Tajikistan is a relatively unknown country in Central Asia, and a former Soviet Union republic  The recovery of the independence from the Soviet Union and the following brutal civil war has been slow. 

Although life can be tough in Tajikistan, with a poor economy, authoritarian regime that does little to care for its citizens, absence of press freedom and a harsh climate in a country that exists for over 90% out of mountains, Tajiks are known as one of the most welcoming and hospitable people in the world. 

A unexpected, random and coincidental  friendship I struck up with a local Tajik made me return to this wonderfully interesting and beautiful country that has charmed me like no other. My first trip here was woven together by unexpected encounters, invitations in people's homes, overwhelming hospitality, crazy weddings, secretly sneaking out of the controlling eye of mothers and wives to smoke Afghan cigarettes (joints) under the moonlight with new made friends, sleeping under incredible starry skies in 14th century fortresses and marvel at the unbelievable mountainous landscapes. It left an everlasting impression and the desire to return to the country. Never before had I felt so far away from home while at the same time feel so welcomed.

Getting to know the Tajiks living in the remote Pamir mountains better on 2 visits, I learned that despite living in such a remote location, they are far from unworldly. They easily sum up the coaches and players of my national soccer teams, quote western philosophers in discussion about religion, freedom, happiness or communism versus capitalism, or admire the Dutch master painters. The Pamiri Tajiks have an open and tolerant mindset and are very interested in meeting people from other cultures. Their incredible hospitality is something I've never experienced before. Besides, the Pamir region is home to an ancient and rich culture with interesting traditions linked to Sufism, Zoroastrianism. Most of the inhabitants are practitioners of the liberal and tolerant I'smaeli faith.
The most important cultural learning I gained here about customs is the saying ‘when you open a bottle of wodka, you have finish it’ (applies to all central Asian countries by the way). Fine, I guess I'll adapt to your local customs. 

 I often went back to my experience and meetings with the Tajiks as a source for answering some of life's questions, such as what it means to be happy? What gives purpose to life? For which I increasingly find more meaningful answers from communities such as these than those of my home country in the western world. On my second trip in Tajikistan I went back to visit my Tajik friend and meet the small community of his village with these questions in mind. 
The national library in Dushanbe, constructed in the form of an open book. It is the largest library in Central Asia with about six million items and 45,000 square meters space on nine stories.
Keeping up appearances

The first thing you notice when arriving in the capital of Dushanbe, is that from every corner of the street a man with bushy eyebrows, receding hairline and chubby cheeks is waving at you in a majestic posture. The president Emomalii Rachmon adorns many portraits in the country and is keeping an watchful eye on the citizens from his portraits on every street corner, shopping mall, football stadium to the schools in the tiniest villages in the remote mountains. 

For a country that depends heavily on foreign aid and to fund many basic social services, splashing money on extravagant building projects is a questionable use of the budget. Building the biggest flagpole in the world (although the record is now stolen by Saudi Arabia), the biggest teahouse in the world, a 'french street' ,complete with a small Eiffel tower replica, are costing millions of dollars while the country is poor. It's a source of controversy, especially as for many projects many workers are for example Chinese, instead of local Tajiks, who are shy of work. Most Tajiks seek work abroad and the country depends heavily on migrant workers in Russia, who make up almost half of the GDP. 

The teahouse, which costed about 60 million dollar to construct. Since it went largely unused and unvisited by locals, it has gained more purposes since. There are several grand rooms, decorated with the finest and most expensive materials. On the left is a wedding room, on the right is one of the two meeting rooms of the president. There is a grander room for more important meetings and after that is an dining room. It is a building that many local Tajiks have never even set foot in.

16 hours away from the so called glamour of Dushanbe you arrive in the mind blowing, rugged landscape of the Pamir mountains, located in the Badakhsan region, often referred to as the Pamirs. The Pamirs are one of the highest mountain chains in the world, with peaks reaching up to 7.000 meter and the area is often dubbed the roof of the world as this is where the world's tallest mountain ranges meet. Life in these remote villages can be tough, with a lot of the terrain being unsuitable for agriculture and the extreme climate causing harsh conditions.
The Pamiri people are somewhat different from the other Tajiks in the country. Their autonomy and relative defiance has causes strained relations with the Dushanbe government.  Here they uphold different beliefs, norms and values, which mostly stems from practicing the Ismaeli faith instead of Sunni Islam as in the rest of the country.

