Questions about Tajikistan

An Antipodean travel company serving world travellers since 1983

Questions about Tajikistan

Odyssey Traveller specialises in crafting unforgettable experiences for mature-aged travellers, providing adventure and educational programs to small groups since 1983. Odyssey has built up a reasonable knowledge bank to answer questions about Tajikistan that travellers are likely to ask, as they make their plans to tour independently, or with us as part of a small group tour. We hope that this list of frequently asked questions and the answers we provide will help you with planning your next holiday.

Read on, but please do not hesitate to contact us via the website, or through email or chat if you have more questions about Tajikistan or our other tours.

1. Where is Tajikistan located?

Tajikistan is a country located in Central Asia. It is bordered by Kyrgyzstan to the north, China to the east, Afghanistan to the south, and Uzbekistan to the west and north-west.

Tajikstan and the other ‘stans’ – Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazahkstan – are located right at the heart of Asia, between Russia to the north, China to the east, India and Pakistan to the south, and Iran and the Middle East to the west. As such, they have long been a centre of cultural exchange between the great civilisations of Asia.

 

2. Which language do they speak in Tajikistan?

Tajikistan’s long place at the crossroads means that the country is highly ethnically and linguistically diverse.

Tajik is the official language and is spoken by most people in the country. It is a member of what is known as the southwest group of Iranian languages, closely related to the mutually intelligible dialects of Farsi and Dari, spoken in Iran and Afghanistan respectively. In fact, more Tajik people live in Northern Afghanistan than in Tajikistan itself, while nearly one million Tajiks live in Uzbekistan.

Unlike Farsi and Dari, however (which are written in Persian script, derived from Arabic), Tajik is written in Cyrillic script due to the long period of Russian and Soviet rule.

Tajikistan is also home to several other language groups: particularly the Pamirs and the people of the Yaghnob River valley, both of whom speak a language also related to Persian. Uzbek is the second most widely spoken language.

Russian is widely used for administration and business, but there are few native speakers. English is frequently spoken by younger people in the cities, but don’t expect anyone in the countryside to be able to understand you!

3. What religion is practiced in Tajikistan?

The majority of Tajikistanis are Sunni Muslims, with a significant Shi’ite minority. There are also a small proportion of Christians, mostly of Russian heritage, and a significant proportion of people (12.5%) who are not religious.

4. When did Tajikistan become independent?

Even though the Tajik people have long lived in the region, the idea of Tajikistan didn’t really exist until the 20th century. The Tajiks are the descendants of Iranian peoples who have lived in Central Asia and northern Afghanistan since the middle of the first millennium BCE. They were the core of the ancient population of Khorezm and Bactria, which formed part of Sogdiana. Sogdiana was home to two of the major cities – Samarkand and Bukhara (today in Uzbekistan) – of the Silk Road, and as a resultwas very wealthy. Sogdian merchants could be found all along the Silk Road, even in China, and Sogdia was a place of cultural exchange between the Greco-Roman world, Iran, India and China.

Axehead believed to date back to ancient Bactria. Image source: The Met.

Eventually, Sogdia came under the rule of the ancient Persian Archaemid Empire. The region also briefly faced the invasion of Alexander the Great.

The Arab conquest of central Asia, beginning in the mid-7th century, brought Islam to the region. However, with the rise of the Samanids, the Tajiks came under the rule of another Iranian dynasty. Turkic invaders (from what is now Mongolia) came through the region in 999 AD. Because both the invaders and invaded were Muslims, many Tajiks adopted Turkic culture.

In the 1860s and 1870s, Russian conquest in Central Asia brought the Tajik population under the control of the Russian Empire. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, a considerable proportion of the Tajik people were included in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1929, the Tajik region became a Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in its own right. This was the first time that the Tajik people were recognised as having their own state – though not an independent one, as it remained under Soviet rule.

During the period of Soviet rule, though Tajikistan remained the poorest part of the Soviet Union, the region was transformed. Dams were constructed for electric power generation, and industry was developed in the Vakhsh River valley. Soviet health care and education were introduced to the region and Dushanbe (known as Stalinabad from 1929 to 1961), once merely a village, was transformed into a modern capital city.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that Tajikistan finally received independence. Unfortunately, the country soon fell into Civil War as communists struggled with democratic and Islamic forces over who would rule in future. A ceasefire was achieved in 1997, but Tajikistan remains under the one-party rule of the Russia-backed President Emomali Rahmon.

For more information about the history of Tajikistan, particularly the Silk Road, we recommend our other articles: Silk Road Explorers and Books to Read for the Silk Road.

5. Can you go to Tajikistan?

Yes! Though hearing that Tajikistan shares a border with Afghanistan might be the cause of some concern, very little conflict has spilled over. As long as you stay away from regions very close to the border, you should be fine. Tajikistan’s most interesting cultural sights and beautiful scenery are all perfectly safe to visit. Just exercise the same good sense you would travelling anywhere.

6. What to see in Tajikistan?

Tajikistan remains well off the beaten tourist trail, with the country one of the least visited in Central Asia. But it’s definitely worth making a trip. After all, the country’s remoteness means that you’ll have its natural beauty almost all to yourself.

