Few countries in the world harbour such spectacular attractions yet are so little known as Tajikistan – many of us can’t even locate it on the map. And although first-time visitors typically regret not having included Tajikistan travel earlier in their travel plans, they may be forgiven for this all too common oversight.
Landlocked between China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan is the smallest and poorest country in one of the world’s least known regions – Central Asia. It was not until the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union into 15 different countries that travel opportunities opened up within its former territory – and in Tajikistan this happened only after its civil war ended in 1997.
As infrastructure and services slowly improve, while still far from being overrun by tourists, now may be the time to go on your Tajikistan travel.
With the country’s president declaring 2018 as the Year of Tourism and National Crafts, the first six months of the year saw 900,000 visitors, a massive spike on the 430,000 for the whole of 2017. As infrastructure and services slowly improve, while still far from being overrun by tourists, now may be the time to go on your Tajikistan travel.
Incontestably, the country’s main draw is its mountains. With more than half of its territory above 3,000 metres and home to some of the highest and most beautiful mountains on the planet, Tajikistan is littered with virgin trekking routes, un-climbed peaks and multi-hued lakes. Its wild highlands are only sparsely inhabited by some of the most hospitable peoples in the world.
The road trip on the Pamir Highway – part of the ancient Silk Road trade route – is legendary amongst adventure travellers crossing 4,000+ metre passes and staying overnight at remote human settlements.
While Tajikistan’s dazzling mountains are hard to equal, its ancient and rich civilisation comes a close second. The only Persian-speaking country among the former Soviet states of Central Asia, remnants of its rich and turbulent history can be found all over the country, from bronze-age stone tablets, ancient fortresses, Buddhist stupas and Islamic shrines to more recent Russian-Orthodox churches, Lenin statues and ubiquitous Soviet-era infrastructure.
Though many visitors spend little time here on their way to the Pamir or Fann mountain ranges, Dushanbe is a largely unknown Central-Asian capital, where old-world charm struggles with Dictator-chic building projects, and has plenty of attractions – old and new – to justify adding a few more days to your Tajikistan travel.
Read on for more guidance on Tajikistan travel for the over 40s.
Tajikistan Heritage and Culture
The history of present-day Tajikistan stretches back to the Bronze Age. As the territory became part of the First Persian Empire, it was conquered by Alexander the Great and then absorbed by the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom before falling again under Persian-speaking empires with spells of other occupations and annexations.
Take a look at the tortuous tangle of Tajikistan’s border lines – including small pieces of territory enclaved by Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – and you’ll get an inkling of the country’s unstable but culturally vibrant history. In fact, the two core cultural historical centres of the Tajik people lie outside of its borders, in present-day Uzbekistan. Bukhara, a city-museum hosting over 140 monuments, and Samarkand, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia, are both majority Tajik-speaking.
Separated from the rest of Tajikistan by Soviet occupiers in order to curb Persian influence over the new republics – this remains a hot political potato to this day. If you have the opportunity to cross the border and visit these two ancient cities, your understanding of Tajik culture will be the richer for it. Yet, there’s left plenty to discover within present-day Tajikistan.
There’s no shortage of iconic names to capture the imagination, all forming an intrinsic part of the country’s heritage – Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Marco Polo, the Silk Road and The Great Game, to name but a few. But Tajikistan’s history stretches back even far deeper into the past. The 14,000-year-old murals inside the UNESCO-protected Shakthy caves, at 4,200 metres the world’s highest known location of pre-historic cave paintings, are more than just impressive. To be here all alone, surrounded by nothing but mountains and desolate plains with only the sound of the wind to remind you it’s not a dream, is simply magical.
Tajikistan’s cultural legacy is unlikely varied, whether it is language and religion or the arts and architecture.
The Wakhan valley, bordering Afghanistan in the country’s south, is home to a rich collection of cultural heritage sites. Within the space of hours you can travel here from the fourth-century Buddhist stupa in Vrang via Zoroastrian shrines to the spectacular Zamr-i atish parast, or Fortress of Fire Worshippers, parts of which go back to the Greco-Bactrian and Kushan periods of the 3rd to 1st centuries BC. And at the end of your visits you can soak your muscles in hot spring waters inside one of the Soviet-era sanatoria, reminders of a more recent past.
