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Dushanbe & Around

Dushanbe (pop 600,000) was a large, busy village centuries before the Soviet Union was ever thought of. The name - which means 'Monday' - stems from a weekly bazaar. The other cities of Tajikistan - like Qurghan Tappa, Hissor and Kabodion were important places in the medieval world and before. Alexander the Great fought at Khujand. Babur stopped there, 1,800 years later, and noted the strong winds. (They still blow today, especially around the airport and landing at Khujand can be exciting.) Babur then crossed the border at Auvaj into Afghanistan before heading south to conquer Kabul. Antiquity is never far away in Tajikistan. Even in modern Dushanbe, step off Rudaki into the lanes of traditional houses, each with its courtyard and fruit trees, and find lives changed only in the detail from those hundreds of years ago.

Tajikistan's capital may be the largest city in the country, but it feels like a part of the countryside. Without centuries of Silk Road wealth or the patronage of indulgent emperors, Dushanbe's facades are far humbler than many of its central Asian rivals', and it is instead the geography of the valley, the paths of the rivers and the acres of parkland and trees that define the shape of the city and give it a laid-back feel. With a cool backdrop of mountains, lazy treelined avenues and pastel-hued neoclassical buildings, Dushanbe is a pleasant city to wander around – especially now that the bullet holes from civil war (1992-1997) have been plastered over. Once scary and more than a little dangerous a decade ago, the Tajik capital is currently blossoming and is one of Central Asia’s most pleasant cities, if just a little dull.

Behind the glitz, look for the elegant and original buildings that give Dushanbe a special charm - the grand neo-classical ministries in their soft, paint-box colours and the curves of the Bauhaus pieces. From the 1920s come the now crumbling curlicues of the first Russian buildings - early ventures into what was then the southern tip of empire. Modern Dushanbe evolved through the Soviet century with all its triumphs and disasters. Set back from Rudaki are the 1950s apartment blocks, a legacy of massive urban expansion when all manner of peoples settled here from other parts of the USSR.

In Dushanbe more than any other city, the desire of President Rahmon to make a statement and to be remembered is clear: the wide, tree-lined streets may date from earlier years, but the architectural statements - the Palace of Nations with its gleaming, golden dome; the worlds tallest flag pole; and the imposing staue of Ismoili Somoni, flanked by uniformed guards - are all his doing. The country's new cultural identity is being created, inspired by the president's vision, and as Tajikistan flexes its wings and works out both where and how to fly, there has rarely been a better time to see it. Tajikistan is on the cusp of change.

At 812m above sea level, Dushanbe is undoubtedly a mountain capital, and it is therefore no surprise that easy day trips from the capital put you up close with an impressive landscape. The three gorges - Romit, Shirkent and Varzob - are all picturesque picnic spots with fine trekking opportunities, and the 19th-century  Hissar Fortress confirms the importance of the mountains as a natural defence against attackers.

Though archaeological finds suggest an ancient heritage, the modern city is just 80 years old, and its former name of Stalinabad reveals its past is forever linked to that of the USSR. Today, the city's population hovers around two-thirds of a million people, predominantly ethnic Tajik but with significant numbers of Uzbeks, Russians and latterly, due to the influx of international aid and development organisations, Europeans and Americans. The population has been falling slowly for the past five years, in large part due to the exodus of Tajiks seeking better employment prospects in Kazakhstan and Russia.

Perhaps due to its geographical isolation, Dushanbe's architecture is less starkly Soviet than many other cities in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The concrete apartment blocks are still in evidence, but the buildings in the centre of the city are predominantly low-rise, brightly painted, and hark back to an earlier Kussian style. The tree-lined avenues, manicured parks and cafes in squares create an almost continental feel, and the smattering of post-independence monuments and brand-new buildings suggests a cautious optimism in Dushanbe's commercial and political future.

Orientation - The focus of Dushanbe is the wide, treelined prospekt (avenue) Rudaki, which runs roughly north from the train station, past Maydoni Ayni (maydoni means ‘square’). A walk down Rudaki Avenue is a walk into the story of the city and of Tajikistan too. The blasting Persian pop music, the money-changers with wads in half a dozen currencies, the plate-glass shops bursting with Chinese imports hauled across the Pamir mountains mark the economic vim that drives the city.

A walk from north to south along Rudaki offers an excellent introduction to the city. Almost everything useful or interesting is within a 15-minute walk of central Maydoni Dusti (Friendship Square). The exception is the main bus station, which is some 3km away on kuchai Ibn Sina in the western part of town. The airport is in the southeastern suburbs of the city, 5km from the centre, along Ahmad Donish. Dushanbe street signs sport the Tajik terms kuchai (street), khiyeboni (avenue) and maydoni.

Dushanbe Must-Sees 

National Museum of Antiquities of Tajikistan Eyeball Central Asia’s largest surviving Buddha and the tiny ivory portrait of Alexander the Great.
Hissar - Get out of the city on a half-day excursion to the fort, museum and medressas here.
Restaurants - Savour the big-city comforts of the city’s Turkish, Indian and even Ecuadorian restaurants before heading to the survival cuisine of the mountains.
Rudaki - Stroll leisurely past the pastel-coloured buildings and cool cafes of Dushanbe’s tree-lined main drag.