Tajikistan’s highland landscapes offer adventure for mountaineers, trekkers and adventure travellers. Rural homestays are the norm and rural transport is so irregular that most rent 4WDs. The people are predominantly Persian, rather than Turkic speaking, and enormously hospitable.
It is arguably Central Asia’s most exciting destination with the highlights of the Wakkan Valley, the starkly beautiful “Roof of the World” Pamirs and the lakes and pinnacles of the Fan Mountains.
Area. 143,000 sq km
Population. 7.9 million
MONEY. In October, 2015, the Tajikistan somoni (TJS) was worth 6.56 for 1 US$. In May 2014, it was worth 4.77. The somoni notes come in one, five, 10,20, 50 and 100 denomination. Coins are rarely used.
US$, Euros and Russian roubles are easily changed at exchange booths and banks in regional centers. Carrying some US cash is wise in rural areas. Some ATMs have unbelievably low withdrawal limits. ATMs are not available in Murgab, but. There is no black market for currency.
TRAVEL PERMITS. GBAO permits are required for travel in the Pamirs, are essential and are frequently checked. It is free only in Bishkek.
Several specific areas (Zor-Kul) require permits. Lake Sarez permits are difficult to obtain and the lake has been out of bounds to foreign trekkers for some time.
VISAS. Letters of Invitation are not required. One passport photo is required. The visas are date specific. With the GBAO, 2 pages of your passport are used. A double entry is no extra cost.
Bishkek is the best place to apply for visas that require a GBAO permit (US$55 including the free permit, no photocopy of passport is required, don’t need to download the application). They are available the same day after 3pm if you apply early in the day. Tashkent, Uzbekistan is cheaper but GBAO permits are not available. Vienna, Berlin, Ankara and Delhi also have good prices but charge a great deal for the GBAO.
Dushanbe Airport. Tourists from 80 countries can get a 30-day visa on arrival at Dushanbe Airport but not any other airports or land crossings. Apparently you need a LOI which undermines the appeal of the system and GBAO permits are not available.
Registration within 3 days of arrival is necessary if you have a non-tourist visa. Tourist visas are spared this annoying formality.
Tajik Ancestry. Tombs from the eastern Pamirs show that Saka-Usan tribes grazed flocks here from the 5th century BC, when the climate was considerably more lush than today. In the 1st century BC, the Bactrian empire covered most of what is now northern Afghanistan and the Sogdians inhabited the Zeradishan Valley in present-day western Tajikistan. Alexander the great battled the Sogdians and founded modern-day Khojand. The Sogdians were displaced in the Arab conquest of Central Asia during the 7th century AD.
Modern Tajikistan traces itself back to the Persian Samanid dynasty (819-992). Bukhara, the dynastic capital, became the Islamic world’s centre of learning. At the end of the 10th century, Turkic invaders had cultural differences but were united by religion. The Persian-speaking Tajiks adoptic Turkic culture and the numerically superior Turks absorbed the Tajik people. Both weathered conquests by the Mongols and later Timur.
From the 15th century on, the Tajiks were subjects of the emirate of Bukhara. In the mid-18th century, the Afghans took over.
Russians. As part of the Russian thrust south, the emirate of Bukhara was made a vassal state in 1868 giving them control over northern and western Tajikistan. But the Pamirs (todays eastern Tajikistan) remained a no-mans land setting up a strategic duel between Russia and British India. Russia built a string of forts across the Pamirs and border treaties of 1893 and 1895 finally defined Tajikistan’s current borders, leaving the Wakhan Corridor as Afghanistan’s bizarre cartographical buffer between the two countries.
After the Russian revolution of 1917, the Tajiks found themselves part of the Turkistan (1918-24) and then the Uzbekistan (1924-29) Soviet Socialist Republics. Muslim rebels were crushed by the Bolsheviks and entire villages were razed and much of the population fled south. Whole villages were removed from the mountains and moved to the Vakhish Valley to cultivate cotton.
In 1924, the Tajiks got their own autonomous republic that was in 1929 upgraded to a full union republic, but Samarkand and Bukhara – with over 700,000 Tajiks – remained and still are in Uzbekistan. Tensions with Uzbekistan remain today.
Some industrialization of of Tajikistan was undertaken following WWII but it remained heavily reliant on imports for food and standard commodities.
In 1979, the shah was toppled in Iran and the Soviets began an invasion of Afghanistan, much of it launched from Tajikistan. Massive aid flowed to Afghanistan while Tajikistan suffered with the USSR’s worst levels of education, poverty and infant mortality. For years, Moscow was able to hold the lid on the pressure cooker of resentment along with suppressed religious and clan-based tensions that had existed for centuries.
Independence and Civil War. As the Soviet system started to unravel, riots, deaths and a state of emergency followed. In September 1991, Tajikistan declared independence and Dushanbe’s Lenin statue was toppled. A former Tajik Communist Party chief failed to accommodate the various clan factions and violent clashes resulted. Eastern Tajikistan declared independence in 1992 and the country descended into civil war that claimed 60,000 lives. Ethnic cleansing of anyone of Badakhshan or Khatlon background was shot on the spot in Dushanbe. An economic blockade of Bakakhshan led to severe famine in the Pamirs. A peace agreement was finally reached in 1997 but the civil war was economically and physically catastrophic. Always the poorest of the Soviet republics, Tajikistan’s GDP had plunged a further 70% since independence. Since 2001, overall peace prevailed and reconstruction of the country since has been impressively rapid.
Today. In 2013 elections, Presiden Rakhmonov won a fourth term with a vast majority as he is genuinely popular, having been credited with ending the civil war and restoring law and order. Despite reports of massive corruption, steady improvements in infrastructure have produced relative stability.
