All things counter, original, spare and strange in Khujand, Tajikistan

Posts tagged “Tajikistan

Tajik Music

Long overdue: Here’s what you need to know about Tajik pop music. I listened to this stuff on buses, at weddings, pumping out of shop doors on the way to work, basically everywhere. So eventually I developed a taste for it. Tajik pop music is a mishmash of pop beats and electronified traditional instruments. It’s crazy stuff sometimes but I love it.

Current Tajik pop begins and ends with Shabnami Soraya. She’s the Madonna of Tajikistan, the reigning pop diva. This song is a great party-starter. The chorus means, “everybody clap!”

Karcak-Shabnami Soraya

Next on the list has to be the up-and-comer Nozia Karamatullo. If Shabnam is Madonna, Nozia is Britney Spears, just before she lost the nice girl image. She’s taking the country by storm, while slowly shedding the unibrow-sporting, traditionalist image she started with. This song never fails to make me happy.

 Track 05-Nozia

Daler Nazarov is a Tajik singer-songwriter with more high-art pretensions. He’s kind of the Bob Dylan figure of the Tajik scene, in that everyone pays lip-service to his songwriting, but the kids don’t listen to him anymore. Nevertheless he continues to do cool things. He composed the soundtrack to the excellent film Luna Papa, which was directed by his cousin Bakhtior Xudonazarov. This song is from the album he released in the wake of that film:

Mastam-Daler Nazarov

I’ll finish this Tajik pop overview with one of my personal favorites. This song by Suhrob Otaev is one long love letter to oshi palav, the Tajik national dish. It’s a good example of the over-the-top techno-borrowing that is taken to an extreme in a lot of tracks. But I like this one. The chorus goes, “Everybody knows it! Everybody eats it! This delicious thing, oshi palav!”

OSHI PALAV-Suhrob Otaev

So that’s a taste of Tajik pop. Hope you enjoy it. I know I do.


Amir’s Blog

If you want to see my host bro’s personal introduction to the family and their new bed and breakfast scheme here in Khujand, check out his blog site here:










Homestay in Khujand


A word to any Tajikistan travelers who might come across this site: my happy homestay is open to you as well. I’ll be leaving this place in 3 weeks. I can’t believe 10 months has gone so fast. But more on that later. Nasimako, Amirjon and the rest of the family are hoping to attract a few people to their place in the future, so here’s a little advertisement:

Here’s the place from the outside. And here’s my room. It has its own shower.

Moreover, we just installed a water cooler! Check out Nasimako lovin’ on some bottled water.

So, theoretical googler of “homestays in Khujand” or however else you may see this, I recommend staying with tne Nuriddinovs. I stayed here for 10 months as a Fulbright Fellow and the family was remarkably hospitable and helpful. So if you’re headed through Khujand, contact Amir (who knows English quite well) at (+992) 92 777-6114. Or e-mail him at amirnuriddinov[at] or contact me by commenting on this blog.

Rohi safed! (may your road be white)


نوروز, Навруз, Nowruz, Navruz

This is coming a bit late, but I never blogged about the Persian New Year,  Nowruz–pronounced Navruz in Tajik. Navruz happens on March 21, on the spring equinox, but in my region some villages started having spring festivals as early as March 8. I went with my friend Merzobek to the village of Paldorak to see their festival. It mainly consisted of a wrestling competition.

The best part was when this old guy stepped into the ring and demanded to be allowed to participate. Some consternation ensued until applause erupted from one side of the field and another old man was thrust forward as his opponent. They wrapped these cloth bands around each other and tried to throw each other to the ground:

It ended in a tie. But everyone seemed to agree it was a good laugh, and they both got prizes.

By the time Navruz itself rolled around, my good friends Drew, Mark and David had arrived for a visit. We spent Navruz Eve with my host family. Naturally, we had what every Tajik feast requires: big plates of osh.

But things got more raucous than usual. We turned on the music channel on TV and everyone started dancing. At the commercial break, the family asked us if we could sing an American song. We froze. The only thing we could think of was the national anthem. So, hands over our hearts, we sang it. Then they sang the Tajik national anthem.  Good times had by all.

Then we hopped in a car and went to another house where we got to stir a giant cauldron of the traditional Navruz dish, semalak. Semalak is basically a big kettle full of wheat sprouts, which you stir and stir for hours, then let burble all night until the starches caramelize and it turns into a brown, sweetish pudding. This all night affair provides an excellent excuse for the youth of Tajikistan to party way later than their usual bedtimes. Dancing and flirting ensued such as I have never seen in this country.

Navruz, by the way, is an incredibly ancient holiday thought to have been established by Zoroaster himself, who may have lived anywhere from the 18th to the 6th century BC. In old Persian Navruz means “New Light,” though in Modern Persian, “ruz” has come to mean “day.” In Iran the pronunciation has changed from “Nav” to “Now,” though in Tajikistan they have preserved the “nav” from Ancient Persian, which is cited as evidence that Tajik is the modern dialect closest to the Ancient Persian language.

Navruz corresponds with the festival of Purim in the Jewish calendar, the celebration of the time when Esther saved the Jews from extinction. There is some speculation that this festival is influenced by the Persian Navruz, and/or that the events in the book of Esther took place around the time of the Navruz festival.

So happy Navruz everyone! Since March 21st, the days have been getting longer and the sun has been getting warmer, which is enough to make me celebrate.


Well, spring is here and I finally got a chance to travel to the ridiculously beautiful Zarafshan Valley south of Khujand. It’s a six hour trip over the mountains to the city of Penjikent, the main trekking base in the region, then another couple of hours to get to the region called Haft Kul, or the 7 Lakes. That’s the 7th one pictured above, with a boy from the village posing thoughtfully in front of it. The 7 Lakes are a string of lakes a few hours from Penjikent which are legendary for their varying colors and lovely surroundings. My group spent only one night up in the lakes themselves, but we managed to take a look at all of them and walk from the 6th to the 7th, then back down to the 4th, where we stayed at a local homestay/village bed and breakfast. A nice hike, followed by a plate of plov and a soft bed. Couldn’t be better.

Legend has it that the Seven Lakes were created in the following tragic manner: Once there was a family with 7 beautiful sisters. When the first sister became old enough to marry a very rich, but old and ugly, man asked her father for her hand.  The father agreed happily, but the young lady refused categorically. She told the man she would only marry him if he built her a castle overnight. The man was besotted, so he spent his fortune to employ every builder and stone-carrier in the region.  Over the course of the night he managed to build a stone castle, complete with a tall tower. So the girl’s father made her keep her word and marry the old man, but she was so distraught that on the wedding day she threw herself from the tower down to the valley below. Where her body fell marks the place of the first lake. Seeing their sister’s death, the other six sisters began to weep profusely, and their tears filled up all seven valleys, making the 7 lakes, each as beautiful as the tragic heroines of the tale.

Penjikent itself is a pleasant, unassuming post-soviet town. But it boasts an ancient pedigree. Ancient Penjikent was a Soghdian city which held out against the Arab invasion before finally succumbing to the flames in 722. Paradoxically, the fact that the city perished in fire had a preservative effect on the frescoes which decorated the main palace. The walls fell inward, preserving the frescoes intact and undamaged until they were excavated by soviet archeologists. Many of the best sections were taken to St. Petersburg, but the museum in Penjikent still has a few pretty striking scenes depicting stories from the Shahnameh–the Persian book of kings–and daily life in the Soghdian court.

My trip was just a long weekend, but I’d love to go back. I doubt I’ll have time, but maybe I’ll be back in this part of the world again someday…

For more information about the region check out the Zarafshan Tourism Board.

Work and Family

Just a brief outline of what life looks like now that I’ve settled down a bit:

My family, the Nuriddinovs, consists of the father and mother, Nasim (who goes by Nasimako–ako means big brother) and Manzura, their 17-year old son Amir and Nasim’s mother, who pretty much goes by grandma.

