There are not many places on our planet which have been untouched by civilization, where people live by the laws of their ancestors carefully preserving their traditions and culture. It is surprising that one such place is located in Tajikistan, just a few dozen kilometers away from the busy highway between Khujand and Dushanbe.
The Yagnob river has forged a way through the inaccessible mountains of Pamir-Alay and here, in a narrow valley squeezed between the Zerafshan and parts of the Gissar mountain ranges, there live the descendants of the ancient Sogdians, who speak a unique ancient language comprehensible only to them.
Information-note: In the middle of the 1st millennium B.C., Sogd (Sogdiana) with its capital in Marakanda (Samarkand) was a center of a developed ancient civilization with high levels of culture, arts and crafts. Its people were quite tolerable towards different religious beliefs and frequently selected their rulers on meritocratic grounds.
But in the 8th century the troops of the Arab Caliphate invaded Central Asia, and with fire and sword spread a new religion – Islam. The Sogdians defended heroically but had to obey the conquerors and those who did not want to surrender – and escaped to the inaccessible mountain gorges.
Today, the Yagnob is still a unique time reserve. It is surprising but life here has not crossed the boundary between the ancient world and modern civilization.
A traveler to this place never fails to be amazed how with little more than their bare hands the Yagnobians have built houses, plowed the steep slopes, laid on water and even managed to plant potato and wheat all at an altitude of 2,500-3,000 m above sea level.
Previously there were 46 settlements in the Yagnob valley, with a total population of up to 3,000 people and access was only by helicopter or on foot along steep mountain trails. In Soviet times officials brusquely resolved the problem of the Yagnobians: in 1970 they were forcibly resettled into the valley of the Zafarabad region. The people were deported by helicopters. Some Yagnobians did not manage to assimilate into the valley and came back to the mountains, reconstructing houses and settlements.
Today, there are ten settlements left in the Yagnob valley with 3-8 families living in each of them. It is as hard to reach as ever, via mountain crossings with heights of more than 4,000m or across the Yagnob gorge by mountain tracks.
Having reached the area, we were surprised by the exceptional hospitality of the local inhabitants. We could hardly understand each other and communicated mostly by gestures, but in Pskon settlement we were welcomed as old friends. We were invited into the house at once and enjoyed food from the abundant table (dastarkhan). Right away, big round scones (flatbread) and sour milk appeared and the hosts put special pots on the fire to boil the water. After drinking the traditional tea, we went out to the street. Everybody was busy with work that time of day. Everything was made by hand or by using primitive devices. The women in variegated sun-faded dresses were carrying on their heads the bowls with dry cow dung which is used here for fuel.
The men in shabby dressing-gowns - chapan - were carrying large bundles of hay on their backs and placing them on the roofs of their houses, children were bringing buckets with water from the brook and dragging sullen donkeys along. It all seemed like something from an old movie when suddenly we noticed a satellite dish and electric wires on self-made raddles. We could hardly believe that one of the men had tried to construct a mini hydroelectric power station and had succeeded. In each house there were some dimly burning light bulbs and even a TV screen gleaming, but this experiment finally failed.
After thanking our hospitable hosts we started on our way down the valley, back to civilization. Each turn revealed another fascinating view: peaked mountaintops, deep canyons and waterfalls. The pathway either climbed up steep hills and cliffs, or descended almost to the river, at some places becoming ovring (man-made trails on the sheer cliffs). We stopped near an old water-mill and were amazed with simplicity and complexity of this appliance which is highly important for the local inhabitants. The mountains are deserted but suddenly we met two women with a child on the pathway. We greeted them and asked some questions; it turned out that they were going from the valley to their relatives in the Kan settlement to participate in a wedding ceremony. We moved forward and met some new guests. In total, we counted about sixty people including men, women, teenagers and even small children, who were being carried. On donkeys, the people carried gifts to the newly-weds and, making use of the opportunity, flour and sugar.
Traditions are so strong that despite the distance people walk more than 30 km by mountain paths to share the joy of creating a new family and to communicate with relatives.
At the end of the pathway one more surprise was waiting for us – a powerful bulldozer was methodically cutting into an almost vertical mountain slope, making a road. Civilization has come very close to this reserved nook. Whether it is good or bad – the time will tell…