Posted: 02/10/20 | February 10th, 2020
This year, I’m going to try to visit Central Asia in the fall. I’ve never been to the region and it’s long one that’s held great appeal to me. It seems raw, beautiful, and unspoiled. So, when someone reached out to write a guest post on a country there, I was excited. It was a chance to learn a little before I (hopefully) go. In this guest post, traveler and writer Paul McDougal breaks down what it’s like to travel Tajikistan on a budget.
Aptly and romantically known as “The Roof of the World,” Tajikistan is a hikers’ paradise. More than 93% of the country is defined as mountainous — and more than 50% of that sits at over 3,000 meters (9,800 feet)! It’s a striking country, full of glacial peaks and mountain lakes that are best for multiday hikes (but equally astounding on short jaunts too).
Traveling around Tajikistan requires a sense of adventure, as the nation is also dotted with poor-quality roads, rudimentary facilities, and a massive lack of infrastructure. But, after spending almost a month there, I learned that it’s easy and affordable to get around these problems with a smile and a shrug.
Many tourists spend more money than necessary when in Tajikistan. Most do so on an organized tour, which is why there’s a prevailing — and inaccurate — idea that it’s expensive to visit the country. A ten-day organized tour booked online can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $3,500 USD, equivalent to a hefty $150-350 a day.
But if you travel independently, you can easily navigate this country for about $45 USD per day.
So, how do you see Tajikistan on a budget? Here’s how:
Instead of booking a tour through an online agent, you have four much more affordable ways to get around to choose from:
1. Find a multiday driver when you arrive
Hostels and guesthouses can put you in contact with local drivers, with whom you can negotiate your own rate, itinerary, and trip length. Typically, travelers spend $50-100 per day per person for this. The better your negotiation skills (and the more stubborn you are), the greater the chance you’ll get a driver for closer to $50 a day.
Drivers can be found in Murghab, Khorog, Dushanbe, and other larger places. If you’re traveling the Pamir Highway (like pretty much everyone else in Tajikistan), you can also find drivers in Kyrgyzstan’s second-biggest city, Osh.
2. Hire a 4WD yourself
This typically costs around $100 per day for the vehicle, so if you’re traveling with a few people, this is a great choice. It gives you freedom and it’s good for your budget!
It’s very easy to organize this upon arrival. All hotels, hostels, and guesthouses in both Osh and Dushanbe can put you into contact with agencies that can arrange 4WD rentals. Don’t arrange this online, unless you want to spend more money.
3. Public transport
Long-distance public transport doesn’t really exist in Tajikistan. However, enterprising locals have filled this gap in a very affordable way. Every day, before they travel from one city or town to another to go about their daily business, they always ensure that every single spot in their vehicle is filled.
To find these travel opportunities, ask your guesthouse where “the bus station” is. They’ll direct you to a car-crammed area (usually near a market) where there will be drivers waiting to fill their cars. Using this method, it’s not unusual to end up squashed into the back of an ancient car with four other people on a five-hour trip. These trips typically only costs around $10. And it’s a great way to immerse yourself in local life.
The price of the trip depends upon its length. The most I paid was for any single trip was $35 USD for a 12-hour, 600-mile voyage from Khorog to Dushanbe. And that was in a 4WD.
A quick side note: If you’re traveling within a city or town, there are many small minibuses (marshrutkas) that can take you from one destination to another along prescribed routes for the measly price of around $0.20 USD. But along those routes, they’ll stop anywhere to take on new passengers and drop off others. And I mean anywhere: houses, outdoor markets, the middle of busy roads — it’s all fair game.
For the vast majority of my trips in Tajikistan, I hitchhiked. Local people hitchhike in Tajikistan every single day — it’s a valid, recognized method of transport here as not everyone has a car and, as mentioned above, public transportation is scarce.
When you hitchhike in Tajikistan, don’t stick out your thumb. Keep your stretched-out hand parallel to the ground and wave it up and down. Depending on where you’re hitchhiking, you will probably have to wait a while — on some barren stretches of road, you might wait thirty minutes to see one car. But, if that car has an empty spot, it will stop and take you without fail. (You might have to pay a little money.)
I experienced nothing but positivity and warmth doing this. People were happy to take me and introduced me to all sorts of Tajik food, drinks, and music. It’s not unusual for those who pick you up to offer you snacks, buy you a meal, or take you to their home. I always offered money in return for these treats, but it was never accepted.
In any town or city, you’ll see houses with the word “guesthouse” written on them. Go inside one and strike a deal. It’s the easiest and most affordable accommodation, the perfect way to save money and have a better experience. You’ll be given great food and an even greater welcome.
Throughout Tajikistan, local people will let you stay in their home for around $10-15 a night. This usually will cover breakfast and dinner too. You can negotiate lunch for a little more if you like — or you can eat elsewhere. Most guesthouses offer much the same welcome and much the same food, so it doesn’t really matter which you choose.
Often, if you’re in a car with Tajiks (whether through hitchhiking or other means), they’ll take you a guesthouse they know of. And it’ll usually be a good one so don’t be too worried about scams.
And even if you can’t find an official guesthouse, you’ll find a friendly local who’ll let you stay at their home for a small price.
2. Hotels and hostels
These can be equally budget-friendly if you choose the right places. Some hotels are very expensive, but spots such as Pamir Hotel in Murghab offer affordable stays starting at around $15 USD a night. Some smaller towns such as Jelondy, a popular hot spring spot for locals, also offer hotel stays for around $10 USD. (Generally speaking, if a town is a popular vacation spot for Tajiks, there will be a cheap hotel.)
Hostels are a good cheap option in bigger towns and cities, and especially in Dushanbe. Green House Hostel in particular is a fantastic, affordable hub and is packed with travelers. It’s an excellent place to team up with others to save on transport costs.
Your third option for accommodation is camping. In some ways, Tajikistan is very camper friendly. I’m not sure what the actual laws are on wild camping, but I’d be very surprised if any exist. Although I didn’t do so myself, I met many people who camped in the wild, and none of them encountered any trouble. You should, of course, follow the normal rules of wild camping: don’t camp in the same place for more than one night, don’t camp on private land without permission, and don’t camp in cities. You should also research whether there are any dangers in the particular area you’re keen to camp. But otherwise, you will not draw any attention, since camping is very well tolerated here.
Moreover, guesthouses and hotels will often let you pitch your tent on their land for only $2 or $3 USD.
Note: the harsh weather conditions can often make camping an unpleasant experience. Because much of Tajikistan lies at such a high elevation, the temperatures can be unpleasant and even dangerous — and the ground in some conditions can be too tough to push tent pegs into. So you should be careful when planning where you want to camp.
Everyone gets sick in Tajikistan. I have the world’s strongest stomach, and even I got sick on three separate occasions. You should also wash your hands as much as possible and avoid putting them into your mouth after handling money. And don’t drink the tap water!
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner or Momondo to find a cheap flight. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned. Start with Skyscanner first though because they have the biggest reach!
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- Safety Wing (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.