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The Yagnobis have a dramatic history. After the defeat of the Sogdians by the Arabs in 722 at Penjikent, their leader Dewashtich was finally captured and executed. The Arabs pushed up the Zarafshan valley. Some of the Sogdians fled to the Yagnob valley, where they were safe to practise their Zoroastrian religion. Here they continued undisturbed until long after the establishment of Islam in the rest of Tajikistan.
After the coming of the Soviet Union, the new authorities developed the cotton plantations in both the south of the country and also in the Ferghana valley to the north. Mountain people were forcibly moved from valleys in the Pamirs and other ranges to fill the labour shortages on the collective farms. The last to be moved were the Yagnobis, in late 1971. The whole population of the valley was transported north to Zafarabad near Istaravshan in the Ferghana valley. The Yagnobis were herdsman, used to the cold winters and cool summers of their mountain homes. Many died, unused to the searing summer heat.
When the heavy hand of the Soviet Union began to weaken in the 1980s, a trickle of people started returning to the valley, occupying their ruined homes and building them up again. Twenty years later, some of the villages are functioning again, but with a greatly reduced population. Some have only one or two families. It is the only place we witnessed in Tajikistan which is under-populated, that is where land cannot be tilled because there are not enough people. There are a number of completely deserted villages.
The Yagnobi people of the Yagnob, Kul and Varzob river valleys are thought to be the last remaining speakers of the ancient Sogdian language, and the Sogdians' genetic descendants. They fled to the mountains following the Arab invasion in 772, continuing to practise aspects of their Zoroastrian religion in addition to Islam. It is thought that as many as 25,000 Yagnobis may still survive in Tajikistan, though many of them have now abandoned their traditional way of life or intermarried with other groups.
Until the 1930s the Yagnobi lived untouched by the modern world, continuing their traditional agriculture as they had done for millennia. Their first interaction with the Soviets was the Stalinist purges, then forced resettlement in Tajikistan's lowlands in the 1950s and '70s. Red Army helicopters evacuated entire villages, ostensibly to protect them from avalanches, but then forced the Yagnobi to work in searing heat on the collective cotton plantations. Villages were razed to prevent their inhabitants from returning, religious books were destroyed and, as a final ignominious act, Yagnobian ethnicity was officially abolished. Hundreds of Yagnobi families died in exile.
Since 1983 a small number of Yagnobis have returned to the Yagnob Valley, though many of their villages are still home to only a handful of families. The total permanent Yagnobi population in the valley is about 30o people rising to 1000 in summer months. They live m basic mud brick dwellings without electricity, scrape a living from subsistence farmings and, to the delight of linguists and historians speak in the Sogdian tongue.
In spite of these upheavals, the Sogdian language survives. Not all the people speak it, but many do. It is estimated there are about 3,000 Yagnobi speakers (442 in Yagnob, 1500 in Zafarobad, 400 in Takob, and 500 in Dushanbe). Yagnobi is barely comprehensible to outsiders, even fellow Tajiks from neighbouring valleys and this almost private language creates a special bond through the ancient community. The government has been supportive, teaching material has been provided, and children are taught either in tiny schools, or by peripatetic teachers. There are academics at the Rudaki Institute of Languages and Literature Studies, Dushanbe, who provide written material, and encourage study of Sogdian literature and music.
In his book 'The Lost Heart of Asia', the author, Colin Thubron describes visiting these remote villages, and his amazement at hearing shepherds speaking in Sogdian.
"I listened almost in disbelief. This I told myself, was the last, distorted echo of the battle-cries shouted 2,500 years ago by the armies of the Great Kings at Marathon and Thermopylae, all that remained from the chants of Zoroastrian priests or the pleas of Persian satraps to Alexander the Great. Yet it was spoken by impoverished goatherds in the Pamirs".
Yagnob valley treck
Starting at Langar, walk west out of the village and into the mouth of theTabaspin Gorge. The path snakes back and forth across the river and then, four hours into the trek, the gorge opens out to reveal Peak Samarkand (5,086m) ahead. Still following the river, it's three-four hours more to the Chinese gold-mining camp, your campsite for the first night on the trek. It's worth waking early on Day two to seethe sun break across the summits of the Zarafshan Mountains.
Follow the dirt track and cross the bridge leading to the aylaq (summer pasture). Leaving the track now, follow the side stream south, cross the small bridge and proceed toward the glaciated peaks. You may well encounter a snow bridge here, even in summer; walk over and continue into the meadow. There is a river crossing in this meadow but, once surmounted (inevitably getting wet feet) you've reached the next campsite after only three hours'walk. Despite the brevity of this day's trek it's recommended not to push on with the next stage but to overnight and acclimatise. The meadow is at just shy of 3,000m.
