Dushanbe, Panjakent, Sarazm, Khujand & Iskanderkul October 1 – 7
Time to relax. We had a civilised buffet breakfast in the hotel and did not leave till 9 am. We drove 30 km to Hissar Valley which had been inhabited since 4th – 3rd millennia BC. The territory was part of Bactria. In the middle ages, Hissar was known for its crafts and markets. It the 18th-19th centuries, it was known as Hissar province – one of 28 domains of Bukhara Emriate.
Today, Hissar is a historical reserve with eight landmarks including the Hissar Fortress, Registan (the square in front of the fortress), Old Madrasah, New Madrasah, Caravanserai (a hotel built in 1808), Chasmai Mokhiyon mosque, Sangin mosque and the mausoleum of Makhdumi Azam (a historical monument of the 16th century) and a History Museum.
First, we visited the Old Madrasah built in the 16th century. Today, the History Museum is housed here. We saw a wide range of exhibits including textile, daily tools, book of Koran etc.
Then we walked across the Registan and spent some 40 minutes exploring the fortress with two cylinder-towers and lancet arch between them. The arched gate is said to be 2500 years old. The gate was constructed in the 16th century and has been completely restored.
We had a quick stop in one of the local bazaars before returning to Dushanbe. We planned to visit the Museum of National Antiquities before going to lunch at 2 pm. The museum was supposed to be opened till 2 pm. But its door was already closed when we arrived at 1 pm. What a shame!
We had lunch before returning to the hotel for the group to check out before 3 pm. It was hot and most of them were tired. They relaxed in the hotel before leaving for the airport around 5 pm. They would depart after 8 pm for Astana where they could catch a direct flight to Hong Kong.
As Kylie and I would stay on till October 7, we were not in a rush. After seeing them off, we had massage and had a relaxing evening for the first time since September 12. I had a 90-minute massage for 285 TJS. Unbelievably cheap for a massage in the best hotel in the capital!
October 2 Tuesday: Dushanbe – Panjakent – Sarazam 300km
Today, Kylie and I departed on a 5-day private tour with Alisho and a driver (UD$700). We set off before 9 am heading west to Panjakent (230 km from Dushanbe). We drove along the Zeravshan River and the Varzob Gorge dotted with coloured slopes (owing to rich mineral deposits). We passed half a dozen of tunnels including the 5km-long Anzab Tunnel built by the Iranians in 2006. But the design of the tunnel is poor without light and proper ventilation.
We stopped at Ayni for lunch. Alisho ordered a large portion of local lamb prepared in an oven. The meat was most tender and delicious. Kylie who likes lamb but cannot stand its strong smells, considers it the best lamb without smell she has ever had. As the driver was not feeling well, he did not eat much. Hence, we only paid 78 TJS for the lunch. Around 3 pm we arrived in Panjakent with a population of 33,000.
Panjakent was an ancient flourishing town of the Sogdians in pre-Islamic Central Asia. The territorial name “Soghd/Soghdian” was mentioned in history as early as the Achaemenid Dynasty (6th century BC). Ruins of the ancient town are found at the outskirt of the town. Rudaki, a famous poet of the 10th century and the founder of Persian – Tajik literature called ‘Adam of poets”, was born in Panjakent.
We visited the bazaar before checking in the Sugh Hotel, a small family hotel. I came here because I wanted to visit Sarazm, one of the two World Heritage Sites in Tajikistan (the other one is Pamir Mountain). we drove another 20km to visit
Sarazm located about 20 km from Panjakent and near the border with Uzbekistan, was a neolithic site with proofs of human settlements as old as 5500 years. It dates back to the fourth millennium BC and the most famous discovery here is the ‘princess of Sarazm” with richly decorated remains of a young woman.
The archaeological site was discovered in 1976 by Ashurali Tailonov and excavated by Abdullo Isakov and French archaeologists beginning in 1977. It indicates an early steppe presence in the Zarafshan Valley. Around 3000 BC, it was the largest exporting metallurgical centre of Central Asia. It was abandoned after the arrival of the Andronovo settlers around 2000 BC. Established no later than 1500 BC, the city served as an important regional agricultural and copper production centre. finds unearthed There are four sites under cover to protect the sites.
We first went to see the small museum near the site. We met a few French archaeologists who have been spending the summer here to for new excavation. Unfortunately, the museum does not have good illustrations to explain the exhibits and their significance.
We walked around the four covered sites. A few boards on site explain what had once stood above the ground i.e. a religious place, a bakery, a place for social gathering etc. I wish we had an archaeologist with us.
The sun was setting. Alisho tried to find a place for us to watch sunset. The sun was gone before we could find a suitable spot. We returned to the hotel and had a stroll near the hotel. As we had a substantial lunch, we decided to have instant noodles given to us by our friends for dinner.
