Tajikistan lies right in the heart of Asia and features some of the highest mountains on Earth. Finding its origin in ancient Persian cultures, Tajikistan gained its independence only three decades ago after the fall of the Soviet Union. With 90% of the country covered by mountains, it is a heaven for trekking and outdoor adepts. Through the years, the country has grown increasingly more accessible to tourists. For many though, it remains a largely unknown spot on the map of the world. If you are one of them, this overview is for you.
History of Tajikistan
The story of how Tajikistan came into being is a turbulent series of events. Historic sites in the region reveal inhabitation dating back over 4000 years, but not many details are known about these ancient cultures. The oldest written history go back to around 500 B.C, when the present-day Tajikistan was part of the First Persian Empire.
Through the centuries, many changes in power occurred, with several different empires and states controlling the region. Being located right between China and the Western World, Tajikistan was an important trading hub on the Silk Road, giving it an economically strategic position and entailed territorial aspiration from all directions. Most notably, Alexander the Great and Dzenghis Khan were among those conquerors, but had no cultural connection to the Persians.
In the 9th and 10th century, Tajik lands were under Persian control within the Saminid Empire. Ismoil Somoni reigned the empire during the high days and led the Saminids to great power and prosperity. Tajikistan takes pride in the Persian renaissance in the region during Saminid times and Ismoil Somoni is considered a national hero. His legacy is ubiquitous in the present-day, for example living forth in the national currency (Somoni), the name of the highest peak of Tajikistan (Ismail Somoni Peak) and his prominent statue in capital Dushanbe.
In 999, the Saminid Empire got overpowered by a Turkic empire. This so-called Kara-Khanid Khanate took control over Central Asia, which also explains the present-day predominance of Turkic people in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan).
From 1860 onward, the Russian Empire took control over the Tajik territories, which were at that time part of the Emirate of Bukhara. The Russian influence and repression increased over the years despite growing resistance and attempts to gain independence.
The Tajikistan that we know nowadays gained shape in 1924 when the Tajik ASSR was created as a part of Uzbekistan. Five years later, in 1929, it was turned into the Tajik SSR, a constituent republic within the Soviet Union separated from Uzbekistan. The Tajik SSR continued to exist until the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. At that moment, the country gained its independence to become the Tajikistan that we know today.
Quickly after the independence, the Tajik Civil War started, lasting from 1992 to 1997. Regional factions in mainly the east of Tajikistan (including the Pamirs) revolted against the newly-formed government. The protests were beaten down by governmental troops with the aid of the Russian military. Tens of thousands of people lost their lives until a peace agreement was signed in 1997.
Although tensions have been rising and falling over the years since then, Tajikistan currently is in calm waters.
The Tajikistan of today
The Tajiks find their origin in ancient Persian civilizations. At present, approximately 9.5 million people live in Tajikistan, with the capital Dushanbe being by far the most populous city with nearly 900.000 inhabitants. Apart from ethnic Tajik people and people native to the mountainous regions, there are considerable Russian and Uzbek minorities living predominantly in the urban centers in the west and north of Tajikistan.
As a remainder of the Soviet times, Russian remains a lingua franca that is widely understood by most Tajiks. Tajik is the official language and closely related to Persian (Farsi). In fact, Tajik and Persian are to a high degree mutually intelligible. Originally, Tajik was written in the Arabic alphabet, but during Soviet times, the script was changed to the Cyrillic alphabet.
Numerous local Iranian languages are spoken particularly in the mountainous parts, the most notable of which are the Pamir languages in Gorno-Badakhshan and Yagnobi language in the west of Tajikistan. Uzbek is also widely spoken by Uzbek communities in the larger cities. English is gaining in popularity among younger generations, but is generally understood only to a limited extent.
Islam is the religion of about 98% of the Tajik population. The traditional islamic holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are national holidays. The biggest holiday arguably is Navruz: the Persian New Year at the astronomical onset of spring. Navruz (or Nowruz) comes with nation-wide celebrations and spectacles. Commercial western influences are meanwhile gaining ground in Tajikistan. For example, Christmas trees and decoration are abundantly laid out in December.
Food plays an important role during celebrations and festivities. One of the national dishes of Tajikistan is plov, which is a special rice preparation served with beef. Qurutob — another traditional dish — is a vegetarian preparation with flat bread, fresh vegetables and salty cheese balls (qurut). Dishes like plov and qurutob are typically eaten together from a large shared wooden dish. Tea is the number one drink accompanying any meal and has an important place in Tajik culture.
The main export products of Tajikistan are aluminum and cotton. Raw aluminum ore is imported and processed by the Tajik Aluminum Company (TALCO) in Central Asia’s largest aluminum manufacturing plant. The cultivation of cotton was stimulated during Soviet times and currently makes up half of the agricultural production.
