When Your Country Calls For Duty…

21 06 2009

When I came to Tajikistan in February, I registered with the U.S. Embassy – just letting them know that I was there – through their website. Over the course of the last 5 months, I received numerous messages from them regarding various issues going on in Tajikistan.

But today, I received the most interesting email yet – one that I had to share. Uncle Sam is sending out invitations to a picnic at the embassy celebrating Fourth of July! You gotta love it – although if I was them, I’d substitute hot dogs and hamburgers for shashlik and plov :)

picnic

How come I never got an invitation to the White House when I was living in New York? Come on, Barack… J





The Pamir Highway – a Journey to the Roof of the World and Back

30 03 2009

Marco Polo once said the following of the Pamirs:

“… The plain is called Pamier, and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but a desert without habitations or any green thing, so that travellers are obliged to carry with them whatever they have need of. The region is so lofty and cold that you can not even see any birds flying. And I must notice also that because of this great cold, fire does not burn so bright, nor give out so much heat as usual….”

The Pamirs is a mountainous area in the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast of Tajikistan – known as the Roof of the World (Krisha Mira). It’s composed of some of the most remote and untouched areas in the world, including some of the tallest peaks in Central Asia and the world.

The Pamir Mountaints

The Pamir Mountaints

As I was primarily based in Dushanbe for the last two months, when I got an opportunity to travel to the Pamirs for about 5 days before leaving the country, I knew I had to take it. It was going to be quite an adventure!

RECOMMENDATION: I highly recommend that you check out this 3-minute video below (in Full Screen if possible) first – it took so long to upload it! And then read the rest, if you like what you see.

VIDEO: The Pamir Highway – Journey to the Roof of the World and Back.

Pre-Trip

Surprisingly, the majority of people from work who have lived in Tajikistan their entire lives have never been to the Pamirs, but had a pretty unfavorable attitude towards the region.

There are a few reasons for that. For one, there is some antagonism between the locals living in the capital and the people from the Pamirs. The civil war that took place in the 90s was, effectively, between these groups, so people still have bitter memories of what happened. And the fact that they speak different languages and practice different branches of Islam doesn’t help the situation either

Getting to the GBAO (Gorno-Badakshan Avtonomnaya Oblast’ / Pamirs) is a challenge. There are only 2 roads leading there. One is a summer one which is covered by several feet of snow until the end of May. The other is open year-round, but is longer and in such poor condition, that you really need a 4×4 vehicle in order to get through.

In order for a tourist to go there, you need a special permission to enter the GBAO. It’s not particularly difficult to obtain, but when you’re running out of time, your visa is about to expire, and the consul loses the renewal documents, it becomes challenging. Fortunately, with the help of some wonderful people and their connections, along with a few bribes, the proper paperwork was obtained right on time – about 12 hours before departure.

Day 1 – Leaving Dushanbe

The 600km+ road from Dushanbe to Khorog – the biggest town in Pamirs located right on the river Pyanj – is considered to be one of the toughest roads around. Crossing several mountain passes over 4,000m high, it’s only paved a part of the way – the rest being dirt or gravel.

We left Dushanbe at around 7am on a Friday and things were going pretty well for the first few hours. The only annoyances were frequent police stops and checkpoints. For one, my driver/guide – Khamsa – had Pamir license plates and claimed that they attract a lot more attention from the cops (in Dushanbe and nearby region). On top of that, me being a foreigner wound up attracting attention as well, as many of cops requested to see my passport and documentation.

Most of the times when we were stopped, the situation was resolved by what Khamsa called a gratuity – small 1-2 somoni bribe ($0.25-0.50) from him to the police officer. Technically, all of our paperwork was in order, but in order to expedite the process, it was just easier to deal with it this way. Additionally, we agreed to simply pretend that I don’t speak any Russian, so when the officers/border guards saw that they couldn’t really communicate, they abandoned interest relatively quickly.

Sharshar Mountain Pass

Sharshar Mountain Pass

Our Road

Our Road

Our Car!

Our Car!

