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Tajikistan – rugged mountains and more

A rugged country with new discoveries for the intrepid traveller

Capital City, Dushanbe

Getting to Dushanbe is still one of the challenges in this part of the world. 

Few airlines, even from neighbouring countries, fly into the capital of Tajikistan. An interesting entry by land is from Samarkand in Uzbekistan. A long 10.5-hour train ride goes through mostly desert landscapes and some mountainous regions and also stops at a few small villages. When the train eventually comes to a standstill in the small Uzbek town of Denau, you will know that this is the start to long-lasting memories – whether good or bad, you won’t forget them.

Be patient as you go through a few border checkpoints. Your luggage may be thoroughly searched too. This border crossing is not busy and is used by few travellers. Ensure your Tajik visa and GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province) permits are stamped into your passport if you intend to travel into the Pamir region, including the Pamir Highway to eastern Tajikistan. From the border checkpoint, it is a 1 km walk to where a Tajik taxi can pick you up for the drive to Dushanbe. The drive from the border to central Dushanbe takes a little more than an hour.

Vakhsh Hotel, Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Vakhsh Hotel, Dushanbe

Hopefully you have pre-booked a hotel room which is another challenge as hardly any online hotel-booking websites list Dushanbe hotels. If no reservations, just drop into the iconic Vakhsh Hotel which is centrally located and right next to the Ayni Opera and Ballet Theatre (Tajik State Academic Theatre) along the wide tree-lined Rudaki Avenue. While the hotel is screaming for a massive renovation, it has a rich, yet tumultuous, history which started in 1936. During World War II (in this part of the world referred to as the Great Patriotic War), the hotel was used as a military hospital.

During the more recent civil war the hotel was occupied by bands of bearded mujahedin rebels and peppered with bullets. In the lobby, find the typical Russian “small hole in the wall” where an old lady will peak through to take your passport and payment. As you walk through the dimly lit halls and into your room with very high ceilings and ancient furniture, you should imagine what your room must have gone through since 1936. Relax, you are safely in Tajikistan!

Around the Bag-i Rudaki, Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Gardens around the Bag-i Rudaki, Dushanbe

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Flying from Dushanbe to Khorog

Your next destination is Khorog, capital of the Shughnon District of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province. However, getting to the small capital in southeastern Tajikistan is challenging.  Travellers have two choices: either take the scary 1-hour turboprop plane flight through (not over) the mountains, or embark on a 16+ hour shared-taxi ride. The choice is clear – fly, hope for the best, and with some luck on your side, you will land safely 60 minutes later.

However, many travellers don’t get to follow through with their easy decision for a two reasons: this small plane apparently has a very good safety record and it won’t take any chances in bad weather which could possibly destroy its passengers and its long safety record. Feel lucky if the flight does not get cancelled just minutes prior to departure, or even turn back after just minutes in the air.

Tajik Air flight from Dushanbe to Khorog, Tajikistan

Tajik Air flight from Dushanbe to Khorog

The Pamir Mountains along the Afghanistan and Tajikistan border have peaks that reach between 4,000 m (13,120 ft) and 7,500 m (24,600 ft) and the weather is hard to predict and changes fast. The small turboprop zig-zags around the glacier-covered peaks.  To ensure you have a seat booked for the early morning departure, you need to physically check in at the airport office the day before departure to pay for your seat. No advanced booking online or via travel agents is available. Then on the day of departure you need to be at the airport at around dawn. Count yourself lucky if you get onto the plane and make it into the thin air.

Once you reach the first set of peaks, it is unlikely that the plane will turn back due to bad weather. Snuck up to the window with your camera and enjoy the stunning scenery. On the right side lies Afghanistan and to the left is Tajikistan. If all goes well, about 60 minutes later you will safely land on a small airstrip right by the Panj River, surrounded by the mountains.

