BUDGET Travel Guide
To Tajikistan
2020

This page about Tajikistan was written after two 4 week trips in 2017 and 2019, and is updated once in a while with the help of our local sources. It is part of a budget slow travel guide collection.

Rather than giving you a list of popular sights and itineraries, we focus on practical information to help you prepare your own authentic and independent adventure. Epic adventures on 10-20$ a day.

Why Tajikistan?

Going to a country with a name finishing in “stan” will invariably trigger a mix of fear, curiosity and confusion in some of your friends and relatives. The fact that Tajikistan is bordered to the South by war-torn Afghanistan certainly doesn’t help. But fear not, it is a very safe country, far away from mass tourism. And despite what you might hear and read, is actually quite straight-forward to explore for any enterprising traveler.

Unlike it’s more popular neighbor Uzbekistan, Tajikistan cannot boast with big historical Silk Road cities. This is a place for outdoor and adventure lovers. Trek through truly unforgettable mountain scenery.  Share a meal with incredibly hospitable shepherds. Explore the rugged frontier lands of long-gone empires.

Visas and Permits

Most nationalities can now obtain easily an e-visa online. The visa is valid for a single entry at airports and land borders, and costs 50USD for 45 days. For the Pamirs region, you also need a GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast) permit, which you can purchase at the same time for an extra 20USD. If you are on a budget, the same permit can be obtained in Dushanbe for a fraction of the cost.

The small embassy in Bishkek, Tajikistan, is the only reliable nearby alternative in case of issues with the e-visa system. Unlike other diplomatic representation in neighboring countries, you can even get your hands on one of the elusive double-entry visas. For up-to-date information head over to Caravanistan.

Entering The Country

Only a handful of airlines fly to Dushanbe, the capital, and Khujand in the North. Flying to Tajikistan usually implies a layover in Moscow, Dubai, Istanbul or Almaty. For most travelers who are not in a hurry, it will be more interesting and cheaper to fly to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan or even Almaty in Kazakhstan, and then make your way overland to Tajikistan.

With Uzbekistan joining Kyrgyzstan in offering visa-free entry to many nationalities, it is now much easier to cross many of the once infamous borders. Want to visit the great Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara beforehand? Cross the border easily at Penjikent. Coming from Osh in Kyrgyzstan? Head to Khujand via the Batken/Isfara border crossing. Want to go directly to the Pamirs instead? Find a shared taxi to Murghab via the Kyzylart Pass. Again, Caravanistan has recent reports on the ever-changing border crossing situation.

Transportation: General Condiderations

transport shared taxi tajikistan
Pit stop Tajik style

You will hear it over and over again. “There is almost no public transportation in Tajikistan.” There is certainly some truth to that statement. Unlike most CIS countries, the familiar well-oiled network of marshrutka minivans is sorely missing outside of big cities. There are no passenger trains to speak of. But listening to the advice of hiring an overpriced private jeep with driver will firmly put you in the category of fancy rich tourist. You will miss out on a lot of rich and authentic experiences. Follow the locals instead.

Tajiks mainly rely on various forms of shared taxis. This can be a small numbered van run by a cooperative. Or just a private vehicle looking to fill up empty seats. Most importantly, remember to take it easy.  Schedules and routes change all the time. Cars break down (often). Policemen collect their bribes. Roads get blocked by landslides. Or presidential visits. It’s part of the experience like eating plov. Plan plenty of extra time and stay flexible.

Public Transportation: Buses & Marshrutkas

The capital Dushanbe has a good network of modern city buses, older electric trolleybuses and marshrutkas. A bizarre parallel network of shared taxis also drives rather recklessly along the same bus lines. The drivers hold three fingers up (for the old price of 3 somoni, now seems to be 4 somoni) and often a small number indicating the bus line they are following. Their attention seems to be almost exclusively focused on hunting down passengers, with little regard for pedestrians and other cars.

Other bigger cities rely heavily on marshrutkas for local and regional transportation. These can be Mercedes Sprinter sized minivans or much smaller white vans. A route number is systematically displayed in front. Routes and official stops, if any, constantly change. Be prepared to ask locals for help, they will be happy to assist you.

