Tajikistan Overland Travel Guide – Travel Information for Your Road Trip

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Nature has been kind to Tajikistan, bestowing the country not only with breathtaking beauty but with a moderate climate too. Mountains and glaciers, lush river valleys and dense forest support a bewildering array of flora and fauna, including the famed (but sadly camera-shy) Marco Polo sheep and the even rare snow leopard.

From: Tajikistan, Bradt Travel Guides

This overland travel guide is for anyone who is planning a road trip to Tajikistan. Information on road conditions, road maps, guidebooks, gas stations, SIM & WiFi stuff – you will find it all here.

Here is our Tajikistan Travel Budget Report with our travel expenditures and focus on paperwork, workshops, sightseeing, and accommodation/camping!

The Land Cruiser driving in Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

Truly an overland destination, we spent most of our first visit to Tajikistan driving in the Pamir Mountain Region. Driving the famous Pamir Highway is an obvious one, but we also greatly enjoyed the Wakhan Corridor where we peeked across the river into Afghanistan. We drove to Zorkul Lake and did some other loops in the region. Our favorite, by far, was the Bartang Valley.

One of the aspects that makes a trip in the Pamir Mountains so special is the kindness and hospitality of local people. Go slow. Stop in villages and go for a stroll. People like to meet you and may invite you for tea or a meal. Don’t expect English to be spoken but that’s okay – hands & feet language and translation apps are all you need (so more on this below, see 2. Language).

Additionally, Tajikistan is an ultimate destination for hikers too. This time around we didn’t have time for treks, but we will return to Tajikistan and will incorporate some fantastic walks in our visit.

I wrote a specific article about the Pamir Highway for Expedition Portal: Why Add Pamir Highway to your Overland Adventures?

Cemetery in the Pamir Region, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

Index for our Tajikistan Overland Travel Guide

 

Our Overland Travel Information Pages for Tajikistan consists of two parts: The Tajikistan Travel Budget Report, and this is the Tajikistan Overland Travel Guide.

In this blog post we will discuss the following topics:

  1. Tajikistan travel – Why / When / How
  2. Our Road Trip in Tajikistan
  3. Language
  4. Roads, Traffic rules & Police
  5. Roadmaps & Navigation Systems
  6. Guidebooks & Other Books for Tajikistan
  7. Water & Food
  8. WiFi & Local Sim Card & Apps
  9. Additional Overland Travel Information Sources

Driving in the Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

1- Tajikistan Travel – Why / When / How

1a – Tajikistan travel – Why

What we loved:

  • The gorgeous wilderness of the Pamir Mountains.
  • Rough camp opportunities everywhere.
  • Kindness and hospitality of local people.

On the downside:

  • Forget about vegetarian, let alone vegan, food. Most local dishes are animal-based. More on that below, see 7- Water & Food.
  • The Temporary Import Document is valid only for 15 days, which is a nuisance when your visa is 45 days. More on that in our Tajikistan Travel Budget Report.

Local food in Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

1b – Tajikistan travel – When

The best time to travel Tajikistan is in summer, between June and September:

  • In spring it’s most likely that parts are unpassable due to landslides and mud (all that melting snow and defrosting soil).
  • In winter the Pamir Highway will stay open but many other regions may be closed due to snow.
  • In summer/early autumn, however, you’ll have good weather and most likely the best road conditions. We traveled the second half of September and really loved it – no heat, beautiful autumn colors in the valleys, and not yet cold.

Traveling in Tajikistan with the Land Cruiser (©Coen Wubbels)

1c – Tajikistan travel – How

We traveled in Tajikistan with our Land Cruiser. Our home on wheels gives us the freedom to go and stop where we want. As mentioned above, lots of fantastic road trips to be had here, and great rough camping, too.

Do you not travel with your own vehicle but would you like to visit Tajikistan? We have seen a lot of travelers who rented a car with a driver but it’s also possible to rent a car and drive yourself.

