There are some countries that you travel between and it seems as smooth as walking between two rooms in the same house, while there are others that are about as jarring as turning a corner and finding yourself unexpectedly caught in some kind of inter-cultural mosh pit. Entering Tajikistan from Kazakhstan was the later type of entry. The arrivals hall of Dushanbe was . . . a mob. Taxi drivers pulling, prying, yelling at you, and following you around.
It’s been a while since I’ve stepped off a plane and into this fray. Yelling at some bastard tugging at my sleeve felt oddly nostalgic.
I’m still not sure why there are so many taxi drivers at the Dushanbe airport anyway — the place is pretty much in the center of the city. I just walked in. As I walked away taxis drove slowly next to me, their drivers calling out the window.
I shook my head, smiled. I’d never been here before. Country number 77, or something like that.
They may as well be called no change countries. I’m sure there is some kind of mathematical rationale behind it, but vendors in some countries are often perpetually out of change. Guatemala is the worst. I believe it has something to do with the amounts of various denominations of the currency that is put in circulation relative to the cost of items. So if the cash economy is predominately pumped with, say, 100s and most items cost vastly less than this, there will almost invariably be a perpetual change shortage.
My first attempt at making a purchase in Tajikistan was for two SIM cards. I needed like a dollar worth of change and the lady working the kiosk didn’t have it. She did the thing where she calls out to anyone standing in line or passing by to see if they had change. Nobody did — or they weren’t giving it up. I just took my money back.
Who were those guys?
I saw them walking up the street in the rain. “Where is your car?” I asked. They didn’t have a car. They made up some excuse about how the driver made a mistake and dropped them off at their hotel instead of bringing them to me. It didn’t make any sense. But there was nothing to do but to shrug.
I’ve never had a company that I was going to interview offer to pick me up . . . without a car — especially in the rain. I had asked repeatedly for the address of their office so I could go to them, but they refused to give it to me. They seemed to act as if it was a point of hospitality to come and get me, but as I walked through the rain looking for a cafe I wasn’t so sure about this anymore.
I traveled down to Tajikistan from Kazakhstan to do a story on a major Kazakh logistics company opening up a north-south intermodal transport route that would better link Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia — a potential new economic corridor of the New Silk Road.
This was especially interesting to me because it got its start after the recent political crisis between Turkey and Russia momentarily halted transport via a more westerly corridor. At the core of the New Silk Road concept is that when one trade route goes down another will start up and pick up the slack — very similar to how the ancient Silk Road functioned.
The Astana headquarters of the logistics firm granted my request to meet with their representatives in Dushanbe, and as soon as I arrived my phone was ringing. When the people on the other end told me that they were the people I had come to meet I had no reason to doubt them.
But something was off here. This wasn’t how the company that I’ve been working with for nearly two years operates. They are usually first class all the way. It was clear that I was dealing with something different in Dushanbe. However, it was easy to rationalize that their PR system may not have been as well set up very here because of the simple fact that there probably are not that many foreign journalists coming to Tajikistan to do stories about logistics.
We walked to a mall down the street and went to a cafe. I began interviewing them, and it was at that time that my suspicions began gaining some solid ground. They didn’t seem to really know the subject matter that the were supposed to have been directly involved with. One of them was looking up answers to simple questions on his phone or calling other people, and I picked up on the fact that they were taking what I was saying and repeating it back to me.
I asked them bluntly if they were really from the company they said they were from.
One of them then proudly declared that he was their manager for Tajikistan.
I got the feeling that I should get away. I tried to end the interview multiple times, to stand up, and say goodbye. Generally, this is enough to send the message that the interview is over. But it didn’t work. “Sit down,” the manager once said sternly when I got up to do a final handshake. It seemed as if they were holding me there for some reason, and they kept trying to lock me into going other places with them, meeting their friends, etc. It began requiring concerted effort to keep the smile on my face.
While mentioning or including commentary from a company in an article or book could serve as a good, indirect promotion for them, the dynamics of my interviews are generally set up where it feels as if the interviewee is doing me a favor — he / she is providing me with the information that I need for my stories, they are providing me with a service. This meeting is Dushanbe felt like it was the other way around, like I was doing them a favor, as though I was hired to go there just to promote them. They talked multiple times about me putting them and their “rich” friends in Forbes Magazine. I grew agitated.
