There are few parts of Tajikistan more beautiful than this northwest corner, and if the Pamirs narrowly steal the award for most impressive mountainscapes, they lose out on accessibility. The Fann and Zarafshan mountains have it all: culture vultures can tromp to their heart's content among the ruins of Sarazm and Penjikent, or try out their ancient Sogdian with villagers in the Yagnob Valley; and trekkers, climbers and mountaineers have a seemingly infinite number of routes at their disposal, from the turquoise lakes of Iskanderkul and Haft Kul, to the strenuous passes of the Chimtarga Loop.
The Fannsky Gory (Russian for Fan Mountains) are one of Central Asia’s most popular trekking and climbing destinations, being only a couple of hours from both Samarkand and Dushanbe. The rugged, glaciated mountains are studded with dozens of turquoise lakes, on whose shores Tajik shepherds graze their flocks. Many Uzbek and Tajik travel agencies offer trekking programs here, as do some overseas trekking companies, though it is a possible destination for experienced and fit do-it-yourselfers.
To get to the Fans as an excursion from Uzbekistan you will need a Tajik visa and a double-entry Uzbek visa. Daily buses run from Penjikent to Artush or Shing/Rashnar, the main trailheads. You can get decent supplies in Penjikent, though it’s better to bring your own lightweight foodstuffs. The region can be very hot and dry at the end of summer (August to early September). It’s possible to hire pack donkeys at the trailheads.
If you don’t have time for a trek, a great way to get a taste of the Fans is to make a day or overnight trip from Penjikent to the Marguzor Lakes , known in Tajik as the Haft-Kul, or Seven Lakes, a 20km-long chain of turquoise pools strung along the western end of the range. Try to make it to the last lake (Hazor Chashma), 2km beyond Marguzor village and 63km from Penjikent, from where you can hike along the dramatic lakeshore (bring a picnic).
Shoestringers could take the bus to Shing, which departs Penjikent at 2pm, or try the impossibly cramped afternoon jeeps to Marguzor, which depart from Penjikent’s Takhta Bazaar, just downhill from the main Penjikent bazaar. Jeeps return the next morning at 6am. You can hire an entire jeep for around 200TJS. An easier option is to hire a car for the day trip through Nematov Niyozkul for between US$60 and US$70. There are good ZTDA homestays at Shing, Nofin, Padrud and Marguzor.
Routes from Artush - From Artush it’s a two-hour (6km) walk up to the alplager (mountaineers’ camp) where rooms and food are generally available but overpriced (dm US$20, plus US$5 to US$8 for meals). From Artush it’s a hard three-hour uphill hike into the Kulikalon bowl, home to a dozen deep-blue lakes. Excellent camping can be found near Dushakha Lake, at the foot of Chimtarga (5489m – the highest peak in the region). Then it’s a hard slog up and over the Alauddin Pass (3860m) to the Alauddin lakes, where you can find good camping and sometimes a teahouse tent in summer. From here you can make a long day-hike up to Mutinye (Muddy) Lake and back. From Alauddin Lakes you can head downstream to the Chapdara Valley and then west up to Laudon Pass (3630m) and back down into the Kulikalon bowl. An alternative from Mutinye Lake takes you over the difficult Kaznok Pass (4040m, grade 1B), where you may need an ice axe and rope, even in summer. From here head down the long Kaznok Valley to a hot meal and sauna at Sarytag village, near Iskander-Kul. There are daily buses from Penjikent to Artush at 8am, 12.30pm and 2pm. Four-wheel drives can normally get as far as the alplager.
Routes from Shing/Marguzor - The other main trailhead is at Shing or Marguzor. After visiting the Marguzor Lakes, trails lead over the Tavasang Pass (3300m) to the Archa Maidan Valley. Trails continue down the valley to the foot of the Zurmech Pass (3260m) and then over to Artush. Alternatively, when you hit the Archa Maidan Valley, you can climb up to the Munora Pass (3520m) and down into the valley, and then up over the Dukdon Pass (3810m) into the Karakul Valley and, eventually, Sarytag and Iskander-Kul. There are daily buses from Penjikent to Shing and afternoon jeeps to Marguzor.
Routes from the South - From Dushanbe it’s possible to take a taxi to Karatag or Hakimi and start a three-day trek north over Mura Pass (3787m), crossing the Hissar range, to drop down into the Sarytag Valley and Iskander-Kul. Bring your passport, as you’re close to the Uzbekistan border.