We have no personal experience of renting a car (with or without a driver) but we do know of two well-known places that can help you:

  • Caravanistan doesn’t do car rental but it is the go-to website for all up-to-date information on (road) travel in Central Asia. They have contacts with a number of agencies. Here is their information on car rental.
  • Muztoo in Osh (Kyrgyzstan) rents out cars/motorcycles that you can take to Tajikistan.

Another option is signing up for an organized tour. Check:

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The Land Cruiser driving in Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

2- Our Road Trip in Tajikistan

 

Tajikistan or, officially, the Republic of Tajikistan, is a landlocked country in Central Asia. It is bordered by Kyrgyzstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, China to the east, and Afghanistan to the south.

Tajikistan country stats:

    • Size/area: 144,100 square kms (55,637 square miles).
    • Climate: Continental, subtropical and semi-arid with some desert areas.
    • Population: 8,3 million (2016 estimate).
    • Life expectancy: 65 years for men, 71 years for women
    • National Sports: Wrestling, judo, football and buz kashi
Tajikistan, Bradt Travel Guides

Our Travel Stats:

  • Time traveled in Tajikistan: 41 days (September/October 2019).
  • Total kilometers driven: 2265 kilometers

Tajikistan Traveled Route (©Coen Wubbels)

3- Tajikistan Travel Guide – Language

 

The national language in Tajikistan is Tajik, or Tajiki, which is closely linked to Persian and Dari but written in the Cyrillic script. Tajik is spoken by about two-thirds of the population.

Many speak (some) Russian, which is taught in schools, although I had the impression it was less than in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Additionally, you’ll hear other languages such as Kyrgyz, as well as dialects. For example, the valleys in the Pamir Region may have very distinct dialects/languages.

Not speaking any Tajik, it helped we spoke a few words of Russian (no matter how limited that still is), which we learned during our overland trip through Russia’s Far East and Siberia.

Tajik Proverbs

  • He who stole the eggs will steal the donkey
  • The walls have mice, and the mice have ears
  • A person’s navel is on his belly, while the world’s navel is on hte Pamirs
  • If you sit with the moon you become the moon. If you sit in a deg (cooking pot) you become black.
Bradt Travel Guide Tajikistan
Sign language in Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)
Sign language

Google Translate

Google Translate is super useful to have. There are a couple of ways to use it:

  • Google Translate on the web – online only
  • Google Translate app – instant voice translation in a two-way setup – online only
  • Google Translate app – camera translation – offline*
  • Google Translate app – text-typing translation – offline*

*Offline = you need to download the Russian language package. This is particularly useful in Tajikistan because in many of the remote regions you won’t have cellphone connection let alone WiFi (more on that below, 8- WiFi, Local SIM card, Apps)

Tip: It is wise to install a Russian keyboard so that the other party can type a text in Russian into the Google Translate app.

You can do the same for the Tajik language, however, the translation English from/to Russian is much more accurate than Tajik.

Insight Guides Phrasebook

We have an Insight Guides Phrasebook, which comes with an app for on your smartphone.

Using Google Translate in Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

Russian Courses

What else we tried to learn Russian:

  • We practiced online using e.g. Russian for Free, or on apps such as Duolingo and Memrise.
  • We tried a one-week course on arrival in Russia, Vladivostok but that didn’t help much.

Michel Thomas Method to Learn Russian

We are smitten with the Michel Thomas’ method! We used it in South America to learn Spanish and it worked great and it turns out that his method is available in a number of languages, among which Russian.

It was perfect to listen to and learn while driving those endless roads. We only wish we had known about this earlier. It is a super intuitive way of learning a language.

Find them here: Start Russian / Perfect Russian / Total Russian.

Read More: Feeling Welcome in Vladivostok

Road Sign in the Pamir Region, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)
Road sign in Cyrillic and Latin script.

4- Tajikistan Travel Guide – Roads, Traffic Rules & Police

4a- Roads in Tajikistan

In Tajikistan people drive on the right side of the road.

