Fred Lundahl’s Dispatches from Central Asia

Fred Lundahl’s Dispatches from Central Asia

Fred Lundahl spent 30 years serving in U.S. embassies abroad with the Foreign Service. He fell in love with Central Asia, and still travels there every couple of years. His import store in Langley on Washington State’s Whidbey Island, Music for the Eyes, is filled with exotic treasures personally collected from foreign lands, especially the Silk Road countries of Central Asia.

Fred traveled with MIR on a custom, private journey through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in 2016. Here are his dispatches from the road.

  • Greetings From Dubai

    May 28-29, 2016

    It’s odd that a trip to one of the poorest and most remote countries in the world begins through one of the richest.

    Back to the FutureThe United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Dubai in particular, is a mind-boggling place. I visited the UAE often in the early 1980s, when I worked at the US Embassy in nearby Muscat, Oman. Even then it was an odd mix of Arab desert kingdom and oil-fueled modernity.

    30 years onward, the place is unrecognizable.

    Stepping off a 14-hour Emirates Air flight from Seattle, I rushed ahead of the crowd into Dubai’s cavernous Terminal 3. I found that getting through customs procedures and out into the street was much smoother and quicker than in Seattle.

    The immigration officer, a UAE citizen, was the first individual I saw in the traditional dress of white headscarf (kefiya in Arabic) and long white robe (dishdasha). It soon became clear that there are two kinds of people in the UAE.

    Locals and GuestsThere are locals, who always wear traditional dress, and there are “guest workers.” Locals are a small minority and the guest workers are the vast majority. Between stepping off the airplane and arriving in my hotel room that single immigration officer was the only UAE national with whom I interacted.  

    Saturday night in Dubai is busy. I arrived in the city right before evening prayer. Lines of cars were pulling into parking lots, though I was not sure how many of the occupants were headed for the mosque and how many were headed for the Dunkin’ Donuts next door.  

    Saturday night traffic in full swing. Photo: Fred Lundahl

    Saturday night traffic in full swing

    At 9pm the temperature was still about 90 degrees with high humidity, which explained the local dress – shorts for most all “guest workers” and white dishdashas for the few UAE nationals I saw strolling into the mosque.

    Night LightsThe skyline at night is as brightly lit as any modern city. Some of the tall buildings are strangely outlandish, and the Burj Khalij ­– tallest building in the world – sits like a lighted nail poking up into the heavens. My hotel is near the port and my window opens out onto a gigantic cruise ship tied up nearby.

    The city is beautiful at night, with heavy traffic and so much light everywhere. What the scene lacks are people. With this weather, all activity takes place inside. With air conditioning.

    The Times, They are A-ChangingOther than quick transit stops I haven’t explored Dubai for 30 years. This trip gave me a whole day to explore the old Dubai where I stayed so long ago. Boy, has it changed!

    The area of “the creek” which was the first permanent Dubai fort in the late 1700s still has some “heritage buildings.” The old souk, or marketplace, is still lively and the fort has been made into an amazing underground museum. Underground was nice, because it was 100 degrees during my four-hour walkabout today.

    The neighborhood of Bur on the south side of the creek seems more like a city in South Asia than in the UAE. 95 percent of the people I saw today were “guest workers” and 85 percent of those were men. The shops and the restaurants all cater to these folks.

    I seldom heard Arabic spoken and even more seldom saw a UAE national in traditional dress.  

    T-shirt QuestEvery time I travel I pride myself on tracking down a t-shirt in the local language. This has gotten harder and harder to do as the world uses English more and more as the common language.  It was hard to find a t-shirt in Hungarian and I didn’t find a t-shirt in Mongolian until my last day there last year.

    I am ashamed to have to admit defeat in the UAE. All the t-shirts – ALL the t-shirts – are in English.  When I asked the clerks for something, anything, in Arabic they looked at me like I was crazy. “Why?” they would ask. After two dozen shops I had to admit defeat. The best I could do by the end of the day was to buy a ball cap (also ubiquitous around the world) that had the UAE leader’s portrait on the front.

