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Thanksgiving, Tajik Style

15 December 2014

A surprisingly complete Thanksgiving, managed with only a two-burner stove, no oven, and less than 48 hour notice. Spoiler alert: we cheated on the poultry.

Our humble Thanksgiving gathering.

Left to right: Nona, Umed, Vadim, Lauren, Maki and me. Our humble Thanksgiving gathering.

By Tuesday of the week of Thanksgiving, it was clear that we had no plans whatsoever for celebrating this most American of holidays. A text message to the friend that might have ideas yielded nothing, so late on Tuesday evening, I made the executive decision that we would be hosting one. Turkey was entirely out of the question, given our lack of oven (and I don’t cook meat and don’t eat it either, if I can avoid it), but I figured if we were willing to swap in rotisserie chicken and someone could bring the pumpkin pie, I could manage the rest just fine. The following day, on Wednesday, Maki did the bulk of the grocery shopping the next day, and I stopped in a couple places on my way home from the archive.

Mashed potatoes, rotisserie chicken, mushroom stuffing, corn,

Mashed potatoes, rotisserie chicken, mushroom stuffing, mushroom gravy, corn, lingonberry sauce, squash and spit pea soup, and lots of Moldovan wine.

Getting everything together involved a little creativity and a lot of patience. Tajikistan decided to really deal us a rough hand when our water was unexpectedly cut off all day Wednesday, until mid-morning Thursday, which meant I could only do a little cooking on Wednesday night, but I got the gravy and stuffing out of the way (stuffing on the stovetop is not recommended, but what we had more or less worked!). And then, on Thursday, I headed home from the archive at about 4:30, about half an hour early. Maki had done a lot of the cleaning (thank goodness the water had returned!), and set up our Tajik-style table spread — kurpachas (quilts for seating) and a dastarkhan (the table cloth spread, in this case, on the floor). Meanwhile, I managed to get the soup, lingonberry sauce, and mashed potatoes prepared, finishing just as our guests started arriving, two of them bearing our little chickens (hey, the shape is right!).

Maki carves the bird.

Maki carves the bird.

And indeed, I think we basically managed everything! There were no sweet potatoes (I hate them, so I wasn’t about to be responsible for them), and I could only find frozen lingonberries (it was that or cranberry jam, and I chose to do the homemade sauce myself). It was a wonderful evening, full of great conversation, lots of laughter, and so much food. Though the “turkey” might not have been authentic, our feelings of stuffed satisfaction most certainly were. I even ate the chicken, which, for some reason, seemed incredibly appealing. As the evening died down and our guests headed home, there was just enough time to check in with our own families back in the states — including this awesome FaceTime call with the stateside Whittingtons — just five of them this year.

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This was certainly unlike any of my recent Thanksgivings, which have been stateside since 2010 (in California, Michigan, Ohio and Maryland), but it was nevertheless a wonderful time to remember and reflect upon all of life’s many blessings. And to be thankful for what a little creativity and flexibility can bring to a holiday when you’re thousands of miles from home.

Found in Dushanbe

15 December 2014

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Courtesy of the Chinese grocery store. We’re not sure whether the Avril Lavigne iced tea is officially licensed, but the potato flavored non-potato chips were incredibly strange. Oh, the things you find!

Older and Wiser

15 December 2014

Another November birthday season.

Maki's birthday! Complete with cognac and a baby cake.

Maki’s birthday! Complete with cognac and a baby cake.

I really love that Maki and I have birthdays so close together, as it makes celebrating birthdays all the more fun. I suppose there might be something to be said for having celebrations spaced out, but I enjoy the fact that both of us are scheming for presents and surprises at the same time. This year, our birthdays were quite low-key, as Dushanbe isn’t exactly the most happening of places. This year, when I started hassling Maki about what he wanted to do for his birthday, the only idea he threw out there was bowling, and so we decided to make a night of it at a Chinese restaurant and a bowling alley a short walk from our house. But I’m getting ahead of myself!

The birthday boy.

The birthday boy.

Since Maki’s birthday fell on a Tajik holiday (Constitution Day), we got to spend the whole day being lazy. Especially since here in Tajikistan, people tend to stay at home and do nothing on holidays, as pretty much everything is closed. We started with a wonderful breakfast of crepes, with amazing Ethiopian coffee that I bought at a fancy shop as a gift for Maki. I figured that, short of being able to find any single awesome gift, I would find a whole assortment of his favorite things, including a homemade caramel sauce for the crepes, a huge bag of his favorite chips, a large Twix bar, and other assorted goodies. The weather that day happened to be awful, but we eventually braved the freezing rain for our dinner with a few friends, followed by bowling, which was extremely epic.

