…or at least that was the original title.
New Title/New Post: There are no dogs in Dushanbe.
We all have expectations about the world, especially the underdeveloped world. I had expectations when visiting Tajikistan this past May: feral dogs, unwashed children, and trash heaps…no, no, and no on all three accounts.
I ran every morning while in Dushanbe, and it is a good city to run during the early morning hours. Tajikistan gets into the mid-90’s in May, if you aren’t out by 5:30 a.m. you will dissolve into a swampy pile of running clothes before you get back to your hotel. There is very little pedestrian or vehicular traffic that early, and the city is aesthetically pleasing in a weird, demagoguery sort of way. This weird place was a feast for the eyes, I couldn’t consume the views fast enough. I couldn’t run fast enough to get to the next view, the next weird moment. Running is a pleasure, running in a surreal city is a sexy pleasure. Ever step of my running shoes was an exclamation point to the thought “I am running in fucking Central Asia!”
By the way, the weirdest moment wasn’t native to Dushanbe, it was the sight of me running with a female friend in Nike running tights. Tajikistan is an Islamic country, Tajik women wear head scarves and ankle length dresses (with pants!). My American female running partner was the weirdest sight in Dushanbe. It made us laugh at the looks, we discussed possible conversations after we ran by groups of Tajik men. American decadence at its best. We will bring you McDonalds, we will bring you Coke, we will bring democracy, and we will give you women runners in running tights. Fear us! We have come to conquer and put your women in sinful clothing!
President Rakmon, the current dictator of Tajikistan, is a lover of statues and monuments. Rule 1 when you assume your job as dictator – build statues to your country’s historical heroes…in Central Asia it is poets, scientists, and historians, which isn’t really a bad group of heroes. Unfortunately the statues are meant to be a distraction from the fact that 45% of your GDP is the trafficking of Afghanistan heroin. I am not really sure it’s working.
Dushanbe is made of large unfinished plazas and parks, with large statues, that bleed into building construction sites bordered by unfinished sidewalks. These unfinished sidewalks, which are strips of concrete that end abruptly and then immediately began as dirt paths, are swept daily. Running these sidewalks early in the morning reminded me of walking in virgin snow, you get to be the first person to go where no man has gone before. Small puffs of brown and talc like powder surrounds your legs. But this pleasure of being a new explorer of virgin dirt paths doesn’t make up for Dushanbe being a city that feels and looks unfinished. Flower beds are not weeded and park benches lay up ended on the ground. It is as if the whole construction industry in Dushanbe is afflicted by ADD. It seems that once construction or landscaping begins it is immediately forgotten and workers move on to the next job…which they will immediately walk away from. When you run a city, or location, you get a feel for its physical presence. Dushanbe felt like a corpse with peeled skin and an exposed skeleton with bones cracking and splintering.
Dushanbe’s hollow and unfinished feel didn’t meet expectations though. I want my Central Asian countries to be stereotypes. I want huddled masses, angry dogs fighting each other on trash heaps, and hordes of unwashed children kicking ratty soccer balls. I got none of this.
I never saw the unwashed kids, but I did see young boys and girls in school uniforms walking to school. The boys, like all boys across the planet, acted like puppies and were yipping and chasing each other… tails gleefully whipping the air. The girls moved in packs whispering to each other and eyeing the boys with disdain. These were not the kids of my expectations, but it didn’t bother me.
Dushanbe had trash but it wasn’t heaped in piles. Instead trash was scattered about the plazas, streets, parking lots, dirt, grass, and in the unkept hedges. Like the manmade structures, the manmade greenery was halfway done yet already going into disrepair. Stuff couldn’t get made fast enough before it moved into disrepair. Fluttering pieces of paper and cast off clothing hung limply in wrought iron fences, rested in door frames, and soaked in wet road side ditches. It looked as if someone had made an attempt to pick up the trash, but it was a half-ass attempt to straightening up. This didn’t bother me either.
What did bother me, and totally disconcerting, was the total absence of dogs. I never saw a single dog in Dushanbe. Out in the countryside I spotted a few farm dogs, but that is a universal truth – have farm, have dog. But in the city itself, I never saw a single dog. No dog ran out from a driveway to menace me for getting to close to its property. No cur, with tail between its legs, dodged traffic. Petsmart will not be establishing a store there any time soon.
I had never been to a place where there wasn’t at least a couple of angry dogs fighting for dominance in the abandoned places of people. It wasn’t just the absence of dogs that bothered me, it was that Dushanbe was devoid of dogs. There was no dog shit on the ground, there was no fenced yards torn up and stained from an ignored family pet! One of the rituals of a city run is the game of skipping or dodging dog shit. My morning runs in Dushanbe did not include this game. Dushanbe made me sad, not because it was half-finished and yet decaying, not because its residents were willing to let trash to scatter like confetti, Dushanbe made me sad because there were no dogs.