SETTING THE SCENE
The modern borders of Tajikistan have been at the crossroads of the silk route for over a thousand years yet despite numerous invaders: Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Russians, the people have remained steadfast in their pride of their country and this still very much reflects the mentality and culture of the land today. I decided to visit Tajikistan and focused my journey on the culture, pride, and incredible topography of this nation.
COVID TESTING: I believe as long as you are vaccinated you will gain entry without issues. Otherwise definitely check online before you go because I think you will need at least a negative test to be able to enter the country.
FLIGHTS: For this trip I was trying to fly from Bishkek to Dushanbe. However, because of an on-going dispute between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan land borders were closed and flights were canceled between both nations. So I had to fly on Air Astana from Bishkek to Almaty, stay overnight, then go from Almaty to Dushanbe. Definitely not ideal but it was the best priced ticket between both countries.
ACCOMMODATIONS: I booked a reasonable hotel in the heart of Dushanbe (Shumon Hotel), for the night just to get oriented before deciding on the plan for the next few days. It was a great choice and I extended it a further night. Highly recommend this place given its central location, safety and friendly staff and quite clean, with even a nice gym to boot!
CASH: Because there is not a focus on tourism, Tajikistan does not have too many ATMs (and if you do find one, each one is limited to $100 withdrawal per day) and not every place takes credit cards. So I would highly recommend bringing cash with you and taking out cash each time you find an ATM.
CABS: Make sure when you do get a cab, that they are using a metering tracking app so that you don’t end up overpaying. In reality, Tajikistan is incredibly reasonable so you should not be paying a fortune for anything including cabs.
GUIDE: I had thought the plan would be to rent a car and explore the country. However, as I learned, 93% of Tajikistan is mountainous! Which means you have to be a great driver to navigate the country, and it’s often windy and difficult road conditions, with poor internet. Not to mention the language barrier is steep. So through friends I was able to find a guide, Borbad, who was one of the nicest and most responsive guides I have ever had. At times things were difficult trying to plan so much into a such a short period of time with a limited budget, but in the end it was a great decision and I would highly recommend going down that path if you want to get the most out of the country!
The Plan: So I had originally planned to spend 1 day in the capital, 2 days driving up north to see the lakes, and 1 day driving south east on the Pamir highway to get a sense of that area of the country. However, after extensive talks with Borbad, we scrapped those plans. I decided to focus on a slow drive up north with the final destination of Khujand, the second largest city and one of the oldest and most historic in the country. So the new goal (since I had 5 days) was to see the capital for 2 days, drive to Iskanderkul (lake), then get to Panjerkent (I had never heard of this place but glad I went), then head to the 7 lakes before making our way to Khujand.
Also by talking to locals I found out that the best way to get to Tashkent in Uzbekistan was to just take a taxi from Khujand to the border (1 hour) and then another taxi from the border to Tashkent (1.5 hours), versus what I had planned which was to drive 6 hours from Khujand back to Dushanbe and fly out the next day to Tashkent (I had already bought the airline ticket so I just let that go for this far easier route).
Dushanbe & Surrounding Sites
After meeting with Borbad at the airport (yes he was nice enough to pick me up, a great gesture which ultimately won me over) we made our way over to the hotel. I freshened up and we headed out. Over the next two days we explored Dushanbe and nearby sites to get a sense of all that Dushanbe has to offer:
● Independence Square: Built in the center of the city, this new monument of sheer Tajik pride, is in a new park area designated for large public events. The monument itself is quite unique, not sure what to make of it given its extravagance in a country that is relatively poor. That said, when I was there, they were in midst of preparations for the upcoming independence day (Sept 7) and the actual unveiling of this park and monument. That was an experience in and of itself since there were likely a few thousand people rehearsing in unison all over the square to hyper nationistic Tajik music!
● Flag Pole & surrounding park: At one point, the flagpole in Dushanbe was the tallest in the world at 165m before that was taken over by Jeddah. It’s truly a sight to see and marvel with the beautiful Tajikistan flag at the very top. The park around it is dedicated to Tajik kings, once again reflecting the immense pride in their country, or at the very least the government’s desire to showcase the pride of the people.
