Tajikistan: roof of the world

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Tajikistan is a newly-independent republic on the southern tip of Former Soviet Central Asia.

Tajikistan is a newly-independent republic on the southern tip of Former Soviet Central Asia. Beautiful and remote, Tajikistan has much to offer to the mountaineer, the hiker and the independent traveler in search of remote locations and unusual cultural experiences. There are opportunities for alpine mountaineering, rock climbing, hiking, horse or camel riding, historical exploration, cultural experiences or simply relaxing among dramatic mountains and lakes.

The Pamirs, “Baam-e-Dunya” Roof of the World.
Most enticing for the mountaineer are the three giants of the Pamirs: Peak Somoni, Peak Lenin and Peak Korzhenevskaya. For alpine climbing, high-level walking tours and lakeland scenery the Fann mountains, just across the border from Samarkand, are especially popular.

The populated valleys have a rich history. In former times, Tajikistan was at the crossroads of Asia and four major Silk Road routes passed through the Pamir and Fann mountains. There is evidence of the Sogdian (Zoroastrian) civilization, as well as Buddhist, Hindu and Christian remains. More recently, the country’s Islamic history has produced some fine examples of Central Asian Islamic art and architecture. And of course the Soviet period of the 20th century has left its mark in architecture, art such as the huge statue of Lenin overlooking the city of Khujand, and engineering achievements like Nurek Hydroelectric Dam (the tallest artificial dam in the world).

Officially the Republic of Tajikistan, is a mountainous landlocked country in Central Asia. It borders Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan to the north, and China to the east. Capital: Dushanbe Currency: Tajikistani somoni President: Emomalii Rahmon Population: 6.977 million (2011) Languages: Russian, Persian, Tajik Government: Presidential system, Semi-presidential system

Mid-latitude continental, hot summers, mild winters; semi-arid to polar in the Pamir Mountains.

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The Pamir and Alay Mountains dominate Tajikistan’s landscape. The western Fergana Valley is in north, and the Kofarnihon and Vakhsh Valleys are in the southwest.
The country’s lowest point is at Syr Darya (300 m), and its highest point is at Qullai Ismoili Somoni (7,495 m).

The region covering today’s Tajikistan was part of the Persian empires for much of its history. This region has been an important place for flourishing Persian culture and language.

In recent history, Tajikistan has experienced three changes in government and a five-year civil war since it gained independence from the USSR in 1991. A peace agreement among rival factions was signed in 1997 and implemented in 2000. The central government’s less than total control over some areas of the country has forced it to compromise and forge alliances among factions. Attention by the international community in the wake of the war in Afghanistan has brought increased economic development assistance, which could create jobs and increase stability in the long term. Tajikistan is in the early stages of seeking World Trade Organization membership and has joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace. In recent years, Unemployment has been fought by the government with a huge success, though the country has been unable to cope up with the problems left behind of the civil war. Today, most prospects of change are clearly being evident to help recover the country, though much of these measures are proving to be inefficient and unfulfilling.

Nationals from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia and Ukraine do not need a visa for visits up to 90 days.

Following the trends of other Central Asian countries, visas are increasingly easy to obtain, particularly for nationals of wealthy countries. This policy is designed to stimulate tourist activity in Tajikistan. The big change has been the abolition of OVIR registration for tourist visits under 30 days. Letters of invitation are no longer needed on arrival at Dushanbe airport, but are needed to prearrange a visa from the UK and US embassies.

Visas have to have applied for in advance at Tajik embassies or may be purchased upon arrival at Dushanbe airport. However due to a recent change in the law, these visas are now only available to citizens from countries with no Tajik embassy. To save time you can complete and print a form before arrival. It is best to use the Tajik form, bring two passport photos, a handful of photocopies of your passport and cash. The process takes around 10 minutes. Tourist visa in Tajikistan costs US$25 in Dushanbe International Airport and in consular representatives abroad. A separate permit is required if you wish to travel to the GBAO region; it costs US$50 and is easily obtained when applying for a visa or in Dushanbe.

If crossing a land border then get a visa prior to arrival. The embassies in Vienna and London are the more professional. You may struggle to get a visa at some consulates who will simply say ‘get it at the airport’ (e.g. Kabul), which isn’t useful if you want to arrive by land.

By plane
National carrier Tajik Air and the new private airline Somon Air are the country’s two airlines. From Dushanbe, flights are available to numerous cities across Russia, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Samara, Sochi, Chelyabinsk, Novosibirsk, Perm, Krasnoyarsk, Orenburg, Irkutsk, Nizhnevartovsk, Surgut, Kazan, & Yekaterinburg. Destinations within Central Asia include Bishkek, Almaty, Urumqi, & Kabul.

