Pamir Mountains, Part 3 (part 2), Khorog Botanical Gardens

As promised, here are the other two photos I wanted to post from the Khorog botanical gardens.


This is the view of Khorog from the botanical gardens. As you can tell, it is quite the climb from the city to the gardens. We did it by taxi.


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Pamir Mountains, June 17-27, Part 3. Khorog Botanical Gardens

Pamir Mountains, June 17-27, Part 3. Khorog Botanical Gardens

The Lonely Planet guidebook and online sites seem to agree that the botanical gardens in Khorog are the second highest in the world at 2320 meters above sea level. But finding out what is the highest garden has been tough. It shouldn’t have been that hard, but finally, I came up with the magical search terms on Google that gave me some information. Assuming these sources are accurate, It appears that there are at least two botanical gardens at higher altitudes, making Khorog the third highest.

The highest honors seem to go to Lijiang Alpine Botanical Gardens, Yunnan Province, China, which opened in 2005. These gardens range from 2680 meters up to 4300 meters. They must cover a lot of ground and it would be hard strolling through them.

Next highest seems to go to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail, Colorado, at 2500 meters.

On June 20, after a full day of meeting with teachers, journalists and students, we were only able to get to the Khorog botanical gardens about an hour before they closed. But it was a lovely stroll. Here are some photos that I took, including one that you might have seen on the previous post.

As I work on this post, it appears that it will not let me upload the last two photos I had planned on using. Not to worry, I will post them on a new post, coming up right soon.

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Pamir Mountains June 17-27, Part 2. Khorog

Pamir Mountains, Part 2 — Khorog

Khorog, Tajikistan. Capital of the GBAO region in the Pamir Mountains. A view from the botanical gardens.

Khorog is the city where I had my first ever ambulance ride. I was accompanying an American friend who, while jogging at 6 a.m., was bitten by a dog. At the hospital, a doctor cleaned the wound thoroughly (after I paid for the medicine) and prescribed her with two antibiotics, to ward off infection. Vanessa speaks Farsi, which is close enough to Tajik that she could talk to the doctors directly. They assured Vanessa that Khorog does not have “crazy dog” disease. But to be on the safe side, she found a car to drive her the 15 bone-rattling hours to Dushanbe so she could get her rabies vaccine booster within 24 hours. Back at the US embassy, she got her shot and was given new prescriptions. She is fine, but two weeks later she still has a huge bruise on her calf.

The dog, supposedly, is also fine. The woman who owned the dog was out sweeping her yard at the time of the incident, called the dog into the house and shut the door on Vanessa as she was walking up to ask for help. Normally, Tajiks are the most friendly and helpful people. Our best guess was that this situation however could easily have put the dog’s owner in personal jeopardy (oops, her dog just bit a foreigner!) and she was trying to “escape” the situation. Apparently this may have been the best coping strategy during the Soviet time.

Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO) region, has a population of about 30,000 and is at 2100 meters above sea level. The GBAO is the state’s name for the Pamir Mountain region in Tajikistan, and as the name applies, these mountain people do have some autonomy in running their region. Because of their isolation, their first language is not Tajik, but Shugani. They both share Persian roots, but as Lonely Planet says, they are as different as German and English. However, everyone we talked with spoke Shugani, Tajik, and in our case, English as well. Russian is also taught in school. When we got to Murgab, Kyrgyz was thrown into the mix as well, but more on that in another post.

Khorog is a jewel of a town, thanks to the patronage of the Aga Khan. As you probably know, he is the socialite, race-horse owning billionaire who lives in London and, through his lineage directly from Mohammed’s cousin Ali, is the head of the Muslim sect, the Shia Ismailis. The Ismailis are found in pockets in several countries, including the Pamirs of Tajikistan. The Aga Khan Foundation spends millions and millions each year on development project and supporting these communities. As a result, the city of Khorog has the most reliable electricity supply in Tajikistan. They also have a better than average (for Tajikistan) hospital, a private high school of top notch quality in a country known for its bad education system, and lots of support money for the locals who want to study abroad. They also have a Central Park. However, His Highness Prince Aga Khan cannot help the weather and hasn’t done much for the roads, so about seven months of the year, the only way to get to Khorog from the rest of the Tajikistan is by plane and the folks live mostly on potatoes and carrots and other root crops. (By the way, the Aga Khan first came to my attention as a young’un when Prince Aly Khan, son of the then Aga Khan, married Rita Hayworth. That would have been the father of the present Aga Khan. Normally Aly would have inherited the position of the Aga Khan from his father, but instead, the old Aga Khan passed the position onto his grandson, who is the Aga Khan now.)

