Tajikistan’s attractions are deeply varied, from 5,000-year-old ruins to world-class drives to buz kashi, aka dead goat polo, and are often hidden away from the well-worn path. But together they 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. To provide food for thought, however, here is an eclectic selection of the country’s top five highlights.
Go trekking in remote wilderness
Standing atop a peak in the Fann Mountains, it's clear why Tajiksitan is known as the 'Roof of the World' © Tetiana Perevalo, Shutterstock
Trekking is one of the main reasons that visitors come to Tajikistan: the mountains are exceptionally beautiful, and the more remote and higher reaches are accessible only on foot. There are suitable routes for everyone here, from those who fancy a day hike to a lake or waterfall to see the birds and have a picnic, to serious climbers who want to make a first ascent or trial new routes up peaks over 6,000m. The main areas for trekking are the Fann and Zarafshan mountains in the northwest of Tajikistan, and the Great and Little Pamirs in the east. Both areas have definite attractions: which you choose will depend on how long you have available, the time of year, and what you want to see.
Wander among ancient ruins
Few foreign tourists venture this far along the road, so you might well have the place to yourself © Kalpak Travel, www.kalpak-travel.com
Walking along the ruined walls at ancient Panjakent or 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. Five thousand years of archaeological history lie here, at the country's first UNESCO World Heritage Site and the so-called Pompeii of central Asia, close to the Tajik–Uzbek border. Though the most important archaeological finds have been removed to museums in Dushanbe and Russia, the well-preserved ruins and their small museums give a fascinating insight into Tajikistan’s early history.
Drive the Pamir Highway across the Roof of the World
Driving across the striking but largely empty Murghab Plateau is the highlight of the Pamir Highway, one of the world’s best drives © Michal Knitl, Shutterstock
The prize for the world’s best drive is hotly contested, but the Pamir Highway certainly comes close to perfection (at least in terms of thrills and views). Magnificent mountains, gushing rivers and waterfalls, summer settlements with nomads and sheep, and scarcely another vehicle in sight are all points in its favour. While it’s not a route for the faint-hearted, if you have the physical and mental stamina it’s a once in a lifetime experience whether you’re travelling by two wheels or four. Be sure to visit in the summer months as the road is impassable during the rest of the year.
Be entranced by traditional sports
The traditional sport of buz kashi is an adrenalin-fuelled rugby scrum played across Tajikistan and Afghanistan © Maximum Exposure Productions
As in the rest of central Asia, horse racing and horseback games remain a popular source of entertainment, particularly in rural areas. But it is the exciting and impressive sport of buz kashi, also known as ‘dead goat polo’ that typically captures the eye of visitors and photographers. Derived from goat raiding, teams of men (often from rival villages) race and wrestle the decapitated carcass of a goat with the aim of throwing it into a goal at the end of the pitch. Your best chance of seeing a match is at Navruz (which coincides with the vernal equinox in late March) and, following that, on other public holidays in spring and summer.
Experience the local hospitality
Staying in a homestay is a great way of experiencing Tajik culture firsthand © Kalpak Travel, www.kalpak-travel.com
Hospitality is very important in Tajikistan: this was historically a country of traders and nomads after all, and with a relatively hostile climate, especially in the winter months, it was expected that you would welcome strangers into your home to keep them safe. If you meet someone during your travels, you might well be invited into their home to meet their family. Recent years have seen the development of community-based tourism in Tajikistan, with organised homestays with locals. A great development for travellers in remote regions, not only are homestays affordable but they give you the opportunity to see inside a Tajik home, meet a family and fill up on home-cooked food.
Discover more of what makes Tajikistan special with our new guide: