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.
As I’ve mentioned, you’ll likely eat most of your meals in guesthouses. These will often consist of flat bread, salad, soup, and endlessly flowing cups of tea. Other popular edible offerings include plov (a pilaf-style rice dish with meat and vegetables) and manti (steamed lamb dumplings).
Outside of guesthouses, you’ll find a more varied and versatile selection of food, such as kebabs and fried noodles.
You can get your mouth around all of these morsels for low prices in local cafeterias. The food is tasty and filling, and it comes in big portions for less than $2 USD. If you eat at a more up-market restaurant, you’ll be paying closer to $5 USD.
Takeaway stands in bigger towns and cities sell kebabs and samsas (which are similar to Indian samosas) often for around $1 USD, while outdoor markets are an excellent place to buy fresh fruit and vegetables — along with special pickles, candies, and more — for very cheap prices.
A quick tip on food: bring hand sanitizer and toilet paper! 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!
If you hire a private guide from an agency, it can be expensive. Some people pay up to $100 USD a day for a hiking guide. But there’s no need to do this.
Instead, simply ask at your guesthouse for a local hiking guide. The people who live in these towns and villages know the areas extremely well. They know all the paths, passes, and landscapes.
And for only a few dollars, these unofficial guides will take you to and through the mountains for as long as you like. Whether you want a day hike or a multiday expedition, there’ll be someone in the village who can take you there. I hiked for an entire day in Bulunkul for less than $10 USD and went on a two-day hike in Darshai for less than $25 USD per day.
There are very few marked routes in Tajikistan. Some are marked on maps.me, but there’s very little of the infrastructure that you’ll find in other countries. So while you can hike independently, it’s essential you take a good map, a good compass, and good equipment — and that you know what you’re doing! Make sure you carry a refillable water bottle along with water purification tables — this will save you money too.
Are there any other things to see in Tajikistan?
Pretty much everyone who travels to Tajikistan does so for the hiking and mountain scenery, so I wouldn’t recommend going all the way there if your interest isn’t piqued by peaks. That said, there are a small number of other things to do:
- Museums: Dushanbe has a few small museums. The three most notable are the National Museum, the Museum of Antiquities, and the Museum of Musical Instruments. These cost between $1 and $5 USD, so they’re a good idea if you’re looking for something to pass the time inexpensively. Other small towns and cities have small local-interest museums.
- Rudaki Park: Central Asian cities are awash with beautiful parks. And Rudaki Park is one of the best. It’s a great way to people-watch, and it’s beautifully lit after sunset. But best of all, it’s free!
- Outdoor Markets: There are food markets everywhere, which make for another great free activity.
- Walking tours: Some hostels offer walking tours, which can be a nice way to see the city. These are usually pay-what-you-like, so you don’t have to spend much money.
Frequently Asked Questions about Tajikistan
Where should I get my currency?
ATMs are notoriously unreliable in Tajikistan, so make sure you bring enough US dollars to cover your whole trip. Yes, some ATMs will work, but finding them can be a chore, and having cash gives you more peace of mind.
Outdoor markets/bazaars offer the best exchange rates, better than banks. Look for small shacks with rates written on a sign. Most tourist establishments (such as hotels and guesthouses) will also exchange money, so it’s always easy to get your hands on Tajik somoni — but go to the small market shacks to get more money for your money.
Should I barter in Tajikistan?
Tajikistan is a barterers’ economy. You can negotiate and barter over prices for a whole range of things:
- Food in a market
- Campsite fees
- 4WD rentals
- Long-distance rides
- Hiking guides
- Exchange rates
But there are things you can’t barter over:
- SIM cards
- Restaurant prices
- Short-distance public transport rides
- Your visa and flights (good luck trying)
What’s an overall daily budget in Tajikistan?
If you’re a budget traveler, you can get by on an average of $45 USD (or less) per day, depending on where you are, how you’re traveling, and what you like to do. Here are some figures for what you can expect to pay (on average) for things (in USD):
- Dorm bed in a hostel: $5-15
- Guesthouse with two meals and a bed: $10-15
- Double room in a cheap hotel: $15-20
- Public transport/hitchhiking per day: $10-15
- Restaurant meal: $5
- Snacks and fruit: $3
- A day of hiking: $10
- SIM card: $5
Tajikistan will give you a hundred reasons to fall in love. Whether it’s a full cup of tea in a stranger’s home, a steaming bowl of plov, or a gold-toothed smile, every day is full of beautiful experiences.
Most people come here for hiking amid the peaks and mountain lakes. And rightly so. But upon leaving, what they’ll remember most is the warmth, the hospitality, and the unending kindness. It’s often true that poorer countries offer the richest welcomes. And that’s exactly the case here.
You’ll leave Tajikistan feeling better than when you arrived. So don’t let the inaccurate rumors of costly travel deter you. Not only is Tajikistan possible on a budget, it’s better that way.
Paul McDougal is a professional writer from the United Kigdom. He loves hiking, laughing, and getting himself into strange situations. He currently lives in Vietnam. You can find his website and more of his stories here and follow his Instagram here for photography and scenes from the road.
P.S. – Want to meet other travelers in real life? This year we launched The Nomadic Network, a platform created to help travelers connect, learn, and get inspired in real life! Here are our upcoming events if you want to take part: Seattle (2/17), Austin (2/18), Fort Lauderdale (2/19), Portland (2/19), San Francisco (2/20), Los Angeles (2/23), Detroit (2/24), Boston (2/24), Dublin (2/24), San Diego (2/24), London (2/25), Chicago (2/25), and NYC (3/10).
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. 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.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the largest inventory. 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. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
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 travel – and that will save you time and money too!