Where ‘Great Game’ spies and explorers once ventured, Tajikistan’s awesomely dramatic highland landscapes are now testing playgrounds for hardy climbers, trekkers and adventure travellers. Nascent rural homestay programs mean you might stay in timelessly photogenic rural villages hosted by gold-toothed, white-bearded patriarchs in iridescent joma robes. The people, predominantly Persian- rather than Turkic-speaking, are enormously hospitable but little English is spoken and rural transport is so irregular that you will probably want to fork out for a rented 4WD. But the marvels of the Wakhan Valley, the starkly beautiful ‘Roof of the World’ Pamirs and the breathtaking lakes and pinnacles of the Fan Mountains all contribute to making Tajikistan arguably Central Asia’s most exciting destination.
Top experiences in Tajikistan
Backed by a hazy phalanx of mountains, Dushanbe is a city in rapid transition. Its long, tree-lined central avenue still passes a collection of pastel-hued neoclassical buildings from its original Soviet incarnation. But much is threatened with the demolition ball as a whole new gamut of glitzy, oversized newcomers rise in a style that is often an intriguingly discordant blend of Roman triumphalism and budget futurism. The focus for this curious renaissance is a manicured central park dominated by a vast new museum and the world’s tallest flag pole. Around the edges, the city has plenty of musty Brezhnev-era apartmentblock ghettos. Yet remarkably, especially given the city’s dangerous image during the 1990s’ civil war, today the atmosphere is one of unthreatening calm… perhaps not unrelated to the fact that so much of the male population are away working in Russia.
Opened in 2013, the impressively airy National Museum is especially strong on archaeological exhibits, both real and recreated. The reconstruction of the Ajina-Tepe Buddhist monastery site is particularly successful in conjuring up the feeling of how the 7th-century original might have appeared. Labels mostly include English translations and though ill-lit, the top floor art gallery has some great works. The building fritters away masses of space in a vast atrium which, from the east, makes it look like the love child of a classical mansion and gigantic cement mixer.
National Museum of Antiquities of Tajikistan
Though the interior is dowdy and poorly illuminated, the archaeological collection here is excellent. In many cases what you’ll see are the originals from which copies were made for the outwardly far grander new National Museum. Notably, the 13m-long sleeping Buddha here is the real one as removed from Ajina Teppe in 1966, when Soviet archaeologists sliced it into 92 pieces. Dating from the Kushan era, it is the largest known Buddha figure in Central Asia.
National Library of Tajikistan
National Library of Tajikistan – A new nine-storey building constructed in the form of an open book and meets modern international standards (the length of the building 167 m., Height of 52 m., The total area is 45 thousand sq. m). By its size it is the largest library in Central Asia. Near the main facade of the building are located 22 busts of famous heroes of local history, science and literature masters of the Tajik nation. The library has 25 reading rooms which have 274 automated work places for readers, 3 exhibition halls: to display ancient manuscripts and rare books; gallery for the exhibition of books on the branches of science and knowledge; Showroom of new arrivals of literature; For public events, conferences and symposiums library has 9 rooms (1,100 seats). The library is equipped with modern technology, which allows readers to use the latest information and communication technologies. The library was one of the initiators of the introduction of information technologies in the service of readers. Was developed an electronic catalog, electronic library, provided access to library resources, implemented other innovative projects, which raised service to a new level. The microclimate of the building allows readers during hot summer days be comfortable.
A 2009 survey in Tajikistan’s high Pamir area found around 2400 ibex (echki or kyzyl kyik) and 23,000 Marco Polo sheep (arkhar in Kyrgyz). Curiously in some areas, carefully controlled trophy-hunting of these iconic animals appears to have proven counterintuitively positive – foreign hunters pay substantial tour fees (typically US$30,000 to US$60,000) which partly funds animal protection program. Indeed when a hunting ban was attempted in 2008, the result was more poaching and rising human consumption of Marco Polo sheep-meat as an alternative to mutton. The Pamirs also support a tiny number of snow leopards (www.snowleopardconservancy.org). Around the Kayrakkum Reservoir (east of Khojand in northern Tajikistan) there’s a critically threatened population of goitered gazelles (jeyran). Of the country’s many attractive bird species, one of the most eye-catching is the bright turquoise European Roller, often seen around Garm. Some unique butterfly species exist around Lake Sarez.
The Rasht Valley
If ongoing discussions succeed in allowing foreigners to cross the Kyrgyz–Tajik border post at Karamyk (hopefully by 2015), the glorious Rasht Valley might begin to gain some of the tourist interest that it deserves. In the 1990s, the area was ravaged then stigmatised for its civil-war role as an opposition centre. But today there’s little visible evidence of that era: towns are rebuilt and a mostly excellent asphalt road sweeps through Garm (four hours from Dushanbe) and glides on past magnificent white-topped mountain vistas that are most spectacular beyond Jafr and around Gulistan (4km east of Tojikabod). As infrastructure develops it should become increasingly feasible to arrange treks into the splendid flower-dazzled valleys and get closer to the hidden spikey-topped panoramas that give the area a special magic.