Military incursions against Islamist insurgents in Garm (2010) and Khorog (2012) saw closure of the entire Gorno-Baldakshan province to foreigner visitors in 2012. Since, though, the national economy has rebounded, but remains dependent of international aid and remittances from the 1 million Tajik men working abroad (about 50% of the GDP). Aluminum and cotton constitute about 80% of official exports, it is estimated that narcotics from Afghanistan produce 50% of economic activity.
Tajikistan’s greatest natural resource is water, its glacial reserves amount to 40% of Central Asia’s total. Despite huge potential for hydropower, Dushanbe is often without electricity and heating for days in winter. The giant Rogun dam, under construction on the Vakhsh River, could change all that as it would supply 80% of Tajikistan’s energy requirements at full power. But the downstream countries (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) remain deeply opposed. The exact borders with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are still not formalized while the Chinese border was only settled in 2011 (they gave Beijing 1142 sq km of territory around Rang-Kul). But the most sensitive border is with Afghanistan. The withdrawal of US troops in 2014 means a period of uncertainty over security as Tajikistan risks being in the firing line of any Taliban spill-over.
Tajiks constitute only about 60% of the population. There are more Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. Eth
nic Uzbeks make up 25%. Tajiks distinguish themselves with their predominantly Persian ancestry and language. Pure-blood Tajiks tend to have thin, southern European-looking faces, with wide eyes and a Roman nose. In Badiakhshan, Pamiris speak related but different languages and follow Ismaili Islam (most Tajiks are Sunni). In the Murgab district, most of the people are Kyrgyz. Average family sizes remain high, and over 40% of Tajikistan’s population is under the age of 14.
In the western Pamirs, several languages are spoken, each as different from each other as English is from German. What binds them together is their shared Ismaili faith, a break-away sect of Shiite Islam introduced in the 11th century. It has no formal clerical structure and no weekly holy day. Instead of mosques, they have multipurpose meeting halls and small roadside shrines covered in ibex horns, burnt offerings and round stones. Ismailis revere the Swiss-born Aga Khan as an imam, 49th in direct line back to the prophet. Far more than a prophet, his charity foundation kept starvation at bay during the civil war, encouraged agricultural sustainability, and provided health care, schools and scholarships to Western universities, founding an educational ethos that is especially apparent in Khorog. Their homes look like poor, low-slung boxes but inside are a large, 5-pillared room with raised areas on four sides. Distinctively, the wooden ceiling is built in 4 concentric squares, each rotated 45° then topped with a skylight. Carpets line the walls and mattresses are the furniture. A portrait of the Aga Khan is prominent.
After 1929, all Tajikistan cultural baggage was left behind and replaced by Soviet drama, opera and ballet. The policy paid early dividends in Tajik theatre, novelists and poets. All Arabic expressions and references to Islam were removed from the Tajik tongue. Ancient figures from its Persian past have been revived to foster a sense of national identity. Folk music and dance are popular.
The Land. Landlocked and the smallest republic in Central Asia, half lies above 3000m as the eastern constantly high Pamir plateau and deep valleys and mountain ranges in the center and north. 7495m Koh-l Somoni is the highest peak in the former Soviet Union and its Fedchenko Glacier, at 72km, is one of the world’s longest. But the most beautiful are the spiky Fan Mountains with Peak Engels (6507m) one of the world’s toughest climbs. The Pyani River forms the Afghanistan border. In the north, the Stalin-drawn border with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is the stranded Fergana Valley.
Wildlife. The high Pamirs have 2400 ibex and 23,000 Marco Polo sheep with sustainable trophy hunting (US$30,000-60,000) funding protection programs. A hunting ban in 2008 only encouraged poaching. There are also a tiny number of snow leopards and critically threatened goitered gazelles.
Environmental issues. The 26,000-sq-km Tajik (Pamir) National Park, founded in 1992, is Central Asia’s largest covering 18% of the country. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2013. Deforestation within a 100km radius of Murgab has led to desertification. The population of Murgab is economically unsustainable but wind and solar power are becoming more common.
FOOD and DRINK
Kurutob – bread morsels layered with onion, tomato, parsley and coriander and doused in yoghurt is a popular lunch dish.
Chakku – curd mixed with herbs and served with flat bread.
Nahud sambusa – chickpea samosas.
Nahud shavla – chickpea porridge.
Oshi halav – herb soup.
Tuhum balav – tasty egg-filled ravioli coated with sesame oil.
Borj – savour porridge made of meat and grain.
Shir chai – between milk tea and Tibetan butter tea.
Shir gurch/shir brench – rice pudding.
Homestays. Good network in Pamir, Fan and Zerafshan mountains. Most have outdoor toilets and few have hot showers. Not all have signs. Sometimes there is no formal system and at least US$10-15 should be offered. Very few understand English but most speak Russian. Payment can be in US$ or somoni.
Dushanbe has few budget options.
Trekking is fantastic in the Fan Mountains and western Pamirs. Other options include mountaineering, white water kayaking, horse trekking and rock climbing (near Margab is the near-vertical, 1km high rock wall of Raang-Kul.
DANGERS and ANNOYANCES. It is generally remarkably safe.
Landmines and UXO. Mostly cleared except for tiny areas in remote border areas.
Tap water is not recommended.
Altitude Sickness. A potential problem for hikers above 3500m and if doing the Pamir Highway between Osh and Murgab in one day.
Bed Bugs can be an issue in some rural accommodation.
Bigger towns have reasonable access but don’t count on getting online in Murgab. Magafon and T-Cell offer fast dongles for your computer that may prove sufficient for several weeks of email usage.