Tajikistan is sometimes called ‘the roof of the world’ – not an exaggeration in a country in which over 90% of the territory is upland, and more than half of that is 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) above sea level. The north is home to the Trans-Alay range, while the east and centre are home to the Tien Shan (Turkestan Mountains). Finally, the southeast is occupied by the icy peaks of the Pamir Mountains.

The Soviet-built M41, which traverses the Pamir Mountains, is the second-highest highway in the world.

The result is a fascinating landscape full of high peaks, verdant valleys, and clear alpine lakes. Iskander lake – in northern Tajikistan – is a stunning glacial lake surrounded by distinctive mountains.

Iskander lake

Near Iskander lake is Penjikent, home to the Museum of Rudaki, devoted to Abu Abdullah Rudaki. Rudaki, born in Penjikent in 885, is considered to be the ‘father of Persian poetry’ and a Tajik national hero. The museum’s scope is broader than that – make sure to visit the frescoes from the ancient city of Penjikent, depicting a banquet, a battle, and daily life scenes. Other archaeological remains include statues of Zoroastrian divinities and exhibits from Sarazm, a Neolithic site recently found nearby, including the richly decorated remains of a young woman believed to be the ‘princess of Sarazm.’

The ruins of ancient Penjikent are preserved nearby. The city was founded by the Sogdians in the 5th century, but abandoned after the 8th century Arab conquest. Foundations of houses, a number of Zoroastrian fire temples, and the city bazaar are visible among the excavated ruins.

Hisor Fortress, near the border with Uzbekistan, is a vast complex accumulated over more than a thousand years. The arched gate, the oldest part of the complex, probably dates to 500 AD. The Chasmai Mohiyon Mosque was built in 700, the same period of time when the construction of Sangin Mosque started, though this was not completed for almost 1000 years.

Inside Hisor fortress

Other components of the complex – the Old Madrassa, the Makhdumi A’zam Mausoleum – were built in the 1500s. The most recent addition is a caravanserai built in 1808, for visiting travellers engaging in silk road trade. Tragically, only the lower part of the caravanserai remains as the top layer was taken by the Soviets to build a theatre in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Nonetheless, the architectural patchwork of the fort is a fascinating testament to Tajikistan’s long history on the silk road.

Tourists who have made it to Tajikistan have commented that the hospitality of the Tajik people is one of the highlights any visit. Outside of Dushanbe, hotels are rare and tourists frequently homestay, giving an unparalleled insight into the traditional culture of the region. High mountains and valleys are home to remote towns where life has been largely untouched by the Soviets, or by the opening up of Tajikistan to the West.

7. What do they eat in Tajikistan?

Tajik cuisine is similar to that of neighbouring Central Asian countries. Staples include osh (known as plov elsewhere in Central Asia), a rice dish with onion, carrots, and some form of meat (usually mutton and lamb), flavoured with subtle spices. Local specialities include kurutob, small pieces of bread layered with onion, tomato, parsley and coriander, covered in yoghurt-based sauce. Chakka, curd mixed with herbs, typically served with flat bread, is also popular. Non, a flatbread, accompanies most meals. Be careful how you treat your non, however – Tajik culture holds that it should not be dropped, turned upside down, or have anything placed on it.  

8. What to buy in Tajikistan?

Given its position off the standard tourist trail, Tajikistan is a good place to go shopping – with prices lower than in other Central Asian countries. The countries many bazaars are the best place to pick up local goods – including Tajik padded coats, a practical way to keep warm at high altitude temperatures, and suzane, richly embroidered wall hangings.

9. When to go to Tajikistan?

Tajikistan has a continental climate, meaning that summers are hot and winters cold. Dushanbe, the capital, gets very hot in summer (with temperatures above 40c), but elsewhere the cool mountain temperatures mean that the summer is perfect for getting into nature. Snow begins as early as October, meaning that roads might be closed.

Make sure to bring warm layers if heading into the mountains, even in summer. Though the hijab is officially banned in Tajikistan, bear in mind that most Tajik people are fairly traditional, so covering shoulders and knees is a good rule for both men and women.

10. How to get to Tajikistan?

Emirates flies from Australian cities to Dushanbe via Dubai. However, most visitors arrive in Tajikistan via land, as part of a broader tour of Central Asia.

If you’re thinking about ‘doing’ the ‘Stans, why not include Tajikistan? Though off the typical tourist trail, this small country offers much to reward the traveller.

Here at Odyssey Traveller, we offer a fascinating 7-day tour of Tajikistan, with the option of combining with the longer 23-day tour of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. All of our tours are headed by experts working with local guides to give you an authentic and culturally informed experience. We generally stay in 3-4 star hotels or comfortable guesthouses, and travel by coach, allowing you to experience a largely untouristed country in comfort.

About Odyssey Traveller

Odyssey Traveller is committed to charitable activities that support the environment and cultural development of Australian and New Zealand communities. We specialise in educational small group tours for seniors, typically groups between six to 15 people from Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada  and Britain. Odyssey has been offering this style of adventure and educational programs since 1983.

We are also pleased to announce that since 2012, Odyssey has been awarding $10,000 Equity & Merit Cash Scholarships each year. We award scholarships on the basis of academic performance and demonstrated financial need. We award at least one scholarship per year. We’re supported through our educational travel programs, and your participation helps Odyssey achieve its goals.

For more information on Odyssey Traveller and our educational small group tours, visit and explore our website. Alternatively, please call or send an email. We’d love to hear from you!

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