By late spring 2016 we will have a full range of advice to assist the traveller in preparing for a trip to various locations throughout southern Tajikistan’s Khatlon province.
The following is general advice for visiting southern Tajikistan. For special advice on specific areas, read the sections of this website on those exact places.
Should you read travel warnings from your embassy or foreign ministry? Sort of. The Tajikistan warnings put out by the US State Department and the travel advice for Tajikistan compiled by the British government should be read, but not treated as the best and most accurate assessment of the situation in Tajikistan. Our opinion is that the official warnings are overly cautious.
Advice for travellers in Tajikistan depends entirely on the region, city or town. For example, since 2009 I have never had a single problem with crime or corrupt police in Khatlon Province. At the same time, my friends and I have occasionally had problems in Dushanbe in these regards (tourist accounts online match our experience). As a second example, in Dushanbe and Varzob, taxi drivers have regularly tried to ask for a very high fare, while throughout southern Khatlon Province I have never, since 2009, had any driver ask for more than the standard fares that the locals pay.
So it is obviously necessary to have a separate set of advice for southern Tajikistan. I’ve compiled advice for tourists and travellers in southern Tajikistan based on the experiences of myself and many other foreign travellers (we welcome your comments and accounts).
NOTE: this advice is for tourists, not for researchers, missionaries, embassy staff, diplomats, foreign NGO or international organisation workers, all of whom have sometimes problematic (or special favoured) relations with the government and some local people.
- Travel Warnings
- Personal Safety and Extortion
- Race, Religion, Ethnicity and Citizenship
- Female Travellers
- Restricted Zones
- Best time to visit
- What to bring
- Random advice
1. Travel Warnings: For problems of insecurity (terrorism, insecurity, civil unrest, etc.) I suggest that you refer to the British government warnings for visitors to Tajikistan (the website includes the option to subscribe to updates by email or RSS feed). Overwhelmingly these problems – over the last decade – have been confined to Dushanbe, the Pamirs (GBAO) and Rasht Valley, and they have been short-lived, with tourism resuming soon after or during the next tourist season. The southern Khatlon Province, by contrast, has barely been affected. As a result, police and security forces are either relaxed or comparatively non-existent in the south (except on the border). Overall, foreigners have not been targeted during periods of unrest in Tajikistan. The last serious attack on foreigners occurred in summer 2001 against German AgroAction NGO employees (and in Tavildara, not in Khatlon).
If there has just been a heavy rain storm, check the local news for updates, as some roads may be closed due to flooding, rockfall or mudslides.
2. Personal Safety and Extortion: The south is a very safe place in terms of crime compared to Dushanbe (and Dushanbe is very safe in comparison to Bishkek, for example). As a foreign white male, I feel perfectly safe throughout Khatlon (advice for women and non-western visitors below). And my exchanges with law enforcement have actually been pleasant experiences. The police I have talked to here seem curious (and bored) and are usually just looking for conversation. I have heard no bad stories from other travellers (I’ve been asking since 2009).
However, one American and one European tourist reported that police extorted $50 from them when they visited Norak (Nurek). Based on conversations with many other travellers, I feel that Nurek is the exception in the south – all other locations would not likely have similar problems.
If you think you are about to be extorted by police, don’t speak Tajik or Russian. Shrug and say “Tourist!” Speak only in English or your native language. The police will eventually give up. They always give up when a (white or East Asian) foreigner says no. Also, bring a photocopy of your passport and your Tajik visa to show to police. If you hand over your passport, you may need to “buy it back.” But again, this is a situation that we expect would only rarely happen in the south. Note: you have no choice at official road checkpoints (not GAI/BDA road police, but an actual real security checkpoint). You legally have to show them your passport (but several people in Dushanbe have been successful with just photocopies). You will know it is a “real” security checkpoint if the police are well-armed (road police and low-level local police are not issued weapons).
It is rare to see drunks in the south (usually old men), and I have not encountered any aggression from young men here. Russian soldiers seem to mind their own business, and I don’t know of any foreigner who has had any sort of serious problem with them. The young local men occasionally have fist-fights with each other (or with off-duty Russian soldiers), but not with foreign visitors. Want to further minimise your risks? Don’t go to clubs or stay in hotels that double as clubs/brothels.
The main problem with safety is on the road. Drivers are very reckless and accidents happen regularly. See full advice on transportation here.
3. Annoyances: People in the south, as in the rest of Tajikistan, regularly watch Russian TV, including Russian news. For many people, their views are often indistinguishable from the Russian government. I would avoid discussing politics and war (especially Ukraine, Syria, homosexuality, NATO, Russian relations with Europe and the United States, etc.). However, the “political” discussions I have had in the south are far, far less aggressive and stressful than those I have had in Dushanbe – some of which are just having to sit through recitations of bizarre internet conspiracy theories. People in the south are generally less aggressive and argumentative with foreign visitors. Equally, don’t be that ugly expat or tourist who starts religious or political arguments with local people. Some long- and short-term expats based in Dushanbe are really quite unpleasant people who treat local people badly. And there have been a few bad tourists. Please do your best not to become one of these people.