We passed the next major city – Kulyab – within about 3-4 hours and started to drive along the section of the Pamir Highway that was going right next to the river Pyanj. Pyanj serves as a border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, so it was truly a fascinating experience.

Pyanj River

Pyanj River

The river is patrolled by a number of border guards that walk up and down each day. Although deemed as a dangerous road in the past, it’s considered quite safe these days and is regularly used by locals and tourists. Although you are often reminded of the past with signs indicating that the shore of the river has been mined (signs are outdated – the area has been de-mined by a French NGO years ago).

On a brighter side, it was truly amazing to see life on the other side as we were driving through and the drastic differences between what laid on the Tajik side to what happened on the Afghan one. Although our road was not in the best conditions, on the other side, all they had was a tiny path that was built right on the mountain It was barely wide enough for people and  mules and, but followed us for hundreds of kilometers as we were driving.

Afghan Caravan On The Other Side

Afghan Caravan On The Other Side

Afghan Village

Afghan Village

Village Close Up

Village Close Up

During that time, we saw caravans walking on that path. On more even areas, we saw small settlements and people leading their lives on the other side. The view that we have on Afghanistan in the West is quite harsh – and certainly life there is troublesome – but it was still quite interesting to see how people lead their lives on the other side just the same way that we lead ours – take care of their land, raise cattle, etc.

Carrying Firewood

Carrying Firewood

As we continued to drive, the road was becoming progressively worse. At some point, we hit what the driver called “seli” (still trying to figure out the English work for that). In a nutshell, when there is a lot of precipitation – rain or snow – rocks and dirt from the mountain slowly comes down and pretty much washes away the road. As a result, you wind up having to cross something resembling a river with rocks and sand underneath. If you don’t do it the right way (or if you don’t have a 4×4 vehicle), you can easily get stuck in it. And many do.

Seli

Seli

Fortunately, we got lucky as it hasn’t rained for 2 days, so “seli” weren’t too difficult to get through this time around. However, the driver was visibly relieved after we gotten past that area and continued on our way.

VIDEO: Driving Through Seli.

We drove for about 11 hours that day and covered about 400km. The road continued to be difficult, although there was an odd 40km stretch where the road was paved better than most roads are in the States. Turned out that it was done by a Turkish company a few years ago – but it definitely makes you wonder as to what is the purpose of simply paving 40km, while leaving the rest in shambles.

When it started to get dark, we decided to stop at a local “homestay”  (gostinica). Typically, it’s just somebody offering space in their own home for about $2 per night, along with a dinner and breakfast for a little more. After a long day, it’s more than enough – so we spent the night there.

Typical Accommodations Along The Route

Typical Accommodations Along The Route

Day 2 – Khorog

On the 2nd day, we reached Khorog.

Khorog is the administrative center of the GBAO region. Located at over 2,100 meters above the sea level, it’s the largest town in the area – with over 28,000 inhabitants.  It’s relatively big and situated right on the Pyanj River. There is a bridge going connecting the Tajik and Afghan sides, using which there is a weekly weekend bazaar taking place – where sellers from each side come together in Khorog to trade.

Khorog is an interesting town because it contains one of the best educated populations of any town in Central Asia. In general, Pamiris are well known for their pursuit of education. They live in a very difficult environment with little arable land, so knowledge is one of the few resources that they can pursue and achieve. It’s also the home to one of the campuses of the University of Central Asia, one of the top International Universities – founded and sponsored by several Central Asian governments and the Aga Khan Development Network.

Khorog with Mountains in the Background

Khorog with Mountains in the Background

Khamza (the driver) happened to live in the town, so he was quite familiar with it. Since we came right in the peak of Navruz – the holiday celebrating the beginning of Spring – we decided to check out the local celebrations.

In the town, they have a small stadium that has a beautiful mountainous background behind it. At times of major events, people often gather in the stadium to celebrate.  Although we missed a big chunk of the day’s celebrations because we arrived late, we did make it right on time for “traditional martial art fighting” and “tug-of-war rope pulling” competitions. If you take a close look at the picture, you’ll see a pile of household goods next to the fighting area. The winner of each fight gets to take home a prize, which can range from an iron to a hot plate to an electric teapot.

