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Volume 49, Number 6November/December 1998

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Rocky Mountain Chai

Written by Joann Temple Dennett
Photographed by Kirk Speer

In Central Asia, as in most of the rest of the world, drinking tea is a social act. In Tajikistan, the local chaikhona, or teahouse, is a center of community life, and chaikhonas—like mosques and private homes—receive the elaborate attentions of woodcarvers, painters and other traditional artisans.

Inside a typical chaikhona—chai means "tea" and khon means "building"—men sit on low decorated platforms called topchans and relax against vividly covered cushions. Hand-carved wood and fine, brightly painted geometric patterns cover every available surface with rhythmic designs that, at first glance, suggest Persian influences. Yet though it was some 27 centuries ago that Persian language and culture came to the mountainous Tajik lands at the southern end of the Pamirs, it was only 300 years later that the armies of Alexander arrived as well, and the Hellenistic culture they brought has also endured, in subtler ways, in the arts of Tajikistan. In the seventh century, a third formative cultural influence came to Tajikistan: Islam. Today, the modern nation blends all three strains in unique styles that express themselves exuberantly in the design and decoration of the chaikhona—so much so that the traditional teahouse has become a beloved cultural symbol.

But in one particular chaikhona, the customers are not Tajik. Beside the tables and topchans they drop colorful backpacks, and they are often shod in sandals or lug-soled mountain boots. Their headgear is likely to be a bandanna, a bicycle helmet or a cap with the logo of the University of Colorado Buffaloes, the Colorado Rockies or the Denver Broncos.

This chaikhona, though authentically Tajik, is located in Boulder, Colorado, and overlooked not by the Pamirs but by the Rockies. Eleven years in the making and a product of binational creativity, it is the only chaikhona in the Western Hemisphere.

This five-million-dollar artistic jewel box came to Boulder as a gift of friendship from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Like Boulder, Dushanbe is a mountain city, and proud of its universities. In 1983, the two entered into a "sister-city" alliance, and the relationship has since given rise to a broad array of human and material exchanges—of which the Boulder-Dushanbe teahouse is clearly the most spectacular.

In 1987, when Dushanbe's mayor Maksud Ikramov led the first delegation to Boulder, both cities had their own reasons for optimism: Boulder was becoming a boomtown of computer-based industries, and Dushanbe was heady with the glasnost' that ultimately led to Tajikistan's independence in 1992. (See Aramco World, May/June 1997.) In Boulder, Ikramov signed the sister-cities agreement and, in an astonishing initial gesture of good will, announced to Boulder mayor Linda Jourgensen that his city would bestow on Boulder a traditional chaikhona.

Shortly after Ikramov's return home, Lado Shanidze, a Dushanbe architect, began to design the chaikhona as a masterpiece of Tajik tradition. Five woodworkers, seven master craftsmen and nearly 30 others in several cities in Tajikistan worked almost two years to complete it. Fourteen columns of red cedar were carved, each in a different pattern, in Dushanbe. Clay for eight exterior ceramic panels came from Khujand, a city north of Dushanbe founded by Alexander the Great. There too the ceiling, with its 14 elaborately decorated coffers, was assembled and painstakingly painted.

In 1989, the ceiling, hand-crafted tiles, ceramic panels, bronze sculptures and structural elements of the 200-square-meter (2100 sq-ft) building were broken down into 2343 pieces. Each was carefully marked and cataloged for reassembly—in Tajik, an Iranian language that today is written in Cyrillic letters—and packed into some 200 crates. It was 1990 when a ship unloaded the crates onto Boulder-bound trucks.

But the crates stayed packed in Boulder. In fact, it took Boulder almost four times as long to erect the teahouse as it took the Tajik craftsmen to create it. In 1989, when the city council had voted its acceptance of the gift, it had stipulated that no city money be spent on erecting it. Thus, while the artisans were laboring in Tajikistan, in Colorado a corps of volunteers joined Mary Axe, president of the Boulder-Dushanbe Sister Cities board, to raise the necessary funds. One board member, Rosemary McBride, donned a green Tajik chapan, a traditional full-length coat, and vowed to wear it everywhere about town until the teahouse was built. Architect Vern Seieroe, who had traveled to Dushanbe with the first Boulder delegation in 1988 and discussed reassembly of the teahouse with his Tajik colleague Shanidze, began donating the first of what would become thousands of hours he would spend integrating Tajik design with the requirements of a us restaurant: electricity, restrooms, up-to-code kitchen equipment and—because most Tajik teahouses are open-air—fixed windows.

