The Zeravshan valley is part of the Soghd region of Tajikistan and is located between Turkestan Mountains in the north and Zeravshan range in the south. The Zeravshan valley received its name from a full, rough and rapid Zeravshan, which is translated from Farsi as “river, carrying water”. Zeravshan originates in the glacies of Macha mountain node. The river provides farmers of this area with water from ancient times. The river is stretched out for 877 km and its length in the territory of Tajiksitan is 316 km.
Often the Zerafshan valley is called Kuhiston, which is translated from Tajik language as “country of mountains”. Great mountain range as high as 2000 to 5500 and more meters widen out to the west and merge in the east into grand mountain swell – the Allai range. Climate in Zeravshan valley is continental and semi arid, winter is relatively mild.
Tourists are attracted to Zeravshan from all over the world, by its wonderful, absolutely pure Alauddin, Kulikalon and Marguzor lakes, as well as legendary Iskanderkul. This wonderful country of lakes is surrounded by Fan Mountains, located in the north-western Tajikistan between Gissar and Zeravshan ranges, to the west of Anzob pass. 11 peaks placed higher than 5000 meters surround the picturesque barely passable valley. The highest peak – Chimtarga – its height is 5489m above sea level. Not less attractive for mountaineers are peaks of Bolshaya Ganza (5330m), Bodkhona (5300 m.), Chapdara (5050 m.) and Mirali (5120 m.).
The population of the valley is 300 thousand people that populate 254 villages and the town of Penjikent. Ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and community of Yaghnobis live in the valley. Yaghnobis are descendents of the ancient Iranian tribes of Eurasia: Alani, Sarmatians and Skitians. The modern language of Yaghnobis goes back to the ancient Soghdian language, which was spoken by (Skit-sarmatian dialect group) in ancient Central Asia. Until the Arab invasion of the VIII A.D. those who lived in the Zeravshan valley played important role on the Great Silk Road, which roads crossed Penjikent, Samarkand and Bukhara. In 722 A.D. Soghdians were exposed to Arab troops. Abandoning their lands, Soghdians ran to the mountains, to the village Yaghnob, where the village Pskon actually became the new “capital” of the refugees.
Isolation and inaccessibility of the valley allowed preserving the lifestyle of Yaghnobis. Now, some tens and more villages have remained in the valley of Yaghnob. Difficult mountain paths lead to Yaghnob valley via passes which are 4000 meters.
Very interesting is the archeological monument – ancient settlement of the Ancient Penjikent. The old settlement consists of strong enforced citadel— kukhendiz, as it was called in Central Asia enforced castle of a ruler; namely the city of Shahristan, fenced with a special fortress wall with numerous towers; suburban settlement (rabada) and a big necropolis, consisting of separate vaults – naus. Ossuariy were placed in the vaults (small clay boxes) with the remnants of deceased. One of the most important discoveries on the territory of the old settlements – remains of water supply network in the form of two lines of ceramic pipes of different diameter.
Not far from Penjikent, Sarazm is located – one of the oldest settlements in Central Asia. Sarazm (top of the Earth) - "origin of world", which is more than 5500 years old, is considered a place of birth of civilization of Tajiks.
Inhabitants of this ancient settlement lived in dwellings with many rooms and with small yards. The monument which is more than 70 hectares distinguishes by its highly developed culture. Many objects of material culture among which painted ceramics, stone made items, bronze knives, daggers and axes were founded. From the materials of Sarazm scientists ascertained that already in III — II B.C. tribes living in upper reaches of the Zerafshan valley had close trade contact with the tribes in Kazakhstan and South Siberia and also with those living in the coast of the Gulf in the valley of the river Ind. The ancient settlement of Sarazm is included in the list of monuments of the World Cultural Heritage of UNESCO.
Good asphalted roads are laid across most part of the Zerafshan region therefore it is not difficult to get to the tourist sightseeing places. There are eight local tour operators functioning in Zerafshan which are members of the Zerafshan council on tourism www.zerafshan.info. The tour operators develop fascinating itineraries and in addition to sightseeing, tours such as following on the tracks of adventure seekers of the past are offered: legendary adventures of Alexander the Great, studying the life and work of Rudaki, travel along the Silk Road. Tourists can hear the language of the ancient Persian kings which has preserved till nowadays, meet with local musicians and famous craftsmen, and familiarize themselves with traditional life style of Zerafshan. Short tours can be made from Dushanbe or from Penjikent to Zerafshan and then back to the city overnight stay. This itinerary is for those who would like to use higher level services.
For those who are interested in holistic study of Tajikistan «sectoral» jeep-tours and other tours which are 2 to 20 days long are offered. All these tours will be organized after learning your preferences. Perhaps one of the most fascinating and substantial tours is a tour to Fan mountains which is 5 to 20 days long. www.zerafshan.info.