The Marguzor Lakes is a chain of seven lakes at the western extremity of the Fann Mountains stretching along the Shin River valley. All except the Seventh Lake Khazorchashma were formed through obstruction of the stream following rock falls and landslides in ancient times.
Each lake has its own name and characters. The lakes and particularly the first lake, are distinguished by unusual colours owing to the mineral substances dissolved in the water that paint turquoise – blue both the lakes and the foamy Shin River. The colours of the lake range from green and turquoise to dark blue and violet. The colours also change at different time of the day and season.
One of the legends says that the seven daughters of a lost man came to look for him but did not find him. They then sat and waited crying for the loss. The tears became seven beautiful jewel lakes. The difference in altitudes between the lowest (the first lake) and the highest lake (the seventh lake) is 692m.
We set off after 8 am and soon reached a narrow gorge dotted with small villages and coloured slopes owing to the rich mineral deposits and foliage.
We had an enjoyable scenic drive and stopped in the largest village with hundreds of inhabitants. A few ladies were washing their clothes in the river. Soon we were surrounded by cheerful children posing for photos.
After this village, we began to climb up and soon arrived at Lake Nezhigon (the first lake at 1640m above sea level), which seems to be squeezed between steep walls. The wind had dropped and the surface was flat with beautiful reflections.
I took a leisure walk to the end of the lake. Unfortunately, I dropped the hood of my camera without knowing. I discovered the loss when I was back in the jeep heading to the second lake. Too late!
After Lake Nezhigon and a few loops, we arrived at a natural dam separating the first lake from the second lake, Soya at 1740m. We had good views of the first lake from the dam.
The water of Lake Soya is said to be exceptionally beautiful. Its colour alters depending on the situation of the sun in the sky and ranging across of all shades of blue to violet. The stones on the bottom are clearly visible. Unfortunately, we did not have good lights to show the lake at its best.
Lake Gushor at an elevation of 1,770m is about one kilometre from Lake Soya. Several climbing and trekking and cycling routes start from here.
Lake Nofin, the forth lake at 1820m above sea level, has a length of 2 km and a width of 400m.
Alisho had arranged home-stay for us between the Fourth and Fifth Lakes. The modest house with a few rooms is managed by an 18-year-old pretty girl whose parents work in Khujard. We were the only guests as the high season was over.
Life slowed down as soon as we entered the house. Alisho and the driver lay down on the platform while the girl prepared our lunch. After lunch, they wanted to sleep till 3 pm. We were anxious as the light would be gone around 5 pm. We were right.
We urged them to leave at 2:30 pm for Lake Khurdak (the fifth lake at 1870m) situated upstream of the village of Padrut. It is the smallest of the seven.
Lake Marguzor, the sixth lake at an elevation of 2140m, is considered the most beautiful of the seven lakes. Surrounded by steep slopes almost wall-like, it is the largest lake of the chain with a length of 4.5 km and a depth of 45m. The colour of the water is delicate blue. Unfortunately, without good light, the slopes were dark and the lake looked dull.
We finally arrived at Lake Khazorchashma, the seventh lake (2332m above sea level) which is fed by many springs and little streams rising from the ground. Two rivers namely the Hissar and the Darakhi Surkh, flow into the lake. Formerly one of the branches of the Great Silk Road used to go past the lake.
We spent almost an hour here. The rugged snow-cladded mountains in the distance are stunning. I followed a narrow path for half an hour hoping to catch a glimpse of the village at the end of the lake. But I had to turn back as it was getting dark.
We had dinner with plov at 7 pm. As there was nothing to do, we watched TV for a while before going to bed early. It was warmer than expected and I had a decent sleep.
October 4 Thursday: Seven Lakes – Khujand 350km
I also retraced my steps hoping to find the hood of my camera. Of course, I failed. We left the Seven Lakes after 10:30 am.
It took an hour to get back to the main road. We reached Ayni after 12:30pm and stopped in the same restaurant for lunch. This time we took a grilled chicken with herbs and a small portion of lamb. The bill came to 99 TJS. Value-for-money!
We had a long drive today. We took a winding road up to the Shakristan Pass (3,380m) and drove through the 4km-long Shakristan Tunnel built by the Chinese. This tunnel is much designed with good illumination lighting and ventilation than the Anzab Tunnel.
Khujand, the second largest city and the capital of Sughd, the northernmost province of Tajikistan. It is one of the oldest cities in Central Asia dating back about 2500 years: it is the site of Cyropolis which was established when King Cyrus the Great founded the city during his last expedition against the Saka tribe shortly before his death. Alexander the Great later built his furthest Greek settlement near Cyropolis in 329 BC and named it Alexandria Eschate or “Alexandria The Furthest”. The city retained its Hellenistic culture as late as 30 BC.
