Along the Golden River: Ecotourism in Zerafshan Valley, Tajikistan

Community Based Tourism Development in Zerafshan

The Zerafshan Tourism Development Association (ZTDA) is a public community-based organisation created in March 2008 under a Community Based Tourism project in the Zerafshan Valley by the local NGO Agency for the Support of Development Processes Nau (ASDP Nau) and the German NGO Welthungerhilfe, with financial support from the European Commission.

ZTDA aims to develop sustainable tourism in the region, adapted to local society, culture and the fragile environment. Today, ZTDA represents the interests of its members who provide tourist services such as accommodation in traditional home stays, transportation and mountain guides.

ZTDA focuses on the following priority areas:

Participation of the local communities in ZTDA activities;
Financial transparency and transparency in the activity of all members of ZTDA;
Supporting local initiatives and maintaining development of the Tourism Initiative Groups;
Conservation of the natural environment and cultural heritage.
It is not by chance that the ZTDA has “development” in its name. Working with the locals to develop tourism, ZTDA aims to improve the well-being of the local communities and to reduce poverty, while at the same time helping conserve the fragile environment of the region as well as preserve the cultural heritage.

A Unique Cultural and Outdoors Experience

“Welcome! Everything you see here is home-made!”

Sarvar says with great pride. He speaks of the grand morning feast he has prepared for us which was entirely made up of his home-grown products: the delicious Tajik naan bread, fresh from the oven; the small cups and plates of various nuts and dried raisins; and Chakka – a tasty Tajik specialty made with sour milk. Accompanying all this is the fresh mulberry juice and the exquisite honey, extracted from pollen of the unique mountain flowers of Tajikistan. Sarvar’s wife, Muhayo, offers the tea, but not just any tea, a tea which was prepared using mountain plants collected in the Shing valley, where Sarvar and Muhayo Homajovs’ wonderful homestay is located.

“Shing” is an old Sogdian word for “green garden.” The name suits its valley perfectly – green foliage covers the entire area. Sarvar, a Dushanbe trained pharmaceutist, grew up here and is the local expert in wild-grown medicinal plants. Every day, he gathers the herbs and plants and will gladly share his knowledge with all visitors who make a stop at his homestay.

The Homajovs’ homestay is one of the ZTDA’s home stay accommodations supported by the German Development Service (DED), ASDP Nau and WeltHungerHilfe. The project helped the Homajovs finance some repairs and upgrades needed to ready the house to receive guests. We luckily have had the pleasure to see this for ourselves. One night at the homestay costs little more than 8 USD which includes a tasty, handmade and organic breakfast, made with ingredients mostly from the family garden and fruit trees.

Shing village, 50 km from Penjikent, is on the doorstep of a series of seven beautiful lakes which are well worth the detour. Each lake has its own name and also differentiates itself by its unique form and colour, ranging from ocean blue to tropical turquoise. Sarvar accompanies tourists in exploration of the surrounding area, where they have the chance to discover the fascinating flora of the mountain valleys. Outdoor lovers will have plenty to be happy about as they take part in a trekking expedition exploring the breathtaking gorges and mountains that surround Shing and its seven beauties.

Discovering the fascinating field of apiculture by attending Sarvar’s demonstration of the honey-making process may also be an excellent addition to the itinerary. The bee-keeping farm is in Sarvar’s yard and he will gladly show it to his guests and share his knowledge and skills. “I am always glad to receive guests in my homestay,” says Sarvar. “I’m happy to talk with them and to find out more about their culture.”

Sadly it’s Sunday morning, and already time for us to say goodbye to the Homajovs. We are seen off by Muhayo, who gives us a sincere and warm send-off.

A few kilometres down the road and up the mountains lies Padrud village. The village is the site of the second home stay in the region, where refreshing air and the soothing sound of the nearby mountain river are the everyday realities and where the river-side hosts, the Boturovs, are always pleased to welcome guests.

“I love my job,” Zohira Boturova tells us. Being a nurse and a midwife, Zohira very often has to walk to neighbouring villages in the area, where people need her medical help. Despite having low revenues, Zohira and her husband have invested in renovations of their home and have already hosted guests from Germany, Spain, Great Britain, Russia and Tajikistan.

