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Land of the Sogdians

An Epic Road Trip through Tajikistan’s Silk Road, past remnants of empires, glacial peaks, sapphire lakes, and bustling bazaars.


Where mighty mountains meet endless steppes lies Tajikistan, a land of geographical extremes and contrasting ways of life. Since ancient times, nomads roamed the mountains, moving with the seasons and their herds to new pastures. The lowlanders far below worked the fertile valleys, tilling soil and harvesting crops. These two lifestyles eventually intersected, creating a basis for one of Central Asia’s first settlements. This grew into the mighty Sogdian empire, renowned as savvy traders and the middlemen between East and West, thriving at the heart of the Silk Roads. Though their storied height now seems scarcely believable, the rugged lands of present-day Tajikistan echo with their legends, where they controlled the heart of the Silk Roads.

It is here, on the borders of this nation, that our journey begins. We follow in the footsteps of those who have vanished, tracing the ancient paths and tales of these peoples into the thin air.

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Packed into a sedan with a few other local ladies, our hired driver at the border of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan sped maniacally through the rugged valley of the west towards Penjikent. He was so determined to reach town in record speed I still find it amazing he decided to stop for half an hour at the ancient site of Sarazm, just mere miles from the border and a quarter of a kilometer off the road. Sarazm, Tajikistan’s lone Cultural Heritage Site, bears a symbolic, and literal, beginning to our journey through the nation. Here lies one of the earliest sites of proto-urban development in the region, flourishing as a center of agriculture and metal production in the 4th millennium B.C.

Walking the remains today, nearly 6,000 years later, with my toddler, I find it hard to believe how a settlement formed in what is now one of the most remote corners of Earth. But also knowing that our inpatient driver was on the verge of leaving without us, we had to depart this ancient site much earlier than we would have liked.


Rolling into Penjikent, our first impressions were underwhelming. The modest border town of 50,000 lacked charm, looking much like any other stopover. But entering our hotel, the grandly named Sarazm Plaza, the manager welcomed us like honored guests, immediately brightening our introduction to Tajikistan. Simple kindness can make all the difference. Something I need to remember back at home.

Eager to explore what remnants remain of the Silk Roads, we first headed to the quirky, yet informative Rudaki History Museum, named such for Abu Abdullah Rudaki, a 9th century local known as the “father of Persian poetry.” Ancient artifacts and rooms detailing Sogdian culture brought their world to life. Particularly captivating was the exhibit on ancient Penjikent itself, with models, relics, and murals from the ruined city. Museums are great to give an introduction, but for us the real adventure lies in feeling the sand between our feet, feeling the ancient textures, and wandering the ruins ourselves. And that is exactly what we did.

Upon finally reaching the ancient city - and with the help of two ladies whom Mary met in the museum - we felt for the first time we were in the Tajikistan I imagined. Rugged hills met with stories of the past mingled with shepherds and locals.

Wandering through the crumbling mudbrick remains of Penjikent, we tried to picture the bustling Silk Road city this once was, with Sogdians going about daily life centuries ago and grand buildings filled with artistic murals. My son Zion, now three, scrambled over collapsed walls and peered into abandoned dwellings, his imagination sparked. As the sun dips toward the rolling hills beyond town, everything glows golden.

As we pause on a high vantage point to take in the view, a local shepherd passes with his small flock of goats, nodding in a friendly greeting. His pastoral scene is timeless - a reminder that while empires and civilizations fade, the simple, everyday life endures as it has forever. As we walked down the plateau into town, we met a group of young boys practicing their English as they greeted us. Their warmth brought smiles, where their laughter echoes in the ancient stones surrounding us.


Leaving our hotel the next day, we bid farewell to the manager who helped immensely, including requesting a local driver to take us high into the rocky Fann Mountains. As we all packed into the rickety vehicle, commonplace in Tajikistan, the road left Penjikent for a mountain path towards a string of seven lakes. As a slight detour off the main route of the Silk Road, this excursion opened up a new window into the timeless lifestyle of the Tajiks. Each passing lake was a new wonder, beset by sheer rocks and cool streams. We caught glimpses of nomadic shepherds bringing their flocks to graze the highland grasses in summer and village children playing on the shores.

