The Yagnob Valley
The Yagnob Valley and Zerafshan Valley are two remote and little-visited mountain valleys to the east and southeast of Ayni offer adventurous travellers plenty of scope to ditch the guidebook and do some serious exploring. These are one of the most attractive and interesting valleys in Tajikistan. Until a road was blasted out by the Russians it was almost inaccessible and entirely cut off, accessible only on foot when the weather allow. It remains one of Tajikistan's most wild, unspoilt spots and a fascinating anthropological microcosm. The river Yagnob flows through a gorge, and the steep cliffs guarding access from the main valley ensured it was a place of refuge for people fleeing invasion. The upper parts of the valley are inaccessible for six months a year due to snow and rockfalls. It is best to visit between June and September.
Access to the Yagnob Valley is 4km south of the village of Anzob, which necessitates leaving the main road at Takfon and driving east. There is a road (of sorts) between Anzob and Margeb, but it then peters out before you get to the village of Bedev. If you plan to travel further into the valley, it has to be done on foot.
The valley is ideal trekking country, with good paths, mountains on either side, rising to the 5,000m peak of Qullai Samarqand at the end of the valley. There are trekking routes across the ranges to valleys leading down to Dushanbe to the south, and to the upper Zarafshan valley to the north. There are a number of fascinating shrines in remote locations. Travel here is rough and ready but both valleys now offer homestays and guides and the mountains offer a deliciously cool summer escape from the baking plains of Dushanbe.
The Yagnob Valley to the south is the narrower and wilder of the two valleys and yet is closer to Dushanbe. The upper valley is famous as the last home of several hundred native speakers of Sogdian, the last echo of a language largely unchanged since the time of Alexander the Great.
The village of Magrib Bolo has a particularly dramatic location surrounded by jagged peaks, with the giant Zamin-Karor rock wall looming over it from behind. The wall attracts climbers from around the world and the valley and peaks to the south offer fine hiking if you enjoy walking uphill. The road ends at Bedev, 22km past Magrib, where trekking trails continue to camping spots at Kironte and then over the mountains to the Takob ski resort or Romit Valley.
The local people are very hospitable, and will beggar themselves to accommodate a guest. Should you be invited home bear in mind that this region is extremely poor. Bring food, tea, sugar and other supplies as well as money, and do not take seriously attempts to refuse them.
It takes four days each way to trek the full length of the valley, but just two if you stop at Kirionte, the last settlement. Most treks start from Margeb, the largest of the valley's villages, which is overshadowed by dramatic rock formations. You can collect your guide and pack animals here, and be seen off with a cup of tea and a handful of naan or fruit.
At Hishortob, 4km north of Margeb and a short detour from the main track, is the shrine of Khoja Guliston, a local woman who turned herself to stone to escape inevitable rape at the hands of an advancing army. Hie Guliston rock is inside a simple stone hut, and only women may enter. You are expected to make a small donation towards the shrine's upkeep.
Continuing east, the path sticks to the northern bank of the river. Your guide will be able to point out the former Basmachi den, several more shrines and a village razed by the Soviets and still unoccupied. As you pass by peoples homes you are likely to be invited in for tea, and this will be one of the highlights of your trek. Despite being Muslim, Yagnobi women go uncovered, even in the presence of strangers, so you'll likely meet the whole family.
The largest Sogdian-speaking village is Pskon on the south side of the river by the bridge. It is home to several Sogdian scholars, though they will also be able to converse with you in either Tajik or Russian. The road divides at Pskon: you can either take the left fork straight to Kirionte or turn right towards Tagob where there are more Sogdian villages and the 2,960m Maydon Pass.
From the end of the valley determined trekkers continue on to Romit or head north via Lake Sari Pul to the Zarafshan Valley.
But high in the Zerafshan watershed, I had heard, where Oman and I pursued our way in silence, a few villages of the secluded Yagnob valley still spoke a remote dialect of Sogdian. Their isolation had fossilised them. Squeezed between precipitous mountains, and cut off half the year by snows, they had lived in enforced wretchedness and purity. Somewhere, I hoped, just beneath the avalanche-blocked pass of Anzob, we would find the valley entrance. But Oman only sighed at this foolishness. Such a people no longer existed, he said.
A little farther on, where the Yagnob valley opened, we found two men heaving goats into the back of a truck. They wore old jackets and split boots. Shyly, feeling suddenly intrusive, I asked them their origins.
Yes, they said, they were Yagnobski. They all spoke Sogdian in the home, young and old, and had inherited the language from their parents, by ear. They sat before me by the river: an old man with a face of grizzled peace, and a pale-eyed youth. I'hey shared the same lean features and retracted brow and chin. For months a cassette-recorder had lain neglected in my rucksack, but now I pulled it out and asked the old man to talk for me.
He settled nervously before it. The only sound was the rush of the river. Then he began to speak as if in a reverie: an elusive language filled with gutturals and soft plosives, and a sad, rhythmic energy. He concentrated on it as if remembering a song, his eyes overhung by tufted black brows and his knees locked in big, liver-spotted hands. He kept his stare on the recorder's winking lights. The youth joined him in a pattering tenor, and fell into the same melancholy cadences, until all their sentences seemed to wilt away in disillusion.
I listened almost in disbelief. This, I told myself, was the last, distorted echo of the battle-cries shouted 2500 years ago by the armies of the Great Kings at Marathon and Thermopylae, all that remained from the chant of Zoroastrian priests or the pleas of Persian satraps to Alexander the Great. Yet it was spoken by impoverished goatherds in the Pamirs. Once or twice some fragment floated up to me with the eerie resonance of a common Indo-European tongue - 'road' sounded identical in English, 'nose' was 'nez' - but the rest was incomprehensible.
I thought they must be declaiming poetry or saga, but no, they said in faltering Russian, they were simply talking about the hardness of their lives. They bought goats in these mountains and sold them 200 miles down into the plains. As for the past, the old man knew that his people had been driven here by invaders, and that they had carried with them records inscribed on horse-skin vellum. But he was vague about all dates.
The young man too looked blank. The Yagnob villages were dying, he said. Life there was too isolated, too cold. In the early sixties people had begun to leave for Dushanbe and for lowland towns to the north. He himself had been born on a state farm in the plains. That's where our people are now. On the collectives. We hear Sogdian only in the home. I had three years in school, and nobody taught it.' He looked content with this. 'It belongs to the past.'
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron