Hidden in plain sight


In recent years I have been running into the problem that my political, social, and feminist views are often not welcome. Therefore, I am moving those posts out of plain sight. 

If you know me and can tolerate my right to free speech, shoot me an email and I'll give you the password. Otherwise, enjoy the harmless content and photos! 


25 years ago today, the preparations for the reunification were on their way.  Apart from all the contracts and signatures and official stuff, all along the border, festivities were planned. Tents, music, speeches, food, beer.  That's the way Germans celebrate, right?

Eleven months earlier, the border had fallen.  It was something nobody had expected, no pundit, no citizen, not days before it actually happened, maybe not even hours. It was a complete surprise.

I grew up at the inner-German border and for us, it used to be the end of the world.  Yes, there was a Germany on the other side but it was in perpetual darkness, unreachable in any way.  You didn't step too close to the border lines, either - the guards with their machine guns sure were threatening. There was always a sense of danger.  We lived within a kilometer of the border. When the wall fell, and the border came down, it was more than a little overwhelming.

You know those German crowds welcoming the refugees? We were those crowds back then, welcoming our other Germans.  We took people in, we fed them, we gave away whatever was needed. We gave out welcome money, the traditional 100 Mark that every East German got when they came to visit.  In the years since 1949, not many came to claim that money.  In the weeks and months after the border came down, it was thousands. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands.  Every volunteer was needed to fill out papers, and hand out the welcome money.  So much money, and then they went and bought bananas, and chocolate, and whatever their heart desired.  So much did they buy, it was the first time ever I saw empty shelves in the supermarket of my hometown.  And we were happy.

A few weeks later, the visa requirements for West Germans were revoked and we were free to visit the Eastern part of Germany for the first time.

This is what we found. Signs upon signs welcoming us to their towns. Every city, every village had signs up for us. And you know what else? Every Bratwurst stand gave West Germans sausages for free.  As a thank you. And when we thanked them, they smiled and poured mulled wine for us, as well.

26 years later, that still brings tears to my eyes.

Happy 25th anniversary, my country.  I wished I could be there with you on Saturday. Party well. Party hard. Enjoy.

Strolling through town

Again with the stomach problems.  At last, everybody felt good enough on Sunday to do a stroll through town. We started out towards the Museum of Antiquities which is south of us, not far at all. Past the Opera, past the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Finance.

The chestnuts are falling.  Leaves are turning.  It's still very warm during the days but the evenings are cool and the women in the neighborhood are washing the summer dust off their carpets. Fall is here.

The museum has gorgeous stuff.  Shivas and old dishes, jewelry and idols.  The building is nice enough. Inside, it's post-Soviet, with carpets and home-made display cases with glass that reflects too much light, making it hard to see the artifacts.  The carpets need protecting, so you have to slip on surgery slippers before entering.

I found myself wanting to bring in my friend Dana who is a museum ninja - the things she could do with these pieces! Because you know what they have?  They have the biggest Buddha statue of all of Central Asia. And then they went and put him into a living room, with normal ceiling height, and a red carpet.  There is a small table with three vases in front of him.  I don't know what that is about.  I couldn't back up enough with my 24mm to get a shot of the entire statue, that's how big it is, and how small that room was.  It needs space! High vaulted ceilings! Skylights!

He is glorious.  You need to come to Tajikistan just to see him.

Then we walked some more.  Past the old library which is closed, sadly.  They are renovating, apparently.

Past King Rudaki and all his (real!) golden shine.

Through tunnels.

Past alluring portals.

And along the fountains on Rudaki Avenue.  We stopped at a café to have a refreshing drink and a chat with an acquaintance we met there. Finally, we walked home. That was also the point where my camera battery died.  Let me tell, this has never happened to me before. 
The kids and Doug later helped another friend walk his dog to the Russian and the Jewish cemetery but that's his story to tell.  Now it's Sunday evening, the kids are showering and getting ready for bed, and we're set for a new week.


Craft fair

We had planned to go to Romit today.  As this was out (due to the man hunt going on, check the news), we wanted to go hiking in the Fan Mountains.  That also got cancelled because the roads in and out of Dushanbe are blocked.  So we decided to try the craft fair at the Ismaili Center instead. 