Martial Arts Fighters

Martial Arts Fighters

Lucky Winner

Lucky Winner

We spent a few hours in town and when we left Khorog, we were joined by the driver’s cousin – Bahrom. He figured that since we still have a tough road ahead, it could be useful to have a 3rd person with us – just in case. He turned out to be right.

After filling up a full tank of gas, as it would be scarce where we were going, we continued on our way. The destination for the night was a sanatorium built on top of a hot spring. It’s well-known in the area for its healing powers against all worldly ills. :)

Since it was not quite the peak season, when we got there, we were the only guests at the place. The place keeper opened up the door and led us to a Soviet-style room. Considering that this was the only place throughout the trip when we had an actual bed (and a shower), it truly was deluxe.

The top attraction in this place is the hot spring that runs nearby. The sanatorium has setup a little indoor pool where you can splash around in the 75c degree water, while it’s negative something temperature outside. Sharing the pool with a dozen naked Pamiris (as, we were joined by another jolly group later on) was definitely an experience that won’t fade quickly. :)

Day 3 – Murghab and Karakul

When we woke up, I finally understood why everybody was telling me before the trip to stock up on warm clothes. With temperature dropping to -15c outside, it was quite chilly to say the least. After having a quick breakfast in our room of leftover sausage, bread and sweetened milk that we brought the day before, we walked up to our car only to find out that it didn’t want to start.

We somewhat expected it, so we took out the battery from the car for the night before and kept it with us in the room, but it was still too cold even with that precaution. Fortunately, the group of guests that joined us the night before helped us to jumpstart it. They also mentioned that we were lucky because the mountain pass we were heading to this day was just cleared of snow two days ago by a couple of bulldozers. If we were driving here a few days prior, we wouldn’t be able to pass it. So much for a year-round road!

The driving this day went on at a much slower pace than the previous day. Although the road from Khorog was in a much better condition than before, it was covered by snow and ice, so we had to be quite careful. The driver was very good in that respect and was driving slowly and with caution.

The Way North

The Way North

The Road

The Road

Although the area is remote and typically only a handful of cars pass through each day – especially in the winter, the road is maintained by “Road Masters” – people who live near the road and operate bulldozers to clear the snow or assist the stranded (theoretically). However, even when the road is cleared, the snow accumulates again so quickly, that oftentimes it would be impossible to pass it without having a jeep.

VIDEO: Driving Through Snow-Covered Road.

By lunchtime, we reached the next major destination point – Murghab. Murghab is a small village with a primarily Kyrgyz population. It’s about 200km from the KG border, but it was still pretty surprising to see that most people there didn’t speak Tajik – only Kyrgyz and some Russian.

People in Murghab also seemed very different from what we’ve seen in the rest of Tajikistan. Many people – women and men – were covering their faces entirely, with just their eyes being in the open. Evidently, it’s so windy and sunny up there, that if you leave the face uncovered, it gets burned right away. Over the long run, it can lead to the skin drying up and can have negative ramifications over the long run.

The village itself also seemed very interesting and different from what we’ve seen thus far, but was somewhat gloomy. All foreigners are required to register with a local KGB upon entering the area, which seemed somewhat odd – considering how remote this place is. However, it so happened that because of the holidays, we weren’t able to get to the KGB, so we figured that we’d move on without the registration. At the end of the day, the worst that could happen was play dumb and pay a bribe.

Before we could leave the village, we had to fill up on fuel. We were running out and this was our last major populated point, so there wouldn’t be too many other opportunities to fill up. After driving around the village for a bit, we found a door with a chalk sign that said “Benzin” (Gas in Russian). We walked in to talk to the owner, but it turned out to be a disappointment since they only sold low quality gas that could’ve been used by trucks and Soviet vehicles, but was unusable by our car.

We were getting a bit worried about our prospects, as nobody could tell us if higher-quality gas was available in the vicinity. Finally, one of the guys that we met in the village took us to another house which sold 80 grade gasoline. It was still sub-par (considering that most modern cars typically run on 92), but it would have to do under the circumstances. The guy brought out two large canisters of fuel and filled up our tank. We figured that this should last us to our next destination and back.

