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- Travel: Central Asia
I recently travelled to Tajikistan, one of Central Asia’s least visited countries.
One would agree that Tajikistan loses out significantly in publicity compared to other countries in the region. Foreigners in search of well-preserved architectural masterpieces head to Uzbekistan. Hikers flock to Kyrgyzstan to take advantage of the country’s world-famous mountain trails. The vast Kazakhstan, often overlooked by Westerners due to its underdeveloped tourism infrastructure and sheer size – which make it impractical to traverse one of the world’s largest countries easily, let alone conveniently – nevertheless welcomes millions of tourists from the neighbouring CIS countries every year. And, on the other end of the scale, Turkmenistan has made a name for itself as a “quirky” closed nation and receives a steady flow of intrepid travellers who, well, have otherwise seen it all before.
Against this backdrop, Tajikistan stands out rather unfavourably. According to World Tourism Organisation, the country welcomed a mere 414,000 tourists in 2015 (the latest available year for statistics) – while not an insignificant number in itself, it fell well short of the neighbouring Kyrgyzstan’s impressive three million. That Tajikistan is served by very few major airlines, making international connections hassle-prone and expensive, is no doubt a significant factor in holding back its tourism industry, one the Government has seemingly realised the untapped potential of, by declaring 2018 as the year of Tourism and Folk Crafts.
Arriving to Iskanderkul Lake in the Fann Mountains: How incredible is this view?
But those who do make it to Tajikistan are rewarded with some of the world’s most striking mountain landscapes unspoiled by mass tourism. While Tajikistan may lack obvious tourist sights of the calibre of Samarkand’s Registan Square, its attractions are actually everywhere: in the snow-powdered mountain peaks glistening in the morning sun, in rivers hurrying down lush valleys and in pristine lakes emerging mysteriously from around another road bend. And there are also the people: you will likely be accompanied by curious smiles, shy waves and heart-filled words of welcome everywhere in the country – the simple yet unforgettable treasures of Tajikistan.
Regular readers will know how close Central Asia is to my heart. My first visit to the region, to Uzbekistan, was nothing short of life-changing. Several local people I crossed paths with shook me to my core with unreserved displays of kindness towards me, a complete stranger – a story I have already told here.
My memories of Uzbekistan still vivid, I travelled to Turkmenistan a few years later, looking for that otherworldly oddity of a place – only to have my focus shift entirely, as soon as I arrived, to the warmth and hospitality of the country’s locals. Ashgabat may have entertained me with its elaborate futuristic sights, but it was the seemingly trivial, brief encounters with Turkmenistan’s uniquely photogenic locals that stuck in my mind the most. The people of the “North Korea of Central Asia” were, unsurprisingly, perfectly normal and certainly no less welcoming than in the rest of the region.
And my latest trip to Central Asia, to Afghanistan, not only helped me overcome a severe bout of depression – which, too, I have described here – but also brought me close to an unforgettable country which, against all odds, continues to preserve glimpses of normality despite having been torn apart by decades of conflict following centuries of interference by foreign powers.
It was naturally only a matter of time before I travelled to Tajikistan. In late August and early September 2018, I undertook a road trip from the capital city of Dushanbe to the Fann mountains in the northwest of the country and the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO) in the country’s east, covering over two thousand kilometres on battered roads and gathering up enough memories to last a lifetime.
Gorgeous Pamiri ladies in Rushan wearing different permutations of national dress
HOW I ORGANISED MY TRIP IN TAJIKISTAN
The biggest question you are likely to face before your trip is whether to travel independently or opt for some form of an organised tour.
Travelling independently in Tajikistan is perfectly possible, but it is important to remember that reaching many remote parts of the country without one’s own vehicle can be extremely difficult. Public transport in Tajikistan is limited to marshrutkas (depending on your luck, these might come in newer 4WD variety) which operate between major settlements, depart when full and tend not to pick up passengers en-route. Needless to say, they also provide minimal levels of comfort; every public marshrutka I saw in Tajikistan looked stuffed to the brim, with the boot often serving as an extension for passenger seating and luggage strapped to the top of the vehicle.