1) Dushanbe – tour around the city and one day tours
Most of the international flights to Tajikistan arrive in Dushanbe and tourists as a rule stay in the city minimum a day. This is a quiet city with wide streets surrounded with beautiful plane trees preserved its soviet time atmosphere created by the city architects in 1920. In the centre of the city under the shadow of weighty trees, narrow boulevards and elegant buildings painted in pastel shades are resting. An experienced guide will show the city, tell its history and characteristics of the city buildings, monuments and parks.
- National history museum after Behzod
Big collection of exhibits of natural history, ethnography and archeology are presented in the museum. A beautiful minbar (mosque pulpit) and mikhrab (a niche indicated direction to Mekka) are of particular importance. After a tour around the museum will go for a walk to Ozodi squire (Freedom), crossing the entire city centre. There is a monument standing in the squire which is devoted to the founder of the Tajik dynasty of Samanids – Ismoili Somoni. The tour will be ended by a traditional lunch at the national chaikhana Rohat.
- Visit to Gurminj museum of local instruments and shashmakom
The museum of musical instruments famous as Gurminj Museum was founded in 1990 by Gurminj Zavkibekov (1929-2003), People’s Artist of Tajikistan, laureate of the Rudaki State Award. About 100 musical instruments are in the collection, mainly representing the musical traditions of the Pamiris. The museum has also collection of domestic utensils, dishes and national clothes.
- National museum on antiquity and Botanical garden
The national museum of antiquity has exhibits of the Greek-Bactrian period, Takht-e Sangin (also small images of Alexander the Great from ivory) and Kabadian, original Soghdian statues and frescos of ancient Penjikent. Unique in whole Central Asia, the statue of the sleeping Buddha, discovered during excavation works in Ajina Teppa 1966 is also presented here; «Buddha in Nervana» is 14 m long. After viewing the museum a tour to the north of the city, Rudaki park with a view to the presidential residence and then to the botanical garden is offered.
Gissar was the capital of the Eastern Bukhara province and was in hands of emir’s deputy Ibragimbek until 1924, when he was defeated by the soldiers of the Soviet Army. The fortress faces with its gates a bazaar squire surrounded with caravanserai and two madrasah, one of which is an ethnographic museum. Other unique historical findings close to Gissar fortress are the Mausoleum of Makhtumi Azam, Masjid-i-Sangin (stone mosque) and mineral spring Chashma-i-Mohiyon.
- Trip to Varzob with picnic
Varzob gorge is a wonderful mountainous location just few minutes’ drive from Dushanbe. The main sightseeing sites of the gorge are waterfall Guzgarf and Siyom River valley. There are many picturesque places and recreation bases where you can rest and have food.
2) Penjikent – city tours and one day tours
Penjikent is an ideal point of departure for all long term tours. The city itself is the biggest city in the picturesque Zerafshan valley, located not far from the border with Uzbekistan, 65 km from Samarkand. 6000 years ago the ancient people of this region, Sarazmis, had started construction of this city, where production and trading prospered. From the VI to VIII A.D. this city was one of the most important cultural and art centers of Soghdiana. All tours include visiting local chaikhana, and canteens where aromatic traditional plov of Penjikent is offered.
The ancient Soghdian city Penjikent (V-VIII.) was defeated by Arabs and “buried” for centuries. Excavations of the ancient city are still going one. Amazing view open at the new city from here which developed just 1.5km away from the ancient settlement. The modern Penjikent is receptacle of a unique traditional bazaar. Straight opposite the bazaar there is the biggest in the city mosque. Every Friday about 1500 people gather where to make Friday prayers – Namozi Jum’a.
In the old settlement there are houses and fire temple with rounded altar, imitating sun rays. There is also a grave yard – 25 m in diameter (IV B.C.) where there are several tombs including the one that belong to a rich woman, known today as “Queen of Sarazm”.
- Literature and architecture
To the east of Penjikent, in the village of Mazari Sharif, the mausoleum of Muhammad Bashoro (11 century), famous Islamic scholar, who died here in 866, is located. Next to the mausoleum there is the museum of Loik Sherali, the prominent Tajik poet of the XX century. Rudaki – the founder of the Tajik-Persian literature was born in the village Panjrud, not far from Penjikent, and although he spent most part of his life in Samarkand and Bukhara, he came back to his place of origin to spend the rest of his life. His mausoleum is placed in a garden of his native village.
Seven lakes is one of the most fascinating places in Tajikistan. You can enjoy invigorating trip in fresh mountainous air along unique and wonderfully clean lakes.
3) Lake Iskanderkul
In 2 hours drive from Dushanbe or 4 from Penjikent the legendary lake Iskanderkul is stretched out. Breathtaking peaks of the Fan Mountains are reflected in the blue ice-cold water of the lake. Located at the height of 1295 ì, Iskanderkul is the highest mountain lake. It is 72 meters deep. Many interesting legends are linked with the lake. A local legend says that the army of the legendary Alexander the Great passed through these mountains to reach Samarkand. Another legend tells that the Soghdian leader, Spitamen was followed and died close to this area. Some local people state that they see ghostly figure of the battle horse of Alexander – Bucefal, that comes out to the surface of the water in lunar moonlit nights.