Garm’s main block is marked predictably enough by a large Somoni statue, with the bazaar across the road largely hidden behind Somoni. From the 1920s until 1955 there was a Gharm Oblast in Tajikistan, which included the territory of the current Gharm Valley. Gharm is also the former name of the Rasht District in central Tajikistan.
Nurek Reservoir’s remarkable opal-blue waters are an attraction for expats who argue over which of the many private houseboats make the best weekend getaway. However, due to the importance of securing Nurek Dam (the world’s highest), permits are required, adding an obvious annoyance.
Fan & Zerafshan Mountains
Iskander-Kul & Sarytag
Between Sarvoda and Ayni the main Dushanbe canyon-road already hints at magnificent glories behind. The easiest way to access them is driving to glorious Iskander-Kul, an opal-blue mountain lake that looks almost tropical in strong sunlight. It isn’t. At 2195m, don’t expect to swim here. But adding greatly to the visual spectacle is the variegated colouration on the superlative mountain backdrop. The scene is especially dramatic around 1.5km before arriving at the lake, but breathtaking views continue as you drive along the 6km of coast road. Higher uplands are accessed by a winding 5km drive up from the president’s lakeside dacha to Sarytag village. Dwarfed by the contorted rocky bulk of Mt Sarytag, the little village (population 300, 38km from Sarvoda) makes a great walking base, whether just strolling to the discordantly ostentatious mansion villa at the village’s western limits or for longer Fan Mountain treks.
Limpid and dreamily beautiful, the main Alaudin Lake (2780m) is a glorious place for camping, and a possible base for walking into the heart of the Fan Mountains. A popular day hike takes you out to Mutnye (‘muddy’) Lake (3510m), surrounded by a splendid array of 5000m plus peaks. Alaudin is helpfully accessible, just 3km on foot from a trailhead camp where three valleys meet. The western valley eventually takes you across the breathtaking 3630m Laudan Pass to the lovely Kulikalon lakes in around eight hours. There is a trail of sorts to Iskander – Kul but it crosses the seriously difficult Kaznok Pass (4040m, ice axe and crampons required). If you’re not on a tour, bring all the provisions you’ll need from Sarvoda or beyond.
Margeb & the Yagnob Valley
At Km95.5 of the Dushanbe Highway, just east of the small step-layered village of Takfon, a dusty, ragged ribbon of former asphalt leads towards the wild Yagnob mountain valley. After 20km you’ll pass through Anzob, a little market town with some stacked old-stone stables and a curious erosion pillar beside the road. About 2km further you get the first stunning mountain views with Chumgar and Zamin-Karor rising ahead like massive spiky horns. The latter’s towering, near-vertical rock faces have attracted international mountaineering competitions. One grand rock-wall looms almost directly above the upper section of two-centred Margeb (Margeb Bolo), a timeless old village whose dramatic location is reason enough to visit even if you’ve no interest in climbing. Starting 22km past Margeb at Bedev, some villages of the upper Yagnob Valley are still home to native speakers of Sogd[ian], a language largely unchanged since the time of Alexander the Great. The best starting point to find a ride to Margeb is Sarvoda, where Yagnobi traders stock up at the market. Cars also run most mornings from Margeb to Dushanbe. Beware that old maps still show the old road over the Anzob Pass. Sadly that gloriously scenic option has essentially decayed beyond any usability, even for motorcycles.
For a great overnight trip from Penjikent head to Haft-Kul (Seven Lakes; Marguzor Lakes), a 20km-long chain of turquoise pools strung along the western end of the Fan Mountain range. The access road gets very rough but daily shared 4WDs can get you near delightful homestays at Nofin, Padrud and Marguzor. Contact the tourist offices in Penjikent for homestay names and details. The seventh (uppermost) lake is essentially only accessible on foot even if you rent a private 4WD. Beware that beyond Shing the road is prone to mudslides, especially in spring. These can block the route for days. Passport checks are possible at Novichornok.
Called Kir by the Parthians, Cyropol by Alexander the Great and Ura-Tyube by the Russians and Soviets, Istaravshan has a small historical core that is a little better preserved than most in Tajikistan. That isn’t saying a great deal, and Bukhara it’s certainly not. But then, there aren’t any tourists either.
Khojand (or Khojent/Khujand, formerly Leninabad) is Tajikistan’s second-largest city. Although it’s a massive sprawl, most hotels and sights are close to Lenin, which snakes north–south-southeast for almost 10km, crossing the Syr-Darya River near the point where Alexander the Great once founded his northernmost Central Asian outpost, Alexandria-Eskhate. Commanding (and taxing) the entrance to the Fergana Valley, Khojand built palaces, grand mosques and a huge citadel before the Mongols bulldozed the city into oblivion in the early 13th century. Khojand’s population has a strong Uzbek contingent, although it always provided Tajikistan’s Soviet elite. When President Nabiev, a Khojand man, was unseated in 1992 and Tajikistan appeared to be becoming an Islamic republic, Khojand (Leninabad) province threatened to secede. Secure behind the Fan Mountains, it managed to escape the ravages of the civil war and remains the wealthiest part of the country. Several sparkling new monuments add to the air of comparative prosperity, the bazaar and mosque complex is impressive, and there are a few historical curiosities to glimpse as you transit between Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan and the Fan Mountains.
