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Tajikistan: Staying Home For The Holidays

  • Farangis Najibullah --> A scene from the Tajik portion of the Pamir Mountains (RFE/RL) August 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Lola is a college teacher and mother of three in the Tajik city of Khujand. She and her construction-engineer husband consider themselves middle-class Tajiks.

Lola says she has never been on holiday abroad. Every year, she and her children spend the summer break at her parents' house in a quiet village, while her husband travels to Russia for seasonal work.

"There is no such thing as a 'holiday' here," Lola says. "People use their vacation time to do their own things. They repair their places or build a home. Or they do other work to earn some extra money. So people work during their leave, too."

While people in much of the world regard the summer heat as an invitation to travel, a surprising number of Tajiks say they have forgotten -- or never knew -- what a foreign holiday is like.

A lack of money, visas, and passport troubles appear to be keeping many of them at home. A recreational holiday abroad -- at the sea or in exotic or historic destinations -- is simply not an option for most Tajiks.

In the past, Tajiks and other Soviet citizens could travel to so-called friendly countries as part of collectively organized trips under the banner of good will. But the intervening years have brought many obstacles to even considering a vacation out of the country.

The main reason is a lack of money.

Economic Woes

Tajikistan is Central Asia's economic laggard, and unemployment is its biggest social problem. State registers show just 45,000 jobless, but authorities admit that around 500,000 people -- or roughly one in 12 Tajik citizens -- travel to Russia every year in search of jobs or income.

Even those who have full-time jobs at home are unlikely to make enough to afford a holiday. The average monthly wage in Tajikistan is around $30, perhaps enough for basic food but little else.

The ranks of those with disposable income is mostly limited to successful entrepreneurs, or employees of foreign companies or international agencies -- and most of those opportunities are available only in cities.

Haramgul is a schoolteacher in the capital, Dushanbe, who says she suffers from depression. Doctors have recommended that she spend some quality time away from her stressful life in the city.

"I had some problems at my workplace," Haramgul says. "After all that stress I had, I wanted to go somewhere for holiday. But unfortunately, because of the lack of money or an affordable holiday package, I couldn't go."

Looking Closer To Home

Harambul wants to travel abroad. But some Tajiks have found a simpler solution and opted for local tourist destinations. There are some locally famous places in Tajikistan -- such as the Garm-Chashma hot springs in the Pamir highlands or a holiday resort by the Tajik Sea, which is actually a reservoir.

One overnight visit to the all-inclusive Sino holiday resort on the Tajik Sea costs $13, or about half of the average monthly income.

But with just a small selection from which to choose, most of those Tajik destinations are fully booked in the peak tourist seasons.

Other Constraints

Those Tajiks who have money and want to go abroad face visa hurdles. Not every country has an embassy in Dushanbe, and Tajik citizens sometimes must travel to Moscow to obtain foreign visas.

As a result, some holidaymakers opt for countries without visa requirements -- such as Turkey or some Arab countries -- or ones that have embassies in Dushanbe, such as India.

The director of one of a handful of travel agencies that offer recreational holidays abroad says "India and Turkey have become the most popular holiday destinations for Tajiks who can afford a vacation abroad." Furkat Ahmadov says customers who want to visit historic places frequently pick Iran or Egypt.

Ahmadov says the overall number of Tajiks who travel abroad for holiday is extremely low. His firm, Aspendon Tours, offers holiday packages to 28 countries, but he tells RFE/RL that slightly more than 100 people have bought foreign holiday packages so far this year.

On the other hand, many travel agencies organize shopping trips to countries like United Arab Emirates or China, where Tajik merchants frequently buy goods for resale back home.

All travelers face the time-consuming task of obtaining a foreign passport, which costs around $40. Tajikistan has introduced two types of passports for its citizens -- "internal" and "foreign."

Simple Pleasures

Lola says she can't afford passports for every member of her family. So, she says, people like her "simply don't dream of fancy holidays," adding that "the situation is even worse for villagers."

"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I have never, ever heard about anyone -- among villagers -- going for holiday or to health resorts somewhere far away," she says.

As September and a new school year approach, Lola and her children returned to their flat in Khujand after spending two months in the village. She says her children had fun playing with their cousins, swimming in a nearby river, and enjoying the free fruit that grows in their grandparents' garden.

Lola says her brother, who works as a surgeon in a Khujand hospital, was particularly satisfied with his summer vacation in the village -- he had finally found time to reconstruct a barn in his summer house.