I realized I would have approximately 1 month of free time to travel in between two important dates: my girlfriend´s birthday (which I had skipped the past two years) and her fashion show in New York. With this much time, I wanted to visit a country that fit the following criteria: 1. Needed more than 2 weeks to see (since two weeks will realistically be the longest vacation I will be able to take in the near future) 2. Was a summer-only destination (since I was traveling during the summer) and 3. Was open to COVID travel. Tajikistan immediately came to mind. Its most famous attraction is the Pamir Highway, a legendary road trip across rugged mountain terrain. The highway is only reliably snow-free in July and August and takes 10 days to complete. Therefore, I knew that Tajikistan would be the perfect country to visit. I booked a 2.5-week trip plus a week in nearby Uzbekistan.
As the capital and largest city in the country, Dushanbe is the natural starting and ending point for any trip to Tajikistan. The name Dushanbe (Monday in the Tajik language) is named for a weekly market that used to occur here. The city was a tiny village that only became relevant in 1924 when it was chosen by the Soviets to become the capital of the Tajik SSR. Since then it has exploded in population and now has over a million residents.
The logistics for the trip were actually pretty easy. I reached out to 3 companies regarding Pamir Highway trips. The only one to respond was Khudoguy at Roof of the World Travel. He had a trip leaving 4 days after my earliest potential arrival date. The departure was guaranteed, and he said two other people had already confirmed, which lowered the price significantly. I decided to go with him and book the flights.
This left me 4 free days in Dushanbe. The city has things to see, but 4 days would be a little much, so I also booked an overnight trip to the Fann Mountains 3 hours to the north with the same company for my second and third free days. I would then have a free day at the end of the Pamir Highway trip in order to get my Covid test to leave the country.
Khudoguy also helped me with the eVisa. I was promised 3-5 business days by the embassy in Washington DC, but after 12 business days still had not received a response. I reached out to Khudoguy and he was able to “expedite” my visa for an extra $70. Literally 10 minutes after sending him my info, the visa got approved. Certainly, a preview of things to come.
August 12, 2021: Arrival and Bearings
My flight from Istanbul arrived at 3:15 am, typical for Central Asia. Immediately I was introduced to the craziness and corruption that is Tajikistan. In the jet bridge, there were people holding signs offering VIP immigration services for $30 USD. I declined.
Then I headed down the escalator to the health check. There, 3 inspectors physically wrote down all the information from the COVID tests. This took about 3 minutes per person…for a plane of well over 200 people. The backlog created a lot of frustration and people were fighting and pushing to get the inspectors to check their paperwork.
At the same time, certain people were escorted right past the health check. These must have been the VIPs.
Next was the immigration check. Here, there were also just a few lines. And it seemed to take 5 minutes for each person to be checked so there was another huge backlog. In line, I met a Canadian-Afghan who was traveling to Tajikistan to meet her husband who lives in Afghanistan. Eventually I reached the front of the line where they asked for all my documents including my eVisa (seems silly since they already have all my info) and COVID test. Everything got handwritten down as well as copied into a computer. Eventually I was allowed in. The entire experience took me about 75 minutes…and I was at the front of the plane.
Outside, I was picked up by a shuttle from my hostel. The driver told me that lots of people are scared to come to Tajikistan because of the situation in Afghanistan where the Taliban was taking over the country rapidly after the US withdrew. He said that is unfortunate because Tajikistan is actually very safe despite its location. He did mention that a few insane travelers were using Tajikistan as a jumping off point to visit middle-of-a-civil-war Afghanistan. The Taliban will apparently let you in (having tourists increases their legitimacy), but the Tajik government won´t let you back so it is a one-way trip! As much as I want to one day visit Afghanistan, I also want to live. I went to sleep at 4:30.
I woke up at 10:00 in order to adjust to the time zone. I got breakfast at the hostel and met some of the other guests. To say that Tajikistan gets interesting tourists is an understatement. I met two Israeli backpackers, an Indian travel blogger, Pakistanis who had to spend two weeks in a COVID-safe country to gain entry to Saudi Arabia for work, and two Dutchmen who cycled here from the Netherlands.
However, the strangest tourists in the hostel were a 30-strong group of Korean families. They had just road tripped the Pamir Highway with young kids and a full-time chef. Every morning they would gather as a group and sing songs. I am so confused how this group of families got together and said, “let’s do a big vacation with our children to Tajikistan to go on this crazy road trip”.
My purpose for the first day was to sort out logistics for the rest of my visit.
My first stop was to get a SIM card at the city´s main mall. The mall was funny. It had an escalator, which I guess is not common in Tajikistan. Everyone seemed to be apprehensive to step on the escalator. Also, none of the stores in the food court sold or offered water. Only soft drinks and sweetened teas.
SIM cards in Tajikistan were very expensive. The only packages I would want were $10 USD for 3 gigabytes of data or $30 USD for 20 gigabytes. To get the SIM, the cell phone provider (Megafon) also needed both my eVisa and a registration letter from the hostel.
I then decided to reach out to Khudoguy. Having emailed back and forth for quite some time, I wanted to meet him in person before going on his trips. We met at a café near the mall. He brought Fez, the man who would be my driver for both the Fann Mountains mini-trip and the Pamir Highway.
Our first order of business was finalizing all the payments. However, to not attract attention, I paid him literally under the table.
Next, since Khudoguy speaks perfect English, I used the opportunity to learn a bit about Tajikistan. Khudoguy runs one of the largest tour companies in Tajikistan. He accommodates both tour groups and independent tourists like me. Khudoguy has been to the US a few times. His first trip was to Alaska where he learned English while working in a remote ecotourism camp.
Tourism is not a big part of the Tajik economy. Right now, the only tourists coming to Tajikistan are adventurous tourists hoping to visit the mountains. About half of the country´s GDP comes from remittances (money sent back) from Tajiks working in Russia. There are also some agricultural exports. Other than that, the country doesn´t have much beyond subsistence farming and manufacturing. Tajikistan is the poorest country in the former Soviet Union.
The government of Tajikistan is a dictatorship. The President, Emomali Rahmon, was the President of the Supreme Soviet (parliament) during the Soviet Union. After independence, he became the leader. Shortly after, the country plunged into a civil war where the government fought off a coalition of Islamists (who wanted a country more like Afghanistan) and Pamiris who wanted their own country.
Rahmon won the war and has continued to rule the country with an iron fist since. He and his family control almost every business in the country. The country is so corrupt that in 2015, Rahmon appointed his son as the head of the anti-corruption bureau. Despite his harsh rule and rampant corruption, he is genuinely well-liked by much of the population for winning the war and keeping the country peaceful. He is currently 68 years old.
I then took a taxi to get lunch at a famous tea house. There I got lagman (Uighur-style noodles). I laughed to myself because there is a famous restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, USA called the Dushanbe Tea House and here I am at a real Dushanbe tea house.
For the afternoon, I walked over to the National Museum, a gorgeous new structure built in the middle of a gigantic cultural and park complex.
The museum is obviously a pet project of Rahmon because it is so well-done. The museum is 4 stories tall and has descriptions in English!!!
The first floor covers the natural history of Tajikistan including the geology, flora, and fauna.
The second and third floors cover the human history of Tajikistan starting with prehistory. The most impressive part of this was the replicas of ancient Buddhist stupas. The end of the third floor covered the modern Tajik republic. 80% of this section was about Rahmon and featured pictures of him with foreign leaders including Putin, Trump, Xi, and the other Central Asian leaders. Another room contained the ceremonial gifts given by foreign diplomats and heads of state.
The top floor was an art museum.
After visiting the museum, I was walking over to view the world´s second largest flagpole when a man approached me. He said he was a photographer and wanted to take pictures of me. I accepted the weird request and we proceeded to have a 30-minute photo shoot.
After transferring all the photos to me, he asked for $15 for all the photos- an obscene price by Tajik standards. I offered to give him $10. Afterwards, my conscience gave into me and I gave him the $15, because the photos really did bring me a lot of joy and he needed the money more than me. This was not my proudest moment.
For the rest of the day, I wandered around Dushanbe´s absurd public parks and statues. The place is beautiful, but certainly feels out of place in a country with a GDP per capita of $870 USD.
August 26, 2021: Two Weeks Later…
After venturing along the Pamir Highway, I had one more full day in Dushanbe before my flight out.
I used this day to see the remaining tourist sites that I had previously missed.
However, my first stop was to get a COVID PCR test for my flight tonight. This was done at a clinic called Diamed. It was very easy and I paid less than $20 for the PCR test. I arrived at 7:30 and was out by 8:30. I then had to return around 15:00 to pick it up. All very easy and reasonable.
My first tourist stop was at the Mehrgon Market. Dushanbe used to have a historic market in the city center, but the government recently tore it down and built this market a few kilometers north. The market is humongous and looks more like a palace.
Inside, the huge market hall had humongous Doric-inspired columns. The vendors were mostly spread out along the first floor with some on the second floor. I couldn´t help but think that this market looks like a tacky knock-off of the Forum shops in Cesar´s Palace in Las Vegas. The building really does not look nice inside. I think they missed the mark here.
Our next stop was the Nowruz Palace. This humongous building, named for the Persian new year, was constructed to be the world´s largest tea house. Today, the building is called a cultural and entertainment center. There is a restaurant and around the back there is a small beach where locals can swim in an artificial lake. But the inside is completely closed. I wonder what goes on inside- probably weddings. I was able to snap one photo of a room where some work was going on and afterwards was chased away by the manager.
From the palace, I picked up my COVID test and headed to the botanical gardens. Along the way, we passed by a major rally. We were told that they were here to cheer on the President. The cab driver shook his head and suggested we stay away.
The shockingly large botanic gardens feel like another world. The whole place is covered in a well-manicured forest. A staff of hundreds works to ensure that the plants are all perfect. I strolled around here for about an hour.
It was now the late afternoon and I needed to rest up before heading to the airport to head onwards to Uzbekistan.
Leaving Tajikistan was pure insanity. In order to check into my flight, I had to elbow through crowds of people. There is no order here. The airport experience eliminated all my sadness of leaving this amazing country.
Dushanbe, like many Central Asian capitals, is a weird place. It is clear that the government is trying hard to change Dushanbe from a Soviet city to the capital of a futuristic unique nation. At the moment, Dushanbe is caught in the growing pains. About half the city center has pristine modern buildings that feel too nice for a country as poor as Tajikistan. But still half the city has old Soviet apartments and houses.
There are many large construction projects currently underway in Dushanbe so in a few years, the city will look very different than it does now.