Lying between the verdant bamboo-forests of the Oxus valley and the stark granite peaks of the Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan is especially rich in flora and fauna. Snow leopards hunt Marco Polo sheep over mountain crags. Eagles soar above glacial lakes. Spring unrolls endless carpets of wildflowers. Autumn tips a cornucopia of fruit, nuts, and sweet berries from ancient trees shading traditional courtyard gardens. Stalin took the great emporia of Samarkand and Bukhara from the Tajiks, but they are still rightly proud of their long and glorious culture. This is reflected in the fine archaeological sites of Penjikent and Dushanbe. Not long ago, Tajikistan, now a political backwater between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, once bustled with traders from Europe and Asia. Merchants were drawn by the treasures of the Silk Route. Reminders of this past wealth occur in colourful bazaars like that of Istaravshan. Like many Tajik towns its has a ruined Arg (fortress). It also has a fine Central Asian mosque and madrasa and a holy shrine, the Sar-i Mazor Complex. Lapis lazuli and Badakhshan rubies were once dug from Tajikistan’s remote Pamir valleys. They decorated the death-masks of Pharaohs and the diadems of long-dead kings. Silk sold in local bazaars was used for the gorgeous robes of Byzantine queens and European bishops. Along these ancient trade routes, descendants of ancient Sogdian traders in remote Fan mountain valleys still speak their original language. Although Islam dominates modern Tajikistan, it has a cosmopolitan history of Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Judaism. These are marked by ancient Kushan fortresses, reclining Buddhas, abandoned fire temples, and mountain shrines in the High Pamirs. These different religious traditions combine in a culture unique to the mountain people. Here, nomad chieftains and merchant-princes, wandering Chinese monks, Russian spies and Victorian explorers followed in the footsteps of Marco Polo and Genghis Khan. Here, for eons, transhumant herdsmen, living in distinctive yurts, have guarded their flocks.
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