Istaravshan Travel Guide + 9 Things to do in Istaravshan
Updated July 2021, Istaravshan Travel Guide + 9 Things to do in Istaravshan was originally written in January 2020
If you’re looking for Silk Road architecture in the Tajik Fergana Valley, then you’re in the right place. Istaravshan is home to Tajikistan’s best collection of mosques, madrasas, and mausoleums.
Don’t set the bar too high though, it’s not Samarkand after all. But it doesn’t have the crowds either.
Istaravshan is small enough you could see it in a half-day, taking a break on the journey between Khujand and Dushanbe or Panjakent. I dedicated an entire day to it on my first visit which was more than enough time to see the sights and even visit some locals who invited us into their homes. On my second visit, I’d spend two days in the city.
Upon arrival from Khujand, we walked over to the Sadbarg Hotel and booked a room to drop off bags for the day. Outside we were quickly met by a friendly teenage boy named Ardeshir who ended up giving us the grand tour of Istaravshan. He studied English at school and is always on the lookout for foreign tourists to practice his language skills.
Over two visits I’ve found that Istarashan is home to some of the friendliest people who will proudly share their historic city with you. It’s apparent that the locals know that Istaravshan has quite a bit to offer but just does not get the tourist numbers to match. So if you have the time, I without a doubt, recommend you spend at very least a day seeing what all there is to see and do around Istaravshan.
Start planning your Tajikistan adventure here: The Tajikistan Travel Guide
Things To Do In Istaravshan
Sat on a hill overlooking the city, little remains of the original citadel that was sacked by Alexander the Great and later by the Arabs. The Mug Teppe gate was built in celebration of the city’s 2500th anniversary.
Fair warning though, this new gate was built in 2002 and there is effectively nothing behind it. The gate has that same Disney-like fake feeling that Hisor Fortress has. Nonetheless, I thought it was still worth the short jaunt up the hill to check it out and for the views of the city below.
Abdul Latif Mirzo Sultan Madrasa
Also called Kok Gumbez (blue dome) Madrasa, this Islamic school and mosque were built in the 15th century by the orders of Amir Timur’s Great Grandson and Ulugbek’s son, Abdul Latif Mirzo. It’s widely believed that Abdul Latif murdered Ulugbek, his own father after Abdul Latif defeated Ulugbek and later allowed him to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. This has earned Abdul Latif the nickname Padarkush.
The Timirid era Madrasa is now used as an English school for boys. Many times you’ll find some of the students hanging around outside of the madrasa, who will certainly spot you and excitedly practice their English with you.
A man and his wife live just across the street from the gate of the madrasa and the boys will likely go find him and get him to unlock the gate for you. He will tour you around the madrasa complex and even give you an explanation of the building and its history. It’s customary to tip him 20 TJS for his service.
Chor Gumbaz is a small mosque, known for its four tin cupolas on the roof (hence the name meaning four domes). The mosque appears modest from the exterior, but the ceilings inside are painted in intricate and colorful designs.
Hauz i Sangin
Hauz i Sangin, much like Chor Gumbaz also has a beautiful and vibrant ceiling. There’s also a small shrine at Hauz i Sangin dedicated to Shah Fuzail ibn-Abbas.
I’d recommend popping in around sunset in the summertime for a visit as you’ll find many of the people from around the neighborhood enjoying the temperatures as they come down and snacking on fresh fruit in the courtyard, which you will certainly be invited to join them in. Usually, someone will roust the caretaker who will unlock the doors of the mosque for you to have a look at the ceilings.
Explore more of the Tajik Fergana Valley: The Khujand Travel Guide
Hazrat i Shoh Mosque
Hazrati Shoh Mosque dates back to the 12th century, but the intricate 5 story brick minaret out front was only built in 2002. Like the other mosques in Istaravshan, Hazrat i Shoh Mosque also has a colorfully intricate ceiling.
Sary Mazar Complex
Sary Mazar, also called the yellow tomb, is comprised of three buildings, Ajina Khona, Hazraji Maydoni Azam Mausoleum, and Sary Mazar Mosque, all of which are over 400 years old. Ajina Khona is known as the house of demons, a name given to it by the Russians during the Soviet Era (I’m not quite sure why).
The Mausoleum to Hazraji Maydoni Azam holds the tomb to Hazraji Maydoni Azam, his wife, his son, and a nephew. The Sary Mazar mosque dates back to the 16-17th century. It housed the chehelkhona, which was used by studying mullahs to retreat from the world to study the Quran.
The bustling three-story Istaravshan Bazaar is easily worth a wander through to check out what handicrafts and wares are on sale. The bazaar is sprawling and can almost feel like a city of its own as it straddles both sides of the main road. Not to miss is the arcade of blacksmiths who can be found hard at work on handmade knives on the west side of the street.
