Folks last year I went through three countries in Central Asia, all with the pluses and minuses, but ultimately three countries I enjoyed travelling. Tajikistan was the first country I stepped into to explore, and as with all over Central Asia I really enjoyed it as a destination. It is mountainous, varied, has some amazing lakes and nature, an impressive and distinctly ‘Central Asian’ capital city in Dushanbe, has been run by the same President since independence from the Soviet Union, and in short is the kind of place I really like to travel in and explore.
Destination – Tajikistan may not be at the top of your list of places to go, but if you like rewarding yet challenging travel, and don’t need everything to be smooth and easy, then you too might get quite a bit out of visiting this enigmatic country. But I should say, it’s not the sort of place to enter without a little planning and understanding of where you are going. Hence this post today!
Basic Facts & the answer to – Where is Tajikistan?
Tajikistan is a mountainous country in Central Asia. The ‘Five ‘Stans’ as they are sometimes known were part of the Soviet Union for many years, becoming independent countries when the Soviet Union dissolved in the early 1990s. The population is estimated at around nine and a half million. The main ethnic group are the ‘Tajiks’, with Uzbeks being a distant second. Tajiks make up around 84% of the population of Tajikistan.
Tajikistan can be found to the west of China, bordering the Xinjiang Provence. The border between China is on the edge of the Pamir mountains, known as the ‘Roof of the World’. It also borders Afghanistan to the south. To the north east is Kyrgyzstan and to the west Uzbekistan.
Presently the President is Emomali Rahmonn, whose countenance graces many a billboard all over the country (quite a typical trait of the Central Asian Nations). He has been President since 1991 and seen the country through a number of internal conflicts, mainly in the late 1990s, and from what I was able to glean has respect and admiration of a lot of the population.
The capital city is Dushanbe, somewhere in the western half of the country, roughly in the middle north-south if a bit closer to the south. It’s second city is Khujand in the north.
Visas for Tajikistan and Money
Yes, you probably need a visa to enter Tajikistan. Until recently there may have been a bit of a hassle to organise one, but these days it’s been made much easier with an e-visa system now in place allowing you to apply and pay online, and you get sent approval and present this at immigration when arriving at Dushanbe Airport.
You can apply here – through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Tajikistan
Cost may vary I think it’s a little over $50USD.
The local currency is the Tajik Somoni. $1USD is roughly 10 Somoni, and it is easy enough to change your money in the towns and certainly in Dushanbe, where I changed at a bank. There are ATMs available, I’m not sure of how reliable they are though. Change a little at the airport if you fly in, and get a slightly better rate in Dushanbe itself.
As for your daily budget, well, you can get by pretty cheaply all things considered in Tajikistan. My guesthouse in Dushanbe was around $25USD, and although it wasn’t a palace and the shower was tricky, it was serviceable. You can definitely have a decent meal for $5USD or less depending where you eat, and transport around Dushanbe on the busses is I think 1 somoni a ride. Between towns we might be talking around $10USD to $15USD for an intercity trip. All-in-all if you are good at keeping to a budget, $USD40 is doable. Maybe less if you are really frugal. House stays outside Dushanbe were $8-10USD for example.
Upon Arrival in Dushanbe
If you fly into Tajikistan you will probably arrive in Dushanbe. There aren’t a lot of connections servicing Tajikistan it should be said, Air Astana are a surprisingly good airline based in Kazakhstan and I flew them into Dushanbe via Almaty (Kazakhstan). China Southern also have flights through Urumqi to Dushanbe. The local carrier is Tajik Airlines with not the world’s best safety record. There are other airlines as well.
The airport at Dushanbe is not huge and you take your passport and letter of invitation to passport control, who process you and if everything is all good, it shouldn’t take too long. On exiting arrivals you come into a hall with a couple of cafes and a bunch of counters. It’s not the most amazing of entrances, but you should be able to change money and organise a SIM card whilst there.
I would recommend getting a SIM card in Tajikistan because they are cheap enough and WiFi is an issue there. I was there for 8 days and only had WiFi once. The Tajik internet via phone is not fast, but it’s serviceable. The ladies at the counter at the airport try to help you as best they can but have limited English. They have to use a machine to get your phone credit (in Russian) and it only allows credit of certain denominations. The guy in front of me was upset because he didn’t want 100 Somoni in credit. I’m not sure exactly where the communication had broken down, but I had no issues.