Public transportation: Shared Taxis

The shared taxi forms the backbone of public transportation in Tajikistan. And almost any vehicle can become a shared taxi. As a tourist drivers will often try to sell you a private taxi ride. Specify “marshrutnaye taksi” in Russian to insist on a shared taxi seat if needed.

Between the bigger cities such as Khujand, Dushanbe and Khorog, numerous vehicles ply the route between predefined taxi stands. Tajik drivers actively recruit passengers for the more popular routes, often leading to dramatic scenes when competing for a client. This is mostly for show. As long as you know the current price, it will greatly facilitate the bargaining process. Ask locals for the latest rates before heading to the taxi stand.

As a guideline, it costs around 40 somoni (summer 2019) per 100km for a seat. Prices will vary somewhat based on the vehicle and the state of the road. Vehicles usually leave when full. Sometimes this translates to 4 people on the back seats (and 3 for the second row of seats in certain cars). If space is an issue consider asking for the front seat, even if you end up paying a little more. But be warned that the seat belts don’t always work. Favor safety over speed when possible.

For more remote towns and villages, there might only be one or two shared taxis a day. They tend to leave very early, sometimes even before dusk. The best option is usually to arrange transportation for the next day in the afternoon. Just ask around the area where taxis usually start from. Having a local mobile number can be of great help.

To hail a shared taxi on the road, simply hold your arm out pointing slightly downwards. Many vehicles are full, so you might have to be patient. Empty ones might insist on the price for a private taxi ride. In contrast, many individuals are simply happy to have some passengers to share the cost of fuel with. In this case expect to pay about half the price of a shared taxi. In any case, confirm the destination, bargain if needed, agree on a price, squeeze in and off you go.

Private Taxis

As for shared taxis pretty much any vehicle can be turned into a private taxi. They are also hailed the same way, by holding your arm out. In Dushanbe you will also find official taxis. Always agree on a price before getting in. A ride around town should not cost more than 10-30 somoni (summer 2019). For popular destinations between Dushanbe and Khujand, you can expect to pay around 150-200 somoni per 100km for a car if you show up at the taxi stand in the morning.

Private hire taxis for longer distances, and in particular 4x4s for remote destinations, tend to be expensive. They are used to tourists with deep pockets who pay cash in USDs. If there is no other alternative, take shared taxis as far as possible and only rely on a private hire for the final stretch. If you can’t find a car easily, just ask any local with a phone. There is always someone with a vehicle happy to earn some money.

Hitchhiking In Tajikistan

Hitchhiking is still relatively uncommon in Tajikistan. Most locals standing on the side of the road pay for their ride. But it’s possible with a bit of patience.

While cars will stop if you hold your thumb up, many drivers will still expect a small contribution towards fuel costs. Make your intentions clear by saying “bezplatna” in Russian or “bepul” in Tajik. Trucks will often be happy to give you a ride for free, but sometimes only for shorter distances because of potential problems at police checkpoints.

Public Transportation along the pamir highway

The popular Pamir Highway can easily be traveled by public transport if you don’t have your own vehicle. Just leave plenty of time. Private hire jeeps with driver can be arranged at extortionate prices in Osh. But you will be able to stop for pictures whenever you want.

Shared taxis to Murghab leave from Tashlak. From Murghab to Osh, drivers hang around the container bazaar. Arrange your seat a day in advance. They will also stop, albeit more randomly, for lunch and toilet breaks, plus quite possibly for the odd mechanical issue.

Several shared taxis travel daily between Murghab and Khorog, usually leaving early in the morning from the respective bazaars. You can be dropped anywhere on the way, although you might have to pay the full fare. Khorog is a good hub for exploring the area, including the Tajik Wakhan.

Daily shared taxis and marshrutkas leave from the bazaar to at least as far as Ishkashim in the Wakhan and Varshedz on the M41. Beyond it is more difficult to find transportation, but with a bit of patience you will be succesful.

A ragtag collection of jeeps commutes daily between Dushanbe and Khorog, leaving from dedicated car parks in each city. Choose your ride carefully, some drivers seem to think the 16h journey is a rally race. The drive follows for many hours the gorgeous river Panj marking the Afghan border, try secure a seat with good views!

