Top 10 Places to Discover in Tajikistan: Undiscovered, Remote, Incredible

Top 10 Places to Discover in Tajikistan: Undiscovered, Remote, Incredible

Jake Smith joined MIR’s Seattle staff after several years of living and working in Tajikistan, as well as traveling to the far corners of Central Asia

Tajikistan is different, remote, adventurous, and undiscovered to this day. Very few travelers go there. Unlike in Bukhara, Samarkand, Almaty, or even Bishkek, spotting foreigners on the streets in most parts of the country is still a rarity, even in the capital. Flights in and out are limited, and border crossings and the drives they entail are often arduous.

In general, comfort can be difficult to find outside of a few hotels in the capital, but that same lack of infrastructure and the absence of any significant tourism means that authentic adventure and genuine cultural exchange are easy to find (in fact, difficult to avoid).

Here’s my list of 10 places (in no special order) that I recommend to travelers who want to experience this special, and undiscovered, destination:

  1. Khujand
  2. Istaravshan
  3. Dushanbe
  4. Iskanderkul
  5. Penjikent
  6. The Pamir Mountains
  7. Murghab
  8. Langar
  9. Yamchun
  10. Namadgut

Panjshanbe Bazaar, KhujandPhoto credit: Jake Smith

Panjshanbe Bazaar, Khujand
Photo credit: Jake Smith

1. KhujandKhujand, located on the Syr Darya River in the Fergana Valley, is Tajikistan’s second city. Its population of around 200,000 people includes a large minority of Uzbeks. It is an ancient city with a fair amount of history. Khujand was known as Leninabad for much of its Soviet history and many locals still refer to it by that name.

Panjshanbe Bazaar is the main food market in town and in my opinion, one of the most atmospheric in Central Asia. It is strictly a local market and does not cater to tourists like some of the souvenir bazaars in Uzbekistan. The large pink building it is contained in has two stories, and the second floor walkways allow for great photographs of the trading below. The bazaar is located on a large, open square next to which the 16th century Muslihiddin Khujandi Mosque and Mausoleum are located. This square, the historical complex, and the bazaar are great places for people watching and independent time.

Kuk Gumbaz Madrassah in Istaravshan (Timurid architecture)<br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Kuk Gumbaz Madrassah in Istaravshan (Timurid architecture)
Photo credit: Jake Smith

2. IstaravshanIstaravshan is a small town to the southwest of Khujand that is home to the country’s only Timurid architecture. It makes a good day trip from Khujand, and can also be visited on the way to or from Dushanbe, Iskander Kul, or Penjikent.

The Kuk Gumbaz Mosque and Madrassah is Tajikistan’s only example of Timurid (Samarkand-style) architecture. It is small but beautiful with intricate tilework and a classic blue dome. This is an active madrassah with young students studying Islam. The monument is located in a very traditional neighborhood of winding alleys and mud brick walls, which is atmospheric to walk through.

Blacksmiths at the bazaar sell decorative traditional knives made from animal bone, horns, and various types of wood. They are quite beautiful and watching the blacksmiths at work is interesting. These knives are famous throughout Tajikistan.

Knife sellers at Istaravshan Market<br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Knife sellers at Istaravshan Market
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Rudaki Park in DushanbePhoto credit: Jake Smith

Rudaki Park in Dushanbe
Photo credit: Jake Smith

3. DushanbeDushanbe is the capital of Tajikistan and is very much a modern city. Prior to the arrival of the Soviets, it was a small village at the foot of the nearby mountains that hosted a bazaar on Mondays (Dushanbe means “Monday” in Tajiki Persian). As such, there are few historical monuments present. That said, the parks, tree-lined Rudaki Avenue, and interesting modern and Soviet architecture make it an engaging place to spend a night or two. It is certainly easy to explore on foot, far more so than other Central Asian capitals. It is also home to good hotels and restaurants.

A waterfall near Lake Iskander Kul. Photo credit: Jake Smith

A waterfall near Lake Iskander Kul
Photo credit: Jake Smith

4. IskanderkulIskanderkul is a beautiful alpine lake located in the Fan Mountains due north of Dushanbe. The access road off the main highway is rough and takes over an hour each way. Short hikes to a nearby waterfall, a smaller lake, and around the main lakeshore can be arranged. Boat rides and swimming (though the water is very cold) are possibilities.

Kids and kittens at Iskander-KulPhoto credit: Jake Smith

Kids and kittens at Iskander-Kul
Photo credit: Jake Smith

The view for miles in Penjikent, Tajikistan. Photo credit: Jake Smith

The view for miles in Penjikent, Tajikistan
Photo credit: Jake Smith

5. PenjikentPenjikent is a small town in the far northwest of Tajikistan, in the Zarafshon River Valley. The area is known for the archaeological sites of Old Panjakent and Sarazm (which is one of Tajikistan’s two UNESCO World Heritage sites). Old Panjakent is located on a rise above town overlooking the river valley. A guided tour helps to make the outlines of walls and streets come more alive.

