Isolated Iskanderkul Lake, surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Fann Mountains, is a favourite among locals and visitors alike © Alisher Primkulov, Shutterstock
Tajikistan is the roof of the world. When you first start to read about the country, or talk to people about it, this same cliché pops up time and again. Initially it may seem that such repetition shows a lack of imagination among writers (at least a century of them, and counting), but when you finally come to stand atop a peak in the High Pamir, staring down as a concertina of meringue-like peaks unfolds beneath you, or even swoop down to land on a scheduled flight, holding your breath else the pilot brushes the snow off the mountaintops with the underside of the plane, you too will find the same phrase tripping off your tongue. Tajikistan is the roof of the world.
For those visitors with vertigo or for whom battling the elements on the mountainside holds limited appeal, the country does, fortunately, have somewhat more to offer. Its numerous attractions, often hidden away from the well-worn path, together 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.
Nature has been kind to Tajikistan, bestowing the country not only with breathtaking beauty but with a moderate climate too. Mountains and glaciers, lush river valleys and dense forest support a bewildering array of flora and fauna, including the famed (but sadly camera-shy) Marco Polo sheep and the even rarer snow leopard. Hot springs – either the result of geological faults or miracles enacted by ancient holy men – are scattered through the valleys, their warm, mineral-rich waters both a pleasant diversion on a journey, and, for local Muslims, important pilgrimage sites. Alpine meadows bursting with the bright colours of spring flowers create a patchwork rainbow that streaks across the horizon, the pastures welcome picnic spots for road-weary tourists and grazing goats alike.
Tajikistan’s rich past has left ample mark on its present. Though the Buddhist temples of Ajina Tepa and Takht-i Sangin are now broken shadows of their former, prestigious selves, walking along the ruined walls here, in ancient Panjakent or in 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.
The Soviet and post-independence periods are also not without their visual legacies. Though Lenins and Marxes have more often been ousted from their once prominent plinths, a few still stand as reminders of the enduring impact of communism on Tajikistan. Manmade dams and reservoirs, cotton fields, mines and industrial units, all legacies of Soviet planning, still dot the landscape, some contributing to the modern economy but others laid to waste.
In Dushanbe, more than any other city, the desire of President Rahmon to make a statement and to be remembered is clear: the wide, tree-lined streets may date from earlier years, but the architectural statements – the Palace of Nations with its gleaming, golden dome; the world’s second-tallest flagpole; and the imposing statue of Ismoili Somoni, flanked by uniformed guards – are all his doing. A quarter-century after independence, the country’s cultural identity is still being created, as Tajiks living abroad return to plant new ideas and dreams in timeless soil, and younger generations mature with hope and optimism. Tajikistan is a resilient place, where exceptional beauty is found through every tunnel and mountain pass.
The domes and minarets of Khujand are a reminder of the medieval influence of Islam in Tajikistan © Milosz Maslanka, Shutterstock
In fairy tales a hero rides in on a white horse; in Tajikistan he’s more likely to be driving a 4×4. We’ve always considered ourselves to be fairly accomplished overlanders, but Tajikistan’s roads (and sometimes lack thereof) have tested us to our limits, and we’d never have completed a fraction of the journeys we’ve made if it weren’t for the kindness of strangers. We’ve been dug out of the river mud by soldiers, had the dangling bits of our engine cable-tied back into place on the Pamir Highway, and been rescued by the British Embassy car (complete with spare wheel-nut key) at midnight in a car park in Khujand. All our saviours appeared from nowhere, with few of them did we share more than half a dozen words in common, and in every case we were left feeling our new friends were even more grateful than we were for the meeting. In Tajikistan a guest is king.