Location – Sughd region, Aini district. South of the Zarafshon range, just after the descent from the Anzob Pass to the right if travelling by car from Dushanbe to Khujand, Istravshan (formerly Uroteppa), or Panjakent.
Transportation – by car, by helicopter.
Yaghnob Valley begins approximately 105km north of Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, just before the 3,372m Anzob Pass, and is about 60km long. The valley is formed by the Kumbil and Barzenga Rivers, which begin in the Takali mountain junction glaciers. Yaghnob River flows down parallel to Zarafshon River and separates the Zarafshon range from the Hissar range. The upper part of the valley is famous for its alpine and sub-alpine meadows, however the area has no permanent population. Only in summer-time do shepherds bring cattle here for grazing.
Halfway along the river, where the valley is relatively wide and open, at an altitude of 2–3,000m, there are small villages populated by Yaghnobi – a distinct group of the Tajiks, direct descendants of the Sughdi (Sogdians). Their language is one of the little-studied dialects of the ancient Sughdi (Sogdian) language, which was used by the ancestors of the present-day Tajiks until the Arab conquest of Central Asia in the 7-8th centuries.
Nowadays, the Yaghnobi communicate in two languages – their own, which belongs to the East-Iranian group of languages, and Tajik. Most Tajiks do not understand the Yaghnobi language. What is noteworthy is that the “keepers” of this rare language are women, because they prefer to use their native language for communication, unlike the men who tend to use Tajik. In late 1960s residents of Yaghnob were resettled to other valleys in order to help with cotton-growing and only after the break-up of the Soviet Union were the Yaghnobi able to begin returning to their native home for permanent residence.
Traditional houses in the villages (there are more than 30 of them in the valley) are built out of stone and are composed of numerous living and household rooms, frequently combined under one roof, where fuel and fodder are also kept. Carved beams support the ceiling and there are niches in the walls for household effects. Furnaces and fireplaces are a mandatory aspect of all such homes.
Despite the fact that the Yaghnobi are now Muslim, they preserved some pre-Islamic principles related to ancient pagan concepts and Zoroastrianism (fire-worship). Thus, even now it is forbidden in Yaghnob to extinguish candles by blowing them out; many festivities are accompanied by jumping over fires.
Brides are taken around a bonfire before entering the groom’s house, where they are met with a lighted lamp. Near some of the numerous mazor (holy places or saints` burial-vaults) the local population leave small ceramic figurines of animals – sheep, horses, mountain goats – which, according to legend, come to life at night and go down to the river to duel with spirits. If, the next day, a figurine left by somebody is found broken, it means that a saint did not accept a sacrifice. In one of the ancient Yaghnobi places of worship – KhattiMullomazor in Sokan village – an interesting Piskon village ceremony is performed during which a man goes three times around both a large stone and a huge column in the mazor. After each time round the polished shining column he must embrace it with outstretched arms such that his fingers meet on the far side. If his fingers meet then one of his wishes will come true. If they do not (because the column has allegedly become thicker), then the man will soon have troubles…
Yaghnob is of great interest not only to ethnographers, historians or philologists, but also for trekkers, mountaineers and rock climbers. The well-known Yaghnob cliff ZaminQaror (Quiet Land, i.e. a mountain which doesn’t suffer from earthquakes or rock falls), is situated there. ZaminQaror stretches 8km from north to south and has several separate peaks which stand far apart. The highest of them, situated in the eastern part, is 4,767m. The eastern part of the ZaminQaror massif has significant glaciation, while the western is completely rocky. The gradient of the northern cliffs ranges from 60 degrees to a vertical slope. The southern slopes are very smooth and relatively flat.
The main mountain-climbing routes of the ZaminQaror peaks are on the north side and are accessible only to well-prepared and highly-skilled climbers. Descending to the south presents no difficulty as the route goes through slate and crumbled stone. To get to the Yaghnob wall from the Dushanbe–Aini highway (a bridge over the Yaghnob River, just after the descent from the Anzob Pass) takes about 3 hours. Pertified forests dating from the Jurassic period, consisting of wood fossils in the form of huge trunks, stumps, branches, and wild vines, are an interesting sight in Yaghnob Valley. It is assumed that Yaghnob valley’s climate in the Jurassic period was the same as now exists on the south coast of Australia and Tasmania. There must have been lush flora which, over time, was subject to decay and dehydration and was partially conserved by being buried in sand and clay-gravel silt. The preserved parts of the plants have, over the centuries, been replaced by mineral compounds, which preserved not only the external structure of the wood but also often the growth rings. The petrified trees of Yaghnob are made of ferrous minerals – red ochre and siderite (iron ore). The largest trunks are 3–5m high and about 1m in diameter. There are whole “graveyards” of hardened vines and vertical stems which reach 3–5cm. To see all the sights of Yaghnob Valley you can travel by car from Dushanbe.