Trans Eurasia travel

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Ferghana Valley and the North

The North of Tajikistan comprises part of the Ferghana valley, which is the very heart of Central Asia. The Tajik section is known as Sughd, replacing the old name of Khujand that is still commonly in use. Sughd is separated physically from the rest of the country by the Zarafshan range of mountains. Until recently this meant that the region was cut off from the south for six months of the year, because the passes were blocked with snow. With the opening of the Anzob tunnel and the Shahristan tunnel in 2012, a connection is established throughout the year. The area was removed from Uzbekistan and tacked on to Tajikistan by Stalin in 1929, partly to ensure the criteria of a population of one million for a new Socialist Soviet Republic was fulfilled. It was also part of a general divide and rule policy, as the majority of the population in this northern enclave are Uzbeks, in a mainly Tajik state. In neighbouring Uzbekistan, great cities of Bukhara and Samarqand have large Tajik populations.

The story of this part of Tajikistan is much more closely linked with the other parts of the Ferghana valley in present day Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, than to the country to the south. The area is the most productive in Tajikistan, providing two thirds of GDP, with a third of the population. It has 75 per cent of the arable land.

Until Independence, this area was the powerhouse of the Communist Party in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan. All the leaders of the country came from this area. It is only since the rise to power of President Rahmon in the 1990s that this power structure has been turned upside down. Now the elite come from the southern province of Khatlon, centred on the town of Kulob.

During the civil war (1992-1997) there was no fighting in this area, although in 1998 an ex-civil war commander, Mahmud Khudoberdiev, led an uprising there. His three-day insurrection ended with a dramatic shoot-out at the medieval citadel in which about a hundred people were killed according to official figures. These days, Sugdh is again important politically. A strong Islamic tradition, coupled with a rising generation anxious for a better life, mean this is an area the Dushanbe government watches with care.

The Ferghana valley has been a centre of civilisation in Central Asia for centuries. It is very fertile and a famous trading post, sitting at the crossroads between China, India, Turkey and roads north. Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, was born at Andijan, one of the main cities of Ferghana. All his life he yearned for the delights of his home area, particularly the luscious melons. They are still luscious. The fields of wheat and orchards of the past have now largely given way to cotton, but the area still grows a rich variety of produce. The Tajik section includes the enormous Karakum Lake, 65km long by 20-8km wide, dug by the Soviets to provide irrigation, a reservoir and hydro-electricity. There are some tatty resorts at the western end of the lake.

It is uncomfortably hot in summer, and chilly in winter. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit.

Sughd can be reached by road from the south (throughout the year from 2012). The journey from Uzbekistan is much easier, either from Tashkent along the M34 road or from Samarqand along the M39 and A376. An Uzbek visa is required. Be aware that there have been many instances when the Uzbeks have closed the border crossings. Check the latest situation on websites or with a local travel company. From Kyrgyzstan there is a good road from Andijan and Kokand. A visa is required. Allow plenty of time to obtain visas, better still get them before you travel to Central Asia.


-    Istaravshan, with its ancient citadel, old town and magnificent mosques and madrassas. All on a much smaller scale than Bukhara and Samarqand, but with no tourists.
-    Khujand, an ancient city with some relics of its past, overlaid with standard Soviet constructions. It is a bustling place with some fine buildings, and the extraordinary palace of the Arbob collective farm.
-    A number of surprising gems in unlikely places, near Isfara and Kanibadam.