Tajikistan is a Persian and Farsi speaking outpost in a predominantly Turkic region and it is in many ways the odd one out in Central Asia. The modern country is a fragile patchwork of clans, languages and identities, forged together by little more than Soviet nation building and the shared hope for peace. However, that peace was shattered in the 90’s when a brutal civil war claimed over 50,000 lives, turning the remote mountainous republic into the bloodiest corner of the former Soviet empire. Though the wounds are still raw, the people are moving forward and a mood of guarded optimism has returned.
My original plan was to do a quick daytrip to Penjikent, Tajikistan’s second city and only 20km from the border with Uzbekistan and about an hour from where I am in Samarkand. However, after crossing the border and seeing the city with the mountainous backdrop, I decided I had to go up into them.
First, I toured around the old city of Penjikent which is little more than ruins from the 5th century that have not been preserved and certainly never restored. You can barely make out the shapes of houses but apparently it was once one of the most cosmopolitan cities along the old silk road. My guide made it interesting but all I kept thinking about was heading into the mountains and checking out the alpine lakes of Marguzor. So that’s what I did and that made today one of the best days of my trip.
The incomparable Tajik guru, Nematov Niyozkul, arranged my Toyota Rav 4 with my driver and his buddy who was tagging along but it was cool because he spoke some English. We headed up into the Fan Mountains to a string of seven lakes, each more beautiful and higher than the last. Each was also a different color blue as you got higher the water was more pure and looked like something you’d see in Switzerland or New Zealand. The scenery couldn’t be beat.
The rough mountain roads were shaking the bowels out of you but the incredible panoramic views were breathtaking and made you forget the bumps. As we ascended higher and higher we arrived at the sixth lake at about 12,000 feet. I wasn’t prepared for this type of altitude and as it got a little cloudy it started to get really cold.
I was wearing a bathing suit and tee shirt and it didn’t quite make for what I should’ve been wearing. However, I was determined to hike the last 2km to the seventh lake called Azor Chashma. You have to hike because there is no more dirt road, you have arrived where the Tajik “mountain people”-for lack of a better term-live. We parked and they all came and offered us food. We were starving and gladly accepted their sweet melon and awesome bread that they made right on the fire on the floor.
I couldn’t understand anything they were saying but they were very kind and infatuated by my clothes. I am used to that kind of reaction from remote village people and my drivers friend said I was the first American they had ever seen. I thought that was funny and thanked him for the wonderful fruit and bread and a truly authentic experience.
Then it started to rain, fairly heavily. I was still going to hike but the driver said that if we didn’t go now and it kept raining that we could get stuck here for 3 or 4 days if the road floods. That wasn’t an option so I agreed and we started back. The view on the way back was even better than coming because we were descending from an elevated position. I really got some amazing pictures. The glass lakes were spellbinding in their majesty-I know that sounds lame but it’s true-that’s how beautiful they were.
After arriving back in Penjikent, my Tajikistan guru Niyozkul brought me back to the Uzbek border to meet my driver, Andrei, to head back to Samarkand where I am right now. I am looking forward to a good nights sleep and then the drive to Bukhara tomorrow, but what a great day and I can’t tell you how great my Tajik experience was: it was somewhere in the world and I couldn’t get enough.