Transport in remote areas not served by marshrutkas is usually provided by locally based taxi drivers. It is best to ask in the village you happen to find yourself in how to reach your next destination. Furthermore, many particularly remote parts of Tajikistan (of which there are many, such as Bulunkul) simply do not have any public transport links, and the only option for independent travel there is by your own vehicle (car, motorbike or bicycle – see a note on safety below) or hitch-hiking. Remember that, possibly because many private cars unofficially double as taxis, local drivers usually expect payment for hitched rides.
Yashilkul Lake, one of Tajikistan’s (many) remote destinatinations
I came across several hitch-hikers on the stretch of road between Rushan and Langar; knowing that foreigners often charter vehicles to traverse Tajikistan, those hitch-hikers primarily hunted out foreign tourists for their next ride. Indeed some of them were quite aggressive in insisting on a free ride, which I personally found somewhat cheeky – the reason those foreigners were paying for cars was precisely to avoid getting stuck in the middle of nowhere in rural Tajikistan. Do not feel obliged to pick up hitch-hikers, and keep in mind that many commissioned drivers are specifically instructed by their travel agencies not to carry anyone besides their paying passengers to avoid being held liable for them should any problems arise.
Things get significantly easier if, like me, you charter a private vehicle to take you around. I travelled in Tajikistan with my husband, Alan, and found a chauffeured 4WD vehicle to be the optimal option for a travelling couple, both space- and cost-wise. Smaller groups of 3-4 people can and do fit into a single 4WD, too, while larger groups are typically offered a Hyundai Starex van or split themselves across several 4WD vehicles.
Most travel agencies in Tajikistan so far only rent out vehicles together with a driver, which, given the dire condition of roads in most of the GBAO, is perfectly understandable. Some agencies (including the one I travelled with; see below) have started renting out vehicles without drivers, but do bear in mind that you will be travelling on hundreds of kilometres of extremely poor roads every single day where similar prior driving experience is essential and where a degree of mechanical competence is required as you are often far from any sort of help – such is the strain on the vehicles that a vehicle’s suspension lasts at best two tours, usually just one, and tyre punctures are a frequent occurrence. Drivers get paid roughly $15-20 per day (the upper end of the range if they speak English) and sometimes stay for free in accommodation occupied by tourists they are travelling with (in most cases though, accommodation for the driver will be covered from the passengers’ fee) and, given the driving conditions, a few extra dollars per day may be an attractive alternative to the stress self-drive will likely cause. Adding an English-speaking guide to the entourage costs $30-40 per day, but I personally preferred travelling in the smaller company of a Russian-speaking driver only.
Your author hanging out with Lenin, in Ishkashim
Our trip was organised by World Roof Tours (WRT), a local company run by Khudoguy Shonazarov, a GBAO native. The company has received good reviews in the broader travel community and came highly recommended. Having returned from Tajikistan, I too have nothing but praise for our experience with WRT. Khudoguy was extremely helpful in answering questions before, during and even after the trip (he probably dreads seeing my name pop up now), while our driver, another Pamiri local called Mashgur, was experienced, professional and pleasant. I also met three other WRT drivers while on the road, and found all of them likeable.
Western-based travel companies like G Adventures and Intrepid Travel also offer tour packages to Tajikistan. These are typically integrated into wider tours of Central Asia and tend to be significantly more expensive than locally sourced tours. I personally preferred handing my cash over to WRT, a local company, rather than an arms-length overseas intermediary which anyway uses local contacts, will inevitably hold back a large percentage of the fee and is not guaranteed to return this money to the local community.
Local development was the single biggest reason for me to arrange my trip directly with a Tajik company. The improvement in local lives in Tajikistan as a result of WRT’s success is easy to see. Khudoguy provides a vital source of employment in his native village of Vamd (not far from Rushan), from where all but one of his drivers are hired. Vamd is also WRT’s regular stopover on the way between Kalai Khum and Khorog, with local families running homestay businesses as an additional revenue source. In addition to that, Khudoguy directly helps people in the village, including by donating supplies to the kindergarten which his nieces attend. A development organisation worker myself, I strongly recommend bolstering local private businesses, especially in developing countries like Tajikistan.
