Just Smile and Wave

Салом (Tajik for hello) from Khorog, Tajikistan! Disclaimer: this post will be more about the travel, adjustment, and transition period; I hope to make the next posts more work-centric.

Distance wise, it should only take a 5-hour flight to get from Bangkok to Dushanbe. However, because of the limited flights and a fun 18-hour layover, my trip to Dushanbe took over 32 hours door-to-door (and that’s only Dushanbe!)

I’m not going to lie, I was varying levels of anxious before leaving for Tajikistan. I’ve never lived anywhere for an extended period where I didn’t speak the language. My journey was fraught with confused airport personnel looking up the procedure and visa requirements for someone with a Thai passport (me) traveling to Tajikistan. Because it is such a rarity, no one really knew what documents I had to have, resulting in confusion in Bangkok, Novosibirsk (my transit), and even in Dushanbe. I ended up waiting an hour in immigration at the Dushanbe airport as immigration personnel exchanged muddled conversations, before someone from the consulate came to issue my visa.

I spent a few days in Dushanbe, because I needed to wait for my GBAO permit to travel to Khorog. Dushanbe was incredibly hot – the car thermostat read 49 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit) the day I arrived. I learned later that if the temperature goes above 50 degrees Celsius, the government is supposed to pay citizens; however, they usually don’t because they deflate temperature reports. I was able to explore Dushanbe during my time there, visiting the botanical gardens, the flag pole (second tallest flag pole in the world!), and Rudaki park.

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The AKDN office in Dushanbe was big, bigger than I expected. It occupied two floors. For two days, I worked out of this office. I spent the time ploughing through the many documents I had been sent about my project – adolescent health in Central Asia.


On Wednesday, I travelled to Khorog. After paying for my extra luggage (150 somonis/15 USD) because each person is only allowed 10 kgs, I made my way to wait for the plane. I realized the plane would be small, but when I saw it, I admit I was very, very surprised. To me, it looked like a school bus with wings! It couldn’t have held more than 20 people. The aircraft shook the entire flight and we bobbed up and down through (yes, through!) the Pamir mountains, causing many roller coaster moments (you know when your heart drops?). Caution: this ride is not for the faint-hearted. The view, however, was absolutely stunning. I’ve never seen a landscape like the one from Dushanbe to Khorog. Everyone else on the plane was asleep, but there I was, awake and attentive for the entire duration of the journey.

Upon arrival, AKF took me to see four different accommodation options and I decided on a more humble, modest homestay (no wifi, no washing machine, no AC/fan, and running water in the mornings only), but with good company and good location (15-minute walk to the office). On Thursday and Friday, the host walked me to work, showing me pathways that didn’t exist on Google Maps. I’m going to admit I was a little scared when they started heading in the opposite direction of Google Maps, but you gotta trust the locals! In the AKF office in Khorog, I’ve been continuing to read documents and draft a plan of action for the project. The real work will begin next week when Nafisa from AKF Geneva, who is heading this project, arrives in Khorog.

Overall initial thoughts/impressions:

  • Living somewhere where you don’t speak the language: Lots of times, people will be talking about me in a different language and I’ll be there waiting for someone to translate to me. Many instances in the past week have also been a series of (unsuccessful, but entertaining) charades. When in doubt, I just say “da” (Russian for yes) and it almost always seems to work.
  • Living somewhere where more than one language is spoken: I grew up in Thailand where only Thai is spoken, so it’s extremely weird to me that people here speak Russian, Tajik, and Shugni. How do you know what language to use?!?
  • Food: Lots of bread and potatoes. And where’s the spice? The food is very bland, but luckily, I’ve equipped myself with some Thai spices prior to leaving. I had some co-workers try some shrimp paste I brought and they all exclaimed it was very spicy.
  • All the staring: I can tell when people are staring/looking at me because people have been doing that my whole life (I’m really tall for Thai standards), but in Tajikistan, there was a loot of staring. I stick out a lot, there’s no way to hide it. Getting used to unabashed staring has also been an adjustment, but I’ve found the best remedy is to just smile and wave (just smile and wave, boys!).
  • People: All the people – both in Dushanbe and Khorog are extremely friendly and willing to help. They’re also very curious about life outside of Tajikistan – namely the US – and all want to learn English.
  • AKF: The AKF team involved in making my internship happen have been amazing. They’ve all been incredibly supportive throughout the process, and have made me feel very welcome.

Overall, it’s been great stepping out of my comfort zone and going with the flow. You never know what’s going to happen, so you just need to be positive and roll with it. (For example, the shower water was only trickling this morning so I took a pot from the kitchen to collect water and used a plastic bottle as a water scooper!) In terms of work, I’m excited to dive into work and move the pilot project forward. I’ll be back soon with more work-related updates! But for now, До свидания (Russian for good bye).

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