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From Urumqi we flew into Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, to join our tour group. The flight was quite spectacular. We skimmed huge snow-capped mountains, among the tallest in the world before landing in the basin-like valley in which the present day capital rests. From the air the valley seems a natural place for a settlement and indeed there is evidence of village life dating back to the fifth century BCE. The name Dushanbe means Monday as this was the sight of the local Monday markets.  Yet surrounded by mountains it was far from the busy trade routes to the north or those over the Himalayas to the south. So Dushanbe didn't grow into a city until the 20th century. As a result it seems modern, much of the suburbs being reminiscent of 1950’s Sydney, complemented more recently by modern offices and recently built tall apartment blocks in the centre.


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Dushanbe - street scenes - there are more images in the Tajikistan Album - Click Here...


Until September 1991 Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the USSR it gained its independence and presidential elections were held. The result, that simply reinstalled the ‘old guard’, was disputed by ‘democratic reformers’, no doubt with a little from their 'friends' outside, and lawlessness broke out. This descended into civil war as Islamists saw an opportunity to introduce sharia law. Ethnic tensions boiled over with many people fleeing the country. Islamist forces gained support from the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan and thus from elements in Pakistan that are funded from Saudi Arabia. Uzbekistan to the north closed its borders against the unrest. Minority groups in Dushanbe were forced to flee to the mountains and as many as 100,000 were murdered in ‘ethnic cleansing’ or killed in the fighting.

Eventually, in 1997, Tajikistan’s third president Emomali Rahmon; Islamist leader Sayid Abdulloh Nuri; and a Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, Gerd Merrem, signed a 'General Agreement on the Establishment of Peace and National Accord in Tajikistan', in Moscow, ending the war.

Since then Emomali Rahmon has consolidated his personal power: rebuilding much of Dushanbe that'd been destroyed during five years of civil war; and undertaking large infrastructure projects like additional hydro-electricity, as Dushanbe is presently short of power and blackouts are common.

While he is credited with restoring the economy and law and order, Uzbekistan, nominally a democracy, is effectively a one party state controlled by President Rahmon as party leader.  He's already installed two of his children into senior government positions, possibly heralding a dynasty, and rumours of nepotism and corruption abound.

Like 90% of the population President Rahmon is a Muslim but he has strenuously opposed Islamist extremism saying that Islam is a religion of peace and love and holding that traditional Tajik culture does not support Arabic styles of dress for women or beards for men. There are now laws prohibiting these as well as the unauthorised importation of Islamic books or the Islamic education of youths overseas. While officially embracing the Sunni faith, imported Islam is suppressed in many other ways, for example the use of Arab sounding names has been made illegal.

Thus by excluding foreign influence (particularly Saudi), religious extremism, at its peak during the civil war, has gradually subsided.  So last year neighbouring Uzbekistan, that has both Sunni and Shi’a adherents, and thanks to the Russians is far more secular, reopened the border for free passage of locals back and forth.


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Mevlana Yakub Charki Mosque


International confidence has also been restored and financial support for many of the infrastructure projects comes from China. A new goldmining project, due to be opened soon after our visit, was to be launched by Vladimir Putin (Russian President). Russian oligarchs also control the local oil supply with petrol (called petrol not gasoline) a fraction of its price in Australia.

The Australian Government Smart Traveller travel advisory was at amber (exercise a high degree of caution - keep a low profile) due to an apparently deliberate attack on eight western cyclists two weeks before we arrived and to past terrorism. Read More...

Yet the people in the street were friendly and appeared to be well dressed, well fed and busy. While social unrest is ongoing in some places, particularly in the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast that forms the western half, where the Taliban are active, crime levels must now be quite low in Dushanbe as few buildings or homes have window grills or obvious physical security and there is not an unusually high police presence. When asked, people tried to be helpful, although a very small number have English. Russian is the principal second language. Tajik, the official language is a dialect of Persian Urdu.