The Ismaili Center is not easy to find.  The various maps told us it was close to the Flagpole but no, it's actually past the river and past the stadium.  We rescued some MSF friends who were walking around in the same wrong neighborhood as we were, and together we managed to find the right location.

The Isamili Center is very tranquil.  Well, not today, because it was bustling with vendors and musicians and artists, but the building is vast with quiet, strong lines that sooth the mind, and water features all around that make you want to just sit and rest under the trees.

Artists from around Dushanbe displayed combs, suzanis, leather goods, carvings, and so much more.  There was a fashion show in the courtyard and henna paintings for little girls.  We strolled around the building, met a surprising amount of friends (it seemed like all the expats were out at the center today), ate some yummy food, and enjoyed being out of the house.

Henna patterns and blossom

Henna patterns and blossom

I'm bored.

I'm bored.

Dial 01 and how to deal with fire in Russian - it looks like from the 50s but I think it's new.

Dial 01 and how to deal with fire in Russian - it looks like from the 50s but I think it's new.

Russian hat, or so we believe, and plane pins - one happy boy

Russian hat, or so we believe, and plane pins - one happy boy

The husband brings me coffee - I love him so.

The husband brings me coffee - I love him so.

Usoi Dam and Sarez Lake

We took a road trip today to the Sarez Lake which exists because of the Usoi Dam. 
The dam and the lake are about 90 minutes from Dushanbe and the road starts out harmless and then goes through some serious, we're-not-kidding-around mountains.  Which are only the foothills of the far outreaches of the Pamirs.  I can't wait to get to the Pamirs if the outskirts are already to dramatic and scenic. We did see about five or six Pamir Adventure vehicles - sturdy 4x4s packed up with adventure tourists and the roofs piled high with tents and gear.  One day, I want to be in one of those. The road, I have to add, is very good - almost like a highway but without the dividers because that would only inconvenience the Tajik drivers when they overtake a car overtaking a truck.  You have to be flexible about your lanes here in this country.

After about an hour of driving, we went through a very long tunnel (built by the Chinese, and nicely so) and then a shorter one (ditto but the ventilation didn't work) and then, pow!  There you have the lake and this is a lake that has an almost cartoonish color.  Around you are the mountains, all dry and yellowed after a long hot summer, with red blotches as if someone had dumped a giant can of paint over the landscape, and down there is the lake with this blue that almost hurts your eyes.  It's quite something.  Of course, we were there at noon which is, as we all know, the very best time to take landscape images. Hmpf.

There is a stop area for just this purpose, to stop and gawk and take pictures.  You can buy food and drinks and freshly picked and shelled hazelnuts from little boys running around.

We drove a little bit further but turned around soon - this further trip will require an overnight stay but we are looking forward to that.  We enjoyed the lake views, then we turned off in Norak to see the Usoi dam and drove up along the Vakhsh river.  We stopped at a sluice and gawked some more - the kids loved feeling the water spray and the rocks everywhere and the gorgeous colors of the river.  Really.  The water here is more colorful than water elsewhere.

We skipped the dam because we found out we needed a permit for it, so we're saving this excursion for a later date.

Come and visit us.  There is so much to see!

Cut off

Radio Free Europe reports:

YouTube and Facebook have become inaccessible via many Internet service providers in Tajikistan.

Internet users across the country on August 25 said they had been able to open the websites only via proxies. 

Asomuddin Atoev, the chairman of Tajikistan's Association of Internet Service Providers, told RFE/RL that access to the sites was being blocked by some Internet service providers based on an order by the State Communications Service.

A source at Tajikistan's State Communication Service confirmed to RFE/RL that the Internet providers were instructed to limit the two websites' accessibility. No reasons were provided.

Tajik authorities have long been criticized for randomly blocking Google services, YouTube, Facebook, and other popular social networks.

Such government action has almost always coincided with online activities of opposition groups or events tied to social and political events in the Central Asian nation.

It happened out of the blue, like so many times before.  Our provider is finicky at the best of times (we had another 5GB mysteriously disappear overnight; we forgot to turn off the WIFI as we usually do).  It can be super slow, it eats data at random intervals even when we are not online, it sputters and spurts like an old engine.  Sometimes it's very fast.  Sometimes it crawls to a halt.  So first, I didn't think it was a government restriction.  Then I got a news alert from Radio Free Europe.  Aha! Much is explained. 

