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Qurghan Tappa

Tajikistan's third-largest city has a population of around 80,000 people and is the capital of the Khatlon region. The town is large and is 87km from Dushanbe. Its wide, planned tree lined streets, numerous statues and several attractive museums belie the fact that the city was utterly ravaged by the civil war, its infrastructure, industry and population left in tatters.

The exact origins of Kurgan Teppa are unknown; some sources suggest there was human habitation here as early as the 7th century, but if this is indeed the case then the community at Kurgan Teppa would have been far smaller than that at nearby Ajina Teppa. The modern city dates from the Soviet period, with much of the construction dating from the 1970s and '80s.

The most tumultuous period of Kurgan Teppa's history occurred during Tajikistan's civil war. Kurgan Teppa was the home of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), one of the key opposition groups. In 1992-93 some of the most serious fighting took place in and around the city: buildings were burnt out, tens of thousands of people were killed or fled across the border into Afghanistan and Kurgan Teppa's crops and factories were razed to the ground.

For a relatively small town, and one so badly damaged by the civil war, Kurgan Teppa has a surprisingly high number of engaging sites: three museums, a bazaar, a cultural centre and numerous monuments, from the ubiquitous Rudaki to a rather less common monument to tractors.

On entering the town there is an interesting museum on a knoll on the right, opposite a dramatic statue of Somoni on horseback. Probably the most interesting historical collection is held at the Khatlon Region Local History Museum (10 Borbad; 08.00-18.00 Mon-Fri, 09.00-16.00 Sat; local/foreigner TJS2/15), a large, new museum opened by President Rahmon himself. The curators are rightly proud of their two-storey exhibition space and its wide variety of exhibits: dioramas featuring stuffed local wildlife; scale models of what Takht i Sangin and Ajjin Teppa might have looked like; cases of dried insects (some disturbingly large); and a good collection of traditional textiles. One can be particularly taken with the sculpture of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf, though bemused as to what its connection with Khatlon could possibly be. The museum staff are friendly and the exhibits are well laid out. There are good views over the surrounding plains from the turret.

Next door to the museum is the new City Library (12 Borbad; 08.00-17.00 Mon-Fri, 08.00-noon Sat) with a reasonable selection of books and journals (including some books on archaeology) and a room of new computers with internet access.

The tongue-twisting mouthful that is the Museum of Historical and Regional Studies of Kurgan Teppa City in Honour of Bibi Khanym (Vahdat; 08.00-17.00 Mon-Sat; local/foreigner TJS1/4.50) is a fabulous-looking building on a small hill behind the Ramz Hotel. The colourful minaret protruding through the roof suggests a religious building, but in fact it is, as the name suggests, dedicated to the city's past. The exhibits themselves have seen better days and the displays are distinctly dated, but the exterior is what makes the attraction.

Hidden beneath a modernist structure resembling a crown is the small, underground Vahdat Museum.

Kurgan Teppa is endowed with numerous examples of public art. Keep an eye out for the writers Sino (Loginov), Rudaki (Vahdat) and Rumi (Borbad), for the World War II memorial with its Lenin sidekick (Borbad), and for the tractor on a plinth.

The main centre of the town is at the T-junction at the end of Somoni Street, where there is a statue of Bobojon Gafurov, eminent historian, General Secretary of the Communist Party 1946 - 1956, who wrote the seminal book 'TheTajiks', which traced the separate identity of the Tajik race. Turn right at the junction and 200m on, facing, is the excellent bazaar with stalls and a mall.

Of interest to visitors who have seen the magnificent Sleeping Buddha (uncovered in the 1960s) in the Museum of National Antiquities in Dushanbe, it is possible to see the site of the excavation. It is at the archaeological remains of Ajina Teppa temple, the 8th-century Buddhist monastery. To find the site take the road to the airport, turn right after 6 km, and follow the small road for another 6 km to the site. The excavation was a major undertaking, and the statue had to be cut up and reassembled in Dushanbe. Unfortunately all that can be seen are mounds of earth and a few traces of mud brick walls. Though all of the finds were removed to Dushanbe or museums in Russia, it is still possible to see remnants of the 2.5m-thick mud-brick walls that protected the internal courtyard and monastic buildings. Disappointingly there is no plan of the site or even a notice to show it is the site. All other treasures uncovered here were taken to Russia in the Soviet era.

As elsewhere in Tajikistan the best bet for accommodation here may be a homestay. But there is also the Asia Hotel, with a red roof, 50m from the bazaar on the road to the right facing the bazaar, providing luxurious accommodation. There are 5 rooms, all with en suite facilities at US$40 per night.

Getting there

Driving the 100km from Dushanbe to Kurgan Teppa is a relatively straightforward experience. The main road leaves Dushanbe through the southern gates. The road conditions are generally good, and there is little other traffic. If you are reliant on public transport, shared taxis on the same route cost TJS20 and take two hours. They leave from the bus stand in Dushanbe's 46th Microdistrict at Nazarshoev Street in the south of the city and drop you at the main bus station in the northwest of Kurgan Teppa. There is a good tarmac road over the two ranges of waterless hills to the Qurghan Tappa.

For those travelling further south it is possible to avoid Qurghan Tappa by taking a turn to the right just before the large bridge over the Vakhsh, 10 km before reaching the town. This road follows the right bank, running along the edge of low foothills, giving good views across the plains. The road joins the main road at the bridge near Jilikul, at 167 km from Dushanbe.

The main road goes south from Qurghan Tappa, passing through cotton and wheat fields, small villages and isolated mud brick houses. Many southern villages have been rebuilt completely since the civil war of the 1990s.This was the area hardest hit in those bloody times, and it speaks much for the resilience and drive of the Tajiks that the south is now at peace.

Travelling east, it is 192km to Kulob via Dangara, where an excellent new stretch of dual carriageway has just been laid. Allow four to five hours for the drive and be sure to stop at Hulbek.

There is a railway station just outside Kurgan Teppa, which is on the line to Kulob, but it no longer seems to be operational. Likewise, there is an airport but at the time of going to print it doesn't seem to operate commercial flights.