If you are interested in the Ismailis (it is a fascinating branch of Islam), here is their official website:


Children (mostly boys) swim in the free public swimming pool in Central Park in Khorog, Tajikistan. Hot weather in Khorog is in the low 80s, while the capital city of Dushanbe swelters in about 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Central Park is lovely with gardens, green spaces, and a swimming pool. The park is located next to the Gunt River, which flows through town and into the Panj River just out of town, the border with Afghanistan.

The Gunt River flows through the city of Khorog into the Panj River, the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Khorog also has one of the more interesting statues of Lenin that we have seen in Tajikistan. I love his pose. Just like in Khujand, the Lenin statue has been moved from the place of honor in the city and replaced by a statue of Ismoili Somoni, the new national, ideological, hero. However, in both towns, Lenin did find a new home, in a less auspicious place. We saw Lenin statues all over Tajikistan, unlike in Uzbekistan. There, Lenin has disappeared all together.

We stayed at the Boni Jamon (means Roof of the World). It is less than two years old and the cheapest hotel in town. For $20/person/night you get the normal hard bed, a private bathroom (a luxury at this price) with hot water shower and sit down toilet, breakfast, and as concierge, a sweet young woman who speaks English. Some rooms also comes with fleas (after the first night, David had to change bedding) or a rat (one of our traveling companions was visited in the night, but we didn’t have that problem.) We recommend it.

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Dresden, not Berlin

I made a big mistake on the June Books posting about Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden, not Berlin, when the firebombing took place — in Dresden. I have corrected the June Books post, but this is for those who read it already.

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June Books

June Books

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (2008)

This book was Barry’s second book to be shortlisted for the Mann Booker Award; the previous one was A Long, Long Way, which I haven’t yet read.

This book is a weaving of two, secret diaries. One is written by an old woman living in an Irish insane asylum, and the other by the head doctor of that asylum. When the asylum is going to be torn down and the patients moved, the doctor must assess Roseanne to see if she can live on her own, or even if she might have been committed wrongly. Her story is the heart of the book and is a critique of the repressed, Church-dominated society of early 20th Century Ireland. Knowledge of that period would have added a layer of richness to my understanding, but the book is written so that it is understandable, even without a lot of historical background.

The book also contemplates truth, memory and history, as well as identity, and even psychiatry.

The book has a few structural problems, such as the too coincidental coming together of a few strong characters, circumstances and letters, but overall, I enjoyed it and recommend it.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, first published serially in The Russian Messenger 1868-69)

This has been the Dostoyevsky book I have wanted to read since I was in high school and it was on my mother’s head of the bed book shelf. I believe it was the title that intrigued me. I wish I liked it more than I do.

I’m not a philosophy sort of reader, I like plot and character development and learning about interesting places and cultures. And facts. (O.K., some facts, not the boring ones, such as dates of World War I battles.) Basically, a well-educated, shallow person.

Basic plot – simple, straightforward, nice Prince Muishkin is too good for the world and ends up insane. In the process, he meets lots of people who help him get to that end. In lots of pages. The characters are interesting, but except for Prince Muishkin, unsympathetic. The women are particularly selfish, unaware, neurotics and the many of the men share those same traits

It sounds like I hated this book. I didn’t. I just disliked portions of it. If you are into plot, this may not be the book for you. If you enjoy long, philosophical treatises by complicated (albeit rarely nice) characters, then it will be a treat. I’m glad I read it. I won’t need to reread it. Crime and Punishment was better. I will tell you how I feel about The Brothers Karamazov next month.


Valerie Perrine as Billy Pilgrim’s mate in the zoo on Tralfamadore.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

Cat’s Cradle was my first Vonnegut book back in college, I believe this was my second. Many more followed, up to Breakfast of Champions. We picked this one up cheap in Tashkent and I decided to give it another go.  Still not my favorite Vonnegut – but not great Vonnegut is still a better read than many other authors.

Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombing at the end of World War II. His experiences, told through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, are the underlying theme of this book. Billy Pilgrim, however, time travels through his own life and was a zoo exhibit on planet the planet of Tralfamadore, and so it is not an actual memoir. Thoroughly anti-war and surreal. I will watch the movie again in the near future.

Devil on the Cross by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1980) (translated from Gikuyu by the author)

I first read this Kenyan author while in Senegal in the late 70s, his most famous work, A Grain of Wheat. When I was in grad school in the 80s, Third World literature was the rage (at least for those of us studying Third World development), and he was listed on the “must read” lists. However, I didn’t get to him again until just a couple of weeks ago.

This book is about thieves – not the common garden variety, but capitalists – with an emphasis on neo-imperialism and independence. It is a sledge hammer of a book, no subtlety. Still it interested me, possibly because I agree with his basic premise. I would like to talk with a Kenyan who has read this to see what her or his perspective would be more than 30 years later.

Parts of the book are difficult to read because the men and the culture are so sexist and so many of the characters say and do such disgusting things. Clearly, Ngugi does not agree with those characters. The hero of his story is a young woman who goes from being a victim of men’s lusts and society’s narrow alternatives for women to being a self-supporting car mechanic and revenge-getter.

 Godan by Premchand (1956)

A classic about Indian peasants and the rich class takes place in a village near Lucknow. The main character is Hori, who, although already heavily in debt, yearns for a cow. (The title refers to some sort of Indian traditional donation for buying cows.) Premchand describes well rural life and the differences there between the rich and poor. Class relations, caste relations, gender relations are all part of the mix, as well as the role of moneylenders, their exorbitant interest rates, and why the rich and poor characters borrowed so much to maintain their prestige. Everyone is trying to get the better of the next person, including the sweet and likable Hori. It is all a complicated game, with good stories interwoven.

I highly recommend this book for its insights into a particular place and time, especially if you can suspend your anger at wife beating, caste discrimination, etc., long enough to get a glimpse of a different world.

Great American Short Stories, edited by Paul Negri (2002)

The 19 stories are from 1835-1927, and appear to have been selected for overseas libraries or English-language learners (although they have not been edited to simplify their language.) Everyone of them was good.

Some of my old favorites were Melville’s Bartleby (1856), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) and Jack London’s To Build a Fire (1908).  New favorites are Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s A New England Nun (1891), Kate Chopin’s A Pair of Silk Stockings (1896), Theodor Dreiser’s The Lost Phoebe (1920), and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1920).

 101 Great American Poems, edited by The American Poetry and Literacy Project (1998)

I picked this book up at the American Corner library in Khujand as well as the short story book. It is a good collection. I got to read some old favorites, poems I did not know from familiar authors, and good poems from poets I had not heard of. Many of the poems were by women and African Americans.

Some of the gems that were new to me or I had forgotten were The Snow Storm by Ralph Waldo Emerson; A Noiseless, Patient Spider by Walt Whitman; Sympathy by Paul Dunbar; Birches by Robert Frost; Euclid by Vachel Lindsay; Little Old Letter by Langston Hughes; and The Unknown Citizen by W.H. Auden. Notice that they are all written by men. The poems by women, especially those by Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, were old, familiar friends.


Old Euclid drew a circle

On a sand-beach long ago.

He bounded and enclosed it

With angles thus and so.

His set of solemn greybeards

Nodded and argued much

Of arc and circumference,

Diameter and such.

A silent child stood by them

From morning until noon

Because they drew such charming

Round pictures of the moon.

By Vachel Lindsay

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Afghan market on Tajik border

Afghan market on Tajik border

After about a six-week hiatus, I am hanging out where posting on nancystan is possible. I have a lot to share, but it will not be chronological. This is the first posting on our trip to the Pamir Mountains, June 17-27. Postings on Uzbekistan will follow, plus our overland trip from Khujand to Dushanbe.

Cloudy morning in the Pamirs on our way to the Afghan market near Ishkashim. Photo by David.