Another major source of income for Tajikistan comes from money transfers by Tajik labor migrants in Russia. Being a former part of the USSR, traveling to Russia for work is easy for Tajik nationals. Salaries in Russia are a few times higher than in Tajikistan, making Russia a popular job destination.
Many families depend on money remittances from their relatives working in Russia. About half of the GDP of Tajikistan is estimated to derive from remittances from Russia, making Tajikistan one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world. Tajikistan also exploits several large hydroelectric power stations, including the dams near the cities of Nurek and Khujand.
About 90% of Tajikistan is covered by mountains, extending west from the Himalayas. Only minor parts in the south and far north have an elevation that not exceeds 1000 meters. The greatest altitudes are in the east of the country, which hosts some of the highest peaks in the world rising up to 7.495 meters. The mountains are still actively building up, giving them a rough and majestic aspect.
Tajikistan features an endless list of amazing lakes. The most widely known lakes are Iskanderkul, Alovudinkul and Kulikalon in the northwest, while the Pamirs are host to the magnificent lakes of Sarez, Zorkul, Yashikul and Karakul. There are also several large reservoirs for generating hydroelectric power, the two largest being the Kayrakkum Reservoir near Khujand in the north and the Nurek Reservoir just southeast of Dushanbe.
Located right in the center of Asia, far away from any moisture sources, Tajikistan has an arid land climate. The capital Dushanbe has extremely hot and dry summers with temperatures commonly rising up to 40˚C. At the same time, snowfall in winter is common. Higher up in the mountains, summer temperatures are more moderate and vegetation is more abundant.
In the high mountains above 3000 meters, landscapes are mostly barren and winter temperatures are ice cold. Diverse wildlife inhabits the Tajik mountains, including snow leopards, brown bears, wolves and grazers like Marco Polo sheep (endemic to the Pamirs) and markhor, which are a goat species with large screw horns.
The Tajik nature has remained unknown to the general public, mainly because facilities for tourism are underdeveloped. Nevertheless, the Tajik mountains offer great opportunities for hiking and other outdoor activities. Particularly, the Fann Mountains in the northwest and Pamir Mountains are dream destinations for trekking.
Are you up for an unforgettable trekking adventure? Visit our trek page or contact us directly via the form below! Visit the special pages on the Fann Mountains and Pamir Mountains to know more about these two great hubs for multi-day treks.
Is Tajikistan safe?
Sometimes questions arise about how safe it is to travel to Tajikistan. This is not surprising considering that generally not much is known about Tajikistan. Luckily, there is not much reason for concern.
The areas of increased risk are mostly limited to the border zone with Afghanistan in the south due to illegal drug trafficking. Beside, the border zone with Uzbekistan in the northwest can pose some danger with regard to landmines. Trekking routes though stay far away from any potentially dangerous border zone.
Terrorism risks are not higher compared to European countries. The last decade has seen one terrorist attack, in 2018, when four cycling tourists were killed in the south of Tajikistan. This tragedy was a rather stand-alone event. Terrorism risks can obviously never be excluded, but may be considered low. The government employs rather strict (and sometimes unorthodox) yet effective measures to contain any upsurge in extremism.
Disturbances in the political field occurred at occasions in the past, particularly in the 90s between groups from the Gorno-Badakhshan province and the government seated in Dushanbe. Those times are far behind us, however, and the present-day political situation has already long been stable.
Altogether, mainly the standard risks related to traveling in basically any country (pickpocketing, etc.) apply to the present-day Tajikistan. Tajikistan can generally be considered a safe country without much to worry about.
How to enter Tajikistan?
Entering Tajikistan for tourist became very easy upon the introduction of the e-Visa in 2016. Citizens of most countries can easily apply for a tourist visa online before departure. The cost for the e-Visa is $30 per person. The visa is usually issued within several days after online submission of the request and can then be printed. Access to the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) — home to the Pamirs — requires an additional permit, which can be purchased simultaneously during the e-Visa process at an additional $20. The GBAO permit is required for every trek in the Pamir Mountains.
Beyond the e-Visa, no further permits or documentation are required before traveling to Tajikistan. More detailed information on getting a visa can be found here.
Attention! In conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is currently required for everyone entering Tajikistan from abroad to bring a negative PCR-test no older than 72 hours.
Tajikistan Country Info
Best time to visit
Tajikistan has a land climate with hot summers and cold winters. The trekking season is in summer and runs from May to September when temperatures are most pleasant. In the mountains, daytime temperatures are usually around 20 to 25˚C in summer. In the lower regions (including Dushanbe), it can be extremely hot (> 40˚C) in summer with pleasant temperatures at night.
Trekking in most of Tajikistan is not possible all year round. Outside the main season, the conditions can be icy cold in the high mountains with trails covered by lots of snow. For the highest hiking routes in the Pamir Mountains (> 4000 m), snow may complicate trekking all the way until the end of June.
