Hungry China = Hungry Tajikistan?

A family shows food preserved using improved techniques.
In a country like Tajikistan – landlocked, post-conflict, few natural resources, 93% mountainous, crumbling infrastructure and a questionably corrupt government – investors are hard to come by.  Some recent discoveries and actions, however, may be changing Tajikistan’s luck.  Whether this will be positive or detrimental to the country’s future development remains to be seen.

Last month Gazprom announced that it had discovered approximately 60 billion cubic meters of natural gas, or the equivalent of 50 years worth of domestic use.  This is good news for a country that has become so reliant on natural gas for heating from Uzbekistan that during periods of chilly relations or delayed payments, supply has been suspended causing untimely deaths for some of Tajikistan’s population.

This is in addition to the massive hydroelectric project currently underway at Rogun Dam that is expected to help make Tajikistan a net energy exporter to countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan in the near future.  And Rogun is not the only hydroelectric project planned for this glacier-rich country.

Also, just this month, two new gold deposits were found in central and north Tajikistan, totaling 117 tons and 59 tons respectively.  With the help of Chinese mining companies, these deposits could help increase Tajikistan’s current 1.3-1.5 ton production annually.

So I mention the Chinese.

China has made immense investments in Central Asia in recent years.  As the global leader in energy consumption, China has been furiously looking for other sources to fuel its economy. China has provided $10 billion to Kazakhstan to help boost its economy in exchange for a construction of a pipeline that is expected to carry 400,000 barrels of oil per day to China.  There are already 15 majority Chinese companies in Kazakhstan.  The Chinese have even overtaken Russia’s influence in Kazakhstan with Chinese companies importing 18 million tons of oil from Kazakhstan in 2009, compared to just 6.4 million tons by Russian companies.

In Turkmenistan it’s the same story, with China already signing contracts to purchase up to 40 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas annually.  This is after $7 billion of approved soft loans to Turkmenistan in order to develop specific gas deposits.

So what does this mean for Tajikistan?  Well, the Tajik government just announced that it was going to lease land on Tajik soil to allow 1,500 Chinese farmers to grow food for the Chinese.  This is certainly disconcerting in a country that has difficult producing enough food for its own people.  The government has given the justification that the Chinese will bring with them contemporary farming techniques and develop land that has been left fallow due to labor shortages from labor migrations to Russia.  People in Tajikistan aren’t so sure.

One issue is the fact that this means a large incursion of Chinese into the country to work the fields.  There were 30,000 Chinese migrant laborers in Tajikistan in 2007 working on roads and mining sites.  This number had jumped to 82,000 by 2010.  This is likely to expand rapidly with this new deal in Tajikistan – a reality that does not sit well with many in Tajikistan.

This new deal comes right on the heels of an announcement that Tajikistan had ceded 1,100 square kilometers of Tajik land (1 percent of the country’s total land area) to China.

With China’s rapidly growing influence and investment in the region, one has to ask what the benefits will be.  With Chinese laborers building these projects keeping employment from a Tajik population of young people desperately in need of work and with land being leased or ceded to China for food production in a country that has periods of high food insecurity, investment may come at a net cost to the people of Tajikistan.

An energy and nutrition hungry China may mean a perpetually hungry Tajikistan in the future.

Articles of Interest


No less than fifty horses and riders rode on the snow-filled field high in the mountains.  Outfitted with colorful saddle blankets, boots, whips, Russian tank helmets and other adornments, riders and horses alike were prepared for battle.  Their object: fight over a disemboweled goat carcass and see who could throw it into a tire in the middle of the field.

Buzkashi is a sport that no narrative, nor photo could do justice.  Riders and audience both are part of the game.  You take your own life in your hands standing as a spectator watching each match as riders come galloping toward you at full speed hanging half-off their horse fighting over a goat carcass with another rider.  It’s the shouts from the crowd, the whoops from the riders, the sound of the whip crashing across a horse’s (or rider’s) body, and the screams of joy filled feared as audience members run for fear of getting trampled that constitute the game.

Below are photos from a couple Buskashi matches I attended while working up in the Garm and Tavildara districts.

Janice - one of my coworkers, as the only woman to have ridden in a match - much less win.