Accommodation

camping trekking tajikistan
Another 5 star camping site near Anzob, Yagnob valley

The tourist infrastructure is still in its infancy. Booking.com lists a selection of mostly overpriced properties. Outside of the bigger cities of Dushanbe, Khorog and Khujand you will not find many hotels and hostels anyway. This is a blessing in disguise for the more adventurous and curious travellers, the default options being often homestays and wild camping. If you do end up staying in a hotel that also caters for Tajik travellers, be prepared to bargain hard. As a reference, an ensuite room in a basic, shabby soviet-style hotel shoudn’t cost much more than 10USD in local currency.

Airbnb and Couchsurfing provide a few interesting alternatives for the bigger cities. Staying in a traditional Tajik home is an authentic and efficient way to start your trip and learn more about the local culture. In smaller towns that see the occasional tourists you will often find one or two homestays. This often means that you will share the larger common room of a traditional house with other guests. The average price seems to oscillate around 15USD, including a simple breakfast and often dinner. If this is too expensive for you, don’t hesitate to bargain. Most places will let you camp for free or a small fee in the garden if you ask nicely.

If you carry your own tent, you can camp nearly anywhere for free outside of villages and cultivated fields. If in doubt, just ask the locals. They will enthusiastically show you the best spot to spend the night. The Tajik mountains are a true paradise for wild camping.

Food

qurutob tajikistan food
Qurutob, a genuinely Tajik dish

Typical dishes You will find the usual Central Asian suspects in Tajik restaurants and homes. The ubiquitous plov, a pilaf rice dish with carrots and meat. Shurbo, a soup with vegetables, usually carrots, and meat. Lagman, the popular Uyghur noodle dish, served with vegetables and, you guessed it, meat. Manti, steamed meat dumplings. Shashlik, meat skewers. And always lots of non, bread. For a quick snack, try a sambusa, a pastry filled with meat and onion, cooked in a tandoor oven.

A special mention goes to qurutob, a genuinely Tajik dish. It’s a mix of bread and onions in a yogurt sauce, usually served without meat. Many consider it the national dish, although the good old plov is a strong contender.

Vegetarians Besides qurutob and salads, options are sparse. Ask for “bez myasa” in Russian, or “be gusht” in Tajik. Sometimes potato (“kartoshka”) and even pumpkin (“tykva”) sambusa are available. But your best bet remains self-catering.

Bazaars In summer, markets are flooded with delicious fruit and vegetables at bargain prices. You will be spoiled for choice between melons, soft fruits and berries. The smaller stalls at the fringe of the bazaar usually have the better price. The large majority of sellers are very honest and there is rarely a need to bargain.

Drink Green tea gets served in large quantities throughout the day. Like in most former Soviet republics, alcohol is readily available.

Trekking

fann mountains trekking tajikistan
Near Alaudin Kul, Fann mountains

Where To Go Tajikistan has some of the best and most varied trekking in Central Asia. The Fanns around Alaudin Kul and the Pamirs around Bulunkul attract the most trekkers. But you could still end up not seeing a single foreigner for days in the middle of the summer. If that is still too touristy for you, head to more remote valleys such as the Yagnob.

The only trekking guidebook got a recent upgrade and provides ample inspiration. You could also prepare your own adventure based on outdated and sometimes inaccurate Soviet maps! If you like your trails unmarked you have come to the right place!

Season The trekking season is short, and lasts from June to September. April and May, although statistically the wettest months, can offer pleasant conditions after a dry winter. In contrast, difficult river crossing and snow bound passes often imply that the best window will be in autumn, from September to early October. And it can snow at any time at higher elevations.

Gear You will only find very limited trekking gear in Dushanbe. Bishkek has marginally more choice. You can find gas cartridges in Dushanbe, but if you are traveling overland from Bishkek it’s best to stock up there. Otherwise bring a multi-fuel stove. Bring trekking poles for river crossings.

