Tajikistan … you had me at assalomu alaykum (hello)

After a significant writing hiatus and a move back across the world to New Zealand, I have finally got back in to writing about my trips and have to go way back to September and my wonderful trip to Central Asia … welcome to Stan No. 3 – Tajikistan

  • Currency:  Somoni (TJS)  US$1 = TJS 9.7
  • Language: Tajik, Russian
  • Size: 143,100km2
  • Population:

Accordingly to our guide, ‘a drunk Russian divided up the countries as random shapes” and that’s why the central Asian countries have sure odd shapes – believe it or not??

We arrived in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan to a bit of an immigration queue – people pushing in, immigration offices just up and leaving their desks.  Once through that it was on to the customs area where they were scanning everyone’s bags – unfortunately people were not picking them up fast enough and the bags were backing up on the machine and then falling all over the floor  🤦🏻‍♀️ Finally through the formalities and we met our local guide Farhodbek – or Farhod for short. 

Farhod explained to us that the Tajik language and culture are based on Persian rather than Turkic that we see in the other Central Asian countries and they are very proud of their Persian heritage.

Despite its population of 9 million people, Tajikistan is the smallest of the Central Asia countries by landmass and the capital Dushanbe (interesting Dushanbe means Monday which is the day the bazaar used to be held)  has a population of around 1 million.  It was appointed the capital in 1924 by the Russian Tzar (when it was named Stalinabad), but the area has been settled as far back as 5000BC.

Farhod starting weaving his magic early on in my Tajikistan visit as he had arranged for the Museum of Antiquities to stay open beyond it’s normal closing time just for our group so we were the only people there.  It was a great introduction to the incredible history of the country.  From Alexander the Great, through the Hellenistic period and the land of Bactria (where the two humped Bactrian camels originated from).

The country (or it is probably more accurate to say region) has been ruled by Oxus, Andronovo, Buddists (the museum houses the largest surviving clay Buddha in Central Asia), Nestorian Christains, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Islam.  On top of that it has been part of the Achaemenid Empire, Sasanian Empire, Hephthalite, Empire, Samind Empire, Mongol Empire (and I sure we have all heard of the mighty Genghis Khan who killed all the people in his way, destroying animals and crops so any survivors of his marauding could not survive), Timurid dynasty, Khanate of Bukhara, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union before it finally gained independence in 1991.

It was also in the museum, where we met Somoni (or Ismail Samani) for the first time.  This is the man the money is named after and the same one who stands on large plinths around the country (he has replaced Lenin who once stood on the same plinths) and he is considered the father of the Tajik nation. 

Somoni ruled in the region between 892 – 907 and was the first ruler in the region to embrace Islam.  Science and literature also flourished under his rule.  A local scholar wrote he “was extremely just, and his good qualities were many.  He had pure faith in God (to Him be power and glory) and he was generous to the poor – to name only one of his notable virtues”.

I am not sure quite how to describe out next stop but let me start with wow – the over the top opulence of the Navruz Palace would not have been out of place in Dubai or somewhere similar!!!

The ‘palace’ was privately funded by local business people (at the ‘suggestion’ of the president).  As with the museum, it was closed today but our guide had worked his magic for us to be allowed in.

Each room was more wow then the next – massive ‘tea’ rooms, meeting rooms ending in a mirror room! All made my local artisans in traditional style and colours from natural products. I am not sure I have ever seen anything quite like it and the photos definitely do not do it justice!

The gardens were just as stunning, overlooking the lake and clearly a popular place for wedding photos as there were at least 3 couples getting their photos taken.

We had a quick break in the luxurious Hilton hotel (which had a bomb check of vehicles entering the gates!) before heading out again. Oddly I turned on the TV and ended up watching a Kiwi programme – no idea what it was but it was set in Wellington and had Julian Denison in it!!! How bizarre lol

To end the day we joined locals in a late afternoon stroll around a large park which housed a very tall flag pole – notable because it was the highest flagpole in the world until 2015!!   We then moved into another park where there was live local music and many people and families dancing.  (Apparently Dushanbe has 27 parks so is considered a ‘green’ city.)