Situated on the Syr Darya at the mouth of the Fergana Valley, Khujand with fertile agricultural lands, was a major city along the ancient Silk Road. It is proximate to both the Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan borders. Today, it has a unique culture with a relatively large Russian and Uzbek population, far exceeding that of Dushanbe. The city’s architecture and look has not changed much since Soviet days.
Alisho dropped us off at Deluxe Hotel near Syr Darya but far away from the city centre. I expected a glorious sunset but could not find a high ground to watch sunset over the river. Kylie and I walked towards the river which had an awful odour (possibly owing to pollution). As we had a big lunch, we did not bother to go out for dinner. Instead, we had instant noodles and sardines.
October 5 Friday: Khujand – Istaravshan – Iskanderkul 220km
There are few monuments in Khujand. The Registan square and Panjshanbe bazaar (Thursday’s Market) are places not to miss. But Alisho and the driver did not know the way. As a result, we had an unpleasant long walk to the bazaar in a side street with heavy traffic. I hate the smell of diesel.
I like the Panjshanbe bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in Central Asia. It is busy, vibrant, well-organised and tidy. I also found my way to a vegetable wholesale market behind it and saw tons of potatoes, unions etc.
Opposite the bazaar is the Masjidi Jami Mosque and the mausoleum of Sheikh Muslihiddin. The mosque is not open to non-Muslim. But I went in a white side hall and was impressed by the wooden columns and paintings.
We were supposed to meet the driver at the other side of the square at the end of the visit. Somehow, he had lost his way. We wasted over 20 minutes and lost our patience. We asked Alisho to take a taxi and drop us off at the museum while he looked for him.
We spent an hour in the History Museum of Sughd housed in a renovated citadel with large round towers. We hired a guide who gave a brief overview of the history of country beginning with huge panels of mosaics on the life of Alexander the Great and ending with the independence of Tajikistan. We did not have time to visit the Museum of Archaeology and Fortification.
We had lunch in Istaravshan 78 km southwest of Khujand. Founded in the 6th century BC by Achemenid king Cyrus, it is one of the most ancient cities of Central Asia with a glorious past. It has been described as a museum city. Unfortunately, Alisho did not say anything about history and cultures. We just drove through with a stop at the reconstructed Mug Tepe Citadel which museum is yet to open to public. What a pity!
We had to take the same route back to the Shakristan Pass and follow the main road in the direction of Dushanbe. Then we turned off the main road and drove 23 km on an unpaved road to Iskanderkul. It’s a scenic drive: I was impressed by the fascinating multi-coloured mountains and rugged mountain on both sides of the canyon.
It was dark when we arrived at our guest house by the lake. We had soup for dinner and met four musicians on their way to perform in a wedding in Khujand. They sang and played local musical instruments while the local guys danced. We all had fun!
October 6 Saturday: Iskanderkul – Dushanbe 140km
Iskanderkul, a crater lake formed after a rock fall with a surface area of 3.4km2 and a depth up to 72m, takes its name from Alexander the Great who had passed through the lake. Lying at an elevation of 2,195m on the northern slopes of the Gissar Range in the Fann Mountains, it has claimed to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the former Soviet Union. It is a popular tourist destination for both local and overseas visitors: it is only 134 km from Dushanbe and 23 km from the Dushanbe – Khujand road.
We got up at 6 am and strolled along the lake shore to take photos of the gorgeous golden foliage, the surrounding mountain peaks and their reflections on the mirror-like lake. It was the most beautiful scenery and memorable experience in Tajikistan.
After breakfast, we asked Alisho to take us to see the cave where Alexander the Great had taken shelter and then up to the village above the lake. I met a group of tourists from the UK at the cave. They told us to visit the village about 20 minutes’ drive above the lake. We did. The village is peaceful with many old mud-bricks houses still standing.
Before leaving we had a short hike to see a 43-metre waterfall. The canyon is very narrow at this point with the waterfall below one’s feet.
Alisho dropped us off at the Serena Hotel (about $200 for a double). We walked to the central park with a gigantic Ismoli Somoni statute hoping to watch sunset. It was cloudy and the sun soon disappeared
On the way back, we stopped in a café for dinner with soup and pasta. Inside the café is bookshelves, books and plants. Quality of food is excellent for its price. We saw plenty of young people who look westernised. Few girls have headwear.
I had an hour’s massage before going to bed. What a great way to finish my 11-day stay in Tajikistan!
October 7 Sunday: Dushanbe, Tajikistan – Urumqi, Xinjiang China (GMT +8)
We had a lovely breakfast before taking a taxi to the airport (50 TJS). The plane took off at 10:30 am and we arrived in Urumqi around 4 pm (Beijing time).
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