    Not an Arabic t-shirt to be found! Photo: Fred Lundahl

    Not an Arabic t-shirt to be found!

    Wonder if I will have better luck in Tajikistan?  

  • Weddings in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

    June 3, 2016

    Next Monday is the beginning of Ramadan, the month of fasting in the Islamic world. I have popped over from Dushanbe, Tajikistan to Samarkand in neighboring Uzbekistan (a nine-hour road trip) for several days of visiting before beginning three weeks of travel around Tajikistan with a mountaineering friend from Seattle.

    Here in Uzbekistan they prefer to use the word “dieting” rather than “fasting” and the weeks leading up to the event is the traditional time to get married.

    Wedding SeasonIn Samarkand there are hundreds of weddings this time of year and it is big business here.  There are dozens of bridal boutiques and wedding planners and limo rental companies and wedding halls and wedding video and photographers.  Brides wear expensive flouncy white strapless dresses after severe dieting for months. The guys wear western suits, though shiny blue tuxedos are in this season.

    As in the US, wedding day photo shoots are also popular in Uzbekistan. Photo: Fred Lundahl

    As in the US, wedding day photo shoots are also popular in Uzbekistan


    Styling the perfect shot. Photo: Fred Lundahl

    Styling the perfect shot

    Uzbekistan is quite a secular place, and religion hangs lightly on the shoulders of the young. There are no beards on young men and no hijabs or headscarves on young women, who flaunt their long dark hair and short skirts – in cities and towns, at least. Most marriages are “love marriages” between two people who have met in school or at the office. Everyone wants to be married by their late twenties and start having kids. There is no stigma in divorce, so some of the wedding convoys I see driving by with music playing and horns honking are second marriages.

    24-hour WeddingA wedding itself is a full day and night of activities, some of which are traditional and some modern. The big day begins with an event at the home of the groom called “nahor oshi” or “morning plov.” It starts at 5am and all the male friends of the bride and groom and their relatives are welcomed and fed prodigious amounts of food in the garden of the groom’s father, who is the host.

    Next comes an identical event hosted by the bride’s father at the bride’s house. This is called “igob” and includes a ceremony with religious inputs similar to our exchanging of vows. After that the bride and groom are chauffeured around town in a convoy of cars honking their horns and flashing their lights, called the “zags.”

    This winds up at the wedding reception hall, where the party goes on into the wee hours of the next morning. The bride and groom don’t spend the first night together; they spend the second night together.

    The Unhappy BrideThe bride and groom sit at the head table the whole night. They don’t dance. Interestingly, the groom chats with friends and guests, who all bring gifts of money up to lay on the front table. The bride is supposed to spend the whole night looking sad rather than happy. The reason for this tradition is that she is leaving her family and must be sad. My wife has watched as a friend has practiced looking appropriately sad with her girlfriends, using a mirror to judge if she looks sad enough before everyone dissolves into laughter.

    Wedding PresentsHuge amounts of money are gifted to the couple. Dowry or Bride Price in cash has been made illegal in Uzbekistan, but in rural areas numbers of animals exchange hands still. In cities like Samarkand, it’s more likely that automobiles are given rather than sheep. There is no immediate honeymoon, but later the couple will go on a vacation trip, paid for by the parents, to Hong Kong, Korea, Turkey, or Europe.

  • Easy Going Ramadan in Dushanbe, Tajikistan

    June 8, 2016

    By the time I arrive back in Dushanbe from Uzbekistan, Ramadan has started in Tajikistan. You would hardly know it except for the wheelbarrows full of a frothy whipped egg white and sugar concoction called “nishollo,” made especially for Ramadan.

    Piles of nishollo waiting to be served. Photo: Fred Lundahl

    Piles of nishollo waiting to be served

    Dushanbe is one of the most laid back Muslim cities I have seen. Unlike some neighboring countries that try to encourage outward signs of religion such as beards and headscarves, Tajikistan doesn’t bother you about such things.

