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Head for the National Museum for an overview of Tajikistan's remarkable history © Milosz Maslanka, Shutterstock
Laid back and lushly landscaped, Tajikistan’s capital city feels more like a market town than a metropolis, its skyline scraped by a handful of mid-rises and accented by the world’s now second-tallest flagpole. Without centuries of Silk Road wealth or the patronage of indulgent emperors, Dushanbe’s façades have historically been far humbler than those of many of its central Asian rivals, though that is changing with the controversial push towards bigger, bolder buildings: the opulent Navruz Palace and immense National Museum of Tajikistan among them. But the geography of the valley, the paths of the rivers, and the acres of parkland and trees still define the shape of the city and give it a quietly bustling feel. Today, the city’s population is 802,700, predominantly ethnic Tajik, but with significant numbers of Uzbeks, a steadily decreasing Russian community, students from India, and a smattering of European and American expats working in the international aid and development sectors.
In the heart of the Hisor Valley, at the confluence of the Varzob and Kofarnihon rivers, Dushanbe (meaning ‘Monday’) takes its name from the weekly market, which historically took place on this site. Though archaeological finds suggest an ancient heritage, the modern city is just 80 years old, and its former name of Stalinabad reveals its past is forever linked to that of the USSR
With acres of parkland, humble façades and a laid-back atmosphere, Tajikistan’s capital feels like part of the countryside.
Dushanbe’s geographical isolation may have contributed to its less starkly Soviet architecture, but many of the more notable buildings from the country’s decades as a republic of the USSR – including the central post office and the much-loved Vladimir Mayakovsky Drama Theatre – have been demolished in recent years and replaced by even larger commercial structures financed by developers from across Asia. Still, many of the buildings in the centre of the city are predominantly low-rise, brightly painted, and hark back to an earlier Russian style. The tree-lined avenues, and the manicured parks and cafés in squares, create an almost continental feel, and the clutch of monuments and museums speak to Tajikistan’s push for a postindependence architectural legacy.
At 812m above sea level, Dushanbe is undoubtedly a mountain capital, and it is therefore no surprise that easy day trips from the capital put you up close with an impressive landscape. The three gorges – Romit, Shirkent and Varzob – are all picturesque picnic spots with fine trekking opportunities, and the 19th-century Hisor Fortress confirms the importance of the mountains as a natural defence against attackers.