First impressions of Dushanbe

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Dushanbe, Tajikistan. I must admit I hadn't heard of the city before I read the advertisement in The Economist. And the information collected for my interviews was not enough to prepare me for the hands-on experience. So, I found myself in Moscow's Domodedovo airport waiting for a flight to Dushanbe. [That's Dushanbe's airport below.] My predecessor advised me to take a Tajik Air flight from Moscow (instead of the more western Turkish Air flight through Istanbul): "It will definitely help you to get a feeling of the country" he added.

After years of complaining about a shaky armrest in a Boeing or Airbus, the experience of a Tupolev 154 was somehow…different. No need for pre-assigned seats, just take whatever seat is available or ask the person sitting there to move. No need for fancy food, normally the Tajik sitting next to you has some lepioska (a traditional rounded bread) in his bag and will be happy to share it with you. Actually, he will be quite upset if you refuse!

Yes, the inside of the plane is not exactly sparkling (and the 15 years of age claimed by the crew are probably closer to 50), but if you trust the crew or are just a bit fatalistic (a bit of both is the perfect mix) the flight turns out to be quite pleasant. My predecessor was right, there are many things you can learn on a flight:

  1. In Tajikistan, being a foreigner still gets you some advantages - people are interested in you, want to talk to you, even respect you! When I opened my laptop to get some work done, I had about 6 faces silently staring at me from all sides for over an hour.
  2. High unemployment pushes young Tajik men to migrate to Russia where they spend a couple of seasons working mostly in the construction sector. Estimates of about half a million migrant workers (7% of the total population), deliver up to USD 1 billion in remittances - amazing given a GDP of less than 3 billion. In fact, getting a flight to Moscow in the spring, when the migration starts, was incredibly complicated (and expensive!). More recently, when I got stuck in a 30-minute traffic jam in front of Dushanbe's railway station, I realized that many choose the much cheaper travel by rail, even if it does take 4 days.
  3. Mountains, mountains … and again mountains! Many (most in fact: I counted about 15 in 6 months) reports about Tajikistan begin with the following identical statement: "Tajikistan is a small landlocked country…" There's much more to Tajikistan than that.

Once landed you can enjoy the spring weather as well: very mild and no humidity. The nature is gorgeous, the mountains overlook the city, and everything looks perfect.

Your opinion may change in the winter, when the electricity gets cut off, if available it runs with limited capacity (try to light up a 220V heater with 120V), and the gas is mostly a wish. I returned home recently to find no water - it had frozen in the pipes.

At this point you start thinking about any methods possible to warm up your house. The most intriguing ways I've discovered so far included: throwing a party with as many guests as possible, and allowing my fairly confused dog into the bed for the first time since I taught him to stay down. The least original, but still effective: befriending someone with a powerful generator.



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