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Tajikistan - When and where to visit
Tajikistan’s climate is continental, and varies dramatically according to elevation. It is the wettest of the central Asian republics, but again rain and snowfall depend on location, from the relatively dry valleys of Kafiristan and Vakhsh (500mm a year), to the Fedchenko Glacier, which receives in excess of 2,200mm of annual snowfall.
Temperatures in Tajikistan’s lowlands range on average from -1°C in January to as much as 30°C in July. The climate is arid, and artificial irrigation is required for agriculture. In the eastern Pamirs it is far colder: winter temperatures frequently fall to 20° below freezing, and the average temperature in July is just 5°C.
(Photo: An elaborately decorated mosaic roof © Leonid Meleca, Dreamstime)
Tajikistan explodes into life in the spring. As the snows subside and the higher parts of the country once again become accessible, the lower mountain slopes and pastures are a riot of colour, and Tajiks celebrate Navruz, the Persian New Year, with feasting, dancing and adrenalin-charged games of buz kashi.
In the summer months, when temperatures in Dushanbe and the lowlands soar to uncomfortable levels, the Pamirs come into their own: they are unreachable at other times of the year. Glacial meltwaters have slowed, the rivers are no longer in spate and, though an occasional blizzard may still catch you unawares, you can join the shepherds as they drive their flocks up into the mountains to grow fat on the grasses of high pastures.
Tajikistan marks its Independence Day on 9 September, and the crops in the Fergana Valley and other agricultural areas are harvested. As the autumn progresses the emerald green trees that form ribbons through the bottom of each river valley turn almost overnight to a fiery red and orange. There’s a bite to the air come nightfall, but bright sunshine still warms up the day.
The winter is hard in Tajikistan, with many communities cut off and, if the harvest has been poor, dangerously short of food. For those with money, however, the snowfall marks the start of the ski season, and the Takob ski resort becomes busy with day trippers from Dushanbe.
Tajikistan’s attractions are deeply varied, from dinosaur footprints to Soviet hydro-electric dams, and your itinerary is likely to be influenced by your personal interests, mode of transport and the areas in which you travel. To provide food for thought, however, here is an eclectic selection of what we feel is the country’s highlights.
Ancient Penjikent and Sarazm
Five thousand years of archaeological history at Tajikistan’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ancient Penjikent, and the so-called Pompeii of central Asia, Sarazm, are scarcely a stone’s throw from one another, close to the Tajik–Uzbek border. Though the most important archaeological finds have been removed to museums in Dushanbe and Russia, the well-preserved ruins and their small museums give a fascinating insight into Tajikistan’s early history.
The traditional sport of buz kashi, aka dead goat polo, is an adrenalin-fuelled rugby scrum on horseback played in mountain villages across Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Derived from goat raiding, teams of men (often from rival villages) 24 race and wrestle the decapitated carcass of a goat with the aim of throwing it into a goal at the end of the pitch. Your best chance of seeing a match is at Navruz and, following that, on other public holidays in spring and summer.
Players engaged in a fierce game of buz kashi, also known as dead goat polo © Maximum Exposure Productions
The hot springs of Garm Chashma, just south of Khorog, are naturally occurring and have purportedly curative properties. Over thousands of years the mineral deposits have created a giant rock meringue, and you can sit and soak at the heart of it while staring up at the hillside in nothing more than your birthday suit. Men and women bathe separately.
This turquoise-blue lake surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Fann Mountains is an understandable favourite with Tajik day trippers and foreign trekkers alike. Easily accessible from Dushanbe it can be combined with the Seven Lakes for a five-day trek or, for those seeking something a little less strenuous, it’s an idyllic spot to camp, have a barbecue and rent a boat on the lake.
The prize for the world’s best drive is hotly contested, and the Pamir Highway certainly comes close to perfection. Magnificent mountains, gushing rivers and waterfalls, summer settlements with nomads and sheep, and scarcely another vehicle in sight are all points in its favour. Whilst it’s not a route for the faint-hearted, if you have the physical and mental stamina it’s a once in a lifetime experience whether you’re travelling by two wheels or four.