Tajik Air landed from Dushanbe at Khorog airport, Tajikistan

Polish built Antonov AN-28 turboprop operated by Tajik Air landed from Dushanbe at Khorog airport

Step out, walk away a few feet on the landing strip, turn around and take a nice picture of the Ukraine developed, but Polish built Antonov AN-28 turboprop operated by Tajik Air. You made it to Khorog and you are now in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province. A stone’s throw away is Afghanistan just across the narrow river.  Head out of the small terminal building and ask any vehicle owner for a US$2 ride into town.

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 The Small Town of Khorog

Khorog, capital of the Shughnon District of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO) has a population of 30,000 and lies at an altitude of 2,200 metres (7,220 ft) above sea level in the Pamir Mountains.  It lies along the confluence of the Ghund and Panj Rivers and is surrounded by mountains. Khorog has had a tumultuous history. Until the late 19th century, it was in an area whose ownership was disputed by the Emir of Bukhara, the Shah of Afghanistan, Russia and even Britain. The Russians emerged the winners of the region. Life wasn’t easy here under Soviet occupation.

Khorog, Tajikistan

The small town of Khorog

More recently the town made headlines in July 2012 when Tajik government forces clashed with an armed guerrilla group from the semi-autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province. While modern Khorog is one of the poorest areas of Tajikistan, the Aga Khan Foundation is a major source of cash income. The Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), based in Geneva, Switzerland, is a private not-for-profit international development agency which was founded in 1967 by the Aga Khan. The Aga Khan is the 49th and current Imam of Nizari Ismailism and is a Swiss based business magnate and racehorse breeder. Born in 1936, “His Royal Highness” Aga Khan has an estimated five to fifteen million adherents.

Khorog is a peaceful town built along both sides of the meandering Ghund River. While there is not much to see in town, the people are friendly, the market is bustling, and the few restaurants offer decent Tajik and Indian cuisines.

Khorog is a great base from where to explore Afghanistan across the Panj River as well as for trips into the Pamir region to the east and southeast of town. One of the most popular places to stay is the peaceful Pamir Lodge, south of the Ghund River and up the hill. Summers are hot and winters are quite cold with tons of snow.

Boy, Khorog, Tajikistan

A Khorog boy hanging up-side down.

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Afghan-Tajik Bazaar

The main reason for coming to Khorog in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO) is to travel arrange your travels further south and east along the Wakhan Corridor. In Khorog you can find a 4×4 vehicle with a driver. Most drivers want to make a quick fortune out of the few travellers so you need skilfull bargaining to bring down the cost. Then, fill up with food and drinks, and head straight south all along the Panj River which is the borderline with Afghanistan.

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Carpet shop at the Saturday bazaar on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan outside town of Ishkashim

At the small town of Ishkoshim, 100 km (62 mi) south of Khorog, stay for a Friday night and visit the Saturday bazaar on a small island in the Panj River. Once the border guards are ready early on Saturday morning, gates on both the Tajik and Afghan sides of the bridge are opened and traders with their customers all flock together to the island in this No Man’s Land. 

Stock up on Afghan hats, called pakol, and nothing much else. The best thing about the market are the photo opportunities. Be careful as some people are in no mood to be photographed and the security guards with their massive machine guns may ask you to stop photographing. Follow your own instinct as most people are friendly and don’t mind to be photographed when discretely approached and appreciated.

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Afghan men at the Saturday bazaar on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan outside town of Ishkashim

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The Tajik Wakhan Valley

Hanis Guesthouse is located where the Khorog road enters Ishkoshim town. From here head into Afghanistan and to the Afghan town of Ishkashim from where expeditions are led through the Afghan Wakhan Corridor which is bordered by Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and China’s Xinjiang to the far west. Alternatively stay on the Tajik side of the Panj River and head straight east. The long road to Murghab goes through a couple of tiny villages such as Yamg, Vrang, and Langer.

