As promised, here are the other two photos I wanted to post from the 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
On the Road
Tajik university students performed The First Thanksgiving and Cinderella, sang American pop songs and danced to hip hop music to standing room only crowds of public school children around the Sugd District in March and early April.
Our friend Dildora Toshmatova taught a class on American Culture and Folklore at Khujand State University, Faculty of Foreign Languages, and the students prepared skits, musical numbers and audience participation activities that they took on the road. The class and theater production was made possible through a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Khujand, the second largest city in the country, is the largest city in the northern district, the Sugd District.
Dildora developed her interest in US folk traditions and culture when she was able to study for a semester at Penn State Harrisburg on a US grant for “junior teachers” at Tajik universities.
The 90-minute production included two skits (The First Thanksgiving and Cinderella) as well as a performance of a medley of pop songs, a hip hop dance number, poetry recitations, and games and quizzes for the audience to participate in. Below you will find a video of the highlights, as well as the complete performances of the two musical numbers.
The students took the show on the road, performing at five schools in the area on Saturdays in March and April. Saturday is a regular school day in Tajikistan. The schools are comprehensive – elementary through high school. They included:
In addition, the students gave a command performance to their teachers, deans and peers at Khujand State University on April 11, at which time they were given their certificates for completing the class and also the special gift of having the final exam for that class waived.
David and I were able to attend the performances in Kistakuz and Patar Village, and the photos and videos are from those performances. I was also able to be at the performance at the university.
Here is the highlight video of the performance.
Here is the hip hop dance in its entirety.
Here is Farzona’s solo in its entirety. This video may be blocked in the US and other countries because of copyright. An abbreviated version is below. Please let me know if you were able to access this video in the US.
Here is the abbreviated version of Farzona’s solo. Please let me know if you were not able to access this video.
And last, here are some random photos and moments that I wanted to share in Before, During and After. The music is Joe Deranne’s Reel performed by De Dannan.
David filmed several of his students from Khujand State University while they gave us a tour of the museum on Sunday, April 15. He made a video to share with his students and colleagues at the American Language Institute, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio. The video was more than 19 minutes long, so he had to break it into Part 1 and Part 2. In some parts of the museum, the lighting was not good. You can’t always see the face of the students, but don’t worry — they pop up again. And if you check out the videos, you will also see Shaboz, who was our guide in Khujand on Navruz, and Kaykhusrav, who was our guide in Istaravshan.
I wanted to post a couple of photos with these videos, but I keep getting the message “http error.” So, I guess my troubles with nancystan are not over — but hopefully I will take care of them soon.
As usual, if you have trouble with these videos, please let me know.
Most Tajiks who live in cities have access to electricity and running water – some have it all day (barring outages), some have it for specific hours during the day, some have it for only a couple of hours a day. People living in towns and some of the larger villages usually have it for at least a couple of hours a day. But there are some, including those who live near towns, that do not have it at all. One such family is related to our friend Dildor, and when her student mobile theater group performed in Patar Village, next to the town of Kanibadam, her uncle graciously had the cast and guests [David, Rukiya (another Khujand State University English teacher) and me] come to their house for lunch after the performance.
Dildor’s uncle name is Alisher. He is often in Russia working because he can make more money there than in Tajikistan, but this means long separations from his family. Citizens of the former soviets of the Soviet Union, such as Tajikistan, can travel to and work in Russia without visas, and are a supply of cheap labor. His home is typically middle class, but without the amenities of electricity or running water.
Here is a “filmstrip” illustrating their house. The song is Apeainen by the Finnish group Kardemimmit. I took the photos and produced the video.
Dear friends and family: If you cannot access this YouTube video, please let me know.
High school senior Zarina and her cousin, university freshman Farangiz, volunteered to take me shopping for traditional Tajik clothes on March 30. We went to the large “Chinese” market outside of the city-proper on the way to the airport. I was told I would see a lot of Chinese people, but I didn’t. That’s because I was looking for the majority Chinese ethnic group, Han. Later I found out that the Chinese in this market are Uyghurs from the far Western province of China, Xinjiang, which borders Tajikistan. Uyghurs are a Turkic people and are more closely related to Tajiks than they are to Han Chinese.
The following slide show was built from a few photos I took on this shopping trip. It is an experiment to see if I could do it technologically. I will be working on a longer, more coherent and complicated slide show for another posting about Khujand State University’s student mobile theater project on American culture.
Here’s a photo of me wearing one of the two outfits I bought that day — along with several students and teachers from Patar Village school, in Kanibadam District, where the student mobile theater performed. But more on that later.
David writes about our stay in Tajikistan for his own email list. Sometimes I crib a thought or two, but this time I wanted to repost in its entirety. We both took the photographs. As to the writing, I put in the paragraphs. Otherwise, the following narrative is David’s. The photos follow.
Navruz really has ushered in the spring. For 35 miles or more along the road south of the Kairakum Reservoir, apricot trees are lavishly blooming in orchards that straddle the road and stretch down to the reservoir in the north and back sometimes almost to the mountains in the south. And they vie with each other like weeds for every patch of spare ground in the villages.
Dependent now on a water table fed by runoff from the mountains, in Soviet times, the trees were irrigated by means of electric pumping stations and miles and miles of concrete aqueducts. Now the aqueducts are broken and tumbled and the pumping stations frozen up with rust because there’s no longer enough electricity.
In every village and town, on both sides of every residential street, natural gas pipes with about a two-inch diameter run along the walls that enclose the houses. You can reach up about a foot or so over your head and touch them. They rest on metal struts secured to the ground. When the pipes reach an intersection, they bend up, cross the street and bend back down in a serious of right angles that provide a passageway for cars, vans, and busses. Smaller pipes diverge from these larger ones and run into each house along the street.
I wouldn’t call this delivery system safe because any vehicle could ram and destroy the supporting struts. And a suicidal vandal with a hammer and a match could unleash the furies. But in Soviet times it got the gas to where it needed to be, and I’ve seen on the Russian documentary channel the same system today in rural Russia. But now since the Uzbeks have closed the gas valves, the pipes scale and buckle and sunder and would need to be replaced from square one if the Tajiks and Uzbeks should ever strike a deal.
Thus as the wave of empire recedes, it leaves a technological jetsam and a cultural vacuum. So Hadrian’s Wall stands abandoned and crumbling at the high water mark of Roman expansion. And when Rome could no longer afford to maintain its legions in Britain, the Britons were abandoned to defend themselves against the pesky Picts as best they could.
And thus as economies wither, cultural beacons retreat from the far-flung corners they once illuminated and settle back toward the centers of contracting wealth and waning power from which they emerged. So the libraries of Khotan and Bukhara and a thousand others, past, present, and future, fall prey to the worms when taxation and ordered authority can no longer nourish them. So the flourishing entrepôts of the Silk Road vanished under the sands, and the empty shopping malls of northwest Ohio wax weedy and crooked as fingers are sacrificed to the cold when blood is needed at the heart.