The amount of precipitation in Tajikistan varies throughout the year. During summer and early autumn, there is almost no rainfall at all. Precipitation is more frequent the rest of the year with rainfall amounts being highest in early spring. Good rainwear is a must when you go trekking outside the main trekking season in summer, especially in the mountains north of Dushanbe, including the Fann Mountains and the Zerafshan Range. The Pamir Mountains are more arid with relatively low rainfall throughout the entire year.
Money and shopping
Tajikistan uses the Tajik Somoni (SOM) as currency. US dollars or euro are also sometimes accepted, but are not an official currency. 10 somoni equals to about 1 dollar. It can be difficult to withdraw money from ATMs with foreign credit and debit cards. Especially foreign debit cards are hardly accepted. Credit cards usually do work after some trying here and there. It can be recommendable to bring cash dollars or euros for exchange. There are many banks where dollars and euros can be exchanged.
Tajikistan is a relatively cheap country. Here are some price indications:Main dish in restaurant: 2-4 USD 0.5L of beer in a bar: 1 USD 0.5L bottle of coke: 0.5 USD 15 min taxi drive: 2-3 USD
Bargaining is common in Tajikistan on the bazaars or when dealing with drivers. Most shops, bars and restaurants are open seven days a week. Precise opening times vary.
Public transport is limited in Tajikistan. Dushanbe has a bus network that you can use to move around the city. There are also mashrutkas (smaller vans) and clandestine cars that operate fixed lines within the city. Taxis are relatively cheap. A taxi ride within Dushanbe usually costs less than 2 USD.
For regional travel, for example when going into the mountains, there are no public transport options. For this, the Tajiks mostly make use of shared cars. Each destination has its own gathering place in Dushanbe with cars departing as soon as they fill up. These gathering places are not well indicated, which can make it difficult to find out where to go precisely. Car rental options are scarce and tend to be expensive, even by western standards. In most cases, it is easier to rent a personal driver with car.
When traveling in summer, you mostly need light clothing to cope with the high temperatures. Only at night in the mountains, you need warm clothes as the temperature can drop sharply once the sun goes down.
There are no restrictions as to what you can wear on the street in Tajikistan. For example, even though Tajikistan is an islamic country, women are not required to wear head coverings. Although you can wear whatever you want, it is good to remind that Tajikistan is quite a conservative country. Especially in the mountain villages, it is considered inappropriate to wear clothes that are too short. It is good to keep this in mind, as people are usually too polite to say anything about it.
Entry requirementsFor nationals of most countries, a tourist visa can be acquired fully online through evisa.tj. Alternatively, a visa-on-arrival is also available for most travelers. Passport holders of most countries of the former SSSR can travel to Tajikistan without a visa. Check out the visa info page for more detailed info on the process.
ElectricityThe supply voltage in Tajikistan is 220V. Two plug types (C and F) are used throughout Tajikistan. Both these types have two round pins. These plugs are the ones that are also used in most of Europe and the rest of the former SSSR countries. It is necessary to bring a travel adapter if you use plugs with three pins or plugs that do not have the two round pins. Short power failures may occasionally occur in Tajikistan.
Phone and internet
A local SIM card typically costs around 10 USD and can be acquired upon showing your passport. This usually takes 5 to 10 minutes. In the larger cities, there are many telecom shops selling SIM cards. Among the biggest providers are MegaFon and Tcell. There is no coverage in the remote parts of the mountains.
Wi-Fi is available in most hotels, although the speed may not always be optimal. Homestays in the mountains usually do not have Wi-Fi.
Eating and drinking
Tajik cuisine has much in common with the other countries in Central Asia. The staple foods are rice, bread, meat and dairy products. The Tajiks adore meat, which can make life hard if you are a vegetarian. The menu includes dishes such as plov, shurbo and laghman. Check out this page for some of the most typical Tajik dishes.
Tea occupies an important place in Tajik culture. Every meal or social gathering is usually accompanied by tea. So be prepared to drink a lot of tea when you visit Tajikistan.
Alcoholic drinks are widely available throughout the country, mainly owing to the former Soviet influences. Drinking alcohol is not extremely important in Tajik culture, but it is widely accepted. There are even local beers and wines. So no worries for those who like to go out, there are plenty of bars and clubs where you can have a drink.
Tajikistan is safe for tourists. Even at night time, it is safe to walk on the streets. It is very rare for tourists to be the target of robberies. There are generally only minor risks in Tajikistan as there are for traveling in almost any country in the world (pickpocketing, etc.).
The hospitals and healthcare system are not among the best in the world. Always make sure you are properly insured.
Before departure, always check up-to-date travel advice for Tajikistan at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in your country.