Khudoguy’s nieces in the village of Vamd
As to costs, Alan and I each paid $1,840 for the 15-night trip, or roughly $120 per day which included accommodation, transport, fuel and full board everywhere except Dushanbe and Khorog. My trip could have been made even cheaper had I opted for a smaller, more economical vehicle, at the expense of comfort. We travelled in a Toyota 4Runner and could not have been more comfortable.
Groups of 5-6 people travelling in a Hyundai Starex minibus and sharing accommodation could expect to pay some $70 per person per day, or around $1,000 for an equivalent tour. Note that tour operators based in and specialising on tours of the Pamirs almost exclusively utilise Toyota Land Cruisers to ensure that sufficient space exists for guests, luggage and provisions, but these naturally come with a higher cost. Rather than buy a full tour, it is possible to book a car and driver only and pay for accommodation and meals out of pocket to reduce costs further. There may not be many eating options in remote villages, but creative travellers won’t perish: I met a family from Russia traversing Tajikistan in their own car and relying on cheap pre-made army meals they had purchased on the black market back home. I am personally not sure about using a simple city car on banged-up Pamir roads, but admired the family’s creativity in keeping costs down; a hearty meal feeding four people for about $5 is certainly affordable.
WHERE I WENT IN TAJIKISTAN
To a large degree, my journey was dictated by flight schedules. Dushanbe does not exactly boast many flight options: around 15 scheduled daily departures from its modestly sized airport mainly serve cities in Russia, with at least 4 daily flights to Moscow. There are twice weekly flights to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines and Dubai with Flydubai, from where the bulk of the international visitors to Tajikistan arrive. Other, less frequent, flights connect Dushanbe with Almaty, Bishkek, Kabul, Mashhad, Tashkent, Tehran and Urumqi. So, unless you are flying in from Russia, you will likely be arriving from Istanbul or, like me, Dubai.
Besides infrequent flight schedules, another downside of arriving to Tajikistan by air is having to repeat parts of the journey while backtracking to Dushanbe. I visited Tajikistan for 14 days and 15 nights, most of which were spent road-tripping to the next destination. Starting in Dushanbe, we first explored the Fann mountains in the northwest of Tajikistan, visiting Iskanderkul Lake, Seven Lakes and Panjakent in a whirlwind 3-day, 2-night adventure. Returning to Dushanbe fairly wiped out, we only had one night to reset before hitting the road to the GBAO, reaching the Panj river the next day and travelling along it for hundreds of kilometres of unimaginably poor roads along the classic and often spectacular Kalai Khum – Vamd – Jizev – Khorog – Ishkashim – Langar – Bulunkul – Khorog – Kalai Khum route, before returning to Dushanbe. The journey did not feel rushed, but we spent at least 6 hours every day in the car and often felt exhausted enough to fall asleep right after dinner, at a laughably early hour of around 8pm.
Hisor Fortress near Dushanbe: we zoomed around the city like mad on our only full day there
Although we took different roads between Dushanbe and Kalai Khum on the way in and out, and only spent two days on the trip repeating the same stretches of road, it is easy to see that Tajikistan is best visited in the context of a wider road-trip across Central Asia. I could have entered the country from Uzbekistan on the Samarkand / Panjakent crossing, travelling to Dushanbe and on to Bulunkul as per my actual itinerary, taking a swerve to Murghab and carrying on to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. This way any overlapping of the journey would have been eliminated. I recommend road-tripping Tajikistan in this way to those with enough time on their hands to dedicate to a full-blown Central Asian road-trip.
My itinerary covered a large part of Tajikistan but still left notable gaps. I would have loved to see the serene Lake Karakul near the Kyrgyz border and the remote Lake Sarez only reachable after days of (even bumpier) driving and hiking. For some contrast with Tajikistan’s predominantly mountainous terrain, I would be intrigued to see the flatter, more fertile areas around the lesser-visited Khujand city in the north. I would have also loved to do much, much more hiking: our itinerary included a 3-hour return hike from near Rushan to Jizev village, but was otherwise very driving-heavy. Hiking options in Tajikistan are endless, and it was a shame to relinquish them in favour of an, admittedly, exhausting road trip.
