In preparation for a trip to Tajikistan and the Pamirs, you might not find as much books, maps and websites as for, let’s say, European countries or US or any other popular destinations.
But there are a lot, and good ones.
First, the best website for anything about the Pamirs is Pamirs Website
On this one, you will find answers to all questions you have, exciting pictures (the ones in the photogallery, part “Pamirs from the air” have captured me from the moment I looked at them), extremely helpful information on visa, permits, regulations, tips for hiking, arranged tours, people and culture, health and safety, etc.
It is constantly updated and among Pamirs aficionados THE only reference site, when you need info or help. This website is commonly referred to as the Pamirs.org (don’t forget the –s :-) It is not Pamir, but Pamirs).
Update, June 2008:
Excellent news - the long awaited book by Robert Middleton, Huw Thomas and Markus Hauser is available now:
Tajikistan and the High Pamirs
I got it today and am all over excited! It has 700 pages (as many of the Odyssey books) and they describe almost everything that can be said about Tajikistan and the Pamirs. Excellent information section (hotels in Dushanbe, recommended tour operators, etc) and wonderful photos. It makes me want to go again immediately!
Update, November 2011:
Thanks to Robert Middleton. On his Pamir website he is directing visitors to youtube where a marvellous documentation is available in three parts (in Russian language I think but with English subtitles):
Discover the Pamirs, part 1
Discover the Pamirs, part 2,
Discover the Pamirs, part 3.
Lonely Planet has a book on Central Asia (issued 2004), ISBN 1864502967, USD 29,99 (as of Sept06). When I just checked their website, I saw that they offer a package, the travel book plus the phrasebook (Central Asian languages) and a travel diary for USD 42,38, which also would make sense.
LP Central Asia .
The LP guide is quite good if you plan to travel to other central Asian countries, but has some failings in street maps. On the other hand, given the rapid changes in these countries, it seems normal for me that some info is outdated.
If you want to hike in the Pamirs, or even if you only travel the Pamir Highway, the Pamir Map is a MUST ! This one is commonly referred to as the Hauser Map, Markus Hauser and other european organizations, together with local (Pamirs) organizations have put it together in 2004. It contains also very helpful information on the backside, and street maps of Khorog and Murghab as well. Price: Euro 14,90. ISBN: 3-906593-35-7. Or check the Gecko Website for Hauser map.
Mapscale is 1:500.000, which might sound quite small, but given the Pamirs’ size, it is very good.
Markus Hauser, the one who worked on the Pamirs Map, also has his own website with lots of pictures, descriptions of his expeditions, etc.
Please check Markus Hauser website , with his E-Mail address, if you have further questions (but please only if you plan to trek or hike or climb mountains).
Only in German (as far as I know) is another very excellent book, if you like to know more about the historical and art aspects of Central Asia, you should definitely get the Kunstreiseführer Zentralasien by DuMont publisher. Price Euro 25,90, ISBN 3-7701-3680-2. It will help understanding more about the whole history of the –stan countries in Central Asia.
Another map, which I used, as I was travelling in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and part of Kyrgyzstan, is Nelle’s Map of Central Asia. It covers Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and southern Kazakhstan and north eastern Iran as well. Map scale is a small 1:1.750.000, but well, all was shown what I needed. Street maps of the capitals as well, better than the LP ones.
Price Euro 7,90, ISBN 3-88618-664-4.
Fondest memory: For any other interest, the famous Pamirs Website , which I recommended in the previous tip, gives a huge load of references and books on Pamirs, check their “references, books and links” section (and you need some minutes to scroll down, hihi).
And last but not least, if you plan to hike or need transport, please check the META website to get ideas about what you can do. META stands for Murghab EcoTourism Association, and is a very helpful, very friendly, very reliable and extremely fair company, which helps you to find your way in this gorgeous part of the world (as opposed to Traveltajikistan, which I here again disadvise, as they have the dollar sign in their eyes, and are more than happy to overcharge you).
META people speak English, some even French.
And, Agustinus Wibowo, a most amazing young Indonesian guy, who travels in Central Asia actually and has very much moving and wonderful photos out in the www.
