Trans Eurasia travel

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Aini sits at the crossroads between Dushanbe, Penjikent and Khujand, and so almost all journeys in the north of Tajikistan pass through. It's an underwhelming town (albeit with some attractive views along the Zarafshan River) but it's a convenient spot if you need to break your journey. Aini was named after the renowned Bukharan intellectual, Sadriddin Aini, 1874-1954. The main road north joins the Zarafshan Valley at the town. It is the junction to go east up the valley to the river's source or west to Penjikent and Samarqand.

Aini is a linear settlement stretched along the main road. Alongside the mosque is a 13th- century mud-brick minaret,

The town has a main street with basic eateries, offices, the obligatory statue of Lenin and an internet cafe. Predictably there is a monument to Aini and a memorial to those who died in World War II. Rather more interesting, however, is the Jamaladin Mosque, a modern structure in the town centre that incorporates some architectural salvage from the 10th century (incorporating some tenth century pillars and beams). Alongside the mosque is a 13m tenth century minaret of mud brick, now protected by scaffolding. The protective casing of which has the unfortunate side effect of making it resemble an elongated Dalek. The new woodworking and painting is of a very high standard. Local fruit, especially apricots are exceptionally good, even by high Tajik standards.

Aini is a natural stopping off point for an overnight stay on the journey north. There are minibus services going north and south and very dilapidated taxis can be hired. There are two guest houses to stay.

Getting there The road from Dushanbe is, with the notable exception of the Anzob Tunnel, well surfaced and winds an attractive route through the Varzob Valley before climbing into the mountains. There are three toll booths (TJS3/6.30/14.20), so make sure you have sufficient small change. The drive takes around four hours, a fair hunk of which is spent crawling through the tunnel. If you are travelling by public transport, the minibus departs from Dushanbe's Cement Factory stand and costs TJS60.

The road west from Aini takes you to Penjikent. Until 2010 this was also the best route to Uzbekistan, entering not far from Samarkand, but the border is currently closed and the road sees little traffic. Its repair, therefore, is not a priority and the live-hour drive is fairly rough, often on unmade road. The minibus costs TJS60 and lakes the same amount of time as travelling by car.

The opening of the new Shahristan Tunnel in the autumn of 2012 has revolutionised the drive from Aini to Khujand and cut at least an hour off the journey time. Jackknifed lorries on unmade mountain roads are (hopefully) now a thing of the past, and the handful of road tolls (TJS23/6/2/4) are a small price to pay for the dramatically improved conditions. Expect the drive to take five hours (around an hour less to Istaravshan) and be sure to fill up with fuel before entering the mountains. The steeper hairpin bends are a little nerve-wracking, particularly given the speed at which the drivers take them, and the warnings proffered by the . arcasses of less fortunate vehicles that have gone before seem to fall on deaf ears. The minibus ride costs TJS90.