The Shahrtuz area constitutes the far south of Tajikistan. It works well as a day or weekend trip from Dushanbe outside of the summer season, or as a stopover if you are heading to Termez via the Gulbahor crossing. June to September is best avoided as temperatures rise up to 50 degrees Celsius in a season known to locals as Duzakh (translation: Hell)
The town of Shahrtuz (185 km from Dushanbe) itself is not particularly interesting, but nearby are the 44 Springs complex (‘Chiluchor Chashma’) and the Khoja Mashad madrassa. If you want to explore further and don’t mind getting a permit, you can check out the Tigrovaya Balka reserve and the Takhti Sangin archaeological dig site.
Basic guesthouses are available at the 44 springs if you wish to stay overnight.
The 44 Springs (OSM / Gmaps), or Chiluchor Chashma in Tajik, is an oasis in an otherwise depressingly arid, and usually extremely hot landscape. Surrounded by large willow and mulberry trees, dozens of small springs feed into a number of pools with a consistent temperature of 14 degrees. The pools are filled with fish and harmless eels chasing the fish. The fish is reportedly poisonous to eat, though.
There are separate swimming areas for men and women (the women’s area is much less impressive than the men’s) and several restaurants, as well as at least one basic guesthouse.
Khoja Mashad madrassa
Just south of Shahrtuz, Khoja Mashad (OSM / Gmaps) is a mosque and madrassa, reputedly built by birds in 24 hours somewhere in the 9th century. This makes it one of the oldest in Central Asia. Khoja Mashad was an Islamic missionary who came to Tajikistan, most likely from Iran. He was a wealthy man and funded the establishment of a madrasah, where he was later buried.
The Japanese and American-funded restoration project used traditional restoration techniques, leaving the complex with a far more authentic feel than elsewhere in the region. The site is always very quiet, with few visitors. The brickwork is marvellous. Twin domes rising 30 metres high would once have been adorned with quotes from the Koran in gold lettering, but are now equally impressive in their simplicity.
It’s rare to find a building in Central Asia that survived the Mongol onslaught and did not get extensively renovated, so Khoja Mashad serves as a good example of pre-Mongol early Islamic architecture.
Tigrovaya Balka reserve
Tigrovaya Balka, named for the tiger that went extinct here 70 years ago, is a nature preserve that covers a wetland area that the Vakhsh River flows through. Although the tigers are gone, reportedly there are still jackals, lynx, hyenas, wild boar and Bukhara deer living here, as well as a variety of birdlife. WWF has deemed it as one of the most important ecosystems in Central Asia for its ecological diversity and rare tugay forests, while Birdlife International has designated it as an Important Bird Area.
You will need a permit from Dushanbe and/or the agreement of the managers on-site. Some foreigners have shown up unannounced without a permit and been given entrance, but others have been turned away at the gates. Give it a go, or otherwise try to wrangle a permit out of the folks at the office of The Protection of National Parks in Dushanbe.
Once inside, you will find that getting to see the best parts of the nature preserve is not easy: a 4WD is preferred, together with a good guide. Some visitors come away disappointed; this is not a landscape park, and you should come here because of a deep interest in fauna and flora if you want to have a good time.
The preserve is not exactly set up to accommodate tourist visits, but some Dushanbe tour operators with the right connections may be able to create a custom tour here for you. There is no accommodation in the park, but you might find homestays in Shahrtuz or Jilikul.
Takhti Sangin (Temple of the Oxus)
Takhti Sangin (45 minutes from Shahrtuz) is an archaeological site on the Afghan border that divides tourist opinion: empty holes in the ground or fascinating visit to ancient religious site? Like with any dig site, you need to have a strong interest in history or archaeology to fully appreciate what was once the Takhti Sangin river temple.
The Temple of the Oxus is one of the earliest and most important archaeological sites in Tajikistan. It had a clear Hellenistic influence, and was devoted to the god of the river Oxus between 600 BCE and 300 AD. The Museum of National Antiquities in Dushanbe still has the altar, as well as some of the other artefacts excavated. The remarkable Oxus Treasure (now in the British Museum) was also discovered in the vicinity and most likely had ritual significance.
The carved altar at which worshippers made offerings was central to the temple. Almost 5 000 gifts were excavated here: an image of Alexander the Great as Hercules, a sheath with the image of a lion holding a fallow deer, arrow tips, animal bones, arms of Macedonian warriors, bronze helmets.
The problem here is access. You need a permit from Dushanbe, and even with a permit the local border guard commander has turned groups away at the gates for reasons unknown. You may be able to smooth things over with the border guards ($$).
Several Dushanbe tour companies offer trips to this location, but all it takes is for one hungry Afghan border guard on the other side of the river to shoot at a duck and Takhti Sangin gets shut to visitors.
Qabodiyon, named in honour of Kaboti Shahnour, a legendary king in Ferdowsi’s Shahname, has a fortress, but like most others, it was destroyed by the Red Army in 1921. Archaeological finds are held by the Hermitage in St-Petersburg, but the town museum has a few leftovers and you can still make out some of the structures and walls of the original fortress.
Qabodiyon is also the place where the famous travel writer Nasir Khusraw reportedly was born. There is a nice walk in the hills around Qabodiyon to Mount Kaypiaztoy (1636 m) – all hiking info at Tajikistan tourism.
Other places of interest
10 km from Shahrtuz stands the 15th-century fortress of Utapur, complete with (dry) moat and carved alcoves. Unlike the other fortresses around, it was never attacked by the Red Army and is in a reasonable state of preservation.
18 km from Shahrtuz on the road to Ayway, there is reported to be the remains of a Nestorian church in the foothills, 3 km west of the main road. We haven’t found it yet.
The town of Ayway itself has a small mausoleum and a significant population of Tajik Arabs, people who trace their ancestry back to the coming of Islam…
Qurghonteppa/Bokhtar is the hub for all western locations in Khatlon including Shahrtuz and can be reached from Dushanbe via shared car, private driver, bus, marshrutka and train (see full instructions here). You will likely need to get in another minibus or taxi from there to get to Shahrtuz.
From Shahrtuz to local destinations, negotiate a (return) price with local taxi drivers.