Land Cruiser on the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)
Driving on the right side isn’t saying everything. Sometimes there is only one lane, sometimes you just drive where the road surface is at its best, and sometimes nobody cares where they drive anyway (particularly in cities).

Paved Roads

Forget about paved roads in the Pamir Region. Well, some parts of the M41/Pamir Highway are paved but that isn’t always saying much.

Particularly the asphalt from Murghab to Khorog and Kalaikhum is in a bad state and from Kalaikhum to Dushanbe about 40% is paved (starting 26 kilometers west of Kalaikhum). And I remember quite some washboard west of 4655-meter-high Akbaytal Pass as well.

We haven’t driven north from Dushanbe yet. We did drive westwards, to the southernmost border with Uzbekistan, which was 70 kilometers of reasonable asphalt.

Land Cruiser on the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)
Asphalt doesn’t necessarily mean the road surface looks good; these ‘waves’ force you to drive very slowly.

Unpaved Roads

If you love unpaved roads, you have come to the right country. The Pamir Region is largely unpaved. Tough for you, tough for your vehicle, but adding to the experience of driving through a majestic wilderness.

Expect washboard, roads with fist-sized and head-sized stones, rutted stretches through grassland (mud in the wet season; hardened to concrete in the dry season), and lots of dust. See the charm of it all in your great adventure 🙂

Tips on stuff to bring for unpaved, possibly dusty or muddy roads:

Read More: Recovery Gear – What do we Bring and How do we Use it

Air Filter of the Land Cruiser is clogged with dust

4b- 2WD or 4WD?

Of course, this is a possibly endless discussion without one clear answer. If you have no clue what the difference is, check out this handy overview of the differences between 2WD and 4WD by Overlandsite.

Here’s our insight, based on traveling here in September/October (dry season):

  • No 4WD nor high-clearance vehicle needed for the Pamir Highway or Wakhan Corridor.
  • In the Bartang Valley, however, 4WD may be helpful with river crossings, and for one of two river crossings I reckon you really need a high-clearance vehicle because of big rocks.

During the wet season due to rain or snow-melt driving in the Pamir Mountains is a different ball game:

  • You absolutely need 4WD for Zorkul Lake because there are soft, muddy grass sections. This is a high-altitude region so it takes until deep into the season before all icy soil has defrosted and dried out (don’t be surprised if you find a plain of mud in June).
  • You need 4WD and a high-clearance vehicle for the Bartang Valley.
  • The Pamir Highway and Wakhan Valley will vary on the conditions of that moment.

Land Cruiser on the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

4c- Traffic Rules & Traffic Police in Tajikistan

We haven’t been stopped by the police during our 45-day stay. What we noticed in Dushanbe, as well as in the Pamir Region, is that:

  • Nobody bothers wearing a seat belt.
  • Driving and using a Smartphone is preferably done at the same time.
  • Not limited to, but particularly in, Dushanbe drivers swerve from left to right as if there are no distinct lanes.

In case you’d like to know what to do when stopped by a police officer, we wrote a general blog post on how to deal with police officers based on tricks and experience during 16 years of overlanding.

The Land Cruiser driving in Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

5- Tajikistan Travel Guide – Roadmaps Navigation Systems

5a- Roadmaps

Reise Knowhow Road Map of Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)Our paper map is, as usual, Reise KnowHow. Hardly ever perfect as roads change all the time and we don’t mind. The Reise KnowHow maps give a perfect overview of the whole country, which is great for planning a general itinerary and getting a feel for how to get where and what the distances are.

Reise KnowHow doesn’t have a dedicated road map for Tajikistan, but does have two good, general road maps that include Tajikistan:

Road Maps Pamir Region, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)Additionally, there is a much more detailed map of the Pamir Region, which we found after we had finished our road trips there…

It is called The Pamirs; Tourist Map of the Gorno-Badakhshan, 1:500,000 and is much more detailed than what Reise Knowhow can offer. It looks really good.