Meals Outside of Dushanbe it gets exponentially harder to buy supplies. Oats and semolina are great for breakfast. Nuts and dried fruits can be purchased at the bazaar, but be prepared to bargain as they are used to tourists. For dinner, buckwheat is an excellent suggestion. It cooks fast, is tasty and nutritious, and doesn’t turn into a starchy soup like the cheap pasta on sale everywhere. While trekking you can usually buy some bread and qurut (dried yogurt balls) from shepherds along the way.

Sustainable Travel in Tajikistan

Tajikistan has so far

  • Favor the crowded shared taxis over private hire vehicles. You will invariably come back with epic travel stories while keeping your carbon footprint low.
  • Use a filter instead of plastic bottles. The tap water tastes fine and usually comes from the nearby mountains. Bottled water is not always available outside the bigger cities, plus you’ll need to be self-sufficient while trekking anyway.
  • The plastic bags used in the bazaars and shops are of very low quality. Every item ends up wrapped in 2-3 bags. Yikes. Try to reduce their use as much as possible. Pack a few mesh and canvas bags before heading out.
  • Some of the most popular trekking areas, especially around Alaudin Kul in the Fann mountains, are starting to suffer from careless visitors. Stay on the trails and avoid making fires.
  • Meat is at the heart of Tajik cuisine. However, the country suffers from decades of severe overgrazing. Consider keeping your carnivorous habits in check.
Useful phrases in Russian, the lingua franca of Central Asia (Tajik coming soon):
  • Нет, спасибо (“niet, spasiba”): no, thank you (to politely turn down something)
  • без пакета, пожалуйста (“bez paketa, pazhalsta”): without a bag, please
  • пакета не надо (“paketa nie nada”): I don’t need a bag
  • с собой (“saboy“): takeaway (litt. “with me”)
  • налейте в мой стакан, пожалуйста (“nalieytsie eta v moy stakan, pazhalsta“): pour it into my cup, please
  • положите сюда, пожалуйста (“palazhitsie siyuda, pazhalsta”): could you put it here, please
Hat tip Katya for helping with the Russian.

Stay Healthy

Food Hygiene Tajikistan has a reputation for being tough on the bowels. If you have roamed the Indian subcontinent before you’ll find that the actual situation is nowhere near as bad. But hygiene standards, especially in rural areas, are low. Treat the delicious home-made dairy products that you will invariably be offered while trekking with particular suspicion.

As a precaution, bring some activated charcoal as a first line of defense. Add some immodium for that 14h shared taxi ride. And if everything else fails, consider the nuclear option, a course of ciprofloxacin. Cipro is relatively easy to buy in local pharmacies, immodium is a little harder to find, and activated charcoal virtually non-existent.

First Aid Kit You will find most common antibiotics and medicines in local pharmacies. But it could take a day or two to reach that local pharmacy! As for wound dressings, antiseptic wipes, gauze etc, you will only find basic items. Best to think ahead and stock up.

Drinking Water While tap water might be theoretically safe to drink in the biggest cities, it’s best to systematically use a purification method. Don’t count on finding bottled water in rural areas. Treating water becomes mandatory in the mountains and smaller cities because of the high levels of fecal contamination caused by the livestock. Stick to side-streams if there is mining activity nearby.

Stay Safe: Terrorism

pamir mountains trekking tajikistan
Tsaxin Lake, Pamirs

Despite sharing a nearly 1400 kilometer long border with Afghanistan, Tajikistan remains a very safe place for tourists to visit.

However, in July 2018 four foreign cyclists were killed in an attack claimed by IS. While this will hopefully remain an isolated event, it is important to remember that hundreds of foreign ISIS fighters came from Tajikistan. Furthermore, the government’s firm grip on power, to say the least, could backfire in the future. No need to be paranoid, but this is something to be aware of.

Stay Safe: Roads & Bribes

Road safety The default driving style can far too often be described as reckless. Bad roads, overloaded old vehicles and the occasional speed trap by the local police do slow down (some) drivers. But be warned, it’s on Tajik roads that you will most probably face the biggest and only real threat to your life and health.

Telling your driver to take the foot off the pedal can easily have the opposite effect. Add long journeys, little rest and gnarly mountain roads and you have a truly toxic mix. The numerous vehicle carcasses at the bottom of ravines are a silent reminder of what can go wrong.