© Ingrid D., November 2006 (just in case, RickS or others come along and think they can steal texts). Update November 2011: Hauser Map link and price updated and several other links.
When it comes to border crossings into Tajikistan, my experience is from July 2006, and I can only judge the ones from Samarkand to Penjikent, and the one from Pamirs into Kyrgyzstan via Kyzyl-Art-Pass. I did not have any mentionable problem, but please also check, what Dean wrote about his experience in 2001, crossing from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan at Bekobad. That gave me a shiver, and I am happy that I did not experience similar things. But just be aware what might happen, if the border guys are in a bad mood….
For better viewing, I have added a map with the border location, map is from Texas.du website
Border crossings from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan:
From Samarkand (UZ) to Penjikent: (1 in my map)
Cars will drop you off, if you come from Samarkand, you have to walk your way (approx. 1 km or so) via Uzbek customs and emigration to Tajik customs and immigration.
My personal experience: the Tajik guys at the border greeted us with “welcome to Tajikistan” and a big smile, passports were stamped in a minute, baggage (backpacks) was not searched, and customs declaration is only verbal info about the money you bring in. They do not register (= write in a book) credit cards, but just be honest in the amount of money you declare.
(Please see my TL 1 here for more on "how to cross this border :-))
From Termiz (UZ) to Dushanbe: (3 in my map)
Most likely, no one will travel via this one, Termiz is the southernmost town in Uzbekistan.
From Tashkent (UZ) via Bekobod to Khujand: (4 in my map)
(see Dean’s experience from 2001)
Fondest memory: Border crossings from Kyrgyzstan into Tajikistan:
Via Kyzyl-Art-Pass from Sary Tash and Osh (both KYRG) to Murghab: (2 in my map)
I only can judge the other way, leaving the Pamirs here. Tajik customs and immigration/emigration are in one shack, military guys were very friendly, notes were taken on what and which money you are taking out of the country (written in a book), and no baggage was searched. The Kyrgyz customs and immigration/emigration was located on a huge compound (given the shacks of the Tajiks, it was a bit weird…), but no one was interested in giving us a stamp in the passport – next weird feeling, but more on that on Kyrgyzstan.
From Sary Tash (KYRG) to Dushanbe: (5 in my map)
This option is most likely chosen by mountain climbers, as Lenin Peak (7134 m) is close by. I don’t have info, but can check among German climbers, if needed.
Border crossings from China into Tajikistan, Kulma Pass: (6 in my map)
There is one road, which leads from Kashgar in China via Kamsu Port to Murghab in the Pamirs. It was open only for Tajik or Chinese, as there is much truck traffic from China.
When I was in the Pamirs (July 2006), rumours said that they have opened this border also for other travellers, but that it would involve a bit of bribing and discussions.
I have read that VTer Mike from Beijing looked for info on that one, maybe he can report when he is back.
This border is still only open for Tajiks and Chinese and not for other foreigners, status October 2008. Details about opening for other foreigners will appear on META/ACTED's website: META/ACTED, Murghab
The second important document you need when travelling in Tajikistan, and especially in Pamirs, is the so-called OVIR = Office of Visas and Registration.
This is applicable for all 3 “-stans” I was in and simply means that you are getting registered with the officials, mostly the police.
When travelling in Tajikistan, you should register within 72 hours after entry, but I have met travellers, who registered after being in the country (the western part of Tajikistan) for more than 3 weeks, and did not have problems.
For travelling within GBAO, it is different, you definitely need it, the first police station will ask for it. But in this case, they are quite easygoing, and very quick, as soon as you show up at “a” police station (in GBAO), they are more than happy to put the stamp in your passport and charge you 20 USD (as of July 2006).
My personal experience:
I arrived in Dushanbe, and thought, I could rely on the “famous” Traveltajikistan, for getting help with OVIR (as they have promised me in their mails). Nothing was the case, I only got the disinterested reply that it will take minimum 2-4 days, and that OVIR office is not open on weekends (I arrived on a Thursday night). It was said that “maybe in Khorog it might take only 1 day”, which was my next destination anyhow.
I got a flight ticket to Khorog for the next day, went to the Police station (on a Saturday), and got my stamp within 2 minutes, plus the said 20 USD charge. All very friendly.
