Iskanderkul is a scenic lake not far from the main road between Dushanbe and Khujand / Panjakent, that takes its name from Alexander the Great’s time in Tajikistan (Iskander is the Persian form of Alexander).
The lake itself is the principal attraction here, although it doesn’t always look as azure as you would like. Only on the internet it does.
After you have taken the prerequisite number of pictures of yourself in front of the lake, you might want to get active. In that case, head to Sarytag, a village 9 km past the lake. It is the trailhead for treks into the Fann mountains, but non-hikers can take a stroll along the river and enjoy village life.
The route to the cave mummy above Makshevat is only for daredevils.
Entrance fee and when to visit
There is an entrance fee that all foreigners must pay to enter the Iskanderkul Nature Preserve, right before the bridge. The entrance fee is negotiable. There are no advertised fixed prices for anything.
Before May and after October, road conditions worsen, but transport to Sarytag continues year-round, so it is still possible to get up to the lake in winter if you are really keen.
The lake used to freeze over in winter and you could skate, but this no longer happens since the 1980s. In summer, it’s noticeably cooler on the lake compared to the lowland cities Dushanbe, Khujand and Penjikent.
Weekends are the noisiest, when lots of local tourists come to grill and party on the lakeshore. That’s either a plus or a minus depending on your temperament. It’s pretty quiet during the week, especially once school starts again in September.
Things to see and do
Walks near the lake
Easy-going walks are those to the waterfall, the president’s dacha and the Snake Lake, detailed below.
You can make a full circle around the lake, if you head back about 2 km from the bridge, where a trail (OSM) starts that leads above the eastern shore of the lake. It’s a full day of hiking and it goes over peak Chulboi at 3300m, so it no longer qualifies as “easy-going”.
If it all sounds a bit too tiring: Iskanderkul has pebbly beaches and a boat for rent. Bring your own beer.
100 m past the bridge that marks the entrance to the lake preserve, a path (OSM) leads along the left bank of the river that flows out of Iskanderkul. Follow it for about 1 km to get to a 50m-high waterfall. The many fluttering votive ribbons tied to trees mark this as a local holy spot.
On the return journey, you can see a raft that can be pulled across the river with enormous effort. It is supposed to measure the flow of the river.
The president’s dacha, one of his summer residence’s around the country, is what you imagine it to be: grand and gaudy. It’s on the far side of the lake (OSM). Can’t miss it.
The springs opposite the dacha (OSM) are really nice, though, and worth a visit.
Snake Lake, up a hill near the main tourist base (OSM) is worth the 20-minute hike. Enclosed by reeds, it is a tranquil spot where you can get a higher view of Iskanderkul.
The beautiful turquoise that you see on a lot of pictures comes out best on sunny days in fall, when glacier meltwater has filled the lake. Cloudy days = grey lake. Shout-out to Nodir Tursun-Zade, who managed to time-lapse the lake from every possible angle.
Walks around Sarytag
Sarytag (OSM) is the trailhead for serious hikes into the Fann mountains, but you can also do some more relaxed ambles here focused on fauna and flora, landscape and village life. Follow the Karakul river east as far as you like for a lovely shaded walk.
It’s a long and boring 9-km walk from the start of the lake to Sarytag. Instead, find someone to drive you there. Should be easy in summer.
Makshevat cave mummy walk
Makshevat is another quaint mountain village, but one that sees less visitors than Sarytag. A 2-hour walk into the hills above the village rewards you with great views over the looming peaks and the valley below. If you are ready to do some climbing, you get to see a mummy.
The walk to the cave is not for the faint of heart. It’s dangerous – you can see a video of locals doing it. We don’t have a gpx track yet: ask around for a kid or unoccupied adult to guide you. Don’t forget the tip.
The mummy itself is not much of a spectacle. A skull and a body with bits of mummified skin still hanging on, now placed in a kind of wooden crate, it seems (pictures here). Bit creepy. It’s holy, so women are not supposed to enter, pictures are advised against, and you should wash before entering.
