Tajikistan is not among the World’s top tourist destinations. Even in a context of increasing interest for the countries of Central Asia, this mountainous country, roughly the size of Greece (both in area and population), is often overlooked.
This was a short business trip that, nevertheless, left me with nearly 24h to do a bit of sightseeing in and around the capital city, Dushanbe.
First of all, some practical considerations: you would need to request (and pay for) a visa at least a few days in advance. For most countries (including all EU members and the US) the whole process can be done quite easily through this website. It costs US$50.
Once you have received the email confirming your visa application has been approved (in my case it took 5 days to receive it after applying), it is good to bring a printed copy with you, since you will have to enter the reference number in yet another form that needs to be complimented at customs, upon arrival (and the border guards may request to see the visa approval confirmation)
Arriving into Dushanbe - First impressions
Once you arrive at Dushanbe International Airport, be prepared for some rather chaotic scenes at the queue or customs. In fact, I should say “the absence of queue”, because there is absolutely no semblance of order, and is everyone for himself racing to be the first to go through customs. Luckily the airport is rather small and, even in such circumstance, it doesn’t take long to go through.
Next thing you should be prepared is the hassle to get a taxi. International or Russian ride hailing apps are not available here. When you set your feet on the arrivals hall you are immediately approach by a several taxi drivers as well as by some fixers that distribute work among the drivers. I was later advised by locals to call a couple of serious taxi companies (I was advised to call 3333 next time).
In this occasion I just took a random cab and paid 1,000 Russian rubles (around US$12) to take me to the hotel. This was possibly a bit above the normal price, but it was 4am in the morning, I did not have local money and neither did I have smaller change (it is possibly a good idea to carry hard currency in small denomination notes), in any case, I was too tired to start bargaining around for just a small sum.
The airport is right next to the city center, in fact it is pretty much attached to it, so you should not be paying much more than this in any case.
Things to see in Dushanbe
1. Presidential posters
Tajikistan is a presidential republic and, if you are not acquainted with its president, Emomali Rahmon, who has been in the post since 1992, you soon will right after landing in Dushanbe, since his image is literally on every other wall!
2. The (until recently) largest flagpole in the world
That’s right: until it was surpassed by a Saudi flag in Jeddah, Dushanbe had the honour of having the tallest self-standing flag pole in the world.
The flag, is visible from many points of the capital and is located in the middle of a very central and modernly-designed park area (more on this soon).
Unfortunately I could only visit this area at dusk, and therefore the pictures I could take are not of the best quality, but you get an idea.
3. Mosque of Tajikistan
Tajikistan is a majority-muslim country and this is its largest mosque. It construction is quite recent and, actually, I am not sure it is completed yet, since you could see some building structures and workers around when passing by with the car.
It is located in the outskirts of the city, next to the city’s university.
4. Monuments to the Samanid Empire (plus a bit of history)
Once upon a time, around the 9-10th C. AD, Tajikistan was at the centre of a large empire, that controlled a big chunk of Central Asia, including the present-day country of Tajikistan, plus large swathes of Uzbekistan, Iran, Kirgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.
The founder and most important ruler of the Samanid dinasty, as this historical period is known, was Ismail Samani. This is the other guy, after the president, that you get to know about when you visit Tajikistan. He has a rather impressive statue in central Dushanbe, plus the local currency (the Somoni) is named after him and his crown is emblazoned in the national flag.
Also, the name of the country, in the local Tajik language means “Land of the crowned”, another reference to this period.
Statue of Samani (above) and right next to it (below), a monumental map that depicts the maximum extent of his empire.
Tajik language is closely related to Persian (in contrast, other Central Asian countries have mostly Turkic languages) and this extends to cultural links as well. Poet Rudaki, who was born and lived in present day Tajikistan, is considered one of the great authors of modern Persian language. One of the most centrally-located parks in Dushanbe and this monument (below) are dedicated to him.
5. Exploring Central Dushanbe
Although I had less time that I would have liked to to roam the streets of Dushanbe, my impression is that of quite an orderly city, at least in the center, with broad avenues shaded by trees. I guess this is in part a vestige of Soviet urban planning (between 1929 and 1961 Dushanbe was known as Stalinabad). There seems to have been quite a lot of new construction going on in recent years as well, with large modern-looking granitic buildings lining some of the city’s mai avenues, particularly on the way to the airport.