Fondest memory: My personal recommendation:
If you are heading for GBAO / Khorog anyhow, don’t even bother with trying to get the OVIR in Dushanbe or anywhere else in the western non-GBAO part.
Get it in Khorog, it is the most easiest and uncomplicated way.
What I do not know:
How it works if you are heading into GBAO from Kyrgyzstan or China. You will have to go to Murghab (also friendly police), which is your first destination when coming from Kashgar / China, but you will have to deal with very unfriendly very unpredictable and very baksheesh-oriented youngster military kids (not older than 25) when arriving in Karakul, coming from Kyrgyzstan.
Do make sure you have this OVIR stamp in your passport !!! If it is not there, they’ll fine you (there are stories of 300 USD, and even people having been thrown out of GBAO for not having it). Your fellow travellers (in busses or shared taxis) will also be grateful for you NOT blocking the travels…..
Make sure, the dates (entry and exit) in the stamp match the dates in your GBAO permit.
A permit for Pamir region is essential for any travel within the Pamirs (be it for hiking, mountaineering or any other activity).
Police and Military guys will permanently check you, and if you don’t have it, you will be in bad shape – the less bad thing they’ll do is to fine you. The worse… I don’t know, and I did not try to find out.
GBAO stands for Gorno Badakhshan Avtonomnaya Oblast, or the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan, which was established in 1925 by the Soviets. The autonomous status remained after independence, but it is still controlled by the Russians due to it’s border with Afghanistan. Well, this is politically not correct, it is GBAO people, which control the region, but the further I travelled on Pamir Highway, the more I got the feeling that all is still old times (which theoretically I cannot judge, but…. my Karakul experience was enough to make me not want to know more…)
Well, GBAO permits nowadays are issued by a lot of agencies, some being reliable, some not much. I got mine through Traveltajikistan, for GBP 35, plus GBP 0,53 for using creditcard as payment.
I got a scan copy via mail, just before I left, and picked up the original in Dushanbe.
When you order the permit, make sure you have all 7 GBAO regions listed there. There is no difference in the price, but you might experience problems when a region, you are travelling in, is not listed on your permit.
Fondest memory: On mine, you can see:
Хорог = Khorog
Дарваз = Darvaz
Ванч = Vanj
Рушан = Roshan
Ишкашим = Ishkashim
Мургаб = Murghab
It also shows the date, in my case July 15 to August 25.
Missing is Roshtkala (well, maybe I will ask them why they forgot it.........)
Yes, I can recommend to get the GBAO permit via Traveltajikistan, but otherwise I definitely cannot and will not recommend this “establishment” company for any other service. I have made very bad experience with their so-called other services; it seems that they charge you even for a handshake.
As already written, Tajikistan’s currency is Somoni, at the time of my travel, 1 USD was 3,35 Somoni. (I just looked it up, now, 1 month later, it is 1 USD = 2,78 somoni). 1 Somoni = 100 Dirham.
Banknotes come in 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 Somoni, make sure, you have enough 1 Somoni, when changing at banks.
Check the website of Nat.Bank Tajikistan for banknotes.
Change at banks or exchange services, usually, there is a lot of them. Luckily, the exchange rates do not differ, when going to an exchange service, a given rate is valid throughout the whole country.
They accept USD and Euros, no travellers' cheques.
Take small and big denominations, no matter what your bank will advise you. My bank advised me – after checking somewhere on a “bank website” – to take only small denominations, so I took my amount of x USD, USD 500 of them in 1 USD notes. Guess how nice and thick this bundle was finally…..
Banks and exchange offices look at you with a very annoyed and weird look when you come with 1 USD banknotes to be changed. They are well able to handle 100 USD notes.
Best would be a mixture of 10, 20, 50, and some 1 USD notes.
Some services are paid in USD (cars and shared taxis, hotels, flights), some in Somoni (guesthouses in Pamirs, food and your personal needs shopping of course).
I cannot say anything about the availability of ATM machine, as I was equipped with cash and did not actively look. But there is an ATM machine at Dushanbe (International) airport, which accepted Master Card, Visa and Amex.
Fondest memory: To calculate, what you might need:
Water (1,5 l bottle): 1,5 Somoni (0,42 Euro);
Dinner (average, including water or soft drinks): 4 Euro;
Snacks (somosas, similar like empanadas): 0,10 Euro per piece;
Overnight stay in Pamir guesthouse: 6 USD (prices are given in USD, but paid in Somoni);
”1 km-tariff”: 0,35 USD (calculate with this META price when travelling in the Pamirs, anything else is rip-off);
Beer (1 bottle, 0,33 l): 4 Somoni (1,20 Euro)
Cigarettes (1 pack): 2 Somoni (0,60 Euro), they come cheaper if you buy a carton;
Coffee (in a café): 0,50 – 1 Somoni (0,15 – 0,30 Euro);
(Prices as of July 2006)
And as an idea: for the hiking (calculated 5 days hiking) , I bought coffee, pasta, soup, sugar and others, for 16 Somoni (5 Euro).
Wherever you will be travelling in Tajikistan, either in the western part or in the Pamirs (mainly in the Pamirs, which I can judge), you will be overwhelmed by the peoples’ hospitality !
Just some facts to consider:
GDP per capita – the people in Luxemburg have the highest in the world with nearly 70.000 USD, Japan, Germany and some other European countries have roughly 30.000 USD.
Tajikistan as a whole has 1400 USD, but this is mostly for the western part. In the Pamirs, it is much much lower. Unemployment rate is very high, although the several Non Governmental Organizations (Aga Khan Foundation, ACTED, META, etc) do a lot to lower it a bit.
If they stand somewhere at the bottom of the GDP list, they are at the very top of a list for hospitality, if there would exist one. In brief words – they don’t have much, but what they have, they share, and you, as the traveller, get the best they have.
When you are travelling somewhere, be sure, you get invited here or there, into local houses, and even if it’s only for a tea. Accept it, and you will immediately know what I mean. Tea is boiled in a minute, cookies, sweets, the incredible good bred is brought, yoghurt, and often much more.
When you try and hitchhike, locals will pick you up, provided, there is space in the car (well, “space” is defined different there than how I was used to the meaning of the word).
When you walk in the streets and look for something, do not hesitate to ask locals where to find it. You will usually have a travel book or map with you, and can show what you mean. In most of the cases, the people will guide you to what you were looking for.
They do this with a smile and – thank them with a smile.
Fondest memory: However, given the incomes, consider that you should feel to contribute to what you get. If you get picked up when hitchhiking, ask how much you should pay them. Gas costs 2 Somoni per litre.
If you are invited for tea, you mostly don’t need to pay, but anything more brought on the table – consider to pay a bit. It does not hurt to give 5-10 Somoni for a meal.
If they refuse, which can be the case, just give them some things “from home”, postcards, little give-aways for the kids, pens, etc. Avoid sweets for the kids !
And – always say thank you (either thank you or spasiba, which is Russian), put your right hand to your chest and bow your head slightly – which is the Tajik (and Uzbek and surely others) way to thank.
Some of my impressions::
After visiting the botanical garden in Khorog, which is some km outside of the village, I tried hitchhiking back. A car stopped, picked me up, and when I wanted to pay, he shook his head and put his hand on his chest, which meant something like “it was my pleasure”.
Or, I had some serious travellers’ diarrhoea, and as it turned worse at a point in time, I went to Khorog Hospital. An internal specialist finally came, and with the help of a translator, he has decided on treatment and prescription. I asked how much I should pay – he said, nothing, hospital ambulant treatment is free of charge. I told him, I am foreigner, and would not mind to pay, he replied, it would be their pleasure to help me.
Or, standing in Khorog, somewhere in the streets, looking at all the cherry and apricot trees in the gardens - suddenly a door opened, and a man came, gave us a big load of fresh apricots - just with a smile.
And I still get tears in my eyes, now back in this ridiculous shark pond, when thinking of these attitudes.
Industrialized countries can learn A LOT from Pamiri !
I promised to write something about the weather, and the best time to travel.
Tajikistan is located on quite a high altitude, nearly half of the country over 3000 m above sea level. In addition, it is surrounded by high mountain ranges, just keep in mind that some peaks are well above 7000 m.
