I arrived in Dushanbe, the bleak capital of Tajikistan in central Asia, on a cold pre-dawn morning. I was there to take part in a reporting workshop for a group of college students interested in a career in journalism, part of the American Bar Association's Rule of Law Initiative to promote democratic institutions abroad. I was bleary-eyed and exhausted from traveling nearly 20 straight hours from New York to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan to its south, and is not an easy place to get to.
The director of the Tajikistan ABA program, Marit Rasmussen, picked me up. Driving me to my hotel through the city's deserted, darkened streets, she pointed out the window at an object in the distance lighted by spotlights, but hard to make out in the thick mist. "That's our flagpole," she said. "It's the tallest in the world."
I peered out at the distance at a white pole rising high into the mist before disappearing into the thick layer of fog. Yes, it was certainly a very tall flagpole. I promptly forgot about it.
The next day, I was on my way to the ABA's project office when it caught my eye. In daylight, it was much more, well, impressive, majestic even.
I learned that the flagpole in Dushanbe is 541 feet tall, roughly the same height as the Washington Monument. It had been built at a cost variously reported to be between $10 million and $40 million - no one knew the exact figure - at the behest of the Tajikistan government under President Imolai Rakhmonn. I saw video of its official unveiling, an almost comically elaborate ceremony with bands blaring martial music, troops solemnly bearing the 1,500-pound national flag and an explosion of fireworks. A very large crowd was in attendance. There was even an official from the Guinness Book of World Records there to present the president with a document confirming that their flagpole was now officially the tallest on earth.
I will admit it. During my four days in Tajikistan, I became obsessed with the flagpole. I learned to call it by the Russian word "flagstock." I visited the flagpole up close. Standing at its base and gazing up, it truly is awesome. It somehow has a kind of man-made grandeur and, yes, also a kind of man-made absurdity.
When it came time to devise a journalism exercise for the students, we assigned them to interview people on the street about how they felt about the flagpole. I was curious how Tajiks felt about it. Economically, Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet republics. Jobs are so scarce, nearly a million of its seven million people work outside the country. Would Tajiks think a multi-million dollar expenditure on a flag pole a prudent expense of scarce government funds?
With the caveat that many Tajiks probably did not feel free to criticize the government, the vast majority of the several dozen people the students interviewed said they took enormous pride in their flagpole.
"Now the whole world will know that we have the world's tallest flagpole," said one man.
I had to know more. So, turning to the vast resources of the Internet, I tracked down the manufacturer of the World's Tallest Flagpole. It turned out to be a company called Trident Support, owned by two Americans, David Chambers and Marc Summers, operating out of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. I found their website and e-mailed them.
A few days later, I got a reply from Chambers, and soon afterward we spoke on the phone. As it turns out, not only did Trident Support build the flagpole in Tajikistan, it has built all of a succession of World's Tallest Flagpoles going back to 2002.
"I was working in Abu Dhabi (also in the U.A.E.) as a defense contractor," Chambers said. "I was working with a Sheikh and he went to Mexico for a holiday and saw some big flagpoles there. He came back and simply asked me to build as bigger flagpole."
What did he know about building flagpoles?
"Nothing," Chambers said, with a laugh. But it sounded like fun and a very good business proposition.
"When we started we didn't know anything about flagpoles. In fact, we spent most of our research in the first few days looking at how big the flags were and where we'd buy the flags, not realizing it's the flagpole itself that's the bigger challenge. (So), we hired engineers and researched and team up with a lot of good companies and we figured out how to do it."
Within a year, they had built the World's Tallest Flagpole in Abu Dhabi. It was 404 feet tall. The sheikh was happy. Chambers, however, had no idea that he had ignited a serious case of international flagpole envy.
"As soon as we finished the Abu Dhabi flagpole," he said, "we were contacted by the King's office in Jordan and we were asked to build a similar flagpole but a little bit higher."
So, they built a 417-foot tall flagpole in Amman, the Jordanian capital, in 2003. Then the Jordanians wanted another. Even taller one. So Trident built a 433-foot tall in the port city of Aqaba.
Not long afterward, Trident got a call from the government of Turkmenistan. They wanted the record. So, in 2005, Trident built one in the capital, Ashgabat, that topped out at 436 feet and claimed the world record in 2008. It would not last long.
Azerbaijan, a fellow central Asian nation, became envious of what Turkmenistan had. So, Trident built the 536-footer in the Azerbaijan capital, Baku, which claimed the record in September 2010. One year later, that record was toppled by Tajikistan.
"The flag is the number one symbol of national pride of any country in the world," Chambers said. "We always tell our clients, we're not building these flagpoles for the record books. They're majestic. They're national monuments all by themselves."
True. But, let's face it, it is kind of cool to have the biggest or tallest national monument of its kind. Certainly plenty of Tajiks feel that way. But flagpole envy means someone is always going to want a taller one.
"We have several countries right now vying for the next world record flagpole," Chambers said. He says his is the only company that he aware of that does this kind of work, so they are in hot demand these days. Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Russia have asked Trident to build for them the next world's tallest flagpole, "which," Chamber admits, "is a dilemma for us because if they all want the tallest, four of them are going to have a very short record."