The core of the bazaar is an unusually elegant, purposebuilt hall (1964) with arched entrance portals and a pink-and-lime-green neoclassical facade – think Stalin meets 1001 Nights. It’s one of the best-stocked markets in Central Asia, especially on Thursday (panchshanbe in Tajik).
Sheikh Massal ad-Din complex
(Ploshchad Pobedy) In striking comparison to the bazaar opposite, this religious complex comprises the 1394 brick mausoleum of Sheikh Massal ad-Din (1133–1223), covered porticoes with carved wooden pillars, a 20th-century mosque with sensitive, if modern, white-stone frontage and a 21mhigh brick minaret dating from 1865. A matching second minaret is nearing completion directly north, attached to a new, traditionally designed brick mosque that looks archetypally Central Asian but for the luridly reflective emerald-green dome.
GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast) & The Pamirs
Gorno-Badakhshan (eastern Tajikistan) is almost a different country and indeed it has its own special entry requirements. Officially called Kohistani Badakhshan, though commonly abbreviated to GBAO for its Soviet-era name (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast), the region accounts for 45% of Tajikistan’s territory but only 3% of its population. Most of the 212,000 souls who do live here are Pamiris whose irrigated villages lie deep within dramatic rocky valleys above which snow-dusted mountain peaks rise. The eastern region, however, is mostly a stark moonscape plateau, at an altitude of well above 3000m, sparsely populated with Kyrgyz herders whose sheep and yaks eke out an existence in those areas fertile enough for grass to grow. Locals romantically nickname the region Bam-i-Dunya (the Roof of the World). Westerners talk about ‘the Pamirs’ often assuming that the term refers to the 5000m plus mountains. You will indeed find three of the four highest peaks of the former Soviet Union here. But the word pamir actually translates from ancient Persian as ‘rolling pastureland’, referring to the valleys between those interconnected mountain ranges.
If you’re heading into the Pamirs from Dushanbe and want to see Jizeu without first going to Khorog (65km further south), you can hop off at Rushan and organise things there. However, if you’re planning to go much further up the Bartang Valley it may be worth heading to Khorog first where there’s far more English-language help and a much wider choice of transport. Though not a special attraction in its own right, Rushan is a pleasant village with shops and mini-restaurants, plus a hotel that’s under construction behind the petrol station. At the far western end of town, tucked behind the big school.
Stark and elemental, the Bartang Valley is one of the wildest and most memorable valleys in the western Pamirs. Only the occasional fertile alluvial plain brings a flash of green to the barren rock walls. At times the fragile road inches perilously between the raging river below and sheer cliffs above. Indeed it’s not rare for sections to become impossibly rough or require knee-deep fords. Still, strong 4WDs and even some adventurous motorcyclists (carrying enough fuel for 400km) have managed to traverse the whole valley in a few days. If you manage to get beyond Ghudara, it should be possible to continue to Kara-Kul (p356) on the Pamir Highway via Kök Jar and Shurali, where geometric stone symbols are thought to have acted as an ancient Stonehenge-like solar calendar. Fortunately, Jizeu, arguably the Bartang’s most enticing highlight, is far less challenging to reach, its access point reachable even by under-powered Tangem minivans.
One of the best short-hike destinations in the region, the Jizeu (Jisev, Geisev) Valley offers idyllic scenes around a series of seasonally over-flowing, treelined river lakes. The prettiest lakes are bracketed by two halves of the tiny traditional hamlet of Jizeu (pronounced Jee-sao) which has a wonderful, timeless feel. An added thrill of the visit, albeit a potential logistical problem, is that there’s no road and the access footpath starts with a remarkable ‘cable car’ – a wooden contraption looking more like a sentry box that dangles on twin wires and is hand-wound to take up to four people across the gushing river. The cable car is 23km east of Km553 on the Pamir Highway, around 6km beyond Bargu. Don’t mistakenly use the suspension bridge to Red, a former village evacuated in 2012 after floods essentially washed all the houses away. From the cable car, the start of the village is a largely unshaded, two-hour walk up a steep scree-sided valley. Another half-hour brings you through glorious scenery to the upper village. And beyond this, two more lakes and a horizon of high peaks beckon you to walk ever further towards distant summer pastures.