Tajikistan’s cultural legacy is unlikely varied, whether it is language and religion or the arts and architecture. The country’s literary hero, Rudaki, was born in the first century in what is now Tajikistan and considered the founder of Persian classical literature. References to Persia’s equivalent of Shakespeare can be found everywhere here, from Dushanbe’s main thoroughfare Rudaki Boulevard to busts, statues and banknotes.
If you’re looking for more recent traces of culture on your Tajikistan travel, stay at the impressive Soviet-era mountain sanatorium Khoja Obi Garm located north of the capital, pick up a music or ballet performance in the stately Aini Opera and Ballet Theatre, or hang out drinking green tea and eating shashlik under the stunning ceiling of the Choikhona Rokhat teahouse.
Did You Know?
According to Pintprice.com, Tajikistan serves the cheapest pint of beer to be found anywhere in the world, narrowly beating Bhutan, Burundi and North Korea. And at £.30 a pint then surely that is something to celebrate on your Tajikistan travel.
Outdoors and Nature in Tajikistan
Tajikistan may not have the variety and number of tourist attractions that some other countries boast, but the ones it has rank amongst the best on the planet. When 93% of the country is mountainous, it’s no wonder that this is a paradise for nature lovers.
Most western visitors to Tajikistan end up in the Pamirs. The legendary Pamir Highway that runs from the capital Dushanbe to the city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan, can be traversed in the relative comfort of a 4X4 car, by motorcycle for a more exhilarating experience, or by bicycle. This is one of those journeys were words alone do no justice to the experience. Raw, desolate landscapes combined with extreme elements of nature and the most heart-warming hospitality of local residents and nomads.
The Pamirs is home to Ismoil Somoni Peak, at 7,495m the country’s highest point, and to the Fedchenko Glacier extending for 77 km, making it the longest glacier in the world outside of the polar regions. With more than 50 peaks that soar to over 6,000 metres, it’s no surprise that Russian climbers have been coming here for decades, joined in more recent times by those from all over the world. But you don’t need to be an experienced mountaineer to enjoy the sight of icy lakes and snow-capped mountains. Ride on the back of a yak with Kyrgyz nomads through Alichur valley and try to spot ibex and Marco Polo sheep, stay overnight in Tajikistan’s coldest inhabited settlement of Bulunkul, or trek to the tiny mountain village of Jizev in one of the country’s most beautiful valleys.
Another of many highlights in the Pamirs is the Wakhan Valley bordering a narrow corridor of Afghan territory that separates Tajikistan from Pakistan. Here natural splendour and inspiring landscapes combine with centuries-old historical sites and a largely unchanged way of life. The difference between the local Pamiri villages and the Afghan ones across the river is both striking and poignant.
Whereas the Pamirs are Tajikistan’s main draw, the lesser known Fann mountains are one of the best kept secrets in the region. Even in ‘high season’, you will be pressed to come across other foreign visitors trekking through their lush landscapes of forests and lakes, and mountains and glaciers. Iskanderkul, named after Alexander the Great who passed through here with his army, is one of Tajikistan’s most beautiful lakes and a popular spot not only for foreign tourists on their way to the Fann, but also local holidaymakers.
Out-of-this-world landscapes, millennia-old history and unforgettable personal encounters will stay engraved upon your memory for the rest of your life.
The nearby mountain village of Saratog is the gateway for further exploration, as well as a living example of how rural Tajiks have lived their lives for generations. Dwellings made out of sand-coloured mud bricks, wood-fired bathing outhouses and a legendary hospitality with bowls crammed full of sweets and Tajik cognac, this is also where you hire donkeys to carry your tents, food, clothes and other equipment as in the Fann mountains you have to come prepared.
Travelling in Tajikistan is not the same like in Nepal or India for instance. Before departing on your Tajikistan travel, it’s essential you prepare well, do proper research and are willing to venture out of your comfort zone. But the rewards more than compensate. Out-of-this-world landscapes, millennia-old history and unforgettable personal encounters will stay engraved upon your memory for the rest of your life.
Tajikistan Top 5 Highest Peaks
Ismail Somoni Peak – 7,495m
Ibn Sina Peak – 7,134m
Korzhenevskaya Peak – 7,105m
Independence Peak – 6,974m
Karl Marx – 6,726m
Gastronomy – Tajik Cuisine
As the poorest country of the former Soviet Union, it’s perhaps no surprise that Tajikistan is not a destination for foodies. Apart from the capital Dushanbe, where you can find a scattering of decent restaurants with foreign cuisines, you’ll find it hard to get much variety from traditional Tajik fare on your Tajikistan travel.
