If you stare into the waters of the lake here at midnight, you'll see Alexander the Great, resplendent in golden armour, ride forth on the back of his horse, Bucephalus. Or so the locals say. One may be a little sceptical about that, but it should not stop you looking out into the inky blackness just in case. The Iskander-Kul lake is a real gem accessible to non-trekkers, a gorgeous mountain lake 24km off the main road, at the southeastern end of the range. For those whose Persian is a little rusty, Iskanderkul means Alexander's Lake'. It is around 36km from Zarafshan to Iskandar Kul. The road has a good surface and climbs between cliffs with a variety of geological features and colours, to the magnificent lake. The lake is surrounded by mountains, and is about four km across. Iskandar Kul is a must, either as a detour travelling north or south, or as a starting point for treks in the Fan mountains. It is a good centre for walking or mountain biking (bring your own bike). The views across the lake are impressive in all directions. At 2,000m, it is pleasantly cool in summer.
"Iskandar Kul or Lake Alexander is indeed a beautiful spot", wrote Mabel Rickmers in 1906, an English visitor and wife of Willi Rickmer Rickmers, the German explorer and mountaineer.
"As it bursts on one's view the first impression is that of a Scottish loch in the wilder parts of the Highlands, but on a grander scale ... We found a secluded spot by the lake overgrown with tamarisk where we had a delightful dip. The water was delicious. The sky was flecked with fleecy clouds, the lake an exquisite shade of eau de nil, the silver grey of willow and tamarisk contrasted with the darker green of the mulberry, the westering sun brought out in all their fullness, the different tints - purple, red, green and grey of the mountains". The scene has not changed.
Legends around the expeditions of Alexander the Great abound. Locals point out the saddle between two mountains that, the story goes, Alexander declared the summit of a race between his followers. Another story is that on moonlight nights, Alexander wearing gold armour and his famous two-horned helmet rises out of the lake on his black horse, Bucephalus. He remains with his sword raised until the morning, when he drops back below the waves. It is also believed that anyone who sees him will never leave Iskandar Kul. Yet another tale tells of a lost city where the lake now lies. Alexander tried to besiege the city, but failed. He ordered his generals to build the embankment that stands at the entrance to the valley, and flooded the city.
The lakeside turbaza is rundown (with pit toilets and cold showers) but enjoys a lovely spot, with 30 quiet chalets and a great lakeside picnic area. Bring food and warm clothes as the lake is at 2195m. You can get great views of the main lake and smaller black Zmeinoe (Snake) Lake behind, from the hill behind the turbaza.
At the far end of the lake are two grand buildings, one is the President's dacha, and the other his official residence. Less glamorous is the run-down and seedy Soviet-era holiday camp with 3 bedroom huts of a basic standard. There is an electricity supply, the bathrooms and toilets in separate blocks and a bar and restaurant. It is open from May to late October. From here it is possible to sail and canoe on the lake.
20 minutes walk from the camp, up a small hill to the north is Snakes' Lake. This is a reed-enclosed lake, with birch woods, leading up to a steep valley into the mountains. There are many waterfowl, and it is possible to fish in this tranquil and beautiful spot.
A 25-minute walk leads downstream along the north bank of the river to a rickety platform overlooking an impressive 40m waterfalls, nicknamed locally as "Niagara". There is a path from the camp going down the left bank, through ephedra bushes, to that viewing platform, with good views of the falls. Nearby are trees with hundreds of votive ribbons hanging from the branches, a common practice at holy sites. On the return walk, investigate the Heath-Robinson raft - a platform that can be winched over the river to measure the flow. The mechanism is on the platform and it is very stiff, but with effort it is possible to reach the far bank.
If you have a tent and warm clothing, it is infinitely preferable to camp. The lakes warden will sometimes allow you to pitch your tent on his garden (immediately behind the office as you reach the lake); or, for greater privacy, continue along the road, past the president's dacha (summer house), and into the groves of trees. You can then camp right on the lakeshore, and there's even a sort of beach. Expect to pay TJS10 per person for camping.
Some 5km above the lake is the village of Sarytag where homestays can be arranged. Four families currently host guests, and they all charge US$10 per person.
The lake itself is Iskanderkul's main attraction. The water is an amazingly bright shade of turquoise, and with the snow-capped mountains in the background it looks picturesque from any angle. Iskanderkul was formed by a rockfall, and if you head downstream (east of the lake) you'll see the impressive waterfall where the water finally overflows the rocks and cascades into the river. The falls are 40m high and there is a small (if somewhat precarious) viewing platform. The falls are also a local place of pilgrimage: look out for the coloured ribbons tied onto the bushes. Each one denotes a prayer or request.
A steep climb up the slope to the north of the lake gives you views down onto the presidential dacha and also brings you to Snakes' Lake. It's a haven for birds and fish, and far quieter than Iskanderkul, as few locals bother to make the climb.
From Iskandar Kul, there is a road of 10km to the village of Sarytag. It is dusty and steep and not worth walking. There are no buses, but taxis can be hired. It’s generally possible to find a taxi at the M34 turn-off but it would be much easier to hire a car between Dushanbe and Penjikent/Khojand and visit en route. Hitching is easiest on weekends when Dushanbe partygoers head to the turbaza. Note that the road to Iskander-Kul branches off the larger road 300m after leaving the main M34, by the defunct Zerafshan II factory site, and crosses the river. Sarytag has four comfortable homestays. The village is the starting point for delightful walks alongside the Kara Kul river, through meadows, birch and juniper woods. It can be the start of one of the most popular five- day treks in the Fan mountains to Seven Lakes and Penjikent. The village is a great base for hikes up the Kaznok (Arg) Valley, or hire a guide for the long hike around nearby Kyrk Shaitan (Forty Devils) peak. You can also rent mountain bikes and even boats for fun on the lake.
Around Iskanderkul Well hidden in a cave above the village of Mahshevad is a holy shrine containing an ancient mummy, possibly the preserved remains of the Sogdian general Spitamenes. As this is a holy site, visitors are expected to wash themselves before going inside, and must be dressed respectfully. Women should ask before entering.
To reach the cave, cross the river at Hayronbed village and then follow the track south to Mahshevad. The mullah will guide you onwards to the cave; the walk takes around three hours and requires a reasonable level of fitness and a certain amount of scrambling. You should make a donation to the shrine to thank the mullah for his assistance.
Driving along the main road south of Iskanderkul, shortly before Zarafshan, you pass through the small village of Rabat. If you look closely up at the steep cliffs you will see that they are smoking. At night you may even see the flames. These underground coal fires have been burning for so long that they were even mentioned by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century AD.
Getting there Iskanderkul is accessed by following the largely unmade road (unusually for Tajikistan actually signposted) just north of Zarafshan village. The large Soviet-era mural on the end of a now virtually derelict mining complex is another useful landmark for the turning. Take the rusted suspension bridge across the river, then go straight.
The road winds its way for 25km, first through villages and then along increasingly steep tracks with some rather tight hairpin bends. A 4x4 is advisable here, particularly given that some stretches are littered with avalanche rubble, though you do see the occasional Lada bravely making the trip.
There is no public transport between the main road and the lake, so if you are travelling by minibus or shared taxi you would need to get off at the junction and hitch the rest of the way to the lake.