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Tajikistan - Eating and sleeping
Tajikistan does not have a long tradition of eating in restaurants: it was nigh on impossible during the Soviet period due to food shortages and the fact that people were encouraged to eat collectively in the work canteen. This is slowly changing in urban centres, particularly as families choose to host wedding feasts and other large celebrations in restaurants rather than at home, but you will not find the density or diversity of restaurants typical in some other parts of Asia.
Restaurants in Tajikistan (particularly those situated outside of Dushanbe) typically have a limited menu of Russian and Tajik dishes. It is rare for everything listed to actually be available. If the restaurant is not fully booked for a celebration you won’t need a reservation, nor to wait for a table. Service may be chaotic but it is generally good-natured. You’ll be expected to leave a tip: 10% is standard.
(Photo: Vegetable sellers at a Tajik street market © Sitara International, www.sitara.com)
More common than restaurants and cafés are street-side food stalls: from American fast-food stands with burgers and fries, to smoking grills and the vinegary smell of shashlik and onions wafting down the road, making your stomach rumble. Women with trays piled high with savoury pastries saunter through markets and the lobbies of office buildings; trestle tables nearly buckle beneath the weight of freshly baked bread.
Tajikistan has very few clubs and bars: there are just a scattering of establishments in Dushanbe and Khujand. They tend to be frequented predominantly by businessmen (both locals and foreign nationals); it’s unusual to see unaccompanied women in bars unless they’re working. Champagne and expensive vodka brands such as Beluga are the status drinks of choice, and cocktails are increasingly popular. Drinking to excess is common, as is drink-driving home.
Tajikistan runs on bread and tea. Wherever you are, from a customs post to a shepherd’s hut, there will always be a kettle on the boil and a few china tea bowls filled with a light, steaming tea.
Tajik cuisine is definitely central Asian (plenty of grilled meats and dairy products), but with an influence from Afghanistan and Russia too. The national dish, as far as there is one, is plov or osh, an oily rice-based dish with shredded carrot, meat and occasionally raisins, roasted garlic or nuts. Plov is eaten with the hands from a communal plate at the centre of the table.
Equally popular is qurutob. Balls of salted cheeses (qurut) are dissolved in water and poured over dry, flaky bread. The dish is then topped with onions fried in oil. It may be accompanied by laghmon (noodle soup with mutton). Tajik restaurants tend to offer diners quite a limited menu.
Every meal is accompanied by round, flat bread called non. Non is treated almost reverentially: it should not be put on the floor, placed upside down or thrown away. If it has turned stale it shoud be given to the birds.
Common snacks include manti (steamed meat dumplings), somsa (triangular pastry with a meat and onion stuffing) and belyash (deep-fried dough stuffed with minced lamb).
Dairy products feature heavily in Tajik cuisine. In addition to the qurut are chaka (sour milk) and kaymak (clotted cream), both of which are eaten with bread. Western-style yoghurt, including bottled yoghurt drinks, is popular for breakfast.
If you are in Tajikistan in late summer and early autumn, the country is bursting with fresh fruits. Roadsides stalls sell watermelons the size of beach balls; the sweet, juicy pomegranates are a glorious shade of pink; and you can also enjoy grapes, apricots, apples, figs and peaches.
Accommodation options in Tajikistan stretch from the absurd to the sublime, and sometimes are both at once.
At the top-end of the market, Dushanbe has luxury hotels with marble bathrooms, quality restaurants and hot and cold running flunkies. Their private generators keep the power running whatever’s happening in the city and your fellow guests will be well-heeled businessmen and expatriates. You will, however, pay well in excess of TJS960 a night for the privilege, and once through the door could be in more or less any city on earth.
Mid-range hotels are a mixed bag, with some charging excessive sums for fairly basic facilities. The Soviet-era hotels often fall into this bracket, but there are also pleasant surprises such as Hotel Mercury in Dushanbe and the Serena in Khorog.
Take advantage of the recent development of community-based tourism and spend the night in a homestay, such as a traditional yurt in Murgab © Tourist Development Centre (TDC), Tajikistan
Tajikistan has plenty of budget rooms. Whether you’d want to stay in them is a different matter. Family-run guesthouses are frequently the best option (and ideal for meeting other travellers), but you’d probably best get used to shared bathrooms and a squat toilet in the garden.
Recent years have seen the development of community-based tourism (CBT) in Tajikistan, and this is a huge boon to travellers in the Fann and Zarafshan mountains and in the Pamirs. Not only are homestays affordable (usually US$10 per person plus meals) but they give you the opportunity to see inside a Tajik home, meet a family and fill up on home-cooked food.
Designated campsites are relatively uncommon in Tajikistan and those sites typically lack facilities: you will not, for example, find electricity hook-up points or drinking water taps. It is permitted to camp in the national parks and, indeed, in many remote areas camping will be your only option, especially if you are trekking. Note that there are still unmarked minefields in Tajikistan, particularly in border areas and on the banks of the Panj River, so you should exercise utmost caution at all times. If you wish to put up a tent on private land you will need to ask the owner and will usually be expected to pay a few dollars for the privilege.