Amir (or Amirjon, jon is another common suffix signifying closeness) takes special English classes and is hoping to study in the US next year with the State Department’s FLEX (Future Leaders EXchange) program. I hope he makes it. Then I could show him some hospitality.

My work mostly involves leading discussion clubs, at the Commerce University and the American Corner. American Corners are a little-known and interesting piece of American foreign policy. They are small libraries of books in English about American culture, along with English learning materials and information about study-abroad opportunities in the US. They are sponsored by the Cultural Affairs Section of the US Embassy, in partnership with local educational institutions. These “Corners” began in the former Soviet Union, but are now worldwide. In a slightly bizarre, but charming piece of similar friendship diplomacy the American Corner in Khujand contains a “British Corner” within it. They only get one shelf though. It has some Dickens novels and some Sherlock Holmes. Gotta love the Brits.

Anyway, I only work part-time hours as an English language teacher, so I’ll be spending the rest of my time as an intern with Mercycorps, an NGO which focuses on rural development, agriculture and health. If their Tajikistan site seems a little bit sparse and out of date to you, it’s because updating it will likely be one of my upcoming tasks as the new English-language content-creator on board. Mercycorps seems to operate in a way that is genuinely directed by community participation. I feel privileged to get to see their operations in the field.

So that’s my life, more or less! So far it’s been constantly interesting.

Osh-making with Nasimako and Manzura.

And here’s Amir.

To Khujand at Last!

After a couple of brief days back in Dushanbe, it was finally time for me to travel to my final destination: Khujand. When this whole thing started, I thought I would be in Dushanbe for two weeks before taking my place as a respectable working man in Tajikistan’s second-largest city. Two weeks turned into a month and a half of vagabond-hood, but that’s been totally ok with me. I got extra language lessons and a couple of weeks in Khorog out of the deal so it’s all good.

So last Tuesday my friend Viraf (who had research contacts to make in Khujand) and I made our way to the edge of Dushanbe, boarded the back seat of an SUV which we shared with 5 other people and headed North.

The road to Khujand is actually quite good by Tajikistan standards, which means that it’s paved until you get to the mountains. When you get to the mountains you get two choices: the Tunnel of Death and the Pass of Terror (as they are dubbed by the ex-pats here). In former times the only option was the Pass of Terror, but thanks to a project begun by the Iranians and finished by the Chinese, the Tunnel of Death offers a quicker, but darker, danker, wetter, and funnier-smelling alternative. So naturally we took the Tunnel. This time of year there is actually little chance of Death, though once you pass the Tunnel and follow the winding road through the mountains pictured above you may experience some Terror if you happen to look down while your driver veers close to the edge of the dirt road. But no worries. Compared to the road through the Pamirs, it’s peanuts.

After the mountains, the view opens up into the broad expanse of Sugd Province, Tajikistan’s little slice of the valuable Ferghana Valley, where 2/3 of the country’s GDP is produced. Khujand itself is the capital of the region. Formerly named Leninobod, it boasts the largest remaining Lenin statue in Central Asia, a boast made possible by attrition, since the others have been torn down. Here a sheep hustles to catch up with the flock, unconcerned by the stern visage of Comrade Lenin behind it.

Notice the sheep’s enormous rump. That is the source of a serious hunk of fat which any self-respecting osh-maker (oshpaz) will toss into the mix for a good shot of concentrated animal protein.

Khujand also has the biggest bazaar in Tajikistan, the Panjshanbe (Thursday) Bazaar. It’s a crazy place to shop. You can get nearly everything, but you have to find it first.

I have settled in to a homestay with a welcoming family in a neighborhood called Pulchikur, which is known for producing most of the rock candy and ice cream for Khujand. My host father makes a traditional rock candy called Navot:

Here we are in front of the family home. It’s a really nice place. I am glad to have finally settled in. More about my work and life later.