Varzob All Over Again?
Iraj Bashiri

copyright, Bashiri 2000




In 1998, I heard rumors about a cafe that had opened in the city of Boulder, Colorado, and which served authentic Tajik food. Investigating further, I discovered that the cities of Boulder and Dushanbe, Tajikistan, are sister cities, a part of the post-World-War II Dwight D. Eisenhower initiative to create city, county and state affiliations between the United States and other nations of the world to decrease the chance of future world conflicts. The people-to-people program was announced at the White House in a conference in 1956. The program grew in popularity and became a nonprofit organization in 1967.

Apparently, in 1982, a number of Boulder citizens, including--Mary Axe and Sophia Stoller, --took advantage of the opportunity to develop a partnership with a jurisdiction in the Soviet Union and thereby expand their community's ability to explore what was then known as "the Evil Empire." Creating an atmosphere of friendship with a Soviet nation, the ladies thought, might, in the long run, benefit their community culturally and build international understanding and peace at the grassroots level, if not financially. After all, solving mutual problems was at the heart of the original mandate for the creation of Sister Cities International.

In my case, working with Tajikistan in general and Tajik-related issues in particular, constitutes a major part of my activities. Nevertheless, I have to set up priorities for subjects that I choose to explore and the type of coverage that they should receive. Although this is interesting topic, I thought, I should get more information about the teahouse. Since little investigative spadework had been done on Tajik culture in the United States, anything written must be somewhat comprehensive to make sense to the general reader. Because of all these considerations, I placed working on an article about the teahouse on the back burner.

At the end of 1999, I received an e-mail from Mr. George Peknik with an announcement of my work and web site in their Boulder-Dushanbe Sister Cities Newsletter. George had also kindly invited me to their beautiful city for a visit. This, I thought, was an opportunity that could not be easily missed. It was like being asked to visit Tajikistan at home without leaving the US. I accepted Goerge's kind offer and made arrangements to visit the Boulder-Dushanbe Teahouse early in the summer of 2000.

My wife Carol and I have traveled together for many years exploring different lifestyles and customs. We have lived in Kazakh auls (village) and the Dushanbe ghetto, all the time trying to experience the life of the indigenous people, and understanding their difficulties and the mechanisms they have created for coping, as well as their attitude towards life, given their austere circumstances. These experiences have inspired us to view our own lives differently. The trip to Boulder we knew was not a challenge in that sense. Yet I was filled with a degree of foreboding. Would I be able to appreciate the circumstance that has served as the catalyst for bringing two diametrically different cultures and ways of life together? After all, the more one knows about a subject, the more difficult it is to reduce it to concise, comprehensible concepts.

For this trip, we decided to fly to Denver, drive a rented car to Boulder, return the car to Denver and fly home. We had tried the same thing in Ontario, Canada, and Baltimore with good results. We had tried avoiding cars in Florida and had missed a lot in seeing sights and getting involved in community activities. We did not want that repeated here, especially where I needed to see specific things and explore them exhaustively.

We arrived in Boulder early in the morning. Having had breakfast on the plane, we waited for Schlotzsky's to open at eleven. With lunch taken care of, we thought, we would have the rest of the day to explore the Rocky Mountain National Park, northwest of Boulder. The idea was to investigate our whereabouts before becoming involved in the actual life and culture of Boulder and its unique teahouse. Furthermore, geographic points of reference always help place topics in proper perspective. Are the sister cities alike, or are they different, at least as far as their physical appearance and natural setting are concerned? At the time I did not know that we would have reason to travel in that direction more than once.

Lyons is a small town, half way between Boulder and Estes Park. We had just passed Lyons, heading west when the scenery changed rapidly. We were entering the Rocky Mountains. "It is really wonderful to be able to travel in scenery this beautiful and not worry who or what might jump in front of you at the next bend," I said to Carol while enjoying the natural wealth of the country. Suddenly I felt I was transported somewhere else, some place I had been before.

"You did not get to see Varzob proper, did you?" I asked.

"No," said Carol. "We could go only as far as Luchab. We had to go back because of the soldiers guarding the entrance to the valley."

