East of Dushanbe lies one of the most beautiful and interesting valleys in Tajikistan, seldom visited by foreigners, save those travelling across the Tajik-Kyrgyz border from Jirgital to Sary Tash, or taking the challenging northern branch of the Pamir Highway, cutting down to Tavildara and thence to Qalai Khum (Darvaz). The official name is the Rasht valley, but it is often known as the Karategin or Gharm valley, from the name of the main town. It forms the upper reaches of the Vaksh river, flowing between the high peaks of the Pamirs to the east, and the Zarafshan range to the west. Many of the dramatic peaks are snow capped throughout the year, some over 5,000m. The valley is broader than those in the Pamirs, and there is a great variety of scenery and vegetation. The river meanders through a mix of stony areas and fertile fields. There are a number of pleasant towns and villages. The people are very hospitable and give a genuine welcome to visitors. In the eighteenth century the population was mainly Kyrgyz, but there was an outbreak of a deadly epidemic and Tajik people moved up from Bukhara. The fertile fields provide excellent vegetables and fruit, some of which is sold in the markets in Dushanbe. There are some local dishes, mainly using bread, butter and yoghurt.
The western reaches of the Tajik National Park stray into the province, and the area is known for its wildlife, fishing and trekking. The Rasht valley, and in particular Gharm, was the scene of intense fighting during the civil war. It was not a safe place to visit until the end of the 90s. Though security has improved, families and buildings are notably scarred by the experience; the derelict factories, resistance hideouts and abandoned personnel carriers are poignant reminders of the violent past. Visitors will see a few signs of the conflict, such as abandoned armoured personnel carriers. The people have put past conflicts behind them and are concentrating on developing the economy.
The climate is cool in spring and autumn, rising to 25 to 30 Centigrade in the summer. Winters are cold, but not as severe as in the Pamirs. The road from Dushanbe is open most of the year, but can be blocked by snow in mid-winter, and by mudslides in spring following rain. Visitors should be aware that in winter electricity supply is minimal.
Travellers will have the pleasure of knowing they are travelling along an important branch of the Silk Road, known as the Karategin route. Thousands of caravans would have passed this way making their journey from northern Persia on to Kashgar in China. The route followed the river to its headwaters, and then over the Karamuk Pass to what is now Kyrgyzstan. It would still be possible to travel this route, although the road can be blocked by snow in winter. From the pass it is 300km to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Check with the travel company whether the pass is open to foreigners to cross into Kyrgyzstan, as until recently it was not allowed to them. If opened it could lead to a superb circular tour from Dushanbe, up the Rasht valley to the Kyrgyz border, on to Osh, returning to Tajikistan, taking the Pamir Highway through Murghab and Khorog and back to Dushanbe. It would also be a good route from Dushanbe, through Kyrgyzstan and on - potentially - to China.
Travellers may also like to know that the valley is transit route for the transport of opium and heroin from Afghanistan to Russia.
It is a four to five hours drive from Dushanbe to the start of the valley, along a road, which is a mixture of tarmac in places or dirt surface.
It is not necessary to obtain permission to come to the valley. There are good guesthouses in the main towns, and it is certain that accommodation could easily be found in any of the villages. There are plentiful supplies of reasonable meat and excellent vegetables and fruit. Although seldom seen, there is an abundance of wildlife including wild boar, bears, wolves and deer. There are a variety of birds. The fishing is reported to be good, and no permits are required. It is a photographers' paradise. There is great scope for walking, trekking and mountain biking. There is a network of paths providing excellent day walks. There are also a number of passes over to neighbouring valleys that could be the basis for treks of 2 to 4 days. It would be advisable to hire a local person to act as guide.
Visitors should be aware that people do not speak English, and if you cannot speak Tajik or Russian, it might be wise to find an interpreter.
There should not be a problem in turning up at a guesthouse and finding a bed. However, our experience is that even if a guesthouse is full, somebody will appear who will sort out somewhere to stay the night.
Leave Dushanbe by the main road east to the town of Kafirnihan (20km). This is a typical Soviet style town with apartment blocks, wide streets and pleasant parks. There are many derelict factories.
It is not necessary to enter the town, cross the main bridge, take a fork left as the road enters the town, and then take the left turn at a roundabout with a statue of motherhood beyond it. This is the road to Faizobod and Ob-i Garni. The road passes through an increasingly hilly area, bypassing Faizobod. The road is mainly tarmac.
At 96km Ob-i Garm is reached. It is a town with five spas. These are basic, with separate bathing for men and women. There is a recently renovated sanatorium at the start of the town, behind some blue gates.
The road drops down to follow the river. Just beyond Ob-i Garm on the right across the valley is a multi-coloured housing complex, with high apartment blocks. This is Roghun, now in a sad state, established to provide housing for workers on a giant hydro-electric scheme in Soviet times. The scheme was abandoned and the area is littered with rusting machinery. There are plans to resurrect the project, involving flooding the valley many km upstream, and moving the local people to a new village. The scheme would make Tajikistan virtually self-sufficient for electricity supply, but it is a very contentious scheme, opposed by Uzbekistan fearful of the effect on water supply. If the scheme does go ahead it could be a flashpoint between the two countries.
The road follows along a bluff above the river, through pleasant villages. The last town before the road crosses the river is Nurobad. On most maps it will be marked as Darband. The authorities changed the name to Nurobad (Town of Light), when they had an electricity supply from a small hydro-electric plant. The town is just off the main road, but is worth a visit. On the main street is a fine choikhona with intricate woodcarving and painting. In front is a mulberry tree, reputed to be 1,000 years old. A local female saint, Hati Bibi is reputed to have sat under the tree and helped the poor. On the trunk of the tree is the likeness of a snake, which harmed no one as long as Hati Bibi was there. There are great views across the valley to the mountains.
Beyond Nurobad/Darband the road crosses the river on a massive iron bridge. The main road continues to Tavildara. Here is a turn up gorges and narrow valleys to the high pass to Kala-i Khumb in the Panj valley. It is the main road to the Pamirs from end of May to end of October. In the mountains above Tavildara at the village of Sangor was the main hideout in the civil war for the opposition fighters in the area, particularly Junta Namangani. If you are considering walking in this area, take a local guide; although there has been extensive mine clearance, it would be a wise precaution.
The junction is at the hamlet of Sarijar. Beyond the hamlet is a grass covered hill that appears to be part of the natural landscape. In fact, it is the fortress of Darband, with three separate, but interlinked forts covering many hectares. The outer walls are clearly visible. There are magnificent views of the Pamirs. The forts controlled the entrance to the Rasht valley. There is an easy route to the tops. About 2km along the road to Gharm is a signpost to Gargana on the right. Follow the track for 300m and there is a short, easy path to the forts. Just next to the forts are the derelict remains of a large industrial complex.
The sign showing the start of the Rasht valley is at 169km from Dushanbe. The valley is wide, with a rich variety of vegetation, and good views of the meandering river, and the mountains. The road, which is mainly a dirt one, can be subject to occasional blocks due to mud slides, particularly in the spring. The road crosses back to the west bank to the town of Gharm, 190km from Dushanbe.