Ziddi to Yaghnob – Hiking the Anzob Pass

You can reach the Yaghnob Valley directly from the M34 highway. But why always take the easy road? The challenging alternative is to enter the Yaghnob Valley from the Ziddi Valley in the south. From the Ziddi Valley, there are several passes crossing the mountain ridge to the north. Most frequently used are the one at Leilakul and the somewhat easier Anzob Pass. May 2022 – we packed our bags to visit Yaghnob Valley starting from Ziddi. The traverse did not turn out to be as straightforward as expected this early in the season...

Hiker walking on a snow-covered road down from Anzob Pass in the Zerafshan Range

First things first, the drive to the Ziddi Valley from Dushanbe is an easy 2 hours ride – in theory. Reality often proves to be more hard-hearted. We are in May – and spring can quite rainy in Tajikistan. And this time there is rain. Lots of rain. The Varzob River is gushing wildly along the M34 highway leading northward from Dushanbe. Along with excessive downpour comes the inherent risk of landslides blocking the road.

Sure enough, after driving about an hour, we end up in a long line of cars. Landslide ahead. Whenever this happens, you never know how long the delay will be. It can be solved within an hour, but if it is a big one, you can be trapped for an entire day. The waiting game starts. Luck is with us this time as it turns out to be not so bad. After one and a half hour of waiting, we can move on to our destination – Ziddi.

Line of cars waiting in the rain on the M34 highway in Tajikistan because of a landslide
The long line of cars waiting after a landslide further ahead

The first plan was not to cross the Anzob Pass at all (even though the title of this article gives away we will do so in the end). The plan was rather to cross a mountain pass further to the east just beyond the Leilakul Lakes. This pass is quite a bit higher at an altitude of 3.900 meters.

From the village of Ziddi, an unpaved car road moves up eastward all the way to the Khoja Sanghok shrine at an altitude of almost 3.000 meters. Due to hold up so far, we decide to go up by car as far as possible.

Apart from provoking risky landslides, the rain has more ways to complicate life in the mountains. One of them is that it can transform unpaved roads into a muddy mess. That is exactly what awaits us as soon as we turn away from the paved roads. A genuine land cruiser would plough through the mud easily, but we are just in an ordinary van. A thick layer of mud quickly forms around the tires, making it into a slippery hassle. Nevertheless, somehow – don’t ask how – the driver manages to makes his way through.

Right after the village of Kuktëppa (the last village in the Ziddi Valley), a large mass of snow blocks the road, leaving no other option but to start hiking. The drive altogether cost quite some time. Nearly an entire day to cover a total distance of 80 km. After getting out of the car, we quickly pitch our tents. The mountain pass can wait for tomorrow.

A gray car stuck in a muddy road in the green and picturesque Ziddi Valley
Cars struggling to make progress on the muddy road leading up through the Ziddi Valley
View from the inside of a car through the windshield on a muddy road ahead
The view from the inside is not much better

The Ziddi Valley

The next morning, we eat a quick breakfast to get in enough energy to cross the mountain pass that awaits. Quite rapidly, however, the hiking trail deteriorates because of snow. The first serious snow fields appear already at 3.200 meters altitude. Clearly not enough snow melted away over the last few weeks with low temperatures and little sun. Considering the 700 meters of climbing that is still ahead, the only option is aborting the climb and turning back to go for the Anzob Pass instead. The Anzob Pass should be with an altitude of 3350 meters easier to cross.

We hike down a bit a pitch our tents along the Ziddi River. In the middle of the night, at around 01:00, we are woken up by noises. People with flashlights passing by at 100 meters from our tents. Kind of strange here in the middle of nowhere, but we are too tired to be bothered and go back to sleep.

The next morning, we ask some local shepherd about the people we saw the night before. They confirm that these people were shepherds who make use of the better snow quality at night to cross the mountain pass behind Leilakul. When it cools down after sunset, the snow hardens and becomes easier (or rather, less difficult) to walk across.

River flowing through green fields and snowy mountain ridges in the Ziddi Valley
View over the higher parts of the Ziddi Valley
Two persons hiking towards each other on a large snow bridge across the Ziddi River
Hiking down along the Ziddi River. There are still many ice bridges crossing the river in spring.