This road map is for sale on Amazon.com, but you can also buy it at the PECTA office in Khorog. There we saw another version of a very similar detailed map of the Pamirs as well (see photo).

Sheep in the Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

5b- Navigation Systems (Electronic Road Maps)

Our choice for offline navigating:

  • MapsMe
  • Guru Maps (formerly: Galileo)

MapsMe

Mostly used in big cities. In the latest version of MapsMe, it is a delight to see that the Beta option of Latin translation works for the Russian language (contrary to e.g. Korean or Japanese).

In cities we like the routing option of MapsMe. Not having to think for a change and just follow instructions.

Road Sign in the Pamir Region, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

Guru Maps (formerly: Galileo)

Galileo had disappeared from our phone since we first started experimenting and beta testing it in 2012. It appeared on our radar recently when they too offered offline routing. But that is not its greatest feature.

The gem is the fact that you can add your own offline maps. Although it is not easy to accomplish that, it is by no means impossible. E.g. we had Russian Military maps installed and are testing with some contour, hill-shaded sat maps. So far it has not resulted in the optimal solution, which would be vector-based maps with contours and maybe hill-shading. If you know where to access them, please let us know.

Apart from that, the base-installed OSM vector map shows nice detail when zoomed out (this is where it outshines MapsMe) and instead of routing there is the option of showing a bearing line that indicates the general direction to travel instead of turn-by-turn navigation where you lose any sense of control. This way it is more like our first old-school Garmin-eTreks with just a line on a very detailed terrain. You are free to choose which roads or direction you want to travel.

Additionally, it has a very nice tracking feature that just works.

House in Karakol, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

6- Tajikistan Travel Guide – Guidebooks & Other Books

6a- Guidebooks for Tajikistan

There are way too few guidebooks out there on the Central Asian countries yet. Not one to be had in Dutch, and very few in English. Here’s what we’ve used:

  • Bradt Travel Guides generally dives deeper into a country than any other guidebook we’ve come across. Bradt Travel Guides are about learning about the country, culture, sights, and less about the practical side of things.
  • Lonely Planet Travel Guides are great for a quick impression of a country with the basics generally covered on culture, food, history, etc. Super extensive on the practical side of travel information, much of which is useless for overlanders who camp most of the time.
  • We appreciate Insight Guides for their photo-rich travel guides. They are perfect guidebooks to get a feel for a place and to get inspired. It describes the highlights of places, has good maps, and is limited on practical information.
Bradt Travel Guides for Central Asia and Mongolia (©Coen Wubbels)
We really like the Bradt Travel Guide series for Central Asia and Mongolia

6b – Books on Tajikistan

There is more than enough reading material available to get inspired for your road trip to the Pamir Region, whether as a destination by itself or as a part of a bigger trip to Central Asia or the Silk Road. Among the ones I found:

On Tajikistan

On the Pamir Region

Overland Travel in Tajikistan

Historic cave paintings in the Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

7- Tajikistan Travel Guide – Water & Food

7a- Water

With all those mountains there is water in abundance. High in the mountains it may be safe to drink (if no animals grazing in the area), but we didn’t chance it. With the filter system and water tank in the Land Cruiser that’s easy for us. We fill the water tank from water pumps in villages, or at people’s homes.

Whether you hike, bicycle, motorcycle, drive a car or backpack around the country, there is never a need to buy bottled water. There is an amazing selection of small, handy, water filter systems out there, like MSR water filters or, even smaller, a SteriPen or Lifestraw. Or carry water purification tables if weight and space really are a big issue (we do so on our long-distance hikes).

Green tea in Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)
Green tea is super popular; you can order it anywhere and it’s generally the beverage served in homes.

7b- Food

Maybe there is a lot to say about food in Tajikistan, I’m not sure. This being a big meat-eating country and us being vegetarians (vegan-diet, mostly), our food choices have been extremely limited, even more so in the Pamir Region.