Thus, summers can be hot and humid, winters mild (west) or crispy and cold(east, Pamirs).
I found average temperatures somewhere in the www depth, but unfortunately did not made a note on the website. But, excel addicted as I am, and influenced by a very special person, who also shows average temperatures, I threw the data in xls and made a screenshot.
This all is only vague, as it does not take into consideration that the weather is very much influenced by the vicinity of mountains and of the plains in the east.
It should be more the temperature curve of Dushanbe.
Fondest memory: Try to avoid mid summer, months July and August. I was in Dushanbe end of July, and it was bloody hot (around easily 35 °C in the shade), and Dushanbe is quite humid, compared to the Pamirs and Uzbekistan, where I was before.
In the Pamirs, I was very much astonished to have bloody hot temperatures also in Khorog, which is located on 2200 m after all. The more we progressed on the Pamir highway, the “better”, lower (for me) temperatures got, at least some wind, which does not give you the feeling that the sun wants to barbecue you.
Maybe the best time of year is June or September for both parts, western Tajikistan and the Pamirs.
As my main intention for going to Tajikistan was the Pamirs region, some explanations here about the difference, as I will write Pamirs when referring to this region (and also write most of the tips there .
Tajikistan has roughly 143.000 sqkm of area, and more than half of it is above 3000 m.
45% of Tajikistan is the so-called Pamirs, or GBAO, or, with it’s tongue twisting name Gorno Badakhshan Avtonomnaya Oblast, the breathtaking (in the sense of the word and in the literal one) mountain region, also called Bam-I-Dunya or Roof of the World (Tibet is the other Roof of the World).
GBAO was created by the Soviets in 1925, and attached to the republic of Tajikistan in 1929. After break up of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan got its independence and GBAO was renamed GBAP (P for province). In 1992, civil war broke out in Tajikistan, and GBAO/P’s local government declared independence from Tajikistan. Later, in 1998, it was forced to reconnect again, which it is until now (as of July 2006).
GBAO has 7 regions, as indicated in the map: Darwaz, Vanj, Rushan, Sugnan (with Khorog, the capital of GBAO), Roshtkala, Iskashim and Murghab.
It is important to know these regions, as all should appear on your GBAO permit.
Fondest memory: GBAO or the Pamirs can be roughly divided into the eastern and the western Pamirs.
Western Pamirs are characterized by deep valleys in the high mountains, lot of agriculture (very much delicious cherries, apricots, any other fruit).
Eastern Pamirs, with Murghab being the major village, is more the high altitude area, with wide, plateau like landscapes. Kyrgyz nomads keep their livestock there, sheep and yaks.
Khorog is the biggest town, roughly 22.000 inhabitants, very lively, very colourful, a base town for trekking, hiking and other activities in the western Pamirs. It should have a university as well, once the Aga Khan Foundation, who assists the region, has the money to build.
Murghab, with 4.000 inhabitants the main village in the eastern Pamirs, is base town for any activities in the east.
To give you roughly an idea – the 45% of land, GBAO covers of Tajikistan, is accommodating only 3% of Tajikistan’s population.
The most important road through the Pamirs is famous Pamir Highway, stretching from Khorog via Murghab to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, total length 728 km (500 km until the Pamir-Kyrgyzstan border), and it is said to be the second highest international road.
Driving along it is an experience, you will never ever forget :-))))))
Tajikistan has a long and very sad history, given its importance in the ancient times from Samanid Empire. It was Soviet for a long time, and from my impression, it still is in a way, as the Russians still control part of it, mainly due to the borders with Afghanistan.
However, it is independent since 1991 (as all of the Central Asian –stans). Independence day is September 9 – calculate this when travelling, it is a very important day for Tajikstan.
Capital is Dushanbe.
More about history of this wonderful part of this world one day, not now.
The flag (see photo) has 3 horizontal stripes, red from former Soviet Union, white stands for cotton (important cultivation) and green for agriculture. The symbol in the middle – a crown and stars – symbolizes Tajikistan’s independence.
The time in Tajikistan is UTC + 5 hours, but be aware, the Pamirs unofficially adapt to daylight saving time in (northern hemisphere) summer. This might lead to confusion about departures, so double check when getting on any transport or meeting someone.
