The Zerafshan Range is a mountain system in the north of Tajikistan that extends all the way into Uzbekistan. The range boasts rough mountain landscapes with altitudes reaching over 5000 meters. Apart from the natural beauty, the region also has a rich cultural history dating back thousands of years B.C. The remnants can still be found at several places, like in the Yaghnob Valley, which is famous for its unique culture descending directly from old Iranian civilizations. Although easily accessible from Dushanbe, most parts of the remote Zerafshan Range have not yet been discovered by many tourists.
The romanized spelling of the Zerafshan (Зарафшон) mountain range has quite some variations, ranging from Zerafshan to Zarafshon or Zeravshan and everything in between. The Zerafshan Range is part of the Pamir-Alay, which encompasses the entire mountain complex covering the north of Tajikistan. The Pamir-Alay is generally divided into three separate mountain ranges parallel to each other. The Zerafshan Range lies in the middle, squeezed in between the Turkestan Range in the north and the Gissar Range in the south.
The boundaries between the Zerafshan Range and adjacent mountain complexes are not that evident when looking at the map. As a consequence, the definition diverges quite a bit here and there. For example, some consider the Fann Mountains to be part of the Zerafshan Mountains as well. In popular speech, however, the Fann Mountains are more commonly seen as the connection between the Zerafshan and Gissar ranges, with the Fan Darya river forming the boundary between the Fann Mountains and the Zerafshan Range. The eastern part of the Zerafshan Range is sometimes also referred to as the Matcha Range.
The Zerafshan Range comprise a series of parallel mountain ridges that are continuous for hundreds of kilometers reaching westward all the way into Uzbekistan. The mountain ridges have a consistent east-west orientation. This orientation is no coincidence, as it is perpendicular to the north-south compression caused by the Indian plate colliding with Eurasia. The outcropping rocks consist mainly of shale and limestone.
The Zerafshan Range is incised by several rivers, with the Yaghnob, Ziddi and Zerafshan rivers being the major ones. The Yaghnob and Ziddi rivers discharge into the Fan Darya river that eventually disembogues northward into the Zerafshan river. The Zerafshan river delimits the Zerafshan Range in the north and drains virtually all of the region's rainfall westward to Uzbekistan. The source of the Zerafshan river itself lies in the very east of the mountain range at the foot of the huge 25 km long Zerafshan Glacier.
Altitudes over most of the Zerafshan Range peak at around 4.000 to 5.000 meters, only dropping to considerably lower altitudes (< 2.000 meters) in the west. The highest peak is the Moscow State University Peak at an altitude of 5.320 meters in the eastern part of the mountain range.
History and culture
Human habitation in the region goes back far into antiquity. Prehistoric remains have shown that the Iranian Sogdiana civilization populated the mountains already thousands of years B.C. The region was strategically positioned between Europe and Asia and also disposes of natural resources that brought prosperity. The literal translation of Zerafshan is gold spreader, referring to the gold that can be found in the river bed of the Zerafshan River.
Throughout history, the area of the original Sogdiana civilization has been invaded and conquered many times, for example by the Achaemenid Empire and Alexander the Great. Nevertheless, a small population of direct Sogdian descent still persists in the Yaghnob Valley. The language and culture of these Yaghnobi people have remained remarkably unchanged since Sogdian times. This is mainly thanks to the highly secluded location of the Yaghnob Valley. Even nowadays, traveling to and from the valley is still very complicated and the connection to the outside world remains limited.
The Yaghnobi community that populates the area is unfortunately becoming smaller over the years. Most of the people currently living in the Zerafshan Range are ethnic Tajiks. Especially the valley of the Zerafshan river is quite densely populated with many villages along the banks.
The Zerafshan Range is of great natural beauty with countless glaciers, picturesque lakes and impressive valleys separated by towering mountain chains. Vegetation is mainly limited to bushes and shrubs. Only in the lower parts of the valleys (< 2400 meters), there are smalls woods and forests. The windward slopes facing north generally receive more precipitation and thus have a richer flora and plant life. In general, though, the Zerafshan Range has less dense vegetation compared to the Fann Mountains for example.
The Zerafshan Range has a diverse fauna. Big birds like partridges and eagles are a common sight. Big animals are more rare to spot, though it is possible to encounter bears and wolfs. Wild goats, sheep and marmots are a more common sight.
The Zerafshan Range is great for adventurous trekking and hiking trips. The tourist infrastructure in the region is limited – this is unsurprising as the region is highly undiscovered by tourists. The main reason for this is the proximity to the amazing Fann Mountains, which boast an endless list of natural highlights that draw away mosts tourists in the area.
The village of Margheb is the only real trekking hub in the Zerafshan Range with multiple homestay accommodations available. Further upstream in the Yaghnob Valley, there are authentic homestays in several small Yaghnobi villages. Staying with the friendly local people in homestays in these remote parts of the mountains is a unique experience. Because of the limited amount of homestay accommodations, wild camping is necessary for most trips.
From a physical point of view, the Zerafshan Range is not the easiest region for trekking. The high relief makes for strenuous hiking days if you decide not stay within a single valley. The east-west oriented mountain ridges separating the different valleys are high and continuous, making it hard to cross from one valley to another. The existing mountain passes are also quite challenging, particularly the northern approaches. These north faces are much more snowy than the southern slopes for catching much less sun during the day. Lots of snow can persists on the northern slopes all the way into July.
How to get there
The Zerafshan Range is readily accessible from different directions. From Dushanbe in the south, it is only a few hours drive on the M34 highway passing through the Istiqlol tunnel. From the north, the M34 highway comes directly from Khujand. In the west, the Uzbek city of Samarkand lies straight on the banks of the Zerafshan River. The road from Samarkand into the Zerafshan Range is paved and in a good condition. The main roads connect in the village of Ayni, which therefore is the principal entry point to the Zerafshan Range. Although the main roads are paved, smaller secondary roads leading higher through the valleys are generally in poorer condition.
Climate and best time to travel
The best period for trekking in the Zerafshan Range is the same as for the Fann Mountains, namely from May to September when temperatures are most pleasant. Earlier in the year, there can still be snow on the trails, especially on the hiking routes above 3000 meters altitude. Throughout autumn, trekking conditions deteriorate as temperatures drop and days shorten. Towards the end of autumn, the first snow usually starts to fall again.
The amount of precipitation in the Zerafshan Range varies throughout the year. The summertime is arid and provides the best conditions for hiking and wild camping. In spring, rainfall in the area is much more frequent and it is an absolute must to take good rain gear with you.
For any questions regarding trekking in the Zerafshan Range, do not hesitate to contact us!