The detailed itinerary provides an outline of the proposed daily program. The daily activities described in this itinerary may be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate changes in museum opening hours, flight schedules etc.
Meals will be taken in hotels, in restaurants with a historical or local flavour, or picnic lunches will be provided. All meals are included in the tour price and are indicated in the itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch and D=dinner. 2-3 500ml bottles of water (per person) will be be provided each day for all site excursions. All meals include bottled water, tea or coffee.
Tashkent, Uzbekistan - 1 night
Day 1: Tuesday 31 May, Arrive Tashkent
- Airport Transfer for participants arriving on the ‘ASA designated flight’ (HY506 at 1415hrs)
- Welcome Dinner
Participants travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flight are scheduled to arrive in Tashkent mid-afternoon. Upon arrival we shall transfer by private coach to the Lotte City Palace Hotel, located next to the Alisher Navoi Opera and Ballet House. After settling in to our hotel we dine together at the hotel’s restaurant. (Overnight Tashkent) D
Khojand, Tajikistan - 1 night
Day 2: Wednesday 1 June, Tashkent – Oybek Border – Khojand
- Oybek Border Crossing: Uzbekistan/Tajikistan
- Arbob Cultural Palace, Khojand
- City tour: Khojand Fortress & Historical Museum of Sughd, Sheikh Massal ad-Din Complex
This morning we set out overland for Tajikistan. Sixty kilometres north of Khojand we reach the Oybek border crossing between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. After negotiating officialdom, we continue driving to Khojand (Khojent/Khujand, formerly Leninabad) – capital of Sugd Province in northern Tajikistan. The site of Khojand has been continuously occupied for 2500 years and the modern city stands on the remains of a city founded by Alexander the Great: ‘Alexandria Eschate’, or ‘Alexandria the Furthest’ defining the furthest point the Macedonian armies reached in north eastern Central Asia. A branch of the ancient Silk Road has run through the strategically important site of Khojand city for millennia and local bazaars were traditionally crowded with traders from China to Afghanistan. Sadly, post-Soviet politics have killed much of the cross-border trade and many citizens of this predominately ethnic Uzbek city find it impossible even to visit family on the other side of the border.
After lunch we drive to the Arbob Cultural Palace located on the edge of the city. This peculiar monument was commissioned as the headquarters of a local collective farm in the 1950s. Extraordinarily, the local apparatchiks modelled Arbob on the Winter Palace in St Petersburg and today the building holds a museum dedicated to the history of the Soviet mission to ‘civilise’ Central Asia. Arbob was also the location where the Tajik Soviet officially declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and where the design for the new Tajik flag was chosen.
Returning to Khojand, we explore the city, visiting the so-called ‘fortress of Timur Malik’ and the Provincial Historical Museum of Sughd. The 10th-century Arg, or citadel, once boasted seven gates and six kilometres of walls, standing on the site of Alexander the Great’s original settlement. Numerous Bactrian/Sogdian and Hellenistic remains have been unearthed from this classic Teppe/Tell. The fortress gained its name from a local folk-hero, Timur Malik, who resisted the Mongol invasion of 1220 by retreating to an island in the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River to the west of the city. Ultimately, Timur Malik’s guerrillas ran out of supplies so he led his men and women in a final suicidal assault against the invaders. The location of the city on the banks of the mighty Syr Darya, at the southern edge of the fertile Fergana Valley, is clear evidence why this location has been continuously settled for so long.
We also visit the Sheikh Massal ad-Din complex, built to commemorate a local religious scholar who lived under the rule of the Ghurid Dynasty of Afghanistan, before being murdered for resisting the predations of the first Mongol governor of his ravaged city (1133-1223). The ensemble of buildings stands opposite the main bazaar and consists of a brick mausoleum built in 1394 by one of Timur Leng’s sisters. It features covered porticoes with wooden pillars carved in local Khojandi-style, a 20th-century mosque, and a 21 metre-high brick minaret dating from 1865.
Tonight we dine in a local restaurant. (Overnight Khojand) BLD
Penjikent, Tajikistan - 3 nights
Day 3: Thursday 2 June, Khojand – Istaravshan – Penjikent (280km, 6-7hrs)
- Istaravshan: Kuk Gumbaz Mosque & Abdullatif Sultan Madrasa, Sar-i Mazor Complex & Bazaar
- Shakhristan Tunnel (2760m)
We depart Khojand, Tajikistan’s northern cultural and economic capital, driving via the town of Istaravshan to the ancient Sogdian city of Penjikent. Located in the northern foothills of the Fan mountains, 78km southwest of Khojand, Istaravshan is another very ancient Silk Road town. Here, we visit the shahristan (inner town) neighbourhood of Shahr-e Kohna which features traditional courtyard houses with gardens of fruit trees and flowers shade winding alleys and mud brick walls. This atmospheric district holds the lovely Kuk Gumbaz mosque and madrasa: Tajikistan’s only extant example of Timurid architecture. Small and beautiful, with intricate tilework and a classic blue dome, this complex was commissioned by the regicide son of Uleg Beg, Abdul Latin (1420-1450), who probably began construction here after the murder of his father in 1449. Attached to the mosque is a madrasa whose Imams were actively teaching until a couple of years ago, when the government in Dushanbe, fearful of the rise of fundamentalist Islam, closed the classrooms.
Despite these deprivations, there is much of interest to see here. In the nearby shahristan (inner town) neighbourhood of Shahr-e Kohna, traditional courtyard houses with gardens of fruit trees and flowers shade winding alleys and mud brick walls. This atmospheric district holds the lovely Kuk Gumbaz mosque and madrasa: Tajikistan’s only extant example of Timurid architecture. Small and beautiful, with intricate tilework and a classic blue dome, this complex was commissioned by the regicide son of Uleg Beg, Abdul Latin (1420-1450), who probably began construction here after the murder of his father in 1449. Attached to the mosque is a madrasa whose Imams were actively teaching until a couple of years ago, when the government in Dushanbe, fearful of the rise of fundamentalist Islam, closed the classrooms.
