Afghanistan?” the man at the airport check-in desk screamed at me as if I was completely crazy; “No, but close, Tajikistan” I answered with a big smile, as if I was casually flying to the US or Italy. With a clueless look on his face, he then whispered to himself “you’re the first person I ever meet, who’s going to that country…” I have to admit, flights from Hanoi to Dushanbe are probably less common than a Paris-New-York or a Dubai-Tokyo… But at that moment, it represented exactly what I was looking for. After about two months spent in “backpacker’s heaven” aka South-East Asia, I was willing to discover an off-the-beaten-track country, a very remote place where I had literally no idea of what to expect. And in that regard, the destination I had chosen just seemed completely perfect.

Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan

It would take me three plane-rides and almost twenty-four hours to reach my final destination but I could already feel it: in the end, all this commuting would be totally worth it. My first plane took me from Viet Nam to China, where I had a lay-over in the huge airport of Guangzhou. There, I ran from the international to the domestic terminal, to catch my second plane, which would fly to the mystical city of Urumqi. On board, as we were heading towards the Uighur capital, I was the only Westerner and the very first they had ever seen, for some of the passengers… As we arrived in Urumqi, the China Southern kindly lent me a room, to get over the fact that I would now have to handle an additional nine hours lay-over.

Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan

The next day, time had finally come, I was about to fly to my final destination. Little did I know however, as I sat on the plane, that I was about to experience one of the most beautiful flights of my life. And after two hours spent flying over the astonishing Pamir Mountains, I was finally in Tajikistan. As we landed in an empty airport (literally – I mean, NO planes at all!), I headed towards the customs. And, a few minutes later, I was finally leaving the building, with a new original stamp on my passport. As I was exiting the place, a dozen of men dressed like Ahmad Shah Massoud gathered around me, to offer me (in Russian, that is) their services as illegal taxis. Though feeling a bit lost and confused, I finally hopped on one car that would, hopefully, lead me to the centre of the city. Today was a great day, I had finally arrived, and I simply couldn’t wait to discover this country!

Inside the Tajik capital: Dushanbe (2 Days)

My first stop was the country’s capital, Dushanbe, where I had decided to settle for two days. As always with Couchsurfing, I had been extremely lucky and had found a great host in the city. Though Anna was at work when I arrived, she managed to explain to the taxi driver in Russian, on the phone, where to go in order to reach her condo. Very few streets in Dushanbe have names, so it’s important to know landmarks and how to navigate with them. And if you are new to the city, it’s always better to find an English-speaker who can help you, especially if you don’t speak Russian or Tadjik. As my host would be busy at work most of the time during my stay, she had managed to introduce me to one of her friends, who would show me the city over the next few days. Her friend Andy took me to the Zielony Bazar (also called Green Bazaar), where I interacted for the first time with the population. The Tajik people are extremely nice and welcoming, though they might laugh at you, if you start taking pictures, as they are really not used to tourists.

Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan

After a few hours walking along the market’s aisles of meat, spices, tea, bread and fresh fruits, we headed towards the city-centre. There, the most famous monument is the Somoni statue, built in honor of the man chosen by the Tajik government as their national hero. Their money is also called the Somoni. Another worth-seeing building downtown is the 1942 Opera House that was lately renovated. Once you’re toured the centre, take the opportunity to discover another Dushanbe over the next day. My recommendation would be to pay a visit to the city’s great mosque, which can welcome tens of thousands worshippers at once. There, I was nicely welcomed by Milod, the head of the Mosque’s international department, who answered all my questions and even walked with me inside the beautiful prayer hall. Other interest-worthy places include the different parks in the city, the Ismaili centre, the National Museum and the National Library.

Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan

Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan

My time in Dushanbe also allowed me to try some Tajik dishes, like the Korotov, a delicious meal made of Tadjik bread, oil, milk and fresh greens. Another one of my favourites is the Lagban, a soup made out of big noodles mixed with meat, cream and parsley. And it would be a crime not to mention what has to be one of the tastiest dish in the region: Plov, also called Osh, which consists in a big plate of rice, oil, meat and carrots. If you’re not a fan of big meals and prefer to pack some snacks, try at least the Peroshki (pastry made out of potatoes and cheeses) during your stay!

Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan

En route to the Mountains: the Zarafshan Valley (3 Days)

After a few days spent in the city, nature was calling me, and that’s why we ended up heading towards Aini. The first step of our expedition consisted in finding a mashrutka that would take us to our final destination (you can find mashrutkas all over Central Asia, they are shared public vans that will take you to point A to point B, either in the region or inside a city). Aini is a very small village, located in the Zarafshan Valley, three hours away from Dushanbe. Time flew by while we were heading there, as I was captivated by the beauty of our itinerary. If the landscape around the Tajik capital city was mostly green, we ended up surrounded by snow pretty soon. That’s when we reached the “Tunnel of Death”, a 5km long passage piercing a big mountains, where there is absolutely no light, nor is the road paved (if you’re claustrophobic, let me warn you: this might be you’re worst nightmare).

Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan

Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan

Thankfully, the tunnel was the last (scary) bit before reaching Aini and going through was well worth it. In the north of the country, people are even less used to seeing tourists. Almost every person you will meet, will kindly invite you for tea. But the interest of the place is not only due to the locals: what made me fall in love with Aini was the beauty of the place itself and the landscapes surrounding it. There, not two mountains are alike: they are from all sizes, colours and shapes. And for all the off-the-beaten-track enthusiasts, I can assure you that you can trek there freely, for hours, without meeting anybody. Another thing that made the area so special, was the fact that I was there during spring. As I was walking through the valley, hundreds of cherry-blossom trees were surrounding me. The landscape was so breath-taking that I wondered if all of this was not a dream…

Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan

Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan

Other natural wonders: Iskanderkul and the Pamir (3 Days)

Tajikistan is a paradise for all nature enthusiasts, and the Zarafshan Valley is not the only place that will make you love this country. From Dushanbe, you can, for instance, decide to go spend the day at Iskanderkul (Alexander’s Lake). According to folklore, this is where Alexander the Great lost his favourite warhorse – Bucephalus. The lake is one of the many turquoise lagoons, also called Marguzor, lost in between the highest peaks of the country (5000m): the Fann Mountains, simply stunning.

Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan IskanderkulPhoto Credit: http://thientravelography.blogspot.com

Other breathtaking mountains are the Pamir, which are among the highest on earth, nicknamed the “Roof of the World” in Persian. They lie mostly in the Gorno-Badakhshan province of Tajikistan. Though they are far from the country’s capital, if you ever decide to go there, you will be able to stay in a yurt and experience life in the mountains with Tadjik and Kyrgyz locals. Though I didn’t try it myself, I was recommended the Murghab Ecotourism Association for this kind of expedition. One thing to note though: In addition to a Tajik visa, a special permit is required to visit the province of Gorno-Badakhshan, and it is known as the GBAO.

28_Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan

One the road to the other “–stans”: Khujand (2 Days)

My last stop in Tajikistan was second largest city in the country, named Khujand. Located six hours away from Dushanbe, the road to get there is completely crazy. We went through the “Tunnel of Death” once again but we then continued and drove up a very tiny path to the top of the mountains. Eventually, we ended up lost in the clouds, starting to ask ourselves if we were ever on the right road… But an hour later, we finally reached our destination and got to discover one of the oldest cities in Central Asia, which was also, back in time, a major point along the Silk Road.

Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan

The next day, I was lucky enough to experience one of the most important moments there. Navruz had come and everybody was ready to celebrate the Persian New Year. This tradition is very important to the inhabitants of Central Asia as well as for the Iranians. As I walked through the city-centre of Khujand, I looked at the locals on the main square, all dressed up in their traditional costumes. In front of the 16th century central mosque, kids were running after the pigeons while their parents were taking care of their last errands, in the biggest bazaar of all Central Asia. On the opposite side of the square, free food was offered to everyone and the locals were greating each other with a joyful “Navruzatom Muborak!” (Happy Navruz!). It was now time to change countries and head to Samarkand…

Travelettes Itinerary for Tajikistan

Tajikistan is certainly one of the least-visited countries in Central Asia and now that I discovered it, I cannot help but wonder why. I guess a lot of people assimilate it to Afghanistan’s unstable situation, but they couldn’t be more wrong. I never felt threatened or unsafe while I was there, and the inhabitants were both very friendly and hospitable. Plus, the beauty of the country is not limited to its people, nature here is simply incredible. If you ever think about heading towards Central Asia, I can only recommend to make a stop in Tajikistan, starting by its capital, Dushanbe. The country is very different from its neighbouring nations and it’ll give you a complete different outlook on the remains of the ex-Soviet Union. And if you want to discover more about the region, stay tuned, as I will soon provide you with the perfect guide to another great Central Asian country: Uzbekistan.

A few more things to know before heading to Tajikistan:

  • Flights to Tajikistan cost a lot of money, as very few companies fly to Dushanbe. Make sure to book your trip well in advance and to compare prices, in order to get a reasonable deal.
  • You can only get a Visa On Arrival (VOA) if you land at the airport. If you plan to arrive to Tajikistan by land (ex: from Uzbekistan), you will have to take care of your visa beforehand.
  • In Tajikistan, you won’t find a lot of people speaking English. Though the official language is Tajik, most locals do speak Russian. If you do not master this language, bring a small dictionary with you, as it will become your best tool to communicate with people and guarantee your survival.
  • Bring cash with you, as some ATMs do not accept international credit card. Also try to spend all your Tajik money before leaving the country, as it will be difficult to change it afterwards.
  • I can only recommend to use Couchsurfing in Tajikistan, as it is a lot easier to discover the country with the help of local people.

_____________________________

This post was written by Elisa Fourt.
Elisa Fourt was part of the Travelettes team from 2015 to 2017.  Elisa usually describes herself as a world citizen. She has lived, studied, worked and travelled in more than 60 countries throughout her life and she loves to share her passion for the world with others. When she is not planning her next trip or writing about the last one, Elisa likes to help people in need and get involved in various not-for-profit projects. She currently works for a NGO in the Middle-East. Follow her on Instagram @lisou.me