Christmas with the Kazakhs; New Year's with the Dutch

One shot

The top-shelf Russian vodka burns my throat as the sound of a substantial Russian man behind me barking the lyrics to “Sign” by Ace of Base burns my ears.

Two women dance idly in the corner of the room while a man not older than 25 attempts to woo them with his amazingly arrhythmic dance moves.

Two shots

At the table I am accompanied by approximately twelve Lufthansa crew members laughing riotously and screaming to each other in high-pitched German.

I cling to my Kazakh acquaintance to my left as the only other person not shouting unintelligible phrases at an overly-audible level into my ear.

Three shots

A few of the crew members crawl out of their seats to take the place of the substantial Russian man at the microphone to sing Pink’s classic, “Let’s Get This Party Started”.

The initial signs of dancing begin to take shape on the dance floor.

Four shots

I am pulled rather violently from my seat to take center stage and lead the eager crew members in a rendition of “New York, New York” which is only appropriate - I am repeatedly reminded - because I am the only American in the room.

Five shots

The dancing really gets underway with Russians, Kazakhs and Germans alike being pulled onto the dance floor in a cacophony of movement and a flurry of sound (yes, those adjectives are correctly placed).

Six shots

The night progresses oscillating between Russian pop songs and English classics spanning the decades.
Zenkov Cathedral (made entirely of wood)

Language is of no issue at this point as everyone in the room dances to each song regardless of its linguistic origin, taking only the occasional break for another shot.

. . . And that’s how I spent Christmas in Almaty . . .

Kazakhstan is a place of contradictions, perhaps by design: It sits squarely in the Central Asia region, yet Almaty is more European than Asian; it is a country founded on the Kazakh identity, yet is one of the most multi-ethnic countries I have ever visited with Kazakhs, Russians, Koreans, Jews, Uighurs, Kurds, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and a host of other ethnicities coloring the landscape; Almaty proper is dense and polluted but just a short bus ride away lie some of the most beautifully unspoiled mountains I’ve ever seen.

Almaty and larger Kazakhstan also does not contain some of the more historic architecture or sights of its European or Central Asian counterparts; nomadic until Russian occupation, the Kazakh people did not construct large cities like the Tajiks of Samarkand and Bukhara. Interestingly, religion is much more diverse than other parts of Central Asia with the population splitting its allegiances between Russian Orthodox, Islam, atheism and a smattering of other faiths.

Perfect day for a hike
I was fortunate to get a peek at this unique country through the eyes of its most visited city. It left me wanting to explore more.
After spending Christmas with the Kazakhs (and a large number of Germans), I awoke early on the 29th to journey to Amsterdam for New Year’s. It was with great anticipation that I returned to the city for the first time since I left in 2004 and to meet some dear friends with whom I had spent a year studying there.

(Some of) the Amsterdam crew reunites

BOOM sputter sputter

The sound and accompanying sonic force nearly knock me from my bike as I race through the streets of Amsterdam following Karl as well as possible through the haze of firework smoke.

BANG BOOM fizzle fizzle blinding light

It seems that every resident of Amsterdam feels that it is perfectly safe and ordinary to light fireworks in the middle of the street as myself and a few hundred other bikers weave through seemingly life threatening explosions and showers of sparks.

BAM BAM sputter fizzle

The impossibly tall Dutch man and his family stare at me as I halt my bike waiting for the shower of sparks to stop.

Happy New Year from Amsterdam!
I can’t tell if they stare at me because they see no reason for me to stop or if it’s because I’m wearing silver tights, gold sequin hotpants and a sleeveless shirt that reads “Moon Gymnastics” . . . I’m leaning toward the former.

BOOM BOOM sparkle sputter BOOM fizzle fizzle

“Hot outfit,” a group of impossibly tall Dutch girls shout as another explosion lights the sky behind them, “I want some of that!”

Not tonight girls, not tonight.

While Karl and I never did find our friends to attend the “Space Oddity” party we had dressed so appropriately for, we did manage to find a few other watering holes to ring in the New Year. Riding my bike amidst showers of sparks along the canals of Amsterdam wearing utter ridiculousness, however, was celebration enough as I remembered why I love the city so deeply.

. . . And that's how I spent New Year's in Amsterdam . . .