"Well," I said. "You are making up for missing it now. This place is exactly like Varzob. The mountain side to our right, with this serpentine road skirting it, the river of the exact size, foam-capped, rushing alongside the road in the same direction, the mountain on the other side. Really. I think, the only thing that is missing is the purple flower that grew on the slopes."

Strangely enough, the more I talked about the valley, and the more we moved up the valley, the more convinced I became that I was in Varzob.

"But the pictures you brought back show Varzob to be in a canyon."

"True," I said. "But that's way past this part that we are in right now. The last couple of miles are incredibly the same... And there, on the slope to the right are the purple flowers I talked so much about, in exactly the same formation... This is really incredible..."

"Do you want me to stop and take pictures?"

"No. I already have pictures of these."

"But not of this "Varzob."

"Sure, I will take some on the way back. Right now I'd like to see what lies ahead. I'll need to walk up and down the road and, like Varzob, this is a real dangerous place for walking back and forth to take comparative shots. We will have to work that out."

On the way back, we stopped for about an hour or so and took pictures. I also got some cursory information about the river, where its source is, and where it ends, from a fellow who was enjoying the scenery.

On the way back to Boulder, I thought there must be at least a thousand places on the face of the earth that look like Varzob or this valley. Roads and rails pass at the side of rivers all the time. Yet there was something special about this stretch of the road to the National Park that became so important to me. Why is that? Other drivers zipped through the valley probably thinking more about the job ahead of them than the scene they were passing through. I, on the other hand, felt I was, for that short period of time, somewhere quite different. Then I gradually remembered Vose and Saif and Jamshid and the driver. I recalled the cold water of Varzob, the trips that took me higher and higher down the road to Khujand in subsequent years, the fish dinner that we ordered on the way up and were served on the way back. Varzob, I finally concluded, was not this strip of land but a strip of thought that corresponded with this strip of land. In other words, I was carrying a lot more than just a series of photographic images. Once the photographic images corresponded, however, my thought patterns became active as well. They are the ones that dictate to me what is and what is not Varzob. Bar that, at the moment, neither the river nor the valley had an identity of its own for me.

"We are meeting the group tomorrow night, right?" I asked Carol after a long period of silence.

"Yes, early in the evening," Carol said.

"I think I need more specific information on this place, the type of information that cannot be found in books and encyclopedias. So either this afternoon or tomorrow morning, we should return to Lyons and explore this area a little bit more."

"Fine," said Carol. "We have the time."


We spent the evening at the Boulder-Dushanbe Teahouse just to become acquainted with the place, sample the teas and its Tajik cuisine. To date, I had not seen the variety of teas offered on the menu at the teahouse anywhere else. Although in a couple of days, I should add, we visited the Celestial Seasoning Tea Factory's headquarters also in Boulder. There, we found out that leaves and flowers of several plants growing near Boulder are reduced to tea. At the teahouse we tried a variety of Oolong tea. After four minutes of steeping, it had a wonderful aroma, a very delicate texture, and a pleasant taste with an indescribable undertone.

The next morning we headed for Lyons again to get more information about the area. The official in charge of the information center was a jolly old man. As soon as he saw us, he said, "Kids have broken the bathroom mirror. I am waiting for the police. They say they want to know about all incidents like this. Otherwise I wouldn't be here today."

"We are glad that you are," I said. "I need some information about the river that passes the town here and comes down the valley over there to the east."

"Sure, sir. You are at the right place. Let me get a map and 'orientate' myself here...O.K. You are talking about the St. Vrain, that's the river. Its source is way up in the glaciers to the west at Long's Peak, 14, 255 feet above sea level. It runs down to the Buttonrock Reservoir, crosses the Steamboat mountains and appears here. Around here, it joins .... O.K., let me backtrack a bit. We are really talking about North St. Vrain Creek up there and it joins the South St. Vrain further down on this side..."

"Does the valley it follows just before entering Lyons have a name?"

"Not particularly," he said, with a jerk of his shoulders and eyebrows.

"But it must have some name," I insisted.

"Well, there is nothing here on the map, but if you'll feel better, I will provide a name for you."