● Kokhi Navruz: Honestly I was blown away by this building. Borbad did warn me that it was more beautiful than the Taj Mahal, and wow is it crazy!! The complex, initially set to be the largest teahouse in Central Asia, took 5 years to build with private money from Tajik businessmen. It has become a stately show of force for the world with numerous ballrooms, one larger than the next, incredible workmanship of the Tajik people (think intricate wood carvings, precious stones inlaid in walls and flooring, glass work, paintings etc.). Approximately 4,000 craftsmen from all over the country were involved in the process of building it. It also has seven elevators, bowling alley, billiard room, 3D movie theater, night club, shops, art gallery and a small national teahouse, but the most breathtaking side of the building is its halls.
● National Library: The library is said to be the largest in Central Asia (not sure why countries in the region are constantly vying for this honor) with an estimated capacity of 10 million books. While they are nowhere near that number it is still worth stopping by. If for nothing else, then to see this incredible mural that summarizes the country’s history.
● Mehrgon Bazar: I really liked this bazaar, as it was clean and even though it was built within the last few years it still is quite a site to see. And it has of course everything in there from fruits, veggies, spices and pickled nuts in honey lol!
● Rudaki Boulevard: If you have time do walk around Rudaki Blvd named after the famed poet of Tajik descent. There are some really cool cafes and restaurants on that street, which really come to life especially on warm summer nights.
● Hissar Fortress: The fortress is about an hour from Dushanbe and has been restored almost in its entirety since it was occupied and sacked, they say, over 20 times in its history. A true treasure of Tajik history and pride, it feels like you are touring an open-air museum. Almost makes you feel like you are walking back in time.
● Norak Dam: Borbad was weirded out when I told him I wanted to visit the dam. He had seen then lake but was never curious the dam that created the Norak lake. But when he saw the sheer power of the dam he knew why it was worth the 1.5 hour trek outside Dushanbe to see it! The power of the world’s second highest dam is no joke (the highest dam is currently underway also in Tajikistan). The dam was built by the Russians in the 1970s and its power is awe-inspiring. Highly recommend it if you are a fan of large man-made structures!
● FOOD: If you are looking for an Western style breakfast then look no further than that Coffee Moose which has very tasty and super cheap options with great service and ambiance. Lunch: So Qurutob, a national dish made from rice, warm yogurt, vegetables, oil, and mutton, is delicious, quite possibly my most favorite meal in Central Asia. And the best place to get it is Qurutobkhona, which is in the suburbs of Dushanbe. Such a cool traditional spot, mainly frequented by locals. Definitely you must come here if you want some authentic Tajik food and a localized dining experience. Another spot to check out, especially for great Shashlik (grilled meats), is the Old Teahouse in central Dushanbe. Built under the Soviets it’s definitely worth a visit since the architecture is quite unique and food is super tasty.
As we made our way north I started to see how truly mountainous this country is relative to others I have visited. Along the route we had to go through all kinds of tunnels including one known as the ‘Tunnel of Death’. Constructed in cooperation with Iran, the 5km tunnel had poor lighting, no ventilation, potholes, occasional flooding and therefore caused drivers all sorts of issues resulting in numerous accidents and deaths. However, now it has definitely been improved to include more lighting and ventilation (though I was told to put up my window since the exhaust in there was still no joke).
After driving three hours through the mountains on fairly bumpy roads, especially the last hour, we finally got to Iskandarkul Lake. A large expansive alpine lake that was said to be the sight of where Alexander the Great fought local tribes and lost his horse in the lake (which still haunts visitors). For many years it was a nature getaway not too far from the capital. I have to say I was not blown away by the lake so if I had to do it again, I would likely skip it. But the waterfall, a short hike away, is very nice and worth visiting if you are in the area.
We then drove to Panjerkent in the east of the country. We used that as a base for some more nature exploration. Except here there were also the famous ruins of Sarazm. Believe it or not there was a civilization here over 5,500 years ago and it was discovered by chance when a farmer found the head of an ax and shared it a decade later with authorities, upon which they made this amazing discovery! So much history to explore here and pride the people have in their ancient culture and traditions. It also turns out that both Borbad’s father and brother are well known archaeologists who have excavated the ruins many times!