Sitting by the peaceful shore of the final lake, it was easy to understand why these mountains have long captured the Tajik spirit. Brightly adorned children even joined us, taking turns holding our baby girl and giggling at our amusing looks. Naughty goats caught hold of our food bag, much to the dismay of Zion.

These remote lakes and valleys provided an escape from modern woes, yet also connected to the cultural roots that run as deep and clear as the mountain springs that feed them.

The Fann Mountains also played a role in the Silk Roads, proving a short cut and also an alternate route of passage when  the lowlands were troublesome.

These remote peaks even saw and sheltered some well known rulers throughout history, from Alexander the Great to Amir Timur to the Soviet Union. But also beyond these high passes lies a mountain range even more terrible, rising to great heights and testing the limits of caravans the Pamir Mountains. Marco Polo, the Silk Road's most famous explorer, traversed these ranges to enter China for the first time, writing down: "And you ride north-east always among mountains, you get to such height that 'tis said to be the highest place in the world!... The plain called PAMIR."

This journey won’t take us there, and we are thankful for such right now as the extreme terrain might prove too much for our family with two small children. (We did reach the Pamirs in 2016, a journey along the Karakoram Highway which can be read about here: On the Path of Greatness). But it also reminds us the dangers the silk roads posed - it wasn’t all exotic and romantic. Back down the valley, the next leg of our journey brings us as we glide through the Zarafshan Valley.


Following the mighty Zarafshan River, we trace the same route ancient caravans once traveled between China and points west - the preferred route. This river carves a nearly straight passage through Tajikistan's rugged terrain in the north of the nation, spilling into the plains where Samarkand and Bukhara drew its life-giving flow. Along the way now stand only small villages and roadside snack stands - scarce signs of the bustling trade route this once was.

I've marked several Sogdian fortification sites on my map, most too remote for the circumstances of this trip. One in particular draws my gaze - Mount Mugh castle, which crowns a rocky ridge bent round the river. I picture the imposing stronghold it once was, dominating the landscape, and built up by the Sogdians over centuries to control the valley. Caravans likely passed these roads, filled with exotic goods and stories from across Eurasia. But these crumbling ruins, accessible only by rugged trails, represent the forgotten history of this region.

This fading legacy fuels my desire to return one day and uncover more of the Sogdians' lost world.


As we continued eastward, the road suddenly curved north, departing the Zarafshan Valley for a high mountain pass exceeding 3,000 meters. Though the valley does stretch further east still, towards more treacherous roads to remote hamlets where the last whispers of the ancient Sogdians still cling to life in the Yagnobi tongue. However, that will be a journey for another time.

Past the dizzying switchbacks, we cleared the mountains to a dramatically different landscape. A vast basin unfurled before us, its fertile soil blanketing the land in hues of green - a thankful change from the grays of the rugged rock walls. This nourishing expanse forms the southern reach of the legendary Ferghana Valley, which has nurtured prosperous outposts since the days of the Silk Roads. Even now, these lush floodplains drive fruitful agriculture, the heartbeat of three nations that share the valley - Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

As we progressed over the fertile plains, I imagined caravans arriving to these same scenes, thankful for the safe passage that they may have endured to get here, whether high mountain passes, endless deserts or frozen steppes.


At last, we finally reached the northernmost city of Tajikistan—Khujand. More than any other city or town in the nation, Khujand still clings to its Silk Road past. A grand bazaar remains the heart of the city, where locals shop for goods or simply don their finest garb to socialize. During our visit, Khujand revealed glimpses into its ancient history. Modern amenities mix seamlessly with enduring traditions—such as the sprawling Panjshanbe Bazaar, one of Central Asia's largest covered trading centers selling wares of every variety. Towards the river, remnants of ancient fortifications mingle with reconstructed ramparts, now a peaceful park where families gather in the evenings.

Though Khujand receives fewer visitors than other Silk Road cities, it retains an authentic charm that defies description. To truly appreciate the lifestyle blending old and new, one must linger here for a few days and observe. As we reluctantly departed this last outpost on our Silk Road journey through Tajikistan, I realized Khujand exemplified the resilience of this ancient trade route. 

While empires and kingdoms have risen and fallen, the exchanges of culture, ideas, and goods continue—a lasting legacy of the historic Silk Road still winding through the fabric of everyday life.

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