On the way between Batken and Khujand, Isfara is not in the guidebooks. That’s really too bad, because the whole area has a lot to offer to the slow traveler.
- A well-preserved vision of architecture of the 1960s-1980s. Some parts look like a 1970’s postcard.
- The riverside tea houses are very relaxing
- A coal mining ghost town
- A 1000-year-old wooden mausoleum
- Border politics
Apricots (and rice)
Let’s start with the apricots. Isfara is the apricot capital of Central Asia, something that is made obvious by the huge apricot sculpture in the centre of town. You can find Isfara apricots in bazaars from Murghab to Moscow.
Apricot trees blossom from mid-February to early March. If you happen to be in the area, you should stretch your legs and enjoy the spectacle of the blossoms.
Rice paddies also make for pretty pictures. You can find them for instance in Khushobod and Chorku.
Isfara also produces a lot of apricot wood, popular for musical instruments, walking sticks, combs, tea house roofs and mosque doors.
Abdusalom Dekonov carves wood with ancient techniques. He carves with his left hand, while his right moves a bow backward and forward. Abdusalom welcomes visitors: you can visit him in his workshop where you can buy smaller or bigger items like combs or figurines.
62 Dukchi street, Navigilem (Gmaps), close to the Abdulla Khon madrassah.
Many towns in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley have kept their Soviet heritage in good repair. Isfara on the Tajik side is one of the best we have seen. The concrete is bright here. Some parts really look like 1975 never went.
Mosques & museum
The main Hodijon mosque (Gmaps) has ornate interior paintwork, and is apparently very popular for Friday prayers.
The Abdullakhon madrassah in the eastern suburb of Navigilem (Gmaps) is simple but elegant, built in the 16th century.
Haven’t visited the village museum (Gmaps). The main highlight mentioned is the gramophone used to announce the end of the Second World War, so…
If neither apricots nor architecture are your thing, do stop over for a snack and some tea in one of the tea houses that are perched over the river. Really pleasant to simply chill out, feel the river breeze on a hot day and observe local life while munching on a melon or plate of plov.
20 km south, on the road to Vorukh lies the village of Chorku. The 18th-century Hazrati Shoh mosque has a beautiful painted ceiling, but you can see plenty of that elsewhere. The real prize for coming out here is in the courtyard, where you can find the mausoleum of Kasim, a descendant of Ali.
The woodcarving here dates from the 8th to 10th century, and amazingly has survived up until this day. Snakes, owls and other birds are depicted, ornaments from pre-Islamic traditions weaved in with the ideas of this new-fangled religion expressed in Kufic script. An equally old mausoleum can be seen near Panjakent.
Chorku was an important centre for paper in the Ferghana Valley, which happened in traditional fashion until the 1950s. Fergananews (RU) has more on the history of the craft in the Isfara region.
The idyllic Hazrati Bobo complex and lake is great for a picnic.
Shurab coal mines
After Isfara, the railway tracks from Khujand bend south to end up at Shurab, a coal mining town. In the past, this was a prestigious place to work, but after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the industry collapsed and it became a semi-abandoned ghost town.
The coal mines are still dug by hand, you can go and have a look inside.
Beyond that, the place is a feast for ruin pornographers: empty factories, Soviet propaganda relics and lots of abandoned machinery.
Tajikistan is trying to resettle villagers to Shurab, especially from troubled Vorukh, but lack of water is a big issue that is stifling a potential rebirth.
Vorukh’s got issues. It’s one of several troubled enclaves in the Ferghana Valley. The border here has not been determined, and with village populations growing on the Kyrgyz and Tajik side, disagreements over land and water use have grown more intense. People have been getting wounded and killed, but a solution is not yet in sight.
Previously, you could visit without having to pass any checkpoints. There was no need for extra visas or border permits, your regular Tajik visa was fine. But since the unrest in 2019, both governments have said they will build more border infrastructure. We don’t know what the situation is like at the moment.
Located at an altitude of 1400 m, it offers something for everyone: the border fanatic, the conflict researcher and the landscape enthusiast. A lot of trekking routes start from Vorukh to head south into the magnificent glacier area above. You would definitely need a (Kyrgyz, and perhaps also Tajik) border permit for that area, though.
Zumrad sanatorium (Gmaps) looks really nice. We haven’t been.
Despite a railway station and an airport, there are no trains or flights to Isfara. Make your way to the bazaar and negotiate your way out of town, either to Khujand (2 hr, 13 somoni), or to Batken and Osh (border crossing details).