As darkness fell, the lights came and again, wow!!  It was almost a little like Las Vegas and the grand National Library looked like a casino!  This city is insane 🥴🥴🥴

Already around the central city, there were a lot of people out for an Sunday evening walk, women in beautiful traditional outfits, walking along wonderful lit boulevards – it is like Christmas all year round it seems and I love it.

After an overwhelming buffet breakfast at the hotel we headed out of the city towards the Fan Mountains , which seemed to start right on the outskirts of the city.  It was Tajikistan’s Independence Day (September 9th) and therefore a public holiday so the streets were quiet and lined with flags.  Large pictures of the president also adorned the city  – oddly they all seemed to be the same photo, photoshopped on different backgrounds – one surrounded by children, one in a poppy field, one in front of one of their large hydro power plants lol

A few random but interesting facts about Tajikistan:

  • Tour guides pay no tax till 2021 to help promote tourism in the country
  • 100% of the countries power is hydro power (and on this day they were opening another huge turbine)
  • In Central Asia, Tajik roads are the best (that may be a matter of opinion)
  • It is illegal to take dirty cars in to the city and you can get fined for doing so! This means the road side on the out skirts of the city is lined with car washes

Tajik’s are very proud of their language, culture and heritage which they managed to keep alive during the Soviet period.  So much so, the wall around a large cement factory we passed on the way out of town was decorated with pictures of famous people and places around the country.  It went on and on and on and was really something quite special.

The roads in the mountains were pretty good and there were lots of snow tunnels, including one that is 5km long and worryingly has a reputation of being one of the world’s most dangerous tunnels (and is also referred as the Tunnel of Death)! Obviously I made it through alive despite the fact that is no drainage or ventilation and the road was full of pot holes!

It was a relief when we arrived at Iskander Kul (Alexander Lake – named after Alexander the Great) as this was definitely not my favourite travel day!!!  The views were amazing views through the mountains but the windy roads, stuck in the back of the small van with no air gave me a terrible headache 😟.

After a small issue at the entrance to the park (as the guard wanted our guide to pay in cash, but his company paid a by bank transfer so much ‘discussion’ was required both on the way in and out!!!) before we were able to head down to the lake. 

From the view point on the road,  the lake looked an incredible blue – from close up it not quite so blue but still beautiful with all the mountains surrounding it.  The blue tint is because it is feed from glaciers and ice in the mountains surrounding it.  Just a few minutes walk away, there was a spring feed lake (called Snake Lake) which was a completely different colour.  Such a contrast and equally as beautiful.

I managed to get a seat in the front of the vehicle for the next part of the journey and felt much better for it, so much so I managed to take a nap for some of the journey 👍🏻 before we had a toilet stop at a petrol station and sampling one of the local delacacies – a ‘Facebook’ ice cream 👍🏻👍🏻 (it was a local ice cream so no idea if facebook know anything about tit 🤔😂) – it was tasty enough though.

As we continued through the mountains it was really interesting to see the everyday life of the people living in the mountains.  Small towns with road side stalls keeping there drinks cool in the small water falls running down the rocks, people walking their cows or goats closer to town at the end of the day – some with just 1, other small children trying to rangel 2 or 3. Men riding donkeys or women carrying hay on their heads and other people tending to their fields.

Our stop for the night was in a lush valley and in the town of Penjikent – very different to the landscape we had driven through today and in stark contrast to Dushanbe yesterday.  We were staying in what was described as the nicest hotel in town, but being a small town, it was very ‘local’ in style but still comfortable enough.

Keeping it local, we had dinner in a very local spot where we had the most amazing lamb kebabs – thankfully it was actually the first day I was hungry for dinner!  Many of the local diners stopped by and were interested to know about us.  Not sure if they get many tourists there so it was lovely to be able to interact with them – albeit briefly. 👍