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Gold loses its shine among young Tajiks

There are many mysteries in Tajikistan, though perhaps none greater than the national obsession with gold teeth. In Dushanbe, the capital of this desperately impoverished nation, they still glint at you from almost every mouth. In some instances, every single tooth has been replaced.

Gold instead of ivory has been the quintessential status symbol in this region for centuries: mined in the Pamir mountains, it has always been in plentiful supply; and what better place to keep your valuables than literally under your eyes?

But despite what you see there is evidence that this ancient tradition is dying. Dental treatment in these post-Soviet times is no longer free: a gold tooth costs about $30 (pounds 18), and a further $15 to install. Last year the average monthly salary here was just $8.60, easily the lowest in the former Soviet Union, making gold a luxury that few Tajiks can now afford.

Professor Omar Tairairov, general director of the Tajik Scientific Industrial Association, Stomatology - the country's chief dentist, in other words - said cost is only one reason for the change. "Their value as a status symbol has declined, especially among the young," he said.

He blamed access to Western culture, particularly videos, which have naturally become more widely available since independence in 1991. His words were borne out at a rock concert at the Moskovsky Hall in the city centre. As Sergei, one of the performers and a Robert Plant lookalike, put it: "Why would anyone want to look like Jaws from the James Bond movie?" His girlfriend merely shuddered.

It is not just the young who dislike gold teeth. Matluba Mamadjanova, a middle-aged educational adviser, swapped all four of hers for white metal ceramic ones after attending an American language teachers' conference in Athens - the sort of thing no one ever did in Soviet times.

"It was so embarrassing," she said. "There were hundreds of people there and I was the only one with gold teeth. They kept looking at me."

Zafar Nazarov, a dentist, confirms the trend. In recent weeks he has taken gold from more than 20 mouths - all of them travelling professionals.

"I used to get customers who asked me to replace perfectly healthy teeth with gold ones," he said over tea in his spartan surgery. "Nowadays that sort of thing mostly only goes on in Uzbekistan. They're a flashy lot over there."

He said he preferred the "noble metal" to ceramic because "it's soft and malleable" and the tooth can be mounted with less sawing at the root." Later, he offered to install an example of his work: "It's free for guests to our country."

I declined politely and he laughed, throwing his head back to reveal a lower jaw studded with sharp points of gold.