Situated only three hours from the border with Afghanistan is the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, lying in the Hissar valley in the southwest of the country. Known primarily for its Monday market (the name Dushanbe is derived from the Tajik word for Monday), it was no more than a village until the Trans-Caspian Railway reached it in 1929. Soviet power had only been established in the region for six years and, somewhat unoriginally, the city was renamed Stalinabad and proclaimed capital of the new Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan. It was from here that Brezhnev launched his invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The main points of interest all lie on, or are close to Prospekt Rudaki, which runs from the railway station in the south to the bus station in the north. As well as the principal mosque, this area boasts a synagogue that dates back to the late-19th century, a Russian church and a columned opera house. Other features in the city include the Tajikistan Unified Museum, situated just north of the railway station in Ploshchad Aym, which has stuffed snow leopards and Marco Polo sheep amongst its exhibits. The ethnographic museum is on ulitsa Somoni, not far from the Hotel Tajikistan.
16km (10 miles) west of Dushanbe lies the Hissar Port, a site built between the 16th and 19th centuries which contains, among other things, a ruined citadel, two madrassahs (Islamic seminaries), a caravanserai and a mausoleum. Further west, at Penjikent on the Uzbek border, lie the remains of a Sogdian fort that are only now being excavated. The frescoes in Penjikent are reputed to be extremely fine. South of Penjikent lie the Muragazor Lakes, a system of seven lakes of differing colors that change as the light alters. There are remains of Buddhist temples near Kurgan-Tyube in the south, from which the biggest Buddha in Central Asia was recovered and is now stored, ignominiously carved up into 60 pieces, in Dushanbe.
The Pamirs are at the hub of Asia. Often described as the Roof of the World, these mountains form one of the most unexplored regions on earth. High, cold and remote, they have attracted climbers and hunters from the former Soviet Union for years, but only now are they opening up for the rest of the world. The bulk of the Pamir lies in the semi-autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan and visitors should be aware that some elements have been conducting an armed campaign to gain even more autonomy. However, the campaign has been confined to a number of well-defined theaters, most of which are well away from areas likely to interest visitors; the road between Dushanbe and Khorog is the exception.
The only town of any significance on the Pamir Highway, which stretches from Dushanbe into Kyrgyzstan, is Khorog. The capital of the eastern Tajik region of Gorno-Badakhshan, Khorog is a small one-street town with a museum containing stuffed animals and a display of photographs of Lenin. The flight into Khorog from the Tajik capital is said to be the most difficult in the world. Lake Sareskoye, in the heart of the Pamirs, was formed in 1911 when the side of a mountain was dislodged by an earthquake and fell into the path of a mountain river. In the north of the Pamirs, Lake Kara-Kul, formed by a meteor 10 million years ago, is 3915m (12,844ft) above sea-level and hence too high for any aquatic life. Pik Lenina and Mount Garmo (formerly Pik Kommunizma) are to the northwest and west respectively of Lake Kara-Kul. At well over 7000m (22,966ft), these two peaks tower over Tajikistan and the neighboring republic of Kyrgyzstan to the north. Helicopter flights are available for those wishing to climb them. Some people are convinced that yetis are alive and thriving in this remote wilderness.
The Silk Road
This ancient trading route was used by silk merchants from the second century until its decline in the 14th century, and is open in parts to tourists, stretching from northern China, through bleak and foreboding desert and mountainous terrain, to the ports on either the Caspian Sea or Mediterranean Sea. For further details of the route, see Silk Road in the China section.
The main highlight for travelers along the Silk Road in Tajikistan is its stunning natural scenery set against the Pamir and Fan mountains and incorporating lush valleys and turquoise lakes. Trekking trips are best arranged from Samarkand (Uzbekistan).
Travel along the Silk Road can be quite difficult due to the terrain, harsh climate and lack of developed infrastructure. Visitors to the region are advised to travel with an organized tour company or travel agent.