Of the 5 stans Caravanistan covers in depth, Tajikistan is the most culturally sensitive one. Tarof is a typically Persian thing that anyone who has been to Iran will be familiar with. If you haven’t been to Iran yet, you should read up to avoid embarassment.
Male-female relations are strictly patriarchal in the Tajik areas of the country. The Pamiris, following the Ismaili Shia branch of Islam, have less restrictions on the behaviour of women.
Large Tajik minorities live in Uzbekistan, especially in Samarkand and Bukhara. All the same, you will find many of the rules below also govern behaviour among Uzbeks.
Tarof and hospitality
Tarof governs the rules of hospitality: a host is obliged to offer anything a guest might want, and a guest is equally obliged to refuse it. This ritual will repeat itself several times. Only when an offer is extended for the fourth time can you be certain it is genuine.
If you accept on the first go, you might have saddled your host with an unwanted guest and an extra mouth to feed. So make sure the offer is genuine. Refuse 3 times.
In rural Tajikistan, and especially in the Pamirs, food security is an issue. But when you offer to pay your way, all money is refused. You can break the resistance by saying the money is for the children, to buy books for school or something similar.
If this does not work, tuck some money into the hands of a child, stuff it under a pillow, fold it in an envelope. A family might go hungry for days proudly feeding an unsuspecting cyclist or hitchhiker. In general, it is more respectful not to rely on local hospitality in rural Tajikistan, while leaving some flexibility in your schedule for a beautiful, unexpected encounter that both sides can enjoy.
When entering any Central Asian home, you should take off your shoes.
Meals are usually taken sitting cross-legged around a tablecloth on the floor. This is the dastaxon. Don’t step over the tablecloth!
Outside of homestays, cutlery may not always be available. In this case, make sure to eat with your right hand.
Feel free to pitch in with your own food when sharing a meal. People love chocolate and fruits but don’t often get a chance to eat it.
Helping out with the cooking or the dishes is a way for female travelers to connect with the otherwise invisible women. Men should not offer their help.
Women will feel much more at ease in Tajikistan wearing clothes that cover their arms and legs. They should, really. Dresses and skirts beat pants if you have the choice. It’s respectful and it makes for a good protection against the sun and thorny bushes when hiking. Most importantly, you make sure you are sending the right signals to local men.
Men do not wear shorts in rural Tajikistan; male travelers will fit right in if they don’t either. It’s ok while you are cycling, but when visiting a village, it’s good if you can change. Especially inside the home, trousers are a must.
It is difficult to stay clean while traveling, but cleanliness is highly appreciated. Not only is it respectful towards locals, you will see that the respect travels both ways when you take care of your appearance. So try to keep at least one spare shirt for the times when it’s most needed.
Greetings and male-female relations
It’s a handshake for greetings between men, with the left hand resting on the heart. Men should not shake women’s hands, unless the woman explicitly offers her hand. An acknowledging nod with one hand on the heart is the way to do it. Women greeting other women do shake hands.
These rules are valid across most of Central Asia, except for ethnic Russians and russified urbanites.
You can address anyone you don’t know the name of depending on their age: bobo (grandfather), bibi (grandmother), aka (uncle), apa (aunt), bacha (boy), duxtar (girl).
Some camps and summer villages are tended by women and children (the men may be out herding, at a high camp, or gone below for supplies). Stopping for a visit or a break is not appropriate for men. If you don’t see an adult man or an older teenage boy, keep walking. It’s different for female hikers: local women love interacting with foreign women.
Don’t give gifts to small children. They are well looked after by their families, and it will lead to incessant demands for pens, medicine and candy for everyone who comes after you. If you feel in a giving mood, there are a number of good charities active in Tajikistan that you can donate to. Some are also happy to have you as a volunteer.
On the other hand, similar to showing up with a bottle of wine at a dinner party in Europe or US, a symbolic gift for a host like a box of tea or some sweets or fruits to go along with the tea, are appreciated when invited for a meal.