East of Dushanbe lies the Rasht valley. It is seldom visited by foreigners because of the cul-de-sac posed by the closed Kyrgyz-Tajik border at Jirgital. Should the border open one day, expect the Rasht valley to surge in popularity. It makes for a much better Pamir highway loop than the long way round via Dushanbe and Khujand, and there is plenty of natural beauty and couleur locale to get a taste of Tajikistan outside of the Pamirs.
Due to being a former stronghold of the opposition during the civil war, and the closed border crossing with Kyrgyzstan, this valley is both underdeveloped and a dead end for tourists. This, however, leaves it open as a relatively underexplored region of Tajikistan.
Location and geography
The official name is Rasht, but it is also known as the Karotegin or Gharm valley, from the name of the main town. It follows the upper reaches of the Vaksh river as it courses between the high peaks of the Pamirs to the east, and the Zarafshan range to the west. Many of the dramatic peaks are snow capped throughout the year, some over 5000 m.
The valley is broader than those in the Pamirs, and there is a greater variety of scenery and vegetation, a blend of brown, forbidding rock, and lush green fields that keep their colour much longer than the rest of the country. You are almost in Kyrgyzstan in this sense. There are a number of pleasant towns and villages, and the area is known for its wildlife, fishing and trekking.
The climate is cool in spring and autumn, rising to 25 – 30 degrees in summer. Winters are cold, but not as severe as in the Pamirs. The road from Dushanbe is open most of the year, but can be blocked by snow in mid-winter, and by mudslides in spring following rain. Visitors should be aware that in winter electricity supply is minimal.
The Rasht valley was once an important branch of the Silk Road known as the Karotegin route, serving caravan traffic from northern Afghanistan on their way to Kashgar in China. The route started in Hulbuk and followed the river to its headwaters, over the Karamyk Pass to Daroot Korgon and Sary Tash, into China via the Irkeshtam Pass. In the 18th century the population was still mainly Kyrgyz here, but a deadly epidemic decimated the population, and Tajik people from the Bukhara area moved in.
The Rasht valley, and in particular the town of Gharm, was the scene of intense fighting during the civil war. It was not a safe place to visit until the end of the 90s. That’s already 20 years ago and security is fine these days, but families and buildings still carry the scars of a violent past; the derelict factories, resistance hideouts and abandoned personnel carriers are poignant reminders of the violent past.
On the road to Rasht
Heading east from Dushanbe, the road gets more hilly after about 50 km, when it bypasses Faizobod, a small town that holds the recently reconstructed mausoleum of Sari Mazar, built for Abu Abdurahmon (761-852), a Sufi saint from Balkh.
At 96km Ob-i Gharm is reached, a town with 5 basic spas, with separate bathing for men and women. There is a recently renovated sanatorium at the start of the town, not to be confused with the Khoja Obi Garm sanatorium north of Dushanbe.
Just beyond Ob-i Gharm across the valley lies the town of Roghun, built for the workers of the controversial mega-dam of the same name. Getting a close-up look at the dam is not easy.
The road follows along a bluff above the river, through pleasant villages. The last town before the road crosses the river is Darband. The town is just off the main road, but is worth a stopover if you are thirsty for the central choikhona with intricate woodcarving and the old mulberry tree in front. There are great views across the valley to the mountains.
Not far from Darband lies the main junction, near the hamlet of Sarijar. Turn left for the Rasht Valley. The main road continues to Tavildara and the Pamirs across the difficult Tavildara Pass.
Beyond the hamlet is a grass covered hill that appears to be part of the natural landscape. In fact, it is the fortress of Darband, with three separate, but interlinked forts covering many hectares. The outer walls are clearly visible. There are magnificent views of the Pamirs. The forts controlled the entrance to the Rasht valley. There is an easy route to the tops. About 2km along the road to Gharm is a signpost to Gargana on the right. Follow the track for 300m and there is a short, easy path to the forts. Just next to the forts are the derelict remains of a large industrial complex.