Tajikistan runs on tea, and it’s as significant for the social interaction that occurs while you drink as for the beverage itself. Whether you go to a chaikhana (literally a ‘tea house’) or are invited to join someone for a cup at their home, make sure you take the time to stop, drink and chat as the Tajiks do: hospitality and tea are virtually interchangeable and certainly not to be missed.
Isolation saved the Sogdians. Fleeing from Penjikent when the Arabs invaded, almost all were slaughtered. Only those hidden in the mountains, cut off from the outside world, survived. Some 1,300 years on, their few descendants still live in the Yagnob Valley, amongst them the last speakers of Sogdian, the tongue Alexander the Great would have heard on the battlefield when he rode into Bactria in the 4th century bc.
The challenge with Tajikistan is not selecting what to include in an itinerary but rather what to leave out: time is always a limiting factor, particularly when the hours spent travelling from A to B can be a significant part of your trip. If your time is short, select a city and make it the hub of your journeys. If you have longer to play with, think of getting to your destination as part of the adventure, sit back and enjoy the views.
Just a couple of days is sufficient time to explore the main sights of Dushanbe. Start with a stroll along Rudaki to orientate yourself, and head for the National Museum for an overview of Tajikistan’s history and to see the remarkable sleeping Buddha from Ajina Teppa. The neighbouring Ethnographic Museum is also worth an hour of your time.
Take lunch in the square outside the Aini Opera and Ballet Theatre, and while you’re there buy a ticket for the evening’s performance. Spend the afternoon in Central Park looking at the monuments to Rudaki and Ismoili Somoni, and also the dazzling new Palace of Nations. Return to the theatre to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the live orchestra, all washed down with Georgian champagne.
(Photo: The golden statue of Ismoili Somoni in Tursunzoda © Leonid Meleca, Shutterstock)
On the second morning, head to the north of the city for the botanical gardens. As the day progresses work your way back down Rudaki to the mosque, with an optional diversion to the house museum of Mirzo Tursunzoda. Take lunch at the attractively painted Chaykhona Rokhat and then give your ears a treat with the sounds of traditional instruments at the Gurminj Museum. Finish up with souvenir shopping in Green Bazaar and the creaking old TSUM department store.
One full week should give you ample time to get out of the city and to start exploring. Spend a day in Dushanbe, then head north to ancient Penjikent and Sarazm, taking an ethnographic tour of the valley with local company Pamir Travel while you’re there. From Penjikent head to Khujand with its attractive mosque, fort and lively bazaar, then return via the tiled mosques and madrasahs of Istaravshan. Be sure to spend a night on the shores of Iskanderkul before you get back to the capital.
A fortnight will allow you to go trekking. Visit Dushanbe, ancient Penjikent and Sarazm as above, but then head for the Seven Lakes. Hire a guide and trek the five-day route through the Fann Mountains to Iskanderkul, then finish with Khujand and Istaravshan. You may also have time for a short diversion into the Yagnob Valley.
With a month at your disposal, the Pamirs open up to you. As two borders into southern Kyrgyzstan are now open, you can loop around most of Tajikistan. From Dushanbe head east along the Rasht Valley into the wilderness with its wildlife and occasional forts and shrines. Leave Tajikistan at Jirgital and re-enter south of Sary Tash, from where the entirety of the Pamir Highway awaits you.
Cross the Pamirs at a leisurely speed, being sure to stop in Murgab, and on arrival in Khorog soak up the cosmopolitan air, the museum and botanical gardens. A loop further south will take you to Garm Chashma, the ruby mine and the northern edge of the Wakhan corridor. Follow the Amu Darya along the Tajik–Afghan border to Khatlon, with its ancient sites of Ajina Teppa and Takht-i Sangin and the reconstructed Hulbek fort, before meandering back to Dushanbe via the resorts on the Nurek reservoir.