We also visit the Sar-i Mazor ensemble of two 15th-16th century mausoleums and a lovely 16th-17th-century mosque, all set in elegant ornamental gardens. The first mausoleum is known by the unusual moniker of Aijina Khona, or (Demon House); so-named by the Soviets in their efforts to discourage pilgrims and encourage the development of Homo Sovieticus. The exterior is suitably austere brickwork, while the interior retains some original features. The second mausoleum, by contrast, is richly decorated with fine exterior tile work and carved stone ornamentation. The interior is simple and holds the gravestones of Hazraji Mekhdoni Azam, his wife, eldest son, and a nephew. Azami was a local worthy, born during the 14th century in the Oxus delta, in far-away Khorezm. He owed his local significance as an educated governor and perhaps more importantly, the nephew of famed Sufi poet and theologian, Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani. Hamadani was born in even more distant Hamadan, in western Iran, and was deeply influential in spreading Sufi ideals in 14th-century Kashmir. Hamadani’s own mausoleum stands in Khatlon (home region of the faction surrounding and supporting the current president of Tajikistan) and both uncle and nephew are evidence of the once sophisticated and cosmopolitan history of the currently obscure, modern, mountain town. The 17th-century mosque is constructed in the Fergana ‘Kokandi’ style using carved wooden pillars and possesses a richly decorated interior.
In the town bazaar, metalworkers and woodworkers still practice their craft. Blacksmiths sell decorative traditional knives made from animal bone, horn and wood, famed throughout Tajikistan.
From Istaravashan we continue our journey through the Fan mountains towards the upper Zerafshan Valley and Penjikent. We drive through the beautiful Shakhristan Gorge where we enjoy lunch in a local chaikhana. We have dinner in a restaurant in modern Penjikent. (Overnight Penjikent) BLD
Day 4: Friday 3 June, Penjikent – Seven Lakes – Penjikent (80km + 80km)
- Seven Lakes (Haft-Kul) of Marguzor, Fan Mountains
Today we drive through the mountains to the ‘Seven Lakes’ or ‘Haft-Kul’ of Marguzor: a 20km-long chain of pools strung like blue pearls through the western foothills of the Fan Mountains. Each body of water possesses its own hue, varying from green-turquoise to deep purple. We see Mijgon, Soya, Hushyor, Nophin lakes at 2139m altitude, and the slightly higher Khurdak, Marguzor, Hazorchashma lakes at 2400m. We enjoy a light lunch at a national house before returning to Penjikent. (Overnight Penjikent) BLD
Day 5: Saturday 4 June, Penjikent
- Ancient Penjikent
- Bazaar and Olim Dodho Mosque
- Rudaki Historic Ethnographic Museum
- Proto-Urban Site of Sarazm
We begin today with a visit to the remains of the old Sogdian city of Penjikent. Penjikent was a major town established, probably in the 4th-5th century AD, by colonists from Afrosiab, downstream on the Zerafshan at modern Samarkand. The ancient town is located on a loess terrace, standing high above the Zeravshan River, 1.5km southeast of modern Penjikent and 1000m higher in altitude, blessing Sogdian Penjikent with an especially benign micro-climate. During the 5th to 8th centuries, this was a splendidly cosmopolitan town, enriched by international trade and filled with traders and visitors from across Eurasia. The area enclosed by the formidable city walls covers 20 hectares and probably held a population of 5000-7000 people living within a shakhristan protected by bastion towers on the three flanks, the fourth being protected by the river. At least the same number of people lived in rabads (suburbs) beyond the walls and garden villages clustering along the fertiIe valley. In the western end of the ruined town stands the great Teppe (mound) on which stood the Arg, or citadel-palace, of Penjikent. Amongst the ruined structures of the shakhristan stand the remains of at least two Sogdian Fire Temples, with pictorial evidence that Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, and Judaism were all openly practiced by the population. Sogdian Penjikent owed alliegiance to the elected ‘king’ of the much larger city of Afrosiab just downstream, or the hereditary kings of the small Sogdian state of Osrushana, who dominated a swathe of mountain valleys between Afrosiab and the Oxus river.
The eruption of Arab Muslim invaders out of the Arabian Peninsula and their destruction of the great Sassanian Empire in just a couple of decades during the 7th century, entirely removed one of the most significant trading and military partners of the Iranian-speaking Sogdian confederation. Even as Ummayad Arab armies pressed north to the Oxus River, Sogdian city-states and small kingdoms would not unite, presenting a disunited face to the Muslim invaders. A ‘king’ of Samarkand attempted to overthrow the social order of Afrosiab and forge a military alliance with the mighty Tang Dynasty of China, but was overthrown in turn by his own people. The evidence of his last efforts to resist the Arab invaders is immortalised in the stunning frescoes excavated and now on display in the museum of Afrosiab in Samarkand.
In the face of Sogdian disunity, the Arabs captured the western and central cities of Transoxiana one by one: Merv, Paikend, Bukhara, Vabkhent, and Afrosiab were all subdued by the wily Arab general Kutaiba Ibn Islam in alliance with the Bactrian Iranian ruler of Balkh, who was eager to humiliate and annex his traditional northern Sogdian rivals. Kuitaba revelled in his governorship of the new Ummayad province of Greater Khorasan until his unsuccessful rebellion against a new Caliph in 716 AD. A new governor appointed from Damascus, immediately offended the many Sogdian men who had converted to Islam – often from political expediency – by insisting they were liable for the jizya, or poll-tax, unless they were publically willing to prove they had been circumcised. By 719 AD, the northern and eastern Sogdian city-states – including Penjikent – were in open rebellion against the Ummayads and in conjunction with Turkic-speaking nomads from the steppes were able to keep the Muslim armies from pressing into the Fergana Valley, or venturing upstream from Afrosiab.
The disgruntled Caliph in Damascus sent another new governor to Transoxiana in 720 AD, who successfully split the Sogdian resistance with a shameless policy of bribery and a relaxation of some of the more egregious restrictions imposed on converts to Islam by his predecessor. Not all Sogdians were convinced by this steel-fist-in-the-velvet-glove approach and in the same year, a young Sogdian warrior by the name of Divashtich seized power in Penjikent. Divashtich advocated a policy of open war against the Arabs to avert the ultimate destruction of Sogdian independence. The Sogdian successfully led a 2-year rebellion before being betrayed to the Ummayad governor by an ‘ally’. Divashtich retreated high into the mountains east of Penjikent, just ahead of Arab armies who besieged and burned the town. This act of destruction had the unexpected side-effect of preserving much of Sogdian Penjikent as it was on the day of its destruction in 722 AD. The great 3 and 4-storey wood and mud brick houses, with gorgeous interiors decorated by frescoes and murals, collapsed in on themselves; the painted walls of the ground floor were protected by the rubble of the upper floors. The fire temples, Manichaean chapels, Buddhist shrines, Nestorian churches, Jewish synagogue, merchants’ warehouses, all were looted and burned before the Arg was assaulted and its great walls levelled.
Devashtich and his army were besieged upstream in their mountain-fortress at Mt Mugh for two months, until in July 722 the Sogdian rebellion collapsed. Devashtich was crucified on the smouldering ruins of one of Penjikent’s fire temples and his pickled head sent to the Caliph in Damascus as proof of the end of Sogdian independence in Transoxiana. Devashtich would undoubtedly have stayed an obscure footnote for specialists of Central Asian history had not a Tajik shepherd made an extraordinary find on the slopes of Mt Mugh in 1932. The shepherd discovered a cache of letters written by Devashtich and his senior commanders. These documents relate to the administration of both the rebellion and Sogdian civic life, including marriage contracts and business deals, diplomatic letters to and from the Tang Chinese, and reports about local resistance to the Arabs; all the documents date to 721/22 AD. The Sogdian letters, contracts and reports were written on leather or bone, but three letters on recycled Chinese paper in eight fragments suggest that true paper was indeed a luxury import into Central Asia and beyond before the capture of Chinese specialists at the Battle of Talas in 751 AD.
Late-morning we return to Penjikent to visit the city’s lively bazaar which features a monumental decorative gateway, and the adjacent Olim Dodho Mosque whose multi-domed roof is reminiscent of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
Following a plov lunch in a local chaikhana, we visit the Rudaki Museum, dedicated to Abu Abdullah Rudaki (858-941), the ‘father of Persian poetry’ of the Samanid dynasty at Bukhara and a near contemporary and great influence on the writings of Ferdowsi, author of the Iranian classic text the Shahnameh, or ‘Book of Kings’. The museum holds artefacts excavated from the ruins of Penjikent by the Soviet archaeologist Marshak and a series of reproduction frescoes from some of the houses on the site. Sadly, as with the cache of letters from Mt Mugh, most of the original frescoes now lurk in the gloomy bowels of the Hermitage museum in Russia.
We end our day with a visit to the ancient settlement of Sarazm; translating roughly as ‘where the land begins’. This site was discovered by a local farmer who pulled a beautiful copper dagger from the soil in 1977. Excavations began a year later, unearthing one of the earliest urban centres in Central Asia. Rich finds revealed close contact between the people of Sarazm, the peoples of the Indus Valley, and the peoples of the Bactrian Margiana Archaeological Complex culture living along the Oxus River.
This UNESCO World Heritage site was occupied from the early 4th millennium BC to the end of the 3rd millennium/beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. The proto-town is situated between high mountain meadows suitable for cattle rearing by nomadic pastoralists and a large well-watered valley conducive to irrigated agriculture. Finds from Sarazm demonstrate a vast geographic range of commercial and cultural exchange, with trade relations extending from the steppes of Central Asia to the Iranian plateau, the Indus valley, and as far as the Persian Gulf. The people of Sarazm probably exported local turquoise and lapis lazuli from Badakshan, developing into one of the most significant urban centres of its day. Barley and wheat excavated from the site and genetically analysed in 2010, revealed the barley to be one of the earliest strains domesticated in China during the 4th millennium while the wheat came from distant Anatolia. Perhaps the most extravagant find at the site is the so-called ‘Princess of Sarazm’. This high-status woman was interred around 3000 BC, dressed in finely worked clothes decorated with lapis lazuli, turquoise, jasper, and limestone beads, and put to rest with an exquisitely worked bronze mirror. Most of these artefacts are now on display at the Archaeological museum in Dushanbe. This early entrepôt, busily trading with far-flung peoples 1000 years before the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza, was probably destroyed by Indo-European steppe raiders who settled the region during the 2nd millennium BC. (Overnight Penjikent) BLD
Dushanbe, Tajikistan - 3 nights
Day 6: Sunday 5 June, Penjikent – Dushanbe (220km, 4-5hrs)
- Iskanderkul, Fan Mountains
Today we drive to Dushanbe. En route we pass the Iskanderkul: a beautiful glacial mountain lake at an altitude of 2195m on the northern slopes of the Fan Mountains. According to local legend, Iskanderkul was named after Alexander the Great – known as ‘Iskander’ in the East. Tajiks believe that Alexander the Great’s route to India passed by this lake, but there is no evidence for the tale. We arrive in Dushanbe in the late afternoon and check into our hotel. (Overnight Dushanbe) BLD
Day 7: Monday 6 June, Dushanbe – Hissor – Dushanbe
- Hissor Fortress
- Madrasa-i Kuhna & Museum of Ethnography
- Madrasa-i Nau & Caravanserai
- Mausoleum of Mahdumi Azam
- Koh-e Navruz (Palace of Navroz)
- Statue of Ismaili Somoni, Rudaki Park
This morning we drive 23km west from Dushanbe to the ancient fortress of Hissor. The medieval Arg (citadel) gateway of this ancient Silk Road town still dominates the fertile plain. Below the Arg, stands the 16th-century Kuhna madrasa which today holds a small museum of ethnography. Next door stands a later 19th-century madrasa (Madrasa-i-Nau, nau meaning ‘new’) and the remains of a large caravanserai. This latter building is testament to the long mercantile history of Hissor, with a 5th-millennium Neolithic village excavated on a hill beyond the Arg and the remains of 23 separate towns and cities buried beneath the current remains. A town at Hissor is attested under Achaemenid, Hellenistic, Sogdian, and Islamic rule and was a key centre for the Emirate of Bukhara, entirely overshadowing Dushanbe in significance. Hissor was an important stopover on the east-west trade routes over the High Pamirs to China, and a redistribution centre for the collection of lapis lazuli, mined upstream in Afghan and Tajik Badakshan. Just next to the Arg gateway is a gnarled mulberry tree, festooned with ribbons and tokens left by pious pilgrims and visitors. Reputedly, this tree was bent when Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Mohammad, landed here on the back of his flying horse to defeat a local necromancer. Nearby is a holy well dedicated to the missionary who rushed word to Ali in the Hejaz of the wizard’s evil works. Next to the tree and holy well stands a 16th-century mausoleum dedicated to the Sufi scholar Mahdumi Azam.
