Trans Eurasia travel

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Northern Tajikistan

Tajikistan in the north squeezes between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan before oozing across the mouth of the Fergana Valley, the Uzbek heartland. South of Istaravshan, the twin Turkestan and Zerafshan (Zeravshan) ranges sever northern Tajikistan from Dushanbe and the bulk of the country’s landmass.

Sughd takes its name from the ancient Sogdians, whose empire flourished from the 2nd century bc until the late 10th century. The Sogdians' capital was Samarkand, but they retreated to the mountains in times of war, and were responsible for spreading goods and ideas in both directions along the Silk Road.

The Sughd region remains ethnically and culturally diverse and, thanks to its rich agricultural land, profitable mines and border crossings with both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, it is Tajikistan's wealthiest province. There are numerous sights of interest for tourists, from mosques and mausolea in Istaravshan to forts and a copy of St Petersburg's Winter Palace in Khujand. The region is easily accessible both from neighbouring countries and, as road infrastructure slowly improves, also from Dushanbe.

The scenic M34 connects the two parts of the country via Iranian- and Chinese-built tunnels that bypass the spectacular old route over the 3378m Shakhristan Pass and 3372m Anzob Pass. The road was upgraded by the Chinese in 2009 and is now a smooth ride. Possible stops en route are the homestays of the Yagnob and Zerafshan valleys, beautiful Iskander-Kul lake and the heavily eroded 13.5m-tall 10th-century Varz-i-Minor (Tall Minaret) in Ayni village.

Allow 8-10 hours for the 340km journey to Khujand, but there can be hold tips due to landslides and breakdowns. With the opening of the Anzob tunnel and the Shahristan tunnel (in 2012), a connection is established throughout the year. Consider making the journey in two days with a stopover, possibly at Aini or taking in an excursion to Iskandar Kul. From Pughuz it is 40km to the Anzob Tunnel.

Most people will take the 6km tunnel, as it takes as much as 1-2 hours from the alternative of going over the Anzob Pass (3,373m) - which in any case will be blocked by snow from December to April. The tunnel can be a disturbing experience. At the time of writing there were no lights, ventilation or road markings, and it is liable to flooding. Certainly we would not recommend cyclists using the tunnel. However, the Anzob Pass is not without its excitements, being a series of narrow zigzags, with some impressive drops to the valley below. The government may not continue to maintain the road if the problems with the tunnel are resolved. From the top of the pass there are stupendous views of the Zarafshan mountain range.

The road now descends, with more zigzags. Three km before the village of Anzob, and 110km from Dushanbe, there is a bridge from the left to right banks of the Fan Darya river, marking a right-hand turn to the village of Margib and the Yagnob valle. The main road then continues into Anzob, marked by a large boulder perched on top of a pillar of dried mud - the \Anzob Minaret'. The houses of this pretty village are stone built with storage for dried dung and hay on the roofs.

After the hamlet of Zigarak, 7km from Anzob there is an impressive waterfall, with a viewing platform at Taloqi Marzich. The river Fan darya now rushes through a steep gorge and disappears for 5km. This phenomenon was caused by an earthquake and huge rock fall in 1903, which buried an entire village. Local folklore has it that the whole population was killed and only a cockerel survived.

The next village is Takfon, after 7km. 4km further is the village of Rabat, with a small cafe. On the left there is a subsidiary valley, where a landslide destroyed another village in the late 1 980s. On the mountain slopes to the west, smoke, and flames at night, can be seen rising from vents. These are underground coal fires that have burned for thousands of years. Pliny the Elder wrote in the first century AD, "the tops of the mountains burn in Bacrria at nights". Going back to the 7th century sulphur and ammonia were extracted using the following method: a windowless structure was built over the vents, so that smoke would settle on the walls. After a time, a person covered with wet blankets would enter the building, and collect the ammonia, by scraping it off the walls into sacks. Sulphur and ammonia were important ingredients in making jewellery and medicines.

At the foot of the Anzob pass is the village of Jizhdik, where in ancient times, merchants would buy the sulphur and ammonia, load up their animals to take along the Silk Routes.

At the village of Zarafshan 2, roads over the Pass and from the tunnel merge. Gold and lead were mined in Soviet times and there are a number of derelict factories. Here there is a turn off to the left to one of the most attractive places in Tajikistan, Iskandar Kul. Local legend weaves a wealth of stories around this lake and surrounding valley, where the armies of Alexander the Great (Iskandar in Arabic) are said to have rested on their march to Samarqand.