The pamirs are home to mindblowing landscapes.
It was only on the second day of my first trip here when I was self driving around the country with someone, when I made a friend for life. We were looking for a local luthier, but lost our way. At a checkpoint we asked directions and a fellow with a landcruiser that was stowed with about 16 people told us we could follow him if we take one of his passengers in our car. After about 5 minutes driving we now obviously passed the exit we had to take and stopped the car. We tried to explain we had to be here and not several hours away to drop the lady passenger off, which now became clear was the idea of the driver. Many villagers soon started to gather around our car and a discussion between the driver and the villagers erupted, which we shortly after were no longer part of.  About 20 villagers all shared their opinion on this particular predicament. Meanwhile, the woman in our car was not bothered at all by this commotion and continued to stare dreamily out of the window.

Then, out of the chaos emerged a person who was the embodiment of calmness, casually gnawing on sunflower seeds and asking us in English what was going on. In 2 minutes he had solved the situation; the lady rejoined the original car and the villagers, now that the commotion was over, disappeared as soon as they emerged. The local villager was named Sabir and happened to be an nephew of the luthier we were looking for. We would have never found this on our own, as obviously the small village where he lived did not have a big sign that says 'famous luthier this way'. The intention was to spend like an hour or so there and then continue our way as we had some places to visit. In the end we spend the whole day and stayed the night, which about sums up how things go down in Tajikistan.

Underneath the moonlight in the natural hotsprings nearby we had very open discussions with Sabir about everything you talk about in the west as well; religion, alcohol, women, what it means to be happy. He invited us to stay in the guesthouse he was building, and while he returned to his home in the village we had this large guesthouse for ourselves. Overwhelmed by this immense hospitality from someone we barely knew, it was with a heavy heart we left the following afternoon after Sabir cooked us freshly caught fish from the Panj river, which forms the fragile border of Afghanistan. We stayed in touch ever since and returned to his village a year later to meet the community of the village he lives in.
Sabir, 44 years, works as a deminer.
'People are very happy to see foreigners here. Our people has a tradition of hospitality and we love to have a lot of guests in the house. For us, a home without guests is not a home. We think guests are a gift of god and if you have a lot of guests everyday, people are very lucky. Who ever comes to us, we try to offer whatever we have. We try to show our culture, our history. For the last 4 or 5 years we are very happy that  that more tourists come here, we are lucky really. Especially myself, I’m always looking to bring somebody home. To meet new people, to get new ideas. I'm very keen and interested about other people, other cultures, other religions, as it is very good to learn from each other. And when we are meeting people it gives us the benefit of exchanging ideas.'
On the hill on the right and down near the river are the 2 villages that make up this community. The land across the river on the left is Afghanistan.
Sabir is dreaming of opening a guesthouse someday. He started constructing it by himself and whenever he earns enough money to buy some more materials, the process moves a bit forward. 
'It is not only as a source of income but also as a place of gathering. To get to know each other, to exchange ideas. I think a tourist is a person who comes to learn something, who is coming to get new ideas, so I want to make such a place'.
When I returned the next year, the guesthouse was now inhabited by one of his brothers, his mother, his sister in law and her baby and himself. Their original family home was hit by an avalanche last winter and they had to abandon it on orders of government officials.

Family ties and taking care of each other takes an important place in society here. A healthy family is almost always the first answer in response to the question what happiness is. Families are usually big and close to each other and keep an eye on one another. 
Sabir standing in his childhood home that they had to abandon because of an avalanche. The government declared it unsafe and prohibited Sabir and his family to continue living in it. They promised financial assistance for a new home but as of yet the family still has to see the promised 500 dollar, not nearly enough a amount to build a new home which they are going to build themselves.
Humanity is my religion

Everybody in this community agreed that strong family ties and all of them in good health is one of the most important, if not the most important, things in life. I asked Sabir what else is important and what gives purpose to life.
'Life is short, we should enjoy it. Brotherhood, friendship, family, this is the most important in life. To meet good people, get to know other cultures. There is no difference between man and woman, no difference between other religions. And I wish that one day everybody will understand this, that there is no difference. Everybody has different goals in life, for me it is to live happy and to make others happy. If I can do something for myself, I have to do something for others as well. You see, whenever we do something good, but we don’t receive anything in return, not even a thank you, it doesn’t matter. You will be very happy innerly, you have done something good for someone else, that’s enough. We should not work or help for the sake of thanks, for somebody to show us appreciation. It doesn’t matter. I think it is our duty to do something good. We have come here to do something good. For me, the best religion is not Islam, but humanity, this is my religion. If you are a good person and you’re doing good deeds, that is your religion.'

