HIGHLIGHTS of TAJIKISTAN
Tajikistan’s capital city is firmly locked in the past with the Soviet influence still visible in the people and architecture.
Flying south to Khorog
Board one of the most exhilarating flights as the small turboprop flies around the majestic mountains past glaciers before landing along the Panj River near the town of Khorog.
As the gateway to Afghanistan and the Wakhan Valley, Khorog is a small, friendly town at the confluence of the Panj and Ghund Rivers nestled among the mountains.
The Tajik Wakhan Valley lies on the north side of the Panj river along the Afghan Wahkan Corridor to the south. The valley is known for it’s fertile soil along the river, ancient fortresses, and quaint villages.
This brackish lake with its black colour lies at a stunning altitude of 3,900 m (12,800 ft). While water levels are at historical lows, the lake is still impressive albeit a bit
With most of the population belonging to the Persian-speaking Tajik ethnic group who shares their language with Afghanistan and Iran, this is a rugged country with rugged but very
hospitable and beautiful people.
Getting to Dushanbe is still one the challenges in this part of the world. Few airlines, even from neighbouring countries, fly into the capital of Tajikistan. An interesting entry by land is from Samarkand in Uzbekistan. A long 10.5-hour train ride goes through mostly desert landscapes and some mountainous regions and also stops at a few small villages.
When the train eventually comes to a standstill in the small Uzbek town of Denau, to the southwest of the Tajik capital, take a 30-minute taxi ride to the Uzbek / Tajik border. This is another border crossing in Central Asia with ample opportunities to making long-lasting memories - whether good or bad, you won’t forget them.
From the taxi drop-off point it is a 1.5 km (1 mi) walk to where a Tajik taxi can pick you up for the drive to Dushanbe. Be patient as you go through a few border check points. Your luggage may be thoroughly searched too. This border crossing is not busy and is used by few travellers from outside the region.
Ensure your Tajik visa and GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province) permit is stamped into your passport if you intend to travel into the Pamir region, including the Pamir Highway to eastern Tajikistan. The drive from the border to central Dushanbe takes a little more than an hour.
Hopefully you have pre-booked a hotel room which is another challenge as hardly any online hotel-booking websites list Dushanbe hotels. If no reservations, just drop into the iconic Vakhsh Hotel which is centrally located and right next to the Ayni Opera and Ballet Theatre (Tajik State Academic Theatre) along the wide tree-lined Rudaki Avenue. While the hotel is screaming for a massive renovation, it has a rich yet tumultuous history which started in 1936. During World War II (in this part of the world referred to as the Great Patriotic War), the hotel was used as the military hospital.
During the more recent civil war the hotel was occupied by bands of bearded mujahedin rebels and peppered with bullets.
In the lobby, find the typical Russian “small hole in the wall” where an old lady will peak through to take your passport and payment. As you walk through the dimly lit halls and into your room with very high ceilings and historical furniture, you can’t help but to imagine what your room must have gone through since 1936. Relax, you are safely in Tajikistan!
Flight to Khorog
Your next destination is Khorog, capital of the Shughnon District of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province. However, getting to the small capital in southeastern Tajikistan is challenging.
Travellers have two choices: either take the scary 1-hour turboprop plane ride through (not over) the mountains, or embark on a 16+ hour shared-taxi ride. The choice is clear - fly, hope for the best, and with some luck on your side land safely just 60 minutes later.
To ensure you have a seat booked for the early morning departure, you need to physically check in at the airport office the day before departure to pay for your seat. No advanced booking online or via travel agents. Then on the day of departure you need to be at the airport at around dawn. Count yourself lucky if you get onto the plane and make it into the thin air.
Once you reach the first set of peaks, it is unlikely that the plane will turn back due to bad weather. Snuck up to the window with your camera and go “whoaaa” every time it seems as if the plane is flying just inches away from the glaciers and rocky outcrops.
The view is stunning. The plane roughly follows the Tajik-Afghan border marked by the 1,125 km (700 mi) long Panj River which is a tributary of the Amu Darya River. On the right side lies Afghanistan and to the left is Tajikistan. If all goes well, about 60 minutes later you will safely land on a small airstrip right by the Panj River, surrounded by the mountains.
Step out, walk away a few feet on the landing strip, turn around and take a nice picture of the Ukraine developed, but Polish built Antonov AN-28 turboprop operated by Tajik Air. You made it to Khorog and you are now in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province. A stone’s throw away is Afghanistan just across the narrow river. Head out of the small terminal building and ask any vehicle owner for a US$2 ride into town.
Khorog, capital of the Shughnon District of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO) has a population of 30,000 and lies at an altitude of 2,200 metres (7,220 ft) above sea level in the Pamir Mountains. It lies along the confluence of the Ghund and Panj Rivers and is surrounded by mountains.
Khorog has had a tumultuous history. Until the late 19th century, it was in an area whose ownership was disputed by the Emir of Bukhara, the Shah of Afghanistan, Russia and even Britain. The Russians emerged the winners of the region. Life wasn’t easy here under Soviet occupation.
More recently the town made headlines in July 2012 when Tajik government forces clashed with an armed guerrilla group from the semi-autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province.
While modern Khorog is one of the poorest areas of Tajikistan, the Aga Khan Foundation is a major source of cash income.
The Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), based in Geneva, Switzerland, is a private not-for-profit international development agency which was founded in 1967 by the Aga Khan. The Aga Khan is the 49th and current Imam of Nizari Ismailism and is a Swiss based business magnate and racehorse breeder. Born in 1936 His Royal Highness Aga Khan has an estimated five to fifteen million adherents. Khorog is also home to one of the three campuses of the University of Central Asia which was founded in 2000 by the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and His Royal Highness the Aga Khan.
