“Oh my brother, respect your brother, because the guest comes from God,” wrote the 14th-century Tajik poet Hafiz Shirazi. The passing of seven centuries, a recent civil war and widespread poverty have done nothing to dampen the Tajik sense of hospitality – evident in the warm smile of the official at Dushanbe airport, who says: ‘Welcome to Tajikistan,’ before ushering us politely into his office to arrange our visas after we have disembarked the flight from Moscow.

Used to having to tiptoe apologetically past the sullen, glaring officialdom that is often a Russian border welcome, it was a pleasant surprise to find the Russians took their attitude with them when they pulled out of this landlocked, mountainous, ex-Soviet Central Asian republic in 1991. Sadly, Tajik hospitality is a well-kept secret, and any mention of Tajikistan is usually met with blank looks; while those who have heard of the country write it off as a destitute, war-torn haven for Islamic fundamentalism and drug smuggling.

While Tajikistan is undeniably a struggling nation, it is nonetheless a fascinating and beautiful place to visit. Dushanbe, located a three-hour drive from the Afghan border, was chosen by the Soviets to be Tajikistan’s capital in 1929 and renamed Stalinabad.

Its clean, wide, tree-lined streets and pale, elegant buildings lend it an air of faded prosperity, and there are plenty of cafŽs in which to enjoy tea and local sweets. On the plus side, there are fewer beggars than in London and only a few bullet-scarred shop windows hint at the recent civil war, which broke out soon after Tajikistan declared independence in 1991. On the minus, the water and electricity supplies frequently fail.

Soviet control had kept a lid on long-standing, simmering, clan-based tensions between Tajikistan’s various regional and political factions, but independence disintegrated into civil war in 1991 when they all clamoured for power. A peace agreement was signed between the government and the opposition in June 1997, but not before up to 50,000 people had been killed and many more made refugees.

Current president Emomali Rahmonov still faces opposition from the Islamic Democratic Coalition, although the government now appears to have control over the entire country.

One expat who hopes to remedy Tajikistan’s unflattering image is Briton Michael Davies, who started the Great Game travel agency (Tajikistan’s only foreign travel agency) at the end of 2000. His assistant, a charming young Tajik named Ruslan Nuriloev, accompanied me on a visit to Nurek, several hours drive from Dushanbe through dramatic barren hills home to some of the opposition during the civil war. Founded in 1961 next to the Vakashs River, Nurek is an extraordinary Soviet timewarp and home to the world’s tallest dam, at 300m high, which still supplies Tajikistan with most of its electricity.

Nurek’s mayor, Samiv Sharidhon, welcomed us solemnly into his office, telling me I was his first visitor in five months before launching into a description of his ambitious plans for the town – including restaurants, hotels and a tourist office with English-speaking staff.

Deputy mayor Sharipov Sadrideen showed us around the dam, driving us to the top to enjoy a spectacular view of the crystal clear waters surrounded by a backdrop of jagged red rock hills. His parents came to Nurek in 1961 to build the dam and he is still proud of the remarkable engineering feat that they, along with workers from 38 countries, helped to construct. His pride seemed genuine, and not a lingering hangover from some Soviet propaganda effort.

Even if Nurek’s officials do manage to spruce up their town, attracting tourists will be a far greater challenge, thanks to Tajikistan’s lack of infrastructure and disastrous image, which Davies hopes to remedy. ‘There are lots of educated, skilled people here but no jobs, and the country needs investment, which was part of my incentive,’ he says. ‘We cater to people in search of an adventure who come for the best trekking and most spectacular scenery in Central Asia. In other Central Asian countries the border guards can be hostile, whereas Tajiks are naturally friendly and hospitable, so it’s easier to become friends.’

The Pamir mountains, often described as the Roof of the World, are extraordinarily beautiful and one of the last remaining unexplored regions on earth; closed to the outside world for almost a century because of their politically sensitive location between the USSR and China.

Even a quick trip outside Dushanbe hints at the magnificent scenery to be found in Tajikistan. Only 5km from the capital is the crumbling mountain resort of Varzob. Unless you enjoy a good dose of radon you might want to give the spa a miss, but the winding road offers some beautiful views as it passes through villages where the locals still gather under the stern gaze of a bronze Lenin, before winding between dramatic rocky mountains and twisting its way up to Varzob.

