Dushanbe, Tajikistan Report of what it's like to live there - 08/28/21
Personal Experiences from Dushanbe, Tajikistan
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Yes, first expat experience.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Dushanbe is pretty isolated, with expensive flights a few times a week to Istanbul and Dubai. Pre-Covid, there were daily flights to Almaty, several times a week to Tashkent, and once weekly to Frankfurt (although we've heard that one isn't coming back any time soon). Once you get to Istanbul or Dubai, though, you can fly anywhere easily. It would generally take about 20 hours or so back to the East Coast.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Families usually live in large houses in several different neighborhood clusters, anywhere from a couple minutes to the Embassy or closer to downtown (15-20 minute commute). Every house has a different layout and generally some oddities but most people seemed pretty happy with them. Some have really nice yards with fruit trees, green space, or covered gardens.
Singles (and a few couples) pretty much live in one apartment building a 7-10 minute drive from the Embassy and a couple minutes to downtown. The apartments are mostly 2-bed, 2-bath, and the building has a nice gym and decent restaurant in it. Almost everyone who wants to live in the apartment likes it.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are CHEAP. Fruits and vegetables are delicious in season (amazing melons, cherries, apples, pears) and a little boring in the winter (potatoes, onions, cucumbers). Locals mostly shop at the bazaars, but expats typically use the grocery stores, each of which is better for certain products. Ashan has the best bakery and booze selection, Paikar has the best meat and produce, and Rudaki Plaza has the most imported products.
Tajikistan is very much a "know a guy" country. If you ask the right people, you can figure out where to buy sweet potatoes during the one week a year they are available, a bucket of raspberries, or honey by the kilogram.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Good peanut butter is only available at select times, and if you like specific American-brand snack foods, you probably won't find them in Tajikistan. Pasta sauce is expensive and not always amazing. The best beer in the country is probably Stella or Hoegarten. And paper products are definitely lower quality. If you are picky about brands and specialized foods, ship them. If you're willing to improvise or compromise, you probably don't need to ship that much.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
A lot of Embassy employees use Sevara's Kitchen, which makes meals three times a week and delivers them to your door. They range from okay to quite good and you can order salads, desserts, chicken tenders, and a few other things any day of the week.
Restaurants are definitely getting better in Dushanbe over the last couple years. Tartin (French bistro) is new and has quickly become a favorite with a really nice outdoor garden area. People generally like Al Sham (Lebanese), Il Patio (Italian), Delhi Darbar (Indian), and Salsa (the expat Mexican/Italian hangout). Nady, a real French Bakery, is new and open on Wednesday and Saturday for those that want good baguettes and croissants. Fast food or international chains don't really exist (closest is BBQ Burger, which is quite good but still takes 20 minutes to make your burger). Coffee Moose is pretty similar to Starbucks.
Foodies will find these options limiting, as outside of the few international restaurants and outside of the capital you are basically eating Tajik food (soup, salad, bread, kabobs, and plov).
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Not really. Dushanbe is hot and dry which seems to limit the pests.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I used pouch only and it usually took 4-6 weeks for things to arrive. Some people think DPO is quicker but it's never been for me. I hear that DHL has recently returned to Tajikistan after a 4-year hiatus of no international shipping companies whatsoever. That may provide another option.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Most people employ someone to clean, cook, or be a nanny, and like everything else in Tajikistan, it's usually pretty affordable. I paid $25/week for pretty basic house cleaning.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are local gyms that some people use, but I don't know the pricing. The Embassy gym is inadequate in my opinion. The gym at the apartment building is quite nice, with a few treadmills, spin bikes, and good set of weights.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
I used my credit card at a couple grocery stores and major hotels only. Tajikistan is almost entirely a cash economy. You can easily get cash from the Embassy cashier, or there is now an ATM in the Embassy that accepts Visa. A couple ATMs around town seem to work with international debit cards, but it's always hit or miss whether there is money in them.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I believe there is a small Catholic community that met before Covid, but that's pretty much it. Tajikistan is 98% Muslim.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It would be really difficult to get by without some Russian or Tajik. Some people at restaurants/hotels speak English but generally at a pretty low level. Post Language Program can easily set you up with language classes, or it is quite easy to find tutors on the local economy.
