Hostile environments, Part #4: the Republic of Tajikistan
Tajikistan is just a lovely country. It is properly part of Afghanistan, and the people are Afghan. It just happened to be swept up into the Soviet Union after various Russian conquests and manouevres during the 'Great Game' period in the nineteenth century. The people are mostly ethnic Tajiks, an Afghan tribe. They are more moderate than most Afghan tribes when it comes to the strict interpretation of Islam, and their extended period of Sovietisation in the twentieth century reinforced that. But those issues aside, and taking note of persistent prevailing weak Russian security service presence (the country is not very important to anyone except cotton dealers and heroin traders), Tajikistan is for all intents and purposes a province of Afghanistan.
The corollaries of this are:
Everyone is happy to, and does, live in completely shambolic bust up conditions, and they have no particular desire to change it.
There is next to no public administration, as we in the west understand it.
The government is run by and financed by criminals who use child labour to pick cotton and other criminals who smuggle heroin from Afghanistan into Russia.
Everyone is armed to the teeth.
Women play no significant role in society, politics, culture or business.
There are no proper roads outside the capital, Dushanbe, and transport around the country is extremely difficult.
With a couple of exceptions, levels of foreign investment are close to zero.
The country also has the most curious feature - an accident of Russian Imperial history - of being effectively divided into two separate countries by a peninsula road; the two rumps have scarcely any interaction.
The road between the west and east parts of the country climbs through mountain passes and is extremely primitive (unpaved, unlit etcetera). From mutual geographical isolation follows mutual political estrangement.
The first unpleasantness this author experienced was on the ghastly hot red-eye flight from Istanbul to Dushanbe (one of the few plausible ways in or out of Tajikiatan) when a Tajik government minister took this author's Business Class seat for himself, relegating the author to the rear of Economy. However that was nothing compared to the experience of arriving at Dushanbe International Airport. About 1,000 stateless people without papers were living in the arrivals area before immigration, in tents and wrapped in blankets, and you had to step over them or even on them to stand any chance of getting through the immigration procedure. For the author this took about two and a half hours, and he had a Foreign Ministry VIP escort. For most people it may take four to seven hours to pass immigration. This is unpleasant. There is no food or water, so bring some for the wait.
Dushanbe is mostly harmless in the centre. There is one international hotel; do not dream of staying anywhere else. The city has an empty feel and there is a large central park full of recently constructed monuments and government buildings. However no business is done in any of these manufactured government buildings, that are Potemkin villages. The President is in office but not in power. There is no governmental authority to speak of; there are ministers and civil servants, but power is held by others, chiefly down the barrel of a gun. It would be facile to pretend that a totally lawless country where disputes are routinely resolved with assault rifles is safe. This is not a safe place to be outside the perimeter walls of that one five star hotel.
As you get to meet those people in power, you will find yourself sitting on rugs in tents in the centre of the city, smoking and drinking red wine, and then the sheep eyeball soup will be forthcoming. Just bite in; it is a great discourtesy not to do so. Tajik food is near uniformly revolting.
Most people in power are child labour cotton traders and/or heroin traffickers from Afghanistan. Be careful! They are all armed and dangerous. So smile as you chew on that eyeball.
As soon as you leave Dushanbe, the more serious problems begin. The roads are all mud; when it rains (which is often) they become impassable. Everyone is carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle with a turban and bullet belts, wearing pyjamas. These people can be quite aggressive. Women should dress conservatively. Say you are there the outstanding mountain scenery. Amazingly, there is a trickle of foreigners who come to Tajikistan each year to go mountain hiking. Have a cover story. Be prepared to name the hotel at which you will be staying in the mountains.
Stay away from the heroin smugglers and child cotton traders unless you have 'official' business with them. Play things extremely low key.
Most hotels and towns have electricity and internet receptivity most of the time, but conditions outside Dushanbe are uniformly primitive. Take care with what you eat and drink.
Expect aggressive checkpoints crossing between the two parts of the country or close to the Afghan border. This is a reasonably bad route to enter Afghanistan from, because it is the centre of the heroin trade; but it is a discreet entry point albeit at the price of danger.
You can have no legitimate purpose to be in Tajikistan. There is nothing to do at night, even in Dushanbe. There are no sights to see. The place is an armed camp. Whatever you thought you were doing here, leave by the most propitious route. Anywhere in the region is better than here.