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A Walking Tour of Dushanbe

Dushanbe is a little-known but attractive city in the heart of Central Asia. It is full of space, light and colour and has much old-world charm. Many local people have had little contact with foreigners and are extremely kind and hospitable, welcoming complete strangers to their homes. Dushanbe, backed by some of the highest mountain ranges on earth, is the ideal jumping off point for adventures around this beautiful country.

Dushanbe, at an elevation of 800m above sea level, has a continental climate, extremely hot in summer, with a short, snowy winter. For most of the year there are clear blue skies and sunshine. The city is set in a broad, fertile valley; the impressive Hissor range of mountains lies to the north, with saw-toothed peaks rising to 4,000m that can be seen from the city. Fifty or so kilometres to the east are the foothills of the Pamirs. The city looks particularly beautiful in winter, when all the hills are snow covered. A fine view of the city and surrounding mountains can be had from Victory Park (Pobedy Park).

Traffic in Dushanbe is becoming increasingly busy, and not pedestrian friendly. Streets are clean and main roads are generally lit at night, though there are occasional power cuts. Normal precautions should be taken, but Dushanbe is a safe city, with almost no street crime and attacks on foreigners are virtually unknown. It is perfectly normal to walk the main streets at night and feel unthreatened.

The buses are cheap and run very frequently between seven in the morning until eight in the evening. Away from the main thoroughfare, Rudaki Avenue, from which they are banned, is a network of mini and microbuses - marshrutkas, which are efficient and cheap. In Dushanbe, as elsewhere in Tajikistan, there has been a revolution in transport with the import of cheap Chinese microbuses - they are everywhere. Ten people can be crammed into them. They are affectionately known as Tangems. Tangem was the name of a heroine in a Chinese film that was released at the same time as the start of the import of these microbuses. There are larger minibuses on the busier routes. Official yellow taxis are also plentiful.

There are many restaurants of varying quality right across the city, and more are opening all the time. It is possible to buy most items you need in the markets and supermarkets, and there are plenty of small shops at street corners.

On the downside, the water supply is intermittent and can be polluted. Typhoid is a serious problem in the summer and tap water should be avoided. Hotels tend to be expensive, though several are currently undergoing renovation programmes.

NORTHEAST Dushanbe's quiet northeast is predominantly composed of residential streets lined with apartment blocks, and a scattering of low-rise embassy buildings. Well hidden amongst this is the M Tursunzoda Museum (79 L Sherali; 10.00-16.00 Tue-Sat; local/foreigner TJS1/2), the house-museum of Mirzo Tursunzoda, a Tajik poet and prominent political figure in the mid 20th century. It is laid out as it was at the time of his death in 1977, and exhibits include his furniture and personal library.

Just a few minutes' walk away is the Z Shahidi Museum of Musical Culture (108 Shahidi;  09.00-17.00 Mon-Fri; TJS3). Another house-museum, it belonged to Soviet-era composer and musician Ziyadullo Shahidi and is now run by his daughter, Munira, a leading light of Dushanbe's cultural scene. The museum regularly organises musical performances through the Shahidi Cultural Foundation, and its extensive archives include letters and photographs charting Shahidi's career and those of his contemporaries.

At the southern end of northeast area, at the junction of Rudaki and Ismoili Somoni, is the Presidential Palace (though President Rahmon has now moved to a new Palace of Nations). This attractive building has an Italianate led, helped in part by the fountains in the front courtyard. It is not possible to go inside the building, but certainly worth a look through the gates and a subtly taken photograph or two. Next door, the attractive Chaykhona Rokhat, built in a traditional Persian style, is a good place to stop for tea and a snack.

SOUTHEAST Five minutes' walk from the junction of Rudaki and Ismoili Somoni is the intriguing Gurminj Museum (23 Bokhtar; 11.00-16.00 Mon-Sun; local/foreigner TJS1/5). Gurminj Zavkibekov was a Soviet film star and a keen collector of musical instruments. This small museum, run by his son Iqbol, not only exhibits his collection of traditional instruments from Tajikistan and neighbouring countries but also serves as a venue for musical performances. There is a small recording studio on site where traditional musicians can often be heard practising. An hour or two here is highly recommended for those with an interest in ethnomusicology, particularly if you understand Russian and can chat with the exceptionally knowledgeable Iqbol.

