Founded by Alexander the Great 2500 years ago on the banks of the Syr Darya, Khujand has a storied history as a Silk Road trading post. Situated at the edge of the Ferghana Valley halfway between Samarkand and Kokand, its favorable location allowed Khujand to develop into an important center of trade, industry and agriculture.
To this day, it has kept that trader’s feel; Khujand is noticeably wealthier and buzzier than the rest of Tajikistan. The bazaar is perhaps the best in Tajikistan.
Formerly known as Leninobod, it’s Soviet history that is most prominent, though, with a humongous Lenin now tucked away in a park, and a number of well-designed Modernist and neo-classical buildings that remain in a good state.
More pleasant than Dushanbe, Khujand is still not a place to linger. The real excitement in Tajikistan is out in the countryside. If you are not leaving for Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan: the Fann mountains and the Yaghnob valley are the obvious highlights, but the Zarafshan valley has some great homestay opportunities and sights as well.
Khujand was the furthest point in Central Asia Alexander would take his fight against the Scythians, and after beating them decisively in 329 BCE, he founded the city as Alexandria Eschate, Alexandria the Furthest.
Possibly there was already an earlier city here known as Cyropolis, founded by equally legendary ruler Cyrus the Great. In any case, Alexander’s scouts reported there was nothing beyond the river but desert hills, and he turned his attention towards India after that.
After the initial Greek centuries, it was the Sogdians, the forefathers of the Tajiks, who made the city blossom as a Silk Road outpost, before waves of Turks gradually overtook them. Genghis Khan passed by in the 13th century, comprehensively destroying the city. In the Middle Ages, Khujand bounced back to vie for power with the surrounding emirates of Kokand, Samarkand and Bukhara.
Under Soviet rule, Khujand was renamed Leninabad, and received the largest Lenin statue in Central Asia. After independence, the north was spared from the worst in the civil war, but the sudden rise of national borders meant it became cut off from nearby cities like Kokand, Samarkand and Tashkent.
Similar to Osh, Khujand is cut off from its capital by a large mountain chain. Culturally and geographically, it remains a part of the Ferghana Valley, even if national borders are now blocking the way.
Things to see and do
Panjshanbe market and Registan square
If you just came from Uzbekistan and were disappointed by the sterile squares of Samarkand and Bukhara, here at last you can find a real Registan, with a perennial pile-up of shoppers, cars, carts and traders occupying the space in front of the market hall.
The Panjshanbe market is one of the region’s best bazaars, with all the hallmarks of Central Asian shopping, set in a grand opera-like building that elevates the . Opposite the Registan square stands the 13th-century mausoleum of Sheikh Maslihaddin.
Definitely a place to visit, Arbob Palace is a symbolic bridge linking the histories of the Soviet empire and independent Tajikistan.
The construction of Arbob Palace (Gmaps) was initiated in 1950 by Urunkhujaev, the larger-than-life leader of the local collective farm. Urunkhujaev was impressed by the Peterhof in St. Petersburg, and Arbob Palace is a replica of the Tsar’s Winter Palace, this time to be used as a communal hall for Tajik farm workers! Inside, classical western architecture blends beautifully with traditional Tajik decorative arts.
From the large auditorium and the VIP tearooms with artful parquet floors down to the corridors with glorious painted ceilings, no single space fails to impress.
In the 1990’s, the palace had its rendez-vous with history as the place where the declaration of Tajik independence was written and a flag was decided upon, and years later, as the site where the “plov of peace” was eaten that started the reconciliation process between the warring sides in the civil war.
Several rooms have displays on the history of Arbob and the larger Soviet period, and a special focus on the tragic period of collectivisation in Tajikistan. Entrance to the museum is 10 somoni. No guide in English is available.
Museum and park
Khujand’s ancient fortress has been done up and now houses the local historical museum. Entrance is 10 somoni and English explanations are minimal. It’s not ravishingly interesting.
Inside the surrounding park you can find the ZTDA tourist info office. They can help you book homestays in the Zarafshan valley, and their handicrafts shop has high-quality designs mixing Western restraint with Eastern flair.