Dushanbe, which translates as ‘Monday’ in Tajik Persian, was the location for a quite insignificant town and small bazaar, held on the first day of the week, until the arrival of the Bolshevik Red Army in 1921. The ‘Reds’ were in pursuit of the last Emir of Bukhara, who had fled east in his Rolls Royce with his favourite dancing boys, whom he hurled off the back of his vehicle, one-by-one, as part of a successful effort to evade capture following the fall of Bukhara in 1920. The Emir attempted to organise resistance to the Bolsheviks from Dushanbe before fleeing south and crossing the Oxus on rafts to the relative safety of Afghanistan in 1921. With the departure of the Emir, the Soviets chose the site of Dushanbe as the administrative capital of their new Oblast of Tajikistan. Modernisation quickly followed, with grand new buildings erected along Rudaki Avenue, the growing city electrified, new schools and clinics opened to all. In 1929 a train, driven by an Armenian, steamed into the new station, connecting Dushanbe with the Soviet economic powerhouse of Tashkent. In the same year, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan was split off from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, and Dushanbe was chosen as the capital of the new Republic. Dushanbe continued to benefit from the largesse of Moscow and since Tajikistan was so far from the centre of Soviet political and cultural life, many architects were commissioned by local authorities to build radical modernist structures without fear of censure or imprisonment.
During WWII Stalin moved vast quantities of men and materials to the Central Asian republics in an effort to keep them out of Hitler’s reach and the Soviet war machine functioning. Dushanbe dramatically grew in size and was chosen as the location for a large POW camp for German soldiers and Volga German civilians deported by Stalin. Many apartment blocks were constructed by these German exiles and estate agent windows still proudly proclaim ‘German-built’ when advertising properties for sale. Dushanbe further expanded through the 50s, 60s and 70s with migrants attracted to the city from across the Soviet Union. This cosmopolitanism came to a bloody halt with independence and the outbreak of civil war in 1992. Within a year, Dushanbe and Tajikistan lost nearly a third of her population: mostly ethnic Russians, Tartars, Balts, Armenians, Azeris, and Jews who had made up much of the republic’s technocratic, professional and administrative class. Despite the ending of the civil war, Dushanbe has not recovered her previously sophisticated character and the current president has pulled down much of the splendid 20th-century modernist architecture in the last couple of years, instead favouring glass and metal monstrosities best classified as ‘Dubai-chic’ or ‘Dictator-tat’.
After lunch, and some time to rest during the heat of the day, we see an example of the ‘new Dushanbe’: the cultural palace of Koh-e Navruz, or ‘Palace of the New Year’. Originally planned as a huge chaikhana (tea house), the project was high-jacked by the current President who instead insisted on a grand ‘palace of the people’, consisting of twelve huge chambers, decorated with the traditional Tajik crafts of woodcarving, painting and mosaic, all capable of holding 3200 guests. We also visit the statue of the great Samanid king, Ismoili Somoni, and Rudaki Park. (Overnight Dushanbe) BLD
Day 8: Tuesday 7 June, Dushanbe
- Shah Mansur Bazaar
- Museum of National Antiquities & Lecture by Archaeologist Mr Saidmurod Bobomulloev
- Gurminj Museum of Musical Instruments
This morning we explore the centre of the city including the bustling and colourful Shah Mansur Bazaar, and visit the famous Museum of National Antiquities which opened in 2001. This excellent institution holds artefacts from Tajikistan’s Islamic and pre-Islamic past including Greek, Bactrian, Sogdian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and Hindu objects, from coins and armour to jewellery and sculpture. The centrepiece of the collection is undoubtedly the 14-metre-long reclining Buddha in Nirvana, a 6th-century AD ceramic statue from southern Tajikistan, discovered in 1966 at a hill known by locals as ‘Ajina Teppe’, (The Devil’s Hill). The Buddha was commissioned by a member of the Iranian-speaking Kushan dynasty, whose great capitals at Taxila in Pakistan, Kapisa (Begram) and Balkh in Afghanistan, were instrumental in propagating Buddhism across Asia and the traditions of Gandharan/Hellenic naturalism in art. The Kushans commissioned the famed monumental Bamiyan Buddhas. The Kushans’ Bactrian heartland of southern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan was littered with monasteries, stupas, nunneries and shrines, all patronised and commissioned by the Kushan elite.
While at the museum, we have the privilege of a special lecture by Tajik archaeologist Mr Saidmurod Bobomulloev who has excavated the extraordinary site of Takht-e Sangin, on the northern banks of the Oxus river. Takht-e Sangin was a Hellenistic shrine dedicated to the God of the Oxus and is almost certainly the original depository for the extraordinary ‘Oxus Treasure’ – taken from brigands in the mountains of 19th-century Afghanistan by a British officer of the Raj, and now one of the highlights of The British Museum.
In the afternoon we visit the Gurminj Museum of Musical Instruments. This museum was founded in 1990 by Tajik artist Gurminj Zavqibekov. The talented actor started gathering local and traditional instruments as a teenager and since 1990 has accepted donations from across Tajikistan. The museum currently holds more than 200 working stringed and percussion instruments including setars, dutars, rubabs, tanburs and chang. Here we enjoy a demonstration by local musicians.