Although there is really no limit to the exploring you can do in the Rasht Valley, especially if you have some language skills, the best bet for the generally interested tourist is to visit the village of Jafr.
Jafr Botanic Gardens
18km past the town of Gharm is the town of Jafr, home to the Kuhsori Ajam Botanical Gardens (OSM). These gardens are the project of Tajikistan’s most interesting man, Mirzoshoh Akobirov, an amateur botanist who is creating new varieties of fruit trees and promoting biodiversity in the landscape around the village of Jafr. Musician, historian, story-teller and all-round intellectual, his vision has been movingly portrayed by Joe Schottenfeld.
The botanic gardens include a guesthouse (OSM) and an (under construction) museum. Mirzoshoh speaks Tajik and Russian and can be reached at +992 98 804 8059; it’s a good idea to call in advance to make reservations ($10 per person, meals extra), but you can also take your chances and arrive unannounced.
For $20 you can get a group tour of the biodiversity projects in the area. Horse trekking is $20 per person.
There is great scope for walking, trekking and mountain biking. Independent hikers can carve out their own adventure.
One excellent option would be the 3-day traverse from Jelondy near Jirgital to Langar near Tavildara, across the Gardan-i-Kaftar Pass (don’t stray off the path where the landmine signs are!). It leads to one of the most secluded valleys in the Pamirs with hidden, reclusive villages. Culturally, it’s a fascinating blend of Tajiks and Kyrgyz living together and speaking both languages fluently. In Soviet times it was a popular destination for trekkers, but it is now seldom visited by foreigners except for a few French butterfly experts who visit every year.
This paragraph comes from Trekking in Tajikistan, which has all the route info, guide and transport contacts, gpx files and other details you need to organise this trek.
4 hours driving time, 80% paved road. Start at the ‘Gharm or Kulob avtostantsiya’ on the east side of Dushanbe (OSM), ~70 somoni for a seat to the central town of Gharm.
The drive will take 4 hours, plus a 30 minutes stop at a restaurant stop near the halfway point in the village of Aligalabon. There is also a marshrutka that goes to Gharm. It will be far cheaper and far slower and may not have space for your large trekking bags.
Once in the town of Gharm you can then start finding transport up the valley. The starting point should be on the main street in front of the town’s mini-bazaar (OSM).
From the mini-bazaar, look for a shared taxi by calling out ‘Jafr! Bogi Botanik!’. A seat should be 5 Somoni per person – cheap enough to buy out the car to leave immediately with empty seats.
Return to Dushanbe
On weekdays it will be easy enough to find a car in the village of Jafr that is heading towards Gharm (5 somoni). Once in Gharm, taxis to Dushanbe collect 1 km south of the bazaar (OSM). Prices could be lower than the 70 somoni to get here since the supply of drivers tends to be large.
Rasht Valley as part of the Pamir Highway
Pamir Highway drivers avoid the northern route to Dushanbe via Tavildara because they can go quicker going the southern route via the Khatlon lowlands, and their car is more likely to survive compared to the rough road that goes through the Tavildara and Khaburobot passes.
But if you are not going on public transport, you can tell your driver you want to go to Rasht and he will go, if you negotiate the right price. So it is possible to do the northern route, or better yet, to go past the turn-off up the road to the village of Jafr to spend the night (Gmap itinerary).
Rasht valley to Khatlon
A very, very rough road going along the Yakhsu valley connects Tavildara with Khovaling. For adventurers who know their 4WD well.
There should not be a problem in turning up at a guesthouse and finding a bed. However, our experience is that even if a guesthouse is full, or there is no guesthouse to begin with, somebody will appear who will sort out somewhere to stay the night.
We welcome your accommodation reviews.
Jirgatol: Hotel Safariyon offers basic accommodation for 70 somoni per person per night, including breakfast, and you can order hot meals as well.