The biggest hassle now is to get into town. The airport could almost be walked to if it was a sunny day and you had the time. But on first arrival you’ll probably want a taxi. I was advised to take taxi (company) number 3333. In general the taxi drivers at the airport can be really difficult to deal with. I asked advice at the money exchange who said to use company ‘3333’ and the price should be negotiated at between 20 to 30 Somoni. So I went to a guy with ‘3333’ on his taxi door and offered him 20 Somoni. He accepted and we were away – but I gather I was pretty lucky on this one and sometimes it can be a real hassle negotiating a taxi from the airport.
Transport in Dushanbe and Around Tajikistan
Dushanbe actually has some pretty decent public transport. I mean, there is no metro or trams, I should say from the outset, but there are buses, trolley buses, marshrutkas and taxis. Trolley buses, if you don’t know, are like normal buses that run off electricity supplied from overhead wires. In Dushanbe I found these to be very modern and easily accessible.
They are all numbered as per each route, and what you want to do is talk to some locals and find out what number buses/trolley busses go where. If you walk a little you may get a bit of a sense, Rudaki Avenue is the main road and quite a few go up and down it and then into the suburbs either side. I felt that if you could at least work out what was going up and down this road, you knew you could get close enough to many of the things you’d want to see, a short walk at the end might be necessary but usually no more than 500 metres or so, a little further to the amazing Navruz Palace.
Taxis are plentiful, Dushanbe is another city where it seems there are just far too many taxis for the one town, but they can be hard to negotiate a good price at times. The taxi company ‘3333’ again is recommended as it seems it’s not the hardest thing to get a fair price with their drivers.
The other option for getting around Dushanbe are the marshrutkas. If you an unfamiliar with ex-Soviet states, the marshrutka is a popular way to travel around, sometime between towns, but definitely in towns. They are the least comfortable option, and what they are is a sort of mini-van where they pack in as many people as is humanly possible. In Dushanbe many ply the some routes as the busses, with the number (bus number) on the front.
Getting around Tajikistan isn’t as straight forward perhaps as you might be used to. I basically saw no intercity busses until at the border with Uzbekistan, and in that case it was two large tour busses full of Chinese tourists. The roads in Tajikistan have improved a lot over the last few years, Chinese investment has seen money plied into infrastructure and I have to report that most of the roads between towns I travelled on in the north, from Dushanbe to Khujand and across to Panjakant and to the border, were in really good nick. Once you head to Iskanderkul, or into the mountains near Panjakant, suddenly you need to be in a jeep or some sort of 4WD as the roads are no longer sealed and indeed very tricky to pass.
Between cities on the open road people get around in ‘share-taxis’. They go from sort of bus stations where the cars all wait, even without any Russian or Tajik just tell people where you want to go and you’ll be ushered towards a waiting car. It depends on getting full before it will leave, but in Tajikistan I never waited more than 30 minutes.
You can also hire out the whole car if you pay for four seats, and some do that, and I met a couple of guys from China who had their own taxi that they called and I bummed a lift with them from Iskanderkul all the way to Khujand (I paid mind you!)
If you’re like me and like a lot meat, you may well really like the food on offer in Tajikistan. Central Asian favourites are not too hard to find wherever you go. You’ll find various forms of meat dumplings, plov (rice and meat dish), shashlik (meat on a skewer) and hearty stews in most local restaurants.
You will find a few international options in Dushanbe including Ukrainian food and Turkish food, and Chinese food isn’t that hard to locate either. But Central Asia is not the cultural melting pot of some cities in the west and finding a range of options is not easy. The tap water in Tajikistan is not to be drunk, and so if it’s used to clean uncooked salad and you’re gut’s not up to it, you will find yourself with the, to coin a phrase, ‘runs’.
For me it was the gut. I was on anti-biotics for three or four days to solve that problem. You may have an issue with the altitude. I hiked up to around 2400 metres in the Fan Mountains and found the going tough, but I think that was more my general complete lack of fitness rather than an issue with the altitude, as 2400 metres isn’t THAT high.