Getting Gas In Murghab

Getting Gas In Murghab

Woman in Murghab

Woman in Murghab

After getting some lunch, we were eager to move on to make it to our final destination – Karakul Lake – before sundown. So, after getting a shortcut tip from a driver’s friend, we left town. The effects of poor quality gas was evident from the get go. The car would stall whenever we would slow down (if the RPM would drop).

We were driving for about an hour and a half when we decided to stop for a quick break. Meanwhile, we saw a truck heading our way, so our driver stopped him to ask what were the conditions of the next mountain pass we were planning to pass. Imagine our surprise when the driver gave us a strange look and informed us that we were on the wrong road – heading towards China, rather than Kyrgyzstan.

Cursing the heavens and the guy that gave us the wrong directions, we jumped back to the car and drove back to Murghab to start over. We finally reached Karakul lake – which was frozen solid this time of year – at about 6.30 in the evening. Since it was sunset, we decided to take a few shots. So, we went off-road and drove closer to the shore of the lake.

Karakul Lake

Karakul Lake

Karakul Lake - All Frozen

Karakul Lake - All Frozen

After taking care of that, we headed back to the car only to find out that it wouldn’t start – again. The battery was dead.

This could’ve been a problem. We were on the road that only saw a few vehicles per day. Moreover, it was almost sundown, at which point it would start getting quite cold. After quickly weighing our options, me and the driver decided to try our luck and head to the village which we thought would be a few km away. The 3rd guy – driver’s cousin that came along – would stay in the car and see if any other cars would pass by.

We set out to walk on the road. Fortunately, we reached the village in about an hour of walking. It was truly a relief to finally see a little light shimmering at the end of the road. The next big question was whether anybody in the village would have a car that they could use to help us.

We walked into the first door that we saw a light in. It was occupied by a sleeping grandmother and her son – whom we wound up waking up after we entered their house. Neither of them spoke Tajik or Russian (only Kyrgyz), but we managed to somehow explain our predicament and what we were looking for.

The boy came outside with us and started walking to village “club.” Since Navruz was still being celebrated, most of the village folk has gathered there for the holiday. When we got there, a small crowd gathered around us to find out what has happened. The elders were able to communicate in Russian, so we asked if somebody owned a car. We were in luck yet again – one guy had an old Russian Jeep, so they sent for him.

He agreed to drive with us back to where we left our car and jumpstart it, as long as we paid for gas. The rest went well. After getting everything fixed up, we returned to the village and spent the night at somebody’s house.

The Trip Back

In the morning, the villages took us to show the traditional Kyrgyz yurts. Because of Navruz, they’ve installed several of them, so they were eager to show them off. It takes several hours to set them up and each can accommodate a little over a dozen people. The floor and walls are covered with elaborate carpets and overall, they look quite beautiful.

Traditional Kyrgyz Yurts

Traditional Kyrgyz Yurts

The goal was to get back to Khorog in one day (about 550km) and then either take the plane back or drive back. The first option would be somewhat preferred, as the plane would mean that we’d avoid driving for another 600km on the bad roads.

Unfortunately, the only plane going from Khorog to Dushanbe only flies in perfect weather. According to my research, this was the only flight route during the Soviet Union where pilots would get paid extra “danger” pay, as it flies right through the mountains. That being said, due to the expansive precautions, there never had been any accidents.

We got to Khorog late in the evening and the driver has invited me to spend the night at his home with his family. This is just one aspect that never seizes to amaze me here – how hospitable people are in this region. For some reason, I could never see a tour guide or a driver doing the same thing back in the States.

When we got up on the last day, the weather turned out to be pretty rainy, so the flight was canceled and we wound up driving all the way back. The drive went pretty well. One interesting side element, though, was that on the way back, we were asked twice by the police or border patrol guys to give a somebody a lift to where we were headed. Once, it was a woman with a young kid, the other time it was a journalist who was in the mountains making a report on Navruz celebrations.  Well, the more, the merrier.