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When we got to the bowling alley, we were not surprised to find that the atmosphere was rather club-like, with blazing music, mostly of the Russian pop variety, and club lights. The bowling alley, only six lanes, was extremely modern, but clearly a place for the wealthy and for foreigners. But we enjoyed ourselves! And after a solid game — won, appropriately, by the birthday boy — we headed home for cake and cognac, pictured above. A lovely birthday indeed!


A short four days later and it was my birthday, and I enjoyed sleeping in. I awoke to a wonderful breakfast of shakshuka (one of my new obsessions this past fall), expertly prepared by Maki. Laid out were a whole host of exciting things, including SO MUCH DECENT CHEESE, a bottle of nice Georgian wine, various candies, beautiful flowers, and some new socks. We hung out for the morning, and I headed off to my Tajik lessons in the late afternoon. My celebratory dinner was pushed off a couple nights, to accommodate a friend’s travel schedule, so after I returned home that evening, Maki and I headed off vaguely in the direction of a Syrian restaurant. We ended up, instead, at a newly opened German bar, where we ran into a friend (the very friend who had given Maki the cognac for his birthday), and sat down to dinner there instead.

See? So new there was still construction going on!

See? So new there was still construction going on! I know it’s dark, but hey, we took pictures, so I might as well include them! To the left, I sit with Umed, the friend we ran into at the bar. To the right, with Maki.

The bar had an absolutely proper bar, and the menu included margaritas containing only tequila, cointreau, and lemon (no limes in Tajikistan, sadly), so after my first beer, I decided to go for the margarita. The presentation needed a little work — it was weirdly shaken out like a martini — but hey, it was good! And after we had enjoyed our food and drinks, we headed home for the perfect tiny cakes that Maki had found for us to share.

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And just a few days later, for the final round, we gathered a nice crowd at the local Ukrainian restaurant to celebrate in style. A wonderful round of birthdays!

Sunday Hikes out of Dushanbe

11 December 2014

The mountains around Varzob, just a half-hour drive north of Dushanbe.

October and November in Dushanbe, including a couple beautiful hikes out of Dushanbe, in Romit and Varzob.At the risk of sounding something like a broken record, Tajikistan is beautiful. While the country may not have a lot going for it politically or economically, Tajikistan is most certainly one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. Approximately 93% of the territory of the country is covered in mountains, and the mountains make a lovely backdrop for Dushanbe, otherwise a quite forgettable city (the world’s (previously) largest flagpole notwithstanding). But oh, the mountains!



Anyway, we settled into Dushanbe without major hitches, minus the outstanding question of visas. Maki made a week-long trip to Bishkek early in October to get a different visa that was more suited to his activities, but other than that, things have been quite calm. Our central apartment has been extremely convenient, even if this Onion article might have been written about it, with most places walking distance from us. And though basically everything in our apartment has broken at least once, our landlord has always been extremely responsive.

A panorama!

Another panorama — also from Varzob.

Anyway, fall and winter come very gently to Dushanbe. While friends in Kazakhstan and even the US battled dropping temperatures, we enjoyed weather in the 80s well into October, and only in the last few week have temperatures dropped consistently below freezing, and even then, only at night. Obviously, however, it’s much colder in the mountains, where we were able to retreat on a couple weekends.


We went on our first hike back in October, but things have been quite pleasant into November, and the hikes have been fantastic, if perhaps a bit muddy. Read more…

#dissertuesday in the Tajik Archives

9 December 2014

Everyday adventures in the Central Archives of Tajikistan. A nice peek into the life of the historian.

Working away at my assigned desk.

Working away at my assigned desk.

A few of my friends have taken to a new project this year, #dissertuesday, which involves posting a status or a picture connected to the everyday life of the dissertator, where ever you happen to find yourself in the process. Dealing with a dissertation, for the most part, is a very lonely process, filled with long days of grappling with the difficulties of a large-scale, multi-year, ambitious project. I find it rather reassuring to see the handful of other pictures that crop up each Tuesday, reminding me that I am blessed with a large community of friends and colleagues dealing with the same process. Anyway, in honor of my penultimate Tuesday in Dushanbe, I thought I might offer a brief glimpse into my daily life in the Central Archives here in Dushanbe.

