With its style caught somewhere between stark Soviet-era and laid-back Western café culture, Tajikistan’s capital city feels more like a market town than a metropolis. Its skyline is scraped by a handful of mid-rises and accented by the world’s now second-tallest flagpole, and the parks and gardens have benefited from some lush landscaping and impressive water features.
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. 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.
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 post-independence architectural legacy.
The best things to see and do in Dushanbe
National Museum of Antiquities
The largest and most important museum in Dushanbe, this cultural highlight houses artefacts covering 3,000 years of Tajik history. Recently renovated, the museum is laid out according to a mixture of geography and chronology. Some of the more important items are labelled in English, and the staff are keen to tell you about the items on show.
The museum’s greatest draw, the Sleeping Buddha, takes pride of place on the second floor. Since the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, this 16m-long statue is the largest remaining Buddha in central Asia. Dating from around ad500 and sculpted from local clay, it was discovered at the Buddhist monastery of Ajina Tepa in 1966 and had to be moved to Dushanbe in sections.
Sandwiched between Rudaki and Ismoili Somoni, this sprawling park is a well-maintained space with numerous flower beds that come into bloom in early summer and are a colourful addition to the landscape right through to autumn. In September, the beds are a riot of red and orange.
Whichever path you take through the park you’ll be unable to miss the world’s second-tallest flagpole. Rising 165m above the park, this controversial structure cost US$3.5 million to build and was erected as the world’s tallest in May 2011 as part of celebrations to commemorate 20 years of Tajik independence. Three years later, the city of Jeddah erected a 170m pole, snatching the flag for Saudi Arabia.
At its heart lies the Palace of Nations, an imposing structure that can be seen from across the city. With its golden dome, it is home to both President Rahmon and many of the government ministries. Though photogenic, the palace guards are a little jumpy about foreigners wielding cameras, so if you wish to take a photo then do so subtly. This is not the place to set up your long lens on a tripod.
Other photo opportunities in this area are the ostentatious golden statue of Ismoili Somoni with its two uniformed guards, the elegant, marble Independence monument (aka Stele), and the rather more tasteful Arch of Rudaki. The statue of Rudaki stands beneath a colourful mosaic arch and is reflected in the pool of water below. Don’t miss the immense artificial waterfall built into the side of a hill overlooking the racetrack and the river.
National Library of Tajikistan
Relocated from its original position by the Academy of Sciences, the new National Library opened in 2012 and is designed to look like an open book. The biggest library in central Asia, it holds over 10 million books – the original building housed only 2.5 million when it opened, but a call was put out to Tajiks to donate books to help fill the shelves.
On the first floor you can find books about Tajik history, culture and traditions. The library also houses an important collection of ancient manuscripts that includes one of the earliest copies of Firdausi’s famous work, the Shahnama (Book of Kings).
Writers’ Union Building
On the northern side of Ismoili Somoni, this is one of Dushanbe’s most unusual but striking constructions. It dates from the Soviet period but its façade is covered with life-sized statues of Tajik poets and other cultural heroes whose lives and work span the last millennium.
With the notable exception of Firdausi, few of the names are easily recognisable to foreigners, but this monument does show the high esteem in which the Tajik people hold their vernacular literary figures.
Getting to Dushanbe
Dushanbe Airport is within easy walking distance of the city centre, and in good weather (and without too much luggage) it is a pleasant stroll.
By bus, companies like Asian Express offer services across the country as well as from places like Moscow, Tashkent and Samarkand.