Cowering beneath arid, bare-rock peaks, likeable little Khorog is the GBAO’s administrative centre and the Pamirs’ one real town. It’s a fine place to meet fellow travellers and organise exploration into the region’s remote mountainscapes and fabulous valleys including the fabled Wakhan. Community tourism organisation PECTA, along with several small tour agencies, make chartering 4WD transport much easier from here than from anywhere else in the region apart, perhaps, from Murgab. Khorog has one of the best educated populations of any town in Central Asia. English seems much more widely spoken here than in Dushanbe, while the laid-back Ismaili form of Islam means that Muslim strictures are generally less widely observed. Although at an altitude of over 2000m, Khorog’s daytime summer temperatures can sometimes climb into the sweltering 40s. September is the most pleasant time here.
Shokh Dara Valley
This route’s main highlights are occasional glimpses of the distinctive north face of Engels Peak (6507m), and the chance to create a loop-route through some littlevisited villages as part of a multiday chartered 4WD-loop. A kilometre after Tavdem’s ancient shrine (now protected within a 1990s octagonal cover-shrine), a 4km 4WD side-track winds up hairpins to Tusiyon, whose high pastures are set in a wide rocky amphitheatre with many cleverly designed water-canal innovations. A dramatically contorted rocky backdrop soars high above the valley’s main town, Roshtqala, named for the tiny ruined ‘red fort’ at Km39. At the back of the small bazaar are a couple of very basic eateries, the only restaurants in the Shokh Dara Valley. It’s worth stopping by the signboard for Shokhirizm village (Km60) and walking 30 seconds towards a photogenic Grand Canyon–style perch, high above the river gorge into which the road later burrows. Some 11km further at Sezhd, a tough, easily missed 4WD track spirals up and over a dusty ridge finally petering out after 6km in the green, very disparate hamlet of Durum (population 11). Walk on for 40 minutes from road’s end (crossing a tree-trunk bridge almost immediately) to reach a fine viewpoint overlooking the vivid blue-green lake Durum-Kul. Driving back, there are some splendid views of 6000m peaks on the southern horizon. The views are less inspiring for the next 35km, and the 8th-century Shashbuvad Fort looks merely like an unfinished local house. Around Km120 as the road doubles back beside a small mountain stream there are brief but impressive glimpses of peaks Engels (6507m) and Karl Marx (6723m) peeping above a curiously corrugated intermediate ridge. This area would make for great camping. Alternatively there’s a signed homestay if you can get across the river ford at Javshanguz, which is less a village than a wide scatterinof 65 Pamiri houses spread across several kilometres of valley. A cleft valley frames more views of Marx Peak, but for the next sighting of brilliant knob-topped Engels’ glacier ridge, look behind you some 10km beyond Javshanguz as the track degenerates and climbs to the north. The toughest part of the 4WD road is a river crossing just below the Maisara Pass. This can be mitigated by driving up to a high-altitude shepherd camp halfway to the large lake Turuntai-Kul, and crossing the stream at a smaller ford nearby. Rejoin the main track which winds down hairpins to the main Pamir Highway, rejoining it east of Jelandy across a bridge that is only just wide enough for a 4WD. There are signed homestays at Vezdara, Sindev, Shohirizm and Javshanguz plus at Bodomdara, a very rough 14km off the main road at Bidiz on the trekking route to Darshai.
The Wakhan offers up a seemingly endless parade of scenic superlatives. Vivid green villages counterpoint towering valley walls, which open regularly for glimpses of the dazzling white Hindu Kush (‘killer of hindus’) mountains marking the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. A sprinkling of castle ruins and ibex-horn shrine-walls, even a Buddhist mini ziggurat-stupa, add zest. And while you’re here you might be tempted to nip into Afghanistan. Beware that without your own wheels, transport is pitifully infrequent. Consider hiring a 4WD in Khorog or Murgab.
Ishkashim is the Wakhan’s regional centre and largest village. It’s certainly not an attraction in itself, but if you’re here on Saturday morning, don’t miss the trans-border market which bustles with Afghan traders in turbans and pakol (flat caps). The bazaar is held in three metal-roofed halls 3km west of town on a no-man’s-land island (passport but no Afghan visa required). This is also the main border crossing (Km 102, Ishkashim-Khorog Highway; hMon-Sat) used by most visitors heading for the Afghanistan Wakhan, though it’s worth checking the status of the Langar and Shaimak borders. If open, either would prove altogether more useful for reaching the Little Pamir. It’s big, sparse and institutional-looking but popular with travellerssharing Pamir and Afghan travel tips aided by helpful owners (Vali speaks good English). One block east, then south, set amid apricot trees, the new Hotel Rumi looks smarter but was closed when we visited.
At Namadgut, some 15km east of Ishkashim, a lumpy, muddy hillock rises right beside the road, topped by a series of mudwall fragments from the historic Khaakha Fortress F. The oldest sections are Kushan-era (3rd century BC), but the site has been reused by many other cultures since, and indeed part of the mound was used as a Tajik military watchpost til very recently – the site stares out across the border river directly below. It’s worth a 15-minute stop. Gravel pathways and steps make exploration relatively easy. Amid trees facing the eastern fortress knoll is an Ismaili mazar (tomb), one of many places in Central Asia that claims, quite unconvincingly, to be the final resting place of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law. Next door there’s a fairly minimal museum. The most interesting part of a visit is dressing up in a Pamiri chakman (judo-style woollen robe) while director Odinmammad Mirzayev plays one of the traditional musical instruments, demonstrates the archaic flint fire-stone or shows you his extensive family tree.
