The spectacular Zarafshan Mountain Range stretches 370 km through Uzbekistan and northwest Tajikistan, a dramatic, high altitude desert landscape crisscrossed by three rivers, the Fan Darya, Kashtutu Darya, and Maghian Darya. Those peaks east of the Fan Darya, and bordered to the north and south by the Zarafshan and Yaghnob Rivers, are part of one of the most remote — and most beautiful — regions of Tajikistan: Gornya Mastcha aka Mastchoi Kuhiston.
Historically, Gornya Mastcha was on the Silk Road, and was famed for its gold-bearing sands in the Zarafshan River. It is a land of exceptional natural beauty, where subsistence farmers plant potatoes and other hardy crops at altitude. The battles, religious miracles, and natural phenomenons of Upper Zarafshan have given rise to innumerable stories and legends, many of which are still recited by the local people.
Roads in Upper Zarafshan quickly peter out into gravel tracks, then into corkscrews of goat paths through the gravel and scree. The Gornaya Mastcha region runs east from Oburdon, the village which saw some of the fiercest battles between Basmachi fighters and the Red Army. You can drive parallel to the river for much of the way, passing small villages, each with a patchwork of well-tended fields, stone houses, and a shrine. With permission from the local military (which Paramount Journeys can obtain), trekkers can continue on across the flood plain, then cross the river and climb to the base of the Zarafshan Glacier.
At more than 24 km in length, the Zarafshan Glacier is one of the longest glaciers in Central Asia. Far from human habitation, it is an exceptionally peaceful place, and ringed with mountain peaks, some of which soar to more than 5,000 m. On occasions, snow leopards, bears, and wolves have been spotted here, so be sure to keep your binoculars and camera close at hand. From the last settlement in the valley, Mazori Bolo, you can trek to the glacier and back in two days, though you will need a local guide.
In 2015, Paramount Journeys launched an expedition to explore Gornaya Mastcha more fully, to open the way for tourists, and having forged those routes, we are now able to share them with you. You can follow in the footsteps of the pilgrim Abu Muso Ashgari, and pause at another pilgrim in Mazori Bolo. Just meteres from the road near Sabakh is a superb collection of petroglyphs — the sun, hunters, and animals — the quality of which easily rivals the more famous carvings at Langar.
And everywhere you go in Upper Zarafshan, the tajik phrase will come to mind: “The guest is a gift from God.” At every house, you will be welcomed with tea, snacks, and meals, such is the hospitality of the Tajik people, even in the remotest places.