This time the beggar was an old man. The young women with their babies stayed home this morning. It is far too cold to venture out for even those whose only means of eating is provided by the generosity of strangers.
His cap and beard and torn thin coat were his only protection from the biting cold. He stood because he could not bear to sit on the frozen ground. His feet moved up and down, each in its turn pleading for relief from the pain his thin shoes could not keep away. His outstretched hand trembled with shivers, his other hand clutching at the neck of his coat to keep the killing cold out. For the pittance I put in that outstretched hand he wished me the blessings of Allah.
Will he survive? Will Tajikistan?
We use the term "infrastructure" so clinically. We neglect to understand that sometimes, in some places, it is the means of life and death. What infrastructure Tajikistan has left is being crushed, and its people are suffering and dying.
It is not an abnormally cold winter here by the standards of northern countries. While daytime temperatures have rarely gone above freezing for the past month, places in, say, Idaho deal with colder winters every year. But the power system here, the water pipes, the gas lines, the roads, are failing and failing rapidly. What managed to survive the civil war here may well not survive the peace.
Water lines were commonly placed above ground here, where the winter climate, not unlike that of the Carolinas, for example, was mild enough to let this be. Now, they are frozen, they are burst, and much of even the capital city is without running water, and has been for several weeks. Several weeks with no running water, nothing with which to bathe or clean, old women hauling buckets of water from any available source, to take home and ration because every drop of water used is one more drop that needs to be carried. In the countryside, where there never was running water, the streams have frozen.
Tajikistan depends almost entirely on hydroelectric generation. Its reservoirs are empty, there is no snowmelt or rain to fill them. Today, all power to most of the capital city was cut off, not to be restored until the day - perhaps in mid-March? - when a long thaw arrives. In the countryside and in many other cities, there simply is no power. Gas supplies, provided primarily by Uzbekistan when that country is in the mood to provide them, have dwindled to the point where a small pot of water may take an hour to boil, and to the point where there is not enough to provide heat. Electric space heaters, of course, will not work without electricity. There are no forests at all here, and people have a difficult time finding any fuel to burn, and for the residents of the cities, they have no place to burn it anyway.
Food prices have tripled recently, and now there is no milk available. Many roads are blocked by the snowfall and by avalanches, and getting food to the villages has become difficult. Newborns have died in the maternity hospitals because there was no power, and the aged generators failed.
This country is facing catastrophe.
The people of Tajikistan have suffered many hardships before; they are a patient people who, because they really have no choice, take adversity in stride. They are not encumbered by any sense of entitlement. And yet, now, there are grumblings. No people will let its children and elders starve, and freeze, for long.
The world watched endless news coverage of the enormous tragedy endured by China recently because people could not get home for the holidays.
The world pays scant attention to Tajikistan, where the people suffer and have no place else to go.