I was still sick with food poisoning when we were hiking back from Jizev and focussed on nature to stay afloat
That said, I was overall happy with the length and pace of my trip. Two full weeks is a good time to get an introduction to Tajikistan and experience its highlights without feeling too rushed, even if most of the time will inevitably be consumed by driving and nearly every night will be spent in a different location. I could have squeezed my trip further by skipping the Fann mountains altogether and removing several overnight stops on the GBAO segment (Kalai Khum, Vamd, Ishkashim and Bulunkul are all reasonable candidates), but this would have meant even more hours every day spent driving. Crucially, I would have missed what I enjoyed most at every single stop: wandering around villages photographing locals; in fact, my favourite photos of locals on the entire trip were taken in the easily walkable Ishkashim and Vamd.
WHERE I STAYED IN TAJIKISTAN
Only major settlements in Tajikistan have hotels. International chains like Hyatt Regency and Sheraton are only present in Dushanbe, and options get notably more basic further away from the capital. I stayed in hotels on six nights in total, in Dushanbe and Khorog: the Taj Palace in Dushanbe was superbly central and very comfortable, while Zafar in Khorog had the best WiFi on the entire trip and a great riverside location.
As tourism in Tajikistan is on the rise, more and more accommodation options are springing up and the quality, too, is improving. Reasonably comfortable guesthouses exist in Kalai Khum, Iskanderkul and Ishkashim, the latter having been converted from a school building. Outside those areas, road-tripping in Tajikistan means sleeping in plenty of simple homestays. Those are literally rooms in local people’s homes open to tourists; they vary in quality and comfort but are very reasonably priced (usually $15-20 including breakfast and dinner). Hosts tend to stay in a segregated part of the house, and you will rarely cross paths with them on the way to, say, the (inevitably outdoor) toilet. Meeting other tourists is a different matter: homestay owners I met usually assumed that all foreigners enjoyed spending time together, including during meals and downtime. The anti-social side of me rioted at the thought (I spend most of my non-holiday time with Westerners and do not crave more), but asking to be sat separately from other travellers was not a problem in any homestay (except for, probably, being judged by the other tourists themselves).
Vamd, the place where our company was entirely local
As a couple, Alan and I shared a room and got double beds most of the time, followed by twin beds as the most common alternative. Many homestays in Tajikistan also offer a traditional arrangement of sleeping mats spread on the floor. This can be particularly suitable for larger groups who can all share a large room. I only slept on the floor once, in remote Jizev, and found it wonderfully comfortable and definitely preferred to what usually were heavily used, either overly hard or overly soft mattresses on proper beds.
As said, living conditions in homestays tend to be pretty basic. Most toilets are outdoors and of the ‘squat’ variety, sometimes a good hundred meters away – not optimal for cold night urges to say the least! Bring a torch and prepare to have your sinuses wiped clean. Amazingly, most homestays do have hot showers. The only two places where we had to throw our first-world demands out of the window were Jizev (we stayed in the first village up the valley, where a trickle of cold water served as a shower, but hear that the third village has a guesthouse with actual hot water) and Bulunkul (where houses have no running water, cold or hot).
There is no internet connection in any of the homestays. I tried using data roaming on a UK phone as an experiment but could not get connection anywhere outside Dushanbe and Khorog (where WiFi was anyway easier to find). I did not test connecting with a local SIM, but another traveller who did wrote that he could barely get any data, either. To avoid disappointment, expect to have no internet and try to enjoy the experience. Travellers are often advised to bring cards and board games to homestays to pass the time in the absence of internet. I personally found that the risk of getting bored in homestays in the evenings was pretty low. We usually reached accommodation around 5pm, and, after taking showers, setting up for the following day and having dinner, barely had the energy to do much else. On shorter stretches of the journey, like Kalai Khum to Vamd, Khorog to Ishkashim and Bulunkul to Khorog, we arrived relatively early and used daylight hours to explore those destinations. This usually meant answering plenty of question from curious locals and shooting countless portraits. In short, we were not once bored.
These school girls in Ishkashim made my day. How beautiful is that uniform?
WHAT I WORE IN TAJIKISTAN
Men in Tajikistan generally dress the same way as in the West, though I haven’t seen any sleeveless tops worn in public.
