When I read that all private parcel couriers had left Tajikistan, I must admit that I made some assumptions about the country. I assumed their departure was related to either remoteness or violence and instability. In actuality, they were ejected for not playing well with the dictator that has run the country since the fall of the Soviet Union. I didn’t know much about Tajikistan before arriving there, but none of the details I did know sounded very encouraging. I was told there would be no ATMs. The Sheraton Hotel we would be staying at had lost it’s branding affiliation and wasn’t actually a Sheraton. It’s the “H Hotel”, even though there are lots of Sheraton items and a faded Sheraton outline on the building. Suffice it to say, while I didn’t expect comfort, I also didn’t expect danger. Now, to be clear, the place does share a border with Afghanistan and does have daily incursions of militants from the southern border. Also, there was a tragic incident only last month with a group of cyclists on Pamir Highway. Overall though, the country is stable at the present time and our itinerary doesn’t take us through any conflict zones. Considering all of the above, we were actually all extremely surprised with the experience in Tajikistan really from the moment we arrived there.
We flew in on a morning flight from Bishkek and were met by our guide Hasan and started out immediately with a brief city tour. Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, is extremely clean and in many areas highly developed with beautiful architecture and well considered greenery. The sidewalks are wide and impeccably cleaned. There are many parks and monuments and they are all well maintained and laid out thoughtfully. It struck me almost as a showcase city like Pyongyang. But Tajikistan is not North Korea. Not at all. The internet is unfiltered and people move about freely. It is bustling with capitalism and people seem to be living quite comfortably, at least in the capital. It’s an Islamic state, but the people (at least in Dushanbe and Khujand) seem very liberal with things like hijab and calls to prayer. Essentially, the first surprising thing about Tajikistan is the high (comparatively, and in some areas) standard of living, as well as how liberal people seem to be. I expected a far less developed country with a far stricter implementation of Islam. As for some of those details I heard ahead of time… they’re mostly wrong. There absolutely are ATMs, and plenty of them. They dispense either USD or Tajik Somoni. The unbranded Sheraton hotel? As nice as any 5-star hotel I’ve ever stayed at. Connectivity? Picked up SIM cards and we had great internet without issue for the whole stay.
The other surprising thing about Tajikistan (at least to me, coming in cold) was the cultural similarity to Iran. Along with Iranians and portions of a few other countries, Tajik people are largely Persian. I am told that Tajiks can understand Farsi to the extent that Americans can understand a strong British accent. Another linkage that I find curious is with the flags. As a separate example, the Serbian flag is an upside-down Russian flag. One could argue, based upon their role in the Balkan wars, that Serbia is the state that most tried to carry forward Yugoslavia and Soviet-Russian interests in that region. They are clearly close allies. The Tajikistan flag is essentially an upside-down Iranian flag with a different motif in the middle white band. Tajiks also have a pre-Islamic history of Zoroastrianism, similar to Iran. We saw similarities in art, architecture, and food. The hospitality in Tajikistan also reminded me very much of Iran. Everywhere you interacted with people, you felt like family. It’s probably off the radar for many people, but for anyone that enjoys Iranian culture, you would likely enjoy a visit to Tajikistan as well.
Our visit here was similar in length to the last two Stans, but somehow it felt much more hurried. It was very clear there was potential for some beautiful excursions that would’ve added multiple days to our time in Tajikistan. We spent time touring the usual type of sites in Dushanbe: museums, parks, and monuments. On another day we visited Hissar Fortress and did some short stops there and back. We also visited a crazy building called Kokhi Navruz. This place is like a wedding hall/palace/meeting place for heads of state. It’s completely over the top and the lady giving the tour was all of 90 lbs and had this fiery red hair and a red outfit to match and constantly yelled at our small group. “DEAR GUESTS!” she would loudly preface every statement. She seemed angry as she rattled off how many metric tons of rare materials and thousands of workers it took to build this crazy building. Very weird. There was a wedding party there during our visit, as well as another wedding party we saw during our visit later to the botanical gardens. Drones seem to be an essential component to any proper wedding shoot now.
The transfer out of Tajikistan entailed a long ride through the mountains and a brief day tour of the city of Khujand before crossing the Oybek border into Uzbekistan. We had a very nice lunch at Hasan’s home. Their house had a lush open courtyard growing pomegranates, grapes, persimmons and walnuts, as well as an assortment of vegetables and nice flowers. We also toured the market in Khujand, which was similar, although smaller to a few others we have visited at this point.
Based on the reports I had read online, I expected the Oybek border crossing to be a huge hassle full of angry officials and invasive searches. Fortunately, it was completely uneventful. There were lots of officers, no line, and very minimal hassle. We already had Uzbekistan e-visas and stamping in was no issue. As for customs, you toss your bags through an x-ray scanner and one lady officer paid minimal attention and waved me through. Would the drone have made it through? I think so. I still wouldn’t have tried it.
And with that, we’re off to the fourth Stan. Our time in Uzbekistan will be longer than any of the other countries.