Dushanbe, Tajikistan Report of what it's like to live there - 12/04/16
Personal Experiences from Dushanbe, Tajikistan
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
I have lived in six or so different countries, including Armenia, Moldova, and Kosovo.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
American. From the US, one can bounce through either Moscow, Dubai or (most usually) Frankfurt. It's about a 24 hour trip each way.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
UN employee. I'm married with school-age children.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
I live in a large house in a Tajik neighborhood. If you're a US Embassy employee, the housing pool has a number of large, comfortable houses (though some of the layouts are odd). If you're anyone else, houses are somewhat expensive, but Western-style apartments have become very cheap in the last couple of years -- a building boom has expanded the supply while demand has stayed the same.
One issue with the US Embassy housing pool is that a lot of it is on the west side of the river, near the Embassy. Convenient to work, but otherwise there's not much of interest over there -- most of the interesting shops and restaurants and whatnot are on the east side. I think this encourages a lot of US diplomats to stay inside the Embassy bubble, which is a shame.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
All the basics are available. You have to get used to Russian brands, because that's almost all there is -- foreign brands appear intermittently and are usually more expensive. Supermarkets are mostly small (though a big French one opened a few months ago), so sometimes you might have to hit two or three to find what you want. Some things may mysteriously disappear for months (canned tomatoes? why...?) Lots of nice fresh vegetables in summer and autumn; in winter, not so much.
There are some things you just can't get, like herbal teas (only black and green) or strong cheeses (only bland whites and yellows).
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Kitchen utensils, esp. anything baking-related.
Good chocolate, I guess -- the local stuff is all Russian, even if it has some other label on it.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are lots of pizza places. One pretty good Indian restaurant (Delhi Durbar, near the Twin Towers), a couple of decent Chinese places, a Ukrainian restaurant (Traktir), a pretty good Korean restaurant, a Turkish restaurant that delivers (Merve), a wannabe Subway sandwich place (Mazza), a Lebanese place around the corner from the national museum, a Georgian place... you get the idea. There's a food court at the Ashan supermarket/shopping mall.
Restaurants seem to open and close every few months, so don't take this list as definitive. A lot of coffee shops have opened downtown in the last year or two, so that's a thing. If you want fine-ish dining, the Serena and the Sheraton both have nice restaurants -- the top-floor Serena restaurant has good Middle Eastern food.
It's not Manhattan, but unless you need to eat out someplace different every couple of days, you won't lack for choices.
Many places deliver. However, delivery people almost never speak English, so you must have some Russian or Tajik if you want to use this option. Any place that delivers will also do take-out.
There is a meal delivery service -- "Sevara's Kitchen" -- that will deliver pretty good Western-style home cooked meals to your door. You sign up in advance and select from what's available on a particular day. I use them regularly when my wife and kids are out of town.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Flies can be a minor nuisance in the summer.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I use the UN pouch system. I tested the local postal system with a letter to the US -- it did arrive but took about 90 days.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Cheap household help is universally available. Everyone has an aunt or cousin who needs a job. However (1) the quality varies a lot, so get references; (2) be ready to give them very precise instructions, and (3) you will have to pay a large premium -- like, 50% to 100% more -- to get an English-speaking maid or nanny. There aren't a lot of them and they're in demand. Again, speaking basic Russian or Tajik will give you a lot more options.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Don't use them myself, but I know there are several that are used by expats.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
ATMs are everywhere. You can get cash in the local currency (somoni) at any ATM. However, the withdrawal limit is 1000 somoni at a time, which right now is about $130.
If you want to get dollars, this has become much more difficult in the last 18 months -- local ATMs used to distribute them, but they've stopped. There's still an ATM at the Hyatt that will give up to $400 at a time.
Think twice before using a credit card -- this is the former Soviet Union, and credit card fraud is pretty common (or so we're told). Avoid unless you have no choice and it's a reputable business like a large hotel.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
One small Catholic church near the airport. There's a bigger Russian Orthodox church -- services in Russian, of course. There's a missionary community but I don't know what they get up to.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You really want at least basic Russian or Tajik. You can live here without them -- I managed for my first year -- but simple stuff like giving directions to a taxi driver or ordering a pizza delivery becomes difficult or impossible. This is not an English-speaking country. Even among younger Tajiks, the number of English speakers is not high, and once you get outside of Dushanbe it drops to near zero. But everyone has at least some Russian, and in Dushanbe everyone is bilingual in Russian and Tajik.
On the plus side, tutors are cheap, and once you get the basic vocabulary down people are really friendly and helpful.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Definitely yes. Tajikistan has not signed the international convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities, and it shows. Very few buildings are disability-friendly.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes. Local taxis are ubiquitous and cheap. Say "20 somoni" (about $2.50) before you get in and that will take you anywhere in town. (You can get down to 15, or 10 if you speak good Tajik or Russian, but it requires haggling.) Marshrutkas (little van-buses) run on fixed routes and cost 2 somoni (about $0.25) -- they are the cheapest option but are often crowded and are reckless drivers. There are group-taxis that run fixed routes up and down Rudaki and Somoni Avenues; they're the cars with large numbers (like "3" and "8") in the windows. They cost 3 somoni each, and they'll pick up and drop off anywhere along their routes.
Security is not an issue though I'd use common sense -- hang on to your purse, etc.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
If just want to toodle around Dushanbe, anything will do. If you want to explore the country, you want something sturdy with a four-wheel drive and high clearance.