We had a full day on June 23, and our first stop was at the Saturday Afghan market. There’s an island in the Panj * River, the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Because the Afghani people are mostly Tajiks in this area, it was difficult to tell the women apart. Afghan men have distinctive dress. (You all have seen it in the news.) Tajik men tend to dress in pants and shirts like Westerners, although they often sport their ethnicity-identifying caps. This is not the area of the Taliban, and I wasn’t sure if the Tajik and Afghan women dressed more or less the same, or perhaps there were no Afghan women. There were certainly no burkas or women covered any more than some of the conservative Tajik women. I did notice on the side of the Tajik road when we went through villages and also in the market itself that some women covered the lower part of their face – in the style of cowboy bandits. I wasn’t sure if it was for modesty or to protect from the sun and dust. Our Khorog contact Favzyia told us later that it was for protection from the elements, not because of religion.

Notice the range of dressing among these women. One young woman in a hoody is using a cellphone while two others have their faces covered with a scarf, bandito style.

The merchandise in the market was not all that interesting. I was hoping to score some good jewelry, or at least some handicrafts, but the jewelry was of the cheap, probably-made-in-India variety. Other wares were clothes, cloth, shoes, rugs, plastic items, some food stuffs, etc. We hadn’t seen any fresh fruit for several days, so I did buy some delicious, little, too-ripe-already bananas.

Cloth shopping

We needed our passports to get onto the island. Military posts were on both sides of the bridge, and we would not have been allowed to cross to Afghanistan. As we walked off the island, David pointed the camera in that direction and we were told by hand gestures and the phrase “no photos” that photographs were forbidden. Pretty silly, since once we were off no-man’s-land and back in Tajikistan, we could easily use the zoom lens to take the same photos. But, overall, the soldiers were friendly to us and the other foreigner tourists who had arrived for the weekly market.









Rug merchant on left.

Stereotypical face shot on right,but I couldn’t resist.

Later, as we were driving out of the Pamirs, I learned that there is an Afghan consulate in Khorog (the largest town in the Tajik side of the Pamir Mountains.) Tajiks on the Tajikistan side can get permission to cross over easily into Afghanistan to visit relatives or just visit and sight-see in that area. If I had known that, I might have tried to see how easy it would be for an American to get a day-visa, or something like that. It would feel so “naughty” to drop in that way, and likely would have not been liked at the US embassy in Dushanbe. I suspect, however, that it would not have been possible.

The market, from Tajikistan. That’s Afghanistan on the other side. David took this photo.

One of the people we met in the Pamirs was a Pamiri who works in Moscow as an electrician, but comes home every year to hike in his beloved mountains. He has a vision of a “greater Tajikistan” which would include parts of Uzbekistan (Bukhara and Samarkand, subjects of future posts on nancystan) and the northern territory of Afghanistan. As in many (most?) colonial situations, the national boundaries were drawn without taking into account where the ethnic groups actually lived.

I took most of the photos used on this post. I will credit David when they are his.

*Panj is a transliteration from Cyrillic, so it may be spelled different ways in Latin letters. The Lonely Planet guidebook spells it Pyanj. It means “five,” because five rivers come together to form it. It eventually flows into the Amu Darya (formerly known as the Oxus River), which continues to be the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and then Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, before eventually flowing into the Aral Sea. (What’s left of it, at least, as much is siphoned off for irrigating cotton crops.)

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Photo from American Corner

David and I said goodby to Khujand on Thursday morning and were driven to Dushanbe — across two mountain ranges. It was a gorgeous, and occasionally nail-biting ride. I will likely post about it soon. However, this post is to see if, now that I am using a different way to access Internet, if I can post a photo. So if a photo appears with this post of my last discussion group at the American Corner in Khujand, then all will be well.

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May Books

May Books


Not as many books this month, as I have been working on my projects for work and we took a two-week vacation in Uzbekistan (where I did read the two nonfiction books on this list). But one was excellent, two were very good and none were bad. So quality over quantity in May.

