How Images and Sounds Translate into Matter: Economic Turnarounds in the Eastern Pamirs, Tajikistan

by Tobias Marschall

As for many places in Central Asia, a small container bazar grew in Murghab town. The centre of the Eastern Pamirs’ Murghab district in Tajikistan did not escape the quasi-rule of post-soviet countries: A marketplace where people turned to retail trade activities on individual or collective initiative. Behind a metal gate, a main footpath emerges between two rows of small to big shipping containers that were aligned to gather commercial activities in one place. Visitors make a particular sound when walking over the gravel that covers the otherwise dry and hard ground, a sound that is not to be heard somewhere else in Murghab. Jeeps, minibuses and other small vehicles gather at the taxi stand behind the containers on dusty soil, waiting for passengers.

Chinese trucks journey between Murghab and Khorog, Tajikistan.

Chinese trucks journey between Murghab and Khorog, Tajikistan.

From time to time white, large lorries pass by on the asphalt road uphill the bazar, without halt at Murghab’s marketplace. They facilitate imports from Western China into Tajikistan via the high mountain Kulma pass, reopened in 2004. While locals witness both their low, surd noise filling the silent valleys day and night and the little shaking of the ground due to their heavy load, they cannot directly access their goods. Those are destined, due to trade monopoly, to the state capital Dushanbe and are re-distributed from there to other marketplaces, also to those in the Pamirs. On their return to China the trucks are empty, no products from Tajikistan attract investors’ or traders’ interests.

As one truck crossed our way, a fellow passenger sitting next to me commented, “Those drivers, they are wicked! We don’t talk to them, they don’t talk to us, they just pass by.” Even if this statement exaggerates facts, most of the Chinese truck drivers sleep either in their lorries parked at the roadside or in homestays outside settlements, clearly recognizable by large Chinese characters on their walls. Small incidents like quarrels between drivers and locals, road accidents and drunk drivers support the negative image that is generally attached to them. But this is probably not the main reason for the latent anger and apparent stereotypes expressed by some Murghabis.

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On a cold winter afternoon, January 2015, waiting for a shared minibus at Murghab’s taxi stand, my friend Azamat and I entered a store that has opened only recently. Azamat has grown up here, he is well known in the region thanks to his work at one of the gas stations that in turn keeps him updated on travel and trade issues. We spent long evenings together discussing the pros and cons of current trade opportunities in the Pamir region, the quality of various commodities, and the importance of trust in trade relations.

The shop is the first of its kind in Murghab. It is located a good piece away from the bazar at the side of the road that witnesses the Chinese trucks passing by. Accommodated in a newly constructed freestanding, bright-coloured building that resembles the new schools, banks, and medical facilities, it stands out in Murghab’s urban landscape. Inside, the visitors’ steps meet a sleek and silent synthetic floor. Wares are displayed on large shelves, strictly arranged by category and in geometric orderliness. They cover a wide range of consumer goods for everyday use, from milk products, cereals, sweets to cosmetics and ropes. The gridded arrangement and big amount of each product suggest abundance as well as order; and make the bazar shops appear comparatively smaller and messier.

Moreover, the shop owners started a new and unconventional business in other respects as well. They are in possession of their own truck and, cutting out a middlemen, import their ware directly from Dushanbe while Murghabi retailers usually acquire their merchandise from Osh, in Kyrgyzstan. Thus, the shop owners profit indirectly from the passage of Chinese lorries: Doing logistics on their own, resulting lower transportation costs allow them to benefit from (comparatively) cheap wholesale prices in Dushanbe which in turn enables them to sell their ware 20 to 30 per cent cheaper than bazar retailers.

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I assume that stereotypes as those expressed by my fellow passenger are not simply based on prejudices or experiences with Chinese drivers. Rather, they reflect frustration about restrictions experienced by the inhabitants of Murghab who – for more than ten years now, since the renovation and opening of the road to China – are spectators of the numerous white lorries’ transit, but not beneficiaries. In this regard the new shop introducing an unconventional retail model marks a significant turnaround. It competes with local prices and, furthermore, strengthens the link of the region to another centre: Dushanbe. Will it be followed up by other entrepreneurs looking for opportunities in the region? While trucks on the road, walks in the bazar and the shop sound all different, what will one hear in the future about and in the shop?

About the author:

Tobias Marschall is conducting fieldwork research in the Eastern Pamirs, Tajikistan and Little Pamir, Afghanistan. He is particularly interested in traders’, religious movements’ and international donors’ activities. Tobias is in the beginning phase of his PhD at the Eberhard Karls University of Tuebingen, Germany.