“Bread has almost a holy status in Tajikistan and no meal is complete without the tandoori-baked kulchas.”
Tajik food is heavily influenced by Russian, Afghan, Uzbek and Iranian cuisines with rice-based dishes and bread featuring prominently. The country’s two national dishes are plov – rice, meat and vegetables fried in a large, wok-shaped qazan – and qurutob where fried onions and vegetables are mixed with a type of strained yoghurt called chaka and eaten from a wooden bowl accompanied with a flaky flatbread called fatir.
Bread has almost a holy status in Tajikistan and no meal is complete without the tandoori-baked kulchas. Pork, on the other hand, may be found in Dushanbe, but is otherwise absent everywhere else in this predominantly Muslim country. This is not the case with alcohol – Tajikistan even has its own beer brand called Sim Sim – its unfiltered, draft version is more than drinkable – while spirits such as vodka and cognac are widely consumed, including by Tajik Muslims.
Other popular food includes shashlik kebabs, dumplings and a range of rich soups from Ukrainian borsch to noodle-based meat soups, such as laghmon. Fresh fruit – with the ubiquitous melon topping the list – always conclude meals, together with sweets. Green tea – the favourite drink of Tajiks – is served on nearly every occasion.
In Tajikistan, every meal is a ceremony, and if you are lucky to be invited to a wedding or simply to someone’s home for dinner, make sure you skip a few meals before you go as serving an abundance of food and drinks to visitors is the pride of every Tajik. In fact, the best food in Tajikistan consists of simple, unpretentious everyday dishes served in homes instead of restaurants.
Tajikistan City Breaks
The capital Dushanbe is probably the most diverse city in Tajikistan with large Uzbek, Russian and other ethnic minorities alongside the dominant group of Tajiks. Russian imprints – from Constructivist concrete buildings to neo-classical theatres and the elegant Firdausi library combining elements of Stalinist and Islamic architecture – are everywhere, despite current government efforts to raise many iconic buildings to the ground.
Buy Russian 80s rock on vinyl or other Soviet-era memento in one of the little souvenir shops and visit the small but splendid Museum of National Antiquities with its 16-metre-long sleeping Buddha from 500AD, the largest remaining one in Central Asia. Many visitors only stay overnight here on their way to the Pamirs, but Tajikistan’s quaint capital deserves an extra day or two.
If you are visiting the Pamirs, then its provincial city Khorog will be most likely on your itinerary as the Pamir Highway runs right through it. More a town than a city and located just across the border with Afghanistan at an altitude of 2,200 metres, this is a pleasant, scenic place to spend a day before or after exploring the roof of the world. A definite must is a visit to the beautiful Khorog Botanical Garden, the second-highest of its type in the world.
At the other end of the country is Penjikent, only 68 km from Samarkand in Uzbekistan and located at the base of the Fann mountains. Some 15 km away are the archaeological proto-urban ruins of Sarazm, the oldest settlement in the northern part of Central Asia and a World Heritage site.
Further north and nearly completely surrounded by Uzbek territory is Tajikistan’s second-largest city Khujand. Founded by Alexander the Great some 2,500 years ago, it was the Macedonian conqueror’s most northerly city. Hardly any relics remain, but what makes Khujand interesting is its Russian and Uzbek ethnic minorities, which are more prominent here than in the capital. The city’s Soviet architecture has been maintained and the traditional Tajik culture is far less visible here, making a visit to this city a bit of a time trip into its Soviet past.
Festivals in Tajikistan
Most of Tajikistan’s main events are still religion-based. Although Tajikistan is officially a secular country, the majority of the population practice the Sunni branch of Islam while in the Pamir region Ismaili, a sub-branch from Shia Islam, dominates – with a scattering of very small minorities practising other religions.
Yet, the country’s biggest celebration is pre-Islamic Navruz or Persian new year, taking place in March on the spring equinox. Over the course of three days, families and whole towns and villages celebrate with street parties, singing, traditional dance and an abundance of food. This is also when the popular buzkashi games are held – a more brutal variety of polo where teams of horsemen fight over a heavy, dead carcass of a decapitated goat that has to be thrown into the opponent’s goal.
The Pamiris have their own festival, held in July, in their provincial capital Khorog to celebrate their distinct culture
The Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the holy month Ramadan. Lots of family and neighbour visits, prayer and again food preparations with plenty of sweets for kids, define this event. A couple of months afterwards, Eid ul-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, is a four-day celebration during which special prayers are held and each family – if they have the means – slaughters a sheep.