Aside from Russia, the main international destinations to/from Tajikistan are:

Istanbul — Turkish Airlines, Somon Air
Dubai/Sharjah — Somon Air, Tajik Air
Frankfurt — Somon Air
Tehran — Somon Air, Iran Aseman Airlines

Somon Air plans to add services to China in the future.
The airport in Khujand has service to about a dozen Russian cities through 8 carriers plus a weekly China Southern Airlines flight to Urumqi.

By car
While relations with Uzbekistan are the worst among Tajikistan’s neighbors, it is the most crossed by travelers and the roads to these crossings are in much better condition than those leading to Kyrgyzstan or Afghanistan. The current situation (June 2010) is unknown, but in recent years Tajik vehicles have not been allowed into Uzbekistan and Uzbek vehicles needed to pay large tariffs to enter Tajikistan. So your trip may require taking one vehicle to the border and catching a ride on another after crossing the border. The journey from Tashkent to Khujand takes about two and a half hours and is frequently travelled by private cars and marshrutkas (minibuses) which will take you along for a small amount (under US$10). The short (60 km) trip from Samarkand, Uzbekistan to Penjikent is also frequently travelled by private cars and marshrutkas. Currently (July 2012) border crossing near Penjikent is closed due to strained relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. If you want to go to Samarkand from Khujand, you have to cross border at Oybek post (250 km from Samarkand). There are marshrutkas and taxis from Khujand to Oybek. Taxis cost from 50 to 100 somonis depending on time of a day.

In winter months, snow blocks the passes connecting Dushanbe with the north of Tajikistan. To travel to Dushanbe during these months, you need to head south and cross from Termez, which will take you around the west & south sides of the mountains and take you to Dushanbe.

From Kyrgyzstan, there are a couple of options, mostly from Osh and none make for a very smooth journey. The rugged, remote Pamir Highway (see next paragraph) is the slowest, but most popular. From the crossroads at Sary-Tash, a road leads west for 500 km through the Karategin Valley to Dushanbe; a little rugged near the border, but not nearly so as the Pamir Highway. A third option is from the Batken region to Isfara, but it passes through several of the Uzbek enclaves within Kyrgyzstan, necessitating a multiple-entry Uzbek visa and plenty of time for border crossings; bypassing these enclaves is a pain and requires navigating lots of poor, local roads with little or no signage. Travelling through the Ferghana Valley, it also has the least interesting scenery and recent ethnic confrontations in the region make this a poor choice for travelers.

A scenic, albeit rough, journey into Tajikistan is via the Pamir Highway which runs from Osh to Khorog to Dushanbe. Just about the only highway in the GBAO region, this route ranges from smooth tarmac full of busses, trucks to a single-lane road carved into a cliff. The border crossing lies at 4280 m and peaks at the Ak-Baital Pass at 4,655m. The journey takes 2-3 days from Osh-Khorog and three on the rougher stretch from Khorog to Dushanbe, longer if you want to stop and enjoy the scenery. Minivans travel the route from Osh to Murghab every few days for US$15; hitch hiking on Kamaz trucks and ZIL petrol tankers is also possible anywhere enroute for $US10. A 4 wheel drive is necessary and large portions of the highway are impassible in winter and frequently blocked by mudslides in spring.

The US has funded a couple of bridges connecting Tajikistan with Afghanistan. Roads from Qurghonteppa, Kulob, & Dushanbe lead to the main crossing at Nizhnii Panj. From there, a road leads south to Kunduz which unfortunately, as of 2010, is a stronghold of the Taliban in the north of Afghanistan. There is a bridge at Khorog leading to Feizabad, Afghanistan as well as a few mountainous roads elsewhere in the GBAO leading to Afghanistan.

A border crossing with China was opened in 2004. The crossing and connecting roads link the Pamir Highway with the Karakorum Highway and provides a link to Kashgar (Kashi) to the north and Pakistan to the south. As of 2010, it remains closed to foreigners.
[edit]By boat

There is currently a ferry operating across the Pyanj river between Afghanistan and Tajikistan that costs roughly $US10 one way. However, the opening of the U.S. funding bridge over the Pyanj will likely end this service, which crosses roughly three times per day and does not run on Sundays.

By train
The train to Moscow is popular with migrant workers. It takes around five days and crosses through Uzbekistan (twice), Turkmenistan, & Kazakhstan; transit visas are required for all these countries.

Train 367 – 0808 leaves Dushanbe (Mondays & Wednesdays). 1404 Arrives Khujand next day. Final destination Kanibadam.

Train 335 – Khujand-Samarqand-Saratov is three times a week. 1844 depart Khujand (Monday, Thursday, Saturday) 0215 arrives Samarqand.

Train 336 – 0610 departs Samarqand (Wednesday, Friday, Sunday) 1427 arrives Khujand.

Getting around:

By minivan/shared taxi
Scheduled minivans run between the major cities but otherwise hiring a vehicle or sharing one with other passengers is the only way to travel around the country. Prices are generally per person, not for the vehicle, and divided by the number of passengers.

SUV’s can be hired and leave daily from Khujand’s large minibus terminal located just outside the city. Prices are negotiable but should be in the range US$60 per person. Assure the vehicle is fit for long road travel, inspect spare tire.

By plane
As the country is broken into many isolated areas by mountain passes that are closed in winter, travel during this time is by air only, if the planes are flying. Tajik Air and Somon Air operate several daily flights to Khojand (between 35 and 70 minutes, depending on the plane) and Khorog, a thrilling plunge through mountain peaks. This flight does not go if it is windy. Ticket vendors next to the Green Market in Dushanbe can provide a reliable estimate of their timetable. Make sure you arrive early for your flight. Also, passports and visas will be checked on domestic flights, so bring them with you.

By train
Train 368 – 1634 leaves Khujand (Fridays & Sundays). 2236 arrives Dushanbe the next day.

Tajik, mutually intelligible with Persian and often considered a dialect of it, is the primary and historical language of Tajikistan. However, due to Soviet promotion of Russian, almost all Tajiks also speak Russian, including most younger people, and in the cities people tend to be fluent. There are also ethnic Russians with Russian as their native language. Russian is widely used in government, which makes it widely spoken by government officials such as policemen. English, however is hardly spoken, and the only people likely to speak a word are youths, especially in the capital, but even to them Russian is often a stronger language since it is widely taught to them by their parents.

While Tajikistan may not appear on most people’s priority destinations, its mountains are some of the most beautiful in the world and the terrain is wild and remote in many parts. The main attraction for tourists is the road trip on the Pamir Highway (M41), journeying from the capital, Dushanbe, eastwards into the Pamir mountains and onwards to the north-eastern border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The route has become a significant attraction for adventure travelers using various modes of transport and cyclists, motorcyclists and 4×4 drivers all seek the challenge of this bone-crunching 2000 km switchback through the western arm of the Himalayas.

Recent tourism resource developments have seen responsible steps made in accommodating the increasing numbers of travelers and a balance is being achieved, maintaining the cultural and environmental heritage of the communities.

Tajikistan is a stunning place, and there is plenty to do, from the Silk Road mystique of places like Khujand and Istaravshan, to the stunning, untouched mountain scenery of the Pamirs and their accompanying allure of unclimbed peaks and virgin trekking routes. Fan Mountains could be a good alternative to the Pamirs. They are easy to reach and provide good trekking options.

Somoni (TJS, Tajik: cомонӣ) is the national currency. As of January, 2013, US$1 roughly equals to 4.77 somoni, while €1 equals to 6.35 somoni.

Traditional Tajik padded coats. Comfortable and perfect for the colder weather in the mountains. The ensemble can be completed with a hat and sash.

Mercedes Benz (approx. U$S7,000) cars and Land Cruisers from Dushanbe’s Sunday Car Market. Also available: Russian cars, jeeps, minivans, and an assortment of other models.

Vodka. Ruski Standard is the best one by far.

Rugs and carpets. The good ones are imported from Afghanistan or Uzbekistan.

Food in Tajikistan is a cross between that of Central Asia and that of Afghanistan & Pakistan along with a bit of Russian influence. If you like Russian food, you will probably have a good culinary experience. If you find Russian food bland, you may have a rough time here.

Plov – The national dish is made with rice, beef or mutton, and carrots. All fried together in vegetable oil or mutton fat in a special qazan (a wok-shaped cauldron) over an open flame. The meat is cubed, the carrots are chopped finely into long strips, and the rice is colored yellow or orange by the frying carrots and the oil. The dish is eaten communally from a single large plate placed at the center of the table.

A traditional dish that is still eaten with hands from a communal plate is qurutob, before serving the dish is topped with onions fried in oil until golden and other fried vegetables. No meat is added. Qurotob is considered the national dish.

Sambusa – (baked pastries)
Shashlik (shish-kebab) – Grilled-on-coal fish, liver, chicken, mutton and beef
Tushbera soup – (like ravioli, or pasta with meat in it)
Ugro soup – (handmade spaghetti soup served with cheese cream and basilic)
Jiz-biz – (fired freshcut lamb or mutton on its own juice)
Dolma – (steamed rolls with grape leafs and meat inside, served with sour cream and red pepper)
Mantu – (steamed pasta with meat inside, served with sour cream and fried onions)
Shurbo – (fresh vegetable soup with lamb or beef, served with green onion and basilic)
Damlama – (like English stew, steamed lamb or beef with vegetables in its own juice)
Khash – (soup with sheeps’ legs and arms, joints and tendons)

Melons and watermelons are extremely popular among locals and are very cheap in local markets, and many types of bread like chappoti, kulcha, nan, fatir, qalama, etc. Tajiks customarily pour a small amount of green tea out three times and return it to the pot, and Compote is a distilled fruit punch.

