The Republic of Tajikistan is a mountainous, landlocked country in Central Asia with an estimated population of over 9.25 million. It is bordered by Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan to the north, and China to the east. The Tajik people are those who speak the traditional language Tajik, a dialect of Persian, though generally Russian is the language used today.
Following the end of the American Civil War and the end to slavery there, the world’s chief source of cotton disappeared. The Russian Empire eyed Central Asia as a place where it could grow its own cotton. By 1885, Russia had taken control of Tajikistan and replaced all of its grain production with cotton. The Soviets expanded the cotton production and today, cotton remains the country’s main export. Tajikistan is the poorest former USSR country.
The fall of the USSR and the independence of Tajikistan sent the country into a five-year civil war that left tens of thousands dead and one-fifth of the population displaced. The end of the war saw Tajikistan nominally a democratic republic, but there is virtually one political party and strongman President Emomali Rohman, a former cotton farm boss installed in 1994, has remained in power ever since. Each mention of Rahmon in the media is preceded by his official title: “founder of peace and national unity, leader of the nation.” The government has been criticised by a number of non-governmental organizations for authoritarian leadership, lack of religious freedom, corruption and widespread violations of human rights.
Although the political system is secular, Sunni Islam is practiced by 98% of the population and was declared the official religion in 2009 although Rohnan reportedly despises the religion. 1.2% of the population are still Zorastrianism, an ancient religion formed in Iran. I was curious, so…
Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest continuously practiced religions. Major features of Zoroastrianism, such as messianism, judgment after death, heaven and hell, and free will may have influenced other religious and philosophical systems, including Second Temple Judaism, Gnosticism, Greek philosophy, Christianity, Islam, the Bahá’í Faith, and Buddhism.
Zoroastrians pray in front of a fire, which represents purity and sustainability
In Zoroastrianism, the purpose in life is to bring happiness into the world and battle evil.. We could use a little happiness right now! Zoroastrianism’s core teachings include:
- Follow the Threefold Path of Asha: Humata, Huxta, Huvarshta (Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds);
- Charity is a way of maintaining one’s soul aligned to Asha and to spread happiness;
- The spiritual equality and duty of the genders; and,
- Being good for the sake of goodness and without the hope of reward.
A good Easter message, don’t you think?
The spectacular scenery and opportunities for mountaineering and adventure travel are boundless and tourism was being promoted and growing until the COVID outbreak. Many companies are offering tours of this land of the Silk Road for its stunning scenery and friendly people.
Lonely Planet says: “The term ‘predominantly mountainous’ doesn’t do justice to a country where over 90% of the land is upland. This fact of nature has given Tajikistan a precious advantage over its neighbours, namely some of the most inspiring, high-altitude landscape in the world. Within an hour of Dushanbe lie multi-hued lakes, peaks that beg to be climbed and high passes that thrill even reluctant travellers. In among this natural splendour are scattered villages and towns…. For visitors tolerant of a few travelling hardships (outdoor loos, cold water, potholed roads), the country more than compensates with a rare glimpse into life lived on ‘The Roof of the World’.”
Khujand is one of the oldest cities of Central Asia, founded in the 7th-6th centuries BC. It was conquered by Alexander the Great, who rebuilt, fortified and re-named it to Alexandria Eskhata (Extreme). Located on the Great Silk Road, and connecting Samarkand with Fergana Valley, Khujand enjoyed a favorable geopolitical location and significant transport importance. Later, it was conquered by the Arabs (in the 8th century), and then it maintained resistance to the army of Genghis Khan, but eventually was destroyed (in the 13th century). However, very soon the city revived, becoming one of the largest commercial, cultural and scientific centers of the Central Asian region.
A visit to Khujand Fortress, constructed 2,500 years ago, and the regional history museum are musts for visitors who want to know the history of the region.
We won’t want to miss soaking up the culture at the Panjshanbe Bazaar!
Now it’s time to leave city life and be stunned by the gorgeous mountains, scenic valleys and alpine lakes that make this country such a wonderful destination. We’ll head out on the Pamir Highway which connects Tajikistan with neighbouring Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. This highway, the M41, is one of the highest in the world, with the peak point at Ak-Baital Pass, which is 4,655 meters above sea level.
Along the way, look out for flocks of yaks. If you are lucky, you may get a chance to spot the elusive but majestic Marco Polo sheep in the higher stretches of the surrounding mountains.
On our way to the Fann Mountains we will pass the beautiful Iskanderkul Lake, an excellent place for outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and swimming. It is sandwiched between the beautiful Fann Mountains and is one of the largest glacial lakes in north-west Tajikistan.
The Haft Kul: Seven Lakes in the Fann Mountains
In earliest times, an old man living among the Fann mountains went missing. After many days without his return, his seven daughters began crying until they each drowned in a flood of their own tears, creating these beautiful lakes. Each lake represents one of the man’s daughters.