Coastliners by Joanne Harris (2002)

The least of this month’s reading, it was still diverting, although overall, easily forgettable. The author of the book Chocolat (I enjoyed the movie but did not read that book) returns to France, this time to an (presumably fictional) island off the coast of Brittany where one side of the island is a prosperous beach resort and the other side a queer, superstitious culture of fisherfolk. I love to read about interesting, small cultures, but this one seemed artificially constructed. And as I look at my notes, I did comment that the family secrets and love affairs – although fun to read about as they were revealed – eventually became so convoluted that they were ridiculous. I’d give an example, but that would ruin what fun you might have if you decide to give this book a try. Might be classified as a “beach read.”

Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron (2011)

This was an excellent book to read in Uzbekistan – and I was saving it just for that trip. After reading the first few pages, I almost put it down because it seemed so pretentious, but I am glad I didn’t. I not only put up with his writing style, but ended up liking it. The first eight chapters were the most interesting to me as they were about his travels in China and Central Asia, and many of the places were ones that I have visited. The chapters on Afghanistan and Iran were interesting, but not quite as compelling. And although he described places I would love to see, they aren’t worth what he went through to get there. Plus, as a single man who speaks several languages, seems to be in great physical shape and even more eccentric than me, he was able to go places and talk to people in those last two countries completely off limits to women. Still, the idea of him making this trip in his late 60s is still amazing.

The book seemed to have two themes. One is “Why do I travel like this?” He comes to no conclusion, and that was the least interesting theme. The other was a question of identity for people on the Silk Road – then and now. He focused on the artificialness of and fluctuations in hard ethnic borders – both geographical and personal. Culture, identity and borders have interested me for most of my reading life – that is one of the reasons I went through a deep sci-fi stage in junior high.

If you like this kind of travel writing, I recommend this book.

Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski (1993)

Another excellent book to read while in Central Asia, and I also saved it for the Uzbekistan trip. I’ve known of Kapuscinski’s reputation as a revered Polish journalist for a long time and have read part of his book on Africa, but this was the first entire book I have read of his, and it will not be my last. I was not disappointed. Lively writing, good observation. This is not an “even handed account” of the fall of the Soviet Union, or of the good and bad it did in Russia and the other countries that were soviets – although most of it is about those areas that are not Russia. It is an account of what happened to those who were hardest hit. He talks of countries, communities and individuals in Central Asia and Siberia. For the first time, I have a real sense of the troubles between Armenia and Azerbaijan and what happened to the Aral Sea.

For a bit of 20th C history, I recommend this book.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000).

I just finished this Pulitzer Prize winner on May 31, so I get to include it this month. It was by far the most fun book I read this month – maybe this year.

Josef, a Jewish boy in Prague, grows up learning about magic and escapism (ala Houdini) and then escapes with the Golem from Nazi Czechoslovakia in a Houdini like escapade to Lithuania, finding his way to New York City where is aunt lives and he meets his cousin Sammy who is about the same age. Together, in their late teens and early twenties, they create a comic book character (several actually) and are in the center of the comic book craze that lasted through the 40s and into the 50s. The horror and sadness of the Holocaust for Jews in America, New York City bohemian life (including surrealism, Dali and Max Ernst), the World’s Fair, radio actors, love in many forms, homosexuality in the 40s and 50s, life in Antarctica during World War II, life in the New York suburbs in the 1950s, Frederic Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” that lead to a Senate hearing, and through this all, the art of comic book writing and drawing, are all part of the reading pleasure in this deeply satisfying book. Chabon has done his research and while the book is full of details, they never get in the way of the story or become pedantic. I don’t even particularly like comic books, but I want to go back and look at the old ones with an eye to the art.

This book deserved to win prizes.

It may be the aura of just finishing such an enjoyable book and I might change my mind after a year or so, but today I would rank it as one of the great American novels – along with Huckleberry Finn, Grapes of Wrath and Giants in the Earth.

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Testing video upload

Here is another attempt to upload something to wordpress. Here are a three photos put into video form. I took them at the Siob Bazaar in Samarkand. If this works, I will be putting up other photos in video form in the near future.


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I have been away in Uzbekistan for a couple of weeks. WordPress has been giving me some problems, so this is a test to see if I can post words and a photo. The words are working, the photos are not. I am having trouble remembering my youtube info to access my videos to see if I can post videos. So, please be patient while I figure this all out again.





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