As for your status as a tourist, tourists in the south are so uncommon that sometimes people assume I (as a Tajik-speaker) am a missionary or a spy (but this is said behind my back and has led to no problems). The more sensible people assume that I or other visitors to the south work for an NGO or international organisation (e.g., UN). Most local people refer generically to all of these organisations as “organizatsiya.” Some also ask if I work for the ‘oon’ (the UN, but the term is often used locally for many different international organisations).
My only regular (small) annoyance is with people who persistently ask my advice on how to get a visa to the United States or to European countries (it’s not always easy to persuade them that you have no idea).
4. Race, Religion, Ethnicity and Citizenship: White westerners, Russians and East Asians will be treated better in the south than will those from South Asia or the Middle East. Local police have detained and extorted Indians on a number of occasions, for example. I have not talked to any black people who have visited the south (I would expect long, curious stares). British, European and American travellers all report being treated well.
How about religion? Being Christian or Jewish is just fine, and I have only ever had one person attempt to convert me (the other local passengers in the shared taxi eventually lost patience with him and told him to respect my religion). Do not identify as an atheist (atheists are generally considered bad and immoral people who have rejected God).
5. Female Travellers: Single with no children? Then you are an object of pity and curiosity (the bad kind). For random encounters, I suggest inventing a fake husband and fake children, or you will be stuck in a long and uncomfortable conversation. The sexual harassment and molestation that is so common in Dushanbe is far less prevalent in the cities of the south, but it does happen. It’s usually just staring. As for more serious concerns, don’t walk alone after dark in the cities of Kulob or Qurghonteppa. I know women that have done it, and some reported no problems, but at least one woman (who worked locally for one year) once had to fight off men who grabbed her and tried to drag her away. Rural areas and smaller towns in the south are very, very safe for foreign women. You can even go swimming in these areas (only go swimming in the canals in Qurghonteppa if you want a very large audience). Note: The 44 Springs have a female-only swimming area.
If you need help, local women are your friends. They are very protective and kind. As for talking to boys, they are far less annoying than the boys in Dushanbe, and some of them may honestly just want to practice their English or welcome you to Tajikistan. If you are confident and you speak Russian or Tajik, you can travel anywhere in the south without a man (you will, however, be considered quite odd). I know women who cycled around the south and camped outside or stayed in villages (they just asked old women if they knew of a good place to sleep for the night).
6. Restricted Zones: Along the border you need an official document of permission to leave the main roads. There is no reason to go off the main roads along the border unless you are explicitly looking for trouble. The threat is most likely not from Afghans, but from land mines and very strict Tajik border guards. For tourists, the only places this is relevant for you is Takhti Sangin and in parts of the Shuroobod District (e.g., Tajik road workers were attacked and kidnapped here [near Dashti Jum] in March 2016). Other than that, don’t go to the border except when you are on a road that leads elsewhere (e.g., the southern route to the Pamirs goes along the river border for quite a long distance, and you will need the GBAO/Pamirs travel permit to travel this road).
There’s nothing worth seeing along Khatlon Province’s isolated border with Uzbekistan. Don’t go there – it’s very dangerous (it’s mined and strictly guarded by the Uzbek border forces).
Also, don’t expect access to the hydroelectric dams up and down the Vakhsh River. Don’t try to hike on or near the dam in Nurek, and realise that the dams further down the river (Baipaza, Sangtuda-1 and 2, and Golovnaya) should only be photographed from a distance. Example: this photo below of Sangtuda-2, taken by Kiliman, is about as close as you want to be standing when you take photos.
If you are driving south of Qizilqala on your way to Qubodiyon/Shahrtuz, don’t try to stop or take photos on the Russian military training grounds next to the road (located here). Also, if you stop to take a photo of the statues next to the Fakhrobod Military Base south of Dushanbe, don’t linger too long, and don’t wander over to the base. Also, don’t try to photograph the Russian military base that is in the centre of the city of Qurghonteppa.
Don’t photograph checkpoints or smaller military/police installations. Don’t photograph buildings if you don’t know what they are (e.g., is that pretty pastel-coloured neo-classical style building that you just photographed a law enforcement facility?).
7. Money: Bring cash. Everyone knows the $US exchange rate, and will gladly accept it as payment. There are ATMs in the bigger towns that accept foreign bank cards, but sometimes they are not working or don’t have $US to dispense. As for exchange points, you can exchange $US, Euros and Russian roubles. However, there are currently government restrictions being introduced on currency exchanges in Tajikistan.
I will report on the situation sometime during Spring 2016. Note: bring as many small Tajik Somoni banknotes as possible. Some taxi drivers and vendors in the bazaar don’t always have change (e.g., the lady selling bread for 2 Somoni probably won’t have change for your 50 or 20 Somoni banknote). This is a common problem throughout Tajikistan.
There is the usual haggling over prices, but I’ve noticed no habit of anybody in the bazaars or taxis of the south asking for way more than the locals pay. As for hotels, I don’t know. I and the travellers I know never stay in them for good reason (see advice on accommodation here).