A very slow little cable car slides over the Syr-Darya river connects the park with the riverside park on the other bank. It costs 12 somoni one-way and takes about 10 minutes. It’s a nice high up view of the river: good for pictures, and the best way to get to the other side to see the giant Lenin.
Formerly known as Leninobod, it was only natural that Khujand would get a ridiculously large Lenin to honour its name. This particular specimen is 22 m high, which makes it the biggest in Central Asia.
Lenin’s central spot has now been taken over by an even bigger monument to Ismoil Somoni (Gmaps). Well worth a look for the impressive mosaics, new but Soviet in style and execution, with references to Sogdians, Muslim Bukhara, Zoroastrian Iran, Soviet tractors and more.
People who enjoy Lenins might also enjoy the decommissioned Ilyushin IL-18 airliner at the next bridge, previously operating as a cafe (Gmaps).
Lake Kayrakkum is an artificial reservoir 15 km east of Khujand. A good place to cool down from the murderous summer heat. It’s also good for birdwatching.
You might even prefer to stay here instead of in a hotel in Khujand for the same price, and get some wellness treatment in one of the sanatoriums. We haven’t been – don’t know if they are any good.
Isfara, Istaravshan and beyond
If you are going to Kyrgyzstan, definitely stop over in Isfara. Central Asia’s apricot capital boasts a rich heritage of intact Soviet mosaics and utilitarian architecture, and has pleasant chaikhanas perched over the river. In the surrounding area, there are rice paddies, a 1000-year-old mausoleum, a coal mining ghost town and a troublesome enclave.
Istaravshan is largely forgotten by tourism. Granted, it’s not that exciting, but if you care to stop by, you can find crafts workshops, medieval mausoleums and a good bazaar.
At Ayni, go west for Panjakent. Go east to explore the upper Zerafshan valley, a rarely visited area that offers interesting village life. Peaks over 5000 m give the landscape drama and make it attractive for different outdoor pursuits.
Beyond, the Fann mountains and the Yaghnob valley beckon for outdoor adventures.
In Soviet times, the Sughd region was developed for uranium mining and enrichment, and the Soviet’s first atomic bomb dropped on the Semipalatinsk Test Site was made with local uranium. The mines are no longer active, but some have not been closed off. Bad for your health, bad for the environment, and you don’t want the Taliban to get their hands on it either. Taboshar (recently renamed Istiklol) and Dehmoi are the 2 remaining open sites.
Chkalovsk (Gmaps), now renamed Buston, was one of the most important towns in the nuclear project. “Atomabad” was a secret, so-called closed city, with several institutes and a factory for uranium enrichment. At its peak, more than 50 000 nuclear workers and scientists and their families, mostly from Slavic and German descent, lived here.
Beyond the budget category, there is little to recommend in Khujand. Weak wi-fi signal and odd design choices are an issue across the board.
Cheap, simple apartments can be had for 15-25$ – supply is always expanding.
For 40$, the Khujand Star is your best choice. It’s not great: the breakfast is so-so and the design is a bit too simple, but it wins from its competitors that have out of the way locations, broken shower cups and springy mattresses.
The drive to Dushanbe is spectacular at times. The final station where you get dropped off in Dushanbe is the Cement Factory (tsementzavod) car station (Gmaps); some drivers may continue to the intersection at Vodanasos (Gmaps).
Flights connect with Dushanbe twice a day (45 min, ~30 euro).
To Panjakent / Istaravshan
The direct cross-border bus to Tashkent, as well as old-fashioned shared taxis to the Oybek border leave from the northern bus station (Gmaps / OSM). Get there from the centre on local minibus #33. Detailed info at the Oybek border crossing page.
There are 3 ways to get to Samarkand.
- Via Panjakent: see details at the border crossing page. 6-7 hours total.
- Via the Oybek crossing: should be a bit quicker than Panjakent (no mountains)
- By train (7,5 hr – 20$) – for now, can only buy tickets online.
To Kokand / Kyrgyzstan
There is no direct bus to Kokand. Instead, take a shared taxi or minibus to Konibodom (1,5 hour, 8 somoni) from the southern bus stand (OSM / Gmaps) and make your way from there. Full instructions at the border crossing page.
Khujand offers flights to roughly a dozen cities in Russia.