On the main route between Dushanbe and the Pamirs past Danghara, lies Kulob, a town with ancient roots that’s worth a quick stop-over for the mausoleum of a 14th-century missionary of Islam. But don’t stay over for the night, there are better places to break the long journey towards the Pamirs. The nearby fantasy castle at Hulbuk is an exercise in national identity construction by the Tajik government.
Take a 20 km detour past the town of Vose to check out Khoja Mumin, a salt mountain that holds 50 to 60 million tons of salt. An interesting expedition awaits for speleologists.
Since the Middle Ages, Kulob has been an important political, economic and cultural center of the Khatlon region (until about 200 years ago, Kulob town was actually called Khatlon). Its situation halfway between Samarkand and Bukhara on the one hand, and Balkh on the other hand was perfect for a trade centre.
With a population of more than 100 000, these days Kulob is the second-biggest city in Khatlon province after Bokhtar/Qurghonteppa. It has seen a good amount of investment in recent years, and, as is typical for Central Asia, has thus lost most of its charm: boulevards and open spaces got bigger and lost their old trees and are now instead lined with shadeless pine trees.
Mausoleum of Hamadani
The only “old” thing left in Kulob is the centrally-located mausoleum of Khoja Mir Sayid Hamadani, a Sufi mystic. Born in Hamadan in Iran in the 14th century, he was instrumental in spreading Islam in Kashmir. He died in Afghanistan but was buried here; a reminder of ancient Kulob’s significance as part of a corridor between India and the Persian world.
The mausoleum has been restored with money from the Iranian government. Like with other restored structures in Tajikistan, the place is not exactly breathing history, but there are always some pilgrims around looking for a blessing or a prayer, and the atmosphere is peaceful and wholesome. An adjacent building has a number of ancient Korans and writings of Hamadani. The excavation in the gardens is of a house said to date back 3000 years.
Nearby stands the regional museum, bearing all the hallmarks of the post-Soviet museum template: Stone Age tools, stuffed animals, pottery, carpets, local costumes and presidential hagiographies. Highlights are the painting of the first ascent of Peak Lenin and the old wine press. No English.
Paris theme park
If you are still wondering why Tajikistan is such a poor country, look no further than the 4 million dollar mini-Paris complete with Eiffel Tower, Louvre pyramid and London phone booth (because some things you should just shoot from the hip).
Khoja Mumin: the salt mountain of Vose
On his travels Marco Polo describes a mountain where “salt is so much, that it will be enough to the whole world up to Doomsday”. Local people believe Khoja Mumin is this mountain.
From afar, Khoja Mumin (OSM location) looks like any other mountain in Tajikistan. Up close, you can find fascinating salt sculptures: salt mushrooms, spires, holes, pillars, spikes, rivulets, etc. From the top there are good views to be had over the surrounding plains and into Afghanistan.
Musical salt caves that harbour more fantastic salt shapes riddle the mountain. Speleologists can try to find the long Dnepropetrovskaya cave, or follow an underground river that runs through the salty miracle cave, decorated by salty crystals and druses of different colors after all. There are also some vertical caves in Khoja Mumin up to 70 m deep.
How did this salt get here? Most likely, when the ancient Tethys sea gradually disappeared from Central Asia, water remained in basins like at Khoja Mumin (the Aral Sea and the Caspian Sea are other leftovers from that ancient time). For a long time this lagoon stored the seawater, allowing it gradually to evaporate, leading to the accumulation of salt here. Later, through tectonic movements, mountains were formed, and the layers of salt from the bottom of the dried-up lagoon were lifted up and formed Khoja Mumin.
Khoja Mumin is the best-known salt dome in the Kulob area, but there are others, like Khoja Sartez, which sits atop a natural gas field currently under exploitation.
Like elsewhere in Khatlon, the best time to visit is spring or autumn, when it is not too hot. Spring is more lush. All the streams are saltier than seawater, so take plenty of drinking water with you. You may or may not be allowed to visit the nearby salt factory. Don’t be shocked: working conditions are very basic.
Not a historical monument as such, Hulbuk (OSM / Gmaps) is similar to the Hisor fortress and the Mug Tepe fortress in Istaravshan: reconstructions of old military fortresses. Did they actually look like that in the past? The consensus is that nobody can say what they looked like, so the current shape is in any case, a fantasy.
The fortress is located in the village of Kurbon Shahid, midway between Danghara and Kulob, so it makes for a good picnic stop, but a thorough exploration is only of interest for the hardcore historians amongst us. If you would like to see an unrestored or better restored ruin, try the surroundings of Danghara and Shahrtuz.
Hulbuk was the centre of power for the Bactrian kingdom of Khuttal, which borders roughly correspond to current-day Khatlon. The fortified city was one of the biggest cities in Central Asia around the turn of the millenium and flourished under the Samanids, but when their power waned, Hulbuk also succumbed to the growing power of Turkic tribes. The city never recovered, and Kulob eventually became the new trade centre for the region.
In the past Soviet archaeologists undertook extensive excavations on the site, and objects of note can be seen in the Museum of Antiquities in Dushanbe.
The lacklustre museum on site displays some of the achievements of Hulbuk at its peak: there is glass, a sundial and evidence of floor heating systems. Images of swastikas, animals and dancers show that Hulbuk was still more Zoroastrian in orientation than Islamic.
Dasht-i-Jum, Darwaz range and Shurobod district
The Shurobod district, formerly the Moskovskiy district, has now been named Shamsiddini Shohin. This district, 1 hour from the city of Kulob, is a special border district (with Afghanistan) and a permit is required. It’s well-known for drug-trafficking and may be closed to foreigners with no announcement or warning. The reason for visiting this mountainous area include wildlife watching, hiking and village life.
But mainly wildlife watching. The Darwaz range and Dasht-i-Jum nature reserve here represent perhaps the most accessible place in the world to see the screwed horns of the rare markhor.
The only way to visit at the moment is to go book a tour through the non-profit Association of Nature Conservation Organizations of Tajikistan and make arrangements well ahead of time. They offer cheap day hikes and overnight stays, as well as more pricey animal watching and photography expeditions.
The tours are nowhere near the drug trafficking locations, but they are in the same administrative district.
All details at wildlife watching in Tajikistan.
We are still on the lookout for other options in Kulob – your tips are welcome! Definitely avoid the filthy and dishonest Sano guesthouse.
Kulob can be reached in 4 hours from the Garm or Kulob ‘avtostantsiya’ (OSM / Gmaps) for 40 Somoni for a seat in a shared car. Kulob can also be reached by train from Dushanbe twice per week, as well as by Asian Express Bus.