The Pamiris have their own festival, held in July, in their provincial capital Khorog to celebrate their distinct culture. Joining the festivities are artists from other parts of Central Asia, turning it into an international song and dance festival.
Sayri Lola is a regional two-day Tulip Festival in the north of Tajikistan celebrating the flower that originates from here. During this summer festival, hills are covered with multi-coloured flowering tulips and trees are decorated with them when people gather to sing, dance and make wishes.
Other festivals include the Didor Film Festival held in October in Dushanbe, screening Persian, Russian and European films, and the annual Flag Day in Dushanbe on 24 November, when thousands of people march through town waving the national colours while a 90-metre-long flag is paraded along Rudaki Avenue.
What’s in a Name?
Dushanbe literally means “Monday”, and is named after a weekly bazaar that used to take place where now the capital is on each, yes, Monday.
Weather in Tajikistan
The climate in Tajikistan varies widely in different regions and according to elevation. The plains around Dushanbe and Khujand are temperate with hot and dry summers and relatively modest winters with average temperatures of 0C. However, with more than half of Tajikistan’s territory above 3,000 metres, a polar climate dominates at that altitude in winter.
Dry desert areas exist furthest east and in the southwest, but overall Tajikistan is Central Asia’s wettest country particularly in winter and spring. The mountains see plenty of snow, often closing roads and mountain passes, while in spring, melting snow water increases risks of flooding and landslides. The most extreme climate is in the Pamir mountains with long winters (October to April) and short summers (July and August).
Coldest place in winter
Lake Bulunkul (-63°C)
Hottest place in summer
Panji Poyon (+48°C)
When to Go on Your Tajikistan Travel?
The best time to visit Tajikistan for your Tajikistan travel is from mid-June to September for hiking in the mountains; from late May to late September to cross the Pamir Highway; and April and October for the capital Dushanbe. For more details, visit https://www.climatestotravel.com/climate/tajikistan
Latest Tajikistan Travel Features & Articles
Visas for Tajikistan
Obtaining a visa for your Tajikistan travel used to be a complicated affair, but recently an electronic visa system has made this a trouble-free process. Nationals of all EU countries are eligible for an e-visa which you can apply for online via this link. Valid for 45 days, it costs $50 and is accepted at international airports and land borders. After approval, the e-visa is e-mailed to you. Print it out and bring it with you to present at Tajik border customs.
If travelling to the Pamirs, you will need a separate permit which can be applied for together with the e-visa. Valid for 30 days it costs $20. To visit Lake Sarez – Tajikistan’s biggest lake located in the Pamirs – you need another special permit which can be obtained free of charge through a tour operator or at the Committee for Emergency Situations in Lohuti Street in Dushanbe (opposite the Tajik Sodirot Bank).
Multiple-entry visas, if you wish to continue your Tajikistan travel to Afghanistan or Uzbekistan in order to visit Samarkand and Bukhara, must be obtained through a Tajik embassy. Contact https://www.visa.gov.tj for further information. Finally, if you want to stay longer than 30 days in Tajikistan, you may need to register with the local authorities. This rule seems to change, so check for latest updates.
Flights to Tajikistan
Air Astana flies from London and other major European cities to Dushanbe with a stop in Astana and/or Almaty. Turkish Airlines also flies to Dushanbe with a stopover in Istanbul. If you’re flying from Bangkok, then Air Astana is your best bet with a stop in Almaty. Somon Air flies direct to Dushanbe from Frankfurt.
Getting Around Tajikistan
The best way to get around on your Tajikistan travel is by hiring a car with a driver. Make sure you check its general state, tyres etc, before setting off. Agree on the price beforehand and what you want to do. Don’t be afraid to tell your driver to slow down if you feel uncomfortable – Tajik driving can be quite exhilarating or dangerous depending on your perspective. Those on a budget can use shared cars and mini vans. These will save you money, but you can’t ask the driver for a stop to take pictures, etc.
Dushanbe is a very pleasant and walkable city, with cheap hop on and off trolley buses, regular buses, and shared mini vans and taxis on fixed routes across the city. An increasing number of traditional registered taxis are now also appearing in the city.
Instead of driving from Dushanbe to Khorog, the provincial capital of the Pamirs, there are domestic flights once a week in small planes or by helicopter – said to be one of the most thrilling flights in the world. These do not operate in windy conditions and may be cancelled at the last minute, so it’s advisable to build in some flexibility into your Tajikistan travel.
