How a handcarved Tajik teahouse landed in the heart of the United States

Fed up with Cold War animosity, a group of residents in Boulder, Colorado, reached out to Soviet mayors in the 1980s in a bid to find a sister city. They were welcomed by Dushanbe, Tajikistan — prompting a unique gift of friendship that remains one-of-a-kind in the Western Hemisphere.

25 January 2021

Walking through the garden leading to the entrance of the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, what first catches the eye are the colours. The large blue windows are surrounded by eight colourful ceramic panels, two on each side, depicting a Tree of Life in a mihrab, a semicircular niche in a mosque wall indicating the direction of Mecca. In the summer months, visitors sit in the garden, surrounded by roses.

Altogether, it a fine example of a typical Tajik chaikhana, or tea house — except that we are more than 10,000 kilometres from Tajikistan itself. This teahouse stands in Boulder, Colorado, and is the only one of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

Since its opening in 1998, the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse has become one of the town’s leading attractions

The building is a handcrafted gift from Tajikistani capital of Dushanbe, and inside, everything harks back to the building’s Tajik roots. Seven copper statues stand in a pool in the middle of a large, bright room. They are the “seven beauties” of the Haft Peykar, a 12th-century romantic epic by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. Large, patterned plaster panels adorn the walls, an example of a Central Asian technique known as ganch carving, alongside 20th-century oil paintings. But the real centerpiece hangs above each visitor’s head. Twelve cedar pillars stretch towards a bright, lavishly painted ceiling. Each of its 14 coffers is carved and covered with patterns and geometric forms, repeating and combining with each other to create a harmonious whole. Since its opening in 1998, the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse has become one of the town’s leading attractions. “Whenever visitors come to town, I always take them there,” says Barbara Trager, a Boulder resident who often visited the teahouse before the coronavirus pandemic. The appeal to her and other Boulderites is simple: it is beautiful, inside and out”.

The teahouse interior

But building a genuine chaikhana in the United States was no simple task. The 200-square-metre building, including the painted ceiling, ceramics, columns, and sculptures, was handcrafted by more than 40 artisans from all over Tajikistan and then disassembled, packed into crates, and shipped to Colorado via St Petersburg and New Orleans. “Once the elements of the teahouse were there, it was very controversial because of the strong anti-communist movement,” remembers Sophia Stoller, the co-founder of Boulder-Dushanbe Sister Cities, an organisation that tries to maintain contacts between Boulder and Dushanbe. “[The teahouse] was never political, but it was very charged in Boulder. It took quite a few years before the teahouse was realised”.

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That this fragment of Tajik culture arrived in Colorado at all is thanks to the work of the Boulder-Dushanbe Sister Cities, founded by Sophia Stoller and Mary Hey under the name of the Soviet Sister City Project in 1982. These two Boulder women, tired of Cold War rhetoric, wanted to promote peace and understanding. After finding out about the concept of sister cities — creating cultural and commercial links between cities or towns in different countries — they decided to find a Soviet partner for Boulder.

Finding the right city was difficult. “We looked and looked,” Sophia Stoller explains. “Mary Hey went several times to the Soviet Embassy. They said ‘you’re too small’, because there was less than 100,000 people [in Boulder].” One day, she was looking in a local newspaper and spotted a wedding announcement: a local professor, James Scott, was marrying his Russian interpreter. She got in touch and told him about the sister cities project; he was the one to suggest Dushanbe, where he had done research. “We’d never heard of it,” Stoller says. “We weren’t very aware of the Central Asian republics.”

Boulderites kept lobbying until 1987, when the Soviet Embassy finally approved the project, at least in part because one Soviet official found out that the Boulder High School had a balalaika band. It also likely had something to do with changing times: it was the era of glasnost, bringing more contact between Soviet citizens and the West, and dampening the tension of the early 1980s. Whatever the full reason, the city was able to invite the then-mayor of Dushanbe, Maksud Ikramov, to make the relationship official. Just before the official signing, Ikramov announced his city would give Boulder a traditional Tajik teahouse.

