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Tajikistan: Ten Things to See & Do

Departing from the narrative style, travel blogger and photographer Nicole Smoot offers a set of ten top tips from her many visits to the country. In between trekking the country’s most popular hiking routes and sampling unique Tajik cuisine, she sheds light onto lesser-known cultures and communities from one side of the country to the other. If a visit to Tajikistan isn’t already on your travel ‘To-Do List’, it certainly will be after reading about all the country has to offer!

Though certainly not all the country has for tourists, the headline item that often catches would-be visitors’ attention is a road trip along the Pamir Highway. Known locally as the ‘Bam I Dunya’, or ‘Roof of the World’, the Pamir’s fame to claim is its magnificent altitude – at one point the highway reaches 4655m above sea level before winding back down to less extreme elevations. From ancient Silk Road fortresses (and traces of Marco Polo) to stunning alpine lakes, this is a top tip that offers something for travelers of every variety.

Less often a focus of media attention, but no less appealing a travel draw, is the diversity of cultures to be found across Tajikistan. Though travellers will certainly be familiar with the Tajiks and Pamiris, and perhaps even with the Wakhi people of the Wakhan Corridor, several of the country’s ethnic groups live in remote spaces far off the tourist radar. Deep in the Yagnob Valley, the Yagnobi culture claims descent from Sogdian empire, many of the citizens of which resettled here in their flight from the invading Umayyads in the early 8th century. With a unique language, culture, and religion the Yagnobis offer a tangible link to the ancient past tucked away in the remote mountains north of Dushanbe. Farther away, at the end of the road in the Eastern Pamirs, the Kyrgyz community of Shaimak offers a completely different cultural experience. As with their cultural relatives across the Kyrgyz Republic border, the ethnic Kyrgyz of Tajikistan practice a semi-nomadic lifestyle that takes them to high mountain livestock pastures for much of the summer. Taken together, this broad collection of cultural traditions makes for a diverse and stimulating set of travel experiences in Tajikistan, and shows up multiple times in Nicole’s top tips.

 

In between all of those mountain adventures, take Nicole’s advice to explore the capital city of Tajikistan: Dushanbe. A leafy green city of wide boulevards and massive parks, stunning Soviet- and modern-era architecture and bustling bazaars, modern museums and a thriving nightlife scene; Dushanbe is a welcoming oasis in which to rest between adventures in the outlying regions of the country. Be sure not to miss Nicole’s list of the top seven places to visit in the city! As local tourism business owners themselves testify, travel in Tajikistan has much to offer to visitors. Ancient cultures, unique cuisines, and endless adventure are just a few of the draws – but even those are enough to overflow any Top 10 list from the country. Video testimonials with two local tour operators conclude the article by inviting visitors to join them, and USAID, to Discover Tajikistan.

Things to see & do in TAJIKISTAN

Epic road trips, Silk Road ruins, and legendary hospitality. Tajikistan’s tourism sector may be young compared to the rest of Central Asia, but it’s equally prepared to offer unforgettable experiences and unbelievable adventures far from the crowds of mass tourism.

Well-known for mountain and adventure tourism, Tajikistan is also home to a complex historic and archaeological heritage (with two UNESCO-listed sites and an additional 10 on UNESCO’s tentative list) that spans nearly 6 millennia of human history and represents most of the world’s major religions. Once a major thoroughfare of global trade along southern branches of the ancient Silk Road, the country’s storied mountain routes have long since exchanged their trader and merchant caravans for travellers looking for culture and adventure. No matter whether visitors are looking for easy views from the window of a 4×4 or week-long treks over high mountain passes, Tajikistan has it and it’s even better than expected.

Road-tripping the Pamir Highway

At the geological meeting point of the Himalaya, Tien Shan, and Hindu Kush ranges,  the Pamir Mountains offer a high-altitude playground that covers nearly 45% of Tajikistan in an endless tempting maze of beautiful valleys and majestic peaks. The most popular way to explore this massive territory is by road-trip along the M41 ‘Pamir Highway’, which traces ancient Silk Road trading routes from the city of Khorog to Kyrgyzstan’s Alay Valley and Osh city.