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The Central Archive of Tajikistan is in the grayish brown building offset from the white one. I am standing in front of the building on the picture to the left. The reading room is on the second floor, above the entrance.


Unlike the other places I’ve worked, Dushanbe is very much off the beaten track of the archive world. Although the archives have a website, they don’t even so much as list a phone number or an address. I sent an email to the listed address, but as I suspected, I received no answer. So, needless to say, the first challenge was finding the building. I contacted a fellow historian, the only one I had known who had worked here, for information, and he gave me an address and approximate directions, but finding the archives themselves proved to be quite the challenge. It didn’t help that the address I was given, while close, was a little off. My first day that I tried to deal with the archive, I spent a full hour and a half trying to find the building, moving from building to building before I was finally able to get the correct building. That it was only labeled in Tajik didn’t help, as I did not know the words for archive. But anyway, after a series of wrong guesses, I finally found the archive, located at 38/2 Karaboev Street (I should double-check that).

Entrance into the reading room to the left, complete with Rahmon poster. To the right, the humble reading room, where I work each day.

Entrance into the reading room to the left, complete with Rahmon poster. To the right, the humble reading room, where I work each day.

Anyway, I am offering all these details for the next person who swings through Tajikistan, looking for the Central Archives. To get there, you can take the number 2 marshrutka from the center. After passing the Circus (Tsirk), the marshrutka heads down Karaboev Street, and past the Youth Theater, and then turns right on some street, and it’s there that you get off, cross Karaboev Street and find yourself about where the second picture (on the right) was taken, and head back from the main street to the archive. Anyway, finding the archive, of course, was only half the adventure. There was also the joy of getting permission to use the archive.

A file request form, dating from the 1980s. You can still see that it's marked for the Tajik SSR, and the place where you mark the date is typed out for "__" _________ 198__ year. Which is to say, they printed a whole bunch of these things back in the 80s and still haven't run out. Seriously, we're back in the USSR here!

A file request form, dating from the 1980s. You can still see that it’s marked for the Tajik SSR, and the place where you mark the date is typed out for “__” _________ 198__ year. Which is to say, they printed a whole bunch of these things back in the 80s and still haven’t run out. Seriously, we’re back in the USSR here!

Unlike working in Moscow, the archives here are not exactly accustomed to receiving foreigners, and the system by which you gain permission to use the archives is a little haphazard. It doesn’t help that I suspect all policies are probably flexible. The folks in the office at American Councils, the organization that is sponsoring my research right now, didn’t think I needed anything special for working in the archive, since I was on an O-2 visa, specifically for research, so despite having been told otherwise, I decided to try my hand the first time with just the letter from my advisor, the only thing you need to register at archives in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. When I finally got to the door, relieved to be finally told that yes, this one was the archive, the security guard wasn’t entirely sure what to do with me. He sent me up to the third floor to talk to a couple people there. The two secretaries working in the room made lovely small talk, took my letter and a copy of my passport and visa, wrote down my telephone number, and said they’d give me a call when I could come by and work, perhaps the next morning. And so, that was round 1.

Files, files, everywhere.

Files, files, everywhere.

The call never came, so a couple days later, realizing nothing works in this country, except in person, I returned. They told me there was no need to come until they called me, and that I still had to wait. Round 2. So I waited. And waited. I tried calling a couple times, but there was no answer, and finally, after several days of calling, someone finally picked up the phone. She gave me yet another number to call, and I was told to come on in. So I came the next morning, only to be told that I would need letters from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and from the Institute of History at the Academy of Sciences. Why they waited a full two weeks to tell me this was anyone’s guess. But that’s how September passed without a single document.

Registers of documents.

Registers of documents.

Anyway, I put the people at American Councils in charge of dealing with the MFA, and focused on the library (briefly) and my Tajik language lessons while I waited for permission. I figured I’d use the MFA permission to get the letter from the Academy of Sciences. Grant applications kept me busy, too, and before I knew it, it was almost November, two months into my 3.5 month stay and I had yet to do any of the research I had come for. There had been the occasional calls to the MFA, and they assured the office that someone was seeing to it. And as October turned to November, I decided to take things into my own hands. I turned up at the Academy of Sciences myself, and after being shuffled from office to office to office, I emerged within an hour with a letter, signed by the director of the Institute of History.** I took that to the archive, arriving, unfortunately, just before the hour-long lunch break. So again, I waited. But upon everyone’s return, I was shuffled to a couple more places, before I finally found myself seated in the reading room, provided with a couple registers of documents for one of the organizations I am researching for my dissertation.

