Sunday, August 26, 2007

Why Tajikistan?

Tajikistan is certainly a random part of the world to travel to! Most people have never heard of this country even though it borders Afghanistan and is near Pakistan. It is the least developed of all the "Stan" countries and probably the least known.

I heard of it first when a woman from Khojand came to my high school to get perspectives on American Waldorf schools. She came and gave a talk to my senior class about how she had founded a Waldorf School in Central Asia, (with the help of a couple Germans) which was barely five years old and still struggling. At that point the thought of a gap year before college had entered my mind, but I had not made any decisions yet. This woman caught my attention, though, someone who had come a long way to learn about the Waldorf education system and had invested herself into the cause. Canyon (who had similar ideas on a gap year as me) and I ended up meeting with her on numerous occasions, talking about the Waldorf School, as well as Islam, Internet cafes and soccer. We were fascinated by her stories of growing up in a fairly strict Muslim family which she escaped when her father realized her academic potential and sent her to University. Her proud descriptions of Khojand were not that of an impoverished developing town, but of a lively up-beat city where public Internet (costing $.38 an hour) and nightly "foot-ball" games were the norm. By the end of our conversations I was there, in my mind and dreams. And then she extended to both Canyon and me an invitation to come live and work with her at the new Waldorf School in Khojand. When again would I ever be able to travel to such an exotic place? Have the opportunity to be so instrumental in the creation of something I had just spent 13 years immersed within? So I took the opportunity without a second thought.

Though we did ask her about such practicalities as flight arrangements (she went through Moscow) and cost, we really did assume traveling to a place hardly noticeable on a globe to be far easier than it really was. Here we are, just a few weeks from leaving and do we have our tickets or visas? No.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


With every text I read about Tajikistan and Khujand I get more interested in this country and city. Khujand is on the Silk Road and supposedly dates back 2300 years when Alexander the Great founded his "Alexandria Eschate," his furthest Alexandria. It is in northern Tajikistan, not too far from the Uzbek capital Tashkent. In fact, many Khujand- dwellers (Khujandians?) are of Uzbek ethnicity stuck in Tajikistan because of an unnatural boundary line drawn after the fall of the Soviet Union. Much of the country fell into poverty after the fall of the Soviet Union and electricy and gas usage are spotty and unpredictable, especially in the winter. It is apparent that the Tajiks miss their Soviet days, a fact that is a point of interest to me, and one I wish to explore more in my visit. The official language is Tajik (a relative of ancient Persian using Cyrillic) but Russian is spoken in public and at school. The people are 80% Sunni Muslim, the average yearly income per capita (as calculated in 2005) is $355.30 and the geography is 90% mountainous. What a country for me to have never heard of before April of this year!

But getting there is very difficult. Okay, it seems like a self-evident fact- traveling to an obscure under-developed country of 7 million is like twisting cold steel with your hands- but it seemed to me that I was only a few clicks on away from Tajikistan. Not so.

Firstly. Canyon does not have a passport, and won't have one until we buy tickets so he can expedite it. Secondly, we cannot buy tickets without passports. It's the chicken and the egg incident. We also had trouble finding flights out of Tajikistan in November, as the airlines don't post flights more than 40 days ahead. And if we stay in Tajikistan more than 60 days the government will supposedly come after us. We contacted numerous travel agencies, most of whom could not help us. "You just picked the wrong area of the world to travel to" one said. But a couple did respond positively.

So, we chose one who had the most favorable deal and called him up at his Brooklyn office last week to work out the details. Dan (he must have Americanized his name, because he had a distinct Russian accent) seemed nice and helpful. He arranged a flight from Austin to London to Moscow directly to Khojand for just $2,000. There was a three week stop in London on the way home so we could wander Europe for awhile before returning to the States. It seemed like the answer to our prayers. But wait. We would have to change terminals in Moscow, go from the International Terminal to the Domestic one and this would entail collecting baggage and getting a double-entry Russian visa for $225. Okay. We'll pay the money. I mean, we're going to Tajikistan after all and it's not going to be too easy or cheap. But then- he wanted our original passports and money sent directly to him after he purchased the tickets. What? Mafia. (My aunt pointed it out). But whether he was mafia or not, I need my passport with me and it made no sense at all. He did not even have a real profile on the Internet, just a self-set-up page on tours he arranges for St. Petersburg. We should have taken that into account before. So here we go back to step one again.

UPDATED: We're going through Frankfurt. We decided to take the plunge and buy the tickets so Canyon can expedite his passport. We'll go from there to Istanbul or Astana (Kazakhstan) to Dushanbe to Khujand. We still have to work out visas and immunizations as well as booking those last legs of the trip before we can embark (in a mere three weeks!). We leave September 18th at 12:55pm.

Thank you to you all who have said you are praying for us. Perhaps we are too young and reckless to realize the leap of faith we are taking, but it's thrilling to leap anyway. We are glad to have our parent's support in this endeavor and have had many reassuring conversations with our hostess in Tajikistan and an acquaintance who has fearlessly traveled by foot and public transport all the way from Switzerland to China through a couple of neighboring "Stan" countries. Personally, I am enlivened by the thought of this adventure (which, it has been pointed out, is far more than an adventure) and not apprehensive about the change of scenery, but this is perhaps only because it is not yet a reality for me. More to come.