A gruff policeman in an oversized soviet-throwback uniform cap is clearly unhappy to see us. Much of his day will be spent finding any number of petty issues with the paperwork or mechanical worthiness of vehicles passing through his checkpoint near the Afghan border. Each misdemeanour provides him with a peppercorn income to add to his meagre state wages and will help him to pay for his position. We foreigners are catches with a trickier value to assay. Barking orders at us simply falls into uncomprehending ears, returned with smiling innocence. Eventually he decides we are more trouble than we might be worth, so first asks for a ride on our bike and then asks us if we’ve eaten and would we like tea? This is the real Tajikistan – an inscrutable outside with a soft centre.
For all the scaremongering in the global media about the terror-incubating ’stans, the reality on the ground is that you’re more likely to be killed with kindness, terrorised by tea and bloated by bread overload. Everywhere you go you’ll find yourself being invited into people’s homes and met by people on the street who bring their fingers to their mouths to mime the act of eating whilst they point towards their house. Here, the guest is king, and the sentiment is heartfelt.
Travellers can cross into Tajikistan from Uzbekistan at one of two border points, but these are subject to closure at short notice, so stay informed (caravanistan.com is the best resource for all Central Asia travel info).
You may also cross from Kyrgyzstan at either Kyzyl Art pass or at Batken in the Fergana Valley. Crossings can take time to complete so do keep this in mind when scheduling your days. There are rumours of the Kulma pass to China opening to travellers soon, but they’ve been the same rumours for a couple of years. If it does happen it will make it only 140km to travel across China to reach the Khunjerab Pass on the Karakorum Highway, a significant saving in time and money.
A small country with scant natural resources to trade, Tajikistan became independent from the USSR in 1991 and the ensuing civil war left a scene of chronic destruction by the time a ceasefire was signed in 1997. The President since 1992, Emomali Rahmon, can be seen almost anywhere in the country, smiling beneficently down on his subjects through Photoshop-white teeth. His image adorns many buildings and placards; though westerners may find a hint of the ridiculous in the personality cult that clearly surrounds him, there is no doubt that strong leadership here has helped avert the northerly spread of extremist ideologies.
Nowadays the capital Dushanbe is a juxtaposition of soviet-style Krushchoyvka apartment blocks and modern pastel-hued newbuilds, interspersed with the material embodiments of national pride and presidential largesse. These include the largest tea house and biggest library in Central Asia, the epic presidential palace, the world’s second highest flag pole (at 165m and carrying a 600kg flag) and what will be one of the largest mosques in Asia. A tidy city of wide tree-lined avenues, teeming bazaars (Dushanbe means Monday, named after the old Monday market), well-maintained parks, decrepit trolley buses and burgeoning café-culture; it is an endearing city to spend a little time in.
But this is not a country of overwhelming cosmopolitan allure and you need only look out from the city at the mountains surrounding it to see why most visitors come here. With the Zarafshan range, Fann Mountains and Alay range in easy striking distance of the capital and the mighty Pamirs only a day’s drive south and east, Tajikistan is a mountainous nation, 93% of whose nine million inhabitants live in the lowlands. This gives the Pamirs an incredible Martian feeling of rare space in a cluttered world.
Were it in Europe, this would be an adventure capital of the world with opportunities for almost any adrenaline junky to get their fix. Here on the fringes of the appreciated world, less than half a million lucky foreign souls get to experience its beauty each year and the lack of infrastructure dictates that visitors need to be inventive and hardy. It’s not an easy place to travel, and even getting to the Pamirs without your own transport can mean a 16–20-hour taxi ride from the capital.
But to come to Tajikistan and not experience some of the scenic majesty that so inspired Marco Polo, played host to the Anglo-Russian imperial ‘Great Game’ and bore witness to a charging Alexander the Great en route via the Oxus river to India, would be a mistake. This fascinating linguistic and cultural eddy along the old Silk Roads still intrigues today, with many valleys speaking their own unique dialects, red-haired and blue-eyed children shouting their ‘salaam’s from the roadsides and multi-layered history poking out from the dust at every twist and turn of the rough roads.
The mountains are as glorious as the people are kind, with the dazzling Hindu Kush to the south and the central Pamir ranges crowned with snows and riven by huge glaciers and roaring rivers. A high plateau dominates the eastern Pamir to where the encroaching border with China begins. This eyrie is home to huge yellow marmots, giant Marco Polo sheep and their nemesis, the snow leopard. There are soaring eagles and vultures, packs of wolves, sleepy brown bears, and any number of other flying, crawling and wandering wild lives to be found in these isolated hills. At height you’ll find yurts and the once-nomadic ethnic Kyrgyz people, still keeping their yaks and making felt, leather and cheese products on the high pastures. They make good use of the short summer, for in winter the mercury can dip to a stultifyingly low -68°C.
Tajikistan remains one of the poorest countries in Asia and with an unofficial unemployment rate of over 70% many young workers make the hard decision to work in Russia or Dubai, sending remittances to their families after long hours in very tough jobs. In the Pamir region much development work and infrastructure provision is undertaken not by the government, but by the Aga Khan, a Swiss-born British businessman, also the 49th and current Imam of the Ismaili denomination of Shia Islam, widely followed in the Pamirs, northern Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan. The Aga Khan is highly revered here, and the culture in the Pamirs feels separate to that in the rest of the country.
As part of the ancient kingdoms of Bactria, Soghdia and at times under the rule of Timur-Tamerlane and the emirates of Khokand and Bukhara, the Northern Pamirs have been a trading and strategic crossroads for thousands of years. Who knows how the current play by China to re-create a new Silk Road network will affect Tajikistan, but we can be sure that this unassuming little country is likely to remain in a pivotal position for years to come.
Drinking sweet tea and munching dried apricots and fresh mulberries in a shaded garden overlooking the Amu Darya river, it is possible to feel and breathe the history of this incredible country, and sense that you are part of it. And when you try to pay, you find that someone unknown already has.
Words: Francesca Stein