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: