The curious story of how a Tajik teahouse made it from the cold war era Soviet Union all the way to Boulder, Colorado in an embattled journey that lasted 11 years.
“We quickly realized it was going to be difficult to explain just what the teahouse was going to be,” said Vern Seieroe, a Boulder architect, as we started our conversation over tea. I nodded in agreement and looked around. Even now that it is built, how do you describe something like the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse?
The unique building, set back from the pedestrian mall across from one of Boulder, Colorado’s many parks, is next to Boulder Creek and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s easy to miss, but once you spot it, the teahouse will definitely make you look twice. In the summer, the gorgeous rose garden is in full bloom, while in the winter, winding vines around the front gate draw your eyes to the bright blue and purple tiles around the front door.
Most people who live in Boulder have at least heard of the teahouse, but many can’t pronounce its name. Very few know the history of this building, unless they’ve been in Boulder awhile. Others have never even heard of Boulder Dushanbe. And then there’s another group of people: those who protested the teahouse’s arrival and some who still boycott it.
To see the teahouse today is extraordinary, but its backstory speaks to something more extraordinary still: the fact that it’s here at all. In the middle of the Cold War, just months before then President Ronald Reagan would call the Soviet Union the “focus of evil in the world,” a few activists in Boulder met in a church basement and had a conversation about the possibility of war with the Soviet Union. Mary Hey, President of the Soviet Sister City Project from 1983-1987 said of that conversation, “We actively opposed the arms race, but wasn’t there something positive we could do? We found ourselves amazed at how little we actually knew about the United States’ mortal enemy, and wondered if perhaps others would also like to know more.”
It was then that the idea was born to establish a sister city relationship with a country in the Soviet region.
Hey and the rest of the teahouse group repeatedly visited the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. and wrote letter after letter to anyone they could think of in the Soviet bloc in an effort to establish a relationship with a potential sister city. After their efforts were ignored, the activists chose Dushanbe, Tajikistan, somewhat at random, and worked on contacting officials there directly. Finally, Boulder scientist Joe Allen made a connection and met the mayor of Dushanbe to hand-deliver a packet of information about Boulder.
Initially, the mayor wasn’t particularly responsive to Allen’s proposal. It wasn’t until he noticed that there was a traditional Tajik balalaika band in Boulder that he became interested. In May of 1987, after several years of the activists working to get Dushanbe on board as a sister city, Mayor Ikramov finally visited Boulder to officially sign the Sister City agreement. It was also at that time that Mayor Ikramov announced that Dushanbe would gift the people of Boulder a traditional Tajik choihona (teahouse).
That was the easy part. What followed was much, much harder.
Just because a gift is offered doesn’t necessarily mean it will be accepted. Though more than 40 craftsmen in Dushanbe were already carving pillars, crafting plaster designs, and painting tiles, all by hand, back in Boulder, members of a group called the Teahouse Taskforce, headed by president Mary Axe, were campaigning to raise funds and identify a location where the teahouse could actually be constructed. Axe was convinced that the teahouse would become a powerful symbol of post Cold War unity. “Sister City relationships lead to personal relationships, which make real differences in all our lives,” Axe said. But not everyone in Boulder agreed. “The biggest challenge was getting it accepted,” Axe told me. “I would give talks to anyone that would listen.”
There were plenty of people who wouldn’t. In fact, there was a lot of fear around a Soviet building coming to Boulder. Letters to the editor published in the local newspaper reflected the range of sentiments. There were letters from locals offering suggestions about better ways to spend taxpayer money, among them, increasing turn lanes, improving children’s services, and expanding the number of parking structures in the city. Other letters were scaremongering, almost paranoid, suggesting, for example, that Soviets would be bugging the teahouse as a way to spy on nearby Rocky Mountain Flats Plant, a nuclear weapons facility that is now closed. And then there was a letter to Boulder Weekly (Jan. 29-Feb. 4, 1988) from Bob Brown, who was then the publisher of Westword, a local weekly. “My personal pet peeve is the f*cking teahouse,” Brown wrote. “It’s a bunch of warm-fuzzy bullsh*t. At any rate, Dushanbe decided to giving f*cking Boulder a hand-carved teahouse and the city council tried to appropriate $800,000 to assemble the stupid piece of sh*t. I toyed with the idea of getting architectural plans for this thing and renovating it into a shelter for battered women or something useful instead of a place where the f*cking yuppies can drink tea.”