Guests staying at the Boturovs will have an excellent guide at their service: Zohira’s husband has many years experience as a driver and guide in the surrounding mountain areas and knows all the wonderful views and lakes which of course he will share with guests coming in.

About Zerafshan Valley

Zerafshan, which means “Golden River” in Tajik, is the main stream which crosses the valley and supplies its inhabitants with the most precious resource: water. The local population depends strongly on agricultural revenues, with which the river continues to help them. The Zerafshan Valley is also famous for its unique mountain landscapes and its beautiful lakes: the Alauddin lakes, the Kulikalon lakes, Iskanderkul Lake, the seven lakes of Shing and others. The Tajik ancestors, called the Sogdians, have lived for more than 1,500 years along the Zerafshan valley – a history which is still visible at the Old Penjikent archaeological site.

The archaeological site of the ruins of old Penjikent- a walled inter-city which stood 2500-years ago – was once a Sogdian trading city on the Silk Road and is the best-preserved example of a Sogdian city. Often referred to as “The Pompeii of Central Asia”, it is well worth a visit. Duplicates of old Sogdian art are exhibited in the nearby museum.

If 2,500 years doesn’t seem to suffice, 20 kilometres further, one may find the oldest settlement in all Central Asia – Sarazm. The name Sarazm (or Sari Zamin) aptly means “the beginning of the world” for this site which is more than 5,500 years old and is considered as the birthplace of civilization of Tajik people. The nearby museum also shows archaeological finds including a picture of the discovered skeleton of the multi-millennia princess of Sarazm adorned with her jewelery.

For more detailed information about services and tour packages to Zerafshan valley, and to book your home stay, contact the Tourist Information Point in Penjikent at: 47 Hofizi Sherozi Street, Penjikent, Tajikistan (Tel: +992 3475 5 63 39, Email:

Exploring the city streets of Delhi with teens who have lived them

Celebrating the Spirit of Survival

For children with no home, life is a fast train to nowhere. Salaam Baalak Trust works to restore them to the world of childhood, take them from a lonely dead-end to bonding, learning and the joy of a professional life.

In the last twenty years, the Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT) has helped thousands of children come off the streets and into a safe and nurturing environment. SBT has five 24-hour shelters (one devoted to girls), with 50 to 55 children visiting each. The Trust provides a holistic safety net of services catering to the individual needs of street children in Delhi and Mumbai, covering the entire area of child development from physical and medical care to the educational, creative, cognitive, social and vocational needs of the children.

Part of the capacity building support that SBT provides includes training for children to learn to become local tour guides.

Travellers with free time in New Delhi can take part in an exciting walking tour through the New Delhi railway station and the enchanting inner-city streets of Paharganj led by a child who was once living and working on the streets. This walk takes travellers on a journey through the back streets of Delhi with a child who has been fully trained as a local guide.

Planeterra Foundation partners with the Salaam Baalak Trust through its New Delhi Streetkids Project. Travellers on Planeterra’s Project India trip and other Gap Adventures India tour participants that pass through Delhi can take a city walk with SBT guides. Planeterra has donated funds to help cover the cost for two young guides for six months and to pay for food for four shelters. Below are letters from the two boys Planeterra’s donation supported this year – they have written the letters themselves.

I’m Brijesh Pandey (one of the tour guides in City Walk) I’ve been working here and at the same time I’m studying also. I’m studying Tourism Management from IGNOU and Spanish from Institute Servantes.

Like many of my friends I also ran away from home in the age of 8 because of my parents and my uncle and aunt. I spent about my five years on the street, within this period I was arrested twice and sent to prison because we used to sell water bottles illegally on the street. I came to Delhi when I was 11 years old and I joined Salaam Baalak Trust when I was 13 years old and after that I completed my 12th standard from the NMS School in the age of 19. And now I really appreciate SBT because whenever I remember my past I feel more stronger to see myself at this stage.