Shahr e Kuhna
Wander on into Istaravshan’s old town to get a glimpse of what Istaravshan once was, meandering along the mud-brick alleys. You can easily access Shahr e Kuhna by walking west off of Lenin Street past Hazrat i Shoh Mosque.
The neighborhood surrounding Hauz i Sangin and Kok Gumbaz is it. The best part about wandering the Shahr e Kuhna is that you’re guaranteed to meet plenty of locals, from kids waving and saying hello in the alleys to families inviting you into their homes for chai and non.
Giant Lenin Bust
Last, but certainly not least is the massive bust of Lenin, perched above the picturesque Kattasoy Reservoir just south of Istaravshan. It’s definitely the coolest of all the Lenins I’ve gotten to see throughout the post-Soviet world if I’m being completely honest.
And there’s some meaning behind the design of the complex around the bust as well. There are 365 steps leading up to the bust of Lenin, one to represent each day of the year. These steps are interrupted by 15 platforms on the way up of varying sizes- each platform representing a country of the Soviet Union, Russia being represented by the largest platform, and Armenia the smallest.
To reach the giant Lenin you’ll want to grab a taxi from Istaravshan as it sits about 8 km south of the city. This shouldn’t set you back more than about 40 TJS for a ride there and back including a brief wait time to walk up and down the stairs, depending on your haggling skills, of course.
How To Get To Istaravshan
Getting to Istaravshan is pretty simple. Expect to be dropped off at the Istaravshan Bazaar upon arrival.
From Dushanbe: Head to the Cement Zavod taxi stand on the north side of Dushanbe. Simply say Istaravshan to the drivers that approach you and they’ll usher you to a car bound north to Istaravshan (and typically onwards to Khujand). Expect to pay 120 TJS for a seat, but do expect to haggle.
From Panjakent: You’ll find shared taxis bound for Istaravshan leaving from a small lot across the street from the Bazaar. A seat will cost about 100 TJS.
From Khujand: Head to the Yova (also called Kamoli Khujandi) Bus Station. Plan for about 20 TJS per seat.
Heading to the capital? Check out the Dushanbe Travel Guide
Hotels In Istaravshan
You don’t have heaps of options for places to stay in Istaravshan. I stayed at the Sadbarg, which is decent enough. The cheapest single rooms will set you back 100 TJS with a shared toilet, nicer rooms with en suite toilets and showers cost a bit more.
Note that there is a giant wedding hall next to the Sadbarg, so if there is a wedding going on there will probably be loud music. Out of curiosity (I didn’t know it was a wedding hall) I walked over in the evening and was invited in to join in on the dancing and festivities, then gifted a carton of peach juice upon my departure.
The only other accommodation I found via booking.com is Avis City Hotel, located about 3 km from most of the attractions in Istaravshan. I cannot comment on how the stay at Avis City is as I have not used this hotel personally.
Combo two ‘stans: The two week Uzbekistan & Tajikistan itinerary
Where To Eat In Istarvshan
You’ll mostly find chaikhanas serving up typical Tajik dishes around the city. As of 2021, there are two new cafeteria-style restaurants on Ismoil Somoni Street Sultan Restaurant (impossible to miss the inflatable chef outside the front door) and Farovon Restaurant. Both serve ready-to-eat typical Tajik fare for cheap but also have menus offering up a scattering of Central Asian, Caucasus, and international items. Both restaurants are open from early morning to late night too.
You will find a number of chaikhanas centered around the bazaar area and up and down Ismoil Somoni as well, though if you plop down too late in the evening at one don’t expect to find much more on the menu than hot dogs left!
Planning to head off into the Fann after Panjakent? Check out the Fann Mountains Trekking Guide
Getting Out Of Istaravshan
To Dushanbe: Shared taxis to Dushanbe as well as other destinations along the M34 between Istaravshan and Dushanbe leave from the south side of the bazaar. A seat should go for about 120 TJS per seat.
To Panjakent: Walk a little further south from the Dushanbe taxi stand and you’ll find the shared taxis to Panjakent. Plan to pay 100 TJS for a seat.
To Khujand: Shared taxis bound for Khujand leave on the north side of the bazaar near the blacksmiths. A seat should cost about 20 TJS. If you wanna save a little, you may find marshrutka #314 (minibus) filling up at the taxi stand for about 10 TJS per seat, but typically these marshrutkas are found at the Avtovogzal about 3 km north of the taxi stand.
Have Any Questions About Visiting Istaravshan Or About Any Of The Things To Do In Istaravshan Mentioned?
Ask any of your Istaravshan travel questions in the comments section below! Get a copy of Bradt Tajikistan to help you plan your time in Tajikistan too.