The Upper Zerafshan Valley, due east of Ayni in northern Tajikistan, gives birth to the westbound Zerafshan river that waters Panjakent, Samarkand and Bukhara.
Similar to the western bit of the valley, the eastern part of the valley also has mausoleums and ruins, but in addition there are good trekking opportunities in the shadow of 5000 m peaks. Village life is also an attraction: villagers are conservative and the area gets less visitors than the more popular Yaghnob valley.
It is a long journey up the valley and back down, but it is worth the journey to experience its remoteness, the constant sight of mountain peaks and the hospitality of the people living from their flocks and small fields in a harsh environment. The end of the valley is a particularly wild and dramatic place, yet full of peace.
Upper Zerafshan Valley
After 25 km a ruined tower, built at the same time as the Varz-i-Manor in Ayni, stands guard over the village of Rarz. At 45 km lies Veshab, with spectacular steep architecture, each house’s roof being the courtyard for the one above.
Obburdon (60 km) is a classic valley village, an oasis of green fields and fruit orcards in a desert of brown rock walls. There is a renovated 18th-century fortress. It was one of the many forts built by local beks, who were continuously warring with each other.
Matcha (75 km) has a guesthouse and the headquarters of the valley administration, but it is of Soviet make and not built around a traditional village.
The biggest villages after Matcha are Langar at 100 km and Samjon after 150 km. This part of the valley was completely emptied in the 1950’s, with all residents forcibly resettled to work on the cotton fields on the plains near the Uzbek border post at Buston/Oybek. People were allowed to return at the end of the 1960’s and the community has grown back to size since then.
25 km past Samjon is the last village, Dehisar, at an altitude of 2369 m. The road has climbed almost 1000 m since Ayni, so it’s much fresher here. Beyond lies the Zerafshan glacier and the border with Kyrgyzstan.
Mountain biking and driving
2 roads cross the Turkestan range to end up on a road in the Dewashtich (formerly Gonchi) district that finally leads to Istaravshan. Both are good for mountain biking and thrill-seeking motorists. They are open from May-June until September-November, depending on the weather.
You can check out an inspiring photo report of a cycle trip in Zerafshan and Yagnob valley by a cycle club from Kharkiv.
You can do day hikes pretty much anywhere: all villages are linked to fields and mountain pastures higher up.
For something more demanding, Darg, south of Veshab, is the start of a trail over the Farzod pass to the Yagnob valley. From there you can either continue in the Yagnob valley and go over the Tabaspin pass back to Langar (10 days), or continue south over the Akbakul pass and Leilakul pass to end up at the Leilakul lakes (5 days). Both are not for the faint of heart.
Independent trekkers can find the routes described in the Trekking in Tajikistan guidebook. You can buy a 1: 400 000 topographical map from ZTDA in Panjakent or Khujand, or in the Bactria Cultural Centre in Dushanbe.
The Zerafshan glacier at the eastern end of the valley is another trekking destination.
There is an army checkpoint just after Dehisar. To proceed to the glacier requires permission from the local border guards. The road continues for a further 7 km to a small settlement. From there it is a 4 km walk to the flood plain and then another 15 km to the toe of the Zarafshan glacier. It is an easy walk on the stony flood plain, but you need to cross the river to the left bank. Allow a day to reach the glacier toe and return.
Experienced trekkers can march on and end up at Jirgatol in the Rasht valley, from where you could continue to Tavildara. And so on and so on.
Locals say there are wolves, bears and occasional snow leopards in the mountains.
Thes top end of the valley offers some lower peaks in the 3 000 to 4 000 m range for acclimatisation, and 5 000 m ones are also accessible. The Zerafshan glacier is another goal.
99% of people who climb here are Russian speakers. We know climbers have their own resources. We suggest you check the Russian-language ones.
Since you are close to the Kyrgyz border, you will need a permit to climb here. We are not sure if you can simply arrange it with the border guards in Dehisar, or if you need some other kind of paper.
A bit before Dehisar, the Zerafshan river rushes through a narrow gorge. Just below this gorge is the starting point for attempts to kayak to Panjakent.
This is an expedition, you will need to organise things yourself. Only attempt this if you are a very experienced kayaker.
Tours and logistics
If you are planning an independent trek, it makes sense to make arrangements for pick-up and drop-off with a tour company to not waste too much time. In some cases, it’s the only way unless you want to tack on another day or 2 to your itinerary. It is quite expensive, though.
If you are not on a budget, we can help you plan a tour. This is a great place to get off the beaten track and into a seldom-seen corner of Tajikistan.
Get in touch: we look forward to reading your plans and ideas.
Ayni and Shahriston pass
Named after writer Sadriddin Ayni, the crossroads village of Ayni is a place everyone just passes through. If you are stopping for a bite and a pot of tea, the main point of interest is an old minaret of mud brick next to a mosque. The mosque is modern, but incorporating some pillars and beams from its 10th-century guise.
The minaret is called Varz-i-Manor, that is, the High Minaret, although it is only 13 meters high. Its age is estimated from the 9th to the 12th century. According to legend, the then emir ordered the construction of 7 minarets along the Zerafshan valley, possibly serving as part-time signal towers in case of mountain raids, and this was the bottom in the chain. 2 more minarets are preserved in the villages of Fatvem and Rarz in the valley east.
It’s hard to believe the tower has stood for 1000 years, seeing it was built from unbaked mud. The protective casing around the minaret built with German aid money removes much of the charm, but it’s really necessary to keep the tower from falling apart. Nearby, Lenin looks on in anger.
Between Ayni and Istaravshan is the Shahriston tunnel, the longest road tunnel in the former Soviet Union. It’s not as scary as the Anzob tunnel, but cyclists or drivers into scenic routes and bad roads may still want to consider taking the long way round.
We are not sure what state the pass is in, though. It might be no longer passable. Do let us know in this forum thread if you have been there recently.
Homestays are available in Obburdon, Langar and Dehisar. Traditional hospitality is still very much alive in the valley, and it would not be difficult to find a place to stay outside of these homestays. Don’t forget to always give some money (if refused, stick it in the hands of the nearest kid or under a pillow – see tarof).
Ayni has guesthouses as well, but it’s a less interesting place to stay.
In Ayni you can probably fill a shared taxi to Veshab (1 hour, 30 somoni). Beyond that, you will have to pay for taxis yourself. It’s best if you do not have to rely on public transport. Traffic is very sparse in the higher reaches of the valley, or for instance to Darg.
The road is doable without a 4WD, but we recommend a good jeep if you want to minimize the chance of breakdowns.