"That will do for my purposes," I said. "What I really need is a reference point."

"O.K.," he said, thinking, "It would be the 'Lowlands Valley.' Will that work out for you?"

"Well, its better than no name," I said and added, "In fact, I think Lowlands Valley is a nice name for it."

Meanwhile, the police arrived and the official excused himself to take care of the vandalism. Before leaving, however, we picked up a brochure on the flora and fauna of the place and one on the history of Historic Lyons Museum. "Thanks for all that help," I said. "By the way, where can we find some breakfast around here?"

"That would be at Jean & Alice's down the road, just before you turn to go to Boulder."

Jean & Alice's "old-world oatmeal" with side orders of bacon was really good.


In the evening, we were met by George and his wife Sabina, in front of the luxurious Boulder-Dushanbe Teahouse. We were ushered into the teahouse and, soon after, other guests arrived. Conversation at the table had an international life of its own but, every now and then, I talked to my neighbor, Mary Axe, about the teahouse, its construction, the Boulderites' reaction to it and the like. "I understand that you are the co-founder of the Boulder-Dushanbe Sister City," I asked Mary.

"Yes, she said, "Sophia Stoller is the other co-founder."

"And how did that come about? Boulder is not a big city?"

"Well, it really started, in my mind at least, during the Nixon era. I actively opposed the arms race and was frightened of the prospects of a real confrontation with the Soviet Union. Then, I found a soul-mate in Sophia. Together, we thought, we could rally support for creating some kind of a connection with the outside world. That was in 1982," she concluded.

Mary's words took me back to the 1960's and the restless times of Allen Ginsberg (who summered in Boulder for much of his life), Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs as they sought to free themselves from the shackles of time and space. Unlike Nixon and Brezhenev who were trying to connect the Americans and the Soviets by fiat, I thought, these ladies had been creating a grassroots connection. "Did you have a particular place in mind? I mean did you go directly for Dushanbe, Tajikistan?"

"Oh no. Not really. At that point we thought any city in the Soviet Union would do. But even that was not sufficient for the authorities. They felt Boulder was too small to be even considered."

"So, how did you manage that?"

"We just didn't play their game. We knew what we wanted and went for it, so to speak. I personally made many trips to Washington D.C. But nothing seemed to work in our favor until Boulder scientist Joe Allen met the mayor of Dushanbe, Maksud Ikramov. That and the fact that Boulder had a balalaika band changed the odds in our favor."

"When did the cities actually sign on the dotted line?"

"Well, Mayor Ikramov and a Tajik delegation visited Boulder in 1987. It was finalized then."

"So it was signed during your presidency of the Council Board?"

"Yes," she said. "That was one of my happiest presidential acts--to see Mayors Jourgensen and Ikramov sign the agreement."

"What kind of people-to-people projects do you initiate or support?" I asked.

"Before the 1992 breakout of the Tajik civil war, we began to exchange students and medical doctors. Boulder (Boulder's Kuhiston Foundation, to be exact) even sent an ecological expedition to Shirkent to establish a national park there. After the war, our focus has been on need more than on want. We have been sending humanitarian aid, mountain-rescue equipment, surgical sutures, and the like."

"How about cultural exchanges?" I asked.

"In that department, I think, the Tajiks have made the unique contribution. This magnificent teahouse in which we are enjoying a serene Tajik night is a direct gift of Mayor Ikramov of Dushanbe."

"When was the teahouse presented to Boulder?" I asked.

"It arrived in Boulder in a number of large crates in 1990. The people of Boulder had sent a permanent exhibit of 40+ works by local artists and photographers to Dushanbe as a permanent display. The Teahouse was a reciprocal gesture along those lines."

"I see," I said, still wondering why mayor Ikramov receives all the credit for a teahouse, a Tajik gift. "Ikramov was working under the Soviet system, wasn't he?" I asked and added, "At the time no one person could offer a gift of any value. So what kind of behind-the-scenes activities were involved? Was Moscow involved? Were the First Secretary and the all-powerful Central Committee of the Tajik SSR involved? The mayor of Dushanbe, after all, was a mere functionary."

