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The Cave Mummy

On the way to the lake, stop off at Khoja Ishaq to see a natural human mummy revered by pilgrims. Some believed it to be the remains of Spitamenes, the Sogdian general who fought against Alexander. Others hold it to be a cousin of the Prophet who came as a missionary to the area, fought and killed a devil, but died of his wounds.

The cave is high up above the village of Makshevat. Take the main road from Zarafshan towards Iskandar Kul. 8km along the road is the village of Hayronbed. Take a left turn over the bridge to the south side of the river Iskandar Darya. From there the track climbs 6km to Makshevat. This is a delightful unspoilt village 750m up in the mountains, with views across the valley to further ranges to the north. The houses are spread along river bluffs, interspersed with small fields and orchards. The local mullah can provide accommodation, with breakfast for 50 somoni.

The walk up to the cave must be one of the most attractive in the whole range, a mixture of woodland and bushes with superb views of the surrounding peaks. It takes 2 hours or more and a guide is recommended. The mullah will provide this service for 50 somoni. The path follows the stream. After 20 minutes the mullah will point out a mark on the cliffs on the other side of the stream. This is supposed to represent the devil and it is customary to throw stones at it.

The good path becomes steeper up the valley, which then opens out revealing more peaks and hanging glaciers. There is a guesthouse, furnished with blankets, cooking utensils and crockery and a stone hut with a spring, where visitors are expected to cleanse themselves by washing the face, hands and arms. They may then proceed to the cave. Local women are not allowed to go to the cave, but it is possible western women will be allowed. Ask the mullah.

While it is not necessary to be a rock climber, the route requires balance and a head for heights. Allow one to one and a half hours from the guest house to the cave and back. The path crosses some easy scree to a scrambling section. The subsequent traverse has two places where balance on small holds is required - though, like most mountain Tajiks, the mullah bounds across effortlessly. The path traverses under a cliff to a large ledge. From here there are fixed ropes to ease the ascent of the last 20m to the cave entrance.

It is forbidden to take photographs of the mummy as this is a holy shrine, but it is easily visible - a skull and torso with some mummified skin, set in a narrow, dusty cave which continues, we were told, deep into the mountain. As a spectacle it is low key perhaps - but as an excursion, this is hard to beat. The walk back to the village takes between one and two hours.