Lunch and Dinner will be served at local restaurants. (Overnight Dushanbe) BLD
Kalai-Khum, Tajikistan - 1 night
Day 9: Wednesday 8 June, Dushanbe – Nurek – Khulbek – Kalai-Khum (370km, 7-8 hrs, 30% asphalt, 70% dirt road)
- Norak Reservoir
- Shuraba Pass (2277m)
- Ancient City of Khulbek & Museum led by the Museum’s Director, Mr Abdullo Khodjaev
Today we leave Dushanbe and drive east to Kalai-Khum village. En route we visit the site of the last gasp of Soviet engineering in Tajikistan: the vast Norak Dam and water reservoir designed to power much of Soviet Central Asia. With the outbreak of civil war and flight of most ethnic Russians and other Soviet nationals, the dam systems quickly fell into disrepair and the old Soviet pan-Central Asian power network entirely broke down. The current President of Tajikistan has committed to building a new, larger dam on one of the other tributaries of the Oxus, with Russian and Chinese engineering and financial assistance. This new dam would effectively allow Dushanbe to control the downstream flow of water to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – much as Turkey now controls the flow of the Euphrates and Tigris to Syria and Iraq. The former President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, threatened that Uzbek tanks would be in Dushanbe within 24 hours of the start of construction of any new dam; tangible evidence of the importance of irrigation for life in Transoxiana. With the death of Karimov, the former Prime Minister and new President of Uzbekistan has attempted to normalise relationships with Tajikistan, including lifting some restrictions on Uzbeks and Tajiks crossing borders for family visits and reopening direct flights between Tashkent and Dushanbe for the first time in 23 years. The new president is keen to ensure access to cheap power for populous and energy-short Uzbekistan and it seems unlikely he will follow through with Karimov’s threat of invasion.
The highest point of our day’s journey takes us over the Shuraba Pass at 2267m and on our descent we follow the spectacular road running alongside the Panj River, with Afghanistan looming on the other bank.
En route to Kalai-Khum we stop at the small modern town of Vose to visit the ruins of the medieval Islamic city of Khulbek (Hulbek). This urban centre flourished with the growth of Silk Road trade encouraged by the Samanid dynasty between the 9th and 10th centuries, but was ravaged by a Karakhanid army in the mid 11th century and never recovered. The local museum holds artefacts from the Arg; it was excavated by the Soviets who partly reconstructed the citadel walls and gateway. We will have the privilege of a special tour by the founder and director of the museum, Mr Abdullo Khodjaev, who has excavated Khulbek since the late 1980s.
Dinner at a local chaikhana in Kalai-Khum. (Overnight Kalai-Kum at 1350m) BLD
Khorog, Tajikistan - 2 nights
Day 10: Thursday 9 June, Kalai-Khum – Parshinev – Khorog (250km, 20% asphalt, 80% dirt road)
- Pir-I Shoh Nosir and Holy Spring dedicated to Nosily Khusrav, Parshinev
Today we drive to Khorog in the High Pamirs where we stay for two nights. Our road follows the dramatic gorge of the Panj River, overlooking Afgan villages clinging to steep mountainsides on the opposite bank. We drive through the spectacular scenery of the Vanch region, gateway to the majestic Fedchenko Glacier. While in the Rushan Valley we may view (from a distance) the Vamar Fortress.
After the village of Rushan (also spelled ‘Rushon’), the road begins to climb and we pass into the predominately Ismaili Pamirs. As in the Caucasus, this dramatic landscape of deep valleys and gorges separating stark mountain peaks, encouraged an extraordinary linguistic and cultural diversity. Pamiri Tajiks speak their own language, related to Persian, Tajik and Dari, further subdivided into 20 plus dialects, some of which are nearly mutually unintelligible. The Pamiris of Rushan speak Rushani, a dialect of Western Pamiri, one of twelve local languages spoken by the inhabitants of valleys separated by only a couple of kilometres.
Ten kilometres from the town of Khorog we stop at the Pamiri village of Parshinev whose inhabitants also speak their own dialect. Here we visit the Pir-I Shoh Nosir, a shrine dedicated to a Sufi master, and a holy spring dedicated to Nosiry Khusrav (1001 AD), a missionary who converted the local population to the Ismaili sect of Islam.
On arrival at Khorog we transfer to our hotel. (Overnight Khorog) BLD
Day 11: Friday 10 June, Khorog
- Pamir Botanical Garden
- Khorog Museum
- Khorog’s new Ismaili Jamatkhana and Cultural Centre
We begin today with breakfast in the capital of Gorno Badakshan. This small town of 24,000 souls was an insignificant place until the Tsarist Russians established a military base here in 1896. The town became the military and administrative capital of one of the most far-flung imperial Russian provinces, frontline of the 19th- and 20th-century ‘Great Game’ between agents of St Petersburg and the British Empire. Khorog quickly expanded on imperial Russian largesse, blessed with the second highest Botanical Gardens in the world to the delight of the local Tsarist demi-monde. The Bolsheviks arrived in 1921, quickly building a school, hospital, and in 1932, an airport. The same year, the first plane to fly the treacherous route into the High Pamirs landed at Khorog, piloted by an aviatrix from Bukhara, who had burned her paranja (horse-hair veil) in Bukhara’s Registan twelve years before. A metalled road for Soviet military and scientific vehicles was hacked through the mountains in 1935 (optimistically named the Pamir Highway) connecting Khorog with Osh and Dushanbe.
The Oblast of Gorno-Badakhshan was a curiously blessed province under the Soviets, as it had been under Tsarist rule. Because it was close to international borders with China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and, before Indian independence, the British Empire. Moscow filled the High Pamirs with military bases and watching stations, scientific expeditions, and all the outposts of a paranoid, authoritarian empire. Daily flights connected privileged Soviet citizens of Khorog directly with Dushanbe and from the Tajik capital, on to Moscow, Leningrad and Tashkent. Aeroflot pilots were paid a substantial danger-bonus for their work and this also applied to many of the technicians and specialists living in this remote town and its surrounding districts. This imperial bounty dramatically ended with the reluctant declaration of independence by Tajikistan in 1991 and almost immediate outbreak of civil war. Suddenly stateless Soviet administrators decamped en masse to Russia, while the indigenous Pamiris found themselves very much alone and in serious trouble. Cut-off by the civil war raging in the Tajik lowlands, starvation for the local population was a serious possibility throughout 1993/4. Virtually all food – except meat on the hoof – had been imported to Khorog by the Soviet supply-chain.
Virtually all Pamiris are Ismaili Muslims and with political independence in 1991 came religious freedom. The leader of the Ismaili community, the Agha Khan, organised airlifts of food, medical supplies, and specialist personnel throughout the 1990s – almost certainly saving the lives of the local people. With the end of the civil war, Khorog and the Pamiris achieved a certain wary autonomy from Dushanbe, subsidised by the wealth of the Agha Khan. Most of the local educational facilities, including the extraordinary University of the Mountains, healthcare and social facilities of Khorog and nearby valleys are paid for by the Agha Khan Foundation.