Here's the worrisome bit:  Every time this happened before, the government denied any involvement. Everybody knew it, of course, but the official statements always said that the Ministry of (Mis?)Communications has nothing to do with it.  The fact that this is an official sanction steps the game up a few levels.  I am waiting for the usual protest of the US Embassy (they usually do) and whether this is going to have any repercussions (my guess is, not).  But I can't help but wonder that if this is a real sanction this time, not a covert one, whether they are going to take it back.

Also, if someone knows what they were so worried about, let me know.  (Best to comment here on the blog, not on Facebook - who knows when I get on Facebook with the VPN and it eats data like crazy.)


We had our first rain here on Saturday - which means more than the few drops we had a couple of weeks back.  The roads were wet, leaves were blown off the trees, it got all dark and menacing.  And then it stopped.  It lasted maybe 10 minutes.  Everything was dirty afterwards as the rain washed the dust out of the air onto the cars, onto the street.  Everything is dirtier after the rain.  We are told that this is normal for the first few rains, until the air is mostly clean.

The tennis court the kids train on was all shiny and mirror-like.  The janitor swept the water and the leaves away, and the lesson could begin on schedule.

The "Russian Teahouse" is the biggest tea house in the world.  It's just a few hundred meters down from what used to be the biggest flag pole in the world.  There are people who say that maybe someone has to compensate for something, building biggest somethings in a very poor country that would do better with a good water distribution system, or better electrical lines. If you think this isn't big, look at the cars in front of the building.  It's big all right!  It's also right across from the tennis court.

Jacob was passing the time waiting for the court to be ready by reading about the death of the Yamato on his Dad's Kindle.  Right next to him you can see the President's box, with that little balcony.  The President will be watching some kind of tennis tournament at the beginning of next month, or so we are told.

It's gotten cooler during the nights.  Sometimes, there is a cool breeze sweeping down from the mountains.  Leaves are beginning to fall off the trees, every so randomly.  Falls is right around the corner.  But the days are still hot.  Summer is not going quickly here.

Quiet weekend days.  This is our life.

Preserving the harvest

Did you have a grandma with shelves full of jewel-toned jars in the basement?  Jars that looked and smelled of summer? I didn't, either.  But I had a mom who did all that - we had canned cherries and cucumbers and jams of all colors and it was glorious.  I always took that for granted. You were out of strawberry jam? Hop into the basement and pull of fresh jar from the shelf.  Yum.  You know what else I always took for granted?  The work it took to make these beauties. My mom worked full-time and had three kids.  How did she do all this?

Because it's a lot of work.

I spent all morning in the kitchen and my meager results are 7 liters of frozen tomato sauce, and about ten little containers with basil pesto and cilantro in oil, also in the freezer.  Oh, and three sheets of dried apple rings which amounts to exactly 1.5 apples.  So go and appreciate your grandmother, aunt, mother or whoever does this in your life, right now.

It was not only a lot of work, it also created a lot of mess.  Getting the skin off the tomatoes needs blanching and icing them, same with the herbs so they don't get all brown and icky.

Wash, rinse, repeat next weekend.  And I haven't even started on the jams yet!

Before you ask, why the oven? Don't you have lots of sun there? Yes, we do.  We also have lots of flies. And electricity is ridiculously cheap, and green.  Next time you make apple chips from scratch in the sun, you may judge me.

Before you ask, why the oven? Don't you have lots of sun there? Yes, we do.  We also have lots of flies. And electricity is ridiculously cheap, and green.  Next time you make apple chips from scratch in the sun, you may judge me.

Varzob Valley

The Varzob valley is the valley of the Varzob.  Now you know.

Okay, the Varzob is a river coming down from the heights of the Hissor range which is north of Dushanbe.  Really close, actually, only about 20km away.  It's mostly melting glacier and snow water, ice cold and bright green with silt.  It flows down into Dushanbe, and feeds an aqueduct that supplies the city with water.

Along the river are a few artificial lakes and dozens of restaurants. A few of those offer the additional lure of a swimming pool.  Sunday, we joined a few of Doug's colleagues on an outing to such a restaurant.