2,200km later, we were back home in Dushanbe.

Mountains, Mountains

Mountains, Mountains





Public Transportation is Not For the Claustrophobic

19 03 2009

As I was sitting down to write this, I was kind of torn – should I even be writing about something as mundane as the transportation system? After all, I’ve never really gave much thought to, say, the MTA in New York and certainly never had a desire to write about it.

But I think that the way of getting around in Dushanbe, and Tajikistan in general, has a few differences from what we are typically used to…

Public Transportation – Buses & Trolleys

So, Dushanbe – being the capital – is pretty well connected. You have buses and trolleys traveling on major streets. They are pretty cheap (about $0.15 USD). Each bus has 1 or 2 people that stand next to the doors and collect the money from the new passengers as they enter.

Since it’d be virtually impossible to actually track how much money is being collected, as there are no actual tickets given out, I’ve been told that the process works a bit differently. These guys, along with the bus driver, are required to submit a specific amount of money each day to the department of transportation (e.g. $80) and the rest, they can keep for their work.

Interestingly enough, this makes for a pretty efficient bus system. Unlike New York, where I think that the bus drivers get some sort of a sick pleasure of closing a door right in the face of a passenger that’s been running for the last 200 meters to catch it, things work much nicer here. In fact, the buses are usually more than willing to wait for an extra passenger – as that means “more income” for the people working on it.

Marshrutki

If you need a faster way to get around, you have a million “marshrutok” available at your disposal. Armed with a 15-year van and a desire to cut off every other driver in the city, the drivers of these vanpools will get you from place to place for just around $0.25c.

But you’ve got to be careful – since they are always in a rush to complete their route and turnover more passengers, they have a tendency to start moving while you only have one foot inside and the other one is still on the pavement. Plus, if you tend to be one of the unlucky ones to get in when all of the seats are full, you better find some sort of a nuggin to hold on to during the sharp turns and stops while you’re standing in the aisle. The car’s capacity is taken as a suggestion, not an absolute!

But there is something really nice about marshrutki. For example, if a woman with a kid and  a big bag comes in, somebody will right away take the kid and put them on their lap or hold them while the woman gets settled. When I get in and have to stand because the seats are full, somebody always takes my bag (sometimes without asking :)) and holds it on their lap while I stand. Everybody works together as a well-oiled machine -  it’s just how it’s done.

Taxis

Finally, you also have a ton of taxis roaming the streets. There’s even a whole bunch of them stationed next to my apartment building (since there is a popular cafe nearby). By this point, we know each others’ names, shake everybody’s hand as I pass through, etc. – even though I haven’t taken them at any time.

Taxis are also a convenient way to get to major points, such as bazaars, or between cities. For example, if you’re headed to a market, there is a specific place in the city where taxis wait for passengers headed in that direction. You’ll always share it with 3 other passengers (and the driver), but the ride will be relatively cheap – just $0.50-0.75.

Even if you’re headed out of town, taxis are a great alternative to marshutkas. If you need to get to one town, there is a specific place where taxis headed there wait. If you need to go somewhere else, there is another place. For towns that are 1-2 hours away, it will cost you about $2 to get a ride or a little more as the distance increases. But, ultimately, you can get to virtually any place in the country using these shared taxis.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been traveling to different towns pretty regularly. And I am starting to derive an immense satisfaction from being able to get to where I need to go easily and knowing how everything connects. So, even if it takes 1 bus, 2 marshrutkas, and a taxi to get to where I need – it’s fine because I almost feel like a local :)





Ahh, The Weekends…

16 03 2009

Before I started my 7 month trip, I kind of figured that I’d have no trouble keeping myself busy during the weekdays, as I’d be working full time. However, I have to admit that I was somewhat wondering as to what would I wind up doing during the weekends in new places where I don’t know anybody.

Fortunately, now that I’ve spent a month and a half here, I can honestly say that I haven’t been bored. Aside from exploring the city and nearby areas, as well as an occasional nature outing, I was fortunate enough to find a few “youth discussion clubs”. In other words, these are informal get-togethers for local young people to meet and… talk.