The town was established in the 5th century AD and was a major Sogdian stronghold until the Arabs invaded three centuries later. The UNESCO-listed site of Sarazm is even more ancient, dating back to at least the 4th millennium BC. The site now consists of several open archaeological digs showing the outlines of buildings. Having a guide available to put things in context is important. Metal roofs protect the pits from the elements. Penjikent also has a small but interesting produce market and a nice museum with frescoes and artifacts from the two sites.

Archaeological sites of Old Panjakent. Photo credit: Jake Smith

Archaeological sites of Old Panjakent
Photo credit: Jake Smith

IshkashimPhoto credit: Jake Smith

A herd of goats coming ’round the bend in the Pamir Mountains
Photo credit: Jake Smith

6. The Pamir MountainsA “pamir” is technically a broad, U-shaped, high-altitude valley, covered in grass and mossy vegetation. These are a common feature in the far east of Tajikistan, and they have given their name to the associated mountain range and plateau that they are located within. The mountain range, an extension of the Hindu Kush and Karakorum, is the Pamirs, and the plateau, sometimes called Bomi Dunyo or “Roof of the World,” is the Pamir Plateau.

People don’t go to the Pamirs for the food, the hotels, or the comfort. They go there for adventure, remoteness, cultural experiences, and incredible scenery. The Pamirs are such an amazing destination that the remaining four places on this top ten list are technically within and part of the region: Langar, Murghab, Yamchun, and Namadgut.

Three countries are visible from along the Pamirs: Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan

Three countries visible from along the Pamir Highway: Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan
Photo credit: Jake Smith

The Murgab MarketPhoto credit: Jake Smith

Milk merchants at the Murghab market
Photo credit: Jake Smith

7. MurghabMurghab is largely a Kyrgyz town. The surrounding landscape of the Pamir Plateau is extremely harsh and pictures of the area look more like the moon than anywhere else. There are no trees. Yaks are the principle source of meat and dairy products. The town’s very small market, the Yak House souvenir store (selling mostly felt products), and the stark scenery and remoteness are the main attractions.

The town of Murgab on the Pamir Plateau<br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

The town of Murghab on the Pamir Plateau
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Camels near Langar, across the river/border from Afghanistan. Photo credit: Jake Smith

Camels near Langar, across the river/border from Afghanistan
Photo credit: Jake Smith

8.LangarLangar is the first village one encounters when descending the Khargush Pass from the Pamir Plateau and Murghab. Lucky groups will see marmots, golden eagles, vultures, and very rarely ibex, Marco Polo sheep, and trailing snow leopards. The stretch of road between the pass and Langar is easily the most scenic on this route.

Yamchun Fort above the Wakhan Corridor Photo credit: Jake Smith

Yamchun Fort above the Wakhan Corridor where two countries, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, are visible, divided by the Pamir River 
Photo credit: Jake Smith

9. YamchunYamchun is one of the gems and true highlights of the Wakhan valley and the Pamirs. The ruined fortress is located high above the valley floor and commands views running up and down the Wakhan and across to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was most likely built to monitor trade caravans descending from China. The fort is a bit of scramble from the road, but it is well worth the trouble. The nearby by Bibi Fatima Hot Springs are a great place for a picnic lunch. The hot springs themselves are in a cave-like natural chamber lined with beautiful mineral deposits and moss.

Qahqaha Fort near Namadgut <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Qahqaha Fort near Namadgut
Photo credit: Jake Smith

10. NamadgutFrom Yamchun the road runs down to Namadgut. Ruins of another old fort can be found here, Fort Qahqaha. There are petroglyphs carved into the boulders just a kilometer or so up from the fort. There is also a museum devoted to Wakhi culture and customs in the area as well. It is located in a traditional Pamiri house. The very friendly and knowledgeable curator has published a book in English on Wakhi culture.

Petroglyphs near Namadgut<br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Petroglyphs near Namadgut
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Travel to Tajikistan with MIR

MIR has more than 30 years travel experience in Tajikistan and Central Asia. MIR has several small group tours through Tajikistan with the soaring Pamir Mountains as your backdrop, including:

MIR can also hand-craft a custom private journey through this undiscovered country, personalized to your interests and travel pace. If you want ideas for a private trip, check out our Essential Tajikistan itinerary.

(Top photo: Turquoise Iskander Kul Lake – Jake Smith.)

PUBLISHED: March 31, 2015

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