17 Things to do in Tajikistan
Updated January 2021, 17 Things to do in Tajikistan was originally written in February 2019
Where glimmering glacial lakes and idyllic mountains meet world class hospitality at the crux of the ancient Silk Road. Despite these qualities, Tajikistan is probably the least known of the Central Asian Republics.
For those intrepid, Tajikistan will wow with its unbridled natural beauty, remote corners and smiling faces. After crisscrossing the country east to west, north to south and countless places in between, here are the 17 best things to do in Tajikistan.
Travel The Pamir Highway
This is the number one tourist attraction in Tajikistan. The Pamir Highway is the second highest international highway in the world, second only to the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan and China. On my first trip (yes, I’ve done this journey more than once) I was so blown away by the views coming down Shurabad Pass and descending down onto my first glimpses of the Panj River and Afghanistan a stone’s throw away that I avowed right then and there this would not be my last.
Whether you choose to hire a 4×4, hitchhike, or cycle the Pamir Highway, be prepared for the adventure of a lifetime.
Trekking In The Fann Mountains
Where craggy, arid, snow-dusted peaks meet the sky, dotted with gemstone colored lakes. If you’re wondering what initially drew me to Tajikistan, this was it.
Time and time again I’m drawn back to these gorgeous mountainscapes. I spent over a decade drooling over photos of places like Kulikalon, Lake Alovaddin, Bolshoi Allo, and Gora Chimtarga before I finally booked the ticket.
From the moment I popped through the mildly terrifying Anzob Tunnel from Dushanbe, I knew the Fanns were going to be wild enough for me to return year after year.
The Fann Mountains offer countless treks that will appeal to most every fitness level and interest, from multi-day treks to day trips.
Want to get a taste of the Tajik mountain culture without devoting several days and a long hike? Iskanderkul and the nearby village of Sarytag are the perfect places to go.
Explore The Tajik Ferghana Valley
Sure, it’s no Samarkand— but it doesn’t have the crowds either. In the northernmost stretches of the far northwest province of Sughd, where Tajikistan gnarls together with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, sits the mighty Fergana Valley.
For those desiring Silk Road architecture, this is the best area to find it in Tajikistan. Khujand and Istaravshan both have a smattering of turquoise domes and blue tiles. The Tajik Fergana Valley is also exploding with culture and kind locals.
In Istaravshan I was given a tour of the entire city by a 14-year-old boy who was over the moon to practice his English with native speakers, as well as stumbled into a random wedding on accident and was invited in and later gifted a container of peach juice.
In Khujand I kept trying to buy vegetables at the Panjshanbe Bazaar, only to have my attempts at payment thwarted. I was invited to a man’s 67th birthday party who had that morning grabbed me by the hand and drug me to a riverside breakfast at a chaikhana with all his friends, and then there was that time I was given a tour of the Khujand Theatre by a man who was once a very successful Tajik actor back in his heyday.
Get Remote In The Wakhan Valley
This popular detour off of the Pamir Highway winds along the River Panj that forms the natural border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. With every twist and turn there are jaw dropping views of the dusty Pamirs, the ice-capped Hindu Kush and Wakhi villages in Afghanistan.
The Wakhan Valley is more than just your average road trip. There are chances to hear the Wakhi language and learn about their unique culture as well as great trekking options to high pastures and beautiful meadows.
Driving the Wakhan Valley have Afghanistan on your mind? It’s easy to grab an Afghan visa in nearby Khorog before setting out. Ishkashim will be your jumping-off point and border crossing into the Afghan Wakhan Corridor.
Plan your Wakhan Valley detour on your Pamir Adventure
A Disaster Waiting To Happen, Lake Sarez
Don’t let these calm turquoise waters fool you. At any time the Usoi Dam could burst, sending a wall of water hurtling down the Bartang Valley, unlike anything the Earth has yet seen.
Is it going to happen? That’s hard to say. Disaster is what led to the formation of Lake Sarez in 1911 after an earthquake triggered a landslide that knocked down a mountain face, crushing Usoi and Sarez Villages and damming off the Murghab River.
At all times the lake and dam are being monitored for seismic movements and potential signs of breakage.
The only survival recommendations given to the people living west of the lake in the Bartang Valley? Head to high ground if the alarms ring. For those that want to visit, permits and a guide are required.