Electricity is 200 V, 50 HZ (see photo of socket / outlet).
Calling Code is 992. Dushanbe recently has changed their phone numbers, added a 3 to their previous 2 digit city code, now it is 372. Check phone numbers, when dialling.
Fondest memory: Tajikistan’s currency is Somoni, at the time of my travel, 1 USD was 3,35 Somoni. (I just looked it up, now, 1 month later, it is 1 USD = 2,78 somoni). 1 Somoni = 100 Dirham. Banknotes come in 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 Somoni, make sure, you have enough 1 Somoni, when changing at banks.
Check the website of Nat.Bank Tajikistan for banknotes.
Given the high altitude and the surrounding mountains, the weather in Tajikistan has all, from hot humid summers to extremely cold winters.
Language is Tajik, but Russian is spoken as well everywhere. In the Pamirs, you will encounter a lot of different dialects in the valleys, mostly of Persian origin.
(as I might run out of space again, more on money and weather and best time to travel in separate tips)
When you plan some hiking, sightseeing or any other activity, please organize it via the locals. By now, a lot of travel agents and tour operators have established, which are well worth to use them.
In Pamir, META is the very best option; they organize everything from transfers (along the Pamir Highway), horseback, camel or yak rides, hiking trips, any other activity and sightseeing to homestays (locals that provide you with a bed and meals).
I used their service for nearly everything, homestays, and transfer from Murghab to Osh, including 2 days of sightseeing in the mountains and a stay in a yurt.
Check Website of META in Murghab . Unfortunately, the prices given there for transport (to/from Murghab), need to be updated. Today, it is 0,35 USD per km. Driver costs 3 USD per day. Prices for lodging and food is still up-to-date, as well as the charge for guides.
Or, check the Contacts, Pamirs.org Website has on their site. I have heard much positive about Goulya Petrova, and also had mail contact with her (I had planned a trek to Lake Sarez, but gave it up it before I left).
Fondest memory: Oh, this is not my fondest memory about trying to find the best agent, but my worst.....
If you are millionaire, do your tours with Traveltajikistan. There must be a reason why the highly recommended Pamirs.org website do not list these money suckers.
And if my warning does not get on you, consider that they are based in Dushanbe (there must be a reason why they are not based in GBAO – maybe they are not wanted there ?), and will charge you anything you plan with them to and from Dushanbe (another 450 km one-way from Khorog).
Don’t say, I did not warn you !!!
If it happens that one of these guys finds VT (what I doubt, they are so much concerned about themselves and how to make money), it’s me, Ingrid :-) (better to relocate when looking in the registration book of your guesthouse, I stayed there July 28, 2006). Well, you won’t remember me, as you won’t remember any of your clients, after you got their money. It is not badmouthing what I am doing here, I just tell my impressions about your etablissement. Try and sue me, you cannot – but first get off your high horse and arrive in reality and customer service.
The language, spoken in Tajikistan and the Pamirs is Tajik, Pamiri dialects and Russian. English is not yet quite popular in the country.
However, when going to Pamirs, you will be impressed by the number of people, mostly young ones, who speak brilliant English, and are honestly happy to help you in anything you need. Accept this, as it is also for them a good opportunity to polish up their English.
Nevertheless, it is good to know some basic Russian words, not only for very basic communication, but also for identifying “things”, such as exit, entry, toilet (incl. the signs for boys and girls there), pharmacy, etc.
So, to learn the Cyrillic alphabet is a good idea. It is not that difficult, and a lot of words you can read then. It is fascinating :-) I had this several times, when looking at a Cyrillic word, and slowly read the letters to finally have the "oha" effect and knew the meaning :-)
And, to give you an idea, I have also added a photo of a typical menu in Russian / Cyrillic. Well, chose your favourites :-))
Fondest memory: Some words in Cyrillic:
Copies (=photocopy): фотокопия
Telephone : Tелефон
Beer:пиво (for Ritchie, hihi)
(These are the ones that come to my mind now, if you are missing words, you think, they are also important to know, please drop me a note)
Yes, everything I write now is serious. I simply want to avoid that some people easily are taken in to the belief, “great, ah, another country to make “blue” on my map” and then come home furious because of the luggage has been damaged or they are seriously ill with effects of altitude sickness or miss a plane because of a ridiculously tight schedule.