Tajik is easier to learn than Russian, and certainly more useful in Tajikistan. Russian is better if you want to get around the former Soviet countries.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, definitely. Lots of uneven/broken sidewalks, and Tajikistan is extremely mountainous.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Nobody takes the marshrutkas (minibuses) as they are extremely crowded, hot, and basically Covid on wheels. Taxis are everyone and quite cheap; you can order them using an app but they will still call you on the phone and ask where you are. Many drivers are not from Dushanbe and you will either have to give them directions or put up with them stopping to ask multiple other drivers where to go. Most of the have seatbelts but no place to buckle in.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
If you are only planning on driving in Dushanbe, anything is fine. If you want to get out of the city (and you should!), a small-to-medium SUV with all wheel/four wheel drive is recommended. Every other person seems to have a RAV-4, and you can get up most mountain roads in them.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yep, through about three different companies. Internet service in Tajikistan is slow, unreliable, and expensive. Nonetheless, if you are willing to put up with ubiquitous service interruptions, it's definitely possible to stream movies. The apartment building is wired for fiber, and I usually got at least 6-7 mbps on the 20 mbps connection I subscribed to.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I used Google Fi, which worked great in Dushanbe and not at all in the far north. I think some people used T-mobile and others just used the Embassy-provided phone.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Embassy Dushanbe is one of the best posts for EFM employment; there are lots of jobs available and many of them are really substantial. A couple spouses worked in local international schools, a couple teleworked their US jobs, but the majority were at the Embassy.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business at work and business-casual outside. Tajikistan is pretty conservative and most people dress on the formal side. You virtually never see shorts, even in the heat of the summer. Most women seem to prefer longer pants/skirts and covering their shoulders so they get stared at less.
Having said that, unless you look Tajik, you will be stared at all the time, and doubly so in small villages.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Not really. Obviously the instability in Afghanistan might change that but so far Tajikistan is relatively low crime and I drove all over the country without feeling unsafe. Be careful of terrible drivers and possible weather in the mountains. RSO wants notification if you go more than an hour outside Dushanbe.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Health care quality is really low and people get medevac'ed for even minor things. If the Embassy health unit can't treat you, I would not want to go to a local facility. Everyone will suffer from stomach problems, even if you wash all your fruits and vegetables and are really careful. I was more careful at the beginning of my tour and think that I had mostly adjusted by the end. But even the high end restaurants can cause "Tajik Tummy" sometimes.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality in Dushanbe is horrendous during the winter. I think this past year I think we were at over 300 AQI for a month straight. In the summer there are often dust storms that hang in the air. Only during a few months of the spring is the air clean and clear.
However, most of the time you can escape the bad air by getting up into the mountains. Usually, 30 minutes of driving will get you well out of the bad spots.
4. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Tajikistan is pretty isolated, and became really isolated during Covid. Make sure to plan some mental health breaks and go explore somewhere else.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Extremely hot in the summer (up to 107), mild in the winter (often 40s), and absolutely lovely in spring and fall. It's super dry, though, so even on the hottest days it's pleasant at night. Dushanbe gets 300 days of sun a year and you will hardly ever see rain in the summer. It's a great place for outdoor dining and hanging out from April until November.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Relatively small, but people do hang out. There is a hiking group, a hash group, a weekly ultimate frisbee group, and used to be an expat-run trivia night every couple weeks. Morale is pretty good among the people that love the outdoors (hard to find a better country for hiking, camping, rock climbing, etc.). If you're looking for city life or a thriving cultural scene, you may not be happy in Tajikistan.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Dinner parties, hiking, camping, backpacking, horseback riding, biking, going to the few bars/clubs, hanging by the Embassy pool, etc. It's largely a make-your-own-fun kind of place, but if you're good at that, you'll have a great time.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Mostly families at post right now, and I think a lot of their kids play together. It can be isolating for singles. If you're looking to date here, you're probably going to have trouble.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
No, Tajikistan does not formally recognize same sex partnerships (even among diplomats) and it's my understanding, can be pretty hostile about it.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Tajiks are incredibly hospitable and welcoming (even that sentence is probably an understatement). However, it's definitely a family-based society and you might find it difficult to get close to many people as you will always be an outsider. Still a heavily male-dominated society.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The mountains and nature are stunning. There are tons of hiking trails within an easy drive of Dushanbe, and for those wanting to go further, check out Iskanderkul, Seven Lakes, or Laylakul. A trip to the Pamir Mountains was an incredible highlight. You can camp at the reservoir at Nurek or enjoy a trip to the floating house there.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Lots of people go skiing at Safed Dara, the only ski resort. It's not great, but you can rent all of the equipment and get a set of lift tickets for about $30.
Definitely go watch a buzkashi match (Central Asian polo/chaos played with the carcass of a goat instead of a ball).
And go to the mountains. Seriously, why would you move to Tajikistan if you don't like hiking or exploring the mountains? The country is 93% covered with them! I thought they were every bit as beautiful as Nepal, Peru, or other really touristy places.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not really? There's an artist colony where you can walk through the artists' studios and get some really nice paintings. Some people have bought some beautiful wooden furniture from the shop in the Hyatt. You can get rugs here but it's probably not nearly the same as the more famous rug countries.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Everything is really cheap and people are very friendly. And amazing outdoor experiences are located only 30-60 minutes away by car.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely. I had a great time there, but I love spending time in the mountains. It's definitely a developing country and has its share of problems and annoyances, though.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
I brought my bike but never took it out of the box. The roads in Dushanbe felt dangerous enough to me that I didn't want to take the chance of riding in the city.
3. But don't forget your:
Hiking books and camping gear.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Trekking in Tajikistan by Jan Bakker.