Famous for its millenium-old archaeological site and as a springboard for Haft-Kul, Penjikent is crossing its fingers that a big new border road and customs post, due for completion by 2015, will encourage Uzbekistan to re-open the frontier and allow a revival in visitor numbers from Samarkand.
Khojand (or Khojent/Khujand, formerly Leninabad) is Tajikistan's second-largest city. Although it’s a massive sprawl, most hotels and sights are close to Lenin, which snakes north–south-southeast for almost 10km, crossing the Syr-Darya River near the point where Alexander the Great once founded his northernmost Central Asian outpost, Alexandria-Eskhate.
Called Kir by the Parthians, Cyropol by Alexander the Great and Ura-Tyube by the Russians and Soviets, Istaravshan has a small historical core that is a little better preserved than most in Tajikistan. That isn't saying a great deal, and Bukhara it’s certainly not. But then, there aren’t any tourists either.
Iskander-Kul & Sarytag
Between Sarvoda and Ayni the main Dushanbe canyon-road already hints at magnificent glories behind. The easiest way to access them is driving to glorious Iskander-Kul, an opal-blue mountain lake that looks almost tropical in strong sunlight. It isn't. At 2195m, don't expect to swim here.
Around 40km east of Penjikent, then 9km off the main Ayni road, Mazor-i-Sharif has a striking setting, ringed by red-green eroded slopes. It is home to a much-revered 14th-century mausoleum (supposedly marking the older grave of Mohammad Bashoro), most interesting for its ossuary, central pillar and hermit-retreat box-room.
Heading east of Ayni into Mastcho, the road is long but gently rewarding with several interesting rural villages and the potential for some strenuous hiking if you're well prepared. Perhaps the most interesting village is Veshab, 47km from Ayni, with a stepped section of old houses at the back of town and a fine perch high above the curling river.
The transport hub for the Mastcho (East Zerafshan) Valley, Ayni has two centres. The main one, on the M34, has money-changing banks, an ATM, shops and a small area of attractive traditional garden homesteads hidden on alley-footpaths behind what apears to be a stretched silver-domed Dalek.
A bumpily slow road roller-coasters through the Zerafshan Valley that intersperses impressively stark arid rockscapes with splashes of intense irrigated green, though you won't see as much spikey mountain action here as at Margeb or Iskander-Kul, especially if you're driving west on the busier route towards Penjikent.
A few drab apartment blocks, factory ruins and a big Soviet silver worker statue hidden in the trees. That's about all there is of Sarvoda. However, its minor roadside bazaar is a handy place to seek rides to Margeb, Iskander-Kul or the Alaudin Lakes. If you're stuck overnight, Mehmonkhona Yazdon has cheap beds and a toilet-hole way down the wooded garden.
Margeb & the Yagnob Valley
At Km95.5 of the Dushanbe Highway, just east of the small step-layered village of Takfon, a dusty, ragged ribbon of former asphalt leads towards the wild Yagnob mountain valley. After 20km you'll pass through Anzob, a little market town with some stacked old-stone stables and a curious erosion pillar beside the road.
For a great overnight trip from Penjikent head to Haft-Kul (Seven Lakes; Marguzor Lakes), a 20km-long chain of turquoise pools strung along the western end of the Fan Mountain range. The access road gets very rough but daily shared 4WDs can get you near delightful homestays at Nofin, Padrud and Marguzor. Contact the tourist offices in Penjikent for homestay names and details.
Limpid and dreamily beautiful, the main Alaudin Lake (2780m) is a glorious place for camping, and a possible base for walking into the heart of the Fan Mountains. A popular day hike takes you out to Mutnye ('muddy') Lake (3510m), surrounded by a splendid array of 5000m+ peaks.