Drivers will go to great lengths trying to convince you that their car is faster than the competition. The wise traveler will go, when possible, for the slower option. It’s difficult to really know in advance, but older vehicles (and drivers) with big loads tend to take it easy. The shiny new(-ish) Toyota will not only command a hefty premium, the driver will most probably be far too keen on displaying his rally driving skills. Not good.

Bribes And Corruption Tourists are usually spared the constant harassment by policemen. If you do get asked to pay a “fine”, just pretend you don’t understand what’s happening. Even if you are a native Russian or Persian speaker, a good “nye ponemayu” with your worst accent usually does the trick. Policemen speak little to no English, and if you hold your ground you should be fine.

Stay Safe: Mountains & trekking

Trekking in the Tajik mountains is not like a hike in the Alps. Expect quickly changing weather, tricky river crossings, snow-bound mountain passes, rock fall, exposed trails and difficult route findings.

A local guide is no guarantee either. They might know the area well but have utterly know idea how to tackle a frozen snow slope safely. It’s best to rely on one’s own experience, skills and equipment. A rescue will be difficult if not impossible. Only the Aga Khan foundation seems to have helicopters available for such a task. Consider carrying a satellite distress beacon.

There are a mine fields in border areas, as well as a few relics from the civil war along the Dushanbe Khorog road. They are usually clearly marked. Stay on the path/road when you see the signs!

Cultural Condiderations

Dress Tajikistan is a Muslim country. Despite decades of Soviet rule, religion is still deeply anchored in the Tajik collective identity. The current government tries to keep a firm grip on religious affairs, with a partially enforced ban on calls to prayer, hijabs and even beards! Nevertheless, most Tajiks dress and live conservatively. While you can get away with a lot in big cities, a modicum of modesty is advised for rural regions. Cover up arms and legs if visiting a holy place or if invited in a traditional home.

Invitations You will invariably be invited for tea and meals by farmers and shepherds. Sometimes you might even be invited to stay for the night. Experiencing this genuine hospitality is one of the highlights of any trip to Tajikistan. Always take off your shoes before entering. Avoid pointing your foot soles at people, and don’t step over the table cloth.

Some ill-advised people suggest leaving some money with the hosts. In the best case scenario this reduces the traveler’s image to a walking ATM. In the worst case flashing your dollar bills can be considered as an insult. Instead, you can share or offer some of your food. You might also be asked for medicine, in particular painkillers. A bag of sweets or green tea will always be appreciated by your host.

Language

Tajik is taught in schools throughout the country, but most native speakers live in the West. In the GBAO region, a collection of Pamiri languages and dialects is spoken, as well as some Kyrgyz around Murghab. Ismaeli communities around Khorog often speak decent English. Elsewhere, Russian remains your best and often only bet.

Learning at least some Russian will greatly facilitate your adventure in Tajikistan, and as a big bonus also in most former Soviet republics. Dedicating around 20 hours is already sufficient to get by if you use an intuitive method such as Michel Thomas. This includes learning the Cyrillic alphabet. Add numbers, basic greetings and some travel-specific vocabulary and you are good to go. No need to be a linguist!

Internet

Internet in Tajikistan has a much deserved reputation for being unreliable and slow. Your best bet is getting a T cell SIM card with some data, as this is by far the best (and often only) coverage available in the mountains. Consider installing a VPN before entering the country. The government has a long history of sporadically restricting access to social media, foreign media, search engines and even the whole Google universe. Best to come prepared.

Money

Cash ATMs are available in the bigger cities. But like internet, they remain unreliable. Sometimes they simply run out of cash. Sometimes they swallow your card. Best to carry at least some cash. USDs, and to a lesser extend Euros, can be exchanged across the country. You will always find a taxi driver willing to exchange US dollars, often even at a slight premium over the official exchange rate. Simply ask for “abmien valiut” if you need local currency.

Budget So how much do you need? It will obviously depend a lot on your exact travel plans, if you drink beer and how much you camp. But let’s say around 10-15$ a day if you camp (for free) most of the time and do a few treks. Push that to 20$ a day if you feel fancy with more homestays etc.