Thank You.
Brijesh Pandey

I’m Anil one of the tour guides who works for the Salaam Baalak Trust as a Tour Guide, I belong a small family, in my family I have two brothers and mom as well. I live in railway community area is in State Entry Road New Delhi, which is very close to Connaught place. I had father who used to drink alcohol a lot and he did not want to I get better education because most of the money my father used to spend on the drinking alcohol that why I was unable to get better education.

And then my mother brought me to Salaam Baalak Trust. Salaam Baalak Trust helped me out to complete my education. Last year I completed my 12th standard which is the final year in school now I’m going to join Indra (IGNOU) Gandhi National Open University to study Bachelor of Arts. I’m really happy, and also I am learning English in S.B.T and trying to make it better English everyday.

Thanking you.
Anil Kumar

Letters and photos provided courtesy of Tanya Alaag of Salaam Baalak Trust.
Information compiled by Kelly Galaski, Partnership Coordinator, Planeterra

About Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT)

SBT runs five 24-hour full care shelters for children. These shelters provide the children security, a sense of home, and an opportunity to receive all the critical inputs of childhood. They aim at restoring the childhood in children besides instilling in them the values of independence and decision-making, education and social values and financial self-dependence, in order to help them become mature and responsible citizens of the country, and caring and responsible members of the society.

  • SBT Brochure: “Whatever the Salaam Baalak Trust can do – it will be a fraction of what all children deserve. Please help us to do more…”
  • SBT Walking Tour: “Walk into the street life of Delhi – Nobody knows Delhi’s streets better than the young people who will be your guides!”

About Planeterra Foundation

Planeterra is a non-profit organization dedicated to the development and support of small communities around the world. With its international partnerships, projects, and voluntours, Planeterra strives to be a global voice for voluntourism in the rising movement toward sustainability in travel. Planeterra is working with TIES as a Voluntourism Partner to collaborate on a number of initiatives to educate and engage travelers in voluntourism activities that give back to destinations, contribute to the sustainable development of communities, and provide unique opportunities to make personal connections with the local people.

Considering Voluntour-ing? Tips for Travelers – Daniela Ruby Papi, PEPY Tours

Wondering what it’d be like to participate in a voluntourism trip? Interested in making a difference through travel but not sure where to start? This week, TIES asked Daniela Ruby Papi of PEPY Tours and Danielle Weiss of Planeterra Foundation for their insights into on-the-ground voluntourism experiences and some advice for travelers interested in learning more about voluntourism.

Read on to find out what voluntourism means to Daniela and PEPY Tours!
*For our interview with Danielle, see: “Considering Voluntour-ing? Tips for Travelers – Danielle Weiss, Planeterra Foundation”

Ask Daniela – PEPY Tours

TIES: If you were to summarize, in 100 words or less, the reason PEPY Tours is engaged in voluntourism, what would it be?

Daniela: Our goal is that people who join us on a trip will be inspired to live, travel and give differently after their trip to Cambodia. We aim to expose travelers to the people and ideas that are having the most impact on the issues we are looking to effect change in: education, the environment, and health. We focus less on service and more on learning, and like to look at our trips as edu-ventures: educational adventures which allow travelers to support projects, programs, and people we believe in. We think experiential learning is the best way to change attitudes and actions, so rather than teaching the lessons we have learned about development via writing and books, we want to expose travelers to these ideas in an experiential way through our tours.

TIES: Have you received any requests or suggestions from travelers who have participated in PEPY Tours’ voluntours to change the way the tours are run? If so, what was the feedback and how was it implemented?

Daniela: We have been operating PEPY Tours for four years and our initial tours were very focused on giving travelers volunteer opportunities. Slowly we realized that the best projects we wanted to support were working to build human capacity and to improve systems in Cambodia, not building or giving things. As such, it was harder to incorporate travelers into all of the projects we were supporting because they couldn’t add value to teacher training the way they could with school building.

As we began to offer less service and more learning, we started to get feedback from travelers that they wanted more hands-on volunteer projects. Rather than cater to those requests, we began changing the way we marketed our trip to be more focused on the learning aspects of our tours and, even more importantly, on the how’s and why’s of the decisions we have made to our travelers themselves.

