I left for Zarafshan from Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, at about noon. Not the best idea to leave then -- I ended up traveling through the hottest part of the day and arrived after dark in Penjikent, a northern city along the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan border. Despite the heat, the drive was spectacular. I felt consumed by the beauty of the deep, crystalline blue of the rivers that sliced through the dusty mountains and snow-capped peaks. The sparse trees were showing hints of autumn, with the aspen leaves tinged yellow. Almost every rooftop of the mud-brick village along the road was dotted with rust-colored apricots drying for the coming cold season.
The Zarafshan mountain range is in the north of Tajikistan, and extends east-west from Samarqand in Uzbekistan, across towards Kyrgyzstan. The river by the same name, flows all the way to Samarqand, which is still the cultural and social center of the region. This even after the Russians politically divided the area between the regions of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the 1920’s. On both sides of the border people share a common culture, religious practice and language. The Russian decision to divide the region, and split the Tajik Autonomous Region from its former cultural and political centers, Samarqand and Bukhara was almost entirely arbitrary and based on internal politics. Still, the Tajiks of Penjikent depend on the now-Uzbek cities for health care, education and religious training, because the Tajik capital is a rough seven-hour drive away.
On the bumpy and dusty road from Dushanbe to Penjikent, my fellow taxi-riders and I became friends. When we arrived at Penjikent in the middle of the night and because no decent hotel was open at that hour, one of the passengers, Salokhiddin, kindly invited me to stay at his house. Upon arriving at my new friend’s home, I noticed it was filled with many children – not only his own but also nieces, nephews and neighbors children.
Village Sarazm: On the Uzbek Border
Salokhiddin’s house was in Sarazm -- a tiny village outside of Penjikent, right on the Uzbek border. His rice fields which are directly behind his house actually sit in Uzbekistan. Poverty is rampant in this area. The river has almost completely dried up over the past few years and there isn’t enough water to irrigate many of the crops. As a result, the town is surrounded by empty, dusty fields. On the other side of the border villagers are able to grow rice as there is more water. The entire area is desperately in need of developmental support, but the UN funds that had begun to establish irrigation programs in the area ended before the plan was in motion. The homes in the village are large and spacious, with plenty of room for the cows, sheep, and donkeys they keep but have no running water and only unreliable electricity.
Salokhiddin and his wife have five children and help raise three other nieces and nephews that live with them. He supports them through his main sources of income -- agriculture and livestock. He also uses the family car to run a taxi from the village to the ‘city’ a few times a day. When I told Salokhiddin that I was interested in Tajik saints and local pilgrimages, he mentioned that his wife could read Arabic and that she would show me around the local shrines. He also told me his old grade school teacher could tell me about the history of the area.