The drive was scenic and short, only about 40 minutes to get there.  Noticeably cooler and with a nice breeze, it was a pleasant change to stifling hot Dushanbe.  The kids couldn't wait to get into the water - and that's basically all they did all day long. There were ball games of various sorts but mostly, the kids jumped into the pool from a big rock that served as a jumping board. Besides David, who had an out-of-sorts day and mainly sat in the tapchan and read Lord of the Rings. 

What is a tapchan? Oh, right. See those little green houses in the background? They are basically raised platforms with a low table in the middle and lots of cushions around, and curtains for privacy.  Let me tell you, there are worse things than lying in a tapchan, slurping tea, reading, and watching the kids enjoying themselves, firmly ignoring the electrical line strung smack over the pool.  I'm sure those lights are romantic at night.

It was a very pleasant outing.  Recommended.


A bit late: a visit to Hissor, a fortress about half an hour east of Dushanbe.  It's a reconstructed 16th century fortress that was built when Tajikistan was part of the Bukharan empire.  There is lots of construction going on and the weather was quite dreadful - Afganets in full swing, it was hazy and we were all a bit off our feet.  One couldn't even see the mountains. 

One day, we will be over this endless intestinal misery and then we'll be more interesting.  I promise.

Turning 7

Doug wrote on Facebook:

Breakfast cake with singing and presents
Water park, lots of swimming, with pizza and chicken nuggets
Reading The Hobbit with father
Bowling with father and brother; walk in park, ice cream
Playing with new toys in bath (new Lego Friends yacht)
Making an extra-big omelette to be split with brother
and now reading with mother in bed
and so to sleep.

She had a very nice birthday.  Thank you all for the greetings and birthday wishes on Facebook, per mail, and per FaceTime.  She loved it all!

Becoming a man

Yesterday afternoon, there was suddenly a clamoring in the street - loud trumpets, drums, and some kind of flute. We looked outside and there in our street was a horse carriage with a white horse, beautifully dressed people and masses of kids were thronging about. Suddenly money bills fluttered through the air, kids scrambled to pick them up, and a little boy stepped out of the neighbor's house, all dressed in white and gold with a turban and a scepter.  He climbed into the carriage with his sisters who were all dressed up like little brides.

It was his Khitan, the traditional circumcision of a seven-year-old boy that marks his coming-of-age as a Muslim man. I remember these from Turkey where, incidentally, the boys were the exact same outfits - white, elaborately stitched and decorated, with a turban that is crusted in (fake) diamonds and jewelry, complete with a feather.  Even the scepter is the same.  (I'm sure they call it differently.)

The Khitan is a huge celebration, much more so than a First Communion.  It's a joyous event that is shared with relatives and friends, and the little boys are heaped with presents.  I saw a few days earlier how this boy received one of those electric minicars that you can drive in.  A white Mercedes.  I'm sure it cost a fortune.

The carriage turned, and the neighbor kids followed it for a bit, then a motorcade with finely dressed relatives followed.  He was off to become a man.

Good luck, little guy. 

A neighbor kid clutching the money she collected.

A neighbor kid clutching the money she collected.


Dushanbe, at least where we live, is threaded with these little canals at the side of the streets.  Maybe "canal" makes it sound altogether too romantic.  Don't get the idea this is like the Freiburger Bächle.  They are more prosaic, also quite dangerous for drivers, and often the pathways stretching those canals into the courtyards are narrow and the danger of slipping is very real.  This is what I'm talking about:

Not too bad, really.  Mostly, they do not have trash in them, it's just water. (I say that because this is not the status quo in second world countries.)  The water comes from spraying down the streets in the mornings, a ritual that at least in our street many housewives seem to take part in.  It's dusty, right?  So they spray the dust off the streets into those little canals at 7 am.  I guess they would be handy for rain overflow, as well.  I can't tell you because it hasn't rained for some 60 days or so.

The canals usually run along one side of the street.  Ours is on the opposite side, and it's mostly dry.  This morning, I peeked in and found this sad thing:

My neighbors could not understand why I got all sentimental about it.  A few yards down the street, we found the torso, then another leg.  We did not find the head, nor the arms.  It's all still in the canal.  Should we rescue it? I confess I would feel all self-conscious about it.  Tajiks are very meticulous people.