Although Tajikistan is a muslim country, religion is not so much on the forefront as in other muslim countries. Especially in the Pamirs, where they practice the Ismaeli faith, a moderate and tolerant form of Islam.  'We are muslims and a lot of people think it is dangerous to come here. Because all they know what happens in the muslim world, is that in most places there is war. But in Tajikistan it's completely different. People here have different school of thoughts. For us Ismaelis it doesn’t matter what you believe, we respect all religions. There is no difference between us and other religions, we are quiet open to other beliefs. We don't need to be praying 5 times a day to be a good muslim. Religion is something personal, within your heart, so I don’t think that there should be some kind of difference between humans. Human beings are all alike, the same, doesn’t matter which color we have, which language we have or what we believe', says Sabir. 

The Ismaeli's are led by the Aga Khan, a name you hear a lot in this region. The Aga Khan has set up a huge development aid network and is financing, supporting and initiating many projects to improve the lives of people in these area's. Not only of Ismaeli muslims, but all people in need, all over the world. 
Haqnazar, brother of Sabir, lecturer in religion, 60 years.

Even Sabir's brother, Haqnazar, who is a religious teacher did't speak about religion until I asked him about it, except upon my departure asking Allah that I reach my destination safe and sound. Haqnazar's son Manucher, who is an English teacher in the village, agrees that nobody here aks about your religion, it is not important.

'Our imam, the Aga Khan, doesn't say to us you should always be praying or do this and that. What he tells us is, you have to live. You help others, you struggle with your daily problems like everybody else. The mundane is also part of the sacred. I think people have been scattered from religion and become afraid of it because of this institution of mullahs, islam, and ayatollahs' says Manucher.  
Haqnazar set up and support a soccer team in the village, he buys them footbal equipment and spends his weekends training them. According to Sabir, Haqnazar has never received a thank you from the community for his efforts, nor is he looking for any.

 'When I see that they, my football team, are happy, I feel myself very happy', says Haqnazar.  'If you are good for other people, their smile and their happiness will make you happy as well. Happiness has a lot of meanings. Some people see happiness in money, position or a job. Being a president or owner of a big factory. Some people consider happiness meaning to have peace inside. If you have money, but you have no smile, it's not good, then you are not happy. Because inner happiness is more important than money or things like that. If you are rich, but your neighbor is not rich, if you smile but other people are not smiling because they have problems, I feel myself not happy. I don't think happiness is absolute, but it is many different aspects'. 

It goes to show once again that the only things in life of real value and meaning are achieved without conditions. 

Haqnazar overwhelms us with hospitality. Every 5 minutes he fires his series of questions with actual concern; are you cold? Are you hungry? Are you tired? You are cold right, I can see it. Sure? The whole village never let's us out of their sight. I bet they would handfeed me and cradle me to sleep if I asked.
Manucher, son of Haqnazar, English teacher in the village , 40 years old.

After a day of teaching at the local school, Manucher takes us to his friend Umed to have tea. He talks in a very calm manner and regularly burst out in contagious laughter. Manucher can be heard quoting philosophers like Spinoza and Kant throughout his talking. He taught himself to draw to expres his affinity for Dutch master painters, such as Rembrant van Rijn and Van Gogh, of which he has a collection of images saved on his computer.

'I am still in the process of searching what real happiness is. Maybe I never perceive it. But i can call myself happy because I have my children, my son, my daughter. They give me some meaning of what to do. I haven't attained something that I like myself to do. Like a passion or hobby. I always dreamt to be a filmmaker. But now I'm 40, I don’t think I can do it anymore, too much I need to learn. Maybe I start writing, to find myself again. Sometimes, because of this you feel yourself sort of failure. Sometimes It makes you happy. If I could go anywhere in the world right now, I'd go to Murghab (a town in east Tajikistan), I have not been there yet.'

Manucher's nephew
Umed, 28 years old, works as musician.

Manucher's friend Umed is still searching for an answer as well. Although he did find a passion, which is playing music. He works as a musician and regularly plays at weddings and parties.

