The best things to do in Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Dushanbe is a city of reinvention. Normally large urban areas evolve organically, changing slowly with broad trends and a shifting population. But the history of Dushanbe is punctuated with dramatic changes that have fundamentally altered the character of Tajikistan’s largest city.
Looking at it today – a sprawling centre with a population of just under a million people, palatial public zones, and bustling entertainment districts – it’s hard to believe what it looked like less than a century ago.
Dushanbe started as a small village and its name gives a hint to its original purpose. The Tajik word ‘Dushanbe’ actually means ‘Monday’ in English, and the village got its name because a weekly market was held here every Monday.
People would come down from the mountains with their goods and trade with each other. The rest of the week, not much happened in Dushanbe. Only a few thousand people actually lived here.
That was how it was for centuries – until 1924, when it was named as the capital of the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the USSR.
The Soviets turned the region into a centre for cotton and silk production and tens of thousands of people flooded in. Dushanbe was renamed to ‘Stalinabad’ in 1929, in honour of Joseph Stalin. Within just a few years, the city had been unrecognisably changed.
When I visit, you can still see some of the Soviet influence in the architecture and the urban layout of Dushanbe – particularly in some of the residential apartment blocks.
But, what’s also obvious is that there is not nearly as much Soviet architecture in Dushanbe as you find in the other capitals of Central Asia.
This is not accidental. The authorities in Tajikistan have made a concerted effort since independence to demolish as many buildings from the Soviet era as possible, and replace them with modern structures that project the image of a new sovereign country.
It’s another of the big moments that is quickly changing the face of Dushanbe. There are the old districts that are yet to be touched, parts of the city look like a construction zone, while other areas that have already been rejuvenated look much fresher than you expect in these often dusty countries.
There’s a great example of Dushanbe’s transformation in the city’s two best museums, with their appearances completely different from the other.
National Museum of Antiquities of Tajikistan
First, the National Museum of Antiquities of Tajikistan in Dushanbe. The name refers to the exhibits inside but you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s the building itself that is one of the antiquities. It feels tired, with tatty carpet and old air-conditioning units sitting in the hallways
But the museum has an excellent collection of artefacts that have been collected in the country and represent the most important eras over millennia of history.
There are items from Sarazm, for instance, which is considered to be the oldest city in Central Asia. Of particular note in this section is the ‘Lady of Sarazm’, the skeleton of a woman who was buried in the 4th century BC and covered with colourful lapis beads and seashell bracelets.
And the highlight is the 13-metre-long reclining Buddha that was found in Ajina Teppe and is about 1500 years old. It’s the largest Buddha found in Central Asia and is an incredible sight, even if it is presented rather unceremoniously in an upstairs room of the museum.
Beyond these artefacts, there are hundreds of other fascinating items and anyone with an interest in the region’s history will be impressed – although it may be best to bring a guide to get the most out of it.
National Museum of Tajikistan
Meanwhile, at the National Museum of Tajikistan, you’ll also find the reclining Buddha on display – except this one is a replica. However, it is presented with much more fanfare, with its own special room and dramatic lighting.
Everything at the museum is glossier. It’s an enormous building that opened in 2011, with a cavernous foyer and 22 large exhibition rooms spread out over four floors.
The collections in the museum range from the geology of the region, to the animals of Tajikistan, through different historical periods and right up to modern times. There are also art galleries and spaces for temporary exhibitions.
You could spend hours here exploring it all – and maybe you would want to. Especially if you have a guide, you’ll find there’s more information than you could possibly retain.
But beyond the collections and the exhibits, it’s the scale and boldness of the building that tells you so much about Dushanbe today.
This boldness continues outside the building and into Rudaki Park, which flows out south of the National Museum of Tajikistan as an enormous landscaping of lawns, lakes, and interconnected pathways.
This is the ceremonial centre of Dushanbe and it has some of the city’s (and country’s) most important landmarks.
The most obvious one is the huge flagpole that rises up from the side of the lake. It is 165 metres high and was the tallest flagpole in the world when it was built in 2010, but was overtaken about four years later by a new flagpole in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
There are some very important statues here, including the 9th-century writer Rudaki (for whom the park is named) and the 9th-century leader, Ismail Somoni, who the national currency is named after.
The park is a very pleasant space and it’s easy to spend some time wandering around seeing the different sights. It’s popular with locals so you’ll see a nice slice of local life here too.
Travelling through the lands of the Silk Road, one of the things I always enjoy experiencing are the local bazaars, which always conjure up a romantic connection to the region’s heritage, in my mind.
In Dushanbe, though, even the bazaars have not completely survived the push for regeneration, and some of the most famous ones in the city have closed or been demolished in recent years.
To replace them, the modern Mehrgon Market was built, and it’s certainly a beautiful building. While it is was only opened in 2014, it has taken some of its design influence from traditional Tajik architecture.
Like all Central Asian bazaars, there are stalls with colourful fruits and nuts, sweets and breads, all the food that is so generously offered at dining tables across the country. It’s very photogenic and I enjoy my time exploring it, but I do wonder how warmly it’s been embraced by local residents.
About 30 kilometres away from Dushanbe is another of the most popular sights for visitors (and locals), Hissar Fort.
It was built in the 18th century with thick walls and and an impressive gateway with cylindrical towers on each side. Most of it was destroyed by the Russians in 1924 and has since been reconstructed. The gateway is original, though.
On the same site, there’s a madrasa from the 17th century that has been turned into a museum. The rooms around the courtyard have small exhibitions about life in the islamic school and in the region around it.
Even though a lot of the structures in and around Hissar Fort are recreations, there’s a nice atmosphere here and it’s very photogenic, with lovely viewpoints from up on the wall and from the rear gate. I visited at sunset and the light was lovely.
Food and drink
Before I finish up, I want to offer a few suggestions for places to eat and drink in Dushanbe. It’s a lively city and you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding anything, but there are a few particular places to take note of.
The first is the Rokhat Teahouse, an institution in Dushanbe that’s been operating on the main street since 1958. The breeze flows through the teahouse, which doesn’t have walls on two sides, and the ceiling and columns are beautifully decorated. The meals are generous and affordable, with a great selection of local delicacies.
One of the most famous Tajik dishes is Qurutob, which is made from pieces of flatbread soaked in a sour milky liquid, topped with vegetables (sometimes with optional meat too). You’ll be able to find it in a few places, but the local recommendation for the best in town is Olim Qurutob restaurant. (See it on a map here.)
It’s a little way out of the centre, so you’ll need to organise transportation, but you’ll be eating it with your hands with the locals for a very authentic Tajik experience.
And, after all of this, I think you’ll deserve a beer. Luckily there’s a local brewery that serves fresh draught beer and food.
The beer is called Sim Sim and, if you travel around Tajikistan, you’ll come across it in huge plastic bottles of a litre or more. So, it’s a bit of a treat to visit the brewery where it all comes from (a bit like visiting the Heineken brewery in Amsterdam).
A pint of the draught beer costs 7 som (about US$0.70) so it’s easy to make a fun night of it all, if you want.
Dushanbe is full of surprises. It’s not what you would expect from the capital of Tajikistan but, then again, it is changing so rapidly, it’s impossible to know what to expect.
All I know is that the few thousand people who were living here less than a century ago would be stunned with what it has become today. It’s about a lot more than just Mondays.
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