After traveling through the southeastern corner of Kazakhstan and most of Kyrgyzstan, our journey finally took us to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Traveling Central Asia is an incredible experience but one that does not come easy. To quote Paul Theroux: “Traveling is only glamorous in retrospect.”
We both considered Tajikistan to probably be the hardest area to travel through. So, when we were about to cross the Kyrgyz border into Tajik territory, that was when things would get a bit rough on the road (or at least that is what we thought then). Despite the difficulties, our pre-conception of the country was full of prejudices and bias, and in the end, most of those were just exaggerated, though not untrue.
As we moved away from the more nomadic cultures towards the settled traders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, we also faced some modern obstacles. The borders of the “Stans” are essentially an artificial Soviet invention. And at times, it can prove quite difficult to figure the best way in and out of a country. While this is a bit of a letdown, it is part of the Silk Road, and it has been like that as long as it has existed, crossing several territories controlled by different empires at different times.
Republic of Tajikistan
Tajikistan was one of the poorest, most heavily dependent republics in the old USSR. It has not changed much since independence and experienced a brutal civil war that only ended in the late 1990s. Perhaps the biggest problem of the region is that the Tajiks have been at the fringes of great empires but at the center of none. Most travelers come here for its marvelous mountain treks and scenery.
History in Brief
Both the Bactrian Empire and the Sogdians inhabited Tajikistan around the first century B.C., but Tajik ancestry is a complex subject. At that time, Alexander the Great battled the Sogdians and founded his easternmost town, modern-day Khojand. Modern Tajiks trace their ancestry to the days of the Persian Samanid Dynasty, and this can be perceived in their deep connection with Iran and deference to Ismoil Somoni.
In more modern times, Tajikistan was a satellite of Soviet Uzbekistan and only later acquired the status of a full union republic. However, Samarkand and Bukhara, historically Tajik cities, remained part of Uzbekistan. After the collapse of the USSR and its declaration of independence in 1991, Tajikistan descended into a brutal civil war that lasted until 1997. Since then, there has been some sort of peace, a dictatorship in the making, and rapid reconstruction of the country.
“When people discover Tajikistan, they generally fall into two categories – those who hate it, and those who love it. There is no in-between. If you don’t mind a slower pace of life and don’t care about high standard commodities, you will find the friendliest strangers and perhaps the truest friends here. Tajik genuine hospitality and the raw, uncommercialized natural landscape open for exploring is what makes this place so special.” — Yulia, Journalist (Dushanbe)
Traveling Tajikistan is like following in the footsteps of other famous explorers while glancing on ancient forts and cities that were once part of the old Silk Road. It is also an immersion in history as you explore ancient Sogdian and Bactrian sites as well as places of importance in the campaigns of Alexander the Great, among others. As a result, there are far too many places to list, but we can get an essential list for first-timers.
• Khojand – This is one of the oldest cities in Central Asia and the second-largest in the country, the city has several Soviet-era monuments and buildings, and a lively bazaar (one of the largest in Central Asia).
• Istaravshan – This city is located in the richer northern province of Sughd and is the ancient Cyropolis, known today as Istaravshan. The citadel that was smashed by Alexander’s troops is still there. It is still a worthy visit for its beautiful Islamic tombs.
• Iskander-kul – A visit to the northern region cannot be complete without a detour to this scenic milky-blue lake connected to the dramatic peaks of the Fan Mountains. You can experience traditional Tajik hospitality by spending a night or two in Sarytag village.
• Penjikent and the Fan Mountains – For those interested in archeological sites and ancient history, the old Sogdian city of Penjikent is incredible to explore. Add in some days trekking around the craggy peaks and turquoise lakes of the Fan Mountains.
• Dushanbe – Leafy and charming, Dushanbe is a nice place to rest and recharge after all the adventures up in the mountains. There is plenty to see, for example, the longest Buddha statue in Central Asia in the Museum of National Antiquities. There are also a number of nice bars and pubs, and of course, a really good bazaar.
• Pamirs – Most visitors to Tajikistan come to see the so-called “roof of the world.” It is one of the most remote areas in the country with altitudes of up to 4,500 meters. It is the ultimate road trip, best experienced in the summer.