For women, most online articles I have seen have advised visitors to wear various permutations of Muslim-friendly attire, avoiding shorts, skirts and strap tops. Going much further than this is, however, not strictly necessary: you will see enough women in Tajikistan, especially in Dushanbe and Khorog, sporting above-knee skirts and tight, sometimes even revealing, tops.
I am known for pushing dress codes in conservative countries (yes, I do appreciate respect for local customs, but I also believe in setting my own limits when it is safe to do so) and wore similar clothes to those I wear in London, including skirts and dresses going slightly above the knee, sleeveless tops and modest 3/4 length shorts. In Dushanbe and Khorog, very few people seemed to care (plenty of Pamiri girls were dressed in a similar way), whilst in the countryside my face alone was enough to attract stares – from men and women alike – and most locals had no energy left to analyse my allegedly scandalous clothes, too. To avoid causing offence, I would advise against strap tops or hot pants, although you will certainly not be publicly lynched if you do choose to wear those items.
My normal look in the GBAO. No-one seemed to throw stones.
Funnily enough, even moderately conservative clothes are no guarantee of success. I proudly donned a long modest dress in Ishkashim, only for it to catch a strong blast of wind and go flying over my head within minutes. I ended up flashing half of the people on the main street and still had to hold courteous conversations with them in broad daylight after all of them suddenly wanted their photo taken. Oh well!
Note that there has been a recent push from the (fiercely secular) Tajik authorities for the locals to drop Islamic religious aspects of their appearance such as long beards and head scarves, which the authorities argue are foreign to Tajik culture. There is visibly some fear of Islamic radicalisation leaking into the Tajik society and manifesting itself in conservative appearance. As such, foreign women at least have official endorsement not to dress on par with their Tajik counterparts or, especially, cover their hair.
OTHER USEFUL INFORMATION
LANGUAGE IN TAJIKISTAN
The official language in Tajikistan is Tajik, a dialect of Persian language similar to Dari spoken in Afghanistan and, somewhat less so, Farsi spoken in Iran. The lingua franca of the countries of the former Soviet Union, Russian is also widely spoken: it continues to be taught in schools while Russian TV channels are commonly watched by the Tajik population, ensuring that the proficiency of Russian lives on.
Knowing some Persian or Russian when travelling in Tajikistan is strongly recommended, as, even if you are travelling with an English-speaking guide or driver, your encounters with locals will be made infinitely more meaningful if you are able to exchange even a trickle of simple information about yourselves. I speak fluent Russian and got along in Tajikistan perfectly, translating for my English-speaking husband when it was necessary. We were also able to save some money on an English-speaking guide or driver. Note that most drivers work in the tourism sector in Tajikistan do not speak English but nearly all will speak some Russian.
You may recall that I had been learning Farsi before my trip to Afghanistan earlier in 2018. The basic phrases I came armed with turned out invaluable, and I continued my self-study in preparation for the trip to Tajikistan and a return trip to Afghanistan (Yes! I went back to Afghanistan in October 2018; follow me on social media to stay updated in real time). Imagine my utter disappointment when I found out that my Farsi was redundant in most parts of Tajikistan that I visited. Did you know that most locals in the GBAO do not consider themselves Tajiks, follow a different denomination of Islam from ethnic Tajiks and speak an entirely different language? If you did, you came better prepared than I did.
Pamiri ladies in national dress, distinctly different from Tajik
Here goes: most people in the GBAO call themselves Pamiris, follow Nizari Ismaili Shia Islam (Aga Khan comes only very narrowly short of a deity in the province) and speak one of Pamiri dialects. The latter tend to be vastly different from Tajik, as well as each other: my Pamiri driver sometimes had difficulty understanding locals from other parts of the GBAO. There are only around 200,000 Pamiris in Tajikistan, but they form the majority in the GBAO. As such, your Tajik attempts may be out of place; I found myself disappointed not being able to ask simple questions to Pamiri children who had not yet started Tajik or Russian lessons at school. I cannot even recommend learning some Pamiri to fellow travellers as there isn’t a unifying dialect out there. In the event of a language emergency, resort to body language.