Back on Rudaki, walk past the unusual mosaic of dancers and musicians, made from different coloured stones. Be sure to stop at the Ferdowsi National Library (36 Rudaki) with its distinctive busts of prominent figures in science and the arts. Also known as the Hall of Science, this attractive whitewashed building incorporates aspects of both Stalinist and Islamic architecture. Since its foundation in 1933, it has expanded to house more than 2.5 million books in a variety of languages, as well as an important collection of ancient manuscripts that includes one of the earliest copies of Ferdowsi's famous work, the Shahnama ('Book of Kings'). There is also a small craft shop on site, and a bookstall outside most days.

Just past the library is Azadi Maydon (Freedom Square) on which you'll find the Aini Opera and Ballet Theatre and, behind it, the small but pleasant Aini Park. It's a popular spot to stop and take a i oll'ee in one of the open-air cafes, and plenty of people are sat happily watching the world go by.

Suitably refreshed, and with an optional diversion via Green/Shah Mansur Bazaar, walk to Aini Maydon (Aini Square) and its imposing Statue of Sadriddin Aini who gives the square his name. Alongside it are two other statues: a fairly standard war memorial, and another, rather more unusual sculpture in which at least one of the figures appears to be Killing on his back. Climbing inside the statue alongside him can make for some entertaining holiday snaps.

A short taxi ride to the east is Victory Park, one of the largest green spaces in Dushanbe. A creaking, Soviet-era funicular (TJS1) transports lazier/ braver individuals to the top of the hill, though it is probably safer to walk. From the lop you get good views across Dushanbe, and an enterprising cafe owner capitalises (in this in the summer months by setting out a few tables with parasols and serving cheap (but not particularly palatable) wines.

SOUTHWEST Dushanbe's cultural highlight is the National Museum of Antiquities (7 Akademik Rajiabov; 71 350;; 10.00-17.00 Mon-Sat, 10.00-16.00 Sun; local/foreigner TJS2.50/10). The largest and most important museum in Dushanbe, it houses artefacts covering 3,000 years of Tajik history. Recently renovated, the museum is laid out according to a mixture of geography and chronology. Some of the more important items are labelled in English, and the staff are keen to tell you about the items on show.

Entering the building through its neoclassical portico brings you into the main lobby, where some of the most impressive statuary and stonework is displayed, take special note of the Oxus Temple altar from Takhti Sangin, the site where the Oxus Treasure (now housed in the British Museum) was discovered in the late 19th century. Other artefacts excavated from the site, including weaponry, carved ivory, sculptures and fine metalwork, are in the two smaller rooms immediately between the lobby and the courtyard garden.

In the two rooms covering the Kushanian Period are a number of small but exquisitely carved pieces of statuary from the 3rd-5th centuries ad. If you look carefully at the hairstyles and dress in the figurative works you'll clearly see the Greek influence. Check the terracotta tile with a relief entitled Man Deity with the Baton. This figure is depicted wearing a kaftan and a Sassanid headdress and waving a baton to command the movements of seven stars.

Tajikistan's richest archaeological finds come from the area around Penjikent, and they are displayed in two rooms, one on each floor of the museum. Tajikistan's position as a melting pot of Silk Road ideas and art is reinforced with the (sadly decapitated) statue of the Hindu god Shiva and his wife, Parvati. The frescoes of archers and other battle scenes are remarkably well preserved for their age.

The museum's greatest draw, the Sleeping Buddha, takes pride of place on the second floor. Since the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, this 16m-long statue is the largest remaining Buddha in Central Asia. Dating from around ad500 and sculpted from local clay, it was discovered at the Buddhist monastery of Ajina Tepe in 1966 and had to be moved to Dushanbe in sections. If you are interested in this artefact, the museum staff will enthusiastically tell you about it and also show you photographs from the original excavation.

Also on this floor are the museum's collections of coins, gold, and a room given over to ancient manuscripts. The coins are an accessible way to chart the changing rulers of the region but also their international ties: in addition to depictions of the rulers themselves, there are numerous designs featuring Hindu and Greek gods.