Health and Safety in Tajikistan
Although generally quite a safe country to travel, you should take normal precautions on your Tajikistan travel. In the unlikely event you are a victim of a crime, it’s better to seek assistance from your embassy than from the local police who have a reputation for requesting voluntary contributions, although take care of travel insurance conditions, which may require a police report before any reimbursement for losses. Do not take photographs of the presidential palace, airport and other sensitive spots.
As this is a traditional, predominantly Muslim country, dress conservatively – avoid wearing short dresses or shorts. Also men are discouraged to wear shorts, even when trekking in the mountains. In Dushanbe people are generally more relaxed about this.
Tajikistan is an earthquake-prone country and it would not be unusual to feel a little tremor while you’re there. This may be more of a concern for mountaineers in danger of avalanches but large earthquakes have occurred in the past with houses destroyed and people killed. Just be aware of this and read up on what to do if caught in an earthquake on your Tajikistan travel.
In July 2018, four western cyclists were killed in a deliberate car collision and subsequent knife attack on the Pamir Highway. The motive for the attack is unknown, yet it was likely terrorism-related. Although this was the first incident of this type in the country, it’s best to keep abreast with the latest security updates and your country’s foreign travel advice.
Don’t drink tap water and make sure you’re up to date with all necessary vaccinations. Food hygiene standards are poor and medical facilities very limited. Having a travel health insurance and an evacuation policy is recommended.
Solo Female Travel in Tajikistan
The following advice is based on first-hand feedback from solo female travellers in Tajikistan, with special thanks to both the local and foreign women from the Dushanbe Expats Facebook group.
The general consensus is that Tajikistan overall is a wonderful country for solo female travellers. However, apart from the usual safety precautions when travelling abroad, here are some tips to consider that may make solo female travel in Tajikistan more pleasant.
- As mentioned earlier, it is considered respectful to dress conservatively i.e. covering shoulders and legs, and wearing non-revealing clothing. However, contrary to what you might expect, wearing a hijab is uncommon. In fact, they are banned by the authorities – though as a tourist it will less likely get you into trouble, while carrying a headscarf with you is always handy for when visiting mosques or Dushanbe’s orthodox Christian church.
- Many solo women report that catcalling is relatively common when walking the streets in Dushanbe, as well as cars slowing down to offer you rides and other propositions. The general consensus is that ignoring these men till they get bored is the best strategy as confronting them often leads to encouragement.
- As a solo female traveller you are almost guaranteed to be asked whether you’re married, if you have children and why you’re travelling alone. Some female travellers recommend wearing a (fake) wedding ring and making up a husband and children, whether you’re married or not. This immediately enhances your social status and discourages most unwanted male attention. Have an answer ready as to why you’re travelling alone.
- If you’d like to check out nightclubs it’s recommended going with friends as single women in Tajik nightclubs are generally assumed to be prostitutes, foreign or not.
- If you do find yourself in a situation where men make you feel uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to approach local women who are very likely to take you under their wing.
- If you’re hesitant about hiring a male guide to go trekking/camping on your own, then consider hiring a female guide from PECTA.
- Low-quality female hygiene pads may be available outside major cities if you’re lucky, but not tampons. Stock up before travelling around Tajikistan.
Tajikistan SIM Cards / Internet
You can buy a local SIM card for your Tajikistan travel, upon presentation of your passport. There are four operators – Tcell, Beeline, Megafon and Babilon-M – with varying coverage strength depending on location. Tcell is pretty decent in Dushanbe and the Wakhan valley while Megafon has better coverage in the high (eastern) Pamirs. Mobile internet is pretty good. Some places in Dushanbe offer free WiFi, but don’t rely on it. Recently, the Tajik government has reportedly developed a special tourist SIM card in cooperation with Tcell. Be aware that news sites are filtered and social media sometimes blocked.
Languages in Tajikistan
Tajik is the country’s official language, other main languages include Russian, Uzbek and Kyrgyz. English is limited outside the big cities. The Pamiri people have their own languages.
Currency in Tajikistan
The local currency is the somoni, approximately 9.4 somoni to a US dollar. US dollars are widely accepted on your Tajikistan travel, especially in hotels, souvenir shops and by local tour operators.
Tajikistan has one time zone: GMT+5.
Tajikistan Country Code
Tajikistan’s dialling code is +992.
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