Wednesday 16 October 2013

Good bye Tajikistan

This will be my last entry into this blog, on the 25th October I head to Thailand, Myanmar and  surrounding south east Asian countries. I plan to visit as many as possible before returning to the UK in January.

The sad news is that the VSO will be closing its programmes down in Tajikistan, Cameroon, Laos and Indonesia, this news is a blow to the people who will loose their jobs, but this decision affects a great deal more than VSO employees and volunteers, here is the summary of what the VSO had to say in a letter to all staff and volunteers and I quote

‘Tajikistan is moving towards middle-income status (even though large populations of poor people remain); institutional donor interest is low (even though VSO Tajikistan has made some fundraising progress recently); and, the operating environment can provide occasional challenges. We therefore concluded that the potential of VSO to develop a programme in Tajikistan that could deliver impact at scale was low’.

  Having got to know a few Tajiks quite well, I asked their opinion on this statement and they were unanimous in that they have not seen any movement towards middle income, and they are paid directly by the government not the private sector, unless you factor in corruption money of course, but that's something that wont be discussed. It also states in the report that VSO received a tough evaluation earlier this year in the independent progress review commissioned by DFID and that we need to improve the quality, results and impact of our work, I think Tajikistan has been a difficult country for the VSO and change is slow here, success has been limited, DFID were one of VSO’s biggest donors and there have been cutbacks everywhere so maybe its no big surprise.

This whole experience for me has been amazing but maybe not in the way I thought it would , There has been neglectful management in my placement,  a lack of interest from VSO Tajikistan and the Institute where I have been based, being new to international development meant that I didn’t necessarily understand the full placement brief or lack of it, I assumed that a developing country would be pleased to have an International giving advice on a subject they clearly don’t have a great understanding of, but that wasn’t the case I am sad to say, there was a general feeling of apathy a lot of the time, other volunteers have said to me that it was an unrealistic placement altogether. It could be that it was a cultural difference or just that I was unlucky with my particular placement, It has questioned my belief in ‘aid’ in general and weather sometimes organisations actually slow down the development process.

So what of Tajikistan and the future, Its a country of outstanding beauty that's for sure, but the ugly vain of corruption runs very deep under the skin of society, leaving a strained expression on most of the faces here, its a fragile situation run by an out of touch despot president and his regime, ruling a culture who would rather have a dollar today than 10 tomorrow.  That attitude could be a result of being told what to do and when to do it in the communist days. With anti-Muslim protests in Russia over jobs to migrant workers things could go very wrong indeed if Putin decides to send the Tajiks home. Add to that the Nato coalition moving out of Afghanistan next year, Tajikistan could be very vulnerable.

I hope this reality has a peaceful ending.

My fellow volunteers and friends in Tajikistan have been a huge support to me through the whole process and I thank them,  its been a pleasure to get to know my colleagues at the Institute and experience a truly different world, to finish things off with a smile I have put a short video together of some of my favourite moments here in Tajikistan I hope you enjoy it.
Thanks for reading, Simon 
If you have problems viewing this on YouTube try here

Tuesday 1 October 2013

On the menu today!


Having been in Tajikistan for 8 months now, it struck that maybe I should be writing something about the food here, especially given my background. So here is a little factsheet on some of the dishes available in Tajikistan, eating out isn’t quite the same as in the UK, for instance in the UK we like variety and choose different restaurants for different reasons. 

Maybe its a fine dinning experience or maybe a pub lunch, pizza or curry. In the capitol Dushanbe those things are certainly available, but travel out of the city and its a different matter, if fact Dushanbe has little in common with the rest of Tajikistan, not that I’ve seen all of TJ of course but if you have read my previous blogs you’ll know what I mean.

perhaps the most famous and most loved dish here is Osh or Palov


This is a plate of Palov from my local cafe close to the Institute its run by Sied pictured below, he serves about 200 plates every day its a mixture of rice, carrots, chickpeas and mutton cooked with cotton oil in a qazan (cauldron) its quite greasy, but has a nice taste, I guess its a typical peasant food designed to fill you up and its cheap, served with Tajik bread called non and side salad £1 and that includes tea which is served without milk and usually green something I have now got used to.IMG_0333

Another traditional dish is qurutob, whose name describes the preparation method: qurut (Tajik: қурут, dried balls of salty cheese) are dissolved in water (Tajik: об, ob) and the liquid is poured over strips of а thin flaky flatbread made with butter or tallow for flakiness. Before serving the dish is topped with onions fried in oil until golden and other fried vegetables. No meat is added. Qurotob is considered the national dish. Its an acquired taste and not for me.


The Soups

The Tajik’s love there soups the main ones are Sherbo, Lagman, and Borscht

Sherbo is basically a meat and vegetable soup plain and simple, Lagman is pretty much the same with addition on noodles and Borscht I am sure you all know is beetroot and cabbage soup, some more pictures below.


So walk into any traditional Tajik restaurant and this will be what's on the menu every day all year round, if you’re very lucky you might get egg and chips, Bon Appetite Tajikistan! 

Friday 23 August 2013

A walk around Penjikent

The name Panjakent is derived from "panj" (five) and "kant" (settlements), meaning "five settlements". Rudaki, the founder of Persian-Tajik literature called "Adam of poets", was born in Panjakent. Around the modern town and in its museum you will find remains of the pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian civilization. The remains of this then important Sogdian trading city on the silk road are just out of town, on a hill overlooking the valley. You can wander around the site unbothered, it is totally unprotected from anything including joyriding cars and broken  bottles such a shame!
The remains of ancient Penjikent 

view from the ancient site to Penjikent today

Most visitors to Penjikent used to come from Samarkand Uzbekistan, but in 2009 the border was closed after government disputes, I cycled to the border to see what was there, this is the closest photo I managed to get as the border guards were not that pleased to see me there! 