At Darshai a roaring side river howls out of a narrow canyon and hurtles beneath the road beside which is a mazor enclosure including some petroglyphs. But the main attraction is the trek up the Darshai Gorge, starting near the bridge and walking around a knoll topped with some minimal fortress ruins, then following a clear path up the east bank of the side river. In under two hours it’s easy enough to reach the trail’s star attraction, a photogenic owring, ie short section of footpath where the trail becomes so perilously narrow that it has been built out on branches and rocks ‘sewn’ onto the rockface using wire ropes. However, you will need a guide if you want to stay at the yurt camp much further up the valley (five to eight hours’ walk), which are used by exclusive hunting groups in winter but are available to walkers in summer. From there it’s a very testing day-hike past 6095m Mayakovsky Peak and across a snowy 4941m pass to reach the signed homestay at Bodomdara in the Shokh Dara Valley.
Two of the Tajik Wakhan’s foremost attractions are high above the valley accessed via 6km of hairpins up from Tughoz (look for Chashmai signs, 3km east of central Ptup). The 12th-century Yamchun (Zulkhomar) Fort is the most impressive of the valley’s many tumbledown castle ruins, complete with multiple walls and round watchtowers. The site is a 6km switch-backed drive from the main road and sits about 500m above the valley. Climb up the hillside west of the fort for the best views. About 1km further uphill from the fort are the Bibi Fatima Springs probably the nicest in the region and named after the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter. Women believe they can boost their fertility by visiting the womblike calcite formations. Bring a towel and keep an eye on your valuables as there are no lockers. Men’s and women’s bath times alternate every half hour. Vichkut is less a village than a scattering of hillside homesteads, with at least five widely separated homestays strung together by the hairpins that wind up to Yamchun Fort.
On an obvious salt-bleached patch of mountainside directly behind Vrang is a five-level stone monument claimed to be an ancient Buddhist stupa, though it looks more like a miniature ziggurat (stepped pyramid). From the green, unusually big (if feebly stocked) Vakhon shop, walk 200m north then follow the watercourse past an attractive garden. The stupa is directly above but the path does a 15-minute double-back. Far harder to reach are the dozens of hermit caves in the crumbling cliff-face across the chasm from the stupa.
The ruined Afghan citadel of Qala-e Panja, once the largest settlement in the Wakhan, is visible across the river near Zugband, some 10km before Langar. At Zong, 5km further east, Abrashim (Vishim) Qala (the Silk Fortress) was built to guard this branch of the Silk Road from Chinese and Afghan invaders. The fort offers perhaps the most scenic views of all those in the valley.
A glorious knot of spiky peaks rise above likeable Langar where the Pamir and Wakhan Rivers join forces to form the Pyanj. The diffuse, green village stretches several kilometres and makes a pleasant exploration base. By the small main bridge, Langar’s jamoat khana (prayer house) is easily recognizable by its colourful window frames. Across the road, Shoh Kambari Oftab Mazar, a mysteriously evocative Pamiri shrine-garden, is overloaded with ram horns and contorted ancient trees. Steep rock faces are inscribed with more than 6000 petroglyphs, starting around 20 minutes’ scramble up the slopes behind Langar school. From the jamoat khana, head 400m west then 150m north to find the school.
Steep rock faces are inscribed with more than 6000 petroglyphs, starting around 20 minutes’ scramble up the slopes behind Langar school. From the jamoat khana, head 400m west then 150m north to find the school. To reach the most accessible setof petroglyphs follow the power lines up from the school, walk east through the cemetery and up the slope at the far end. However,it’s hard to tell ancient carvings fromcopy-cat ibexes amid all the 20th-century grafitti. Seeking them out is mostly appealing for the brilliant mountain panoramas. If you find the trail, it’s possible to hike on up (around four hours) to a fine camping spot in Engels Meadows with a jaw-dropping view of Engels Peak. After a string of hairpins winding up some 5km from Langar, charming Ratm is the very last village of the Tajik Wakhan. Perched above the river canyon, atop a three-sided cliff-drop, Ratm’s shoulder-high castle ruins stand on a spot that’s supposedly been fortified for at least 2300 years. From the roadside sign board it’s a lovely if less-than-obvious 20-minute walk through fields and across streams.
The Pamir Highway (M41) is the remote high-altitude road from Khorog to Osh whose classic central section crosses Tibetan-style high plateau scenery, occasionally populated by yurts and yaks.It was built by Soviet military engineers between 1931 and 1934 to facilitate troop transport and provisioning. Blue kilometre posts use two systems. Initially the distances are from Dushanbe (with the distance to the Kyrgyz border marked on the opposite side). This makes central Khorog Km641. At Murgab, Km930, the system changes thereafter showing distances from Khorog/Osh.
