The little nation of Tajikistan sits at the confluence of East Asia and the Middle East, acting as a crucible for both regions. Cultural elements from nearby China, Russia, Iran, and Afghanistan mix with the Tajiks’ deep Persian ancestry to capture the imagination of prospective travelers, with the Pamir peaks as Tajikistan’s top-billed attraction, in addition to the locals’ genuine flair for hospitality.
After a protracted civil war in the mid-1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan has bounded forward in the past few years—with a particular eye on tourism. In 2019, Tajikistan took the top billing as the world’s fastest growing tourism destination: According to a report from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the number of international travelers to Tajikistan grew by almost 200 percent between 2017 and 2018 after the government eased up on visa restrictions to the country (more on that below).
Last year, I tackled a month of travel through several Central Asian countries, or so-called Stans, with dedicated help from tour operator Steppes Travel. Here are some things I learned that could be useful for travelers eyeing a first-time trip to Tajikistan.
Where you should go
Covered almost entirely in towering, mountainous terrain that rivals the Himalayas, Tajikistan can take a deceptively long time to tackle overland. The capital, Dushanbe, will be a necessary stop bookending your experience, as it’s the only destination in the country with an international airport. It’s also the only place in Tajikistan with more-than-modest accommodations; elsewhere in the country you’re largely relegated to no-frills guesthouses, basic hotels, and homestays.
Situated in western Tajikistan on the banks of the Varzob River, the capital’s notable attractions include the Dushanbe Central Mosque (Central Asia’s largest), which was completed in 2019, and the National Museum for Antiquities, where a worthy archaeological collection includes a 40-foot statue of Buddha. The city also offers tree-lined pedestrian avenues and impressive public parks, like Rudaki Park and Park Sharshara, which come to life with mingling locals around sundown. The more than 3,000-year-old Hisor Fortress, located about 20 miles from Dushanbe, is a worthwhile trip from the city by taxi.
Near the Uzbek border are the vast, UNESCO-listed remains of Sarazm, a small imperial nexus that flourished around 5,500 years ago and is one of the oldest human settlements in Central Asia. Modern archaeologists have unearthed ancient artifacts in five distinct zones at the site, which travelers can visit today. The “princess of Sarazm”—a large, fully intact skeleton found covered in beads, jewels, and gold—was excavated at Sarazm and is now on display at the antiquities museum in Dushanbe. Nearby, the elaborate ruins of an ancient Sogdian stronghold with painted frescoes, carved Shiva statues, and intact altars to Zoroastrian gods sit on the outskirts of the modern city of Panjakent. The sprawling, 1,700-year-old ruins are best experienced toward sunset when the golden hour casts its magical glow over the crumbling mud frescoes. In the morning, don’t miss the ramshackle Panjakent market where you can bargain for dried fruits or imported Chinese wares.
In the Fann Mountains, the Seven Lakes (or Maruzor Lakes) are turquoise—almost pearlescent—in hue and are scattered around tiny alpine villages. A day trip to the area is doable by car from Panjakent and will give you time to tackle a portion of the hike near the seventh (and most scenic) Hazorchashma Lake, which sits more than 7,870 feet above sea level. Another worthwhile stop in the northernmost Sughd province is the regional capital, Khujand. With its central Sheikh Muslihiddin Mausoleum, Masjidi Jami Mosque, Panshambe Bazaar, and Khujand Fortress, the photogenic city on the Syr Darya River is one of the oldest in Central Asia, dating back about 2,500 years.
You’ll need well over a week to properly explore the Pamir Mountains following the Pamir Highway, one of the world’s highest highways, reaching an elevation of more than 15,000 feet at its top point. The scenic mountain range crosses the Pamir region of Tajikistan and hugs the Taliban-free border with Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, where quiet farming communities wave to one another from across the river. In the Wakhan Valley, stop at the Khorog Bazaar, where several stands sell traditional woolen clothes and crafts. About 80 miles east of Khorog, the deep blue waters of Yashikul Lake, a freshwater lake situated more than 13,000 feet above sea level, are a sight you won’t want to miss.
Top tips for first-time visitors
Study up before you go
The best investment you can make before your trip is some research to put important eras of influence in the region—like Zoroastrianism, Islam, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane—in chronological order. This history, while dense, provides invaluable insight into many of the cultural, religious, and linguistic touchpoints travelers will still find in Tajikistan today. For an entertaining read, check out Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game (Kodansha International, 1992), which tells the story of the secret, century-long war waged between Czarist Russia and Victorian England for control over the land that’s since become the Stans.
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While in Dushanbe, my local guide Masrur took me to a precinct on the outskirts of town anchored by a soaring minaret. “Trust me, you’ll love it,” he said as a gloppy mound of food teetered on the restaurant table before me; “we eat this during Ramadan to keep our bellies full—it’ll tide you over during your long journey.” The dish in question was qurutob—a meat and yogurt pizza of sorts that was served in a large pot for sharing. Each distinctive ingredient—sliced vegetables and fresh herbs—seemed to draw from all corners of Masrur’s home. It was, as he would also point out, Tajikistan’s national dish: multiculturalism in a bowl.
Embrace the unscripted moments
As the smallest country in Central Asia, Tajikistan feels like one of the last corners of the globe that hasn’t been streamlined for tourists. While it’s rewarding to spend days immersed in local culture without stumbling across other international visitors, you’ll likely find during your trip that it’s best to regard specific itinerary items as goals, rather than givens. (The road to Maruzor’s seventh lake, for example, is often obstructed, restricting access to those who had planned to brave the hike.) If you roll with the punches during your travels in Tajikistan, you’ll likely be presented with indelible memories—like when my guide and I stumbled upon a village wedding near Iskanderkul Lake in the Fann Mountains and were invited to dance and do vodka shots with the bride and groom.
How to go
A local guide feels essential in rural parts of Tajikistan, especially if your Russian or Tajik (a Persian dialect related to Farsi) is limited. Steppes Travel offers a number of private and group trips that blend Tajikistan highlights with stops in the five neighboring Stans (and can ramp up the level of adventurousness for those who ask). Other tour operators such as Wild Frontiers, Young Pioneer Tours, Remote Lands, Kalpak Travel, and Paramount Journey also lead multiday trips in Tajikistan, offering group itineraries as well as custom-made adventures (including guided treks) that visit many of the aforementioned destinations in Tajikistan and extend to other parts of Central Asia. Travelers from the United States can fly to Dushanbe on the top-rated Turkish Airlines with an obligatory layover in Istanbul’s glittering new airport.
When to visit
The optimal time to visit Tajikistan is between June and September when mountain passes are free of snowy debris. During summer, temperatures can reach between 80 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day in lower regions (in places like Dushanbe and Khujand). However, most of the country is situated at high altitudes, where summer temperatures linger around 60 or 70 degrees during daytime but get very cold at night.
U.S. passport holders must apply for an electronic visa ($50) and furnish a printed copy of the document upon arrival in Tajikistan. You’ll receive the single-entry visa, which is valid for up to 45 days after you enter the country, by email after approval, which should only take a few days at most. To complete the waiver, you’ll need the address of your first-night accommodation along with a passport that’s valid for at least six months from the date of the e-visa’s issue. Throughout your visit, you should always carry a copy of your U.S. passport, Tajik visa, and visa registration because local police frequently inspect documents.