Now, when guests turn in their feedback forms at the end of trips, they often reflect that they had previously thought they would be able to add value physically on their trips, but were grateful that they learned on the trip that the biggest ways they were adding value were through funds supporting longer-term projects and by the actions they will take when they leave. That is EXACTLY the attitudes we want people to walk away with!

TIES: Tell us about your first voluntourism experience (personal or professional) and the impact that the trip has had on your life.

Daniela: My first voluntourism experience was with Habitat for Humanity in Nepal. I left that experience so grateful for the chance to interact with and learn from Nepalese people during our building project. I decided that I wanted to travel that way “at least once a year from now on,” and I did. I went with Habitat to the Philippines and Papua New Guinea and then independently to Sri Lanka after the Tsunami.

It took me a while to realize that the key wasn’t to try to “do good” now and then to compensate for the rest of my year, but to actually change how I lived and my daily actions to have a better impact overall. I realized, after starting PEPY, that pursuing a career which allowed me to learn from and with other travelers to improve the impact we all have when we travel was a way for me to do work I believed in and was passionate about year-round. I attribute that first trip to Nepal as an influential.

TIES: What would you recommend first-time voluntour participants to do before their trip so they will be prepared to make a difference?

Daniela: Learn! Learn about the organization you will be working with, the area, the issues, etc. Setting the historical and cultural context of the place will help you learn even more when you travel. In addition, I would read things like “To Hell with Good Intentions” by Ivan Illich or other critics of western aid travel. Though not any one of these views is “right,” it is just important to hear other voices than just those saying “GO ABROAD AND SAVE THE WORLD!”.

The best impact we can have are with how we live our daily lives and the influences we have on the people and the world around us. Setting up your mind to be in a place to learn during your travels, not just to give, will set you up to be better able to transfer the new skills and ideas you learn into your daily life.

TIES: What should travelers participating in PEPY Tours’ Cambodia voluntour program expect from their voluntour-ing experience, and what should they not expect?

Daniela: Don’t expect that the world can be changed in a week or a month or a year. What CAN be changed is YOU. If you expect that you will be plugged into a hole and be able to add value right away during your trip then you will probably be disappointed. Instead, you will be most likely to make the most impact by being willing to do whatever is needed of you at the time.

Sometimes the biggest impacts you can have are meeting people, sharing and learning from them, and showing them that you care about learning about their culture and their work. By seeing how your work is a part of something much larger, that started before you got there and will continue after you leave, you will see how your investment of time adds value.

The biggest changes don’t always happen in a short time so if you expect to start and finish a project in your time there, you will be disappointed. Instead, look to add value when and where you can, and then follow up to learn about the longer term impact you are having even after you leave!

About PEPY Tours

PEPY Tours offers edu-ventures, from bike tours to service learning experiences in rural Cambodia. By traveling with PEPY, your funds and time are channeled into on-going educational programs operated by PEPY’s local staff members. PEPY Tours are designed share lessons about development and responsible travel and influence how we all live, travel, and give in the future. This is highlighted by PEPY’s tag line: Adventurous Living. Responsible Giving.TM The team at PEPY Tours worked with a range of industry professionals to create internal monitoring guidelines for voluntourism which was just launched on PEPY Tours was recently chosen as a winner in the National Geographic and Ashoka Geotourism Challenge.

About Daniela Papi, Director, PEPY & PEPY Tours

Daniela Ruby PapiDaniela Papi is the director of PEPY, an educational development organization working in rural Cambodia. PEPY is funded in part through PEPY Tours, and edu-venture tour company offering cycling trips and service learning experiences in South East Asia. Driven by a young group of social entrepreneurs, in the past four years PEPY has grown from a one-off bike ride which funded the construction of a rural school to a non-governmental organization working in over 10 schools and employing over 30 local staff. Daniela is active in the voluntourism sector, speaking regularly on the both the negative and positive impacts of this growing trend and encouraging industry players to be self-reflective and proactive in measuring their impact. Daniela was a finalist for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. Daniela grew up in New York but has spent the last seven years in Asia working in education and tourism. She currently manages PEPY from her home in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Birder’s Paradise – Chilika Lake, Orissa, India

Chilika Lake, Asia’s largest estuarine lagoon hosts over a million birds every winter. Migratory waterfowl wing in from places as far away as Siberia to jostle resident species over freshwater wetland. Water lilies open with the rising sun and a symphony of bird calls flutter to our ears.