Take care with street food and do NOT eat unwashed vegetables and fruits. It’s best to soak them in distilled water and cook thoroughly.

Now the situation is different. National cuisine is becoming more popular in Tajikistan, such as Shurpo, Oshi Palov, Mantu, Sambusa, and etc.

Sleeping options in Tajikistan include the following:

In Dushanbe, there are a small number of large hotels. The Hyatt Regency just built recently and opens doors in March 2009. Another one of big hotels is “Tajikistan” (recently renovated), located in the central city. Most are ex-Soviet era and tend to be over priced and in poor condition. There are a couple of newly built hotels offering western standards of accommodation for around from US$70 to US$220 per room.

MSDSP Guesthouses
The Aga Khan’s Mountain Societies Development Support Program has a network of guesthouses in places like Kalaikhum and Khorog, offering a good standard of accommodation. Full board is around US$40 per person.

Formal Homestays
The French NGO ACTED is establishing a network of Homestays in the Pamir region, around Murghab, For around US$10 per person per night you get a comfortable bed in a family home. The facilities are basic, i.e. no running water and an outside toilet, but guests can expect comfortable clean rooms, good local food, and a very warm welcome.

Independent Guesthouses
In Dushanbe, Khorog, and Murghab there are a small but growing number of independent guesthouses. These are similar in standard and price to the ACTED homestays.

Online Accommodation
Many cities of Tajikistan offer free accommodation in homestays through the

At embassies, NGOs, some hotels. A few hundred expatriates live in Dushanbe. Several ads each week are in the electronic newsletter, WhatsOnInDushanbe. For investors, there are similar publications.

Habitat for Humanity-Tajikistan, constructs homes for needy, low-income families in addition to completing many unfinished Soviet-era homes and apartment blocks, provides seismic retrofits, works to provide sanitary water, and more. Once or twice a year, volunteer trips (through HFH “Global Village” program) are offered, entailing 2 weeks of building houses combined with a few days of sightseeing.

Stay safe
Tajikistan is a safe country, though some factional fighting spilling over from nearby Afghanistan (as well as local warlord-ism) still occurs in Tajikistan. Visitors should keep abreast of the security situation and not take any unnecessary risks. After sunset, it is not advisable to walk around outside alone; and generally do not travel unaccompanied to rural areas. Any concern you should have during your stay in Tajikistan, please write about as soon as possible it to the local embassy of your country.

Of significant concern is the inability of Tajikistan’s law enforcement entities to provide adequate and immediate assistance. Lack of manpower, low salaries, and inadequate training all contribute to a lack of professionalism among law enforcement entities. If you are the victim of a crime, consult to your embassy. Your embassy may be able to help you locate stolen items or to renew your passport.

Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal, but you may be breaking local law, too.

In some places it is illegal to take pictures of certain buildings. In some places driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail. These criminal penalties will vary from country to country.

Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Tajikistan are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.

The number of items that can be exported may be limited. It is illegal to export or possess unprocessed stones and metals and jewelry without a hallmark (mark of authenticity). Even if travelers have a receipt confirming legal purchase of such items at a store in Tajikistan, the items must be declared upon departure.

Stay healthy
The health care system in Tajikistan is significantly underdeveloped below western standards, with severe shortages of basic medical supplies, including disposable needles, anesthetics, and antibiotics. Elderly people are at great risk. Most medical personnel are not qualified, adding on a significant concern.

DO NOT drink tap water. There is no working purification system, and outbreaks of typhoid and cholera (rarely) are common. Other preventable endemic illnesses are hepatitis A, rabies, poliomyelitis and tick-borne encephalitis. The occasional anthrax case comes in, but it’s rare nowadays. There are, during the hot season, a few pockets where malaria can occur. HIV is a growing health threat in Tajikistan. There is now an English-speaking comprehensive primary care clinic in operation by the name of Prospekt Medical, right behind the Embassy of China. In the Pamir mountains, the risk of altitude sickness is substantial – one may read up on this here: (in English) or (in German). In case of ANY accident, call your embassy. Health insurance and medical evacuation insurance are recommended.

Longer stays may consider the hiring of private drivers and home security guards. Rent out secure known owners places.

Tajikistan is a somewhat conservative society. Women should be fairly modest in public, but head coverings and burkahs are exceptions and not the norm. Although some Tajiks can be extremely friendly, it is not uncommon for people to be equally rude. While this is a Persian-speaking country, do not expect the red carpet treatment that tourists receive in Iran and Afghanistan.

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About the author


Editor in chief for eTurboNew is Linda Hohnholz. She is based in the eTN HQ in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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