The National Museum of Antiquities is the best available introduction to Tajikistan's rich history, particularly if you plan to travel to some of the archaeological sites in other parts of the county. The most important archaeological finds are here, not in the provinces, and the displays will help you contextualise them. It is permitted to take photographs providing you do not use a flash.

Right next door is the Ethnographic Museum (7 Akademik Rajiabov; tel 78 751; 10.00-17.00Mon-Sat; local/foreigner TJS2.50/10), a smaller collection of ethnographic items including musical instruments, costume, carpets and jewellery. The museum stores more than 15,000 artefacts from all parts of Tajikistan, though only a fraction of these are on display at any one time.

Continuing down Akademik Rajiabov away from Rudaki, you reach the Victory monument, a tribute to those who fought for the USSR during the Great Patriotic War (World War II). As well as a large arch there is also an original tank, restored and repainted, which makes an ideal climbing frame for children and others so inclined.

Five minutes' walk along Tehran brings you to Central Park (aka Bag-i Rudaki) and the side of the Palace of Nations. This imposing new structure, with its golden dome, can be seen from across the city and it is home to both President Rahmon and many of the government ministries. Though photogenic, the palace guards are a little jumpy about foreigners wielding cameras, so if you wish to take a photo then do so subtly. This is not the place to set up your long lens on a tripod.

The park itself is a well-maintained space with numerous flower beds that come into bloom in early summer and are a colourful addition to the landscape right through to autumn. In September the beds are a riot of red and orange. Whichever path you take through the park you'll be unable to miss the world's tallest flagpole. Rising 165m above the park, this controversial structure cost US$3.5 million to build and was erected in May 2011 as part of celebrations to commemorate 20 years of Tajik independence.

Other photo opportunities in this area are the ostentatious golden Statue of Ismoili Somoni with its two uniformed guards, and the rather more tasteful Arch of Rudaki. The statue of Rudaki stands beneath a colourful mosaic arch and is reflected in the pool of water below.

Cutting through behind the TsUM department store and Barakat Bazaar brings you up to Ismoili Somoni, from where you can reach Komsomol Lake. This artificial reservoir, fed by the Varzob River, is a popular recreation spot for local people. On hot days small children shriek and splash in the slightly murky waters, whilst their families stand on the lakeside eating ice cream and other sticky snacks on sale. The park contains a rather rickety Ferris wheel, though we'd be exceptionally cautious about taking a ride.

NORTHWEST Crossing now to the northern side of Ismoili Somoni, you'll see one of Dushanbe's most unusual but striking constructions: the Writers' Union Building. It dates from the Soviet period but its facade is covered with life-sized statues of Tajik poets and other cultural heroes whose lives and work span the last millennium. With the notable exception of Ferdowsi, few of the names are easily recognisable to foreigners, but this monument does show the high esteem in which the Tajik people hold their vernacular literary figures.

A little back from Ismoili Somoni, next to the Pamir Stadium, is the zoo. Once home to over a thousand animals (including elephants), the zoo, its staff and animals have been hard hit by Tajikistan's economic problems. Cages are small and the condition of the surviving animals is generally poor.

Situated behind the Hotel Avesto is one of the few signs that Tajikistan is in fact a nominally Muslim country: the mosque and Madrassa of Haji Yaqub. This beautiful building, with its colourfully tiled portico, is Dushanbe's most important place of worship and is particularly busy on Fridays when up to 3,000 Muslims come to pray. Women are allowed in the courtyard only, but visitors are generally welcome providing they are respectfully attired. There is often a heavy police presence around the mosque, as the government is rightly or wrongly concerned about rising fundamentalism.

To the north of the mosque is Dushanbe's final house-museum, the S Aini Museum (1 K Khakimzade; 10.00-15.00 Mon-Fri). This small exhibition is dedicated to the life and work of the Tajik intellectual Sadriddin Aini. Entry is free but there is a charge of US$3 if you take the guided tour (Russian and Turkish only).

The final site of interest in northwestern Dushanbe is the botanical gardens (Samad Gani; 08.00-19.00; entry TJS1). The garden covers 34ha and contains over 2,000 species of plant. It has been cared for by the academy of science since the early 1930s and miraculously seems to have survived the civil war without too much damage. The garden is particularly popular, with wedding parties coming here to have their pictures taken amongst the trees, pools and attractive wooden pergolas.