Tajiks are known for celebrating their wedding parties exuberantly. Parties include many guests, last for a few days and are strung together by great amounts of food and alcohol. Because people were going bankrupt and in debt for the rest of their life from these extensive parties, the government has set restrictions on the wedding festivities. Parties are now only allowed to last for 3 hours and have a maximum of 150 guests. They have sort of undercover agents checking this. I guess the ultimate defiance and middle finger to the autocratic government would be to have a wedding party greatly exceeding these rules, which happens often, especially in the Pamirs. 

'Similar like Manucher, I don't know it for sure yet, what it means to be happy. But I do know that I find my family important, that they have no problems. That everybody is healthy, calm and peaceful'
Keep on dancing
Music and celebration is an important part of the culture in Tajikistan. The music culture goes back a long way, from ancient times. There are several different music styles, such as the Badakhshan music, typical to the eponymous region. It has a unique musical heritage, known for spiritual, religious, poetry called madah. Lutes are a major part of Ismaili folk music, often three-stringed shortneck lutes played with a wooden plectrum. Instruments include the satar, rubab and tar. There are different types of songs for different occasions, such as weddings, celebrations or funerals. 
Musain, around 80 years old, uncle of Sabir

Musain is a 'usto' (master) in wood and instruments. He handcrafts 'rubabs', traditional guitars. His impressive collection of rubab's and career in the scene earned him somewhat of a legendary status in the region. He creates rubab's with amazing ornaments and in all shapes and forms and some with ingenious little gimmicks, such as the tail of the peacock guitar that can be wavered out. Musain picks up a rubab shaped in the form of an snake. He turns on a switch and the eyes light up red, proudly looking at me in anticipation of my response on his cleverly installed ornament.

'I was in 9 grade, about 13, 14 years old, when I  learned music. I started started by playing the setar, similar instrument to the rubab. Its was brought by someone from the neighboring district. I learned by myself and I didn't have a teacher. I played setar in school's musical performances. My father was a wood master, he used to make pillars, rubab and other wooden furniture'.
'Before we only had one band, one group in Dushanbe. But now the number of groups are growing. What I don’t like is that they are bringing new things to the music, from western elements. The local folk music will disappear if they keep moderating like this. The modern generation likes to play very modern instruments like guitar but a musician should play every instrument, even traditional ones. he should know it.
'When I sing or play it gives some kind of sweet pleasure for me. At the time, it gives inner joy that you grant happiness and joy to others. The art of music is a kind of love, one can fall in love with it. Its love and affection is comparable with a women's love! When I commence my work, I became so eager, some kind of desire and sense of meaning appears, that I wish to accomplish my job quickly , share and show my happiness with others.'
'First and the most important for happiness in human life is the family. If you have love and affection for your family, you will do everything for the sake of them, you will definitely succeeded in whatever you want.  What I wish is that you( young generation) love your own work, whatever you do, you should love it. Build a strong family, love and take care of your families and never let any dispute among you disturb the ties, hold strong to your families!'
Ravshanbek, an uncle of Sabir, 80 years, is a wood master and makes rubab's as well. He worked as an undertaker. He is playing an special Rubab that is only used for funeral ceremonies and religious rites,  and sufistical and mystical poems are sung with it. Nowadays this Rubab is more common in all the folk music though.
'I’m very happy. I have two children, a family. When I see all my children healthy and alive, I'm happy. As long as god has given me life I am happy. When I die, then I don’t know what happens, we'll see'
Sabir unfortunately had to go back to his job in Dushanbe, but as we still had a day left we decided to stay. Meanwhile, Sabir had apparently everbody in the village instructed to take care of us. Every now and then somebody would walk into the house to come check in on us, asked us if we need anything. Are we sure we don't need anyone to walk us to Haqnazar's house where we would stay tonight? On our way over there we receive several invitations for tea. 

Haqnazar prepared for us especially a delicious meal with goat liver and we spend our last evening with him and Manucher with dinner and vodka (we finished the bottles of course). A warm toast of Haqnazar expressing his gratitude for visiting him and that the door is always open and we can feel part of the family, warmed my heart.

Even the next morning when we had to get up at 5 am for the long drive back to Dushanbe, he quickly scuffled in the kitchen to make us breakfast of eggs and sausage. 

The fresh mountain air, late autumn sun glistening through the yellow colored trees, the warmth of the people of Dasth lingers on in my mind for quite a while and guarantees I'll be back soon. Their views on religious tolerance, importance of family, community and welcoming and interesting in people all across cultures is incredibly interesting. They reinforced the belief that you have to give without seeking anything in return, because to do so defeats the purpose of giving in the first place. 

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