The teahouse exterior

When the crates containing the pieces of the building arrived in Boulder in 1990, the city was at a loss as to what to do with them. There was the local anti-communist sentiment, but also simple practical questions: how much would it cost to erect the teahouse, and where would it go? Where would the money come from? Who would operate the building and what would it become? It wasn’t until 1997 that the parts left storage in Boulder’s sewage plant. In the meantime, the Soviet Union had collapsed and Tajikistan was nearing the end of the civil war that had broken out months after its independence.

The Boulder-Dushanbe Sisters Cities received a $25,000 grant to bring four of the craftsmen who had created the tea house out to the United States. They were woodcarvers Manon Khaidarov and Mirpulat (Mirpul) Mirakhmatov, artist Abdukodir Rakhimov, the ceramist Victor Zabolotnikov. “I don’t remember that [bringing them to Boulder] was a huge challenge. They stayed with families in Boulder. Mirpul and Manon observed a fast; it was Ramadan. They would go all day without eating and break their fast in the evening,” Stoller says of the artisans. They would invite Boulderites to iftar, the fast-breaking meal after sundown during Ramadan. “Eventually, total strangers would come and bring cake. They were wonderful people.”

Tajik craftsmen at the Boulder Teahouse construction site. Image courtesy of Rett Ertle

Boulder architect Vern Seieroe had visited Dushanbe in 1988 and met his Soviet counterpart, Lado Shanidze, to discuss adapting the open-air design to Boulder’s weather and to US building norms. This involved enclosing the tea house so it could be used year-round, without ruining the artwork. “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?’”, Vern Seieroe told Aramco Magazine in a 1998 article marking the tea house’s opening. He also notes the high quality of Tajik workmanship: despite travelling across the world and lingering in storage for so long, none of the ceiling pieces or carved pillars had warped.

Building a genuine chaikhana in the United States was no simple task. The 200-square-metre building, including the painted ceiling, ceramics, columns, and sculptures, was handcrafted by more than 40 artisans from all over Tajikistan

In May 1998, the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse finally opened as restaurant, operated by Lenny Martinelli. Neither Mayor Maksud Ikramov nor the architect Lado Shanidze lived to see it. Today it serves an international menu, with Tajik-style plov on offer alongside samosas, Korean noodles or Malaysian curry. There isn’t much of a link to Tajikistan or the American-Tajik community in the day-to-day life of the restaurant. Barbara Trager, the Boulder resident and tea house customer, says she does not feel she has retained much information about Tajikistan, though she is aware of the connection between Boulder and Dushanbe.

Boulder soon looked for what it could give to Dushanbe in return. “The Sister Cities decided we should create a reciprocal gift in Dushanbe. Our organisation was able to collect about $1 million for what was supposed to be an Internet café in central Dushanbe,” said Rett Ertl, the current president of Boulder-Dushanbe Sister Cities. Planning started in 2000 and the café opened in 2008, though not in the central location the organisation had hoped for. The project was neither as grand nor as successful as the teahouse: it opened intermittently and by 2012 was all but abandoned. It was then redeveloped into the Friendship Center. “Dushanbe found a young man to be a teacher there,” Rett Ertl said. “They’ve been conducting classes there, and half of the Friendship Center is a restaurant.”

The carved teahouse ceiling
The carved teahouse ceiling
Maruf climbs scaffolding on the teahouse
Maruf climbs scaffolding on the teahouse

Yet the partnership has endured in other ways, from organising high school student exchanges — as early as 1989 — to celebrating Nowruz, the Persian new year. Above all it created connections between people and between families: the son of Mirpulat Mirakhmatov, one of the woodworkers who built the teahouse, came from Tajikistan to Boulder to restore the teahouse in 2011, and his son, Maruf, after him, in 2018.

Maruf remembers his nearly six-month stay as a time of long but rewarding work, when he would often get to the teahouse at around 7am and still be there by 10pm. “When I worked there, I didn’t get tired,” he says. “I’d work in the cold, in the snow, in the rain.” He also co-taught a university class on Central Asian design and techniques, with his students eventually joining him at the teahouse and helping with the restoration: “The students thought it was cool to work on something handmade like the teahouse. They all worked with delight.” Maruf stayed with the Stollers, spending Thanksgiving break with them in San Francisco — the same people who, thirty-five years ago, had never even heard of Dushanbe.

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