The first time I found myself in Dushanbe, I had no idea what on earth was going on. I had just been plucked out of Hurricane Irene in the United States and placed into a pressurized metal cylinder in which the hours flew by at an unnatural rate. My aisle seat meant that I could see nothing of the world outside; I was insensate to my own motion and had no awareness of time. And then all of a sudden, it was 3:20 in the morning two days later, and I was confused and scared and exhausted, and I was standing in a bewildering customs line that functioned in a language I didn’t understand. No idea where I was in the city, no idea which way the streets ran. No accommodations lined up, either; a godsend of a taxi driver ferried me and my bags all over the shadowy city until we found a hotel that both fit my budget and would accept me at 5 in the morning.
I was so jet-lagged at that point that my sleep schedule ran in reverse. I would sleep through the days and stay up all night. Sometimes, very late, I would venture out to explore the darkened capital. Everything was lit up in the sickly orange glow of sodium vapor lamps. Banks of streetlights would wink out on occasion, leaving me rooted to the spot. No one was outside except for the cops, who crawled down every street. By coincidence, I had come to town at the same time as the presidents of Russia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and the security apparatus was on high alert. Long convoys of police cars would come screaming down the main street, no sirens, just a cop with a megaphone barking orders at any civilians in their way. From every building, Mao-like pictures of Emomali Rahmon, the president of Tajikistan, leered protectively over the scene.
This, then, was my first impression of Dushanbe: pale, nerve-racking, menacing, and shrouded in eternal night.
Now I’ve come back to finish up the last of my Kiva work in Tajikistan. And I’m pleased to report that the sun does indeed rise in Dushanbe on most days! Not only that, there are museums and parks and theaters and colorful flower beds and a surprising amount of new construction. It’s an open secret that much of this construction is funded by drugs coming over the border from Afghanistan, but let’s not worry about that now. Dushanbe is a very nice city, really.
In fact, it’s so nice that I am culture-shocking all over again. They have ethnic food here, you guys! ETHNIC! FOOD! Do you understand what I mean by this?? It’s food that is not plov!!! So far I’ve had Uighur, Indian, Syrian, and some kind of awful spaghetti that was transmuted into a fine dish in my mind; there is even a random Ecuadorian restaurant somewhere in the north of the city, though how an aspiring Ecuadorian restaurateur found themselves in Tajikistan I do not understand. I have also found a European café where you can pay seven bucks for a coffee in exchange for… wait for it… WIFI!!! What is this crazy new technology? Dushanbe is a city of only 600,000 people, but after intimate, insular Khujand, it feels like the most cosmopolitan place in the world.
Right now, I am sitting on the broken concrete balcony of my hotel room, drinking some Czech beer and pumping Bach’s Partita #3 in E Major out of my laptop speakers. I have been consumed with Kiva work and visa woes the whole time I’ve been in Dushanbe (more about those later). But for right now, at least, life is good.