Clare Nuttall in Astana -
Tajikistan is about to get a new entry in the Guinness Book of Records when it opens the world's largest tea house in time for Independence Day on September 9. While more than a third of the country's population still live below the poverty line, a staggering $60m is being spent on the teahouse in Dushanbe.
Situated on the shores of Lake Komsomol, not far from central Dushanbe, the many domed teahouse - known as a choikhana in Tajikistan - will have a billiard hall, ballroom and presidential dining room, according to Eurasianet. At $60m, the cost is around 1% of Tajikistan's annual GDP.
It is just one of a growing number of prestige projects in the Tajik capital, many of them built by local business owners keen to impress President Emomali Rakhmon. Tajikistan has already taken the record for the world's tallest flagpole and the world's longest flag.
In the two decades since independence, other Central Asian states have also sought to make their mark through exotic architecture - the cities of Ashgabat and Astana being particular examples. Turkmenistan holds the record for the world's largest enclosed Ferris wheel, and Ashgabat has the highest density of white marble buildings. But unlike the Turkmen and Kazakh capitals, Dushanbe doesn't have constant flows of petrodollars to finance vanity projects, which include Central Asia's largest national library and mosque, in addition to the new tea house.
In 2012, the national library opened in Dushanbe, with 25 reading rooms over nine floors and room for 10m books. However, the $40m allocated to the library from the national budget was not enough to fill the shelves, and the library opened with just 2.5m books - despite a national campaign spearheaded by the ministry of education asking Tajiks to donate "unwanted" books. Still under construction is the region's largest mosque, which will have capacity for 115,000 worshippers. Qatar is providing 70% of the $100m construction costs, with the remaining $30m coming from the Tajik government.
It is not clear how much benefit these investments have for the Tajik population. According to Eurasianet, around half the 400 workers at the tea house are Chinese, despite chronic under-employment within Tajikistan.
The country is also the poorest economy in the former Soviet Union, despite a steady reduction in poverty rates in the last decade. World Bank data shows that the proportion of the population living below the poverty line has dropped from 72.4% in 2003 to 53.5% in 2007 and 46.7% in 2009. Tajik government data shows that as of 2012, the percentage of the population living on under $2.15 per day had fallen to 38.3%.
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