Let’s just say that Boulder did not have the tea culture then that it has now.
Eventually, in May of 1989, the Boulder City Council voted to accept the gift from Dushanbe. As the debate about the teahouse raged on in Boulder, artisans in Dushanbe had kept at their work. Cedar isn’t a tree that is native to that area, so it had to be shipped in from Siberia to make the 12 unique pillars that stand in the teahouse today. This type of pillar, with the floral, leaf, and vine designs, has been found in Persian-Tajik architecture as far back as the Palace of Persepolis, built 2,500 years ago.
But hands down, the most popular and stunning physical characteristic of the teahouse is its brightly decorated ceiling. The leaves, birds, flowers, and shapes on the 14 coffers that make up the incredible ceiling were being hand-carved and painted by seven master woodcarvers and five master painters. Images and symbols typically found in Tajik-Persian art, including roses, the Tree of Life design, and the mihrab, or the Islamic prayer arch, can all be seen here.
“The teahouse is like a flower,” said Mirpulat Mirakhmatov, one of the master Tajik woodcarvers who worked on the gift. “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.”
The teahouse was also an opportunity for the Tajik people to subtly demonstrate their separation from the Soviet Union through the traditional Persian art, the oil paintings, and the style of plaster art found in the teahouse. While the oil paintings represent abstract expressionist scenes in an international style, the Ganch-kori plaster panels are created in a complex, traditional manner featuring heavy Islamic and Persian influences.
Even though Boulder’s City Council had decided to accept Dushanbe’s gift–at the time, the largest gift from the Soviet Union to the United States and the only teahouse of its kind in the Western Hemisphere– and formalize the sister city relationship, their approval hardly meant that the challenges of actually constructing the teahouse in Colorado had been resolved. By the early fall of 1990, work on the teahouse had been completed and officials in Dushanbe prepared the structure for shipment. Packed into more than 200 crates, the teahouse made its way, in pieces, by train to Leninabad, by boat to New Orleans, and then, finally, by tractor-trailer to Boulder. But its arrival was anti-climactic. A battle about where the teahouse would be put and who would run it was raging. As that fight continued over the next seven years, the teahouse sat in a storage unit at the local water treatment plant.
After lots of discussion and contentious emails, the location of the teahouse was finally approved in January of 1993. The teahouse would sit in the heart of Boulder, at 11th and Arapahoe. But there was still quite a way to go before the teahouse would be able to open.
Over the next five years, the Teahouse Trust was busy. The group started with earning non-profit status from the government to be able to raise money, and developed a site plan. Since the City of Boulder technically owns the teahouse and the site, the Teahouse Trust had to figure out who was going to lease and run the teahouse. Lenny and Sara Martinelli, who already owned Naropa Cafe in Boulder, won the bid and have run it ever since. With those decisions made, there was still work to be done. The site that had been chosen for the teahouse at 11th and Arapahoe had previously been occupied by a coal gasification plant from 1902-1954, so there was a lot of soil to be tested and disposed of to meet EPA guidelines.
In December of 1997, master craftsmen Manon Khaidarov, Mirpulat Mirakhmatov, and Kodir Rahkimov arrived in Boulder to help assemble the teahouse. To the surprise of architect Vern Seieroe, the pieces fit together perfectly, down to the centimeter. In March of 1998, Dushanbe ceramist Victor Zabolotnikov went to Boulder to help with the application of the ceramic tiles to the walls. The teahouse finally opened its doors in May 1998.
Prior to the completion of the teahouse in Tajikistan, Boulder architect Seieroe and some of the other members of the task force visited Dushanbe to work on the logistics. In Tajikistan, the climate allows teahouses to be open air, but with snowy winters, the Boulder teahouse would need to be enclosed. Seieroe also had to plan a way for it to be accessible to those with disabilities, which is quite a task in a small building with a huge fountain in the center.
In the Middle East and Central Asia, there is a proverb: “Water is life.” As soon as guests walk through the front door, their eyes are drawn to this fountain in the middle of the restaurant. Seven bronze statues stand out of a pool, or hauz.
The fountain of the Seven Beauties represents a Turkish folk story that was passed along the Silk Road. Nizami Ganjavi, who spent his entire life in Azerbaijan, wrote the story in 1197. It’s an epic tale of a young warrior named Bahram Gur who discovers seven maidens and who, after he achieves wealth and power in the kingdom, calls upon the seven women to be his brides. Each maiden is from another country and represents a specific day of the week, planet, and color, and each has a moral lesson to share. The story of a wealthy and powerful ruler who still needed guidance and wisdom from other cultures is a valuable lesson that continues to ring true.
