When I first told people I would be spending three months of my summer volunteering in Tajikistan I got one of two responses. A spluttered ‘Tajiki-what-now?’. Or just simple accusations of being a liar with ‘You’ve made that up haven’t you?’. So it’s fair to say our general knowledge of this landlocked Central Asian republic is far from complete. Hopefully by the end of reading this you’ll be a lot more aware of the issues this unique and unknown country faces and some killer obscure pub quiz facts.

To help paint the picture of what life is like in this tucked away republic here are some stats. Ninety per cent of its land is mountainous creating some absolutely amazing sceneries, hiking opportunities and tourist destinations. Ninety-eight per cent of the country’s eight million people are Muslim and Islam plays a crucial role in the lives and culture of Tajiks. For instance, women must remain modestly covered up, even if this means wearing the most vibrant and psychedelic mix of colours possible. In a similar vein it’s inappropriate for men to reveal their knees in public – especially around women. Like many other less economically developed countries, Tajikistan has a young population with 70 per cent under the age of 30. However, despite Tajikistan’s poverty their literacy is nearly 100 per cent, the remnants of a communist system that invested heavily in education. Bordering Tajikistan are four other countries – Afghanistan to the South, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to the West and North and China to the East. Despite these being the nation’s neighbours, the state with the most influence here is Russia which stems back to Tajikistan’s past as part of the Soviet Union.

Tajikistan’s ongoing relationship with Russia has, among others, two big impacts on itself. One of the reasons for Tajikistan’s low living standard is the result of the collapse of the USSR. This wasn’t helped by the subsequent civil war either. Factories closed, funding ended to public services and non-ethnic Tajiks and migrants fled. The result: average incomes are now 85 per cent of their 1990s levels. Perhaps surprisingly to us westerners, Communism was, and is, looked upon favourably in Tajikistan. Upon hearing the ‘C’ word older generations think back to a time of prosperity where public services were provided for free and ‘everyone had a job’. The present is a much different story however, health is a serious problem, with public expenditure on health amounting to 1 per cent of the country’s GDP. The effects of this are showing with a depressingly high infant mortality rate and a life expectancy of 66, in 2012. Furthermore, there is substantial unemployment, particularly among young people. This results in the second important relationship Tajikistan has with Russia.

Due to the lack of job opportunities many young men, and husbands, travel to and work in Russia. The total amounts to a staggering one million individuals a year. These men are crucial to Tajikistan’s economy with 47 per cent of Tajikistan’s GDP dependent upon their remittances (the impact of the collapse of the Russian ruble is not going to be pretty). However, this has resulted in an epidemic of fatherless households and family conflict. Children grow up without fathers and many men who move to Russia end up creating another life for themselves. Many will call up their spouse and mutter ‘talaq, talaq, talaq’ over the phone, or worse yet, send it in a text. This effectively translates as ‘you are divorced’. Due to this, many husbands will insist on a traditional Islamic wedding instead of a registered state wedding. Thus giving the wife no legal rights or claims to property if a divorce does occur. These relationship quarrels have become such a big problem that religious leaders now hold sermons on the immorality of divorce via text. These were just a couple of problems the rest of my team and I picked up on while we were volunteering.

Part of our volunteering roles was boosting Tajikistan’s tourism. Travelling to Tajikistan is something I would undoubtedly recommend to anyone and everyone. Tajikistan is an incredibly unique country, somewhere you’ve probably never heard of and one of the few remaining countries untouched by mainstream tourism. With the prosperity that tourism can bring to an area, your travels could help create job opportunities and build self-sufficiency for this small state.

There’s so much more I could have discussed, from their rich history to their exclusive cuisine, but that’s up to you to find out now. Going to Tajikistan was an absolutely amazing experience for me and I’m sure it would be for you too.

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