We are perched on the northern edge of Chilika Lake overlooking the 1100 square kilometre expanse of waters as it stretches seaward toward the Bay of Bengal. Here, a small but remarkable village has come full circle to protect a vital wetland area of international importance.

Historically residents of Mangalajodi village posed a threat to bird life. Many families turned the lucrative poaching trade and it wasn’t long before bird numbers hit an all-time low. A local conservation organization Wild Orissa meet with the villagers a decade ago and has been instrumental in guiding their transformation ever since.

Poachers developed an intricate knowledge of bird habitats, breeding cycles and migration patterns. The challenge was to utilise this knowledge and their existing skill-set for conservation. Awareness campaigns combined with sting operations convinced many to change their ways.

The transition was not an easy one for Kishan Behera, who notes, “The pressure from within the community was hard to withstand, but how long can we keep killing [the birds] before there is nothing left?” As a reformed poacher himself, Kishan is well versed in the tricks of the trade and provides valuable information and insights against members of his own community. It’s a brave effort that over the years gained momentum and support.

Now a local village committee has been formed by a core group of ex-poachers determined to continue their new role as protectors. Members of the committee conduct daily surveillance patrols to check incidences of poaching. During winter they are also engaged in monitoring the wetlands and are excited by the increase of migratory birds flocking to their homeland.

The new protectors double-up as impressive guides to this newly burgeoning destination. We glide through sun-flecked reeds with binoculars poised. Kishan Behera gently taps the side of the dung-out canoe to indicate he’s spotted something; following his hand. We witness a pair of Asian Openbill Storks stretch their broad wings and take flight with extended necks. Kishan whispers the bird’s common name in English. His ability to navigate effortlessly through the watertable has been invaluable. His knowledge of local and migratory birds greatly enriches the experience.

Ecotourism activities such as boat cruises and nature walks provide a supplementary income for the poachers-turned-protectors. More than just extra pennies in their pockets, ecotourism serves to encourage local conservation efforts. Providing support and adding weight to the shift has made remarkable changes in the villages psyche. From a community bent on destruction emerges a concentrated collective focused on preservation.

The village at Mangalojodi is a unique example of how partnerships can give way to conservation and sustainable livelihoods. Ecotourism plays a vital key; one that draws attention and appreciation to local conservation efforts. Breathing new life into natural habitats and safeguarding local environments for generations to come.

Want to visit Mangalojodi?

Grass Routes Journeys operates special customised tours to Mangalajodi on request. The winter months from November to February are the best time to visit. Grass Routes has generously donated a community eco-tour package, “India Nature & Wildlife Journeys, 6 days/5 nights for 2” which is currently available on TIES ecoAuction. This is a custom-made package provided exclusively for TIES ecoAuction, and, with the opening bid starting at 40% of the retail value, is the best deal available anywhere. Learn more & Bid now!


“I have lived and worked in the Indian Subcontinent since 2000. More significantly I have traveled its length and breadth – working for Australia’s leading adventure travel company, connecting with people of various quirks and guises. I have experienced (and continue to experience) India’s untold charms and challenges. In honor of this irrefutable bond, and in gratitude of the countless people who have shared their genuine hospitality, I co-founded Grass Routes. A pioneering travel company that operates community-based tours in the extraordinary East Indian state of Orissa, Grass Routes is an ethical effort to encourage ancient livelihoods. I now work in partnership with local communities employing sustainable tourism to revive local arts & crafts and breathe fresh life into traditional cultures. Here, I live close to nature and closer still to a way of life so far removed from my birth country, yet I couldn’t feel more at home!”