"But, of course," said Mary. "Our connection in all this, however, was the late mayor."

At this time George, who had been discussing Iranian films with the rest of the guests, joined our discussion of the teahouse. "These beautifully fluted columns, for instance, he said, don't come from Dushanbe. They come from Russia, Siberia to be exact, and they were acquired by special request from Moscow. Similarly, those who executed the magnificent plaster work over there and those who executed the tile work that distinguishes this teahouse; they all were commissioned by the authorities."

"How did the people of Boulder react to providing funds for assembling the teahouse?" I asked.

"Not completely favorably," said Mary. "The teahouse, of course, is city property but people did not want their money spent on it."

" In addition," said George, "there was controversy regarding the location of the teahouse. This site is, as is evident by the creek that runs alongside it, vulnerable to floods. In fact, in 1894 there was a major flood that is known as the Boulder Creek 100-year flood. People wanted guarantees that after spending all this money on a unique structure, the teahouse will not become a flood victim. What would happen to all these paintings, all of them executed for this teahouse? What would happen to the plaster work?"

"But the building, like old Achaemenian palaces, is built on a terrace. It is quite high from the ground level," I said.

"True," said Mary. "But if people want to protest something, they usually don't carry their yard stick with them, do they?"

Towards the end of our discussion, I was satisfied. I got as much information on this unique structure in the western hemisphere as I had received on the history of tea in the Sa'odat teahouse.

No wonder Tajik men spend most of their lives in their magnificent teahouses.



The Boulder-Dushanbe Teahouse:
A Chronology

Iraj Bashiri

copyright, Bashiri 2000




Jabbor Rasulov, First Party Secretary of Tajikistan, dies. Qahhor Makhkamov replaces him as First Party Secretary to implement Moscow's wishes to suppress Islam promoted by the Pamiris and Gharmis; Mary Axe and Sophia Stoller, two Boulder, Colorado citizens and others, decide to develop a partnership with a jurisdiction in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Sister City Project is formed in Boulder as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.

Boulder City Council approves the establishment of a sister city.

At the beginning of Gorbachev's Perestroika, Nabiyev tries to force Babasadiqova to resign. Instead, Gorbachev asks him (Nabiyev) to step down. Nabiyev becomes a pensioner; To establish sister city relations, a group of Boulderites travel to Tajikistan and are received royally by the Mayor of Dushanbe.

Trying to distance themselves from Soviet dicta, the Tajiks celebrate the Now Ruz in Kino Studio in Dushanbe. This is the first such celebration in over seventy years; First annual Boulder festival of Soviet film gets underway.

In an effort to cast the widest net possible, Tajikistan holds a number of cultural events, including the first meeting to discuss the relationship among Tajiki, Dari and Farsi languages. An outgoing and, to a degree adventurist Mayor of Dushanbe, Maksud Ikramov, leads a Tajik delegation to Boulder where he signs the sister-city agreement. The Boulder-Dushanbe Sister Cities is born. Ikramov then announces Dushanbe's intention to give a traditional Tajik teahouse as a gift to its sister city.

An exhibition of 40+ works donated by artists and photographers in Boulder is sent to Tajikistan for permanent display in Dushanbe. Along with the exhibition, a delegation of Boulderites visit the Tajik capital. Dushanbe architect Lado Shanidze designs the teahouse to be sent to Boulder.

Two programs--a student exchange and a physicians exchange--are established for educational and medical cooperation

To carry out a major project worth $5,000,000, many Tajiks participate in the creation, building, and decoration of the teahouse before it is ready to be disassembled and sent to Boulder. Of special importance are 5 woodworkers, 7 master craftspeople, and 30 regular workers who cooperate closely until the shell of the teahouse is completed. The Tajik government even sends a special request to Moscow to acquire 14 red cedar trees to be carved as columns to hold up the entrance and the ceiling of the teahouse. In addition to 14 decorated coffers which are assembled and painted, 8 exterior ceramic panels, made in Khujand, arrive in Dushanbe.

