Tajikistan - Travel and visas


Driving a 4x4 is almost essential in many parts of Tajikistan by Sophie and Max Lovell-Hoare

Transport without a 4x4 is almost impossible in many parts of Tajikistan, and it is important to keep this in mind when hiring a car © Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare

Visas
Getting there and away
Getting around

Visas

Unless you are a CIS national, you will almost certainly need a visa to enter Tajikistan. You should apply in good time (at least two weeks ahead of your intended arrival), and ideally in your country of residence (if it has a Tajik consulate). There are also a number of Tajikistan diplomatic missions overseas. If your country does not have a Tajik consulate you can send your passport to a consulate in another country, apply in person in another country or, occasionally, arrange with a travel agent to collect your visa on arrival at Dushanbe airport. Visas will not be issued on arrival to the nationals of countries where there is a consulate, and will not be issued to anyone at the land borders.

The visa application process is relatively straightforward. A letter of invitation (LOI) is generally not now required for the standard 30-day tourist visa, so you can simply download the visa application form from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website (www.mfa.tj) and fill it in. If you require a double- or multiple-entry visa, be sure to tick the correct box. You will need to submit it with a photocopy of your passport, a passport photo and a printout of your airline ticket or other proof of onward journey. The last is a recent requirement. A copy of your planned itinerary is also advisable. Submit all the paperwork along with your passport and the appropriate fee. Processing usually takes one week, though some consulates can fast-track the processing for an increased fee.

The cost of visas is constantly in flux and depends both on your nationality and the location at which you are applying. At the time of writing, the cost for a British national applying in London was £70.

If you want to stay longer in Tajikistan but are coming to the end of your visa, it is possible to get an extension in Dushanbe at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (22 Pushkin; open: 08.00–noon & 13.00–17.00 Mon–Fri, 08.00–noon Sat). You will need a photocopy of your passport and two passport photos and, having paid the requisite fee at the designated bank, your passport should be ready for collection two working days later. It may also be possible to get an extension at an Office of Visas and Registration (OVIR) but you should allow longer for this: in Khujand we were quoted ten days.

Getting there and away

However you choose to travel, Tajikistan is not a particularly easy country to reach. Land borders open and close somewhat erratically, flights are irregular at the best of times and cancelled at the first sign of bad weather, and wherever you arrive from by train you’ll require a passport full of visas and the patience of a saint.

By air

The vast majority of visitors arrive in Tajikistan on a flight to Dushanbe and this is, on balance, the easiest way to travel. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, you will need to have a visa before boarding the plane and may be prevented from flying if you do not.

The safety record of many of central Asia’s airlines (including some national carriers) is such that they are prevented from flying in European airspace. This includes both Tajik Air and Somon Air. Aircraft are typically far older than those in service elsewhere, and they have not always been maintained to international standards. It is likely, therefore, that if you take a flight originating in Europe or the US you will need to get a connection in one of the regional hubs (Almaty, Istanbul or Moscow). Direct flights to Tajikistan tend to come only from the Middle East, Russia and the other CIS countries.

The arrivals procedure is relatively straightforward. When you enter the terminal building collect an immigration form (a long, thin slip usually covered in advertising for the Beeline mobile phone network), fill it in and then wait in the immigration queue. Everything will get stamped, and part of the slip will be returned to you. Don’t lose it as you’ll be expected to hand it over when you leave. The baggage hall is the usual scrum, and there is a bottleneck near the exit as you have to have your baggage sticker checked and then pass everything through the X-ray machine.

By train

There is a certain romance attached to train travel, and if you have the time to sit and watch the world pass by at a leisurely pace (very leisurely in the case of the old Soviet rail network), it is still a viable way to reach Tajikistan. Regardless of where the train originates, you will need to ensure you have a valid transit visa for every country en route, as well as a visa for Tajikistan.

Ticket classes are categorised in the Russian style. First-class or deluxe accommodation (spets vagon) buys you an upholstered seat in a two-berth cabin. The seat turns into a bed at night. Second class (kupe) is slightly less plush, and there are four passengers to a compartment. Third class (platskartny) has open bunks (ie: not in a compartment) and, if you are really on a very tight budget indeed, a fourth-class ticket (obshchiy) gets you an unreserved and very hard seat. Bring plenty of food for the journey, and keep an eye on your luggage, particularly at night, as theft is sadly commonplace.