Over the next few years, the city offered several building sites, each of which was evaluated and rejected. Bank loans were arranged and withdrawn. Site-specific architectural adaptations were drawn and redrawn. As time passed, construction-cost estimates rose. Despite tens of thousands of dollars in individual contributions and grants from area organizations, there still wasn't enough money in 1996. It was then that Boulder city manager Tim Honey suggested that the city could bypass the "spend no city money" condition by offering the teahouse project an $800,000 loan from the city's water utility fund. This loan, approved by a new city council, enabled construction to get under way in October 1997.

To help with reassembly, four of the artisans who had built the teahouse came to Boulder, thanks to a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Each stayed in the home of a local family, and they became familiar faces around town. Master woodcarvers Mirpulat Mirakhmatov, 59, and Manon Khaidarov, 65, came first and stayed for 10 weeks. During their sojourn they were joined by plaster carver Abdoukodir Rakhimov—whom everyone called Kodir—who remained for six months. A few months later, as work began on the exterior, ceramist Victor Zabolotnikov arrived for a 15-week stay.

Mirakhmatov and Khaidarov had each learned his art from his father, and, following their fathers' example, the two had worked together over the past 35 years in a joint career that had included some 20 teahouses before they teamed up on the gift to Boulder. "Our fathers worked side by side all of their lives, and now we have worked side by side our whole lives," said Mirakhmatov. As luck would have it, one of the Boulder-based carpenters on the teahouse construction crew was Iranian-born Jamshid Drakhti, whose fluent Persian was readily understandable to the Tajik craftsmen and won him the position of unofficial translator for the work crew. As the woodcarvers' visit coincided with much of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Drakhti often joined the Tajiks in breaking the fast at sundown, sometimes bringing to the construction site stew, flatbread, rice, sweet dried ginger and mulberries, as well as green tea in a gold-plated samovar.

The collaboration among architect Seieroe, craftsmen and work crew was as unusual—and full of improvisation—as the teahouse itself. Seieroe's first major challenge was to take the open-air design and enclose it so it could be used during Boulder's snowy winters.

To do this, Seieroe said, "lighting was a major design issue, [because] we had to light the interior but not detract from the artwork. Every decision was always made in consideration of the question, 'Will this detract from the artwork?'"

Seieroe has nothing but admiration for the Tajik workmanship. For example, he says, none of the ceiling pieces nor the columns warped, either in transit or during seven years' storage. Also, "We took the ceiling segments out of the crates last summer and preassembled them in a hangar at the airport. In a building, if the diagonals are the same, it's square and accurate. The teahouse ceiling was square to within one-quarter inch [6 mm]. So it is built to tighter tolerances than we normally use."

As Mirakhmatov, Khaidarov and Seieroe's construction crew labored on the teahouse structure, in a studio across town Rakhimov concentrated on bas-relief plaster panels. He had designed four as frames for his original oil paintings, and he executed two others on mirrors, which were visible through the voids in the plaster.

Widely recognized in the former Soviet Union both for his painting and his plaster carving, Rakhimov is unusual among Tajik artisans in that he is self-taught in a traditional craft. His plaster tools and techniques, though, date from the time of Alexander the Great. "When I was a little boy," Rakhimov said, "I saw artists working in ganch, and that's when I made up my mind to do it too." Ganch is a thick plaster with a softer layer on top that allows it to be carved and shaped. Although most decorative plaster panels in Russia and Tajikistan are now mass-produced from molds, Kodir carves his intricate designs using perforated stencils.

In late February, Victor Zabolotnikov, the ceramist, arrived with two suitcases. One contained clothes, the other was filled with glazes to help him complete the eight exterior ceramic panels that he had designed, carved, primed and fired in Dushanbe. These two-by-four meter (6'x13') designs, glistening in the sunlight, are the first artwork to greet the teahouse visitor.

Now, the Boulder-Dushanbe teahouse is approached through a garden filled with plants common to both Dushanbe and Boulder—most prominently roses. New bridges arch over Boulder Creek, where the fast-flowing water has been directed into new rock channels designed to create gurgling rapids beside the teahouse patio.

