Trip Date – November 2017
| 🇹🇯| Central Asia is a captivating region that sees far fewer visitors than it deserves. Its blend of Russian, Chinese and Persian influence has created a melting pot of diverse and exceptionally welcoming locals. Tajikistan is a landlocked nation in the heart of the region known for its vast natural beauty and rich history dating back to the ancient Silk Road and beyond. In November 2017, I spent a couple days in Sugdh, a northwestern province that shares a long border with Uzbekistan.
After a two-hour drive south from Tashkent, I entered Tajikistan by land via the Oybek border crossing. Unless special permission is granted, automobiles are not allowed to pass through this checkpoint. I arranged for a driver to drop me off on the Uzbek side and for a friend of a friend to pick me up on the Tajik side. In the middle, however, is ‘no man’s land’ and, for general tourists, can only be crossed on foot.
As an American, I needed a tourist visa for both countries. A Uzbek visa requires an Embassy visit in advance while a Tajik visa can be obtained through an online e-visa system. Although I had all necessary documentation in order, leaving Uzbekistan and entering Tajikistan were both slow processes. I spent roughly 90 minutes at the border but was eventually cleared to pass.
A 15-minute drive from the border is the small village of Buston. The town has a population of only a few thousand and is surrounded by mountains on all sides. Through some fortunate networking, I was welcomed by a local family (thanks Alex and Behruz!) with open arms and an insane amount of food. I’m someone who can usually eat a lot, but I didn’t stand a chance against Tajik hospitality. There was limited English spoken amongst the family, but that didn’t hinder their ability to make me feel at home. I had been in the country for less than an hour and was already as comfortable as ever.
I stayed that evening in Khujand, the capital and largest city in Sugdh. It is just shy of an hour’s drive southeast of Buston. In addition to the connection to his family and memorable welcome to Tajikistan, Behruz also offered me his apartment in Khujand for the night. I had already prepaid for a hotel room and decided to stick with it but couldn’t have been more appreciative of the offer. Khujand is home to the Historical Museum of Sugdh which contains a wide range of artifacts from around the region. Outside is a public park and courtyard. The site was only a few steps (literally) from the front door of my hotel.
I spent most of the next day exploring the city on foot. Khujand is cut in half by the Syr Darya, a river the originates in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan Mountains and flows all the way to the northern edge of the Aral Sea. Across the river is Somoni Park. There lies a large monument dedicated to Isma’il ibn Ahmad, an 8th century military emir, or commander, from the Samanid Empire. From the base of the statue, much of Khujand can be seen, including the 20 Years of Independence Stadium. The 25,000-seat venue is home to FK Khujand, a national football (soccer) club that competes in the nation’s top league. I also walked by what I was sure to be an outdoor hockey rink, although nobody was around to confirm my assumption. Near the river, I visited another memorial that commemorates prominent figures in the history of Tajikistan. As with most attractions in the city, the mountains provided a handsome backdrop.
When checking out of the hotel, my credit card didn’t work which led me to paying for the room with a combination of currencies. I was on a four-country, long-weekend trip and was fortunately prepared for the situation. Before heading out of town, I took another walk through the Fortress grounds. Throughout my entire trip, the weather was on point which made for a game changing experience.
The airport in Khujand is only a few minutes from the city center. I was flying to Beijing on an S7 red-eye flight through Novosibirsk. I wasn’t thrilled about spending the night trudging through Siberia, but it helped knowing I had a Singapore Airlines Suite waiting there to take me back to the equator.
When I think of Tajikistan, I think of hospitality. Similar to the Philippines and parts of the Middle East, the Tajik people are experts at welcoming their visitors. I look forward to returning to the country, hopefully to experience the Pamir Mountains and the dozens of other natural wonders it has to offer. In the meantime, I’m going to work on my eating capabilities so on my next trip I don’t have to feel bad about leaving all that food on the table. I’ll come back prepared!
Have you been Tajikistan or anywhere in Central Asia? What did you think?