Out of all the former Soviet republics in Central Asia that gained independence following the collapse of the USSR, poor little Tajikistan seemingly has had the roughest go of it in the ensuring years.
While other republics were marshalling their resources and preparing for life after Mother Russia, certain factions within Tajikistan took advantage of the chaos and uncertainty following independence, waging a civil war that raged for five years until the shots ceased in 1997.
This unfortunate conflict that left Tajikistan as one of Central Asia’s poorest countries, though things are starting to change, as geopolitics have put the region on the map since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, and as the nascent tourism industry begins to take advantage of the immense natural beauty that is present in this largely unknown corner of the world.
With mountains that soar to heights of almost 7,500 metres (24,590 feet), and half the countries’ land mass lying above 3,000 metres above sea level (9,800 feet), Tajikistan is a mountain junkie’s paradise. Adding to its appeal is its historical position on the Silk Road, with ruins and relics left behind long after its heyday in the Medieval Ages.
With the lack of mainstream knowledge of this country outside of Central Asia, Tajikistan presents an opportunity for today’s adventure traveler in the modern age. Seize it!
Currency: Tajik Somoni
Languages: Tajik, Russian
What To Do
Once you complete an epic travel day to reach Dushanbe, one of the harder national capitals to reach in the world (consistent daily connections can only be made through Moscow), make arrangements to see one of the countries’ best fortifications, Fort Hissar. Located just outside the city limits, has a wealth of historical relics waiting to be explored. From the first arrival at the impressive stone gate, you will know that you are in a special place. Serving as home to a deputy of the emir in this region in the days of the Silk Road, it used to feature a pool and gardens in the courtyard. Today, these don’t exist, but you will find mosques, mausoleums, and a museum with over 3,000 artifacts for your review.
Before leaving Dushanbe, check out Shakhmansur Bazaar, a colourful market where every day Tajiks buy their daily bread, fruits and meats, along with an assortment of tools. This is no tourist market, but the locals will nevertheless attempt to overcharge you, seeing you as rich Westerners, so learn the true price of things from a friendly local before heading out to the bazaar and bargain hard!
Departing the capital make an effort to scope out the ruins of old Penjikent, a city on the Silk Road that has not stood the test of time as well as other settlements, due to its choice of construction materials (clay brick doesn’t do well over the eons, it seems). Being worked on by archeologists since 1947, it is the most thoroughly studied ruins complex on the Silk Road by far.
Taking a tour with the on-site museum’s director is highly recommended, as he will point out details that you will almost certainly miss, and take you through what remains of the fortifications, residences and mausoleums of this ancient place. Also nearby is Kainar Ato spring, which reportedly didn’t exist until Ali, the descendant of the prophet Mohammed, prayed to make some dangerous snakes disappear, and when they did, a life-giving spring was left in its place.
With the cultural aspects of this trip out of the way, it’s time to get high … in the mountains that is! The Pamir Mountains dominate the skyline in a country dominated by mountains, making them a must see for those that are physically active. Go slow and take great pains to acclimatize to the altitude, as ascending too quickly will cause altitude sickness in those too rash to be patient. Once your body has adjusted to the thin air, go for a trek along the many high mountain lakes, go backcountry skiing if you are skilled enough to do so, or simply watch for wildlife like the Marco Polo Sheep, and revel in the silence here between encounters.
Finally, after all that tramping about in the mountains, sometime in Tajikistan’s health spas may do you a world of good. These facilities are designed to treat a variety of ailments, and with excellent restaurants and stunning mountain views to pair with your treatments, you’ll be feeling as right as rain in no time!
What To Eat
As with other Central Asian countries (like Uzbekistan), Plov is a well-loved dish that is also enjoyed here, containing rice, meat and carrots, among other ingredients. Be sure to try some here if you haven’t on your other stops through Central Asia.
As for dishes that are unique to Tajikistan, Qurutob ranks as the meal that Tajiks indulge in most frequently. A veggie friendly dish, it is made by pouring a cheese sauce over flatbread, then topping that with fried onions and other vegetables. The communal meal is eaten with one’s hands, so don’t afraid to dig in!
Shashlik, like in many other South Asian and Middle Eastern nations, is a meat and vegetable dish that is grilled on skewers over a charcoal fire. It is often quite juicy and tender, making it a welcome meal to consume after a long day on the trail.
Finally, there is nothing like Tushbera Soup to warm you up on a chilly day in the Tajik highlands. This hearty offering contains pasta shells filled with meat, making it like ravioli, which a delightful thing to find in your bowl after a hard day of travel!