian. Very different look, language, and (I would guess) cultures.
Dushanbe is the capital of Tajikistan, a land-locked country that is 90 percent mountains. It feels poorer than the other Central Asian cities we have been to and dustier. The first day we were here, in fact there was an intense haze in the air that we’re pretty sure was just dust blowing in from the deserts around the city. By the evening it was really becoming a problem for our eyes but then a rainstorm blew in and the next day all was clear.
There wasn’t really a lot to do in Dushanbe – we hiked up in the mountains one day, went to the National Museum another day – but that was OK; we didn’t expect a lot here. To be honest we figured this might well be our only trip to Central Asia and if you don’t check off Tajikistan now, when will you?
I did learn bit about the country and history, though, and some of it was interesting. First, when we’d been in both Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan we were told that most of the people in those cities were ethnically Tajik. Then why are those cities in Uzbekistan? And doesn’t Tajikistan want them back? They are, after all, world-class tourist destinations.It turns out Tajikistan would like them back. The national museum was mostly forgettable, but there was one line in one display that intrigued me. Under the heading of National Territorial Demarcation in Central Asia the display read “Although the national territorial demarcation on the basis of national identity [performed under early Soviet rule in the 1920s] offered tremendous advantages to some peoples of Central Asia, it artificially deprived Tajik people of their historical cultural centers. This act is evaluated as a national tragedy, the negative aftermaths of which are still discussed from political, economic, and moral stands.”
That’s it, just two sentences in a big national museum, but they clearly reference Bukhara and Samarkand. Uzbekistan is vastly larger and wealthier than Tajikistan so don’t expect the latter to start a war or anything, but it clearly grates on the national pride here.
Oh, and when we were in Uzbekistan our guide explained that while the people in Bukhara and Samarkand are mostly Tajik and speak Tajik, they understand Uzbek as the two languages are pretty close. Not true at all: Tajik is a Persian language while Uzbek is Turkic. Completely different families of language.
One other thing about the national museum? You could spend a lot of time there and as far as I could tell you would have absolutely no idea that there had been a civil war when Tajikistan declared independence from the Soviet Union. Someone must have forgotten about that.
The other thing I learned is that Tajikistan, like neighboring Turkmenistan, is well down the path of becoming a dynastic dictatorship. The current President, Emomali Rahmon, has ruled since 1994 after winning a five-year civil war on the dissolution of the Soviet Union. His son is both mayor of Dushanbe and chairman of the National Assembly; many people expect him to succeed his father. On the one hand, that sort of dynastic power seems fairly ridiculous in the scheme of things. On the other, Rahmon claims with at least some credibility that he is keeping radical Islam at bay (Tajikistan borders Afghanistan…) and that justifies his relative lack of concern for religious freedom and civil rights. The one thing we were certain of was that he is serious about the cult of personality: his picture was everywhere in the city.
Highlights of the city included some good food – Lebanese, Ukrainian, and of course Georgian – and a fabulous park in the middle of everything. We hired a driver for a morning to drive out of town and up into the mountains; we read in Lonely Planet that there was a nice hike up to a waterfall. That didn’t exactly pan out: there were no signs at all as far as we could tell and at some point the gravel road that we thought we get us there ended in a big, locked gate. It was nice hiking in the mountains along a bubbling stream but it would have been nicer if we’d found the waterfall.
One more stop in Central Asia – we’re headed north again, this time to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan – then it’s Istanbul and back home.