The local standard of driving is not high, so be alert. Also: if you don't have diplomatic license plates, you will regularly get pulled over by cops looking for a bribe. This has nothing to do with your actual driving... they just randomly flag down cars and demand money. The going rate for a foreigner is 10 somoni (about $2.50). Annoying but it's how things are here. You can call the embassy and make a fuss, or shrug and pay it and drive on -- up to you.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet yes, high speed no. You can use Netflix or iTunes if you're patient -- start your download earlier in the day.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Local mobile phones are okay, not great. I use TCell. Call quality can vary and calls cut off automatically after 30 minutes, but it's not very expensive and gets the job done.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
I know a lot of expats have arrived and departed with pets (dogs and cats), and there are vets. More than that I can't say, as we're not a pet family.
As in many Muslim countries, dogs are considered "unclean," and keeping them as pets (as opposed to working dogs) is a bit of a Western peculiarity.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business casual. Tajiks are former Soviets so when in doubt, err on the side of suit-and-tie.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Much less than you might expect. The crime rate is quite low, and expats are almost never the targets of violent crime. It is next to Afghanistan, but the problems don't usually cross the border.
You may occasionally feel an earthquake. Dushanbe sits on solid rock and so is pretty safe -- they've never had a major earthquake here. But there are active zones to the north and south.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Concerns: you'll probably get Tajik Tummy a couple of times, especially in summer when very high temperatures (over 40 C or 104 Fahrenheit) can cause food to go off quickly.
Medical care: Little pharmacies are everywhere, so you can easily pick up basic stuff like aspirin, band-aids and Imodium. For minor stuff, sprains and whatnot, there are a couple of foreign-run clinics that the Embassy recommends -- check their website.
For more serious stuff, get the hell out. Everyone agrees on this point. The Tajik medical system is badly broken, and you don't want to be in a Tajik hospital or under the care of a Tajik doctor.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality is an occasional issue -- it's very dusty in summer.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Long hot dry summers -- it may not rain a drop between June and October -- followed by cold winters with rain and snow. Dushanbe handles it pretty well but if you're traveling in the provinces, keep an eye out for landslides.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Two international schools, QSI and Contofield. QSI is richer and longer established, but costs a lot more. If the embassy or your employer is paying, go with QSI. Otherwise, Contofield is not that bad -- they just moved to a new campus not far from the US Embassy.
Contofield stops at 6th grade. QSI goes all the way through high school in theory, but there are only a handful of kids in that age group. Check in advance.
2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
I believe QSI has a preschool. No English-speaking day care that I know of. Nannies are common and cheap and (I'm told) it's possible to find good ones, but English-speaking nannies are much more rare and expensive.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There's an expat soccer group for kids that meets Saturday mornings at the US Embassy. Stuff like tennis lessons is easily available, though -- again -- it helps to have some Russian or Tajik.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Small but tightly knit. Morale is pretty good. People come and go but there are a few old-timers who have been here for years. Almost every English-speaking expat is either working for an embassy, a donor, or a language program -- there's very little foreign private investment here.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
There are a lot of expat activities. Pub Quiz every Wednesday night at Istiqlol Sports Bar, Hash House Harriers on Saturday afternoons, Hike Tajikistan on Sunday, Ultimate Frisbee on Sundays when the weather is good, Women's Club Wednesday lunches at Segafredo restaurant, Whiskey-Tasting club every couple of months... you get the idea. Subscribe to the "What's On In Dushanbe" mailing list and check out the Dushanbe Expats Facebook page.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I'm told that single guys can have a pretty active social life if they want to. Families do okay. There are a lot of expat families with small kids and with school-age kids here.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Tajiks get most of their international news through a very Russian filter, so there are some weird ideas about the US floating around.
The country is Islamic but secular -- alcohol is sold in most supermarkets. The government clamps down hard on the public expression of religion, so you won't hear any muezzin calls.
It's a pretty conservative society, so gender equality is an ongoing issue -- if you're a woman, you may find it hard to get Tajik males to take you seriously. Not as bad as some places but yes it's a thing.
5. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Go to the fountain in front of the Opera-Ballet at eight o'clock on a summer evening, and watch the light and music display. It's not spectacular, but it's very pleasant -- families come out and take the cool evening air, kids running around, and there's a pretty good ice cream shop half a block away.
More generally, if you like hiking, skiing, and mountain-y activities, you've come to a good place. Most of the country is mountains. Facilities are usually pretty basic, but if you don't mind that, you can have a lot of interesting experiences.
6. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not really. There are some lovely rugs and other textiles, and some nice jewelry and handicrafts.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
The language situation -- I would have tried to pick up some Russian in advance.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. But don't forget your:
Warm weather clothes, cold weather clothes -- you'll need both.
If you're a reading family, time to invest in a Kindle; there are no English language bookstores.
If you're a cook, bring your spices and specialized food items like baking paper and sprinkles.
Bring your camera -- there's a lot of spectacular scenery.
Bring your sense of adventure.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
"Tajikistan and the High Pamirs" by Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas is still the go-to book.
5. Do you have any other comments?
It's an authoritarian government. The same guy has been President for over 20 years, and it looks like he's planning to pass the office to his son; there is no opposition party, and the press is not free. It's not North Korea, but be thoughtful about discussing politics with Tajiks.
Facebook and most other forms of social media are turned off by the government, so you need a VPN. (That's not hard -- you can download free VPN programs online.)
Tajikistan is remote and can be a bit hard to get in and out of sometimes. Flights get cancelled sometimes: sometimes weather, sometimes... just cancelled. Be aware of this and try not to get frustrated.