Declaring Tajikistan the best Central Asian ‘stan is a bit bold, but I CAN say that Tajikistan has become my favorite Central Asian country to travel. Here’s why. Head to the end of the post for tips on connecting with locals in Tajikistan.
Mere hours after entering Tajikistan, I was already falling in love.
Lounging atop a half-empty vegetable stall in the Panjakent bazaar, Mahmud’s kindly crinkled eyes and shouted greeting drew me to his stand. We exchanged salaams, and upon learning I could speak a smidgeon of Russian, he launched into enthusiastic conversation.
How did you come to Tajikistan? How old are you? Are you married? Will you go to the mountains? Where did you learn Russian? Do you need help?
As we discussed everything from my nomadic life to Eid al-Adha, Mahmud was patient with my stilted Russian, and explained words when I didn’t understand. Someone handed me my first Tajik kurut, and he cackled as I bit into the dried cheese ball. “It’s best if you eat it with beer,” he advised as my eyes watered at its saltiness, “… do you want me to get you some?” Friends gathered to watch him chat with “Sasha” Alexandra, the Russian-speaking American girl, and he introduced me to them.
Eventually, buzzing Whatsapp notifications reminded me I was supposed to rejoin my blogger squad. Hand over heart, head slightly bowed, I said my goodbyes to Mahmud.
“It was nice to meet you Sasha!” he returned my gesture, a genuine smile warming his face. “If you are in Panjakent tomorrow, please come back and have lunch with us.” He waved goodbye as I reentered the maze of the bazaar.
Is Tajikistan the best Central Asian ‘stan?
Almost every country has some combination of stunning sights, awe-inspiring nature, and/or delicious cuisine… but not every country is blessed with such an outgoing and hospitable population.
Over the next weeks, as I traveled Tajikistan both with a group and independently, exchanges like the one I had with Mahmud happened time and time again. I’ve been to every Central Asian ‘stan except Turkmenistan, and even by the high hospitality standards of the region, my interactions in Tajikistan stand out.
One afternoon on a roadside near the turn to Alauddin Lake, a line of giggling women selling fruit pressed apricots and apples on me, insisting that no matter how many I ate I had to try “just one more” because I was a guest in their country.
While traveling with our group, I had many a chat with our fatherly driver, Jamshed, about everything from drinking culture in the capital to the differences in the way our societies approach children (he believes he needs many children to support him, as opposed to the American one to two). I ran into Jamshed after our tour ended, and the kindness continued: he was delighted to see me, and insisted I take his phone number so I could call him as I traveled onwards alone.
A simple mission to find a quick dinner late one evening in Khorog, the biggest town in the Pamir, led to hours of talking over plov and beer with a man named Shodi, a second dinner of mutton, rice, bread, yogurt, and tea at home with his wife, and many an emphatic invitation to stay at his house as long as I wanted. He even offered to drive me for eight hours to my next destination on the Pamir Highway!
Declaring Tajikistan the best Central Asian ‘stan to travel is a bit too subjective for my liking, but it’s certainly become my favorite. More than its surreal blue lakes or its sweeping mountain vistas, the ease of these encounters with locals are what make Tajikistan truly remarkable to me.
Moments that matter
Of course, they might seem trivial to some—they’re not Instagrammable, they tick no bucket lists—but if you’ve traveled at all, you understand that these are the moments that will remain in your memory longer than any postcard-perfect view. (Even views as epic as those Tajikistan has to offer.)
By all means, come to Tajikistan for its mountains and lakes. They’re undeniably worth it. But trust me: the people are the reason you’ll return. I’m already plotting a longer visit for next summer… maybe I’ll see you here?
Tips for connecting with locals in Tajikistan
If you read everything before this (no hard feels if you didn’t), you now know it’s delightfully organic to meet and interact with locals in Tajikistan. Of course, locals aren’t going to magically drop out the sky armed with tea and good conversation—most of the time—so here are some things you can do to meet more people and ensure you make the most of your time when traveling in Tajikistan:
Learn some Tajik (Farsi) or Russian
Sign language is enough to get by as always, but language is necessary for good conversations.
Alas, in Tajikistan English isn’t as common as you’d hope. Though youth in cities/towns and people in tourism speak English, it can be tricky to find English elsewhere. Learning a few phrases will win you smiles and make for fun interactions.
Though many languages are spoken within Tajkistan’s borders, Tajik is the national language of Tajikistan (duh). As a Persian-based language, it’s essentially a dialect of the Farsi spoken in Iran, or the Dari spoken in northern Afghanistan. Farsi language resources are your best bet; I highly recommend Pimsleur audio lessons for basic conversation.
Due to its ex-Soviet status, Russian is also common throughout the country, and is the best “major” language option for communication. I had many a good conversation in Tajikistan, but almost all of them were in Russian.
Since Russian resources are easier to find—and Russian is more applicable than Farsi—I recommend learning basic Russian through the free app Duolingo if traveling to Tajikistan (or any of the Central Asian ‘stans, really). Pimsleur also has a Russian course.
Useful Tajik phrases
- Salaam aleikum – Hello (same as in other Islamic countries)
- Rakhmat – Thank you
- Ha – Yes
- Ne – No
- Chand? – How much/how many?
- Chai – Tea
- Gosht – Meat
- Non – Bread
- Khaiya – Goodbye
- Yek, du, seh, chor, panj – One, two, three, four, five
Stay in homestays instead of hotels or hostels
Tajikistan has a fantastic network of homestay options all across the country. Local-run “guesthouses” are also often homestay-like, though with slightly more luxurious amenities.
Homestays are the easiest way to meet locals and simultaneously get a glimpse of home life in Tajikistan. Most homestays cost around US$15 per person per night, breakfast and sometimes dinner included. They’re a great way of ensuring money goes directly into locals’ pockets instead of being gobbled up by large companies or the government (yay responsible tourism).
Local homestay organizations in Tajikistan
Take your time, dive deep
Short of flat tires, nothing happens quickly when traveling in Tajikistan. Why try otherwise? Take your time when traveling. Spontaneous interactions are bound to happen.
Though Tajikistan is “off the beaten track”, it sees a fair share of tourists, especially in summer when trekking Russians flock to the mountains and Mongol Rallyers speed through the Pamir. Locals in touristy areas might seem reticent at first, but hang around, smile, stop and chat; you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Even better, head off the beaten tourist track: anywhere away from Dushanbe, the Pamir highway routes, and the Fann Mountain areas around Panjakent. Once removed from the not-quite-masses of tourists, you’re guaranteed to have people coming to say hello and ask what you’re up to… often leading to an invite for tea!
Note: If invited for a meal or an overnight in someone’s home, especially in remote areas where resources are scarce, leave some money as thanks. Culture dictates your offer will be refused, but you can always hide money somewhere obvious, or give some to the children of the house. Free things are nice—I know, I’m a backpacker—but money is important in a country as poor and remote as Tajikistan.
Have you been to Tajikistan? Do you have more tips to help travelers interact with locals? Share them in the comments!
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