Learn how to get to Lake Sarez
Trek Back In Time In The Yagnob Valley
Pinned between the Zarafshan and Gissar Ranges in northwestern Tajikistan the Yagnob Valley sits in isolation. In fact, the Yagnob Valley is so isolated that the Yagnobi people that populate this valley are direct descendants of the ancient Sogdian Empire, speaking the Yagnobi language that is very closely related to the ancient Sogdian spoken in this region.
Their lifestyle and distinct culture have remained almost untouched as well. Pre-Islamic beliefs and customs are still widely practiced among the ten or so villages that dot the valley. I
n August 2019 I finally ventured out to the Yagnob Valley for the first time and wasn’t disappointed. For great information on trekking in the Yagnob Valley and in the whole of Tajikistan, click here to purchase Jan Bakker’s Trekking in Tajikistan book.
Plan your visit: The Yagnob Valley Trekking & Travel Guide
Get Down In Dushanbe
Earning its name from its once popular Monday Bazaar, Dushanbe was a small village until 1924 when it was named the capital of the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.
By 1929 the city was renamed Stalinabad and rapid development began. Dushanbe has a Soviet, yet uniquely Tajik feel to it with its leafy parks and overflowing bazaars.
Don’t miss the world’s second-tallest flagpole and Rudaki Park during your stay in Dushanbe. A thing I love about Dushnabe it that there are things to do, but not too many. Dushanbe is a great place to relax between high altitude adventures and pick up a visa or two.
Visit The Haft Kul, The 7 Lakes Of Marguzor
Local lore is the tale of an elderly man from the village of Shing who went missing. After several days passed without a sign of him he was assumed dead.
His seven daughters began crying until they each drown in a flood of their own tears. Each lake represents one of the man’s daughters. Truth be told a shaker in earthquake-prone Tajikistan caused landslides damming the Shing River and creating the 7 lakes that dot the narrow valley.
This is probably the best place to get in a little outdoor action for those on a short visit in Tajikistan.
Located about an hour’s drive out of Panjakent near to the freshly re-opened border crossing with Uzbekistan you can drive to 6 of the 7 lakes in the valley. Others will opt to get dropped off at the first lake and trek the road along the lakes and back with a night in a local homestay.
Read this before heading out on your Haft Kul adventure
Trek To The Gorgeous Village Of Jizeu
Turn off the Pamir Highway at Rushan and make the short drive up to a cable bridge crossing the Bartang River. This is one of Tajikistan’s most popular hikes to a beautiful village about a 2 hour trek from the road.
Expect a warm welcome on arrival, as Bartangis (even as Pamiris) are renowned for their epic hospitality. From here you can trek further afield, camp, stay in a homestay and even sit down and listen to the Bartang dialect spoken throughout Jizeu village.
Learn more about Tajikistan’s best over night hike to Jizeu
Make The Bone Crunching Journey Up The Bartang Highway
Many a traveler that crosses through Tajikistan will speak of the rough and windy Pamir Highway. Hold on to your hats friends, the Pamir Highway is bar none to the rough road, or lack thereof of the Bartang Highway.
The highway runs the Bartang Valley connecting the village of Rushan with all its Bartang neighbors until Gudara where the valley opens up and the dirt track connects to Kök Jar and eventually Karakul to rejoin the Pamir Highway. While this route is oftentimes closed off due to flooding of the Bartang River, heavy snowfall, and broken road, it is typically possible between July and September.
This is a popular alternative route for cyclists, at times having to even float their bikes and supplies on handmade log rafts across flooded stretches. After having taken the Bartang Highway nearly its entire length on two separate occasions, this is an easy favorite of things to do in Tajikistan.
My favorite little secret in the Bartang Valley? The trek to Khafrazdara Valley which continues on to Grum Grijmailo Glacier.
Everything you need to know before your journey up the Bartang Valley
Catch Sunrise At Iskanderkul
Lying on the northern slopes of the Gissar Range in Tajikistan’s Fann Mountains monstrous, glacially-fed Iskanderkul will wow with its perfect morning reflections. Many treks into the Fann Mountains can be begun or finished at Iskanderkul or the nearby village of Sarytag.
What once was a popular Soviet holiday destination sits quiet majority of the time– except on summer weekends when Dushanbe and Khujandi youngsters come out to have fun on the beautiful mountain lake.