Settling in

On Saturday, we'll be here for three weeks.  Already? Only!

David started saying this place felt like home on the third day.  I guess we are seasoned movers by now, accustomed to post-Soviet countries as they are all the same and yet so different.  This is our third, after Armenia and Moldova.  Different and the same.  The fact that Doug had been living here for three months before we arrived was a blessing in disguise - we arrived already plugged into the community and people knew about us and were happy to welcome us.  That is always a nice feeling.  We went to the big green market and we know where to buy our apples without being ripped off.  That's always a major milestone.

Our house is enormous with space galore - but, alas, not altogether perfect.  We have six bedrooms, of which two have no outside windows.  Meaning, they have windows into other rooms.  Alan chose a bedroom on the ground floor that has a window into the school room and a bathtub with whirlpool jets. It is furnished with dark furniture, elaborately carved, cheaply made furniture.  It's a cave with almost no natural light.  I'm still unhappy about this, although he is very resistant to change.  The guestroom has a window into the laundry room.  Yes, well.  Less horrible because we don't have any guests at the moment.

Speaking of beds, here's something odd about this country - maybe that's only our house but I don't think so.  The beds don't have slats or boxsprings, they have big pieces of plywood in the frame, on top of which rest thin, really really hard mattresses.  They are so hard that I can't feel Doug turning or getting up.  We brought three mattresses for the kids but none for us.  I looked around but there seems to be only one kind of mattress:  hard.  The same is true for our couch and our "upholstered" chairs.  Freaking hard!  You sit down and there is absolutely no give, just as if you sit down on a wooden chair.  I've read that Tajiks (used to) sleep on the so-called tapchans, raised platforms a little bit like very low tables, on thin mattresses that are like futons.  I'm not sure whether this mattress situation is good or bad for our spines but you do not get that "aaahhh" feeling when you (don't) sink into your bed at night.  It's more like a surprise.  Oh!  Right.  Hard bed. 

I'm such a wuss.

We have a very nice tea porch.  We like the tea porch even though we can't get all the dust out.  The amount of dust here is quite remarkable.  I thought our house in Germany was dusty but no! There is always a way to top this, eh? The Tajik solution to this, by the way, is to throw a rug on it.

We can't find reasonably priced chairs or book shelves.  Really, I should have foreseen that because we had a similar problem in Armenia.  I should have just filled that last crate with chairs galore, and more book shelves.  Will I ever learn?  We already have a long list of things to bring back from Germany after Christmas, now we added six chairs to it.  IKEA, 4 kg each.  We checked.

We have a pet now.  Doug gave David a turtle for his birthday, and we are going to inherit another one from a leaving family next week.  Jebediah is a grumpy old guy, and he's got a sulk tree that he goes to and hides behind when he feels slighted.  David loves him to pieces.  I personally think we should have gotten a dog. Reptiles are just not my thing.

The younger kids will be attending Contofield Academy which is a tiny school run by an Indian expat that charges a fifth of the local QSI.  Jacob and Leah went to their summer camp for the past two week and already made some friends and had social contact.  We're still working on that for the older kids, hoping that we can sign them up for some afternoon activities at the local QSI (as Contofield only goes up to grade 5).  We went to the carnival.  We will go to the water-park soon, and we want to go hiking in the mountains. Things are slowly falling into place.

Things we miss: Relatives and friends. Rain. Rye bread. Amazon deliveries.
Things we love: Friendly people. No rain. Yummy flat bread. Pouch deliveries.

Tajikistan is all right.  We are still finding our feet, we haven't met too many people yet because everybody is gone during the summer holidays, it seems safe and friendly, the traffic isn't too horrible, we're getting used to a change in our diets (no canned tomatoes!), and somehow we feel at home, just like David said.  So tonight, we'll have movie night.  The movie will be "Jurassic Park".  David has been pining for this movie for a long time and as luck would have it, his aunt just sent the DVD for his birthday.  Lucky kid.
(Oh, and we'll try homemade pizza.  Because really, the pizza ain't nothing to write home about.)



Bread is life.  In Tajikistan, bread is everything.  No meal is complete without bread, and you bring bread as a gift when you are invited.  It's considered bad luck when you run out of bread, throwing bread away is a sin, and when you accidentally drop bread on the ground, you put it up on hedges or walls for beggars and birds.