Khorog is today once again a frontier town, with vast quantities of Afghan heroin smuggled over the border upstream of the Panj River for on-shipment to Russia and Europe. Unsurprisingly, this tsunami of opiates has also drowned this desperately poor region in corruption; the Tajik military commander in charge of drug indictment in all Gorno Badakhshan engaged in a shoot-out in the town centre in 2015 with military colleagues and special forces sent from Dushanbe over claims and counter-claims of who was protecting rather than arresting the smugglers.
This morning we drive east of Khorog, along the ‘Pamir Highway, through the lovely Ghunt river valley where small villages cluster along a beautiful, turquoise-blue river. Just outside of Khorog, on a high terrace between the Gunt and Shahdara rivers, lies the Pamir Botanical Garden, which we visit. Planted at an altitude of 2320m (the second highest in the world), garden staff carry out research on Badakhshan endemic fruit, ornamental plants and vegetables, and experiment with acclimatizing foreign plants. In 1934 the first seed potatoes were planted. Today they are grown in abundance, even at altitudes above 300 metres.
Later we return to Khorog for a visit to the ethnographic museum, containing a piano carried all the way across the Pamirs by 20 bearers from Osh, for the edification of a Tsarist military officer’s daughter.
After lunch we visit the new Ismaili Jamatkhana and Culture Centre of Khorog which opened its doors to the Jamat in December 2018. Built primarily of local granite, over 400 local craftsmen worked on the construction. The completed Centre offers tranquil spaces for both spiritual and secular endeavour. Its focal point is the prayer hall, which features a Pamiri roof, stone walls, stained glass windows, and carved wood pillars. The Centre also houses a social hall, library, meeting and multipurpose rooms, a foyer, a covered veranda, an amphitheatre and courtyards. Pamiri Isma’ilism is unique in a number of ways. The region’s geographical isolation made it difficult for initial Muslim missionaries to break ground, and so compromises were made allowing older religious practices to be incorporated into contemporary worship. Mosques are almost non-existent in the region, with Khorog’s Jamatkhana the first official place of public worship. Many traditions are instead centred around the Pamir House, a traditional residential building that draws on ancient fire-worship as much as contemporary Islam. (Overnight Khorog) BLD
Yamg, Tajikistan - 1 night
Day 12: Saturday 11 June, Khorog – Garm Chashma – Wakhan Valley – Yamg (190km, 4-5hrs)
- Mineral Hot Springs of Garm Chashma (2325m)
- Kakhkah (Khaakha) Fortress & Shrine of the King of Men (Oston-i-Shoh-i Mardon), Namadgut
- Shoh Isomuddin Shrine and Sacred Trees, Ptup
We depart Khorog, driving south along the Panj River. We stop en route at the mineral hot springs of Garm Chashma, literally ‘hot spring’, believed by local Pamiris to have opened-up when Ali fought and killed a local dragon. The hero’s famous sword sliced through the beast’s neck, helpfully bringing forth the mineral spring to wash away the dragon’s poisonous blood. We’ll take the waters, popular with locals for their supposed restorative and healing powers.
On the Afghan bank of the river, we see a pass leading deep into Badakhshan. This was the path likely taken by Marco Polo on his hunt for famous local ruby mines. These so-called Lali Badakhshan Rubies are in fact spinals, but still considered precious enough to have been incorporated into Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Crown; they were widely treasured across Eurasia prior to the 20th century.
We enjoy a simple lunch in the mixed Whaki and Pamiri village of Ishkashim, which is one of the locations of an official Tajik border crossing into Afghanistan (along with the Friendship Bridge crossing at Khorog). The Panj River takes a sharp turn eastward at Ishkashim and we follow the flow upstream to the village of Namadgut. Here the valley is known as the Wakhan and both valley and village are dominated by a Kushan fortress known to locals as the ‘citadel of Kakhkaha’. Kakhkaka is believed by Pamiris to have been the chieftain of the Siah-Posh or ‘Black Robes’; a tribe of fire worshippers, driven by Ali from the Wakhan to exile in Nuristan in Afghanistan. In reality, this was a fortress dating back to the 2nd century BC, constructed to guard the lapis and spinal ruby trade east to China, west to Bactria, and north to Fergana. The legend of the fire worshipping Kakhkaha is almost certainly a folk memory of Zoroastrian and Kushan practice and the arrival of Islam.
Nearby is the Ismaili mazor, or shrine, of Oston-i Shoh-i Mardon dedicated to Ali at the site of his reputed victory over the fire-worshipping Kakhkaha. The wooden mazor door is decorated with lovely carving and dates to the 11th century. The shrine is also decorated with ram’s horns, typical of shrines in the area. Following the Panj up the Wakhan Valley we continue to the village of Ptup with a lovely mazor and garden of sacred trees.
On arrival at the village of Yamg we transfer to our homestay with Aydar Malikmamadov in his traditional Pamiri house. These structures are filled with symbolic and ritual space, as Ismailis in the Pamirs do not build mosques, instead worshipping at home. Pamiri Ismaili Islam is further overlaid on a deep Iranian history stretching back over four millennia. Three separate living spaces represent the three kingdoms of nature, while five carved wooden pillars simultaneously correspond to the family of Ali (cousin and brother-in-law of the prophet Mohammad) and five Zoroastrian immortals, including Anahita and Mehr. Each pillar also represents a different age of human existence, from childhood to marriage, and death. Carved roof beams represent the number of Ismaili Imams; the number of Shia Muslims killed at the battle of Karbela; all the prophets of Islam, from Abraham to Jesus; and the seven Zoroastrian heavenly bodies. A wooden skylight called a ‘chorkhona’ or ‘four houses’ in Pamiri Tajik, is divided into four quarters representing the four elements. Some of the exterior and interior of each house is painted. The colours white and red have deep meaning in Pamiri culture: red represents life and the sun (the first thing created by God), while white represents light and milk (the font of human sustenance for this predominately pastoral culture). (Dinner and overnight: Home Stay of Aydar Malikmamadov, great-grandson of famous Muboraki Vakhoni, in a traditional Pamir House, Yamg 2850m) BLD
Langar - 1 night
Day 13: Sunday 12 June, Yamg – Yamchun – Vrang – Zong – Langar (100km, 3hrs)
- House Museum & Solar Stone of Sufi Muboraki Vakhoni, Yamg
- Yamchun Fort (Zulkhomor Fort)
- Oston-e Bibi Fotima-Zahro (Bibi Fatima Springs), Yamchun
- Vrang Buddhist Stupa & Ruined Fortress
- Mazor-I Shoh Kambar-I Oftob (Shrine of Lord Kambar of the Sun), Zong
We begin today with a visit to the reconstructed house museum of Sufi master Muboraki Vakhoni (1839-1930), where we may view the stone that he used as a solar calendar to determine the date and time of the Navruz festival. Our host from the night before, Aydar Malikmamadov, is the great-grandson of the Sufi and will explain how his ancestor devised his instrument. Aydar Malikmamadov will also show us the process by which he makes the traditional musical instrument rubab, of which he is both master craftsman and musician. The local museum is a gorgeous traditional Pamiri house with especially fine carved woodwork.