Inside, the 12 cedar columns rise beneath a large skylight over the fountain; two more frame the entrance with repeating patterns of flowers, fruits and vines. In the fountain are near-life-size bronze statues that depict the Seven Princesses from the 12th-century Persian epic poem Haft Paykar by Nizami Ganjavi. Throughout, the detail of the artwork dazzles: solar and lunar motifs and a wide variety of flora, birds and butterflies all seem to dance in and out of geometric designs. In a bold juxtaposition of old and new, Rakhimov's carved plaster frames his energetically modernist paintings, and on the back and front walls, floor-to-ceiling mirrors reflect, in the voids of his carving, all the colors from the painted ceiling to the Oriental carpets on the floor.

When the teahouse opened on May 15 of this year, a crowd of several hundred gathered for a ribbon-cutting. Among the onlookers were Tajikistan's ambassador to the United Nations, Rashid Alimov, and former Boulder mayor Linda Jourgensen, as well as woodcarvers Mirakhmatov and Khaidarov, who were able to return for the occasion thanks to air tickets donated by the Boulder Daily Camera.

"Everyone thought this would be just a kiosk," said Lenny Martinelli, who, with his wife, Sara, is operating the teahouse as a restaurant and tea bar, "but this building is art, living art."

Throughout the construction of the teahouse, and amid the celebrations around its dedication, a question buzzed in the minds of Boulder's citizens: What could Boulder give to Dushanbe in return?

Much has changed in Tajikistan since Mayor Ikramov's first visit to Boulder in 1987. Glasnost' led to independence, and independence has been followed by intermittent civil war. Before 1992, Boulder sent a steady stream of interested citizens, students, doctors and dentists to visit and occasionally advise Tajik counterparts, and several organizations in Boulder now enjoy lasting professional relationships as a result. The Boulder Community Hospital and Dushanbe's City Medical Center have each hosted 17 physician exchanges, and from Boulder there have been six other medical delegations to Dushanbe. Boulder's high-tech firms have donated computers. Teachers and students from high schools in both cities have visited each other, and some Tajik teenagers have stayed on to attend school in Boulder. Boulder has sent equipment to Tajikistan's Mountain Rescue Organization and, nurtured by the Boulder Rotary Club chapter, Dushanbe soon hopes to charter the first Rotary chapter in Central Asia.

In Boulder, the Teahouse Trust was formed to handle the teahouse's construction and, now, its operation and maintenance. The Kuhiston Foundation, formed in 1991, has carried out a joint ecological expedition to the Shirkent area, northwest of Dushanbe, whose findings led to the declaration of a new national park there. The foundation has also launched a "micro-lending" program that supports village banks and small entrepreneurs in Tajikistan, so far with a perfect 100-percent payback rate. To Axe, this is just what the sister-city concept is all about. "Sister-city relationships lead to personal relationships, which make real differences in all of our lives," she said.

In addition, some Boulder students who took part in exchanges with Dushanbe have become involved in international affairs, including one young woman who is presently a journalist in Tajikistan. Axe said, "The students who participated in exchanges learned that you don't have to have 10 pairs of shoes in your closet. They learned [from their Tajik counterparts] the importance of family life, and of the extended family support that is characteristic of Tajik society."

Recently, however, the bulk of Boulder's gifts to Dushanbe have been humanitarian and relief aid. Durable goods—mostly bedding, clothing and medical supplies—have been collected from local businesses and individuals and sent every year since 1992, when civil war first broke out. Until Dushanbe is at peace again, such assistance appears more urgent than an artistic gift comparable to the teahouse. Still, no one is sure what Boulder could offer that would be of comparable cultural significance.

"The gift of the teahouse was a stroke of genius," Seieroe said. Any artistic gift from Boulder, he adds, would have to be in memory of former Dushanbe mayor Ikramov and architect Lado Shanidze, who both died in 1997, shortly before the Boulder groundbreaking, for the gift that has bound the two cities in spirit.

But the legacy of their generosity now thrives on the banks of Boulder Creek. "The teahouse is like a flower," said wood-carver Mirakhmatov during the opening ceremony. "We hope it brings people happiness and enjoyment. People will come, drink coffee or tea and look up, and it will make their souls happy."

"My soul is pretty happy at the moment," said Axe later. And for now, so seem to be the souls of all who visit Boulder's Tajik treasure.

Free-lance writer Joann Temple Dennett is a former member of the Boulder-Dushanbe Sister-Cities Board.

Kirk Speer is chief photographer for the Boulder Daily Camera.

This article appeared on pages 26-31 of the November/December 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1998 images.