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Travels in northern Tajikistan
I travelled back from Khorog to Dushanbe by the southern route, following the Panj river along the border with Afghanistan before turning north through the Kulyabi region, home region of Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon. The Kulyabis had emerged victorious in the civil war of the 1990s, which was more than anything a war among regional clans for power. How often did I hear from Pamiris, who were on the losing side, the resentment of the power of the Kulyabis, who had taken the fruits of their victory in jobs and opportunities? It was a long, but pleasant journey. Among the six other passengers were two English-speaking Pamiris, one of whom turned out to be the nephew of a Pamiri friend in London. We stopped, for lunch in Kala-i-Kum, a quite palatable plov (pilaf), known here as osh, and then again in the afternoon, when we gorged ourselves on juicy melons.

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Istaravshan old town

After a day in Dushanbe, doing laundry, eating Indian food and drinking cappuccinos, I set off to northern Tajikistan, from where I would cross into Uzbekistan. The journey took me over mountains and then down into the Fergana Valley, where Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan meet. My first stop was a night in Istaravshan. I stopped there because it is said to have the best preserved old town in Tajikistan, a taste of what was to come during my travels in Uzbekistan, but without tourists. First of all I looked for a hotel. What I found was pretty awful; a basic room with no running water. The owner brought me a bowl of hot water to wash. Istaravshan has a vibrant market, as well as some fine historic buildings. The sprawling old town is much like so many in the Muslim world, dusty streets with blank windowless walls, hiding the life within, the courtyards, gardens, families. For the outsider strolling along these streets, there is little to see.

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Abdullatif Sultan Medressa, Istaravshan

At the Hazrat-i-Shah mosque I saw for the first time the wooden pillars and bright, intricately painted ceilings that I would see in mosques around the region, in Khujand, Khiva, Kokand and Andijan. The beautiful designs appear to represent Islam as a joyful religion, so different from the harsh austerity that often appears to epitomise Islam in much of today’s world. As worshippers poured out of the mosque after prayers, one of them stopped to talk to me. He told me how Istaravshan was the most historical town in Tajikistan, with more important monuments than nearby, larger Khujand. He pointed out the monumental gate on the nearby hill, overlooking and dominating the town. The gate had only been built a decade before, to mark two and a half millennia since the town’s founding. The hill is the site of an ancient Sogdian fortress, which was stormed by Alexander the Great. Alexander named the city Cyropol. In the midst of the old town is the 15th century Abdullatif Sultan Medressa. Well restored, the high blue-domed building, covered with intricate mosaics, is typical of the region. Still a working medressa, there was no one about as I wandered around.

From Istaravshan, I headed north on the short journey to Khujand. This is Tajikistan’s second city, and its most developed and most prosperous. My hotel had a good bathroom and internet access. Known as Leninabad during the Soviet period, much of Tajikistan’s Soviet-era elite came from here, although the city has an Uzbek majority. It also has a reputation as a centre of intellectual life.

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Sheikh Massal as-Din Mosque, Khujand

During my stay, Khujand was impossibly hot, in the mid-40s. Walking outside in the heat of the afternoon was almost unbearable. Khujand is an old city. It is the site of Cyropolis, founded by Cyrus the Great of Persia, and of Alexandria Eschate, the easternmost outpost of Alexander the Great’s empire. At the heart of the city are the remains of the earthen walls of the tenth-century citadel. At the other end of the town centre is an impressive bazaar, with a vast 1950s hall fronted by an ornate arch whose style echoes that of numerous medressas in the region, an apparent attempt to adapt the religious architectural heritage to the secular communist state. Across a wide open, sun-drenched piazza is a mosque, mausoleum and medressa complex, in the process of being expanded; the religious heritage is making a comeback. Again I was struck by the beautifully carved wooden pillars and the brightly painted ceilings.

As I struggled on through the fearsome heat, to my great surprise I came across a statue of a she-wolf suckling two little boys, Romulus and Remus surely. But what could they be doing in Khujand. I later read that a painting of the wolf and children had been found at an archaeological site near Istaravshan, with a Latin inscription, apparently a link with the classical past going back to Alexander the Great’s conquest.

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Wonderful glimpse of such a different world

Your descriptions and comments always start me ruminating. A few years back when Estonians were debating giving up the kroon to join the Euro zone, the argument against was that, as the first currency genuinely theirs, the kroon was too important a cultural marker to sacrifice to the euro.

My argument then, which many of your comments seem to support is that the most important and long-lasting cultural carrier is language. The Soviets understood this and made strong efforts to denigrate he language of the countries they were occupying.

Even this awful mess in Ukraine is revolving around issues of who speaks what.

Re: Wonderful glimpse of such a different world

Language can indeed be a crucial factor in identity. But it is so for some nations more than for others. For example, there are many cases of more than one nation sharing the same language - English is one obvious example, as well as Spanish, and a number of others. There are also cases where one nation has more than one language. For example, some western Georgians speak Megrelian, and others Svanetian. These are quite distinct languages, but their speakers consider themselves Georgian - although unfortunately the languages are at risk of disappearing, as the Georgian state does nothing to nurture them. Ukraine is complicated too. I have worked in eastern, Russian speaking Ukraine, and have visited Odessa, also Russian speaking. Many Russian speakers consider themselves to be absolutely Ukrainian.

Re: Wonderful glimpse of such a different world

The same is true of Fenno-Ugric languages other than Finnish and Estonian. There are several small communities along the top of Russia, all with their own distinct version of a F-U language. These are dying out as distance to urban centres and lack of any provision for training - by Russia continually shrink their numbers

It's a sad realty, but the world is increasingly too connected for minority languages to hang on without serious efforts to support thew by learning and teaching to younger generations.

Tere hommikust.
LJ tells me it's your birthday. so Palju õnne syntynipäeva.
Where ever you are, I hope it's where you want to be.
Whatever you're doing, I hope it's bringing you fulfilment.
And I hope the year to come, brings more of the same.

Thank you Martha. My birthday will actually be on Wednesday. Right now I am in Zagreb, but will be travelling to London this evening. I hope I will be off on my travels somewhere new and exciting very soon. I look forward to continuing our correspondence over the coming year.
All the very best,

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