That is the legend, but the more likely cause was earthquakes. The Haft Kul is comprised of seven stunningly beautiful lakes in a narrow rocky valley that range in colour from black to vibrant turquoise. The name Haft Kul literally translates to Seven Lakes in Tajik. You may also hear the area referred to as Seven Lakes, Marguzor Lakes, or the Seven Lakes of Marguzor. For those short on time and not feeling up for trekking, 6 of the 7 lakes are reachable by vehicle.
If you’re in Dushanbe, it must be Monday
The country’s capital city was always known as Dushanbe before the name was formalized. Monday (“Dushanbe” in Tajik), was market day. And that’s where we’ll start our tour of the city, at the Mehrgon Bazaar.
In the afternoon we’ll feast on some delectable local, home-cooked cuisines at the food stalls in the afternoon, including Qurutob, the other Tajikstan national dish.
Here, you can try it at home!
O my valuable, o my gloomy friend,
O my fellow whose cries have no end.
The gone is gone, the becoming you can’t explain
The past is past! Obstinate, why do you complain?
Go cry to the ends of time, if you wish!
You can’t return to life, a lifeless fish!
You’re life will get harder and harder-
If you complain for every blunder!
A bain awaits your heart, if you look
At its every desire, at its every hook!
Defeat the army of gloom assailing your heart,
With the power of wine, you carry in your cart!
Greatness and wisdom only come to you-
With the perils and pain you stroll through.
– Rudaki (858-941) (translated by Maryam Dilmaghani)
Timeless, isn’t it?
A visit to the Memorial to Tajik writers (Wall of Great Tajik Writers) will acquaint you with the history of Tajik literature. It features the statues of famous novelists, poets, playwrights, and other writers of Tajikistan. The “Wall” is the facade of the Writers’ Union building in Dushanbe, home to an association of novelists, poets, playwrights, and other writers. The large wall is carved with nine niches containing eleven life-size statues of famous Tajik writers, a tribute to Tajikistan’s Persian and Soviet history. The 8th-century “Adam of Poets,” Rudaki, justifiably takes the centre stage. He is considered a father of classical Persian literature, though sadly only a small portion of his work has survived the test of time.
The tidy avenues of Dushanbe lined with beautiful pastel frontages belie the violent civil war that ruined the city streets in the 90s. Stroll down the side streets, and you’ll see how Dushanbe is transforming.
The Hissar Fortress – a palace of the ancient Bukhara Emirate – can be visited on the outskirts of Dushanbe. Enjoy the calm and peaceful atmosphere while exploring the fortress.
With a river raging through the centre, channelled between houses with terraces overhanging the impatient water, and with an attractive mosque and civic buildings, Kulai-Khum (Darvoz) is one of the Pamir’s most attractive towns. It is the first community of any significant size between Kulob and Khorog and as such one that most driver-guides attempt to reach as an overnight stop from Dushanbe, and we will join them. Hopefully, we won’t end up like these guys!
This is the “highway” from Dushanbe to Khorog:
Khorog is nestled at the foot of the Wakhan Valley, offering a dramatic mountainous landscape while also making the city feel like a cozy safe haven from harsh Pamir winds.
Home to a large population of Ismaili Muslims and the poorest city in Tajikistan, Khorog receives funding from Aga Khan, the 49th imam, which means the city has its own university, twelve schools, and hosts one of the three campuses of the University of Central Asia. As a result, most people here speak English as well as the Russian most people use day-to-day.
Khorog boasts the second-highest botanical garden in the world, the Pamir Botanical Garden.
From Langar to Murghab
Khargush Pass is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 4.344m (14,251ft) above the sea level, located in the Kūhistoni Badakhshon Autonomous Region, in eastern Tajikistan. The climb sits in an isolated environment of dramatic beauty.
This is a quote from http://www.dangerousroads.org, which I never knew was a thing and right away spells adventure:
Located in the desolate Pamir Mountains, this route going through an indescribable area demands 100% concentration…. The road to reach the pass is gravel, in very bad conditions. It connects the Pamir highway with the Wakhan valley. The road to the summit is gravel, rocky, tippy and bumpy at times. It’s called The Royal Silk Road…. Stay away if you’re scared of heights. As you climb into the pass you come into a couple mirror-like lakes and then some weird, vast desert landscapes. Expect a trail pretty steep. The average gradient is 5,5% though in actuality there are long sections between 10% and 15%.
Well, that seems like the perfect place to end our tour of Tajikistan, the first half of this journey. If you’re thinking, but how do we get from the peak of the Khargush Pass at 14,251 ft to our next destination, Kyrgyzstan, frankly, I have no idea since I haven’t seen the actual (postponed) itinerary – but since we’re not really here, let’s hop on our magic carpet and use the thermals to head on over!
I’ll leave you, for now, with this.
In what will doubtless be a holiday like no other,
Best, and Happy Easter,