Zerafshan valley is one of the most picturesque places in Tajikistan. And one of the most isolated too. Centuries ago, the valley was the centre of Sogdiana (Sughdiyon), a wealthy and developed state on the Great Silk Road. During the Soviet rule, the valley was divided in two: Samarkand went to Uzbekistan, while Penjikent and other regions up the Zerafshan river went to Tajikistan.
The road from Dushanbe to Penjikent is 270 kilometers long. In summer, you can make this distance in 7 to 9 hours on a good car. In winter, it might take you the whole day to get to Penjikent.
There used to be a direct flight from Dushanbe to Penjikent. It took the old Soviet An-24 only 40 minutes to take you from the Dushanbe airport to the place that for some reason bears the name of Penjikent airport. The flight was cancelled this year. According to the Tajik Airlines (foreigners usually call it Scare Lines), the flight was too costly for the company.
In winter, Zerafshan valley is almost as isolated from the rest of Tajikistan as any region in the Mountainous Badahshan (Pamirs). The region is closer, both geographically and economically, to Uzbekistan than to Tajikistan. During the Soviet period, there was a direct road from Dushanbe to Penjikent via the friendly republic of Uzbekistan. As soon as independent Uzbekistan closed off from the rest of Central Asia, Zerafshan Valley became an isolated island.
A massive mountain range separates Zerafshan Valley from central Tajikistan. From April to October, the high-elevation Anzob pass allows cars and trucks passing through the range. From November to March, the road lies under tens of meters of snow.
To link the valley to the rest of the country and ensure constant transport routes, Tajikistan has invited an Iranian company to build a tunnel under the mountains. The tunnel titled Ushtur, in construction since 2003, had to be completed this summer. However, after completing most of the work, Iranians were suddenly confronted with the problem of underground water that they have not yet been able to resolve. The tunnel is not officially opened, but Iranians have allowed a limited traffic through the pass to make the valley accessible.
The driver of an old Soviet UAZ skillfully maneuvers his car through frequent turns and serpentines. After a three-hour drive, we reach the tunnel so awkwardly projected by the Iranians. Despite the official report that the tunnel is almost completed, it actually looks like a hole in the concrete rock. There is no lighting and no tarmac. It takes us about 20 minutes to drive through the dark tunnel.
On the other side of the tunnel, the road is even worse than before. After another three-hour drive on a narrow road squeezed between rocks and rivers, we are in Ayni.
Ayni is a big village that marks the beginning of the Zerafshan Valley. It is a crossing point of two major routes: Dushanbe-Khujand-Tashkent and Dushanbe-Penjikent.
Sirodj, one of our passengers, gets off in Ayni. He says in winter, Ayni is probably the last place on earth he would want to live if he had a chance.
“We have power for only two hours a day and sometimes don’t have at all” says Sirodj. “There are no jobs and no places to go. Almost all men from Ayni have left for Russia to work as labor migrants. Only women, children and older men are left. I do not know why this village still exists”.
At the Ayni checkpoint, our driver has a brief conversation with the local GAI (traffic police) officers who demand choypuli (tea money), a bribe. Our car is rounded by young boys selling dried apricots, nuts and apples. For them, cars passing the checkpoint are often the only source of income.
As soon as our driver gets back in the car, we continue the trip to Penjikent. Starting from Ayni, we drive along the Zerafshan, the river that gives name to the valley.