It is also worth visiting a Tajik market because, while you will not find many souvenirs, your senses will be pleasantly bombarded and, unlike in many developing countries, no-one will harass you to buy anything. Lose yourself in the enormous market on the road west from Dushanbe to the old Hissar Fort, where women in traditional Tajik attire of long, psychedelically coloured dresses and men in embroidered skullcaps sell everything from cotton (one of Tajikistan’s main crops) to vegetables, jewellery, carpets and furniture.

This seeming abundance of food and other goods, however, does not reflect the living standard of most Tajiks. With a per capita GDP of $180 (Tajik GDP shrank 70 per cent during the civil war) and over 80 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, Tajikistan is the poorest of the 15 ex-Soviet republics. Most of the population survive on subsistence agriculture, humanitarian aid, and payments sent from relatives working abroad, and the Dushanbe-Moscow flight is almost entirely full of these itinerant workers.

Young men such as 26 year-old Morad endure difficult conditions in Moscow, where they are perpetually hounded by the Militsia and face enormous hurdles obtaining legal registration papers. ‘We have no rights in Moscow,’ he says, ‘and are constantly stopped and harassed by the police, to whom we have to hand over money as bribes. However, I can still make much more money there than in Tajikistan and send as much as I can back to my family.’

While living conditions in Dushanbe are far better than in much of the country, most of the young Tajiks I met there still hope to emigrate to Moscow or the West. Azamat, a 22 year-old student at the Medical University, says he plans to move to Moscow after finishing his studies. ‘The situation here is grim. During the civil war, a lot of the educated people left, and they took their culture with them. Not many Russians remain.’ Another young Tajik, 21 year-old Azad, also a medical student, wants to move to Moscow and then to the West. ‘The average wage is only $3 a month, even though a doctor can supplement that with private income. But it’s still not enough,’ he says.

Yukie Mokuo, head of Dushanbe’s Unicef office, says the situation in Tajikistan will hopefully improve, thanks to increased political stability, a better security situation, and the commitment of the government and NGOs. However, she says: ‘Compared even with other developing nations the situation in Tajikistan is alarming. The statistics state that 1.26 children out of 10 die before reaching age 10, a figure which ranks among the worst 35 countries in the world. That’s a mortality rate higher than some sub-Saharan African countries.’

Some in the international community fear that widespread poverty and the fact more than half of Tajikistan’s population of 6.4 million is under 19 make the country a potential breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism. However, visitors to Tajikistan are far more likely to enjoy vodka toasts to international brotherhood than anti-Western feeling, and the young Tajiks I met were open-minded and delighted to welcome Western visitors.

Australian Marion Sheridon is another Tajik convert who is doing her bit to improve the local economy. She initially visited Tajikistan as an environmental consultant and was warned it was ‘cold and dangerous’.
She says: ‘Once I got here though, I fell in love with the place and the charm of the people.’ Sheridon recently opened Tajikistan’s only Western-style guesthouse. ‘This was partly to change peoples’ perceptions of Tajikistan, which are often the result of a hotel which did not leave them a good impression, and also to contribute to the economy. I employ 13 people, whom I pay between $120 and $150 a month, and my house assistant and manager receive around $300.’

Another place in Tajikistan where locals can legitimately earn a good salary is the Nurek Dam, which deputy mayor Sadrideen stresses still adheres to Soviet principles of equality, hiring many women at wages equal to men of $200 a month, significant when the employment situation of Tajik women has deteriorated hugely since independence. ‘I love every stone in this place,’ he says, as we gaze out over the spectacular red-hued rocks towering above the dam’s turquoise water. He looks sad, however, as he wistfully echoes the mayor’s hopes of restoring Nurek to its former glory.

There is hope though. At a recent donor consultative meeting $900m was promised to Tajikistan, and new embassies, such as the British, have opened in Dushanbe – indicative of the increased international attention focused on this little-known nation. With the co-operation of the Tajik government, citizens, and expats alike, efforts to bring a semblance of normality to life in Tajikistan will be more than just a pipe-dream, and the rest of the world will be able to enjoy this remote, but extraordinarily beautiful country.