There is a certain romance attached to train travel, and if you have the time to sit and watch the world pass by at a leisurely pace (very leisurely in the case of the old Soviet rail network), it is still a viable way to reach Tajikistan.

There are three main train routes to Tajikistan. There are three trains a week in each direction between Moscow and Dushanbe, a weekly service between Moscow and Khujand, and a twice-weekly service between Samara (Saratov) and Khujand. All these services pass through Tashkent; the Dushanbe train also passes through Samarkand. Tickets to Moscow (second class) start from just over US$200 and the trip takes four days.

The train timetable for the whole Russian rail network (including central Asia) is online at www.poezda.net. The Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com) also has detailed information, including personal observations, about train travel in the former USSR.

If you are coming to Tajikistan from China, it would theoretically be possible to take the new train line from Urümqi to Almaty, change for Tashkent and then continue on to Dushanbe or Khujand. We have not, however, taken this route or met anyone who has, so if you do manage to ride it successfully we’d love to hear from you.

By road

Our preferred way to enter Tajikistan is through a land border, not because customs and immigration make it a particularly easy or pleasant experience, but because of the freedom having your own transport gives you once you finally make it inside.

The information given below was correct at the time of writing. However, border crossings open and close regularly, often with little warning, and some crossings are open only to locals and not to foreigners. Keep your ear to the ground and, if in doubt, contact a tour operator or Tajik consulate before confirming your travel plans. We have previously ignored our own advice, with the result that we had to drive overnight from Penjikent to the Oybek crossing north of Khujand to leave Tajikistan before our visas expired. We would not recommend you follow suit.

Reaching Tajikistan from Afghanistan tends to be fairly straightforward, as diplomatic relations between the two countries are generally good. The two main border crossings are between Kunduz and Dusti at Panj-i Poen (Khatlon province), and at Ishkashim on the northern side of the Wakhan Corridor. To enter Tajikistan at Ishkashim you will require a GBAO permit in addition to your Tajik visa. Pedestrians can also cross the suspension bridge over the Panj at Khorog and, if you have a transit visa for Uzbekistan, it would also be convenient (and a relatively quick drive) to cross from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan at Termiz, then cross into Tajikistan at Denau.

Our preferred way to enter Tajikistan is through a land border, not because customs and immigration make it a particularly easy or pleasant experience, but because of the freedom having your own transport gives you once you finally make it inside.

These borders loosely operate 09.00–16.00 and are officially closed on Sundays and public holidays, though certainly at Ishkashim we’ve managed to look so downtrodden and miserable that the guards got the relevant officials out of bed and opened the border specially (there’s not much to do in Ishkashim, perhaps). If your arrival happens to coincide with lunch you’ll have to wait, but any food, drink (non-alcoholic if you’re on the Afghan side) or cigarettes you have to share will certainly liven the experience. If you are entering Tajikistan, expect your baggage and vehicle to be thoroughly searched by customs. They are looking for narcotics.

Relations with Uzbekistan are a little more unpredictable, and hence at the time of writing, the most useful border between the two countries, the crossing between Samarkand and Penjikent, was closed. There is unfortunately no rumour of it reopening any time soon.

The Tursunzoda–Denau crossing west of Dushanbe remains open, and this is currently the best option if you are going to or from anywhere other than Tashkent and the northeast of Uzbekistan. It is well served by minibuses running in both directions, and providing you’re not stuck behind a busload of returning migrant workers carrying all their worldly possessions, processing is fairly quick.

Travelling to or from Tashkent you need the Oybek crossing 60km north of Khujand. The closest settlement on the Tajik side is the town of Buston. This crossing is open 24/7 for foreigners (locals have to camp out at the gates if they arrive at night) and it is relatively well organised on the Tajik side. Uzbek customs are utterly paranoid, want to X-ray every last sock (we saw one elderly gentleman even having to remove his car bumper and mud flaps to put them through the machine) and allow their admittedly very cute sniffer dog (a spaniel) to jump over everything. It also got overly excited and peed on our picnic.

Getting around

Tajikistan is not an especially large country, but the lack of infrastructure is such that travelling from A to B will always take up a significant proportion of your time. The best approach is to consider the journey itself as part of the adventure and, however you choose to travel, look out of the window and try to enjoy the views.

By plane

Tajik Air (www.tajikair.tj) has domestic flights covering various destinations in Tajikistan, but the only two routes that fly regularly are those between Dushanbe and Khujand, and Dushanbe and Khorog. The timetable is moveable at best, and flights are liable to be changed or cancelled at short notice, especially if the weather is poor.