Day three requires at least nine hours of walking, a snowfield and a high pass, so start out early and brace yourself; this is the hardest stage of the trek. Pick a logical path diagonally across the scree slope and small streams, then descend the other side towards the snow bridge that crosses the river. Make for the clear, winding path to your left and follow it up. Around 3,500m you pass another aylaq, then enter the snowfield, which by mid-afternoon can feel decidedly slushy underfoot. Follow the trail of goat poo (herders drive their animals along this route) to the top of theTabaspin Pass (4,040m). Expect to spend four hours on the snowfield. Look out for peregrine falcons circling overhead.
The pass down is 40 m up on the right-hand side (as you're facing the Yagnob Valley).The descent is steep and very loose underfoot; trekking poles are invaluable here. Reaching the bottom of the pass, follow the Yagnob River downstream for another 45 minutes to the third aylaq (2,860m). Pitch your tent and collapse into an exhausted sleep.
On day four pick any of the trails past the camp (they all meet up at some point); the easiest cross through the meadows by the river. Several hours in you'll reach a very wide section of the Yagnob River. Here the route splits into a more direct low route, and the high route. The low route involves wading through the Yagnob (not always possible due to the water level), so we describe the high route here.
The high route has breathtaking views but is physically hard. The track climbs 250m to a tiny plateau with juniper trees and large rocks. Following the donkey trail, head for the snow bridge and then the small aylaq. When the valley opens up a little, keep your eyes peeled for the old irrigation channel and, when you reach it, descend to the river. You can camp on the riverbank (2,670m).
Day five starts with a wade across the Kalontemir River, then you follow the path closest to the Yagnob. The path widens, moves away from the river, then climbs.The track climbs slowly to the Maydon Pass (2,960m) and, shortly before it, a steep slope littered with rocks. The descent is winding and gradual, ending up on the banks of the Khumar River. Sleep here.
On day six walk downstream for ten minutes to the confluence of the Khumar and Uchkado Rivers (having first passed Temurkan River). It is shallow enough to wade across. Continue through the small gorge, up and down irritatingly frequently, to a ruined settlement and then the inhabited Dehbaland village. Keep descending until you're level with the Yagnob, cross the small bridge close to the confluence with the Tagobikul. Once in the gorge you again have to cross the river (this time the Yagnob) and pass a small military post on your way to the mouth of the Mushtif River where you can set up camp. Expect today's trek to take eight hours.
Day seven is just six hours long but it's a steep and tiring climb. Cross the Mushtif, take the track to the village and then co-opt a child or other innocent bystander to guide you up the steep slope to the pass: there are numerous possible routes but the villagers know which is best. From the top are spectacular views over the Zamin Karor Massif, and after you've caught your breath you have a slippery descent down the other side of the pass to yet another picturesque riverbank camping spot.
The final day starts with a gentle walk along the river, two hops across side streams, then a bridge to cross. The incline remains gradual. Pass the aylaq and two small streams, then take the clear path towards the Tagrich Pass (3,560m). Follow the zigzag of the path down; the descent is initially steep but then levels out. After the settlement you reach a downhill track leading to Margebi Poyon, and a well-earned dinner and bed.
Travelling through the valley
There is rough track from the main road (four-wheel drive essential) of 5km to the large pleasant village of Margib. The track has been blasted out of the cliffs along the river Yagnob. The village is dominated by rock faces. It is best to find a local official, who will be pleased to find accommodation and arrange a guide and donkey if required.
From the village there is a path over a small ridge behind the village. This joins the vehicle track, which is subject to rock fall, but is normally passable by four-wheel drive vehicles for 7km. The road head is a small plain, with a deserted village. The track from here is usually opened in the summer for vehicles, after repairs have been undertaken to clear any obstructions caused by landslides, and goes for a further 16 km to the village of Bedev. However, this cannot be guaranteed, and visitors should allow for time to walk along the track.
From the road head there is a path up a subsidiary valley to the west, to the village of Khisortob. This is well worth a detour of 2km.
Like all houses in the valley, the ones here are made of stone with flat roofs. The people are Tajik speakers, and very hospitable.
Accommodation will be found with no difficulty, but see advice on accepting hospitality above. The people grow wheat, potatoes and vegetables. There are apple, apricot and almond trees. The main source of income is the sheep, goats and upland cattle.