8. Hospitality: First of all, an invitation to sit down for tea or to come in for a meal is not always a genuine invitation. It can be just a formalised ritual of offering hospitality (similar to some aspects of Iranian ta’rof). They may not even have food or tea to offer. So refuse or make an excuse for the first few offers, and give in only if they are really insistent multiple times. Also, visitors have been invited for tea or a meal by men who did not inform their mothers or wives that a guest was coming over. Just realise that unexpected guests can be a burden. That dinner you’re eating may cause a poor family and their children to go hungry for the next day or two.
Also take into account that Khatlon Province has the highest rates of poverty in Tajikistan. So if you are travelling in a rural area and someone invites you to stay at their place for the night, pay them or give them something if the family appears poor. If they refuse multiple times, sneakily give it to their children as you leave. Of course, some families are quite comfortably middle-class by local standards and can easily dispense hospitality generously. Use your judgement in these circumstances.
Vegetarian or vegan? Good luck with that… Many people in the south do not understand the concept. Your hosts will definitely make an extra effort to serve you a dish with meat, because that’s what good hosts do in the local culture.
9. Health: There are not a lot of public toilets in the south. Ask at a restaurant or at a private home. There is usually a basic outhouse nearby. I’ve notice that some women avoid drinking so that they don’t need to use a toilet as often. Don’t do this in the summer, or you may end up with dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Insects? The mosquito problem is about the same as Dushanbe. I have a lightweight mosquito net that I travel with during mosquito season. It’s worth its weight in gold. As for insect repellent, I never use it. Usually the mosquitoes are only a problem at night (and then I am under a mosquito net). But it’s worth bringing just in case.
I also have a lightweight sleep liner to keep crawling insects from biting me (e.g., bedbugs, just like in Dushanbe). I’ve only had a problem with bedbugs once in the south, but it was bad enough that I was still miserable a full week after being bitten. I now use a lightweight insect-proof sleeping bag liner that works great in hot weather (by itself), or under blankets or a sleeping bag (link to product here and another model with pillow insert space here):
How about other biting creatures? There are snakes in a few areas, such as in Sari Khosor (cobras), so ask the locals before you go for a walk in the tall grass. But the situation is not like India. Snakes bites are very rare.
As for avoiding illnesses and infections, I suggest you read the Tajikistan travel advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The only special advice I have here is for you to bring travel antibiotics. Cipro is losing its effectiveness in Tajikistan (due to overuse and the resulting antibiotic resistant strains), so the stronger (and more expensive) Azithromycin is what I ask my doctor for (for example, to treat traveller’s diarrhoea and vomiting cause by bacteria infection via food/water). I averaged one infection every 9 months. Other foreigners got it more often. I now avoid ground/minced meat (hamburgers, lavash, shawarma, etc.). Sorry vegetarians, you can also get sick from fruits and vegetables.
If you get really sick and can’t hold down the antibiotic pills without immediately vomiting them up, go to a doctor and they will inject you with antibiotics.
10. Best time to visit: It depends on the activity or destination. You can visit all year-round, as the south is usually not affected by extreme weather. Snowfall is minimal and it rains much less than in Dushanbe. Just be aware that during the height of the summer it is too hot to be hiking or walking long distances around the south, unless you are in the higher elevations. But summer is a great time to swim. Check the pages for individual locations for further advice on the best time to visit. Want to see green hills? Late spring and early summer is when most of the rain falls, and the hills are emerald green. But I also enjoy the baked golden-brown coloured hills of late summer. This is the difference between the dry late summer and the early spring green season:
11. What to bring: As mentioned above, bring antibiotics, plenty of cash, photocopies of your passport and visa, a mosquito net during the mosquito season and an anti-insect sleeping bag liner. You can buy food and drinks (including water) nearly anywhere in southern Tajikistan (in villages, at the roadside, etc). But we also suggest water purification drops (these ones, for example) for emergencies or for drinking water from the river or creeks. Water purification tablets and other systems work as well, but they take longer. And for you pale-skinned people, don’t forget the sun: bring sunblock cream. All the basics are available to buy in the local bazaars and shops (soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, razors, basic batteries, extra clothing, etc.).
What else? I suggest extra batteries for your camera and phone, as electricity is less reliable in the south than in Dushanbe. We also suggest an external batter pack with USB plug-in that can charge your smartphone multiple times. Click here for examples of this product. As for maps, read our special section on maps and GPS navigation.
Aside from this, just bring what you usually bring when you travel or backpack.
12. Random advice: Don’t photograph people without their permission. Do your best to avoid discussions on religion, politics, war and sex. Being homosexual or vegan is absolutely impossible. And, as a friendly reminder, don’t photograph people without their permission.
If you are an expat who is used to life in Dushanbe (or Bishkek or Almaty or Moscow), you need to be a little softer and less hard-edged with people. Sometimes you have no choice but to be rude to people in Dushanbe, or you become adjusted to harsher social interactions. But in the south you will end up hurting people’s feelings. So don’t be a jerk.
Finally, note that this advice is not 100%. This is based on travellers’ average experience and is not a guarantee and what can and will happen.
Do you have any specialised inquiries? We’ll do our best to answer them. You can find our email contact on our About page.