Bulunkul & Yashil-Kul
The bumpy 4272m Koi-Tezek Pass leads into lunar-like, high-altitude desert scenery, framed by a series of snowy if relatively unremarkable peaks. After nearly 40km the road starts to descend sharply with sweeping views ahead over stark landscapes and two large salt lakes. As you’re descending look for the signed turn-off leading 14km (sign says 16km) to the end-of-the-world settlement of Bulunkul. Reportedly the coldest place in Tajikistan, it is a friendly but unaesthetic three-row grid of low-slung, wind-blown houses forming a dusty, functional square. A pretty, if hardly pristine, stream meanders behind, flowing towards mirrorlike lake Bulun-Kul (3737m). Viewed in the morning light from the east side (a 4.5km drive from the village), the lake looks magnificent reflecting the mineral swirls of a low, multicoloured ridge opposite, one section looking like a gigantic stylised butterfly. Much bigger, but arguably less photogenic, Yashil-Kul (3734m) means ‘green lake’ though it’s actually bright blue, framed by ochre desert-slopes. From Bulunkul village, the first glimpse is a 4km drive or uphill walk. With patience, hikers can find lukewarm springs on the southern side and stone circles at the mouth of the Bolshoi Marjonai River, but technically you’ll need to come prepared with Tajik National Park permits, obtained in Khorog or Murgab.
Utterly isolated, the wild-east town of Murgab is the logical base from which to explore the eastern Pamirs if you arrive without your own transport. Murgab’s box houses and criss-crossing power lines don’t create an immediately charming effect, but rocky bone-dry ridges create some interest, as does the ever-white bulk of 7546m Muztagh Ata which, on exceptionally clear days, hangs like a strange cloud upon the eastern horizon. A meandering river valley below the main road level creates the area’s nearest approximation to greenery. Murgab’s population has significant Tajik and Pamiri contingents, contrasting with surrounding communities which are almost entirely Kyrgyz. Murgab’s layout is confusing, even though there are just two asphalt roads both running south–northeast. The upper one (Somoni) is the main Pamir Highway, bending in front of Pamir Hotel. The lower road is initially called Lenin as it diverges from Somoni 700m south of the hotel. It passes the TIC (directly down partially pedestrianised Ayni from the hotel), the bazaar, petrol stations and very close to META before wiggling around to the 40-Let Pobeda suburb. Beware that addresses usually denote areas not streets.
Pshart & Madiyan Valleys
Two photogenic valleys strike west from either end of Murgab. Pshart, the more northerly, is initially parched and colourful with mineral layers. In contrast the Madiyan Valley’s rugged rock walls are set off vividly against lush green riverside pastures and even copses of small trees – an especially lovely sight before sunset around the tiny hamlet of Ak-Tal (Km32), whose tiny whitewashed mosque adds foreground to the cliffbacked scene. From Ak-Tal a very bumpy 4WD track crosses the river and winds up 9km, then down 700m to access some incredibly isolated hot springs, which you’re likely to have all to yourself, if you dare to cross the river to access them. That requires shimmying along a short, but precarious, ‘bridge’ missing most of the slats between two steel rails. It’s possible to do a long, strenuous day hike between the Pshart and Madiyan sides, starting up the Gumbezkul side valley from a horse-breeding centre/yurtstay where the Pshart Valley divides. After some steep scrambles and stunning views from 4731m Gumbezkul Pass, you pass another yurtstay around 7km before emerging on the Madiyan Valley road around Km18.
For stark, mountain deserts, salt lakes and giant sand dunes you might explore the Rang-Kul area. Rang-Kul village has homestays and ZholKerbez runs yurtstay camel treks, but don’t underestimate the discomfort of camel-riding.
Shakhty & Zor-Kul
The impressive Neolithic cave paintings of Shakhty (4200m) are 50km southwest of Murgab, 25km off the Pamir Highway, in the dramatic Kurteskei Valley. Soviet archaeologists apparently took shelter in the cave during a storm one night in 1958, only to awake the next morning open-mouthed in front of the perfectly preserved red-ink paintings of a boar hunt. Check out the strange birdman to the left. Don’t get too close to the paintings to avoid damaging them. The cave is a fiveminute scramble up the hillside; you’ll never find it without a knowledgeable driver/guide. Basic accommodation may also be available in yurt camps at Kara-Jilga, around 30km further southwest, amid classic Wakhan scenery – epic views over a string of glorious turquoise lakes (Kazan-Kul and Djigit-Kul) to the snowcapped Wakhan range on the Afghan border. Continue west to the end of these lakes and you will be rewarded with rare views of Zor-Kul (elevation 4125m) stretching into the distance. Continuing to Khargush and the Wakhan Valley is tough before mid-July due to muddy track conditions and you’ll need Zor-Kul permits to get past the checkpoints en route.
