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Upper Zarafshan Valley

The upper Zarafshan Valley, runs due east of Aini for 200km. The first half is less picturesque than other valleys, with long scree slopes leading down to the river gorge, interspersed with typical mountain villages surrounded by woods and fertile fields. In the second half, the valley broadens out with more variety of scenery, dominated by 5,000m peaks on both sides. The valley is a dead end, finishing at the Zarafshan glacier. There are trekking routes following shepherds paths across to the north and south. The river would present a formidable challenge to canoeists and white water rafters. The people are conservative and hospitable. There should be no problems in finding accommodation for the night, but always give a gift and/or money. One of the attractions is that, apart from an occasional foreign aid worker from German Agro Action, the visitor is likely to be one of the few foreigners in the valley. The best time to visit is spring and autumn, summers being very hot. It would be wise to allow at least two days to reach the head of the valley, with an overnight stop at Obduron.

The road follows the course of the river, which runs much of its course in a gorge cut down through the centuries. The road from Aini is part tarmac and part dirt to start with, and after 50km dirt, but passable, and trucks reach the top end of the valley. There are steep drops at many places on the road. Allow 25km per hour in a car or jeep. There are no buses, but taxis can be shared.

At the village of Rarz (22km) is an 8m ruined tower from the tenth century, Hazrat-i Burq that was once part of a fortress. The first village of particular interest is Washab, after 30km. On what is virtually a cliff face, are a succession of houses and cowsheds, each with the roof being the platform for the one above. The road follows a line roughly 300m above the river, occasionally dropping down to the riverbank.

The next main village is Obduron, situated on a double bend in the river. The village has houses with walled gardens and orchards of apples, almonds, walnuts, apricots and mulberries, so creating a green patch in a rather arid area. There is an 18th century fortress, which has been renovated, providing precipitous views down to the river. It was one of the many forts built by local beks, who were continuously warring with each other. There was a tunnel, now blocked, which led down to the river, so that water could be obtained in case of siege, or for escape. Next to the fort is the residence of the local governor.

There is a guest house, Gozari Mir, near the mosque. Turn left by the school and continue for 400m. It is free. It is basic but clean, with one room for sleeping and an outside toilet. Food can be provided. The guardian is very welcoming. This would be a natural place to break the journey both up and down the valley.

76km from Aini is the curious settlement of Matcha. On a wind-swept pass, the Hukumat have built their headquarters. There are office blocks, but no sign of the life of a normal village. There is a guesthouse on the site.

Halfway up the valley is the village of Langar (106km) with a good informal homestay run by the local head doctor, Mirzo Akbar. His house has a comfortable bedroom, with some fine carved beams. He provides the usual high standard of Tajik hospitality. In this area there are shepherd tracks over to the Yagnob valley to the south. Locals say that there are wolves, bears and occasional snow leopards in the mountains.

The last major settlement is Samjon (152km). The houses and walls are constructed of stones in a herring-bone pattern, very typical of this part of the valley. As in every village, there is a mazor (shrine). The mountains now on the left are the border with Kyrgyzstan. 20km further, the river rushes through a narrow gorge. Just below this gorge is the starting point for canoeists intending to reach Penjikent. This is a serious undertaking and only to be attempted by a very experienced and well- organised expedition. Local travel companies can arrange logistical support, but participants would need to bring their own canoes.

The last village is Dehisar (175km) The climate is much colder than further down the valley. The main crop is potatoes, which provide the main source of income. The local Mullah Abdullo is humorous and helpful. He has an informal homestay 2km further up the valley. There is a bedroom and a separate living room with TV. He provides excellent food. There is a small grove of trees near the house where guests can lie on a tapchan and admire the wonderful view.

This top end of the valley would be excellent for mountaineering. There are some lower peaks in the 3,000 to 4,000m range for acclimatisation, and 5,000m ones are also accessible.

There is an army checkpoint just before Abdullo's house. To proceed to the glacier requires permission from the local military commander, but this can be obtained with no problem. A vehicle can continue for a further 7km to a small settlement. From there it is a 4km walk to the flood plain and then another 15km to the snout of the Zarafshan glacier. It is an easy walk on the stony flood plain, but it is necessary to cross the river to the left bank, and it would be advisable to hire a guide. Donkeys can also be hired in the village. Allow a day to reach the glacier snout and return. There is a difficult path across to the Rasht valley to the south.

It is a long journey up the valley and back down, but it is worth the journey to experience its remoteness, the constant sight of mountain peaks and the hospitality of the people living from their flocks and small fields in a harsh environment. The end of the valley is a particularly wild and dramatic place, yet full of peace.

Zarafshan Valley to Penjikent

From Aini the road to Penjikent goes west. Allow half a day for the journey, but always be aware there could be hold ups due to landslips or breakdowns. The road surface is generally good and improves as you near Penjikent.

The traveller is now following along a section of one of the Silk roads, from Khujand to Bukhara. The road west follows the course of the river, which runs in a steep gorge. The fields are irrigated, with the sudden transition from fields and trees to arid mountainside. It is 13km to the town of Dardar, which contains a 13th century mosque, the only survivor of a string of seven ordered across the valley by Jalal-ud-din Khorezm-Shah. The inner area of the Dardar mosque has the original pillars. The outer area was built in 1890, by Murodboy, a local carpenter. It has a colourful decorated ceiling, with an unusual hue of red in the floral decoration. Local legend claims that this is because the paint included human blood. Like most mosques, it was closed in Soviet times.