On a lazy afternoon, I lay on a tapchan, drifting in and out of a blissful slumber as the soothing sound of the gushing river below rushed into my ears. When I finally awoke, I saw that my host family was gathered under their apricot tree, collecting ripe apricots, munching on some, separating others to make fresh apricot jam in the morning. I picked up a small bucket and joined them, treating myself to the delightfully juicy fruits too.
Later that afternoon, I headed out, past the mud and wood houses in the village, towards the fourth glacial lake in the Haft Kul (Seven Lakes) region of Tajikistan. The sun’s rays, scattered by feathery white clouds, cast an enchanting turquoise glow on the water. Purple, yellow, magenta and blue wildflowers swayed on the shore. In the neighboring village, a group of local women invited me to join their evening banter, shocked that I was 31, wandering about alone, no shohar (husband), no bacche (kids)! Azaadi doost doram became my lighthearted mantra as I tried to explain, I like my freedom. It cracked everyone up.
I landed up in Tajikistan on a ten day assignment for USAID, exploring the country partly by myself and partly with fellow bloggers. Hiking and hitch-hiking in the majestic Fann Mountains, exploring the Iron Age ruins of Panjikent, being bowled over by the friendliness of the Tajik people, discovering all the shared history with India, I had only one thought in my head: Why haven’t I been here before?
Here are all the reasons Tajikistan belongs on your (and my) travel bucket list:
Surreal, stark, rugged natural beauty
A few months ago, I received a note from an elderly reader who had just finished reading my book. He wrote, quite astutely, that I’d set myself on a path where I’d have to keep chasing the next incredible thing. I humored him then, but as I found myself among the magnificent Fann Mountains of Tajikistan – gushing rivers, glacial lakes, apricot orchards, villages stuck in time – I couldn’t help but think that maybe he was right.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend much of my twenties surrounded by stupendous beauty – think Guatemala, Georgia, Uttarakhand – and I often wonder if anywhere in the world can outdo that. Well, Tajikistan raised the benchmark. Even though I barely scratched the surface of the country, those few days – spent living amid magnificent mountain scenery, watching the moon rise above glittering blue glacial lakes, driving along sunflower fields and towering peaks, and learning how the locals connect with nature – convinced me that Tajikistan might be among the most beautiful countries I’ve explored yet.
Where I met more friends than strangers
While hiking between lakes five and six in the Haft Kul region, I took a short detour towards a lakeside village, perched on the hillside. A mother and son working in their vegetable garden dropped their tools and ran towards this rare outsider, curious as to how they could help me. Like everyone else I met, their excitement grew when they heard I was from India – the land of Shahrukh Khan, Preity Zinta and the Taj Mahal – and wouldn’t let me leave without a refreshing cup of green tea in their house. As I politely declined their offer to stay for lunch and resumed my hike, the grandfather of the house walked a few hundred meters with me, assuring me that Indians and Tajiks will always be great friends – and even offering me his donkey for the hike up!
Some version of this story repeated itself in every single encounter I had in Tajikistan (with the exception of Dushanbe, it being a big city and all) – and after my initial apprehensions, I felt like this might be one of the safer ‘offbeat’ countries to explore solo, especially as a female traveller. As I said goodbye, I felt like I was leaving behind my friends, my people.
Under the tourist radar in the age of overtourism
We live at a time when many spectacular places around the world are plagued by overtourism and travellers are alienating local communities instead of supporting them. Well, Tajikistan is at the other end of that spectrum. Most people would have to google where exactly it sits on the Central Asia map, and what its capital city is! I must confess I knew literally nothing about the country until this assignment popped up in my email – and I’ve been intrigued since.
We’re lucky to live at a time when it’s still possible to explore a country that little has been written about. Where you arrive with no preconceived notions and must make your decisions on how to get around and where to stay by asking locals, not reading blogs or guidebooks. I promise to try not to ruin that for you! Go, go now.
Also read: Why You Shouldn’t Put Off Your Travel Dreams
Tajikistan e-visa for Indians and most other nationalities
Tajikistan opened up its e-visa system in 2016 for Indian passport holders and citizens of 120 other countries, including Pakistan, Iran, most Southeast Asian nations, the EU, the US, Australia etc. The process is easy – go to the Tajikistan e-visa portal, fill a simple application form, upload your passport photocopy and photograph, and pay a processing fee of 50$. I received my Tajikistan e-visa within 3 days – single entry, valid for 90 days, with a maximum stay of 45 days.
PS: Last year, my Kyrgyzstan e-visa got rejected without explanation and as per their policy, I can’t apply again for a year. I’ve read that this happens once in a while, either due to a glitch in the system or due to non-adherence to passport photo requirements. Use this website to process one in the right dimensions for your country of application.
A vegan Tajik dish and other delights
At Jummaboy’s family homestay in Haft Kul, I woke up at 6 am to join my hostess to bake non (local bread) – out of wheat flour, salt and water – in her traditional clay oven, called tandoor like in India. We followed that by boiling apricots, collected the previous evening, on an open fire. A most delicious breakfast of fresh apricot jam and crisp home-baked bread!
Truth be told, it wasn’t easy to travel as a vegan in Tajikistan. Even though they grow grains like rice, buckwheat and barley, legumes like peas and kidney beans and a wide range of vegetables and herbs, the cuisine is largely based on boiled meat and potatoes. But on our last day, at Olim Qurutob House in Dushanbe, my happiness knew no bounds to try the accidentally vegan Tajik dish Shakarob – common in southern Tajikistan, made of stale bread, tomato base, topped with veggies and herbs, eaten by hand. Whoever knew stale bread could taste so good!
Flights are expensive but land borders are easy!
Our troop of bloggers crossed the land border from Samarkand in Uzbekistan to Panjikent in Tajikistan in just a couple of hours – alongside Uzbeks carrying melons and bread for their friends on the other side! The border crossing was pretty empty, and I wondered what kind of interrogation awaited me with my Indian passport. Turns out, with my Tajikistan e-visa, the only questions the immigration officers asked when they looked at my passport were: “Shahrukh Khan?”, “Om Shanti Om?”, “Aishwarya Rai?” 😉
Although flights from India to Central Asia are still few and expensive, the land borders between the Central Asian stans – specifically Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – can easily be crossed with an e-visa, making it the perfect region for slow and sustainable overland travel.
The more I travel, the more I crave places that are still pristine, where locals are still genuinely curious to meet outsiders and where tourism creates economic opportunities rather than stifling them. With its awe-inspiring mountainous landscapes, warm-hearted people and “off the beaten path” status, Tajikistan beckons.
Do you dream of travelling to Tajikistan someday?
*Note: This trip was made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Competitiveness, Trade, and Jobs Activity in Central Asia. The contents of this post are my sole responsibility and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the US Government.
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