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Holiday Shopping in Tajikistan

It was a typical Sunday in Khujand. I slept late until 9am and wandered out for some breakfast and tea. I haven’t quite mastered the art of making instant coffee (ground coffee is non-existent) so I just don’t bother. I’ve had it in restaurants and with the right mix of crystals, sugar and water it’s not bad. A few minutes later the power clicked off. The daughter of the family I’m staying with said what I was pretty much thinking – “just another typical weekend in Tajikistan.”

There’s really not a lot to do here and even less with no electricity. I talked to her about movie theaters, shopping malls and golf. They definitely don’t have golf and apparently there’s a theater but “it doesn’t work” she said. The night before we had already discussed American shopping habits when the Russian news channel showed a clip of people bum rushing a Walmart somewhere in a non-descript American town. I was slightly embarrassed. With wide eyes they asked, “is it free?” because no other explanation could reasonably justify the frenzied swarm of humanity. It was difficult to explain Black Friday and why people with so much are so eager to acquire even more.

With remarkably nice weather for this time of year – sunny and in the 50s most days – we decided to venture out to the bazaar. The daughter had to buy a present for her teacher so I was the guinea pig testing all of the

Looking for bargains in Isfara bazaar

Looking for bargains in Isfara bazaar

Chinese knock-off colognes. They had names like ‘Give N See’ or ‘Aqua di Go’ and sold for about 15 to 20 somoni (just over $5). My nostrils are still recovering. What struck me was the fact that, given the incomes here and the quality of goods, prices are extremely high. Most of it is Chinese-made and of even lesser quality than anything which makes it into the ‘everyday low price’ category in the US. Walmart looks like Nieman Marcus by comparison.

Most of Tajikistan is still very much a bazaar culture with everything from spices to shoes to stereos all selling within a short stroll. A kilogram of my favorite snack – peanuts covered in honey and rolled in sesame seeds – goes for 12 somoni ($3.50) A pair of jeans of no known provenance will easily run at least 60 somoni ($18) and goes up from there. Even cars are bought at the bazaar since there are no dealerships. A 2005 Chrysler 300 imported from New Jersey could be had for $25,000 which is almost twice the auction price in the US. The more reasonably priced cars are Lada or Opel but will still set you back a minimum of $3,000.

It’s great sport here to compare prices and I’ve had countless conversations about the cost of goods in the US versus Tajikistan. I have a newfound empathy for the campaigning politicians who get asked idiotic questions about the price of milk, eggs or bread. Until you’ve been asked, you don’t realize the challenge. Store brand or organic? How many liters in a gallon? By and large the reaction I get here is that things aren’t insanely more expensive in the US. The only cheap goods here are those produced locally and there aren’t many.


Car shopping at the bazaar

Car shopping at the bazaar

Part of the challenge in comparing prices is also the disparity in incomes. A one-way plane ticket to Dushanbe is about $60 which is wildly cheap by American standards. But talk to anyone here, and it’s a very rare trip. Adjusting for what’s called ‘purchasing power parity’ – an adjustment made to reflect exchange rates and the cost of local goods – Tajikistan’s per capita GDP was $1,356 for 2005. This ranks it 152nd out of 174 countries and on a par with Congo and Chad. A more amusing metric sometimes used is that of The Economist’s “Big Mac” index which compares the price of the McDonald’s burger from one country to the next. It would be more useful to this discussion if there was actually a McDonald’s in Tajikistan.

One of the looming challenges for Tajikistan – particularly given its nearly non-existent manufacturing sector and its cotton monoculture – is the difficulty in sourcing imports. Under the Soviet economy it was the beneficiary of imports produced elsewhere in the Union and often at subsidized prices. Now the training wheels are off and its economy is wobbling down the sidewalk. For a country bordering the world’s largest manufacturer of goods – China – you’d think Tajikistan would have access to a huge variety of its products. But that’s not the case at all.

With its landlocked location there are no ports of entry and the eastern mountain ranges peaking at over 7,000 meters make for hairpin roadways where passes are frequently snowed over during the winter. The international airport in Dushanbe boasts of a throughput of 200 passengers an hour and the national airline, Tajik Airlines, was at one point banned from entering the European Union on the basis of lax safety standards. Tensions are high with neighboring Uzbekistan and travel is severely restricted between the two nations. Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan is a major distribution point for Chinese goods but it’s a solid 24 hour round-trip by truck. Afghanistan is best known for sending opium – some 1.4 tons have been seized at the border this year alone – but it does supply some building materials to the south of the country. And Tajikistan is perhaps the only nation on earth where RC Cola is the market share leader presumably since Coca-Cola lacks a bottling facility.

It’s a bit surprising to walk through the bazaar of a 3rd world country and think to myself, “I could get better

Tashbubu spinning wool into yarn

Tashbubu spinning wool into yarn

quality at a better price in the US.” But for most manufactured goods, it’s true. Of course if you’re shopping for melons, bread, apricots or apples you’re absolutely in the right place. Wrapping up a melon and putting it under the tree just doesn’t seem right though. For the most part I’ve been checking out handcrafts which are unique to Tajikistan. Tashbubu, a Kiva client in the Kyrg enclave of Vorukh, makes amazing room-sized carpets from hand-spun wool priced at about 1,800 somoni ($500). In Istaravshan, craftsmen are well-known for handmade knives complete with ornate handles carved from sheep horns. These are the real treasures in Tajikistan and the lack of cheap imports does have one fortunate outcome; it keeps these people in business. Perhaps one day Tashbubu will find herself unable to compete with factory-made Chinese carpets, but for now her business is brisk.

There is no easy answer to the ‘right or wrong’ of globalization. Access to cheap goods is necessary but so is the maintenance of local industry. Tajikistan is still on the cusp and finding its equilibrium. On one street you’ll see men in traditional Tajik dress passing those in tailored suits. Donkey carts and SUVs rattle over the same potholed roadways. Milk is almost always organic and free range chickens are wandering the streets. It’s not exactly a shopper’s paradise, but it definitely has its appeal.


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