Still buzzing from this ancient history and discovery, we wandered into the local town museum, which tracked Tajik history and pride in the country, with a special emphasis on Rudaki and other notables from the country.
The next day we had a traditional breakfast in the local bazaar (I actually asked if they could make me scrambled eggs, which was a tall order since locals usually have stews, soups and other super heavy items for breakfast). We then made our way to the 7 Lakes. Nestled deep in the mountains, the ride to the lakes is not for the faint of heart. I mean I breathed enough dust and got a splitting headache from how bumpy and frankly treacherous it was in parts. But when we finally started to see the cascading lakes (3-5 kms apart) I realized that often you have to go through hell to get to heaven. They were gorgeous! Especially Lake 5 and for sure Lake 7!
We actually stopped at Lake 6 and hiked up to Lake 7. Once we got there I walked along the lakeshore until I reached the end where there is a little village. It was magical. Definitely recommend making the hike and the tour around the lake if you visit the area. To me I have to say this was the highlight of my trip to the country
On the return we stopped at Borbad’s village where he grew up and where his uncle still lives. We had traditional Plov followed by local fruits (and a HUGE mellon I had been seeing all over the country). I walked around his garden, where I had delicious apples among other fruits. And then drove through the tiny village. Such incredible hospitality!
Our last stop on this journey was the ancient city of Khujand formerly known as ‘Alexander the Furthest’, since it was one of the last outposts of Alexander the Great (by the way Alexander is affectionately known as Alexander the Bastard since locals are not his biggest fans). The city is on a river with towering mountains in the distance and is definitely poorer and less developed then Dushanbe even though it is the second largest city. The city is squarely in the middle of the Silk Route and was certainly a richer city in its golden age.
During our visit we toured a bunch of spots including the following:
● Islamic Mausoleum and Mosque: In the heart of the city is an old mosque and mausoleum, which if you are visiting the city is worth stopping by and seeing it. The kids playing with all the pigeons is lovely and a sight to see.
● Panjshanbe Bazaar: The bazaar is another amazing example of a colorful and exciting marketplace coming to life. I found myself repairing my shoes and even tailoring a shirt while I was in the bazaar.
● Somoni statue and park: If I have not said this before, Tajikistan’s greatest hero is Ismoil Somoni. In fact they named their currency after him. He unified the Tajik tribes over a thousand years ago and truly is the man behind Tajik pride in all its glory. There are a number of statues dedicated to him in Dushanbe and certainly a beautiful one in Khujand (Lenin used to adorn the park but he has since been moved to the suburbs), with a nice surrounding park and mosaics that really recount the history and achievements of the country.
● Soviet airplane (cafe): I was never able to figure out what this Soviet propellor plane was doing parked on the river bank. I was told it was a cafe back in the day. But now it seemed abandoned but still a curiosity worth seeing.
● Lenin Statue and victory park: While most cities throughout Central Asia have discarded their statues of Lenin from the Soviet era. Khujand decided to relocate the statue to the victory part in the suburbs and now it stands as the tallest Lenin Statue in Central Asia.
● Lunch: Before I headed out, we had lunch in Zaytan, which proved to be the cheapest lunch I had for the sheer amount of amazing food we ordered. Definitely recommend you stop by for a delicious local meal at a super reasonable cost!
With a history dating back more than 5,500 years, the ability to survive waves of conquerors from the ancient Greeks to the Soviet Union, and with a storied history of poets, scholars, military leaders, and a current nationalistic President (Emomali Rahmon), there is no shortage of Tajik pride in their country, culture, cuisine, music and traditions. I truly witnessed this first-hand and felt it more in Tajikistan than almost any other country I have visited.
While I got a good taste of Tajikistan, there is still so much more to see especially in terms of nature in the Pamir Mountains and along the Pamir Highway. I will definitely have to come back and do some more exploring, especially to this part of the country, which is said to be simply remarkable.
If you are still reading this blog, then I am so appreciative of your support and hope you found it useful as you plan your trip to Tajikistan. And hopefully it means you are interested to read more! In that case, I would recommend the [UZBEKISTAN BLOG] Blog, which is the next installment of the Central Asia blogs created on my journey to the region!
~ Stay Curious. And I look forward to seeing you on my next Final50 Journey! ~