Planning to visit Iskanderkul? Check out the Iskanderkul & Sarytag travel guide
Discover The Impact At Karakul Lake
Most travelers along the Pamir Highway pop into the Twilight-Zoney village of Karakul for a quick lunch and continue along. It’s definitely worth it to spend a day here walking along the lake’s edge in this desolate stretch of Tajikistan.
The lake was formed by a meteor impact during the Pliocene Epoch and over the years has filled with water. Karakul is a saline lake, though it usually freezes over until May each year.
The lakeside village of Karakul offers a handful of homestays ran by friendly Kyrgyz families for those wanting to get a night in at the lake’s edge.
Plan your visit to Karakul & the great beyond with the Eastern Pamir Travel Guide
Live Out Your Great Game Fantasies In Shaimak
Shaimak is located in the most strategic, yet middle-of-nowhere location. With views peeking into neighboring China, Pakistan and Afghanistan this was an important blip on the map during the time of the Great Game as the British Empire and Russian Empire vied for power in the Central and South Asia regions.
There is a small scattering of homes and even a homestay in the end-of-the-world village of Shaimak. Don’t miss the ancient remains of a Caravanserai on the way out here near Tokhtymush, the beehive-shaped tombs at Konye Kurgan, and the seasonal mountain lakes that dot the jailoos.
Learn more about Shaimak & other destinations in the Eastern Pamir here
Cross One Of The Rarest & Newest Border Crossings At Qolma Pass
Qolma Pass is the sole border crossing connecting Tajikistan and China, more recently opened to foreigners. Not only is it one of the prettiest border crossings you’ll ever transit, it’s also a wild ride.
The only way to cross Qolma Pass is by hitchhiking with trucks bound for Dushanbe or Kashgar in China. The border patrol staff is aware of this and will help you get onto a truck.
The day we crossed into Tajikistan from China the Chinese border staff were setting up for a photoshoot and hanging up signs about its no-tolerance of drug smuggling. Not long after we began waiting for a truck to hitch with, we were all invited to take photos with the staff and signs to be printed in a periodical read by China’s border patrol.
Celebrate The Bam i Dunya At Khorog’s Roof Of The World Festival
Bam i Dunya translates out the ‘Roof of the World’ in the local language, referring to the Pamir region. This festival celebrates any and everything Pamiri, held July 27-29 each year at Khorog’s City Park.
Pamiri traditions and song & dance performances will all be celebrated.
Between visits to the festival make sure to visit the Khorog Botanical Garden- the highest botanical garden in the world, take a dip in the nearby Garm Chashma Hot Spring, and see the exhibits at the Khorog Regional Museum. Plus, Khorog is a break along the journey up the Pamir Highway and the last place to grab most creature comforts for those continuing on toward the Wakhan and Murghab.
Plan your stopover in Khorog with the Khorog Travel Guide
Visit The Shipping Container Bazaar In Murghab
Murghab is an odd little town set in a beautiful valley with a wild-wild-east feel to it, centered around the Murghab Bazaar. The shops are mostly built inside old shipping containers, some that have created some pretty window fronts to their shops, while other’s that have left the shipping container nearly as-is on the outside… oh and there are even a couple metal yurts here, one of which sells ‘мясо’ (meat in Russian).
You can try to time your visit around the At-Chabysh festival that celebrates Kyrgyz sports, usually held near the end of July.
Not sure what to do in Murghab? Check out the Murghab Travel Guide for ideas and things to do nearby
Try Qurutob, The National Dish Of Tajikistan
Tajik food isn’t well known, in fact, even within Tajikistan, it can be a little tricky to come by as a foreign visitor. While there are other uniquely Tajik dishes (many that you will run across in Tajikistan are dishes popular throughout Central Asia and many times came from somewhere else in or outside the region).
Qurutob is generally the most mentioned online. Gooey, cheesy, and flavored with herbs, is actually a delicious dish (many of those who have traveled Central Asia know well that foods can be a touch bland).
Qurutob will typically consist of a crispy and thin fatir type bread, sautéed onions (sometimes other veggies like tomatoes, carrots, garlic, potatoes, and more will accompany), qurut– dried yogurt balls then drenched in water to create a cheese-like sauce, and topped off with spices, most often dill.
Check out the best restaurants in Dushanbe here, including the best Qurutob in the city