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Tajikistan: Pristine Nature and the Echo of History

Irkht, Badakhshan. Photo by Bakhritdin Isamutdinov

Irkht, Badakhshan. Photo by Bakhriddin Isamutdinov

All photos by author or used with permission.

Tajikistan, 93% mountainous with ethereal alpine lakes dotted all over, is a veritable shrine for nature lovers, providing they can live with the rutted roads and burdensome bureaucracy.

Because once you have paid out on a multi-connection flight to the capital Dushanbe and shelled sixty dollars or so for a tourist visa, off-the-beaten track treasures await.  

Many of those who find Tajikistan on a map and decide to travel there come to climb. But for those that lack the skill and equipment for mountaineering, road trips can take you far higher than you might expect.

The Pamir Highway was listed third in the top-ten must-visit places in the former USSR in a May 2015 issue of the National Geographic Traveler and is considered by many as one of the most thrilling, edgy road trips in the world.

As the jeep rattles along the road between Dushanbe and Murghab in the east, travellers of the highway can see Afghan villages across the Amu-Darya river. Separated from the former Soviet Union by the snaking body of water, they seem like part of another world.

At points along the way you will spot Peak Ismoil Somoni, the highest peak in the old USSR. You might then wish to pray in the remains of an ancient Zoroastrian temple and read petroglyphs. On arrival in Murghab tourists can feast on yaks raised mostly by ethnic Kyrgyz herders.

Dushanbe can also be used as a base to travel to the second biggest city in the country — Khujand — in another spectacular long jaunt, this time over the Fan Mountains in the north and west of the country.

Mountain climbing. Photo by Bakhriddin Isamutdinov

Mountain climbing. Photo by Bakhriddin Isamutdinov

Afghan villages on other side of the river. Photo by Abdulfattoh Shafiev

Afghan villages on other side of the river. Photo by Abdulfattoh Shafiev

Road to Badakhshan. Photo by Abdulfattoh Shafiev

Road to Badakhshan. Photo by Abdulfattoh Shafiev

Zarafshan valley. Photo by Abdulfattoh Shafiev

Zarafshan valley. Photo by Abdulfattoh Shafiev

Ziddeh village in Varzob. Photo by Bahrom Jalilov

Ziddeh village in Varzob. Photo by Bahrom Jalilov

It is the Zarafshan valley along this road that is home to some of Central Asia's most beautiful lakes. Iskandarkul, connected by name and legend to Alexander the Great, is located at 2,195 meters above sea level. From the right angle you can see how the lake serves as a mirror to the nature surrounding it, reflecting the fairytalish Fan peaks with startling clarity. Further along are the equally otherworldly seven lakes of Shing, sometimes called the Shing princesses.

Kharikul, Jirgatal. Photo by Bahriddin Isamutdinov

Kharikul, Jirgatal. Photo by Bahriddin Isamutdinov

Haftkul lake in Zarafshan valley. Photographer: Nozim Qalandarov

Haftkul lake in Zarafshan valley. Photographer: Nozim Qalandarov

Iskandarkul lake in Zarafshan valley. Photographer: Nozim Qalandarov

Iskandarkul lake in Zarafshan valley. Photographer: Nozim Qalandarov

Tajiks believe that the fabled cities of Bukhara and Samarqand are culturally theirs, but these Silk Road oases were given to Uzbekistan when the Bolsheviks started artificially carving Soviet republics into Central Asia with little reference to the national identities of the local population.

But even without the ancient pearls of Asia, as the two are sometimes called, Tajikistan has historical sites. Hisor fortress, just 20 kilometres from the capital along a recently built highway from Dushanbe is the only ancient settlement recalling the State of Shuman, which celebrates its 3,000th anniversary this year.

Hisor Fortress. Photographer: Nozim Qalandarov

Hisor Fortress. Photographer: Nozim Qalandarov

Reconstructed Hulbuk Palace, Khatlon. Photo by Abdulfattoh Shafiev

Reconstructed Hulbuk Palace, Khatlon. Photo by Abdulfattoh Shafiev

Khujand city museum. Photo by Abdulfattoh Shafiev

Khujand city museum. Photo by Abdulfattoh Shafiev

For history in the north you can also visit the Sheikh Muslihiddin mosque in Khujand and the city of Istaravshan founded by Alexander the Great and previously named Alexandria. The south meanwhile hosts the Ajina-Tepe Buddhist Monastery where an excavation in 1966 unearthed the largest Buddha statue ever found in Central Asia. Mostly restored from the waist up, it is currently housed in the National Museum of Antiquities of Tajikistan in Dushanbe.

Yamchun fortress, Wakhan Corridor. Photo by Bahriddin Isamutdinov

Yamchun fortress, Wakhan Corridor. Photo by Bahriddin Isamutdinov

Murghob. Photo by Abdulfattoh Shafiev

Murghob. Photo by Abdulfattoh Shafiev

Murghob. Photo by Bahriddin Isamutdinov

Murghob. Photo by Bahriddin Isamutdinov

Apart from semi-restored Buddhas Dushanbe contains a number of other massive things including the second biggest flagpole in the world and the biggest teahouse in the world. Moreover, if you re-visit the country in a couple of years, you will also find the biggest mosque in Central Asia in addition to the region's biggest theater.

So, don't let the country's 109th placing from 141 countries in the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness rating prepared by the World Economic Forum deter you. Travel to Tajikistan!

Night vision of Dushanbe city. Photo by Bahrom Jalilov

Night vision of Dushanbe city. Photo by Bahrom Jalilov

Nawrooz Palace in Dushanbe city. Photo by Bahrom Jalilov

Nawrooz Palace in Dushanbe city. Photo by Bahrom Jalilov

The second tallest flagpole in the world. Dushanbe. Photographer: Nozim Qalandarov

The second tallest flagpole in the world. Dushanbe. Photographer: Nozim Qalandarov

Tajikistan is known for colourful handicraft production. Photo by Bahriddin Isamutdinov

Tajikistan is known for colourful handicrafts. Photo by Bahriddin Isamutdinov

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