Trekking in Tajikistan’s Fann mountains, central Asia’s ‘crown jewels’

A national treasure leading tourists for more than 20 years, Brownbook follows Niyozkul Nematov up into these historic peaks

Niyozkul Nematov is Tajikistans trekking guru, as one online travel site puts it, and something of a national treasure.

Eager to share tales and legends about his beloved Fann mountains, Nematov has been leading tours for more than 20 years with visitors often staying at his guesthouse, run by his wife Shoista.

Legend has it that at midnight under a full moon Bucephalus comes out of Iskanderkul Lake to graze at its grassy shores, he says. The glacial lake which takes its name from Alexander the Great and is thought to be where the late conquerors horse, Bucephalus, drowned during battle is the jewel of the this central Asian mountain range.

When a full moon illuminates it, locals can hear the horse neighing across all districts of the mountains, Nematov says.

When he isnt leading tours, the mountaineer can be found at his sons home in the capital Dushanbe, where he spends his days researching folklore about the mountains and the history of Central Asia material that he will later use to impress visitors.

But now, as the snows melt and the rain turns the juniper forests back to green, Nematov returns to his home in Panjakent to continue business.

Alongside
Alongside his wife, Nematov has been running a guesthouse for 22 years. Photograph: Parvin Saadati/Brownbook

Shiosta
Shiosta and her son outside the family home. Photograph: Parvin Saadati/Brownbook

Founded to promote environmental tourism in the country, Nematovs guesthouse and tours are among the most popular in Tajikistan.

Its a family affair. Shoista and their 24-year old daughter, Bibijon, share responsibility for looking after guets. We are the people introducing travellers to Tajik customs and traditions, says Bibijon, whose English skills have made her Nematovs right hand, looking after travellers when he is busy with bookings while moonlighting as a dressmaker.

Shoista provides guests with traditional Tajik dishes. Her menu includes plov, a national dish consisting of rice with fried vegetables and meat, as well as manti, a steamed meat-stuffed dumpling and shurpa, a hearty stew.

She makes the visitors very happy, Nematov says.

Adventure

The mountaineers treks range from three to 10 days, catering to different levels of experience and age groups. Most of his visitors, around 100 people each summer, he guesses, are European.

Some trekkers are in their late teens, for whom he organises walks that are a little more difficult, while elder visitors are accompanied by guides who can carry their luggage up the rocky paths.

The Fann range boasts Alp-like views of high and low peaks, with the Iskanderkul and Alauddin lakes the most popular destinations.

Stretching 300km across the Pamir-Alay mountain system, bordered by the Fan Darya River to the east and the Archimaydan River to the west, these snowcapped peaks cradle approximately 30 deep blue lakes, each boasting its own vibrant shade from teal to turquoise.

In the summer, you can see many locals from the countryside taking their animals up the really high mountains, Nematov says. Theyll often invite you for a cup of fresh milk or tea.

Nematov
Nematov and his son head up into the Fann mountain range. Photograph: Parvin Saadati/Brownbook

Nematov:
Nematov: Every gorge and river bank has its own beauty. Photograph: Parvin Saadati/Brownbook

Despite his claim that every gorge and river bank has its own beauty, after two decades of trekking and a lifetime spent in the Fann mountains, he Nematov has grown somewhat used to the views.

Its not very mesmerising, he says. For me its always the same view.

In recent years, he has been assigning the treks to younger guides. Instead, he devotes his time to cultural sightseeing tours in Panjakent, the former regional capital of the ancient Sogdia civilisation, bordered by Uzbekistan and the Zeravshan river.

Nematov rarely leaves the house without his notebook its pages now filled with this seasons historical findings. The upcoming summer will take him on a tour of the whole country, with a visit planned to the world heritage site
Sarazm
, allowing him time to explore the old city with its Zoroastrian ruins.

Though Tajikistans tourism industry is still relatively new, Nematov is enthusiastic about its potential. Working for travellers of all budgets, Nematov ensures no tourists are limited by their finances. Im never thinking about how I can make more money off of the tourists, he says. I want to develop my business for the future, and develop our tourism.

This article appears in Brownbooks March/April 2016 issue

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/28/trekking-tajikistan-fann-mountains-central-asia-crown-jewels