The Pamir Mountains though are a LOT higher, and indeed I could have gone much higher in the Fan Mountains too if I’d had the inclination and ability. So altitude could well be an issue too as I think the Pamirs go well about 5000 metres. Otherwise it’s a high country so I don’t believe tropical diseases are an issue. Tetanus and rabies may be though. Anyways, research this topic before you go as I am not a medical professional!
So I stayed in various different accommodations in Tajikistan, from homestays to one of the nicest hotels I believe in Khujand if not the country. If you are looking for a night or two in a comfortable hotel, the Hotel Khujand was around $65USD a night for a room for one (but double room) and I can recommend it, it was very comfortable, the only issue was the WiFi was terribly slow, but that’s the case wherever you go in Tajikistan. It was comproable to any four star hotel you might stay at with one little exception, and that was the shower didn’t drain properly.
I stayed in budget digs in Dushanbe as mentioned before, but I’m sure there are cheaper options which are more basic. If you’re trying to save money that is. Homestays in three different locations made up the rest of my nights in Tajikistan. Two were organised by the tour company I took my tour with in Panjakant and up in the Fan Mountains – ZTDA tourism is the company for reference and they can help with tours around that part of the country and more, as well as organising you homestays if you’re interested.
If you’re wondering just what a homestay is, well it’s exactly how it sounds. It’s a room in someone’s home. You’ll meet the family and if lucky have a chance to get to know some locals. Usually dinner and breakfast are included too. You pay a small fee and you get to experience a little bit of what life is really like in Tajikistan. And of course homestays are available in other countries, but they are presently quite a big thing in Tajikistan. I hate to say it but if tourism does expand, they may become scarcer as hotels and the like will end up getting built.
Anyways, a couple of reviews for you –
I arrived in Tajikistan in late October. All in all the weather was mixed bag – a couple of really sunny days, a couple of days of rain, and even snow. The window for travel in smaller in this mountainous country and the end of October is the end of the tourist season. Don’t come any later. I was lucky to get a place to stay near Iskanderkul, the lake that is one of the country’s highlights so much so that Rahmonn has his ‘dacha’ (kind of holiday house) there. The main accommodation was already shut as it was off season and I tried to organise to go to a couple of places south of Dushanbe but close, but couldn’t because the season was ‘over’.
And I could see the weather was coming in fast and it was generally less than 15 degrees in most places. On the passes around zero degrees. And I think it would be a very hard country to tackle in winter, so Summer is the best time and I wouldn’t recommend travel outside of May to mid-October. All in all I arrived a little late. And in winter getting around the country is very difficult, with the mountains and the snow.
What to See?
Well, Dushanbe is worth a few days, maybe three? It has some interesting buildings and places to eat. Take a half-day to go to nearby Hisor where there’s the remains of an ancient fort.
Isanderkul is a very attractive lake a couple of hours, probably a little more north of the capital. Great for walking and explore and getting away from it all. Hike around the villages too. This is the beginnings of the Fann Mountains here.
Khujand is an attractive city, the second biggest in Tajikistan in the north. With the sealed roads it’s probably 5-6 hours from Dushanbe. It also has the remains of and old fortress and surprisingly, a cable car ride and there are a few places you can get to in the surrounding region, but I was sick when there.
Panjakant I have seen spelt many different ways. The journey there is beautiful along the Zarafshan Valley, and from this town you can see an ancient city which once sat not far from the modern one, check out an interesting museum and again head into the Fann Mountains and hike around the Seven Lakes.
Whilst that basically covers where I went, people like to also travel to south and east. Crossing the Pamir Mountains towards China is supposed to be amazing. The Pamirs is often considered the premiere attraction of Tajikistan, so it is definitely worth considering a tour out into this very high region. The city of Khorog is supposed to be in a very beautiful part of the country too. Dushanbe is less than 200km from the border with Afghanistan, and this part of the country again is supposed to be beautiful.
All in All, Tajikistan is a country of history and some of the most impressive and scenic landscapes you can find anywhere on Earth. It’s a rewarding place to visit as well – I haven’t talked about the people but they are extremely friendly, although language can be a barrier at times. I think that despite its challenges, it’s a really brilliant place to travel. Just getting around the country is part of the challenge – and the fun. And if you are a hiker, well, you are going to LOVE Tajikistan.
A couple of other posts on Tajikistan –
Please do comment below. If you have any questions, please ask! Thanks for reading, and May the Journey Never End!