You should be aware that many of the planes in use are old and have not been maintained in accordance with international standards. The terrain and unpredictable weather conditions also make for challenging flying conditions. Weigh up the pros and cons of flying, sit next to the emergency exit if you have the choice, and if you are walking across the runway to the plane, do not walk in front of the propellers. Even at a distance of 20m it is possible for things to get sucked into the blades.

By road

Wherever you want to go in Tajikistan, getting there will be half the fun. Riding around in the back of a truck is still a distinct possibility, but things are getting easier: the amount of sealed roads has greatly increased, new tunnels are cutting the number of nail-biting mountain passes, and road-clearance crews work to keep the main highways clear of rockfalls and other debris.

Transportation on the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan by Tourist Development Centre (TDC), Tajikistan

Transportation on the Pamir Highway can test even the most experienced and determined driver © Tourist Development Centre (TDC), Tajikistan

However close your destination, you should allow plenty of time to get there. Taxi and minibus drivers may appear to be in a rush, but they’re also the most likely to get flat tyres or to break down entirely. Snowfall and avalanches stop even the most determined of drivers. The journey may take a while but you will get there eventually, inshallah (‘God willing’ – you will hear this a lot!). Bad roads and cramped buses can be physically very wearing, so make sure you factor in as much time as you can between long trips for recharging your batteries.

One thing to bear in mind when travelling by road is dust. Even on predominantly paved roads there is plenty of sand and grit. Keep a scarf or bandana handy to protect your nose and mouth and keep anything that might get damaged (specifically electronics) inside the vehicle with you, as any bags on the roof will look like they’ve been through a dust storm.

By bus

Tajikistan’s buses fall into two categories: relatively modern, usually Chinese-made buses that serve set, inner-city routes; and the mashrutka, overcrowded minibuses in varying stages of decay that are driven by devils on speed. The minibuses, sadly, are by far the most common, and if you are travelling between smaller cities in Tajikistan they’ll be the most common form of transport. You are not guaranteed to get a seat, and will likely spend much of your journey with someone else’s shopping on your lap and their elbow in your face.

By taxi

Most towns have taxis. Drivers instantly mark up their fares for a foreigner, so be prepared to haggle. There are two types of taxis: professional taxis which may even have a yellow taxi sign on the roof, and general motorists who are happy to pick up passengers and drop them to their destination for a few somoni. In both cases you will need to agree a fare at the start of your journey and be prepared to stop and ask directions en route. Having a map and the name of any landmarks close to your destination will certainly help, as will writing down the address in Cyrillic script.

Self-drive

Having your own vehicle gives you the ultimate freedom to travel where you want, and we would thoroughly recommend it. A 4x4 is highly advisable for overlanding in Tajikistan, particularly if you want to get away from the main roads. You can frequently find yourself driving over mud and rock and through riverbeds, particularly in the spring, and will need the extra power to keep yourself from getting stuck. The Land Rover is still the vehicle of choice for most overlanders, but getting parts in Tajikistan is nigh on impossible: you’ll need to bring your own spares, or compromise and get a Toyota Hilux, which local mechanics will be more familiar with.

Whatever your vehicle, there are several important points to consider. Fuel and water are top of the list. Carry as much fuel as you can to increase your range. Away from the large towns, fuel can sometimes be hard to come by and the quality is often low. It’s worth filtering fuel through a specialised filter or piece of gauze to prevent the crud blocking the fuel lines. Make sure your spare container is kept topped up.

Petrol (benzene) in Tajikistan is sold by the litre and is usually available as octane 91 or 92. The 95 is much harder to come by. Diesel (80) is significantly cheaper and has the added advantage that you can always siphon some off a truck (with the driver’s permission) if you run low in the middle of nowhere. Along with fuel, carry as much water as possible, both for yourself and to cool your engine in case of overheating.

By bicycle

Tajikistan is a popular destination for cyclists pitting themselves against the challenges of the Pamir Highway or passing through the country on a multi-country trip. It is not unusual to see Lycra-clad foreigners sweating their way up long and lonely hills, and they inspire both curiosity and confusion in the local population. Tajikistan’s roads are hard on both cyclists and their bikes. Replacement parts are not generally available locally, necessitating a wait in Dushanbe whilst DHL delivers whatever is needed from home.

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