ENTERING AND LEAVING TAJIKISTAN
Entering Tajikistan is straightforward for most western visitors, and even easier for CIS passport holders who can enter visa-free. With my British passport, I applied for an e-visa online, paid $70 and had the visa emailed to me the following day. Remember to tick the “GBAO” box if you are visiting the Pamir region (basically, if you get as far east from Dushanbe as Kalai Khum, you need a GBAO permit – it makes up $20 out of $70). The 1-page document needs printing out and will be checked on your arrival (when it will also get its own entry stamp) and the many check-points along your road-trip. It is important not to lose this precious piece of paper. Tajikistan’s detailed visa requirements are described at length on Caravanistan’s website, and I will not repeat this information; just a note though, that, although the website states that anyone can apply for a Tajik e-visa, according to the Tajik Embassy in the UK, this route is only open to a selected number of countries. You may wish to double check with your embassy if your country is not listed.
My only experience entering and leaving Tajikistan is by air. Dushanbe airport is relatively small, which could be perfectly adequate for the small number of flights it serves daily. The catch is that quite a few of the flights (including Dubai and Istanbul) depart in the early morning hours, making the relatively small space congested. It does not help that service at every step is painfully slow, which can lead to long queues building up quickly. It took us over an hour to progress from check-in to passport control, and we had to push ahead of the queue to make our flight. Some locals did not seem to think twice of bypassing Alan and I in the queue, possibly not expecting resistance given Alan’s obvious foreign looks. Some scolding in Russian quickly put them back in their place though: do not hesitate to assert your place in the queue. Knowing some Russian will be of help.
Rudaki statue in Dushanbe
LOCAL FOOD IN TAJIKISTAN
There is a reason one does not often come across a “Tajik” restaurant. Tajik dishes share many similarities with Afghan and Uzbek cuisines, but, in my opinion, offer far less variety. The staple is, of course, plov, a rice dish prepared with meat (usually lamb) and vegetables (usually carrots). According to a Tajik friend of mine, every region has its own version of plov, which can be served with a palette of additional ingredients such as eggs, peas, barberry, raisins, pomegranate seeds and garlic cloves. Lamb or chicken shashlik (kebab) will likely be your most common alternative to plov. Whatever your main course, no meal in Tajikistan is complete without non, a round flatbread also found elsewhere in Central Asia.
A nice break from this plov-shashlik dominated world is manti, another Central Asian staple similar to the Russian pelmeni, which can have vegetable filling and is a reasonable choice for vegetarians. Qurutob, a dish prepared from bread, yoghurt, vegetables (yes, all of the above) and sometimes meat is reportedly the national dish of Tajikistan (see a recipe here; definitely an acquired taste). And don’t forget Tajik soups! Like in Afghanistan, they will likely be served before the main course and will most commonly be shurbo, soup made of meat and vegetables. The shurbo I had in Tajikistan was frequently very oily; I found another soup variety, the laghman, made of meat and noodles, a little less hard on the stomach.
The best plov we’ve ever had was in Langar
For beer lovers, I wholeheartedly recommend Sim-Sim, local brew available in regular and unfiltered versions and best drunk draught. I was genuinely pleased to find such a decent beer in Tajikistan! The Sim-Sim brewery owns a restaurant in Dushanbe, which is also called Sim-Sim. Unfortunately, you are far more likely to find the far less inspiring Baltika, a Russian beer brand, in more remote parts of Tajikistan. Kyrgyz and Kazakh beer also tends to be much more readily available than Sim-Sim: there is clearly a locally produced craft beer business opportunity in Tajikistan.
Besides Sim-Sim, other eateries I could recommend in Dushanbe are Toqi, a cheap traditional restaurant with an impressive menu size, and Traktir, a centrally-located Ukrainian restaurant massively popular with expats and wealthier locals. In Khorog, we ate at Chor Bogh, a superb riverside restaurant on the edge of a park, and Delhi Darbar, an authentic Indian restaurant run by an Indian native where, weirdly, all backpackers tend to congregate in the evenings. To avoid them, simply head to the pricier Chor Bogh.
