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.
Streets of Dushanbe
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.
Tajikistan flag is an upside-down Iranian flag with different elements inside white band
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.
Wedding party in Botanical Gardens, Dushanbe, complete with multiple drones buzzing around.
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.
Ismoili Somoni Monument
Numerous locals around this monument and others with nice DSLR cameras ready to take your picture and sell you prints, printed from.... I have no idea.
Rudaki Park, Dushanbe
National Library of Tajikistan
Rudaki Park, Dushanbe
Rudaki Park, Dushanbe
So at this place, like most places on this trip, we were a total spectacle while going about our business. This little boy starts inching closer and closer to Greg, clearly wanting to interact. Greg notices and leans down and, in a friendly voice says "Hi". The kid grimaces and turns around and scurries off looking a little pissed. Hasan told us that in Tajik "Hi" roughly translates to "Bye", so I guess that seemed like a dickish introduction to the kid. We tried to stick with "Hello" going forward.
Rudaki Park, Dushanbe
Reclining Buddha in National Museum, Dushanbe. Despite this thing being a couple of tons of sold rock, it's on the second floor of this creaky building
Anatomically correct Zoroastrian king, originally with elaborate clothing and accessories.
This is a bronze tiger, clearly created by someone who has never seen a tiger but had one described to them.
Hissar fortress, largely destroyed by Soviets during Bolshevik revolution and currently being rebuilt
The shops in Hissar Fortress are made to match up quite nicely
View from wall of Hissar Fortress
Greg blending in
Kokhi Navruz wedding party
Main ballroom in Kokhi Navruz
One of several meeting rooms in Kokhi Navruz
Massive room with largest dome in Central Asia
The angriest description of beautiful cedar and fine craftsmanship you will ever witness
Mirrored meeting room
Botanical Gardens, Dushanbe
Rooster's crest flower
Beautiful scenery and amazingly long mountain tunnels. Had to take a Zofran for four hours of this though.
Sheep stampede along the way
These sheep don't belong to the herders. If any of the sheep die, they have to bring the head to the owner, lest they're accused of stealing one. Can't imagine having to keep track of all of these roaming around.
Lots of Soviet mosaics in the towns on this drive, wish we could've stopped at more places.
Hasan's home in Khujand, his mom made plov for us
Lunch in Khujand, table spread like a magazine pic
Carrots for plov being cooked down
Kurtob in Dushanbe, a heavy yogurt-based dish. Quite possibly a culprit in Greg getting Typhoid. (Pro tip: get your vaccines)
Plov in Dushanbe, as we head west the flavors are changing, less garlic and starting to incorporate fruits