Apparently, bread comes in all different flours, shapes, and sizes.  I have yet to see this variety but then I haven't really gotten out of the house much, urging my boys through school in the mornings and trying to get the house set up in the afternoons. 

Tajik bread is best fresh out of the oven - whenever we bought it in the afternoon, it was stale and tough.  The most common kind you see everywhere is Non.  It's a round flatbread, with a pretty design in the middle and some black sesame seeds.  It's baked in special ovens which looks impressive and entirely against the law of physics.  You can read all about it and see some images at this webpage.


Afghanets is a Tajik weather phenomenon where strong, gusty winds blow from the south and bring hot, dry, and dusty air from Afghanistan.  It limits the field of vision and it almost looks like fog, or worse, like smog, until you see the fine layer of dust on everything from cars to the soles of your kids' feet.  The sky becomes an eery white, or grey, or brown.  It doesn't stop until it either rains which is not an option in summer, or the wind turns.  It's really bad for the crops. 

Dust in the air - ignore the image quality - snapped from the car at a red light. In the distance, you can barely make out the world's second largest flagpole.

Dust in the air - ignore the image quality - snapped from the car at a red light. In the distance, you can barely make out the world's second largest flagpole.

Tajik houses are built around courtyards with high walls.  I imagine they keep the winds off, and they create shady, private spaces.  Most courtyards have trees growing in them, often persimmons and apricots, but I've also seen banana leaves and colorful flowers peek over the walls.  Many houses have grape arbors which shade the entire courtyard.

Beautiful flowers everywhere.

Beautiful flowers everywhere.

The vast majority of women dress in mid-calf dresses with coordinating long pants.  The fabrics are often bright and colorful, with fancy designs.  Some women wear matching headscarves.  In groups, they look like cheerful butterflies. Leah asked me if she could start wearing Tajik dresses, like the little girls on the street.  We will have to peruse the market.



I cannot find canned tomatoes, and nobody seems to know what I even mean.  We use a lot of canned tomatoes, and I don't have enough jars to make sauce for the entire winter.  We need to cook differently in the future.

Boys will be boys.  Actually, Tajik boys seem a pretty unruly bunch. They are loud and boisterous and ostentatious. Girls are quiet and meek. Oh, and modestly dressed. Leah was very taken aback when the neighbor boys laughed about her short pants. She did not understand what this was about. I'm still debating whether I want to educate those boys, or simply save my kid some grief.  In any case, my feminist heart broke a little for my sweet daughter.

I've watched the school-aged neighbor girls walk their brothers to school and then return home.  I don't know whether that is a common thing.  I will have to investigate it.

As a woman, standing next to your man, you are invisible.  It's quite unnerving at times.

Our TV has a few channels for free, among them BBC, Euronews, Russia Today, Ukraine Today, and German ZDF.  So now I get my news from Germany in the afternoon, with my coffee.  A few days ago, the host said, "And if you don't know where to go for your next vacation, let me suggest an out-of-the-way country, Tajikistan!"  The following report showed the work of the local GIZ chapter (German Development Agency) in the area of tourism but I can't find corroborating information on their website.  Mr Pöschel was definitely driving a GIZ vehicle with red diplomatic license plates, though.  Dushanbe is small, I'm sure we'll run into him at some point. As soon as the report is up on the website, I'll post a link on Facebook and Twitter.

We went to the local amusement park yesterday.  We took part in a surprise party for a friend, then we hung out for another hour and tried various rides. To our surprise, the kids were banned from the Haunted House and the Pirate Swing, because of body size.  They were... disappointed. We told them we'll try again next year.  The park is surprisingly well maintained and clean.  In the dusk, with all the glittering lights on, and the fountains spouting colored water jets, it was very beautiful.

Muirs on the moor

Only a short drive from our house is the Black Moor, das Schwarze Moor.  It's on a plateau, a mixture of woods and open vistas, with a trail snaking through it.  The long route is about 3.4 km or roughly 2 miles.  It's an easy walk for a late Saturday afternoon.   There were some Swiss Horn players as a bonus, we had Bratwurst and Bionade, and made lots of photos for Daddy.  Happy Father's Day, love!