Ishkashim, Tajikistan

A very friendly Tajik family in Ishkashim

Some of the villages have homestays but camping is allowed almost anywhere. Along the scenic road with mountains on both sides are the remains of a few ancient fortresses such as the Yamchun Fortress and the Ratm Fortress.  A not-to-be-missed experience is bathing at the Bibi-Fatima Hot Springs. The bathing area is in a crystal clear cave with comfortably hot and very clean water.

Women and men bathe at different times as a no-clothing rule must be obeyed.  The valley is fertile and most of the villagers work on farms and have livestock such as horses, sheep and goats. This is sheep-country so make sure to eat lamb and mutton shashlik (a form of shish kebab) at every opportunity. Between Langer village and the main Pamir highway to the far north, the road is spectacular and void of any significant settlements.

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Pyanj river

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Eastern Tajikistan

The first settlement after Langer is Bulunkul village which lies just past the junction. It is windswept and apparently one of the coldest, and most remote, villages in Tajikistan.

Have lunch with the locals in their modest home for a small fee. Vodka flows at all times of the day. Spending time with these friendly folks is an unforgettable experience! The road past the village leads for 1.5 km (1 mi) to another freshwater lake named Yashilkul (Green Lake). If it’s not laundry day for the village ladies with their kids, then the hot waters can offer a soothing soak. Both lakes are surrounded by wetlands as well as sand and pebble plains that form part of the ”Bulunkul and Yashilkul Lakes and Mountains Important Bird Area.”

The drive further east to the town of Murghab is scenic as it passes colourful mountains.

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Bulunkul village

Murghab itself is just good for a one night stay over. The next morning leave early and drive north to the lake of Karakul (Black Lake) located in the Markansu Valley, one of the driest places in Central Asia. The lake lies within the Tajik National Park at an altitude of 3,900 m (12,800 ft). It is 25 km (16 mi) in diameter with a maximum depth of 230 m (755 ft). As the lake is an endorheic basin with three rivers flowing in but with no drainage outlet, the water is brackish but beautiful to look at.

Stay for a few hours or overnight at the small village named Karakul on the eastern shore of the lake. From here the road goes north through spectacular scenery before it is time to cross the border into Kyrgyzstan.

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Bulunkul village

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A few more photos of TAJIKISTAN

Lahuti Drama Theatre, Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Lahuti Drama Theatre, Dushanbe

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Ayni Opera and Ballet Theatre (Tajik State Academic Theatre), Dushanbe

Tajik Air flight from Dushanbe to Khorog, Tajikistan

Tajik Air flight from Dushanbe to Khorog passing by a glacier very high in the peaks

Khorog, Tajikistan

Little meat pies (filled with fatty lamb and potato) baking in a street oven in Khorog

Khorog, Tajikistan

The baker at work, baking his little meat pies in Khorog

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Saturday bazaar on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan outside town of Ishkashim, Tajikistan

Driving from Ishkashim to Murgab along the Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan

Driving from Ishkashim to Murgab along the Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan

Driving from Ishkashim to Murgab along the Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan

Sheep along the small dusty road between Ishkashim to Murgab along the Wakhan Valley of Tajikistan

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Pyanj river

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Girl at hot springs at Yashil-Kul Lake (Green Lake) near Bulunkul Village in eastern Tajikistan

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Having lunch with a local family in Bulunkul village, eastern Tajikistan (notice the ever present vodka)

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A typical yurt in Bulunkul village, eastern Tajikistan

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Bulunkul village in eastern Tajikistan

Driving from Murgab to the Tajik/Kyrgyz border, Tajikistan

Buildings along the road between Murgab and the Tajik/Kyrgyz border, Tajikistan

Kara-Kul Lake, Driving from Murgab to the Tajik/Kyrgyz border, Tajikistan

Kara-Kul Lake located between Murgab and the Tajik/Kyrgyz border, Tajikistan

 Further reading: Tajikistan on Globerovers blog

MORE OF TAJIKISTAN AND ALL OF CENTRAL ASIA IN GLOBEROVERS MAGAZINE