Trans Eurasia travel

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For those visitors with vertigo or for whom battling the elements on the mountainside holds limited appeal, the country does, fortunately, have somewhat more to offer. Its numerous attractions, often hidden away from the well-worn path, together build a picture of a country at a crossroads: one that lies where tectonic plates collide, where the world's fiercest armies fought and most successful merchants traded, and where the tumultuous past and an uncertain future are caught in an interminable, unpredictable embrace.

Tajikistan's location at the crossroads of the Silk Road, its strategic importance as a buffer between mighty empires, and the omnipresent greed for its natural resources, has given it a past more turbulent than most. Time and again the population has bounced back from the brink of annihilation at the hands of history's most barbaric invaders to rebuild their homes, their cities and families, to thrive for a brief period and then to start over again.

The crazy jigsaw boundaries of northern Tajikistan are in fact the result of sober thought. Before 1929 Tajikistan was an autonomous republic within the Uzbek ASSR, but because of its sensitive location on the edge of the Islamic world, Stalin wanted it upgraded to a full republic. But there were not enough Tajiks; full-republic status required one million inhabitants. They simply topped up numbers by adding the (mainly Uzbek) population of the Khojand region (then Leninabad) to Tajikistan's.

The territory of what is today Tajikistan was a crossroads for the passage of the many different tribes and ethnic groups that ruled or inhabited Central Asia over the past 3,000 years: Scythians, Persian dynasties, Macedonian/Greek armies under Alexander the Great, Parthians, Kushans, Chinese, Huns, Hephtalites, Mongol hordes, Arabs, Russians, even Nestorian Christians, Jews and British - all left their mark on the region.

Tajikistan's rich past has left ample mark on its present. Though the Buddhist temples of Ajjina Teppa and Takht-i Sangin are now broken shadows of their former, prestigious selves, walking along the ruined walls here, in ancient Penjikent or in Sarazm, is a poignant reminder that Tajikistan has not always been a remote and isolated place. For much of its past it has been at the centre of the Silk Road, at the meeting point of mighty empires, and as a consequence its people and cities have thrived financially and culturally, drawing strength and the ability to adapt and survive from the cosmopolitan societies that settled here.

Any introduction to Tajikistan must first focus on the Tajiks. The name appears for the first time in the works of the 11th century Turkish historian Mahmud of Kashgar, who used it to describe all Persian-speaking peoples of the region who were of Iranian origin. It may have originated from the Chinese name for ancient Bactria: Daxia (or Ta-Haia). Until they were displaced by successive waves of Turkic invaders from the north and east, the Tajiks occupied a large part of Central Asia. Broadly speaking, the Tajiks were the sedentary inhabitants of the region as opposed to the Turkic peoples who were nomadic.

Tajiks are, of course, the main ethnic group in most of present-day Tajikistan (approximately 80 per cent), but there is also a large Tajik population in northeastern Afghanistan and in Kabul, Mazar-i Sharif and Herat, making up more than a quarter of the population of Afghanistan. Tajiks are also in the majority in the Uzbek cities of Samarqand and Bukhara and along the Surkhandaria in eastern Uzbekistan: the official Uzbek statistics show only 5 per cent of the population professing to be ethnic Tajiks, but under the present regime there are strong concerns about potential discrimination against non-Uzbeos and the figure is certainly much higher. A small Tajik community lives in Sarikol, Xinjiang Province, Western China, almost all of whom are Shia Ismailis, followers of the Aga Khan.

Substantial numbers of refugees fleeing the Tajik civil war and the more recent unrest in Afghanistan, as well as economic migrants, have found their way to Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Northern Pakistan.