If you don’t have a guide taking care of everything for you, then you will need (a) your own map, and (b) the ability to read the Cyrillic alphabet.
First of all, you should have a paper map on you for when your smart phone fails. I recommend the Southern Tajikistan Tourist Map.
I’ve been using this map since 2009, and it I have found it perfectly accurate. There are other cheaper maps of the south available to buy in Dushanbe, but they are either too large in scale, or too poor in detail. Also, this map shows topographical features and includes other useful tourist information that other maps lack. It is easy to find this map for sale online, and I have seen it occasionally for sale in Dushanbe. For reference, the map was created by Markus Hauser through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and published by Gecko Maps.
Online and Smartphone Maps
As for options online and on your phone, Google Maps and Google Earth are good enough for the main and secondary roads. If you use the satellite image view in Google Maps, you can actually zoom in to see many of the locations listed on this website. The ‘terrain’ view option in Google Maps is also useful, as it provides topographical lines, elevation markers, and shading for your hikes into the hills and mountains. Drawbacks: Google Maps and Google Earth do not allow you to download maps for use offline (a problem when you have a weak signal, no data or no SIM card for Tajikistan).
MAPS.ME is the most popular offline smartphone map app. You can download all of Tajikistan and navigate by GPS (with a clear view of the sky). However, this map is only good for the main roads and cities.
If you are looking for a more specialised map, I suggest that you download the “Soviet Military Maps” app to your phone. These topographical maps are incredibly detailed — but a little out of date in a few instances (rivers move about, bridges disappear, new roads get built, towns change their names, etc.). These maps include layers from Google Maps and other second party map tools.
The drawback is that you need to be able to read Russian. Also, many of the names on the map have now been changed from Soviet era names to new Tajik names (e.g., below on the right is “Kalininabad,” now called Sarband). This is not too big a problem locally, as everybody knows the old names, and some are still in use locally.
Below are two screenshot examples from southern Tajikistan:
You can find this app in your app store for free (iTunes or Google Play). In addition to the free version, there is a ‘Pro’ version that comes without ads and has some extra features. More information here. I suggest the paid ‘Pro’ version, as it allows you to download map sections to use offline – important as you may lose a signal, have only a weak connections, or not have any data to download map images.
If you want a more up-to-date map, and you don’t care about topographical lines, I suggest Wikimapia, a Russian product (layered over Google Maps). Wikimapia is regularly updated and is open to editing. Tajikistan is very well covered – but mostly in Russian and Tajik. The smartphone app is a free download, and like Google Maps you can also explore the map online when planning your trip, as it is not just a smartphone app. Wikimapia is open to editing, and volunteers at Sworde-Teppa are regularly adding many more details to Khatlon Province.
Here is a sample Wikimapia screenshot of Norak, note that every shape in the map will show a name when scrolled over or zoomed in on. Click this map to see how it looks full size:
Open Street Map is an excellent tool (both a smartphone app and online). The app is called “OsmAnd.” You can buy a plugin with topographical features for just over $2. The rest of the map of Tajikistan can be downloaded for free for your offline use (25MB). So download the Tajikistan offline map before you come to Tajikistan.
GPS and Navigation (with and without mobile phone service)
If you are skilled with maps and mobile GPS apps, then I strongly suggest you experiment with various map downloaders, offline GPS navigators, and other types of useful mobile apps before you start your trip. Some GPS apps that are great in Europe and North America are not very good in Tajikistan.
Do not count on having a reliable signal through the more sparsely populated areas in the south — this a problem for Google Maps navigation. The satellite GPS on your phone will work without mobile/cell service (e.g., in the unpopulated isolated areas), but your phone cannot view Google Maps without a connection and a local data plan. Google Maps does not allow for you to download maps of Tajikistan. The solution for this is to use a map app that allows you do download sections of the maps for use later. For this, use the Soviet Military Maps apps mentioned above, or, if you are going into the wilderness/mountains and you are good at reading topographical maps, use the “Backcountry Navigator” GPS app. It will allow you to download the topographical maps of Tajikistan that you need. OsmAnd offers the same feature as a plugin for $2.
Here’s a screenshot sample from the Backcountry Navigator GPS app on my phone (Mt. Khoja Maston on the top left, and the Vakhsh River bottom right):
Another good backcountry map app is Wikiloc, you can download a full offline map of Tajikistan at just under 600MB. However, we only suggest it for use in the mountains and backcountry. The details for towns and roads are inferior to the other apps listed.
If you don’t have the time or desire to download map data with a map downloader app, then just zoom in on all the areas you plan on visiting (e.g., on Google Maps), and your phone will cache the map data for use later (but an update or data clean-up app might erase that). You will eventually lose the cached map images, so I really suggest using the paid versions of Soviet Military Maps and/or Backcountry Navigator.
In 2017 and 2018, Sworde-Teppa volunteers will be creating GPS tracks, especially of walks and hikes, and of drives on secondary and 4×4 roads. These tracks will then be added to the page for each destination for you to upload to your phone and view on one of the map apps listed above.
For now, I suggest you do what I do: buy the paper map and download all of the map applications to your phone. There is no reason you shouldn’t switch back and forth between the different maps depending on circumstances. As for what map works best where and for what, it really depends on the location you are going to and what you will be doing there (example: city or sparsely populated rural area? Just driving, or hiking up a mountain?).
And….don’t count on electricity. Your phone battery will die in southern Tajikistan. You may arrive to a guesthouse just to be informed that the electricity supply has been switched off, and that it probably won’t come back on until the next morning. I suggest that you buy an extra phone battery or a portable battery source with a USB plug-in for your phone charger (examples: this one delivers a full charge to your phone, and this one delivers 6 full charges).
Improving the maps
Throughout 2017 and 2018, volunteers will be making edits to some of the maps listed above (for now we are editing Wikimapia and Open Street Map and waiting for Google to give us permission to edit Google Maps). The goal is to label as many tourist and transportation locations as possible. We will also produce dedicated maps for certain tourist zones that can be downloaded and printed.