Tajikistan is an incredible country to visit, and whoever visits this corner of Central Asia will certainly go back home with a few stories to tell. That said, it is probably not for everyone. Terrible roads coupled with mountainous terrain and some really bold drivers make it a difficult place to navigate or enjoy at times. Tajikistan’s people and jaw-dropping scenery are worth it; however, do some prior research and bring a lot of patience.
For those traveling the Silk Road, Uzbekistan holds a very special place since all routes converge in Samarkand. Indeed, the country is the beating heart of Central Asia, with historical centers that still carry the weight of history. Uzbekistan is comprised of the ancient lands between the Amu Darya (Oxus) and Syr Darya (Jaxartes) rivers, where the last mountains coming all the way from China yield to the desolate Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts.
History in Brief
Uzbekistan is a melting pot of Turkic and Persian cultures, a meeting point of nomads and settlers with an added Soviet twist. This desert land was once home of Timur (a.k.a. Tamerlane), who conquered Persia and parts of India. Despite being a barbaric and savage leader, he was a patron of the arts and is responsible for some of the world’s most fascinating architectural gems.
Uzbekistan is besieged with a strong sense of identity that pervades centuries of history, one so strong that it helped the country retain its culture in spite of Soviet rule. Its modern borders, designed by Moscow, include areas where the majority of the population is not ethnic Uzbeks. Unfortunately, after independence in 1991, President Karimov consolidated his power and the country became a dictatorship. Only last year, due to Karimov’s death, Uzbekistan elected a new president, and there are a few modest signs of change.
Uzbekistan’s big three cities are Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. No visit to the country would be complete without a visit to these three cities that unfold all of Uzbekistan’s extraordinary past in rich detail.
• Samarkand – For over 2,500 years, it was the main trade crossroads of the Silk Road, enveloped by exotic romanticism and historical importance. Upon his visit, Alexander the Great said, “Everything I have heard about Samarkand is true, except it is even more beautiful than I had imagined.” Turquoise Timurid mosaics, domes, and dramatic architectural ensembles take your breath away in Samarkand. Words cannot do it justice.
• Bukhara – One of the oldest cities in the region, Bukhara is another impressive gem, albeit overshadowed a little by Samarkand. Make no mistake, though: this is a must in any trip to Uzbekistan. It is hard to resist its slow pace of life, the narrow lanes of its mazy old town, as well as its chaikhanas (teahouses) and mesmerizing architecture.
• Khiva – Further north, hidden away in the desert, is the walled town of Khiva. Many tourists end up skipping Khiva due to its remote location, but a trip is well worth it. Most of its opulent buildings are preserved, and the city seems frozen in time (without the tourist-oriented business that plagues Samarkand).
• Khorezm – Via Khiva, it is also possible to visit many of the sandcastle ruins that punctuate the whole province of Khorezm. Some of them are in very good shape and remain impressive sites to visit. These are a day trip from Khiva, but it can be easily coupled with a night stay in a desert yurt, oasis swims, and camel rides.
• Aral Sea – One of the main environmental disasters of recent times, the Aral Sea has lost 75 percent of its volume since the 1950s. While reaching the sea is quite difficult, a trip to the former fishing villages that now are desert towns full of rusty fishing trawlers in the sand is a reminder of environmental recklessness.
• Republic of Karakalpakstan – A Stan within a Stan, the desolate Republic of Karakalpakstan is one of the poorest parts of Uzbekistan, unfortunately associated with the Aral Sea disaster. Nukus, its capital, is a bland Soviet town in the middle of the desert. However, it is here that you can find the home of the finest collection of Soviet avant-garde art, the Museum of Art Igor Savitsky (www.savit-skycollection.org).
Money and the Black Market: Anyone thinking about going to Uzbekistan should be advised to bring hard currency. U.S. dollars are the currency of trade, but euros are widely accepted. Hotels, restaurants, and pretty much anyone will facilitate exchange at black-market rates, which are almost twice the official bank rates. While technically illegal, currency exchange is not strictly enforced. Even hotels will charge you at black-market rates.
If you can only make it to one country, make it to Uzbekistan. It is Central Asia’s cradle of culture and where you can see an important part of the Silk Road’s history in ancient sites that have been carefully preserved and never fail to impress. Though it is a very touristy place, it is still worth it.