Destination facts and practical information
Tajik ancestry is a murky area, with roots reaching back to the Bactrians and Sogdians. Tombs from the eastern Pamir show that Saka-Usun tribes were grazing their flocks here from the 5th century BC, when the climate was considerably more lush than today. In the 1st century BC the Bactrian empire covered most of what is now northern Afghanistan. Their contemporaries, the Sogdians, inhabited the Zerafshan (Zeravshan) Valley in present-day western Tajikistan, where a few traces of this civilisation remain near Penjikent. Alexander the Great battled the Sogdians and besieged Cyropol (Istaravshan), before founding modern-day Khojand. The Sogdians were displaced in the Arab conquest of Central Asia during the 7th century AD. The Sogdian hero Devastich made a last stand against the Arabs at Mt Mug in the Zerafshan Mountains, before he was finally beheaded by the Muslim vanquishers. Modern Tajikistan traces itself back to the glory days of the Persian Samanid dynasty (819–992 AD), a period of frenzied creative activity that hit its peak during the rule of Ismail Samani (849–907 AD), transliterated in modern Tajik as Ismoil Somoni. Bukhara, the dynastic capital, became the Islamic world’s centre of learning, nurturing great talents such as the philosopher-scientist Abu Ali ibn-Sina (known in the West as Avicenna) and the poet Rudaki. Both are now competitively claimed as native sons by Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Digging up the Past
Visiting Tajikistan’s best museums you’ll often see finds from and references to a whole series of ancient temple and city sites. Although today most are little more than undulations in the earth, each has a glorious history. Discoveries from these sites are showcased at Dushanbe’s National Museum (the website has more).
Bunjikath – the Sogdian site of Bunjikath near Shakhristan was the 8th-century capital of the kingdom of Ushrushana. It is noteworthy for a famous Sogdian mural depicting a wolf suckling twins, a clear echo of the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus that is repeated in statues across the country.
Sarazm – Unesco-listed Sarazm is a 5500-year-old site 15km west of Penjikent. One of the oldest city sites in Central Asia, finds here include a fire temple and the grave of a wealthy woman whose lapis beads and seashell bracelets from around the 4th century BC are now at Dushanbe’s National Muesum.
Kobadiyan – The ancient site of Kobadiyan (7th to 2nd centuries BC) in southern Tajikistan is famed for the nearby discovery in 1877 of the Oxus Treasure, a stunning 2500-year-old Achaemenid treasure-trove unearthed at Takht-i Kobad, which now resides in the British Museum.
Takht-i Sangin – A ruined 2300-year-old Graeco-Bactrian temple close to the point where Alexander crossed the Oxus in 329 BC.
Ajina Teppe – Southeast of Kurgonteppa is 7th- to 8th-century Ajina Teppe (Witches Hill), where in 1966 archaeologists unearthed a stupa, monastery and Central Asia’s largest surviving Buddha statue.
Hulbuk – was once the fourth-largest city in Central Asia. Its 9th- to 11th-century citadel and palace have been excavated, and the palace walls are now being dramatically rebuilt. It is at Kurbon Shaid.
Tajiks constitute only about 65% of the population. Indeed today there are more Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan, while 25% of Tajikistanis are ethnic Uzbeks. ‘Tajik’ only came to denote a distinct nationality during the 20th century. Although the male skull caps resemble slightly elevated Uzbek ones (black with white arabesques), Tajiks distinguish themselves with their predominantly Persian ancestry and language. Pure-blooded Tajiks tend to have thin, southern European-looking faces, with wide eyes and a Roman nose. In Badakhshan, Pamiris speak related but self-consciously different languages and follow Ismaili Islam (most Tajiks are Sunni). In the Murgab district east of Alichur, most of the people are Kyrgyz. Average family sizes remain high, and over 40% of Tajikistan’s population is under the age of 14.
When Tajikistan was hived off from Uzbekistan in 1929, the new nation-state was forced to leave behind all of its cultural baggage. The new Soviet order set about providing a replacement pantheon of arts, introducing modern drama, opera and ballet, and sending stage-struck Tajik aspirants to study in Moscow and Leningrad. The policy paid early dividends and the 1940s are considered a golden era of Tajik theatre. A kind of Soviet fame came to some Tajik novelists and poets, such as Mirzo Tursunzade, Loic Sherali and Sadruddin Ayni, the last now remembered more as a deconstructor of national culture because of his campaign to eliminate all Arabic expressions and references to Islam from the Tajik tongue. Since independence, ancient figures from the region’s Persian past have been revived in an attempt to foster a sense of national identity. The most famous of these figures is Ismail Samani (Ismoil Somoni), but also revered is the 10th-century philosopher-scientist Abu Ali ibn-Sina (Avecinna; 980–1037), author of two of the most important books in the history of medicine. He was born in Bukhara when it was the seat of the Persian Samanids. Rudaki (888–941), now celebrated as the father of Persian verse, served as court poet at the same court. Tajiks also venerate Firdausi (940–1020), a poet and composer of the Shah Nama (Book of Kings), the Persian national epic, and Omar Khayyam (1048–1123), of Rubaiyat fame. Both were born in present-day Iran at a time when it was part of an empire that also included the territory now known as Tajikistan. Similar veneration goes out to Kamalddin Bekzod (1455–1535), a brilliant miniaturist painter from Herat. Pamiris have a particular veneration for Nasir Khusraw (1004–1088), an Ismaili philosopher, poet and preacher who worked in Merv and was exiled to Badakhshan, where he wrote his Safarname, the account of his extensive seven-year travels throughout the Muslim world. Tajik Persian poetry is fused with music by hafiz (bard musicians). Falak is a popular form of melancholic folk music, often sung a cappella. Music and dance are particularly popular among the Pamiri and Kulyabi.
