On the Turkish Airlines flight into Dushanbe, the young American woman sitting next to me was enthusiastic about her next three days of personal freedom in Tajikistan. She is a political officer at the US embassy in Afghanistan. "I'm looking forward to being able to walk around on streets," she told me in a slight southern twang. "It will feel good to be in a normal city."
Dushanbe comes off well when compared to, say, Kabul. But the Tajik capital fares less well in comparison to most other places. Running water and electricity are pretty constant in the tree-lined city center. But basic, working infrastructure degrades the farther it is from government ministries and the presidential residence dominating Dushanbe's low rise urban nucleus. Drive just a few minutes and street lights stop working, apartment block windows flicker by minuscule candle light, and only the piercing of flashlights break the blackness in alleyways and courtyards.
The situation is even more dire outside Dushanbe's city limits. Tajikistan's borders are heavily patrolled by soldiers and guards (with significant assistance from American drug enforcement officials) trying to interdict the huge poppy smuggling coming out of neighboring Afghanistan in the south (or profit from it, in which case presumably without assistance from American drug enforcement officials) and with the smuggling of about everything else from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to the north and east.
The countryside is wracked by devastating problems – from catastrophic water and energy shortages to rampant child labor practices in the cotton fields to jobless villages where Tajik men returning from Russia face unending unemployment. Last winter was catastrophic for farmers – a devastating cold front moved into the country and stayed for months, knocking out the winter crop. People froze and went hungry. This winter was warmer, but farmers continue to buckle under the hardships of lack of accessible water, lack of electricity, and the widespread and enforced requirement to grow unprofitable and unsustainable cotton.
But having gotten some sleep at my hotel (the flight arrived at 3am) and having taken a walk around, I'm starting to share the appreciation for Dushanbe that was expressed by my airplane seat mate. The grass is still yellow and chalky from the dry winter and leaves have yet to take hold on trees, but the muddy-red mountains ringing Dushanbe are beautiful. Women in traditional, cheery, and colorful Tajik coats walk the sidewalks. The roads are pleasantly dominated by vans --new and quiet, privately-run and Chinese-made vans-- a gift from the Chinese government. The small-wheeled vehicles furiously ferry people around this otherwise slow paced, even laconic city. The Chinese are also building new roads and tunnels and Dushanbe has a lot of new Chinese restaurants. There's a zippy vibe to the place.
It feels good to be in Dushanbe.