Though a newly formed nation, Tajikistan's lands and culture are ancient, stretching back to neolithic times. Tajikistan is a landlocked Central Asian country that borders Afghanistan and China. Mountains cover roughly 90% of the country, so traveling is not always easy here, but there are roads leading to many key sites as well as air and rail transportation. Travelers can look forward to witnessing mountain deserts and lakes, glacial peaks, hot springs, and deep valleys where most of the country’s cities and villages are.
Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, is situated at the confluence of the Varzob and Kofarnihon Rivers. Archaeological finds dating to the 5th century BCE indicate that the area was inhabited, but the city didn't become important until the 20th century. Must-see Dushanbe attractions include its zoo, the National Museum of Antiquities, Vahdat Palace, and the shops of Rudaki Avenue. Be sure to see the city’s Ismaili Center, which includes cultural exhibitions as well as Persian-style gardens and fountains.
Located in Sughd Province, Iskanderkul Lake is a pristine glacial lake where, legend has it, was once visited by Alexander the Great. Today, the lake is a popular destination for locals as well as foreign travelers. Juniper trees rim the lake and provide nesting grounds for falcons, Himilayan snowcocks, and other birds. The Iskanderkul area is so beautiful that even the nation’s president has a dacha nearby. After enjoying the lake views, many visitors turn to bird watching and hiking the surrounding trails.
Head to the Pamir Highway, the second-highest international highway on the planet, and experience being on top of the world. The highway follows along the Ancient Silk Road and is a popular excursion route for scenic explorers and cyclists. The road, though no longer paved in all areas, connects Tajikistan to neighboring countries like Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Its nickname is currently the “Heroin Highway,” owing to the drug trafficking that occurs in the region. However, there are some majestic sights to behold like crystal-blue mountain lakes, high mountain passes, and cliff-side caves.
Tajikistan’s Yaghnob Valley is a veritable linguistic time capsule important to anthropologists of the world. For much of history, the valley was inaccessible to outsiders, allowing inhabitants to preserve their language. The language dates to the Sogdian Empire, which existed from the 6th century BCE to the 11th century CE. Only about ten families remain in the valley, but they practice a way of life that predates the rest of the country’s Arab beliefs and culture. As a leading national attraction, it’s worth exploring, but only during summer months.
Yamchun Fortress is an ancient Silk Road outpost that overlooks the Wakhan Valley near the border with Afghanistan. The fortress was built by the Kushan Empire to protect traders as they traveled along the route. Getting to the fort is a bit tricky, as only a handful of taxi drivers are willing to make the excursion. If you can make the scene and are willing to hike another mile or so from the site, there are hot springs where you can relax your aching muscles after the trek.
As the highest city in Central Asia, Murghab is more than 3,600 meters above sea level. Located in the Pamir Mountains, the city is accessible via the Pamir Highway. Unlike the capital where the culture is predominantly Tajik, the Kyrgyz culture dominates Murghab, making it a great place to get to know the group’s traditions and cuisine. The city has long been a popular destination for nomadic travelers who enjoy the city’s peaceful way of life and the wilderness regions of the surrounding Pamir Plateau.
Fedchenko Glacier is said to be the largest glacier found outside of the polar regions, with an area of 350 square miles. Located in the Pamir Mountain Range, the glacier is popular with expedition groups who come to hike and explore the area’s wilderness landscapes. Many of the tour operators provide camping equipment and feature experienced guides. The glacier is essentially hard to reach without local assistance, owing to its remote location on the fringe of the Himalayas.
The city of Istaravshan is the only place in Tajikistan where visitors can see Timurid or Samarkand-style architecture. The small town stands on the foothills of the Turkistan Mountains, where it was founded more than 2,500 years ago. The town’s most famous attraction is its blue-tiled Kuk Gombaz Mosque and Madrassah. Its bazaar is reminiscent of the town’s past as a Silk Road outpost, and its blacksmiths are famous for its knives, many of which feature carved bone and wood handles. If you’re a history buff, be sure to pay a visit to the Mug Tepe hill where Genghis Khan entered to raze the village.
Located on the Zeravshan River, Panjakent features the ruins of an ancient town that was important to the Sogdiana civilization. Aside from its historical ruins, the city is lively and home to Tajikistan’s national dish: plov, a wheat dish that includes spices, broth, and vegetables re or meat. Other Panjakent sites to take in include the Rudaki Museum, which specializes in local history, and the picturesque Kainar Ato spring, which supplies most of the city’s water.
While travelers can take one of the several treks into the Fann Mountains, those who take the route to the Haft Kul Valley will find seven lakes within craggy cliffs. The Shing River fills the lakes, and each one features a different hue. There are many side treks and mountain trails all across the valley and many places to set up camp. If you make the journey through the valley to Lake Marguzor, you’ll find two villages on either shore where you may find a place to stay and a warm meal.