The who, what or why of the mummy remains shrouded in mystery, but he is called Khoja Ishaq and is visited by pilgrims for his ability to work miracles. Come up with your own theory, or take one of the villagers on their word that it is the Sogdian general Spitamenes, his Greek counterpart or a Sufi sorcerer.
To get to Makshevat, turn left at Hayronbed, 8 km after the turn-off from the main road. You can find a place to stay here as well.
All questions and updates are welcome in the Iskanderkul transport forum Q&A.
Self-driving and cycling
It’s 25 km from the turn-off near Sarvoda, with nearly 700m ascent. The road is in a decent state, most of it is asphalt, 4WD is not needed, but higher clearance is an advantage. Before May or after October, expect road conditions to be dangerous – it’s winter!
By car, take about 3 hours to get from Dushanbe to Iskanderkul.
Here you have 2 options. If you are a group, you can get off in Sarvoda, where local taxi drivers charge 200 somoni for the car for the last stretch to Iskanderkul.
If you are a solo traveler, ask to get dropped off at the turn-off to the lake, 3 km before Sarvoda (the village is called Zarafshan-2), and wait for a car to pick you up. The price for the follow-up vehicle is 20-50 somoni. Most people report short waits, but you could always get unlucky.
Shared taxis to Dushanbe start in Sarytag (80 somoni). Book your place in advance the night before.
If you are going to Khujand or Penjikent, get the same shared taxi down to Sarvoda, then another one to Ayni and then a final transport to Khujand or Penjikent (total price ~100 somoni).
A private car from Dushanbe to or from the lake or Sarytag is expensive. Budget 100$ one-way.
If you are planning to hike, you should stay in Sarytag village, but if you are not planning to hike, it’s a fine place to stay as well.
Around the lake, there are several places to stay, mostly catering to locals. We saw lots of construction on our last visit, so expect more. Food is limited, so unless you have made arrangements, it is best to bring your own.
Most guesthouses are only open May-October, but the turbaza should be running year-round. Sarytag guesthouses are also open for visitors year-round.
All prices are negotiable, but mostly it’s about 10-15$/night, 15-20$ including dinner and breakfast. Your guesthouse reviews are welcome in the Iskanderkul accommodation forum thread.
Around the lake
If you want to have a quiet experience and be in nature, the southern side of the lake is the place to be. Bring your own tent and food.
Follow the road all the way around the lake until it ends and then walk the last few hundred metres down to the forest (OSM).
The old turbaza
Turbaza is the Soviet version of a mountain hut. Recently rebranded, the Iskanderkul turbaza (OSM) is now Tajik Sodirot Bank Tourist Base (seriously).
Outside of the name, not much has changed. The cabins for rent are primitive, and have only light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Blankets and mattresses are thin, all beds are twins.
This place is popular with local tourists in summer. At night there is a disco and plenty of alcohol next to the lake until about 3am. It is very, very loud and almost all male.
There is a camping area nearby, in between the outdoor disco and a swamp. There are some cabins in the northwest, next to an open garbage dump. The service here is surly Soviet.
There are several guesthouses on the eastern side of the lake: Shezok (OSM) has gotten at least 1 good review. There is also Abrar (OSM). On the western side of the lake, there is Khayom Guesthouse (Gmaps).
There is also a dacha owned by Asliddin Sirujiddinov. He does not live there so you need to book ahead (tel: +992 927 642 052 – English spoken).
A newer, smaller campsite and cabin rental place called Zumrad (OSM) is right next door to the old turbaza. This place looks better in every way: quieter, cleaner, but probably more expensive.
Sarytag guesthouses and campsites
There are at least 4 guesthouses in Sarytag.
At the start of the village is the house of Dilovar (+992 905 032 202); he speaks some English and can accommodate larger groups. In the center there is Makhmud (+992 92 728 3131) and Shahboz. After the village you can find the house of Yahyo.
The Archa foundation has set up several campsites around Sarytag that are supported with meals, toilets, etc. You can even book ahead.
Makshevat should also have some people happy to receive guests. We’re not clear on the details though.