It’s understandable that tourists make a beeline to the Pamirs without stopping over to see the sights of Khatlon: most come during summer, when it’s too hot to visit the low-lying, sweltering south, and Khatlon’s attractions are understated compared to the spectacular mountains elsewhere in Tajikistan.
Most of the year however, a large part of the Pamirs and Fann mountains is inaccessible due to snow and road closures. During winter and autumn, but especially during spring, the more moderate climate and lower altitude of the southern Khatlon Province offers a great alternative with a similar range of things to see and do: rare animals, history, remote villages, hiking and 4WD driving.
Destinations in Khatlon work well both as
- stopovers to break the long journey from Dushanbe to the Pamirs
- day or weekend trips out of Dushanbe
At various times in history, Khatlon has been home to animist, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Christian and finally Muslim worshippers, and traces of all of these are still visible in the landscape today. Previously known as Khuttal, Khatlon was in and out of the orbit of regional empires throughout its history, with local power centres at Hulbuk, and later Kulob.
In the late Soviet era, a massive experiment in large-scale industrial agriculture transformed Khatlon. The Vakhsh River was dammed and diverted into massive irrigation canals to feed the cotton fields of the lowlands. The labour for these projects was provided by forcibly resettling people to the new farmlands from mountainous regions elsewhere in Tajikistan, like Gharm.
During the civil war the Vakhsh Valley of Khatlon was the epicentre of conflict. Natives and recently resettled people from different regions battled each other in communal conflict. Although this happened more than 25 years ago, the scars of this conflict are still healing to this day (but they will not be visible to a tourist).
Climate and geography
Khatlon is a few degrees warmer than Dushanbe, except for the eastern valleys, where it is cooler. The lowlands of Khatlon (Qurghonteppa, Sarband, Shahrtuz) are best avoided in July and August (35 to 40+ degrees), with even June and September being uncomfortably hot. The higher eastern valleys (Sari Khosor and Yakhsu) are far easier to visit in the summer. On the plus side, the winter is very mild in the lower valleys.
The south lacks any high altitude mountain ranges. In the western part of the province the mountains are all under 2200 metres, while in the eastern parts of Khatlon the highest peaks are about 4000 to 4600 metres, with most being in the 2000-3000 metre range.
Things to see and do
If you like driving on challenging roads, the Yakhsu valley and Sari Khosor are for you. The same thing is true if you want to visit remote communities. Since these are the most mountainous places, they are also top for hiking, with Childukhtaron perhaps taking the cake. Sari Khosor has more attractions, though. For less challenging hiking/walking, Sarband/Levakant is really nice. The Bactrian Trail guides you to the best places in the region.
The Shahrtuz area has a mix of the historical (fortresses, madrassas, temple ruins), the natural (Tigrovaya Balka) and the fun (swimming at the 44 springs). This is a good place to go if you want to get out of Dushanbe for the weekend, or are on your way to Termez.
All major towns in the eastern part of Khatlon (Nurek, Kulob, Danghara, Baljuvon, Khovaling, Muminobod, Farkhor) can be reached quickly from the Garm or Kulob ‘avtostantsiya’ in Dushanbe (OSM / Gmaps).
Qurghonteppa/Bokhtar is the hub for all western locations in Khatlon (Sarband-Levakant, Shahrtuz) and can be reached from Dushanbe via shared car, private driver, bus, marshrutka and train.
Often there are too many drivers and not enough passengers. Try to determine how many passengers, if any, your driver has. Or pay him for the empty seats and leave immediately. Otherwise you could be waiting for a long time.
As for navigation, like elsewhere in Central Asia, maps.me or another app based on Openstreetmap data is more accurate than Google Maps, which is especially flawed in Khatlon province.
Accommodation options are bleak in Khatlon, dominated by hotels that serve local businessmen and government workers, which means some are visited by prostitutes.
Danghara has at least one decent hotel, so does Kulob, and Nurek has some decent (but pricey resorts). Bokhtar/Qurghonteppa and Sarband/Levakant have a number of options.
In smaller towns, you may find homestays which are more pleasant to stay at than the hotels, but we lack details at the moment. Your reports are very welcome.
Online booking sites are not helpful (booking.com lists a few hotels, but none have reviews yet), but Google Maps usually at least lists locations and shows reviews, and Maps.me has some hotels that Google does not have. Prices might jump when a foreigner walks through the doors. Expect standards of cleanliness and service to be low. Wifi is unlikely.
Restaurants and dining
Most restaurants are lunchtime dining only, with far fewer having dinner service. Breakfasts are usually only available in hotel restaurants or at the bazaar. A few options in each big town always serve alcohol, but there are less and less each year.
Fatir Maska is claimed by the town of Khovaling as their specialty (but you can find it in various villages around Khatlon, especially in the eastern parts). It is shredded fatir bread sautéed in butter (or fresh hot bread that is smothered in butter), with melon and watermelon thrown on top. You can’t get it in restaurants. It is considered locally as a village lunch or snack (when melons are in season).
Going out drinking is always an adventure (and really, for men only or for women who are with a man).
For vegetarians, there will be the usual problem of confused restaurants and hosts. You may have to settle for salad and bread. All other options will be bland: meat is the main spice in Khatlon. Vegans should self-cater. Kosher travellers will have a hard time explaining to hosts that they need to cook for themselves. But once it is explained in their own language, locals will accommodate you.
Khatlon is the most conservative and patriarchal area in Tajikistan. Adjust your behaviour to not cause offense.
Photography: Always ask permission. Photographing people in Khatlon without their permission is considered deeply invasive and rude by local standards. Talk to them first and then ask permission, but completely avoid photography of girls and women between the ages of 12 and 45, unless you are a woman yourself.
Clothing: Women do not need to wear a hijab, but they should avoid shorts and bare shoulders outside of the large towns in Khatlon. Men’s shorts should preferably reach below the knee. In the villages men should avoid shorts and bare shoulders completely. Swimming areas have completely different standards, and men should be fine even in underwear.
Money: Credit cards and bank card payments are nearly non-existent here. ATMs are rare as well. Currency exchange is available in banks during banking hours, and in unofficial exchanges at other times (but these are hard to find).
Special products: buy sunscreen, insect repellent, hygiene products etc. in Dushanbe. Hard to find in Khatlon.
Language: In Khatlon everybody speaks Tajik and probably 25% of people here speak Uzbek as their native language. Russian is in decline. English is only rarely spoken.