It meant that we hardly ate out for lunch or dinner and mostly cooked our own meals.

In the Pamir Region shops in towns like Murgab/Khorog/Ishkashim generally offered some sort of selection in rice and pasta, some cans (peas/corn/fish). The vegetable choice generally was limited to onions, tomatoes, cucumber, carrot, potatoes, white cabbage. Don’t count on the hamlets having any of this though.

Something you can find everywhere and is always good, is the delicious nan bread, the fresh, round bread baked in the tandoori oven.

Vegetable Selection on the Market in Khorog, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)
Vegetable Selection on the Market in Khorog
The container bazaar in Murgab, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)
The container bazaar in Murgab.

Tip: Take reusable mesh bags to stock up on legumes, grains, nuts and the likes. Many vendors want to sell every product in a different plastic bag and you’ll find the bags littering towns and countryside. Spread the word through good example 🙂

A suggestion for good food in Khorog (Pamir Region) and Dushanbe:

  • Indian Food at the Delhi Darbar Restaurant – Absolutely delicious. (GPS waypoint:38.571152, 68.788321)
  • Although we haven’t been out for dinner elsewhere, other travelers had good things to say about Italian food, Chinese food, and Korean food in Dushanbe as well.

Info for Vegetarians:

  • Based on our trip in November and January (as some products may be seasonal)
  • Mushrooms I only found in a big supermarket in Tashkent.
  • Most common legumes: mung beans, red lentils, pinto beans, chickpeas.
  • Most common vegetables: tomatoes, cucumber, onion, potato, white cabbage, carrots, pumpkin, bell pepper, garlic, spring onions.
  • Less common, depending on supermarket/bazaar: eggplant, zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce.
  • Nuts/seeds: In abundance: walnut, pistachio, hazelnuts (different varieties), peanuts, cashew (expensive), pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds only with the shell.
  • Dried fruits: In abundance.
Delhi Darbar Restaurant in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)
Great company of fellow travelers in the Delhi Darbar Restaurant in Dushanbe.

8- Tajikistan Travel Guide – WiFi & Local Sim Card & Apps

8a- Wifi & Local SIM Card

Coming from Kyrgyzstan and driving into the Pamir Region, your first possibility to buy a SIM card is in Murgab, which sells Megaphone only. The next possibility is in Khorog, where you can find different brands.

Opinions differ on T-Cell or Megaphone, which would be better in valleys. We had Megaphone and was good enough for us, even though it didn’t have coverage all the time / everywhere.

For the best service head over to one of the major brand offices in the nearest town and register with your passport. They will have affordable (not as cheap as the other Stan countries or Russia) monthly or weekly plans with sufficient data to still your internet hunger.

For the most up to date information about a countries cellphone service it is wise to ask other travelers who have been in the region or find it on this website.

8b- Apps

WhatsApp is popular. Install it if you don’t have it. It’s free, fast, and easy to use.

Solar Panels in Karakol, Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

9- Additional Overland Travel Information Sources

 

  • The forum on Horizons Unlimited has been a longstanding source of information especially for motorcycle tourers but has a growing wealth for four-wheeled travelers as well.
  • WikiOverland, help expand the special Wiki Overland pages.
  • iOverlander is the place where overlanders share GPS waypoints on many things, among which camping spots.
  • 4ever2wherever is another site where overlanders contribute with practical information
  • Overlanding Facebook groups among which Overland to Asia.
  • Caravanistan is an excellent, up to date online resource for Central Asia.

Goat in Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

Tips, Suggestions, Feedback?

We hope you find this Tajikistan Travel Guide useful. Do you have questions or your own experiences to add? Feel free to do so in the comment section below. Thanks!

Don’t forget to check out our Tajikistan Travel Budget Report with lots of additional road travel information!

The Land Cruiser driving in Tajikistan (©Coen Wubbels)

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