Advice and Travel Warnings for Southern Tajikistan's Khatlon Province
This page offers 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 and warnings for tourist visits to 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.
There was a terrorist attack in 2018 that killed 4 cyclists, right? Yes. This happened in Khatlon on the main highway from Dushanbe to Kulob. I suggest ignoring most of what you read about this in major western media outlets. I suggest reading Caravanistan’s post on the subject. I agree with Caravanistan, and I would add that the last previous terrorist attack on foreigners in Tajikistan was a brief kidnapping of four German aid workers in 2001 in eastern Tajikistan in which nobody was killed. Since the attack in 2018 there have been no repeat attacks. I feel safer here than in a major European city or airport.
Regional and Local Context
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 (but note that now that the government has decided to promote tourism, tourists are treated far, far better by law enforcement). 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 (or, at worst, they want 20 Somoni for a fare that most pay 15 for).
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.
Personal Safety and Extortion
Race, Religion, Ethnicity and Citizenship
Best time to visit
What to bring
1. Travel Warnings
For problems of current insecurity (terrorism, insecurity, civil unrest, etc.), I suggest that you refer to the British government warnings for visitors to Tajikistan. However, American and British travel warnings have never been able to predict the future, and, despite the 2018 attack, Tajikistan is a far safer place than these official government warnings make it appear to be. Between 2001 and 2018 there were zero terrorist attacks on westerners.
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 Kyrgyzstan, 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 seriously 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) in 2014. And police in Bokhtar tried to extort a group of Indian doctors. But this was before the government’s order to respect tourists as part of its tourism promotion programme initiated in 2016.
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 not 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.
The main problem with safety is on the road. Drivers are very reckless and accidents happen regularly.
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.
4. Race, Religion, Ethnicity and Citizenship: White westerners, Russians and Japanese/Koreans will be treated better in the south than will those from South Asia, the Middle East or China. 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. Asian-Americans report that they were treated better once they made clear that they were American (but with the obligatory “But where are you really from?”)
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 occasionally curiosity (the bad kind) in Tajikistan. For random encounters, I suggest inventing a fake husband and fake children, or you will be stuck in a long and uncomfortable conversation. The polite 99% usually do not try to strike up conversations with foreign women they do not know. So your unwanted conversations are usually with the 1%.
The sexual harassment and molestation that happens 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/Bokhtar. 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 the bigger towns if you want a very large audience). Note: The 44 Springs have a female-only swimming area.
The south of Tajikistan is more socially conservative than Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and the Pamir Highway. There is more gender segregation and it is less egalitarian in gender norms.
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 (now Shamsiddin Shohin District). 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 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.
7. Photography: The dams further down the river (Baipaza, Sangtuda-1 and 2, and Golovnaya) should only be photographed from a distance. Informal rules for Photography at Nurek/Norak are more relaxed. 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/Bokhtar.
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?).
DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH PEOPLE WITHOUT THEIR PERMISSION. This is not the Pamir highway, nor the Dushanbe bazaars. People here are not accustomed to being photographed by strangers. How would you feel if a strange foreigner came to your hometown and photographed your children in a playground and you while you work?
8. Money: Bring cash. Cards are extremely uncommon. Everyone knows the $US exchange rate, and many will gladly accept it informally 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. I suggest stocking up on cash in Dushanbe. The KazKom ATMs in the Sheraton Hotel and next to the Volna store are the more reliable.
As for exchange points, you can exchange $US, Euros and Russian roubles. However, government restrictions were introduced on independent currency exchanges in Tajikistan. In some places you can only go to a bank (and only during banking hours). 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.
9. Hospitality and food: 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 somtimes 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 or longer.
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 ($10 for one person, minimum). 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.
10. 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 or squat toilet 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 if you want to sleep with the window open at night. 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 (in a decade), 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.
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 gastrointestinal infection every 9 months. Other foreigners got it more often. I now avoid ground/minced meat (hamburgers, lavash, shawarma, etc.). I also refuse Russian salads that are full of mayonnaise. 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. The situation here is no worse than the Pamir Highway.
11. 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.
12. 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.
Aside from this, just bring what you usually bring when you travel or backpack. But travel will be much easier if you store your extra baggage at your accommodation in Dushanbe.
13. Dress code: Shorts and t-shirts are OK in the cities and bigger towns in southern Tajikistan. But not short-shorts. They should cover your knees. In people’s homes and in the villages you should not wear shorts, and women should not have bare shoulders. Blue jeans for women are OK in the bigger towns.
When you are out in the mountains and nature the dress code is more flexible, for both men and women. It is more strict here than in Kyrgyzstan or the Pamir Highway. But almost nobody expects a foreign woman to wear a hijab or cover her hair in any way (but mosques and shrines may require this).
14. 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 contact info here.