Then they offered to take me out to somewhere that would have produced a very intriguing story. As they spoke I saw the narrative developing — I knew what I could do with it. I gambled on the small potential that things were legit, that my suspicions were baseless, and I agreed to meet them the following day.
But I just didn’t feel good about it. I couldn’t imagine getting into a car with these guys — if they could even come up with one — to go out far out of town to some place that I wasn’t familiar with. I couldn’t even find the town they said they were going to take me to on a map. I talked to someone else in the industry of the person that they were supposed to take me out to interview — someone who was touted to be a well-known friend of the president — and he never heard of him.
The next day, an hour before we were to meet, it was snowing. I cancelled, citing the weather as the reason.
They came back immediately with an alternative plan. Apparently, in the five minutes since I canceled they set up a presentation for me at a local logistics company.
They tried guilting me, saying that some guy worked very hard to set up the presentation just for me.
I said that I didn’t care.
“Let’s just meet and talk then.”
I knew this dialog well. It was the same kind of maneuvering that touts and crooked taxi drivers and prowling creeps use all over the world. It was this multi-tiered, if not A then B, if not B then C method of persuasion, where the intensity of what is being proposed decreases with each level, eventually becoming so basic and easy to do that it becomes very difficult to politely justify saying no.
Something wasn’t right.
I sent a message to Astana. The lady running media relations there is incredibly sharp. “I notice everything,” she once told me. My message wasn’t in the least alarming, but I knew that she would read between the lines. I simply stated the name of the guy who said he was their regional manager and a little of what we were planning. If something wasn’t legit I knew she would catch it.
An hour later I received a voice message from her:
“I don’t know who you’re meeting with there but they don’t work for us.”
First meal in #Tajikistan. Something tells me it’s not going to get that much different from here on out.
Dad’s a cop
I saw these young Tajik guys pushing this sports car down the street. It had run out of gas. Something about the irony struck me as funny. I laughed at them. They jokingly made room for me to help push. I took them up on the offer. We pushed the car to the nearest gas station, filled it up, and then drove through the streets at high speed blasting Tajik pop music. “Don’t worry about police,” one of them tells me. One of their fathers was a cop.
What is an American bar?
Growing up in the USA I have to admit that I don’t inherently know what an American bar is, but it is something that is becoming more popular around the world, like Irish or English pubs. This Tajik bartender told me that it was a dream to open up an American bar in Dushanbe.
“What’s an American bar?”
“The American bar is simple. It has simple decorations, simple beer, maybe some whiskey. It has beer pong.”
Sounded like a place that we’d just call “bar,” which I suppose was a very adequate definition.
Dushanbe, not bad
Like almost every other post-Soviet country, Tajikistan is in the process of a massive reformation. While they’re not going the way of countries like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, or Georgia as far as giving foreign companies massive concessions and tax breaks to come and set up shop, some — like Coca-Cola — are moving in.
What’s perhaps more interesting than this is the budding grassroots service economy here. All over the larger cities of Central Asia you find streets that are full of innovative local cafes, bars, and restaurants. With the lacking presence of big international brands, the commercial landscape remains open for local entrepreneurial actors to get the bulk of the action.
“People are less afraid that if they start a business and make money that the government will take it away from them,” the director for the American Chamber of Commerce told me. Apparently, this used to be common here.
This array of diverse local businesses is something that is not common in this world, where the standard fare is either international or regional chain stores or local businesses all trying to do the same bland and boring thing as each other. These guys in Central Asia are not afraid to try something new with a creative type of bar, cafe, or restaurant — themes and concepts abound. You can go from one place to another to another and they all will be fundamentally different. It’s like they are trying to mimic what they think the outside world is like but they really don’t have a clue — it’s like they see something in a movie and then go an do it. But because of this the product that they deliver comes off as truly unique and, for the traveler who has grown used to monotonous commercial landscapes, starkly refreshing.
I spent my days in Dushanbe trudging through sidewalks caked in snow from cafe to bar, bar to restaurant, relaxing, talking to the people around me, taking notes, and working. The mishap with the misrepresented logistics guys — who they actually were I will probably never know — simply left me without much to do in Dushanbe, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.