Highlights of Tajikistan
Tajikistan's attractions are deeply varied, from dinosaur footprints to Soviet hydroelectric dams, and your itinerary is likely to be influenced by your personal interests, mode of transport and the areas in which you travel.
The country is a paradise for walkers, trekkers, mountaineers, mountain bikers, cyclists, white water enthusiasts, photographers and people who just like to be in wild and beautiful places. The Pamirs, Fan mountains and the Zarafshan and Hissor mountain ranges give enormous scope for all these activities.
Indeed, trekking options are just fantastic in Tajikistan, principally in the Fan Mountains and western Pamirs, though these are demanding, remote routes. Trekking guides are available in Khorog. Mountaineers will be in heaven and even a few hardcore kayakers are discovering Tajikistan’s remote white water. Horse trekking to Zarosh-Kul is an option and camel trekking is available in the eastern Pamirs. Rock climbers should head for the Yagnob’s Zamin-Khoror wall, a sheer 1km high slice of rock that you’ll likely have to yourself.
The most obvious treks outside of the Fan Mountains include the following:
Bazar-Dara (four days) Loop trek to archaeological site and petroglyphs, heading in over the Bazar-Dara Pass and out via the 4918m Ak-Jilga Pass.
Darshai Valley (three to four days) Up the Darshai Valley to summer pastures and views of Mayakovsky Peak. Back the same way or over a 4941m pass and down valley to Bodomdara.
Grum Grijimailoo Glacier (four to five days) Two routes, from Kok Jar in the east up the Tanymas Valley, or north up the Khavraz Dara Valley from Pasor in the upper Bartang Valley.
Gumbezkul Valley and Pass (one day).
Javshanguz to Langar (two days) Following a former 4WD track over the 4432m Mats Pass into the Pamir Valley.
Karatag Valley (two to three days) To Timur Dara and Payron lakes.
Zarosh-Kul Loop (six to seven days) From Bachor village via Zarosh-Kul, Vikhinj, the three Uch-Kul lakes, the Langar Valley and Yashil-Kul.
Pamir Highway - One of the world's great road trips, offering jaw-dropping high-altitude lakes and fine community based homestays.
Wakhan Valley - Remote and beautiful valley bordering Afghanistan, with Silk Road forts, Buddhist ruins and spectacular views of the snowbound Hindu Kush.
Yurtstays - Your chance to get up close and personal with Kyrgyz herders, under a spectacular nighttime Pamiri sky.
Fan Mountains - Austere but beautiful trekking destination of turquoise lakes and Tajik shepherds, easily accessible from Penjikent or Samarkand.
Iskander-Kul - Lovely lake at the eastern end of the Fan Mountains and a great place to relax or go hiking.
To provide food for thought, however, here is an eclectic selection of what we feel are the country's main highlights:
- The journey from Dushanbe via Khorog and Murghab and on to Osh in Kyrgyzstan must be one of the most dramatic and scenic in the world. It is even better if a detour is taken from Khorog to Ishkashim and then on to Murghab. This route goes along the Wakhan Corridor, with its fortresses, shrines, and Buddhist and Zoroastrian remains.
- The high plateau around Murghab in the far east of Tajikistan, with spectacular lakes and the semi nomadic Kyrgyz herders with their flocks and yurts.
- Exploring the dramatic Shakhdara and Bartang valleys in the Pamirs, with the hospitable villagers still practising traditional methods of agriculture, using oxen to plough and cutting wheat by hand.
- The journey north from Dushanbe to Khujand, crossing two mountain ranges, taking a short detour to the mountain lake of Iskandar Kul, with many legends about Alexander the Great, and on to the ancient city of Istaravshan with its superb mosques and madrassas and finally to Khujand, the farthest place into Central Asia reached by Alexander.
- Combining a trek in the Fan Mountains with a visit to Penjikent, "The Pompeii of Central Asia" and possibly a visit to Samarqand, across the border in Uzbekistan.
- Visiting the ancient citadel of Hissor, with its fortress, madrassas and caravanserai, only 25km from Dushanbe.
- Enjoying a few days in the relaxed city of Dushanbe, with its fine neo-classical buildings, excellent Museum of National Antiquities and a developing cafe culture, and taking some day excursions to lovely scenery and interesting places in easy reach.
- Being able anywhere, apart from in the cities, to look up and see the wonder of the stars, with no light pollution.
- For something completely different, and if you are into post-Soviet dereliction, there is plenty of that all over the country; and two mighty Soviet engineering projects which have survived, the great dam at Norak and the enormous aluminium works at Tursunzoda.
ANCIENT PENJIKENT AND SARAZM Five thousand years of archaeological history at Tajikistan's first UNESCO World Heritage Site and the so-called Pompeii of central Asia are scarcely a stone's throw from one another, close to the Tajik-Uzbek border. Though the most important archaeological finds have been removed to museums in Dushanbe and Russia, the well-preserved ruins and their small museums give a fascinating insight into Tajikistan's early history.
BUZ KASHI The traditional sport of buz kashi, aka dead goat polo, is an adrenalin-fuelled rugby scrum on horseback played in mountain villages across Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Derived from goat raiding, teams of men (often from rival villages) race and wrestle the decapitated carcass of a goat with the aim of throwing it into a goal at the end of the pitch. Your best chance of seeing a match is at Navruz and, following that, on other public holidays in spring and summer.
GARM CHASHMA The hot springs of Garm Chashma, just south of Khorog, are naturally occurring and have purportedly curative properties. Over thousands of years the mineral deposits have created a giant rock meringue, and you can sit and soak at the heart of it while staring up at the hillside in nothing more than your birthday suit. Men and women bathe separately.
ISKANDERKUL This turquoise-blue lake surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Fann Mountains is an understandable favourite with Tajik day trippers and foreign trekkers alike. Easily accessible from Dushanbe it can be combined with the Seven Lakes for a five-day trek or, for those seeking something a little less strenuous, its an idyllic spot to camp, have a barbecue and rent a boat on the lake.
PAMIR HIGHWAY The prize for the worlds best drive is hotly contested, and the Pamir Highway certainly comes close to perfection. Magnificent mountains, gushing rivers and waterfalls, summer settlements with nomads and sheep, and scarcely another vehicle in sight are all points in its favour. Whilst its not a route for the faint-hearted, if you have the physical and mental stamina it's a once in a lifetime experience whether you're travelling by two wheels or four.
TAKING TEA Tajikistan runs on tea, and it's as significant for the social interaction that occurs while you drink as for the beverage itself. Whether you go to a chaikhana (literally a 'tea house') or are invited to join someone for a cup at their home, make sure you take the time to stop, drink and chat as the Tajiks do: hospitality and tea are virtually interchangeable and certainly not to be missed.
YAGNOB VALLEY Isolation saved the Sogdians. Fleeing from Penjikent when the Arabs invaded, almost all were slaughtered. Only those hidden in the mountains, cut off from the outside world, survived. Some 1,300 years on, their few descendants still live in the Yagnob Valley, amongst them the last speakers of Sogdian, the tongue Alexander the Great would have heard on the battlefield when he rode into Bactria in the 4th century bc.