From the botanical gardens of Khorog (the second-highest in the world) to Karakul Lake and the remote border post beyond, the Pamir Highway twists and turns nearly 500km through Badakhshan National Park via a swath of mountain viewpoints, breathtakingly beautiful lakes and hot springs, and historic sites such as the 3rd-century Yamchun Fortress (which locals claim hosted Marco Polo on his Silk Road travels). Climbing as high as 4655m at the Ak-Baital Pass, these dizzying elevations are not for the faint of heart (or faint of breath!), but what they ask in effort and patience to explore they more than make up for in incredible views and an unforgettable travel experience.

While some visitors tackle the entire trip in as few as three or four days, others linger for weeks to explore picturesque side valleys at Jizeu and Bartang or experience the lifestyles of shepherds in the high-altitude pastures near Murghab. No matter how much time travelers plan for the region, it’s never enough to see and experience all that the Pamirs have to offer. Whether on a guided tour, public transportation, or even by bicycle – travelling overland along the Pamir Highway brings to life the history and landscapes of Central Asia in a way that few other journeys are able.

A tour vehicle stops for a photo break atop the Ak Baital Pass, the highest point on Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway at 4655m.
© Stephen Lioy

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Local Life in Village Homestays

The interior of a Pamiri house in the Wakhan Valley, typical of homestays in the region.
© Stephen Lioy

Across rural Tajikistan tourism infrastructure is primarily community-based, relying on local families for accommodation and giving visitors the chance to interact directly with the people that live and work in remote mountain communities, offering an authentic insight into local lifestyles often not possible in more popular destinations. In addition to offering travellers an inside perspective on the country and its culture these community-based programs also ensure income from tourism stays directly with locals and, in turn, encourages others in the community to expand into the tourism sector.

For many visitors, these close interactions form the strongest impressions of travel in Tajikistan, forging strong connections between travellers and locals that leave indelible memories that last long beyond the end of a trip.

The Zeravshan Tourism Board provides homestay bookings and travel information in the Fann Mountains from their office in Penjikent while in the Pamir Mountains the PECTA office in Khorog  assists travellers. In these and other areas, Tajikistan’s culture of hospitality often means that independent travellers will be invited to overnight in local homes regardless of whether a formal homestay system exists.

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Fann-tastic Trekking

In the northeast of Tajikistan, the Sugd region is an ‘off the beaten track’ destination that has been growing in popularity since the reopening of the border with Uzbekistan’s Samarqand in 2018. From the UNESCO-listed archaeological site of Sarazm to the pilgrimage site of Mazar-i-Sharif and mausoleum of historic and widely-reknown poet Rudaki, the region offers a range of attractions. For many travellers the primary appeal is the wide variety of trekking routes that cross the Fann Mountains between remote villages and past alpine lakes in the shadow of the Fann’s towering peaks.

Iskanderkul lake – named in honor of Alexander the Great to commemorate the time his armies are said to have spent here in their ancient conquest of the region – is popular both for relaxed holiday weekends from Dushanbe and as a trailhead for hikers setting off on long treks around Chimtarga Peak, the highest in the Fanns at 5489m.

The string of turquoise ‘Haft Kul’ (literally: Seven Lakes) stretches up a long narrow valley dotted by small villages and namesake lakes – travellers can visit each in turn by car or hike high-altitude livestock routes between villages, overnighting along the way with local families to experience village life. Possible even as a day-trip from regional center Penjikent, this is one of the best places in Sugd for travellers to easily immerse themselves in the province’s beautiful natural surroundings.

The Kulikalon Valley – a lake-scattered glacial moraine below Chimtarga – serves as a starting point for dayhikes from the village of Artuch and multi-day routes to the lakes of Chapdara or across the range to Iskenderkul. For hikers, rock climbers, and mountaineers alike the area has massive potential for outdooor adventure.

Local handlers guide a donkey train to the top of the 3680m Alauddin Pass in the Kulaikalon Valley of Tajikistan’s Fann Mountains.
© Stephen Lioy

 

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About the Author: Stephen Lioy is a Tourism Development Consultant for USAID’s Competitiveness, Trade and Jobs activity.
Read more at www.stephenlioy.com

To find more information and inspiration for traveling in Tajikistan, visit TravelTajikistan.tj or follow Travel Tajikistan on Facebook and Instagram.

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