Well, spring is here and I finally got a chance to travel to the ridiculously beautiful Zarafshan Valley south of Khujand. It’s a six hour trip over the mountains to the city of Penjikent, the main trekking base in the region, then another couple of hours to get to the region called Haft Kul, or the 7 Lakes. That’s the 7th one pictured above, with a boy from the village posing thoughtfully in front of it. The 7 Lakes are a string of lakes a few hours from Penjikent which are legendary for their varying colors and lovely surroundings. My group spent only one night up in the lakes themselves, but we managed to take a look at all of them and walk from the 6th to the 7th, then back down to the 4th, where we stayed at a local homestay/village bed and breakfast. A nice hike, followed by a plate of plov and a soft bed. Couldn’t be better.
Legend has it that the Seven Lakes were created in the following tragic manner: Once there was a family with 7 beautiful sisters. When the first sister became old enough to marry a very rich, but old and ugly, man asked her father for her hand. The father agreed happily, but the young lady refused categorically. She told the man she would only marry him if he built her a castle overnight. The man was besotted, so he spent his fortune to employ every builder and stone-carrier in the region. Over the course of the night he managed to build a stone castle, complete with a tall tower. So the girl’s father made her keep her word and marry the old man, but she was so distraught that on the wedding day she threw herself from the tower down to the valley below. Where her body fell marks the place of the first lake. Seeing their sister’s death, the other six sisters began to weep profusely, and their tears filled up all seven valleys, making the 7 lakes, each as beautiful as the tragic heroines of the tale.
Penjikent itself is a pleasant, unassuming post-soviet town. But it boasts an ancient pedigree. Ancient Penjikent was a Soghdian city which held out against the Arab invasion before finally succumbing to the flames in 722. Paradoxically, the fact that the city perished in fire had a preservative effect on the frescoes which decorated the main palace. The walls fell inward, preserving the frescoes intact and undamaged until they were excavated by soviet archeologists. Many of the best sections were taken to St. Petersburg, but the museum in Penjikent still has a few pretty striking scenes depicting stories from the Shahnameh–the Persian book of kings–and daily life in the Soghdian court.
My trip was just a long weekend, but I’d love to go back. I doubt I’ll have time, but maybe I’ll be back in this part of the world again someday…
For more information about the region check out the Zarafshan Tourism Board.