The Anzob Pass

We prefer to not hike at night and keep heading for the Anzob Pass. We take advantage on the way back to take an alternative hiking trail closely along the Ziddi River. In the afternoon, we hike up through the village of Nazora to the foot of Anzob Pass. The Anzob Pass does not offer the best camping places along the road, but we find something acceptable with a very nice view over the valley. The next day, we continue the climb up to the pass.

Start of the road leading up to the Anzob Pass from the Ziddi Valley
Start of the Anzob Pass
A Tajik guide standing next to two tents pitched on a grass field with a view over the green Ziddi Valley with snow-capped peaks in the background
Camp site along the road leading up to the Anzob Pass
Winding road up to the Anzob Pass from the Ziddi Valley
The abandoned road winding up the slope

The Anzob pass is a car road that fell into disuse several years ago when the Istiqlol tunnel was finished. This tunnel provides a much easier and faster connection to the north. Meanwhile, the Anzob Pass has been closed completely for cars. Hiking on the old car road is easy-going and we reach the top in a few hours.

Since we climbed up over the south flank, the road was clean of snow. The road descending over the north flank, on the contrary, mostly lies in the shadow. As a result, it is packed with snow. Huge masses of snow cascade over the road at an eerie angle. We do not want to go back again and decide to cross to snow fields, even through we do not have ice cleats with us. First a break a the meteorological station at the top.

Old house and measuring equipment of the meteorological station on the top of Anzob Pass
The meteorological station on the top of the Anzob Pass

Hiking the snowy slopes is an arduous and slow process. Transport caravans in this kind of situation sometimes resort to laying down their donkeys and slide with them all the way down into the valley. Energy-efficient for sure, but a bit too dangerous for our taste.

The snow is relatively hard, it is difficult to get a good grip on the inclined parts. After two hours of struggling and almost slipping away a few times, we make it down to an altitude of 3.000 meters. Finally no more snow – we can hike on firm ground again after catching some necessary breath. The enjoyment of hiking normally was short-lived, though, as it started raining after about an hour. We rushed down to the river and pitched our tents.

Hiker walking on a steep snow slope down from the Anzob Pass
Dangerously close to our angle of repose
Hiker walking on a snow covered slope down from the Anzob Pass with a trail of footsteps in front of him
Hiker in rainwear walking in rainy weather on a muddy wet trail down from Anzob Pass in the Zerafshan Range, Tajikistan
Rainy trails down from Anzob Pass towards the Yaghnob Valley

The Yaghnob Valley

The hard part of our trip was behind us. The next day we entered the Yaghnob Valley and the hiking became more relaxed. The Yaghnob Valley is ideal for everyone who wants to go trekking in Tajikistan, but does not want to suffer physically too much. Although the region does not boast an endless list of natural highlights like the Fanns, it is beautiful and offers great hiking opportunities. Along the way, we choose to stay in homestays in Margheb, Bedef and Kiryonte. Nothing better than to enjoy a normal bed and proper food after camping multiple days in the rain.

The village of Piskon in the Yaghnob Valley with a pointy snowy mountain peak in the background
View on the Yaghnobi village of Piskon

To round up the trip, we return to the village of Margheb again. Having hiked 160 km in 10 days, we have no doubt to take the easy way out. That is, with the car directly westward to the M34 and then through the Istiqlol tunnel back to Dushanbe. The trip was full of challenges, but above all a memorable adventure.

Epilogue – Leilakul Pass

A few weeks later. It is the end of June and the pass connecting Leilakul to the Yaghnob Valley has somewhat improved. There is still quite some snow, but it can be crossed at day-time now. It is the kind of mountain pass that is relatively difficult despite its moderate altitude. Some passes just clean up less rapidly than others due to their orientation and local climate differences.

Trekker climbing up to the Leilakul pass hiking on a trail formed in the snow
Still a lot of snow on the northern approach to the Leilakul Pass
Overview from the Leilakul pass over the Ziddi Valley
View from the Leilakul Pass over the Ziddi Valley
One of the lakes of Leilakul being filled up by small mountain streams and surrounded by green hills
One of the lakes at Leilakul