The term 'predominantly mountainous' doesn't do justice to a country where over 90% of the land is upland. This fact of nature has given Tajikistan a precious advantage over its neighbours, namely some of the most inspiring, high-altitude landscape in the world. Within an hour of Dushanbe lie multi-hued lakes, peaks that beg to be climbed and high passes that thrill even reluctant travelers. In among this natural splendor are scattered villages and towns that survive cheek-by-jowl through each extreme season. It hasn't been easy for these traditional communities to adapt to the changing world beyond their mountain strongholds, but despite this they are unfailingly welcoming of outsiders and cheerfully excuse cultural faux-pas as part and parcel of their proud democracy. Welcome to 'The Roof of the World'!
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Tajikistan.
Sharing the same complex as the National Museum of Antiquities, this small museum houses an exquisite collection of traditional Tajikistan clothing (including a great set of woollen socks and gloves that seem disproportionately large for the average wearer) and some fine enamel jewellery in the form of amulets and earrings. The real gems of the collection, though, are the samples of vertically striped silk cloth known as 'atlas' – a fabric still worn by Tajikistani women on special occasions.
Built within the reconstructed southeastern bastion of the city wall, this museum houses a fascinating set of modern marble mosaics depicting the life of Alexander the Great – the war scenes with their multiple horses are particularly finely crafted. The great warrior's funeral procession shows his hand dangling empty as he had reputedly requested, showing he had conquered half the world but went to his grave with nothing. With its basement dioramas of prehistoric life, this is Khojand's best museum.
The city’s top sight is the citadel, the reconstructed corner of which is open to visitors. From the top of the 10th-century ramparts, the disintegrating baked-earth walls suggest hints of the seven gates and 6km of fortifications that were rebuilt in the 13th century and which mark the site of Alexander the Great’s original settlement. The citadel's military history continued into recent times when, in 1997, 300 people died in battles between Uzbek warlords and government troops.
With any luck, there will be enough light left in the day after any delays crossing the Shurabad Pass to enjoy the first glimpse of the raging Pyanj River – a constant companion throughout a Pamir Hwy journey – at this viewpoint on the zigzag descent from Kulob to the Pyanj valley. The road eventually glides down to the water's edge and threads through the canyon-like landscape, with only the river dividing Tajikistan from Afghanistan.
Pictured on the 20TJS banknote and just 30km west of Dushanbe, the remains of this 18th-century fort make for an interesting day trip from the capital. All that survived a 1924 Russian assault is the twin-towered gateway but the site has plenty of atmosphere, not least as it is a popular escape from the city for locals. A 17th-century madrassa at the site contains a small museum with a fascinating relief model of Tajikistan demonstrating its 93% mountainous coverage.
The core of this great bazaar, reputedly the largest in Central Asia, is an unusually elegant, purpose-built hall (1964) with arched entrance portals and a pink-and-lime-green neoclassical facade. If not the largest it's certainly one of the best-stocked markets in Central Asia, especially on Thursday ( panchshanbe in Tajik) when people and produce flood into the main hall.
Shaded by ancient chinar (plane) trees, a pair of small but ornately stucco-fronted 17th-century tombs are set beside a fine old mosque with tapering wooden columns. A set of 18 tiny windowless cells known as chehlkhona here would have been used for meditation by those studying the Koran in order to become religious leaders. Generally the sequestration would last 40 days, during which time the pilgrim would leave the cell only briefly at night to attend to bodily functions.
Mirrorlike lake Bulun-Kul (3737m) looks magnificent in the morning light, reflecting the mineral streaks of a low, multicoloured ridge opposite. The water's edge invites a picnic but the bitter wind and tiny fire ants, which make a beeline for uncovered skin, mean it's better observed on the hoof. Close by, the end-of-the-world settlement of Bulunkul (Булункӯл) – reportedly the coldest place in Tajikistan – offers ways in which to connect with the lakes through horse riding and hikes (enquire at the Monira Homestay).
Beneath an impressive arc of blue mosaic stars, the nation's most revered poet, Rudaki, is honoured here at the heart of the central park named after him. Tajiki people will tell you that besides the Koran, a book of his poems is among the most common possessions in people's homes across the land. The setting of Rudaki's statue in a rose garden is appropriate for this 9th-century 'Adam of Poets', whose poetry celebrated philosophical musing on the natural world.