Khorog is a peaceful town built along both sides of the meandering Ghund River. While there is not much to see in town, the people are friendly, the market is bustling, and the few restaurants offer decent Tajik and Indian cuisines. Khorog is a great base from where to explore Afghanistan across the Panj rivers as well as for trips into the Pamir region to the east and southeast of town.
One of the most popular places to stay is the peaceful Pamir Lodge, south of the Ghund River and up the hill. Summers are hot and winters are quite cold with tons of snow.
The main reason for coming to Khorog in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO) is most likely to prepare for trips into Afghanistan to the west and into the Pamir region to the south and east.
In Khorog, arrange a four-wheel drive for a four to six day trip to Murghab in the far west of GBAO near the border with China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
While vehicle and driver rentals are expensive, some skilfull bargaining can bring down the cost. Then, fill up with food and drinks, and head straight south all along the Panj River which is the borderline with Afghanistan.
At the small town of Ishkoshim, 100 km (62 mi) south of Khorog, stay for a Friday night and visit the Saturday bazaar on a small island in the Panj River. Once the border guards are ready early on Saturday morning, gates on both the Tajik and Afghan sides of the bridge are opened and traders with their customers all flock together to the island in no-man’s-land.
Stock up on Afghan hats, called pakol, and nothing much else. The best thing about the market are the photo opportunities. Be careful that some people are in no mood to be photographed and the security guards with their massive machine guns may ask you to stop photographing. Follow your own instinct as most people are friendly and don’t mind to be photographed when discretely approached and appreciated.
The Wakhan Valley
Ishkoshim, 100 km (62 mi) south of Khorog, is a friendly town with about 6,500 residents. Sleep at the Hanis Guesthouse where the Khorog road enters Ishkoshim town.
From here head into Afghanistan and to the Afghan town of Ishkashim from where expeditions are led through the Afghan Wakhan corridor which is bordered by Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and China’s Xinjiang to the far west.
Alternatively stay on the Tajik side of the Panj River and head straight east. The long road to Murghab goes through a couple of tiny villages such as Yamg, Vrang, and Langer. Some of the villages have homestays but camping is allowed almost anywhere. Along the scenic road with mountains on both sides are the remains of a few ancient fortresses such as the Yamchun Fortress and the Ratm Fortress.
A not-to-be-missed experience is bathing at the Bibi-Fatima Hot Springs. The bathing area is in a crystal clear cave with comfortably hot and very clean water. Women and men bathe at different times as a no-clothing rule must be obeyed.
The valley is fertile and most of the villagers work on farms and have livestock such as horses, sheep and goats. This is sheep-country so make sure to eat lamb and mutton shashlik (a form of shish kebab) at every opportunity.
Between Langer village and the main Pamir highway to the far north, the road is spectacular and void of any permanent settlements.
The first settlement after Langer is Bulunkul village which lies just past the junction at the main Pamir Highway. Located close to the shallow Bulunkul freshwater lake, the small village lies in the upper Gunt Valley of the Pamir Mountains. The village is windswept and apparently one of the coldest villages in Tajikistan.
Have lunch with the locals in their modest home for a small fee. Vodka flows at all times of the day. Spending time with these friendly folks is an unforgettable experience!
The road past the village leads for 1.5 km (1 mi) to another freshwater lake named Yashilkul (Green Lake). If it’s not laundry day for the village ladies with their kids, then the hot waters can offer a soothing soak. Both lakes are surrounded by wetlands as well as sand and pebble plains that form part of the” Bulunkul and Yashilkul Lakes and Mountains Important Bird Area.”
The drive further east to the town of Murghab is scenic as it passes colourful mountains. Murghab itself is just good for a one night stay over. The next morning leave early and drive north to the lake of Karakul (black lake) located in the Markansu valley, one of the driest places in Central Asia. The lake lies within the Tajik National Park at an altitude of 3,900 m (12,800 ft). It is 25 km (16 mi) in diameter with a maximum depth of 230 m (755 ft). As the lake is an endorheic basin with three rivers flowing in but with no drainage outlet, the water is brackish but beautiful to look at.
Stay for a few hours or overnight at the small village named Karakul on the eastern shore of the lake. From here the road goes north through spectacular scenery before it is time to cross the border into Kyrgyzstan. GR
ESSENTIAL INFORMATION - Tajikistan
Very few airlines fly into Dushanbe so unless you can fly in from one of the few countries with air links to Dushanbe such as Russia, Turkey, Iran, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, your best bet is to enter via road from Uzbekistan or from Kyrgyzstan. The long border with China remains closed while the few border crossings with Afghanistan are best avoided due to possible conflict at Afghan towns further away from the border crossings.
When to Go
Summers are hot and winters are bitterly cold with long stretches of roads, in particular in the Wakhan Valley, closed due to high snow falls. Best time is spring and autumn when the weather is perfect for travelling.
Public transport is poor, so most short and long trips are taken with shared taxis which can be very uncomfortable. More comfortable, but costly, is to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle with driver.
Where to stay
Tajikistan has some loose organisations to coordinate homestays. As you travel with your rented vehicle and driver just leave it up to the driver to find accommodation. He most likely has a network of locals where you can stay at very affordable rates, including full board if required.
Cost of travel
Other than the high costs of vehicle and driver rentals, which is blamed on high fuel prices, travel in Tajikistan is very affordable. Accommodation and food are of acceptable quality and available at low prices.
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