Today we continue with Part II of our blog post on Tajikistan, bringing you the second and third Tajik tale! Close your eyes and imagine a world map. How many of you can point out Tajikistan? Good. Then now read these stories about an interesting but often overlooked country!
Don’t miss Part I of this very personal story!
Mazen quickly finishes his cigarette. “Lets have lunch!” he says cheerfully. We walk into the hotel lobby where various companies have set up their promotional stands. Mazen Kaddoura is the General Manager of the newly built Sheraton Hotel here in Dushanbe. Although the hotel is not officially open yet, it already organized some conferences and gatherings, like today’s entrepreneurship conference, prepared by the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) as part of their Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW).
The hotel lobby is bright and colorful, with –how surprising- a beautiful big painting of Farrukh Negmatzade on the wall. The Sheraton is not the first luxury and internationally recognized hotel that opens its doors here in Dushanbe. The Hyatt pioneered in 2009 and the stylish Serena Hotel is located on the capital’s main street. Competition is thus high, but the managers from all three hotels seem to find that a positive sign. “It shows that the city is developing”, Mazen says.
The five star hotels are not the only ones seeking opportunities here in Central Asia’s smallest –stan country. As part of the GEW I am invited to a business breakfast followed by a discussion for female entrepreneurs. There I meet two smart Tajik ladies who tell me they have just started their organization Mavsim. Mavsim is a business engineering organization, set up to help local entrepreneurs with the start up of their businesses. They provide trainings on ICT, HR, and many other aspects to provide newcomers with the right knowledge and skills. Mavsim pays special attention to Tajik women to help them building a steady income.
On my way back home I see many more examples of people who seek opportunities to make a better living here in Tajikistan. New shops are opening their doors and European like bars and coffee cafes become more and more common.
My favorite entrepreneurial initiative here only happens on Sundays, when a group of westerners is put in three or four minivans to run off to the city’s outskirts. Hike Tajikistan is let by two young Tajik men who very smartly earn some extra cash by setting up hiking day trips for expatriates. For 100 somoni (around 20 dollars) they drive you to the closest mountains for some fresh air and a fun hike tour. Hike Tajikistan already made it to the Lonely Planet and still is the most popular weekend outing among expatriates.
Too friendly to tourists
“You don’t know the story about the horse of Alexander the Great?” My driver sounds shocked when I tell him that I have never heard of it. We are on our way to a meeting and I just shared with him that I would like to visit Iskandarkul. This beautiful crystal clear lake named after Alexander the Great is probably the most popular spot to escape a weekend from Dushanbe. It is about 130 kilometers away from the capital and an ideal place for walks and swimming (but just during a short period in summer because its glacial water is cold!). According to my driver the legend tells that Alexander’s favorite horse died in the lake and the poor animal’s spirit can still be seen and heard sometimes when the moon is full.
Iskanderkul is just one of the many spectacular tourism destinations that Tajikistan has to offer. Historically, Tajikistan has always been a stop along the Silk Road and it therefore has many interesting places to visit, such as Khujand, Istaravshan, Panjikent, and Kulyab. Unfortunately, the country has still not benefitted a lot from these attractions. This, in a sense, makes it even more interesting and worthwhile to visit because people really appreciate that you have taken the effort to come to their country.
Like Nepal, this nation is seen as a ‘roof of the world’. Around 97% of Tajikistan is covered with mountains, of which some reach the height of over 7000 meters. Especially the country’s east, the Pamir area, is known for its stunning highlands and its highway is popular among backpackers for adventurous road trips through Central Asia.
One of the focus points among Tajikistan’s plans to improve its tourism sector is the development and economic growth in rural areas. “You know what was one of the most difficult parts of our educational programs?” the Head of Tajik Community Based Tourism Association (TCBTA) asks me. “To explain to the local people that it is not insulting to request money at the end of people’s stay.” Apparently, in the past it has happened often that tourists who stayed in Tajik guesthouses or slept in people’s homes could not convince the owners to accept their payment. Local people saw it as an act of hospitality to take care of them for a night or two.
TCBTA is Tajikistan’s umbrella organization on Community Based Tourism (CBT) and aims to let the local communities benefit from Tajikistan’s upcoming tourism. Many Tajik men have left the country to work in Russia because there is not much work to be found in the villages. Women and children are thus often left alone with unsteady income. Organizations like the TCBTA aim to help them to provide tourists with accommodation, transports, and services. And in this way the women are empowered and less dependent on their husband’s income.