It is easy to comprehend why Tajikistan is often referred to as the roof of the earth. Unbelievably, ninety per cent of the country consists of jaw-dropping rugged mountains. The Pamir mountain ranges are the third highest in the world, earning the country bragging rights for the highest peaks in Central Asia. It is no wonder that almost every Tajikistan travel blog out there focuses on the famous Pamir highway.
Its list of accomplishments does not end there, as part of the famous Silk Road, it is endowed with legendary nature and postcard-like landscapes. The diversity of the shades found in many of the lakes around the country, coupled with its raw, untouched nature has gained it increasing popularity among a tribe of thrill-seeking trekkers.
When it comes to off-the-beaten-track travel destinations, Tajikistan although relatively underexplored, should, by all means, be in the little black book of best travel stops.
If you are a first-time traveller to the famous Stans, Tajikistan will give you a quick perspective on what to expect from the rest. Dushanbe, the capital, is a mish-mash of cultures, tastes and aesthetics, because of the mixed influence of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Russians and others that live there.
Dushanbe is quite dynamic for a small city. Fountain-filled parks that mostly come alive at night, streets lined with busy shops and restaurants, as well as museums and souvenir shops. Tajiks love their tea and still hang on to tea-related traditions like pouring the tea into the cup three times as a gesture of respect for the tea. If you are seeking to become more familiar with daily life around the city, be sure to visit one of its famous tea houses or choihonas. They are housed in very distinct buildings; massive, bright and colourful with majolica tiled rooftops. Traditionally-clad staff go a long way to ensure you savour the best of local delicacies.
The culinary experience is an adventure of its own. The food is as diverse as the people. My favourite must-try dishes include Kurutob, a vegetable dish spiced with yoghurt, Fatirshurbo, a broth of bread and meat swimming in a delicious soup. Mantusare dumplings of chicken or beef and lastly, Lagman their famous pasta dish.
Tourism is very nascent in Tajikistan, but there is still so much you can see on day trips from Dushanbe. My top five are highlighted below:
1) STROLL THROUGH THE DUSHANBE BOTANICAL GARDENS
If you do not have time to leave the city, get lost in the enchanting Dushanbe botanical garden. Its lush green grounds and well-manicured grass are lined with a beautiful array of rose bushes transporting you to a world away from the hustle and bustle of chaotic city life. The garden is also a popular spot for leisure walks and running in equal measure. Photo credit Irina Iriser
2) TRAVEL BACK IN TIME AT HISOR FORTRESS
Tajikistan is not bestowed with iconic ancient architecture and gigantic monuments like in neighbouring Uzbekistan. If you missed my post on Uzbekistan, you can read it here. However, Hisor fortress, about an hour’s drive from the city, is still worth a visit. The fortress houses the remains of the Hisor ancient town dating back to 1000 BC that was famous for its handicraft market. Most of the fort has undergone reconstruction over the years, the arch gate and the city walls are the only bits that have remained intact. The fort’s former madrasahs (schools for Islamic scholars) have been partially reconstructed and now house a museum of Tajik artefacts that are reminiscent of the ancient times.
Visiting on a weekday guarantees you will have the place all to yourself. But if you are looking to plug-in into local life, plan to visit on Sunday when you are bound to bump into a local wedding party. You can go there by taxi, and English-speaking guides are available on-site for a small fee.
3) ENJOY THE PRISTINE NATURAL SURROUNDINGS AROUND ISKANDERKUL
To get an idea of what the country’s scenery has to offer, drive west to the Fann Mountains, to explore the breathtakingly-beautiful Iskanderkul lake. A spectacular anomaly that must be seen to be believed. The lake is named after Alexander the Great, “Ískander” meaning Alexander and “kul” meaning lake, although it is not very clear if he actually visited the lake.
It takes about three hours to drive to the lake from the capital, a road worth travelling, as both the journey and destination are rewarding in equal measure. You will spend the first hour of the drive taking in the fact that you have just entered a world different from any other. From snow-capped mountains that feel close enough, you could touch them to ice-cold glacial rivers running amok in the wild. The lake itself, delicately perched on the foot of the mountains is very calm, and its colour changes from turquoise to emerald depending on the weather. For about $10, you can hire a speed boat to get a closer view of the surrounding mountains. Like most lakes in Tajikistan, Iskanderkul is glacial and hence not suitable for swimming, unless you are one of those polar bear plunge types.
Do not let Tajikistan’s undecided weather spoil your day trip, be prepared. Bring a sweater as the temperatures are much colder here than in Dushanbe, as well as a raincoat. Do not despair if the rain threatens to disrupt the fantastic view; enjoy a cup of chai at the local restaurant by the lake as you wait for the rain to subside.