But it’s not just the physical structure and its decorative elements, like the fountain, that are representative of Tajik culture.
“Teahouses, or as we call them Tajiki choihona, are the places for people to meet and have discussions enjoying a cup of tea,” explained Maya Vakhobova, who worked in the US Embassy in Dushanbe during the establishment of the Sister City project. “I would say these kinds of meetings unite people and make them more relaxed. It gives them a better atmosphere to take and enjoy their teatime.”
In the years since the teahouse has opened its doors, a tea culture has evolved in the city. The most visible manifestation of that culture is the annual Navruz celebration, when the Tajikistani community of Colorado comes together to celebrate Persian New Year with the Teahouse and Boulder Dushanbe Sister City Organization. They meet on the plaza next to the teahouse. “We feel like we are in Tajikistan then,” said Vakhobova.
That culture is also visible on a daily basis in the teahouse, which is a tech-free space. Boulder is a college town, but you won’t see university students sitting around and working; there’s no Wi-Fi here. The pace, much like the brewing of loose-leaf tea itself, is intentionally slow, allowing time for human connection, which is so integral to Central Asian teahouses.
Rebecca, who has been a regular at the teahouse since it has opened, is working on her next novel. She told me about some of the people she has noticed, such as “chai guy,” who brings writing clients to the teahouse, or college students who bring their parents to see the teahouse. She also knows a man who moved to San Francisco, but visits the teahouse whenever he is in town.
Matt, one of the managers at the teahouse, sees the place as a symbol of cultural spirit. People seek out the tea and the teahouse experience as a kind of healing. They often come in and say, “I’m sick, what tea should I drink?”
Lenny and Sara Martinelli won the contract from the City of Boulder to lease and run the teahouse. They have a sustainable farm outside of Boulder that provides ingredients for the international cuisine at the teahouse, as well as their other restaurants. Lenny describes the teahouse as a “complete piece of art. To distinguish one part from the other would not be understanding the whole,” he says. He thinks it’s important that people are able to experience the teahouse, not just see it in a museum. His wife, Sara, is an herbalist and formulates many of the tea blends.
When I asked Vern Seieroe, the architect, about the best part of his experience working on the teahouse project, he told me he connected with thousands of people and had amazing experiences that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. He learned about patience and perseverance, and the cultural richness of the Tajik people.
In the end, the gift of the teahouse was reciprocated with a distinctly American take on meeting places where people gather to have a drink. In exchange for sending Boulder a traditional choihona, Boulder Mayor Linda Jourgensen agreed to build a cyber café in Dushanbe. In a place that was pretty disconnected from the rest of the world both physically and technologically, the café was planned to be a restaurant, and have computers, Internet access, and a learning center. After some delays due to a tough winter in Dushanbe, construction started in 2007, and then opened in fall of 2009. And while it doesn’t have the made-by-artisan style of the teahouse, the cyber café does have its own compelling features: solar panels. Just as the teahouse brings people together in Boulder, the cyber café was designed to connect the people of Dushanbe not just with each other, but also with the rest of the world.
The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse is a place that for many, defines cultural reciprocity, but also defines the city of Boulder – unique and bohemian. If you ever get the chance to talk with anyone from the original Teahouse Trust, you can hear the pride in their voice. The experience of being involved with the adventure of getting this teahouse to Boulder was rewarding and life-changing for everyone involved.
In The Meaning of the Boulder-Dushanbe Teahouse, author George Peknik writes that Yo-Yo Ma once said, “Every time I open a newspaper, I am reminded that we live in a world where we can no longer afford not to know our neighbors.” Despite the conflict and struggle to bring this amazing gift from Dushanbe to Boulder, it is now a significant landmark in the city. There are still people who boycott the teahouse and think it was a waste of city money, but to many, it represents slowing down, connecting with other people face to face, and maybe learning a thing or two about another culture at the same time.
(Featured image credit: iris via Flickr CC)
About Abbie Mood
Abbie lives just outside Denver, Colorado and can usually be found writing, running around outside or planning her next adventure. She is a freelance writer and life coach who loves to explore environmental and animal rights issues, food culture, and the human experience through her writing. She can be found on Twitter as @abbiemood.