Food & Drink
A popular lunch dish is kurutob: that’s fatir bread morsels layered with onion, tomato, parsley and coriander and doused in a yoghurt-based sauce. Chakka (known as yakka to Tajik speakers around Samarkand and Bukhara) is curd mixed with herbs, typically served with flat bread. Less 362 commonly available Tajik dishes include nahud sambusa (chickpea samosas), nahud shavla (chickpea porridge) and oshi siyo halav, a unique herb soup. Tuhum barak is a tasty egg-filled ravioli coated with sesame-seed oil. In Badakhshan you might try borj – a meat and grain mix that resembles savoury porridge. Shir chai, somewhere between milk tea and Tibetan butter tea, makes a popular breakfast in the Pamirs, along with rice pudding (shir gurch/shir brench in Kyrgyz/Tajik). Both Hissar and Dushanbe brew their own beer, though bottled Russian imports like the Baltika range are the most common. Finding gas-free bottled water is challenging outside bigger towns.
Tajik is the official language of Tajikistan. In Afghanistan (where Tajik people make up a large part of the population), this language is less influenced by Turkic languages, is called Dari, and has co-official language status. Tajik has diverged from Persian as spoken in Afghanistan and Iran due to political borders, geographical isolation, the standardization process, and the influence of Russian and neighboring Turkic languages. The standard language is based on the northwestern dialects of Tajik (region of old major city of Samarqand), which have been somewhat influenced by the neighboring Uzbek language as a result of geographical proximity. Tajik also retains numerous archaic elements in its vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar that have been lost elsewhere in the Persophone world, in part due to its relative isolation in the mountains of Central Asia.
Tajik national dress – are unique clothes for girls and women in Tajikistan has a long history. Tajik dress dresses mainly Tajiks, Uzbeks, Afghans and some other nations living in Central Asia and the peoples of the world have a relationship with these people.
Chakan. The most classic of Tajik girls dress is “Chakan” which has great patterns and it can also call Popuri. Sometimes in Chakan Dress dancer to perform at the special cultural events.
Stitching Chakan is between 3-7 days depending on the design of which will be in it sewn with a needle and colorful threads by hand. Modern machines can sew these dresses quickly but then they are called Popuri (modern Chakan).
Visas for Tajikistan
Technically a Letter of Invitation (LOI) is an official requirement for most visa applications but in reality, Tajik embassies will usually issue a 30-day (sometimes 45-day) tourist visa without one. Annoyingly, there aren’t too many Tajik embassies around so you might have to post your passport to an embassy in a neighbouring country and arrange return postage and a method of payment (often in a foreign currency). Allow plenty of time for this. Bishkek, in Kyrgyzstan, is a great place to apply for visas that include a GBAO permit (US$75), generally available the same day, as long as the consul is in town. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the visa is cheaper (US$37/55 in one week/one day) but they don’t give GBAO permits. Vienna, Berlin, Ankara and Delhi are also reportedly ok, while Moscow and Tehran are more difficult. There is a plan to standardise tourist visa prices at all Tajik embassies to US$25 or local equivalent, which has already led to price reductions in London and Washington but those embassies still charge a hefty whack for the GBAO permit. While we’d advise getting your visa before heading to Tajikistan, tourists from 80 countries (including the EU, USA and Australia) can theoretically obtain a 30-day, single-entry visa on arrival at Dushanbe airport (but not other airports, nor any land border). You’ll need a photo, a photocopy of your passport and – annoyingly – an LOI which rather undermines the appeal of the system.
In May 2013 the Tajik Lower House passed a law aimed at scrapping visas for tourists of many Western nations but don’t get excited yet: the law has not been ratified by the senate and that could take years. Keep a virtual eye on the changing situation through. Visa Extensions Extending a tourist visa from 30 days to 45 days is usually possible with some perseverance. If you extend your visa, you’ll also possibly need to separately extend your GBAO permit and, remember, once over 30 days in the country you’ll also need to register with OVIR. Extensions beyond 45 days are unlikely. The extension process can take several days and the exact procedure is likely to change given that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is still completing the process of moving offices.
Map of Tajikistan