Tea in the archive.

Tea in the archive — the archivist enjoys taking care of me. Mostly, I suspect, as a means for avoiding his work.

A deep sigh of relief. Read more…

The Glories of Soviet (re)Construction!

8 December 2014

A short day trip to Hissor, a small city west of Dushanbe and the location of one of Tajikistan’s more overrated attractions. But still worth the trip!

The fortress at Hissor from the hills, the city stretching out in front of it.

The fortress at Hissor from the hills, the city stretching out in front of it. The two madrassahs are visible down the hill in the center and left of the picture.

Tajikistan is pretty low on the historic sites front. There are the occasional small pilgrimage sites, or one-off tombs, but let’s face it: basically all the major “Tajik” landmarks are in Uzbekistan. Although there are a few old cities around, for the most part, most historic sites fall into one of two categories: ruins and Soviet reconstructions. The (once) great fort at Hissor falls into the latter category. But since there was extra space on the American Councils trip out there, Maki and I could go for free, and since I had missed the Hissor trip my last time around for a trip to Tursunzoda, I figured it was time I see this site, featured on the 20 Somoni bill, especially since it’s an easy 40 minute drive west of Dushanbe in the direction of Tursunzoda. The approach, once we finally reached the site after twirling through some neighborhoods, was reasonably impressive, in a late-Soviet antiquity sort of way.

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We were greeted by a tour guide, who showed us around in Tajik, though I will admit that I wasn’t really processing anything for longterm retention. So, anyway, inside the gates, it was clear that this was not just a Soviet-era reconstruction project, but an ongoing project. The entrance was covered in scaffolding, and workers swirled around as we toured the site.

2014-11-01 hissor 14Perhaps most noteworthy of the entire complex were the beautiful views of the Fan Mountains, which stretch out northwest of Dushanbe.

View of the Fan Mountains from Hissor.

View of the Fan Mountains from Hissor.

Even if the site itself is a bit underwhelming, we enjoyed spending a little time exploring the sites. It was nice to have a little change of scenery — especially on such a beautiful day.

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Read more…

Alaudin Lakes, Zerafshan Valley

4 December 2014

Magical lakes, last minute improvisation, and the little CRV that could.

These lakes were absolutely incredible. Tajikistan really may be the prettiest of the former Soviet Republics.

These lakes were absolutely incredible. Tajikistan really may be the prettiest of the former Soviet Republics.

Rather last minute on one of our earlier weekends here, back in September, we were invited to join a couple guys who were headed up to some of Tajikistan’s beautiful lakes. We got the details late the night before, and by 10 am the next morning, we found ourselves at Dushanbe’s Cement Factory, the take-off point for destinations north of the city. We found Umed, and the three of us were eventually joined by Ben, and we quickly negotiated a round-trip driver to the Fan Mountains, which stretch out in the northwest part of Tajikistan, towards Penjikent. Specifically, we were headed to the Zerafshan Valley, in pursuit of some lovely lakes that Ben knew from his NGO work.

Umed and Ben at a reststop, with one giant fatirshurbo.

Umed and Ben at a reststop, with one giant fatirshurbo.

The ride was mostly uneventful. We sped out of Dushanbe, and before long, we were already off-roading it. Things were going along swimmingly, until we got to the dreaded stretch of road that was the last difficulty before we would approach the lakes.

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Plotting this time.

Let’s just say it took three tries, a borrowed shovel, and all the (literal) manpower we had to drive that car over this stretch.

Almost got it!

Almost got it!

But eventually, we — and our driver’s little CRV — made it, and immediately when the car finally came to a stop, we were more or less dumbfounded by the scenery that greeted us.

The Zerafshan Valley, near the Alaudin Lakes, just a short walk over the hills.

The Zerafshan Valley, near the Alaudin Lakes, just a short walk over the hills.

We hit a bit of a snag upon arrival, however, as the little base came, which we had been assured would be empty, as the season was over, was at capacity with foreign tourists. Read more…


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