A brief 30 minutes walk from the lake takes you to a waterfall nestled behind the serene Fann landscapes.
The experience is made even more delectable by the fact that you get to watch the aggressive gush of water from a metal platform above the waterfalls. While a tad scary for those of us with a fear of heights, the natural beauty surrounding the falls makes for a pinch-me perfect setting.
A bonus of driving to the lake is passing through the 5km long Anzob tunnel that is a source of pride for Tajiks.
4) RELISH THE SLOW PACE OF RURAL LIFE HIKING THE SEVEN STUNNING LAKES
Legend goes that the seven lakes were formed from the tears of seven daughters grieving over their father who disappeared in this area. But legend or not, the lakes make for an awe-inspiring backdrop for a trek. There is nothing constant about the waters of the seven lakes, better known for their different shades of blue than they are for swimming unless you fancy an ice-cold dip.
All the lakes are remarkable in their own right, and you get a panoramic view of each from a distance. The third, Gushor, stands out the most as it is an intensely deep blue shade, and you can apparently swim in it.
Note, it will take almost five hours to drive to the first lake from Dushanbe. We left the city at 5:00 a.m. and arrived at about 10:00 a.m. If you have more time, you can drive to Panjikent and spend the night, which will give you a full day to hike all the seven lakes. You cannot drive to the 7thlake. It takes about an hour to trek from the 6thto the 7thlake, most of which is uphill except for the last 30 minutes.
There is no public transport going to the lakes. You can either hire a private car or share one through a travel agency. The road to the lakes is rough and unpaved. You need an experienced driver, and it is best to do it in a four by four car, although we did meet other tourists in small saloon cars. If you are looking to spend the night, there are rest houses by the lakes, but the accommodation is very basic. There are also options for homestays with local families.
5) STOP BY THE WORLD’S SECOND LARGEST DAM
You are probably wondering why you would want to stop by a dam. But Nurek, a 45 minutes’ drive east of Dushanbe, is no ordinary dam. It is a good example of humanity harnessing nature. Nestled on the Vakhsh River, this man-made dam that is only second in size to Jinping-I Dam in China boasts of the most gunshot views.
You can get a guided tour of the dam itself, for which you will need to show your travel documents. If your goal is to admire it from a distance, a viewing point on the main road allows you to partake of the dam’s vastness. The viewing point is also a vibrant market that serves as a popular stop for sampling local delicacies.
Important info on travelling to Tajikistan
First, if you are wondering if it is safe to travel to Tajikistan, yes it is!
How to get there: Turkish Airlines, as well as the local Somon Air, have frequent flights into Dushanbe. You can also connect through various Russian cities. Once in-country, you pretty much get everywhere by road. You can fly to Pamir, but the flights are generally unreliable, and there have been safety issues in the past.
Visa: You need a visa to Tajikistan, which can be obtained online. If you want to go to the Pamir region, you will need a special Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) permit which you can also apply for online.
Money: You can change money at forex bureaus, visa and credit cards work in most ATMs.
Places to stay: Tajikistan is a pocket-friendly destination with several offers available on booking.com or trip advisor.
Tajikistan nightlife: Although Tajikistan is predominantly Muslim, alcohol is readily available in restaurants and bars, perhaps owing to its Soviet past. 28 Monkeys and Bundes bars and grill are favourite hangout spots among locals and foreigners alike. Climb up to the 19th floor of Dushanbe plaza for a panoramic view of the city. Most restaurants do not have Wi-Fi, I guess they really want people to talk to each other, which sucks if you are a solo traveller like I was on this trip. Also, cell phone service is not very reliable outside of Dushanbe.
Note the official languages are Tajik and Russian. Very few people speak English, including at restaurants. You can also join the Dushanbe expats Facebook page for the latest events and activities.
What to wear: Western clothes are acceptable in the capital. People are more conservative in other parts of the country; hence, you will be best served to respect the local culture and dress modestly.
The best time to visit Tajikistan: The best time for hiking is during the summer between June and October. Although the summers get quite hot, April and May are also a good time to visit although it rains.
Staying fit: If in need of an exercise fix, in addition to all the hiking opportunities available, you can go for a run at the botanical garden and check out Dushanbe expats online for suggestions on group hikes. The Serena hotel offers a 90 minutes yoga class with a very experienced yoga teacher twice weekly.
Tajikistan is an incredible off-the-beaten-path travel destination. I recommend you include it in your future Central Asia travel plans.