Next, we drive west back to Yamchun village to explore the imposing Zamr-e Atish Parast or the ‘Fortress of the Fire Dwellers’. Elements of this fortress date back to the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom of the 3rd century BC, as well as Gandharan Kushan construction from the 2nd to the 1st century BC. Most of the standing remains date from the late 1st millennium AD and the arrival of Islam. However, on a rock-plug, off the eastern lower flank of the main fortress, stands a smaller isolated fort known locally as Zulkhomor. This fort dates to Sogdian control of the region in the 7th to 8th century AD. Zulkhomor is believed by locals to have been the younger sister of Kakhkaha, who built this great house for her pleasure.
Nearby is a hot mineral spring known as Oston-e Bibi Fotima-Zahro, or ‘the Holy site of the sleeves of Bibi Fatima’, regarded for its supposed power over female fertility and reputedly popular with Zulkhomor herself. After a relaxing dip we enjoy one of the finest views in all the Pamirs.
We return to Yamg for lunch before driving east up the Wakhan valley to the village of Vrang. On a hill behind the village stands a Kushan Buddhist stupa of the 5th to 6th centuries AD, surrounded by 60 caves used by pilgrims and monks. The top of the stupa holds a stone carved footprint of the Buddha. Below the stupa stands a mazor dedicated to a famous Sufi poet and mystic of the 11th century, Abdullah Ansari of Herat (western Afghanistan). Looming above the village, stupa, and shrine alike, are the remnants of a probable Kushan fortress of the early 1st millennium BC.
Driving further along the valley we pass through the village of Zong which is dominated by the remains of the Graeco-Bactrian/Gandharan/Kushan fortress. Zong also has six different mazors, including one dedicated to the prevention of plague, especially credited with preventing an epidemic of cholera. Another, the Mazor-I Shoh Kambar-I Oftob, which we shall visit, is dedicated to the ‘Master of the Sun’, has been used since pre-Islamic times.
On arrival at the village of Langar, strategically situated where the Pamir and Wakhan Rivers join, we transfer to our homestay with a local family in their traditional Pamiri House. (Dinner and overnight Homestay in Hisor, Langar 2950m) BLD
Murghab, Tajikistan - 1 night
Day 14: Monday 13 June, Langar – Alichur Valley – Murghab (250km, 6-7hrs)
- Khargush Pass (4344m) & Nezatash Pass (4476m)
- The Pamir Highway
- Holy Pool at Ak Balik
- NGO Women’s Cooperative, Murghab
Today we turn northeast, driving past the Kushan fortress at Ratm and following the Panj river valley. We cross into the high, arid semi-desert region of Murghab via the high Khargush Pass (4,344m) and Nezatash Pass (4,476) and the village of Alichur at 3863m (whose name translates appropriately as ‘Ali’s curse’). The stretch of road from Langar to the Pamir Plateau via the Khargush Pass is particularly scenic. If we are lucky, we may see marmots, golden eagles, vultures or ibex.
We join the Pamir Highway and our drive takes us through a landscape of bleak bogs and moors – and a reputedly holy pool at Ak Balik (meaning ‘white fish’). The road carries on climbing over desolate barren ground, crossing another mountain pass at Nayzatosh (3137m) before descending to the predominately Kyrgyz town-at-the-end-of-the-world: Murghab. On arrival we visit the NGO women’s cooperative selling predominantly Kyrgyz shyrdak (felt products). (Overnight Murghab, 3630m) BLD
Osh, Kyrgyzstan - 2 nights
Day 15: Tuesday 14 June, Murghab – Kizil Art Pass – Sary Tash (230km) – Osh (185km)
- Akbaital Pass (4655m) & Uybulok Pass (4232m)
- Lake Karakul (3914m)
- Tajik/Kyrgyz Border at Kyzyl Art Pass (4336m)
Murghab is the administrative and economic centre for the Tajik knot of the High Pamirs, with nomad tracks leading from the town over the high mountain passes into Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China. We depart Murghab early this morning and drive along the fenced border with China via the Akbaital Pass (4655m), Uybulok Pass (4232m) to the Tajik/Kyrgyz border crossing at Kyzyl Art Pass (4336m). The landscape en route is an extraordinarily blasted mountain desert, punctuated by the vivid lapis blue of Lake Karakul (3914m). On clear days we can see Mt Somoni (or ‘Pik Lenin’ to most former Soviet citizens) the highest peak in the Pamirs, at 7134 metres.
Completing border formalities with the Tajiks we drive over the top of Kizil Art Pass and descend to the Kyrgyz border crossing. Completing our Kyrgyz paperwork, we proceed down the pass on a new Chinese-built road through the beautiful Pamir Mountains via the Kyrgyz town of Sary-Tash and on to the Fergana city of Osh. (Overnight Osh) BLD
Day 16: Wednesday 15 June, Osh
- Osh’s Jayma Bazaar
- Takht-i-Suleiman (Solomon’s Throne)
- Time at leisure
Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s oldest, and second-largest, city with a mostly Uzbek population of around 250,000. A lively commercial city that links Central Asia with China, Osh has one of the largest bazaars in Central Asia, which we visit in the morning, relaxing after our high-altitude adventure, tasting delicious local fruit and enjoying the smell of spices.