Tajikistan and the Pamirs are different to our ah so nice overly over-organised (no typo) and punctual over-industrialised own home countries. And so it is better to know some things in advance and rethink perceptions.
I won’t write this as warning or tourist trap, as whoever thinks of all that will follow as warning or trap is… well, better off to Euro Disney or a cruise ship or a mass beach.
First - the luggage: leave suitcase, jewellery and nice clothes at home, they are completely out of place here. Backpacks or soft bags (each with a good protection cover) are better, as luggage will be squeezed in trunks together with tools and spare tyres and more important, any container that can hold (or not hold) petrol. This, even if you allow yourself the luxury to rent a car with driver for you only. The smell of petrol is everywhere (I was still airing my stuff back home for a while). Petrol stations and car repair shops are not just around every corner but sparsely distributed.
Not every road is paved, or let's say paved roads are very much luxury (as our countries ridiculously pay development aid to countries like China, but never to Tajikistan….). Even if roads are paved, parts might get washed away by heavy floods. Generally, with the mountains around, a dry air and not much green except in the riverbeds the air is full of “particles”. I have problems to call them dirt, as they are not; they are just abrasion from the rocks. So at the end of every day on the road or path you will be dirty => no room in the suitcase for designer clothes.
Fondest memory: Apart from that it is offensive, arrogant and insolent to wear them and the whole gallery of jewellery. Tajikistan, and more so Pamir region, is a very poor region but the people have managed to keep their mentality and are honest, friendly, very much warm hearted and hospitable. The price we pay just for the ticket to get there will easily feed whole families for years. So do not play the money god and mighty traveller by showing “what you have” or throw around with money (I am even that cynic to say we have nothing that can match the locals’ friendliness). Imran has a vivid request on his Chitral page (northern Pakistan, but it also fits to TJ and Pamirs).
If you come to Tajikistan, disentangle yourself from any idea you have about punctuality and well functioning “everything”. It is just another world and no one needs to worry about the typical “illnesses” as I would call it from our industrialised world. If there is electricity, there is no guarantee that it will be there the whole day and night. Apart from that: who needs electricity during the day when the sun is shining ? Bring a torch, as most likely there is no light available when you need the restroom at night.
Consequently, there is no hot water available all day long. In Khorog yes, we had our shower, but already in Bulunkul we only had a small tub with cold water. In Murghab, our host lady asked us one day if we want to have a hot bath. She heated several big pots, brought us a big tub – and we could wash ourselves with hot water – pure luxury.
Cars and travels are not as easy as in our own regions. Remember that the Pamiri are not rich, so cars are not that much popular among the people. And if they own cars, then they would not necessarily pass the typical inspections in our own regions. I have learned on my trip which elements and equipment are really necessary in a car – an air filter is not. Oil filter ? Well, sometimes. Water is the most important thing to run a car, as in this altitude, the cars need to stop once in a while to cool down the radiators. On the trip from Khorog to Bulunkul, we stopped every 15 to 20 minutes to cool down the radiators or to pick up water from the rivers. Sometimes we had to walk for some minutes to get to the rivers. At a point in time, the tyre broke. This was when I simply gave up my spoiled brat-like thinking and took everything as it came, and was ashamed for my former expectations and brought back to earth. The guys didn’t have proper gear to change the tyre and I felt sorry that I didn’t have anything as a gear to help them. When cars came by, we stopped them and asked for a lift, but the cars did either belong to Aga Khan Medical Service and were full with equipment or private cars and also full with people. At a point in time, a car stopeed and even if they were already 6, they packed our backpacks and us into the car and we continued. We had to leave the car when we approached Koitezek Pass, with 4271 m the highest between Khorog and Bulunkul. It was simply too much for the car, driving up there full with people. But with the driver alone inside the car and us helping to push, car and us made it over the pass.
This stop and go procedure was not a sole experience with this car and driver, but happened to every car we took. Well, the marshrutka from Alichur to Murghab and our META driver from Murghab to Osh only stopped every hour – but still, cars just don’t run as easy as ours run at home.
