North of Dushanbe lies the region of Sughd. Centered on bustling Khujand and closed off from the rest of Tajikistan by the Zerafshan range, the busy plains of Sughd are part of the Ferghana Valley; they have more in common with Samarkand, Bukhara and Kokand than with Dushanbe and the Pamirs.
It is only since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the subsequent civil war that Sughd has started looking south. Accounting for two thirds of Tajikistan’s GDP, Sughd is the most prosperous and dynamic part of the country.
Beyond the market towns of Khujand and Panjakent, northern Tajikistan offers majestic mountain scenery, remote, rarely-visited valleys that will please trekkers and mountainbikers, high climber peaks, and little traditional villages that offer glimpses into traditional folk life and long-vanished Sogdian history.
Khujand and around
To Tajikistan’s slow-paced standards, Khujand is extremely lively, serving as an introduction to Uzbekistan’s part of the Ferghana Valley. There is plenty to see to warrant a stop-over, like the idiosyncratic Arbob Palace and the Panjshanbe bazaar.
Slow travel attractions include the Vostokredmet factory that provided the material for the USSR’s first nuclear weapon, and the nuclear mining towns that surround Khujand.
Istaravshan and Isfara
Although it offers some historical interest, most people will want to skip Istaravshan, a town in visible decline. Although the old mosques are billed as the star attraction, it is actually more interesting for its woodcarvers and metalworkers, and the atmospheric bazaar.
Instead, we recommend you visit Isfara instead. North of Khujand near the Kyrgyz border, you can find apricot orchards, a 1000-year old mausoleum, a coal mining ghost town, and a beautiful but tragic mountain enclave.
The Zerafshan valley draws a straight line across the map from Samarkand to Ayni, and continues east, upstream into little populated mountainous areas. This place is known as the upper Zerafshan valley, a great place for trekking and undisturbed village life.
The gateway to the valleys is the crossroads town of Ayni, near the Anzob Pass and its famous “tunnel of death”.
Well worth a small detour from the Ayni-Panjakent road are Khairobad, Kum and Madm. Picturesque villages in their own right, you can find forts here associated with Dewashtich, the last ruler of the Sogdians.
The Yagnob valley, so remote it preserved its ancient language for a thousand years, is the most famous side valley.
For hikers, the Fann mountains are an alternative to the Pamir. With easier access and equally stunning scenery, there really is no reason to pass up the opportunity for a hike or trek of up to 5-6 days.
If you want see something beautiful but prefer not to hike, there are 2 good options in the Fann mountains. Iskanderkul is a beautiful lake not too far from the main Dushanbe – Khujand road. The Seven lakes are the place to go if you want to find easy access to traditional village life and pretty scenery.
For the hikers: both places are the starting point for numerous trails through the Fann mountains.
Panjakent is the gateway to Samarkand and the 7 Lakes, but it is interesting in its own right thanks to its ancient Sogdian history. You can check out the archaeological remains of Sarazm, and admire frescoes and Zoroastrian at the town museum.
- Center: Dushanbe and around + the Rasht valley
- Pamirs: The Pamir Highway winds its way through landscapes from another planet
- South: The Khatlon province is a great 3-season alternative when the rest of Tajikistan is covered in snow.
Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan
- Southern Kyrgyzstan: yurts, horses, and rolling pastureland
- Ferghana Valley: Uzbekistan’s traditional heartland
- Central Uzbekistan: The Silk Road cities Tashkent, Samarkand. Bukhara and Khiva