Public health and education standards remain very high, thanks to the persistence of the Soviet systems of free universal education and health. So although the country has been reduced to relative poverty by social unrest, 99.5% of the local population is able to read and write competently. This exceeds the literacy rate in Australia (or the US or UK) and obviously includes women who, again thanks to the Soviets, and unlike some Muslim countries (such as Pakistan; Afghanistan and Morocco) appear to be equally well educated and equally engaged in the economy.

For example, when we visited the Museum of National Antiquities, as in other museums and places of interest in Tajikistan there were both male and female guides. It was also notable that, as elsewhere in once Soviet Central Asia, museum exhibits reflect: the true age of the universe; the long pre-history of humanity; and the existence of successful competing religions. This is in contrast to the ‘creationist’ Biblical version generally preferred by hard-line Islamic and Christian fundamentalists.

The collection here included a rock with petroglyphs of camels from the Silk Road, like those we would see more of later in the trip; a big reclining Buddha, damaged by the Arabs, also from the Silk Road region and perhaps most interesting: a woman, buried with beads and other jewellery from the early Bronze Age archaeological site at Sarazm, in the Zeravshan River valley, that dates from 5,000 years ago (before the Biblical Adam).

On the woman's skeleton and around it, were found several thousand beads of different materials: burned steatite (soap stone); lapis lazuli; cornelian; turquoise and silver; which may have been decoration on her clothes or simply scattered over her dead body. Her hair was decorated with 49 massive gold beads. On her wrists are bracelets made from the seashell turbinella pyrum, the divine conch, sacred to the Hindu religion. These molluscs are found exclusively in the tropical waters between the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Bengal, over 1500 km away.

Archaeologists have determined that this ancient town manufactured goods for trade: turned pottery vessels; tools; ornaments; and weapons like: bronze arrow and spear tips. These were made using: copper; lead; tin; soapstone; wools; woods and semiprecious stones like: turquoise; agate and lapis lazuli; drawn from sources in a radius of up to 500 kms.  These discoveries provide new insights into the antiquity and reach of organised trade in Central Asia.  It may also be a technological 'stepping stone' that goes some way to explaining the mystery of how Bronze Age and later Iron Age technology appeared more or less simultaneously in the two great civilisations, apparently isolated from each other on opposite sides of Eurasia.  There is also the mystery of the centre linked horse bit, also used in both civilisations, although that might be a trivial invention like the wheel: 'obvious to one skilled in the art', as the Patent Attorneys say. 


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Dushanbe - Museum of National Antiquities
There are more images in the Tajikistan Album - Click Here...


On the flight from China we sat next to an impressive young man returning home from post-graduate studies in the United states. He is but one of many well educated Tajiks.

Thus the greatest national asset is the people who represent a potential low cost, high quality workforce. Tajikistan is minerals rich with great potential for more hydroelectric power but exports have been hampered by location and past social unrest so that foreign earnings have mostly been from remittances from people working in Russia. Together with the poor condition of the Russian economy this has depressed the value of the currency (the Somoni), that has halved in value relative to the Australian dollar over the past five years.

As a result of all this Tajikistan is a low cost, relatively high quality, tourist destination. Good modern hotels are excellent value for money and dining (on chicken; beef; lamb; even horse; or vegetarian; but no pork) is generally excellent and very inexpensive. On the other hand if you want to buy European luxury goods forget it.

We were most impressed by Dushanbe and agreed that if we had learnt the language it would be a nice place to live, although I did note that it's prone to flooding due to snow melt; and to earthquakes.



# Richard 2018-09-23 01:50

Interesting to hear your update on China’s Silk Road. In 2007 we travelled from Beijing to Kashgar then down the Kakoram Highway to Tashkurgan [less than 30Km from Pakistan border]. Whilst travelling we also visited Xiahe [with its large monestry] and noted the Chinefacation of this area. In fact recent photos of Kashgar seem to show that much of the old town has gone.

Interaction with the Uyghurs.indicat ed that they were not happy with the Han invasion.

A very interesting part of the world.

Richard Walker

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