Tajikistan: Essential Information
Tajikistan is pretty far off the tourist map, which makes it all the sweeter. This is how Dennis Berman and his wife did it.
TAJIKSTAN – Changes are Tajikistan is unlike anyplace else you'll visit. On a multi-day trek in the deserted, unspoiled landscapes in the Pamir Mountains in the southeast, you might go days without seeing humans, drinking from endless streams and rivers, occasionally stumbling on decrepit relics at the outer reaches of the former Soviet empire.
Tajikistan is a great place for learning about the historic tinder box of Central Asia. In Tajikistan, the mix of ethnicities — each with their own language, culture, clothing, and food — tend to leave each other in peace (well, at least lately). But you will be shocked at the contrasts among Tajiks, Pamiris, Uzbeks, Krygyz, Afghans, Uighurs, and Russians. Especially their hats.
Here's the essential logistical information.
WHERE TO STAY
In the capital city, Dushanbe, Marian's Guesthouse is an oasis from the bleak, Stalinist architecture around it. Contact Marian (no one seems to know her last name), an Australian beloved by aid workers and other Westerners, at email@example.com. She will dispatch a driver to take you to and from the airport. Rooms cost 85 euros per night.
That's pricey compared to the cost of the sparse in-home accommodations across Tajikistan, "homestays" that generally consist of threadbare, dingy sheets on top of a few old cushions or saggy, old mattress. Often you'll be sleeping in a group room, spread among adventuresome Germans and Swiss who have a fondness for TJK (as you will eventually come to call it).
WHAT TO EAT
TJK is a land of enticement and disappointment. The fruit, nuts, and vegetables are supremely fresh and almost all raised in backyard gardens. The whole country is inundated with watermelons in the summertime, heaped into huge roadside mounds. You can also find blackberries and plums, often made into sweet jams. Once you start eating real meals, however, the novelty deteriorates. Expect a stream of fried eggs and fresh bread for breakfast. Lunch is typically a brackish soup with potatoes, chicken parts, and fresh herbs. Dinner is often the same, though it can include plov, an often delicious but greasy concotion of rice and meat.
Be sure to eat carefully and drink only bottled water. Once outside the cities, you will be only directed to outhouses.
THE LOCAL FIXER
Contact Sharaf Saidrakhmonov at firstname.lastname@example.org. A fine English speaker, the young, raffish Sharaf has deep knowledge about the terrain, people, and history of the area. He can arrange any type of journey, by car, horse, or trek. Our trip cost about $2,200 for two people for ten days and included the use of a jeep and driver. You can make the trip without a guide, but it's best to go with someone who knows the language and can navigate some of the dicier areas.
You'll have to send your passport to the Tajik embassy in Washington, D.C. Given how few Americans travel there each year, the process does not take long. Things can get more complicated if you want a multi-entry visa, so check the visa policies of nearby countries, especially China, which has typically blocked entrances from Tajikistan.
There are very few ATMS outside of Dushanbe, the capitol. You'll have to bring a few thousand dollars cash, which can be easily swapped for Simoni, the Tajik currency, along the way. Even then, people will take your dollars. With an average per capita income of just $2,000, Tajiks are not picky.
Bring lots of baby wipes and hand sanitizer. Bring a very warm sweater/coat and hat and gloves for the colder mountain air. We came to rely on Icebreaker clothes for travel, which could be easily washed and dried and then stuffed in our packs.
And don't forget: a Russian phrasebook, cigarettes for tips, small toys for children, and a sturdy pair of hiking boots.
Souvenirs are hard to find in Tajikistan, unless you're looking for stolen mobile phones, cheap Chinese plastic, or dusty Soviet medals. But there are few gems, particularly in the eastern part of the country, where you might find original Krygyz rugs, which typically use natural dies on two-ply felt and feature stark, simple geometric shapes. These can be had relatively cheaply — often for just a few hundred dollars. Buy as many as you can, because the people who know how to make them are quickly dying out.
WHEN TO GO
Summer, the earlier, the better. The mountains can get very cold, even in the late summer, with mountain passes closed by snow.
HOW TO GET THERE
Turkish Airlines offers two flights each week from Istanbul. Spending a week in Istanbul makes a good transition zone.