Although you wouldn’t be able to tell from its central areas, Tajikistan is a rather poor country, though, and this is most evident in the suburbs, that are mostly made of one-storey very simple constructions.
There is quite a lot of flashy street decor - perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea - all around the Rudaki Park area. Next are some pictures (again image quality is not the best, since I took them with my phone!).
The building below is the National Library of Tajikistan, that is located next to Park Rudaki and not far from the famous flagpole.
Below is the entrance to Park Rudaki, a perfectly well kept stretch of the city.
6. Excursion to Hisor Fortress
I am grateful that my hosts in this business trip volunteered to show me a bit of the country outside Dushanbe.
Some 30km West of Dushanbe is the town of Hisor, where we were able to visit the remains of a historical fortress and have a proper Tajik meal
But the first sight we came across when approaching the city of Hissor is this melon-shaped building. This choice of design is, I am being told, an homage to local produce, as melon is one of the most valued local products (it is common to see roadside stalls selling fresh melons and grapes). This building is a sort of community center and it is used to host all sort of events.
The landscape of this part of Tajikistan (the Eastern half of the country, in contrast, is completely mountanious) is that of a series of valleys, irrigated by multiple running streams, and surrounded by very dry mountains and steppe, as you can see in the picture below.
Places to eat near Dushanbe
Tabakai Karayev (near the village of Ittifok)
This is quite an interesting place. Located right on top of a river bank and just a few kilometres west of the town of Hissor, it is an open-air restaurant specializing in Tajik specialities (“tabaka” is in fact one of the dishes we will soon get acquainted with!).
The restaurant is structured around a running stream. In fact, when coming into the restaurant, people wash their hands with running water (and soap) from a tap in the open, something that makes sense if you consider that later some of the dishes require eating with your hands to some degree.
People eat inside these cabins that are suspended on top of the water, seating casually around the central table.
Local cuisine includes lots of meat (although there are also some vegetarian dishes). And some interesting condiments, for example, the white sauce, called “chaka” (чака) is in fact a sort of sour creamy cheese. The red one is called “kemal” (кемаль) and has a tomato base. They are applied to both salad and meat.
Below is a Tajik specilaity, chicken tabaka (табака из курицы), that is served usually with a fresh vegetables salad (in the background) called “shakarob” (шакароб). All of this together with the “lepeshka” flat, round, bread (лепешка) so typical of Central Asia (well, not sure all varieties of bread are technically called lepeshka, but they are of this style)
And we had also some lamb cooked in a tandoor (тандури) oven. Very tasty.
Although highly restored, Hisor fortress is a very ancient structure located on one of the branches of the famous Silk Road. In the middle ages it was for some time an independent khanate and later also a dependency of the Emirate of Bukhara. The current gates are a restoration of the 16th C. ones.
There is little inside, aside from a few souvenir shops, but it is possible to get to the top of the walls and admire the landscape of the surrounding valley and mountains.
Eating in Dushanbe
Restaurant “Lola” («Лола»)
It’s a place with a large outdoor terrace serving “shashlik” (barbecued meat on skews), alongside the Tajik sauces we mentioned earlier and excellent french fries.
We also had a chance to try the local cola drink, that apparently is made under license from an American firm “RC Cola”, as well as local organic vodka, which turned out to be really smooth. I was told that it is the high quality mountain water available locally that makes all the difference!
Where to stay in Dushanbe
My hotel in Dushanbe was the Twins Hotel.
This is a quite central four-star independent boutique hotel located in a sort of small palace. You enter it through a courtyard (below) and the rooms are then immediately in the main corpus of the hotel. No conventional reception or front desk, you just do your check in and check out procedures at the courtyard.
Also, there is no formal eating room (or at least it was not open when I visited), all breakfasts are delivered directly to the room (the previous evening you are handed out a paper with the menu and you make your choices)
The facilities inside where modern and clean, the internet was working well and staff were helpful and spoke both English and Russian.
Always leave something for next time
And it was soon time to get on the road (or on the plane) again. Here is an image of the rather small, but functional, airport at Dushanbe.
I have included also a couple of pictures taken from the plane, since I am told that some of the most interesting sights in Tajikistan are actually in the mountains, something for next time!