Out and About

As with most countries, if you only experience Tajikistan’s capital – especially the limited area of Dushanbe we U.S. students generally stay in – you can’t get a real sense of the country as a whole.  I and a classmate took advantage of the Fourth of July holiday and the one free day we are allowed to travel to Khujand, a city in the northern “arm” of Tajikistan and the capital of Sughd province.  I’ve been told that Khujand is the cultural capital of Tajikistan, and in comparison to the recently established capital Dushanbe its millenia-old history is quite apparent.  People say that northerners like to use a lot more Russian in their colloqiual Tajiki than Southerners but that northerners’ Tajiki is also clearer or “fresher,” i.e. closer to literary Persian.  My Tajik host family in Dushanbe speaks Samarkandi Tajiki (with influence from Dushanbe’s melting pot of various vernacular forms, of course), so I noticed some similarities between Khujandi Persian and that which I hear in my host family and not from southerners.

My classmate’s language partner accompanied us – all of his family, save for his parents, live in Khujand, and he was excited at the opportunity to see his uncles, aunts, cousins, and the small children of his cousins.  Having spent thirteen years in Iran and moved to Dushanbe upon his return to Tajikistan, returning to his hometown is a special occasion.  This is particularly true because of the road to Khujand.  Although it is only about 300 km away, it takes anywhere from 5 to 7 hours by car.  We got lucky: on the way there, in a relatively well-maintained jeep, it took 5 hours; in a mid-sized sedan on the way back, it took over 6 hours.  The road itself is asphalt and not in very bad condition, but with potholes, windy mountain roads, and a significant change in elevation, it is slow going.  Dushanbe is at about 700 meters, whereas the tunnel by Anzob pass is at 2500 meters and Khujand is at 300 meters.  When we stopped to stretch our legs on the far side of the second tunnel (Shahriston, Шаҳристон), also at a considerable altitude, the cool mountain air was a refreshing change from Dushanbe’s heat.

On the subject of tunnels and to touch on infrastructure as I did in my last blog entry, I should say something about the tunnel by the Anzob pass (“the Iranian tunnel”), which one passes through on the way to Khujand: it was in a startling state of disrepair.  Startling not only because it took 19 minutes in a four-wheel drive jeep to traverse the 5 kilometer tunnel, but also because the tunnel opened in 2006.

In the museum in Khujand, we saw a picture of the inauguration: a proud Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shaking the hand of Tajiki President Emomali Rahmon.  Unsurprisingly, the celebratory billboard shown hanging at the tunnel entrance is no longer there.  Multiple people here have told me that the Soviets wanted to build a tunnel to facilitate travel between Dushanbe and the north but wanted to do so in another location because they deemed the location of today’s tunnel to be unfeasible.

My host mother wondered out loud, “the Iranians have the Russians build tunnels for them, so why did they come build a tunnel for us?”

The Shahriston tunnel, built by the Chinese, is well-lit, dry, and smooth.  The Anzob tunnel, started by the Iranian government under Khatami’s government and completed during Ahmadinejad’s first term, is none of the above: potholes are the rule rather than the exception, the lights, if working at  all, are very dim, and water flows throughout the tunnel.  Word is that the tunnel is slated to be closed in September for a year-long, $3 million repair project, but some say it cannot be repaired.  My intent is not to criticize Iranian capabilities in tunnel construction, but rather to highlight the challenges faced by Tajikistan with regard to infrastructure.  It seems that the country’s lacking infrastructure must contribute to the cost of life, which is high relative to GDP.  For example, the road to Penjikent, a city in the north of Tajikistan, is bad enough that it took us 6 hours to travel the 225 km back to Dushanbe in a four-wheel-drive jeep.

It is not only typical infrastructure – roads, bridges, electricity, water, etc. – that seems to have a challenge.  The “economic infrastructure” is also lacking.  Tajiks have told me that most people worked in agriculture (e.g., cotton) during the Soviet era and that there was little corresponding construction of factories.  Moreover, Tajiks tell me that during what they call the “war of fratricide” (the civil war) of the 1990’s, most of the factories that did exist were destroyed.  This is the reason I have heard Tajiks give for the massive labor migration to Russia (about one million Tajiks work there): there are no factories, so there is no work.  Migration is a given for many, even from a young age: a 12-year-old boy I know has said, as if it is a matter of course, that he will go to Russia.  His father is working there now.  One Tajik I spoke to was of the opinion that if factories were going to be built, they would have been built by now.  This leaves many, as another Tajik put it, to make a living by whatever means they can, whether inside the traditional economy or outside of it.


By: David Bishop

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Summer 2013

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