Outside Dushanbe and Khorog, you will likely be eating in homestays and roadside eateries with vastly differing standards. Luckily, some homestays make more effort than others to query your food preferences and prepare exactly what you want. Our best culinary experiences in Tajikistan were at the Salomat homestay in Vamd (where we were able to order just sautéed vegetables, a nice break from all that meat), Davlatkhon homestay in Langar (first plov we tried which was not prepared in the staple way) and Hanis Guesthouse in Ishkashim (where we had seconds of soup, so good it was). The worst experience would have to be the Bahrom Sangakov homestay in Kalai Khum, which, I suspect, gave me a vile food poisoning (see below).
Some incredible shashlik, unsurprisingly also in Langar
HEALTH, HYGIENE AND SAFETY IN TAJIKISTAN
It is said that every visitor to Tajikistan gets sick at some point. Sadly, I confirmed this statistic, coming down with a horrific bout of food poisoning within days of my arrival. Except I couldn’t really come down at all: the worst of my suffering fell on the day I had to hike 3 hours up the valley into Jizev. I broke down in tears and made emergency stops every few minutes as Alan carried both our rucksacks; it was in every sense of the word a nightmarish hike. Thankfully, I was able to rest on arrival in Jizev where we were the only guests in a massive traditional room. I swear I noticed every extra meter to the outdoor toilet; rather unhelpfully, it was up the slope from the homestay, too.
I blame my misfortune on eating fruit in the Bahrom Sangakov homestay in Kalai Khum. Very few fruit varieties grow in the Pamirs, and most fruit is actually imported, usually over hundreds of kilometres of terrible roads. Washing fruit in local water, sometimes of questionable quality (do not drink tap water in Tajikistan under any circumstances), is inviting trouble. Having met another traveller with the same story (and the same suffering), I would advise against eating fruit in the GBAO altogether. Fresh salads are also a risk, but at least most vegetables are grown locally. It is difficult to subside on meat only, so do make sure to stock up on stomach medicine in Dushanbe or Khorog where medicine, including antibiotics, costs close to nothing. I highly recommend activated charcoal tablets as an essential part of your first-aid kit.
Finally, I have to touch on the subject of safety. You have likely heard about the Islamic radicals’ attack near the city of Danghara, some 100 km from Dushanbe, which left four foreign cyclists dead in July 2018. It is shocking to think that this happened in broad daylight on a relatively busy motorway. A number of tourists cancelled their trips to Tajikistan in the aftermath, but such attacks are certainly not norm in the remote Central Asian nation. World Nomads have put together a useful safety guide to Tajikistan; read this bearing in mind that this has been put together by a travel insurance company.
In case you’re wondering, that’s me, entertaining those Afghan border guards across the river
OTHER TRAVELLERS’ ACCOUNTS
Plenty of travellers have traversed the Pamir Highway, but I have found surprisingly few good-quality articles on the web. I personally like and recommend the following accounts; the list is by no means exhaustive. Do leave a comment if I have missed an important one!
- Comprehensive guide to travelling Tajikistan by Nicole of The Adventures of Lil Nicki… in fact, I am not sure why you are reading mine! Nicole has visited Tajikistan an impressive three times and counts the country among her favourites.
- An informative list of facts for Tajikistan by Everything-Everywhere’s Gary Arndt, a no-less-than-legendary traveller who has been on the road for over a decade. Contains links to useful online resources and podcasts for Tajikistan.
- Freya of The Sandy Feet presents her detailed itinerary between Osh and Khorog, including plenty of excellent photos. The journey does seem a bit rushed, and I second the author in wishing she had travelled the Pamir Highway at a slower pace.
Happy (and safe) travels!
[…] READ MORE: ROAD-TRIPPING TAJIKISTAN: ONE OF CENTRAL ASIA’S LEAST VISITED COUNTRIES […]
Thanks Anna for sharing tips & informations about Tajikistan with us. That Plov & shashlik looks yummy….And yes I too loved the beer name Sim-Sim ?
Thanks for the comment, Deepa! ??
The beer called Sim-Sim reminds me of Sam-Sam cola, which I drank in Iran.
Haha, well, in Russian fairytale literature involving Asian countries, “Sim-Sim” is a secret code that does magic, like opening locked doors 🙂