Not the most interesting photo in the world but a glimpse of Uzbekistan!
Since the border closure Tourism in Penjikent has suffered as the only way to get here is from Dushanbe a grueling 5 to 6 hours drive, half on untarmaced roads. I have been working with the Zarafshan Tourist Board for the last 6 weeks to find ways of increasing tourism and offering advice to local restaurants and hotels on hospitality, the population here in Penjikent of 30,000 are friendly and very welcoming with a real community feeling about it. Sitting next to the Zarafshan river it is beautiful location if you like things quiet.
I hope that Penjikent and the people here keep pushing to get the border crossing open again as soon as possible and return to a day trip location, because they need it.
I return to Dushanbe next week not knowing my next move, until then I will leave you with some Photos of my wanderings around penjikent. 

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Roof of the world

The end of Ramadan means two things, happy fed and watered Muslims and a holiday. Time for another adventure and a visit to the 'roof of the world' the high Pamirs. Once again I joined my new friends at Welt hunger hilfe the German based organisation working on agro projects in Tajikistan. We set off on what was to be a very long journey. This mountainous area, a large part of which is located in Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan, is one of the most inaccessible in the world. The word pamir in the language of the region denotes the high undulating grasslands of the eastern portion of the mountains, especially where they abut Afghanistan and China. Deep river valleys mark the boundaries of the Pamirs in the north beyond the ridges of the Trans-Alai Range, and the valleys of the Vākhān region (Wakhan Corridor) of Afghanistan form the southern limit. We were heading for an area near the Fedchenko glacier, this glacier is the largest outside the polar regions at nearly 80 km long, on route the terrain was tough, here we see some of the typical terrain we had to cross.
Joachim our master driver and gentleman Bavarian 
Joachim has more gadgets than Nasa and is a master with a Toyota land cruiser, I don't think I have ever felt safer in a car!
The tracks slowly got worse and finally and very reluctantly Joachim threw in the towel so to speak. Luckily for us our track halted near a homestay about 18km from the destination we were aiming for, the owner of the homestay just happened to own a 50 year old Russian military vehicle called a 'Gas 66' easy to remember as it was a good year for English football which I took great pleasure in reminding my colleagues ha ha.
The Gas 66
After a pleasant evening in the home stay which included pasta with garlic and bacon cooked by me of course! and a number of beers we made ready for a early start. 6.30am the Gas 66 was warming its cylinders and ready to go, the 18km left took us 2 hours to cover, the following pictures are what we found when we arrived, less than 60 people a year get to see this awesome landscape, it was a privilege......


The pictures above and below are of the RGS glacier a tributary of the Fedchenko Glacier, covered in stones and dust its difficult to tell its a mass of ice.

It took us three days to get here and didn't really want to go but the shower was calling me and some people here work for a living! The journey back was immediately interesting as the road we drove in on was no longer there! washed away in the night by the high water levels, no problem for the land cruiser of course. It was also cattle moving time and this resulted in a few delays, we also found the highest bus stop in Tajikistan, picture below, bye for now.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Fan mountains

So I have arrived in Zerafshan valley, home to the Fan mountains, I am staying in Penjakent and working with the Zerafshan tourist board. I will blog about Penjakent another time but wanted to share an experience I had recently with some new friends also working in the area.
I was offered a place on a trekking weekend to the see the highest point of the Fan mountains called Chimtarga which stands at almost 5500m, for those like me who had no idea about mountain peaks Mont Blanc one of Europe's tallest stands at 4800m.
The five of us set off for Artuch which was our starting point, we set up camp for the night and enjoyed a beer or two while talking about our route the following day and watching the sun slowly filter away over the mountains.

sleep preventer
After a somewhat restless night caused mainly by laying on the odd rock or two and the intermittent gentle tones of a donkey tethered nearby, I am now up and  watching the sun rise above the mountains, at this stage before we set off we are already at 2000m so the night is chilly and the idea of a cup of coffee from Joachim was greatly appreciated while I cooked breakfast of course.
We packed up and cleared the mess and set off for the view of Chimtarga and the glaciers, I didn't know what to expect, not really having done what I would call proper trekking! well I can report that next to running a marathon when I was 26 years old this was probably the toughest thing I have done, carrying approx. 25 lb of stuff in a rucksack we clambered across harsh terrain which elevated to 3000m in 6 km  which took about 4 hours but all the hardship was put to one side when I first saw the view of the summit. I have been to the Alps and enjoyed them immensely but the sight of the glaciers and lakes was truly breathtaking.

It was explained to me that getting to these kind of altitudes in Europe is difficult because of the snow layer starting further down the mountain making it difficult to climb and requiring more equipment.
I was happy to sit and take in the views around me for the rest of day and because I don't think I could have walked another step. The temperature even at 3000m was still 30c. we were lucky enough to witness an avalanche from Chimtarga the noise was incredible and the pictures I have hear just do not do justice to actually being there.

Chimtarga avalanche

we ate pasta in the evening and made a fire from the dead wood of the juniper trees around us and drank vodka till the fire faded, now you would have thought that with all that excitement I would sleep pretty well wouldn't you, needless to say I was up watching the sun rise once more before we took the path back to Artuch, I have to say a massive thank you to Joachim and the gang for letting come along on what was a very memorable experience. 
Andreas has a very good camera! look closely at the stars )