There is a delightful Mazor or shrine here. The guardian, Kulmurod, who is very devout, will lead visitors to a nearby grove of mature trees on the banks of a river, between mountain slopes. The setting of Khoja Guliston must surely be on the site of an ancient shrine, the setting is so perfect. The shrine is a khomaka, a simple stone hut, inside which is a stone reputed to be that of Guliston. The legend is that she was being pursued by nicholai (Tsarist troops), and rather than let them capture her, she turned herself into the stone. Only women of good character are allowed to enter the shrine, men are forbidden. Nearby on a flat boulder is a square rock, shaped like a book. There are some marks on the stone. It is considered to be a copy of the Koran, turned to stone by Guliston. Visitors are expected to pray at the shrine.
From the road head if the road is not passable by vehicles, it is an easy walk along the valley. There is a near certainty of seeing marmots in the summer months. Birds are abundant, and eagles, Griffon vultures and lammergeier are very likely to be seen. The mountains along the route vary from 3,000 to 4,635m, and there are hanging glaciers. Allow 6 to 7 hours walking to reach the villages of Bedev and Makhtimain. After about 3 hours the river can be crossed to the left bank, across a small bridge to another interesting shrine. This is Khoja Murodboukhsh, set in a copse with a huge fallen tree behind. It is a small stone building with a wooden screen and a hinged flap above. There is nothing inside, but outside is a star shaped stone wrapped in a cloth. The stone can only be lifted by a person with a pure heart. It is customary before entering a shrine to do a ritual cleansing or tahorat, involving washing the face and arms.
Look out for shepherds' tents, mainly in spring or autumn - though beware fierce dogs, kept for fear of wolves. The hospitable herdsmen will always call off their dogs and invite strangers for tea. Also on the route are the remains of a basmachi hideout, right next to the track. There was fighting here in 1937 against the Russians, when the story goes, 70 fighters under Juma Oskakol and his 7 brothers, took on 1,000 Russian troops. He was defeated, but not before inflicting heavy casualties.
The track reaches a wooden bridge over the river just before Makhtimain, a village on a bluff on the left bank. There is a room for guests at the main house of Niyazmamad, a Yagnobi speaker, who was deported with everyone else in 1971. Surprisingly there is satellite TV. Simple meals are served. Electricity is supplied from a mini hydroelectric plant. The path is still very good for a further 7km. More small villages and shrines are passed on both banks of the river. The ruined settlement of Ivhisoki Darv marks the end of the former road, and it becomes a normal path.
A gorge is reached with 100m cliffs. The road follows the right bank. On entering the gorge there is a perched stone in the river, reputedly put there by a holy man. Further along is a bush surrounded by a low wall, believed to have been the staff of a holy man. At the exit to the gorge is a traditional water mill. The valley opens up into some meadows. Ahead is the path to Pskun, one of the larger villages with a Sogdian-speaking population. Allow one and a half hours from the meadow. Pskun is probably the most interesting village as it is the home of some Yagnobi scholars. You will be asked to stay the night - bring useful or edible gifts. A further 2 hours walk of 8km takes the visitor to Kirionte, the last habitation in the valley. It is a Tajik speaking village. Beyond Kirionte, the valley provides an excellent trek to the top end, or for the more adventurous, over the high passes to Romit to the south, and the upper Zarafshan valley to the north.
Instead of continuing along the main path, from the meadow before the final walk to Pskun, a turn can be taken to the right, up a subsidiary valley, the Tagobikl, with five Sogdian villages at high altitude. The narrow path follows the river for one and a half hours to the foot of the hill below the villages. Allow another half hour to reach Upper and Lower Garmen, and Sokhain, which has a comfortable guest room. At 3,000m the houses have to be of sturdy construction, of stone with heavy beams. The local men are excellent horsemen and negotiate the steep slopes with great skill. They even have buzkashi competitions here in July and September. The local men and women are extraordinarily fit. Each day they take the animals from their stockades and drive them 1,000m up the mountains in the early morning and back in the evening; all this on some very precipitous paths.
From the valley, the Akbakyl Pass leads to the village of Khoja Sanghok, a walk of about 4 hours. From there it is possible to reach Dushanbe. There is a rough road to Romit, which is deteriorating. It was built to take gold from the mine, closed in 1975.
The Yagnobi people retain some Zoroastrian traditions. At weddings there is emphasis on fire and light. The bride and groom jump over a fire, and candles surround the couple. Pottery is broken. Thursday is an auspicious day. There are similar traditions in the Pamirs and elsewhere in Central Asia. The traditional Pamiri house with the 5 pillars, representing Muhammad, Fatima, Hussein, Hassan and Ali, are thought by some scholars to have their origins in five pillars used in houses from Zoroastrian traditions.
The Yagnob valley can be visited easily from early May to November. The best time to come is June, July and August. In May and September people are busy in the fields, and claim they cannot give visitors their full hospitality. Do bring gifts - no guest is expected to arrive empty-handed in Tajikistan and remember the extreme poverty of Yagnob.
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