Tajikistan - What you should know to stay safe

Let's face it, most people know more about the moon than land-locked Tajikistan.

As part of the Soviet Union before it's independence in 1991, virtually no visitors crossed the border, then the 1990's – which might have brought hope and freedom, instead delivered a particularly cruel civil war for the people of Tajikistan, which wrought havoc and set the country back considerably.

The smallest, and poorest republic in Central Asia, it 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?

Well the good news is - relatively, yes it is. With a low crime rate, a growing range of home-stay accommodation, a friendly population, a slightly less daunting government than some neighbouring countries this is a country that is keen to push forward and to welcome travellers, meaning that now it is a little easier travel around Tajikistan.

Terrorism

There is a small, but growing threat of terrorism in Tajikistan in certain areas of the country. Flashpoints are the Rasht (Gharm) valley where in September 2010 there was an ambush on Tajik soldiers in the Kamarob Gorge (unlikely to affect tourists as they hardly ever visit this region). In Rasht it's a good idea to take a local guide.

More worryingly are the minor, often unexplained, explosions that occasionally occur in the capital Dushanbe. As with many terror attacks, some have included places visited by expatriates and foreign travellers visit, 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.

In Khujand, Tajikistan's second largest city in the north of the country, there was a large explosion in September 2010 – again not likely to affect traveller's who rarely visit this city.

Border Mines

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. should not be visited and it's worth keeping abreast of the news in Tajikistan as insurgency activity there can affect the security situation along the border and within Tajikistan. In some places only a river divides the two countries.

Crime

Dushanbe, the capital, is quite different at night to during the day. Strolling ladies, 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 travellers 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 traveller reports of over-amorous tour guides and inappropriate comments by drivers and guides which have made female travellers, especially solo ones, feel uncomfortable.

Police Response

If you are mugged, or worse, the police, some of whom are corrupt, may, or may not help you - low salaries, and inadequate training 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 your documents, always carry a photocopy of your passport if you have secured it elsewhere. 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).

Cultural Etiquette

Tajikistan is an Islamic country, it pays to dress conservatively and to obey the usual precautions. Many Tajik men have not had much contact with western females 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.

Drug Problems

Tajikistan is on the heroin highway from Afghanistan, where the drugs are then travelled 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 too. Criminal gangs who operate the business are unlikely to target travellers, but it pays to be aware of the problem if travelling 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

Taxi Troubles

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 lokoing for foreign clients.

Airport Shakedown

Lastly, shake-downs at Dushanbe International Airport are not uncommon. One traveller 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'.

Health Issues

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 travelling 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 sanitiser.

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

Getting around is by far one of the biggest, and costliest, challenges when travelling 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 kilometre for a Toyota Land Cruiser), the aeroplane 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 travellers 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 travellers are somewhat dependent on making their own way for now. Be aware that avalanches are a 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 melt water. 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.

Local Knowledge

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.

Play it safe and do not smoke in any bars, restaurants as in January 2011 legislation was introduced prohibiting smoking 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 are the occassional uncovered manholes in the capital, one resulted in a traveller recently badly breaking her leg, cutting her trip short as it had just begun – you have been warned!

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9 Comments

  • shaun ingledew said

    ...as someone who has lived in Dushanbe for the last two years I have to ask...have you even been to Tajikistan?

  • Lukas said

    What do you mean ?

  • Aubrey Toenges said

    Tajikistan is a stunning place, and there is plenty to do, from the Silk Road mystique of places like Khujand and Istaravshan, to the stunning, untouched mountain scenery of the Pamirs and their accompanying allure of unclimbed peaks and virgin trekking routes.

  • imran arif said

    phil selvester bro u did good job and u giving us very good safety kies
    i am also traveler and u nt only for me as a guider u also the hole peoples they surch yor safty gide thnx once again.

  • Sand said

    People are more friendly maximum ladies are working. Most of the ladies are seperated by Talak. City dusanbe is really wonderful u will find all kind of facilities. Pub n Bar culture is growing day by day but be safe. Enjoy your trip.

  • Greg said

    I have to say, this is one of the most inaccurate, biased articles on otherwise wonderful country I have come to know and love.

    Risks are overblown, the problems with locals especially on the “shakedowns” and “ western women” sound like complete fabrication.

    You have more chances of unwanted advances in a NY club than in Tajikistan. Also you are far more likely to be shot in public in the US than be harmed in any way in Tajikistan.

    Clearly the author is clueless about what the country is all about and misses the point of what the country has to offer.

    This is fear-mongering at its best.


    Just check the lonely planet to see the difference.

  • Tim said

    Tajikistan is very beautiful country. I'm from Tajikistan now living in the US so the crime in our country very low and also in our country very very delicious food. While traveling in Tajikistan I recommended visiting Khujand city one of the ancient and beautiful city, visit our market "Panjshanbe" all foods are natural coming from people garden. For 1$ you can buy 5 bottle water so cheap.
    Visiting places:
    1) Khujand city.
    2) Panjakent city very ancient and beautiful places.
    3) Gisar city. Many museums and great chicken cooking places. Realy delicious teste.
    4) Khorog city. Highest mountains, who love hiking and fresh area.

    So if you are going to visit Tajikistan I think everybody will love Tajikistan.

  • Nicole said

    Could you let me, someone who has traveled Tajikistan extensively rewrite this article? From the sounds of it, the dude who wrote this has never stepped foot in the country and just regurgitated what he’s read on travel.state.gov and the opening paragraph of Lonely Planet’s Tajikistan chapter.

  • Chad said

    What is up then about the 2 world trekking cyclists that just got intentionally mowed down in Tajikstan? WTF

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