I stumbled on the first one by accident – after checking out a culture center mentioned in the Lonely Planet chapter on Tajikistan. The first time I came there, there was a discussion taking place in a few hours, so I stuck around. It turned out to be a group of 5-10 people that meet pretty much every Saturday for discussions on various issues and topics. It turned out to be surprisingly interesting, so I wound up going there whenever I’m free that weekend.

From there, I met a few other people and was introduced to another discussion club – this time it was actually held entirely in English. The purpose of it was to help young adults from the area to practice English speaking and listening skills and talk about all types of issues in thee meantime. I had the opportunity to visit it this weekend and it turned out to be a lot of fun, as well. Fortunately, the topic was kind of interesting as well – prostitution :) – so it raised some good discussions.

And from there, I got invited to another meet up that takes place during the week – to which I’ll be going in a few days.

So, these things have really been a great addition to my stay here. They are terrific opportunities to meet local people my age and spend a good time talking to each other, learning other points of views and just having a good time.

On a note of meeting new people, I also found that being here, under the current circumstances, opens you up to meeting people you’d never have a chance to meet to otherwise. I’ve been lucky to meet and have a chance to talk to a lot of really interesting and unusual people over the last few weeks. One day, you can spend a few hours drinking tea with your neighbor, while another meet a cyclist going from Europe to China and swap stories with each other, while on a third day, you can have dinner with an ex-pat Director of an International School, and so on.

So, even if nothing else, the people here alone have made the trip absolutely worthwhile.

Ahh… now if only I could find a cycling club here :)





Show Me The Money – Where Do The Profits Go

13 03 2009
Some of the borrowers I have met in the field

Some of the borrowers I have met in the field

As I was visiting the MFI clients in the field, the borrower would often proudly annnounce that he or she was on their 5th loan… or their 7th loan… or even on the 9th one. Although this does show an impressive credit history, something about it was bothering me.

Before coming here, I had a few assumptions about what a business loan is all about. I pictured a budding entrepreneur who borrows money to purchase supplies or to expand inventory. They pay a relatively high interest rate (say, over 30%+ per year), but it’s worth it because it gives them a boost in their business. Without that loan, they’d either never have an opportunity to grow or it would simply take a very long time.

When the entrepreneur is done paying off the loan, he or she – hopefully – has a higher revenue stream, along with a bigger take-home profit. So far, so good – this is what I’ve been seeing among the borrowers.

But then, I imagined that they take the extra profit and plow it back into their business in order to take it to the next level. However, the reality on the ground was quite different than I expected.

Instead, many borrowers were using the increased profits they made as a result of a loan for personal purposes. One client fixed up their house. Another one used the money for a wedding. A third decided to put in a row of gold teeth. All valid uses. After all, the whole purpose of micro-finance is to help people increase their standard of living and all of these things do that.

But the thing that wasn’t adding up was that the entrepreneur was going right back to the MFI to take out an even larger loan and continue to pay the 30%+ annual interest on that money.

The big question that I’m struggling to answer is why aren’t the borrowers using the profits – that are interest-free – and putting it back into their business first? Granted, this would mean postponing the immediate benefit of using the money for consumption. But over the long haul, it would yield them a much better return and more opportunities to improve their standard of living, as they would avoid paying the interest. At 30% per year, that’s a significant amount in savings.

It’s difficult to put oneself in somebody else’s shoes and make a decision on what’s more important – a roof that doesn’t leak and a loaf of bread today or a two-story house and three loaves and a kilogram of beef next week. I don’t have the answer to that.

But there is even another caveat to the story that made me think. As I spoke to the borrowers, it turned out that most of them rarely kept any sort of a financial document where they’d record how much they made, how much they spent, and so on. All of this was kept in their heads.

While that may be sufficient for day-to-day operations, without a historical record, it becomes very difficult to project how much money one could make by funding the business using the profits rather than debt. As Bob Parsons, a self-made millionaire, once said – “everything that’s measured, grows.” Perhaps, the opposite is also true.

What do you think?








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