We then drive to Takht-i-Suleiman or ‘Throne of Solomon’, located on a rocky outcrop in the city centre. Here we visit the local museum and, following in the footsteps of many pilgrims, ascend the hill where Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (founder of the great Mughal Dynasty) built a shelter for his spiritual retreat in the 15th century. ‘Babur’s House’ is an important pilgrimage site and many Muslims from across Fergana come here to pray, or have prayers said for them by the resident Imam. Following our visit, the remainder of the day is at leisure. (Overnight Osh) BLD
Lake Toktogul, Kyrgyzstan - 1 night
Day 17: Thursday 16 June, Osh – Uzgen – Lake Toktogul (360 km)
- Karakhanid Monuments of Uzgen: 11th-Century Brick Minaret & 12th-Century Mausoleum Complex
- Gorges of the Central Tien Shan Mountains
This morning we travel 55km northeast to the town of Uzgen (Özgön), located on a cliff-top above the Kara-Darya River at the eastern end of the Ferghana Valley. Uzgen, mentioned by Chinese chroniclers of the 2nd century BC, later became an important Sogdian Silk Road city with a vibrant economy and its own mint. Uzgen was chosen as one of the capitals of the Turkic-speaking Karakhanid dynasty who overthrew the Samanids and ruled a large – if shaky – Central Asian empire from Uzgen, Bukhara, Balasangun (outside modern Bishkek) and Kashgar for much of the 10th to 12th centuries. The Mongols finished off the eastern branch of the Karakhanids in the 13th century, while the western Karakhandids were overthrown and subjugated by the Ghurids of Afghanistan and Khwarezmshahs of Khorezm in the 12th century. Uzgen was a ceremonial capital for the Karakhanids. We will visit the lovely 11th-century brick minaret (close cousin of the great minaret in Bukhara) and three well-preserved 12th-century mausoleums, constructed from beautiful decorated brick, including the tomb of the greatest ruler of the Karakhanid dynasty, Ahmed ibn Ali.
From Uzgen we continue our journey north to Lake Toktogul via the stunning gorges of the central Tien Shan Mountains. Tonight we stay in the small, recently renovated Hotel Kok-Bel, located near the lake. (Overnight Lake Toktogul) BLD
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan - 2 nights
Day 18: Friday 17 June, Toktogul – Suusamyr Valley – Bishkek (360km)
- Chychkan Gorge & Suusamyr Valley
This morning we depart for Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. Our journey takes us via the beautiful Chychkan Gorge and Suusamyr Valley, a huge prairie where local transhumants come in summer to herd their cattle. Our journey takes us through some of Kyrgyzstan’s most dramatic mountain scenery, across passes of over 3000 metres (Teo Ashhu pass approx. 3586m) and peaks over 4000 metres.
The first textual references relating to peoples living in the territory of modern Kyrgyzstan are in the sacred book of Zoroastrians, the Avesta, and Herodotus’ splendidly profane Histories. In Achaemenid Persian administrative sources, local tribes were known as Saka, while contemporary Greeks called them ‘Asian Scythians’. These Saka, or Scythians, are best known from their kurgan burial mounds, often containing spectacular metalwork, and a few inscriptions carved into the rocks of the Tien Shan. Most Scythians were pastoralist nomads, united in tribal associations, and ultimately subsumed by other nomad confederations during the 3rd to 2nd centuries BC. A number of Scythian kurgans line our journey north to the capital Bishkek.
En route we shall probably see Kyrgyz shepherds and their yurts: the ubiquitous felt tents of nomads across much of Eurasia. Kyrgyzstan is a small, mountainous country, at the western tip of the Tian Shan mountain range and the most picturesque and least urbanized of all the Central Asian Republics. With the collapse of the Soviet economic system and consequent devastation of Kyrgyz industry, many people reverted to a more traditional life rearing sheep, cattle, pigs and goats in garden-villages and, at altitudes too high for these, herding yak. In the fertile green valleys, fruit, vegetables, cereal crops and cotton are grown in semi-collective farms. (Overnight Bishkek) BLD
Day 19: Saturday 18 June, Bishkek
- Ala-Archa Canyon
- National History Museum, Bishkek (subject to reopening by 2021)
- Farewell Dinner with opera singer and local musicians
After breakfast we make an excursion to the Ala-Archa Canyon, located in the highest, central part of the Kyrgyz Ridge. This is famous for its eternal snow – stretching for almost 200 km – and such peaks as Dvurogaya (4,380 m), Korona (4,860 m), Baylyanbaish (4,700 m), as well as the highest peak of the Kyrgyz ridge – Semenov-Tian-Shansky (4,875 m). The Ala-Archa Canyon is the centre of the Ala-Archa National Park, one of the main tourist attractions in Kyrgyzstan. The name of the national park, Ala-Archa, means “many-coloured juniper”, which testifies to the abundance of this tree here. A river with the same name crosses the canyon. This river, like all rivers in Kyrgyzstan, originates from mountain glaciers. The Ala-Archa, the Adygene and the Ak-Sai are the largest rivers in the national park. There are 160 species of birds in Ala-Archa. Local fauna also includes the snow leopard, a butterfly called the Night Peacock Eye, wolves, snakes, owls, and many other creatures. The Ala-Archa Canyon has about 1,100 species of plants: wormwood in the steppe zone at the mountain foot, different grasses, bushes and juniper forests on mountain slopes that are replaced with alpine meadows. We will take lunch here after enjoying a walk in the park and visiting a small museum (if open) which contains an excellent display of the range of animals and birds that live in the park.
After lunch we shall return to Bishkek where we spend the remainder of the afternoon touring this small Russian colonial city. Bishkek was only founded in 1825 and was called Frunze when Kyrgyzstan was part of the USSR. We visit the National History Museum which gives an excellent introduction to the history of this region’s nomadic cultures, from the Scythians to the modern Kyrgyz, and contains a memorable and even controversial section illustrating the Communist period. This evening we shall dine at a local restaurant where we shall enjoy a performance of Kyrgyz folk music. (Overnight Bishkek) BLD
Day 20: Sunday 19 June, Depart Bishkek
- Departure transfer for participants travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flight
Participants travelling on the ASA ‘designated’ flight will transfer by private coach to Bishkek’s airport in the early morning. Please contact ASA if you require assistance with arranging an independent transfer. B