    Your ChoiceHere you see old and young wearing beards or no beards, and headscarves or no headscarves. Also everyone is free to choose to fast during Ramadan or not. While kebab stands in the local markets are not as busy as usual during the day, there are always a few customers eating away while observant Muslims simply go about their business or sit and chat with their non-observant friends who are chomping down lunch.

    Most Tajik women dress modestly, but bright colors and patterns are ubiquitous throughout Central Asia. Photo: Fred Lundahl

    Most Tajik women dress modestly, but bright colors and patterns are ubiquitous throughout Central Asia

    Fast-breaking FeastI was invited to an evening barbecue at a riverside cottage a bit into the mountains. The table alongside the roaring white water was groaning under the weight of fruit, nuts, bread, and melon in the Central Asian tradition that you don’t start with an empty table and serve things, you overload the table as a sign of hospitality. It’s called “dastarkhan,” which means, literally, “tablecloth.”

    The festive Iftar crew. Photo: Fred Lundahl

    The festive Iftar crew


    Melons in Central Asia are plentiful and extremely delicious. Photo: Fred Lundahl

    Checking the iPhone for the correct moment to break the fast

    Muslim iPhone AppThree of us were not fasting and before long we were digging into kebabs and salads and fruit while the other guys – no women were along for this boys’ night out – just sat and chatted. They were discussing how to know from the Azan prayer announcement in town that they could break their fast, when to their surprise my iPhone Muslim clock app began the call to prayer, and they immediately dug into the food.

    BlessingsNone of the group drinks alcohol during Ramadan so the main drink was a wonderful cold cherry “compote.”  Huge amounts of ripe fruits and melons followed until everyone began to slow down and finally stop. The blessing is always said at the end of the meal by the oldest guy present. That job fell to me and we all cupped our hands in prayer and said “omen” wiping our faces with our hands to end the meal.  

    The cherry compote was a perfect addition to our meal. Photo: Fred Lundahl

    The cherry compote was a perfect addition to our meal

  • Looking Across the Panj River into Afghanistan

    June 9, 2016

    Wow, what a difference two decades makes! Then, we saw only footpaths and guerrillas on the Afghan side and now there are roads and even a cell tower! And portions of the Tajik side are well enough paved that you can take a photo from the window!  

    Peeking into Afghanistan from the Tajik border. Photo: Fred Lundahl

    Peeking into Afghanistan from the Tajik border

  • Khorog Lundahl

    June 10, 2016

    Old Khorog: WWII monument

    Photo: Fred Lundahl


    New Khorog: Sweethearts by the river

    Photo: Fred Lundahl

  • Climate Change on the Pamir Highway

    June 16, 2016

    I spent a week on the Afghan border with Tajikistan and on the high Pamir plateau. Lots of tourists here, bicycling at 12,000 feet, riding motorcycles, and even walking.  Most noticeable is the change in weather patterns. The last few years have brought much more rain than snow, and this has caused huge landslides.

    Here’s a photo of a landslide last year near Khorog that dammed up a river and drowned a village. Luckily it occurred during the day so no one was injured.

    Aftermath of the landslide. Photo: Fred Lundahl

    Aftermath of the landslide

    The other photo is a bridge that washed out the day before we crossed and was hurriedly repaired so the hundreds of Chinese trucks carrying goods from Kashgar to Dushanbe could continue.  

    Guards keep a close eye on the bridge to make sure traffic can continue to pass safely. Photo: Fred Lundahl

    Guards keep a close eye on the bridge to make sure traffic can continue to pass safely

    Then I continued on to Djirgital, the jumping off place for climbing the tallest peaks in the former USSR. Several mountain names have been changed – Peak Communism is now Peak Somoni – but Peaks Lenin, Marx and Engels still tower up to 7,000 meters or more. I went on to spend a wonderful week hiking in the most picturesque mountains that no one in the US has heard of – the Fann Mountains north of Dushanbe.

    Finally I headed home to Seattle with thoughts already racing around my head about what I should see on my next trip out to Central Asia in a year or two.