Part of the Soviet Union before its independence in 1991, Tajikistan received few visitors. The 1990s, which might have brought hope and freedom, instead delivered a civil war for the people of Tajikistan, which wrought havoc and set the country back considerably.
The smallest, and poorest republic in Central Asia, Tajikistan is sandwiched between notorious Afghanistan and China, but also borders Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is 93% mountainous and has some of the most audacious trekking on the planet and one of the world's best road trips – the Pamir Highway - but is it safe?
The good news is, yes it is. With a low crime rate, a growing range of home-stay accommodation, a friendly population, and a slightly less daunting government than some neighboring countries, Tajikistan is keen to push forward and to welcome travelers. As a result, it is now easier to get around.
There is a small, but growing threat of terrorism in Tajikistan in certain areas of the country. Flashpoints are the Rasht (Gharm) Valley. It's a good idea to take a local guide in this region.
More worryingly are the minor, often unexplained, attacks that occasionally occur in the capital Dushanbe. As with many terror attacks, some have included places visited by expatriates and foreign travelers, such as nightclubs and restaurants – so far these have been small-scale but it is an increasing trend. As a response, the Tajik government sometimes carries out counter-terrorist operations on the outskirts of Dushanbe.
Be aware that areas bordering the country – particularly along the Afghan, Uzbek and Kyrgyz borders – may have unexploded mines, although these are usually clearly marked. These areas should not be visited and it's worth keeping abreast of the news in Tajikistan as insurgency activity can affect the security situation. In some places, only a river divides two countries.
Dushanbe, the capital, is quite different at night to during the day. Strolling women, laughing children and old men sipping tea at pavement cafes set the scene in the morning, but after nightfall the streets are empty and boy racers (some who are most likely under the influence) race up the main drag, Rudaki, making crossing the road perilous.
The official level of criminal activity in Dushanbe is rated ‘moderate to high' – yet the emptiness of the streets and badly lit roads running off of the main road that runs through the city – Rudaki - add to the ‘feel' of unease at night. Official street crime figures are hard to come by.
Do not walk through Victory Park or Children's Park at night – you are significantly upping your chances of becoming a victim if you do.
Women travelers will find Tajikistan easier than countries such as India and Egypt where staring and groping are much more common. However, there have been a few traveler reports of over-amorous tour guides and inappropriate comments by drivers and guides which have made female travelers, especially solo ones, feel uncomfortable.
Low salaries, and inadequate training, often result in a lack of professionalism among the police (who are often more concerned with coercing bribes from drivers). The police do occasionally stop tourists and ask to see documents. Always carry a photocopy of your passport. It is best to leave your passport in an under-clothes money belt or in a safe at your hotel.
If you are approached by the police it goes without saying but always ask to see their ID and do not sign any paperwork that you cannot fully understand (if it is in Russian or Tajik).
Tajikistan is an Islamic country, so dress conservatively and to obey the usual precautions. Many Tajik men may not have had much contact with western women and there is a sense that some are unsure how to behave – as usual, the mention of a husband is a good idea, even if fabricated.
Tajikistan is on the heroin highway from Afghanistan, where the drugs are then traveled onwards through Russia and into Europe. As a result, Tajikistan has quite a serious problem with the drugs and a subsequently growing HIV infection rate. Criminal gangs who operate the business are unlikely to target travelers, but it pays to be aware of the problem if traveling close to the Afghan border and to bear in mind that the temptation of making a fast buck has proved too much for many border guards and police who are often in on the trade
Taxis, often unlicensed, meet shared taxis (locally called marshrutkas) arriving in the dead of night to Dushanbe from other destinations in Tajikistan – do not allow the driver's friends into the car under any circumstances, even if this means getting out.
Men should be aware that at some of the cheaper hotels in Tajikistan that they may be targeted by prostitutes. Dior and Port Said nightclubs sometimes attract commercial sex workers looking for foreign clients.
Lastly, shake-downs at Dushanbe International Airport are not uncommon. One traveler reported being fined $700 US dollars for not having her paperwork in check (a missing permit in this instance), be very careful if you pass through the airport with a lot of cash and do not verbally confirm how much you're carrying or this can encourage a heavy ‘tip'.
The number one health rule in Tajikistan, especially in the capital Dushanbe is - don't drink the water. Obvious perhaps, but there remains a serious risk of rust in the water as well as Typhoid – generally boiled water is okay.
If you become sick your best bet for western-style treatment and/or drugs is at the Prospekt clinic (on Sanoi Street) in Dushanbe, which has English speaking doctors.
As Tajikistan is 93% mountains, no doubt your trip will include some adventures amongst the peaks – be very aware that altitude sickness is a real threat if traveling above 4000m. Almost as bewildering and worrying are the state of the public ‘toilets'(filthy at best), carry your own toilet paper at all times as for sure it won't be provided, and a hand sanitizer.
There is a low risk of malaria in the southern border areas (particularly around the Khatlon region) and occasionally in some central areas, including the capital Dushanbe.
Getting around is by far one of the biggest, and costliest challenges when traveling in Tajikistan. There is no train system to speak of, few public buses or coaches and very expensive petrol prices (the going rate at the time of writing this guide is 0.85 US cents per kilometer for a Toyota Land Cruiser), the plane that links the capital Dushanbe to the tourist gem of Khorog is a tiny Anatov 28 that literally skims through the mountains and only takes off if there is clear visibility.
Most travelers will hire a car and driver at some point during their time in the Pamirs. Tajikistan does not have a fully-operational public transport system in place yet, there are no properly timetabled buses, for example, between small villages and travelers are somewhat dependent on making their own way for now. Avalanches are common in Tajikistan's mountains during the winter months. In the summer, which is when many interior roads are open, they often get washed away by meltwater. Flexibility is key and always check the vehicle before signing up to hire a car and driver.
Take local advice in the Tavildara region of central Tajikistan as there are a few minefields dating from the civil war in the mountains. Local vehicles are poorly-maintained and driving standards are basic. Petrol stations are rare outside towns and there are no breakdown companies.
Modern Tajikistan is a multi-ethnic state consisting of 14 different ethnic groups, and most Tajik citizens are Muslims- 95% Sunni and 3% Shia - while Pamiris, are almost all Ismaili Muslims. Dress appropriately for a Muslim country – shorts, vests and short skirts are all out.
Smoking is prohibited in many public places.
Do not be tempted to buy gems in Tajikistan. In the Pamirs, you may be offered ‘rubies' (these are more likely to be spinel from local mines) – anything, but especially gems, that are exported from Tajikistan (in luggage or otherwise) requires special permission. It is illegal to export or possess unprocessed stones and metals and jewelry without a hallmark (mark of authenticity). Even if travelers have a receipt confirming legal purchase of such items at a store in Tajikistan, the items must be declared upon departure.
Power cuts, badly lit roads, poorly lit buildings all mean it's wise to always carry a torch, worst of all is the occasional uncovered manholes in the capital, one resulted in a traveler recently badly breaking her leg, cutting her trip short as it had just begun – you have been warned!
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