August 13, 2021: The Fann Mountains
After a day in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, I booked an overnight trip to Iskanderkul Lake in the Fann Mountains with Khudoguy at Roof of the World Travels. I did this trip for a few reasons. First, I had the time. Second, I heard the area was very pretty. And third, I wanted to get a feeling for the driver and the company before the 10-day Pamir Highway trip.
I did not sleep well at all due to a very bad hostel roommate from Pakistan. Not only was he a snorer, but he also woke up a few times during the night to take phone calls! Unbelievable.
Fez picked me up at 8:00 in a white Toyota Land Cruiser. We bought some waters and a few snacks and headed on the road.
We headed north out of Dushanbe. After passing a huge cement factory that is supposedly a source of national pride, we were in the mountains.
The road was perfectly paved as we wound along a river. The road is actually a toll road operated and maintained by an American company. Across the river were large houses. The President´s family has a compound there as do many of corrupt businessmen who have profited from the opium trade.
We passed through a tunnel built by the Chinese and looked futuristic. Then we climbed up. The road passed through several concrete avalanche galleries- tunnels built to protect the road from avalanches. All around us, the tops of the mountains now had patches of snow.
At the elevation of 2,720 meters (8,920 feet) we reached the top of the road: the infamous Anzob Tunnel. Also known as the Tunnel of Death, the Anzob Tunnel has been one of the most problematic stretches of road in all Central Asia. The tunnel was purposed to connect Dushanbe with Khudjand, Tajikistan´s 3rd largest city. In the days of the Soviet Union, you could simply drive around the mountains through Uzbekistan, but since independence, that drive now requires a passport and visa.
The 5-kilometer tunnel opened in 2005, but did not have pavement, lighting, or ventilation. Cars would regularly breakdown and crash in the tunnel. It got so bad that anybody driving through had to sign a waiver. Then the tunnel started leaking.
Eventually, the Iranian government (they speak the same language as Tajikistan) got involved and was able to fix the tunnel. The new tunnel opened in 2017.
Even though the tunnel is “done” it is still the worst tunnel ever. The tunnel still is not completely lit and has no ventilation. Additionally, the tunnel was supposed to have two holes- one for each direction of traffic. Due to miscalculations, the second hole emptied out up above a huge cliff and couldn´t be used. So everyone use a single hole which is not really wide enough to safely handle traffic in both directions. The tunnel also is not straight and has a few turns! Yikes!!!
The far side of the tunnel had lots of truck traffic carrying coal from a nearby mine to Dushanbe.
Eventually we dropped down to another river and into another valley. Here, we cut off the main road and headed onto the dirt. We followed this dirt road for 24 kilometers to reach the jewel of the Fann Mountains: Iskanderkul.
Kul is a Central Asian word for lake and Iskander is the local name for Alexander the Great. The Macedonian king came through Tajikistan although there is no proof he visited this lake. There are a few local legends surrounding the name. One is that his horse drowned in the lake.
The mountain-ringed lake has a Caribbean blue-green hue. Swimming is not allowed, which is probably for the best because the water is glacial fed and icy. Besides me there were two Tajik girls who were trying to take sexy photos (by Tajik standards) for Instagram.
On the northeast side of the lake, we ate lunch at a basic hotel with a small forest on the grounds. They had some nice benches to sit and enjoy the scenery. In total, I spent an hour on the lakeshore.
Then Fez and I drove along the northwest side of the lake past the President´s vacation home and up a steep dirt road to the tiny village of Sarytag, population 38. Here we checked into a homestay.
Despite the town´s small population, there are quite a few large houses- my guess is that these are built by government officials and business leaders to be close to the President´s vacation home.
It was now 15:00 and I had plenty of daylight remaining. So, I decided to go for a hike in the mountains. I walked west past the town and up the valley.
As I crossed a fast-flowing river, I ran into a big group of western-dressed Tajiks. It turns out that they spoke English. They are a group of moms and their kids doing a big group trip to Tajikistan´s only camping hotel. It’s not quite glamping but there are amenities. They invited me to check out the camp. I said I would, but first I wanted to do some more walking.
I ended up walking for another 2 hours through the mountains. The scenery was beautiful. A highlight was a village where the people lived without electricity.
On the way back to Sarytog, I stopped at the camp. The group was eating and gave me some of their leftover food as well as some tea. We ended up chatting for nearly an hour.
On the walk back into town, I was passed by a minibus. The driver and friend offered to give me a ride back, which I accepted and had a great conversation.
Back at the homestay, I recounted my hiking story to the family. The mom and dad both high fived me for hanging out with all these ladies. They must think I’m hopeless since I am almost 30 and unmarried.
I then took a nap, ate dinner and hung out for a bit by myself until bedtime. The family all went to a wedding, but I was not invited.
August 14, 2021: The Greatest Photo
The next morning, I ate breakfast and left the homestay. I really loved this family.
As we drove by Iskanderkul, the water was perfectly calm which created a mirror effect. I insisted we stop for some photos. These might be the best photos I have ever taken.
We then took a short hike to a waterfall. It turns out that the waterfall is RAGING. I was so shocked.
Then we drove back to Dushanbe via the same route. The Anzob Tunnel was just as scary in the opposite direction. We arrived in Dushanbe at 13:00 where I rested up before crashing a wedding the next day.
Iskanderkul and the Fann Mountains are a fantastic place to visit, especially if you don´t have the time to drive the Pamir Highway. The mountains are spectacular and the people were very friendly. The Fann Mountains appear an easy way to experience an authentic homestay. Iskanderkul is very pretty but for me the highlight of the trip was walking around in the mountains. For that reason, I would not recommend taking a day trip to see the lake because you will miss the true highlight.
There are longer itineraries to be had in the Fann Mountains including the Seven Lakes and the UNESCO-listed proto-urban town of Sarazm near Panjakent. If I had more time, I would strongly consider visiting these places too.