Fondest memory: Bribing is normal, at least with some military and police guys. Remember that this is part of the former Soviet Union and some facts just remain. Also, some people in the industrialised west need heroine quite badly (either to sell or to be stupid enough to put it into the blood), so the bloodsucking (mostly western) sellers will somehow always find ways to bring it from the regions where they make poor people grow it (in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan) out of the country. This route leads often through China, so eastwards along the Pamir Highway. Police and military thus control western travellers quite extensively – something I understood only after I was back home. Expect delays when your papers are not in neat order. And expect to be questioned.
I had a quite uneasy experience with military guys in Karakul, who took the passports for registration (usual procedure), but didn’t allow me to follow them, as I could with all other checkpoint guys. Instead, they pushed me back with the help of a kalashnikov and of course I did obey. Now, a year later, I am pretty sure that no one would have shot, even if I wouldn’t have obeyed. They simply wanted to show off power. But who would want to discuss this without a proper command of the language ? And out of reach of every consulate or even a mobile reception ? When the guy finally came back with the passports, the guys only wanted cigarettes and no money.
Well, I am happy that I did let this all settle in my brain and perception (and write about it now, 1 year later), as now I know how I should have behaved during this incident. Simply smile and accept whatever they do. And by now I also know that they won’t harm. Next time I will be able to have some Russian at hand, as communication with the people, even the military and police ones is the key to everything.
and subtitle: no need to be horrified or afraid of.
I feel the very urge to write about this here and in no way I mean it political, although the situation I want to write about certainly has political aspects.
In our todays’ world, one common fear has spread – the fear of Islamic terrorism. I won’t discuss my own thoughts about this or the reasons I feel to be causing the fear. I simply want to take fears away that all Muslims are terrorists. Now I don’t belive that any VTer here follows this belief, but we are also found throgh google searches.
It is only a handful of people of every religion who are dangerous. Not only Muslims but also others.
There is no single need to be afraid of Islam, quite contrary: it is a very fascinating culture. My trip in mid 2006 through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan was my very first trip into an Islamic country. Even if I did read a lot of books and websites beforehand, I could not take all information in before I left. I learned a lot during my travels and now, preparing for another trip to an Islamic country, continue learning.
It is very important to realise that like with Christianity, Islam cannot be considered as one homogeneous religion. Yes, it is uniform in the way that Muslims believe in Allah, God, and Mohammed as his propet. But Islam is more of a philosophy, a view of the world. And there are many ways of Islam (Wikipedia about Islam calls it denomination, but I don’t like the word…): Sunni, Shia, Sufis and Ismaelites, just to name some.
Fondest memory: In Tajikistan’s Pamirs, most Pamiri are of Ismaili belief, their spiritual leader is Aga Khan. This can be seen quite extensively, as Aga Khan Development Network is active in so many ways to support the people. Ismailism is also quite modern, compared to the traditional Islam. Women do not need to wear a burkha or a veil, they work and there is no need to be afraid to speak to women. Quite contrary – they will help with any question you might have, even if you can only communicate with hands and smiles. They also don’t mind their photo(s) to be taken.
For every first time visitor I can only highly recommend to visit a Mosque at home and talk to the Muslims, best to the Imam. They will surely answer all your questions and will have a lively discussion with you. In my opinion – now after my first trip and preparing the second – this is the best way of preparation of a visit to an Islamic country. At least for the “newcomers” like me.
Favorite thing: See The Fan Mountains. This group of people are not the usual Tadjiks. They speak a different dialogue and look a bit different, but have been there so long they do not know their true identity. We saw other villages like this as well, each different from each other and from the Tadjiks. Over the centuries many persecuted groups hid in these inaccesable mountains, so different ethnic and language groups are scattered between the Tajiks. These people are the true ancient Persians, living as if it were Ancient Times!
Prospekt Ismoili Somoni 26/1, Dushanbe, 734026, Tajikistan
Good for: Couples
str. Lev Tolstoy 9, Dushanbe, 734003, Tajikistan
Good for: Couples
22 Shotemur Ulitsa, Dushanbe, 734001, Tajikistan
Satisfaction: Very Good
Good for: Solo