Once all the pieces are in place and everything is checked and rechecked for a tight fit, the carefully crafted teahouse shell is disassembled into 2343 numbered pieces and placed in crates for shipment.

Trucks carry the 200 crates containing the donated Tajik teahouse from the port to Boulder for final assembly.

Tajikistan gains independence. Mayor Maksud Ikramov, following the example of Moscow's Gavriil Popov, orders the removal of the towering statue of Lenin from what later came to be called the Ozodi (freedom) Square. The Communist Party majority in the Supreme Soviet forces Acting-President Aslanov, who had replaced the ousted Makhkamov, out of office. Maqsud Ikramov is arrested. Nabiyev is reinstated as interim president until the national election in October. All Lenin statues are ordered to be guarded. In Boulder, the Kuhiston Foundation is formed to spearhead the creation of a National Park in Shirkent, northwest of Dushanbe.

In the chamber of the Supreme Soviet, after two-thirds of the deputies vote to lift his parliamentary immunity, Dushanbe mayor and Tajik Supreme Soviet deputy Maksud Ikramov is arrested again. He is accused of taking bribes, although a search of his apartment turns up only 10,000 rubles, two dollars, and several Iranian rials. This time, Ikramov had planned to install the statue of Firdowsi where Lenin's statue had stood in front of the Supreme Soviet building. He also had, without prior permission, invited over thirty Iranian officials to attend the ceremony. The airplane carrying the Iranian officials, not being granted permission to land, returns to Tehran. The main reason for Ikramov's arrest, of course, was that, as mentioned, during the anti-Communist demonstrations in September 1991, he had sanctioned the removal of the largest statue of Lenin in Dushanbe.

Maksud Ikramov's arrest sets off a wave of disturbances in Dushanbe, disturbances that are further exacerbated by Safarali Kenjaev who accuses Minister of Internal Affairs Mamadayoz Novjavonov, a Pamiri (Badakhshani), of embezzlement and of overstepping his authority. Humiliated Pamiris react by playing the Ikramov card, i.e., demanding Ikramov's release from prison as well as Kenjaev's resignation. Ikramov, however, had already been transferred from his prison in Dushanbe to a much less sanitary prison in Khujand.

While Ikramov is incarcerated, Tajikistan's State Prosecutor Nurullo Huvaidullaev, who had intended to keep Ikramov in prison indefinitely, and his chauffeur, are killed by unidentified gunmen in Dushanbe. The murder of the Prosecutor General, although attributed to Ikramov sympathizers, remains unsolved.

First humanitarian aid shipment from Boulder reaches Dushanbe.

A site on 13th Street in Boulder is dedicated for the building of the teahouse; second humanitarian aid shipment to Dushanbe leaves Boulder.

Third humanitarian aid shipment to Dushanbe; Community Hospital and Dushanbe City Medical Center form a partnership under USIA auspices.

A grant of $25,000 by the National Endowment for the Arts enables Boulder to fly in two artisans from Tajikistan to supervise the reassembling of the teahouse; surgical suture materials are sent to Dushanbe's Emergency Surgery Hospital.

Insufficient funding and lack of a definite site prevents the supporters of the teahouse to begin construction. The Boulder-Dushanbe educational and medical exchanges continue in full force.

Tajik Democratic Party Leader, Parliamentarian, and ex-Mayor of Dushanbe, Maksud Ikramov, dies in a car accident near Samarqand while Lado Shinadze dies in the Tajik capital. In Boulder, the construction of the teahouse gets underway after the city waves its "spend no city money" condition and contributes a loan of $800,000 towards the construction of the teahouse.

Boulder-Dushanbe Teahouse is officially inaugurated by Mayor Greenlee. The inauguration ceremonies are attended by Tajikistan's ambassador to the United Nations, Rashid Alimov, former Mayor Linda Jourgensen, woodcarvers Mirakhmatov and Khaidarov, and hundreds of dedicated Boulderites.

Peace Ride 2000, a 9000 mile fund-raising bicycle expedition with the goal of raising $100,000 to improve the lives of Dushanbe orphans gets underway. The money is used to purchase basic needs such as blankets, shoes, and school supplies.

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