Iskander Kul (Lake Alexander)
When travelling between Dushanbe and Sughd province, you will invariably take the E123 road.
The E123 stretches out up over the Zerafshan Mountain range through the infamous Anzob tunnel (Tunnel of death).
The way will eventually lead through the picturesque town of Zerafshan and onto Khujand. However long before you reach this ancient city, there are some stops we would recommend.
Once passing through the Tunnel of death, the road will bring you sharply downhill, taking a serious of switchbacks. This is a journey not for the faint-hearted.
It's definitely one for the adventure travellers journal.
Upon reaching the valley bottom, you will pass an old soviet mine still in operation - unnatural coloured pools spilling from its imposing structure.
Further, into the valley high on the mountainside opposite the Yaghnob River, you may also notice rising smoke from this area, reminiscent of a scene from a Tolkien book.
The comes Alexander Lake.
The Yaghnob valley was almost impassable until, during the Soviet Union, a road was blasted through this region.
The valley had long been a shelter for those escaping Tajikistan’s many invading forces, most famously the Sogdian’s, during the Arab invasion of 722 AD.
The Sogdians were able to practice their traditional way of life, keeping their Zoroastrian religion right up until the Russians tore through. Most of the local people were relocated, sent to work on collective farms in the northern regions many never returned!
At the start of the 1980s, as the Soviet Union began to crack, the Yagnobi’s slowly worked their way back home. Their numbers diminished, but they returned.
Today, some villages remain deserted, while others have grown to be some of the friendliest in the country.
Many of the villagers here still speak their very own Yagnobi language, which owes its existence to the ancient Sogdian refugees all those years ago.
If you keep to the valley driving towards Savoda from the road, you will see smoke rising from the hills beyond the river. If you are passing this region at night (not recommended), you will see the glow of red flames and luminous smoke in the same area.
These are the Kuhi-Malik Fiery Caves burning for thousands of years, even mentioned by Herodotus.
During the 7th century AD, sulfur and ammonia were collected from this area, for use in the manufacture of jewellery.
As the road bends, there is another deserted Soviet factory. A damaged but still exciting mosaic marks the turn.
From here, you cross an aging suspension bridge that creaks and groans as you go. Following the valley on, you are now tracing the Iskandar Darya River to the left. You’ll catch a glimpse of the village Zeravshan 2, a typical Russian mining settlement that looks as clean and chiselled as the day it was inaugurated.
The road will take you past small Tajik villages with waiving kids and few puzzled adults.
As you journey, the way sheds its asphalt and becomes a little more challenging.
Eventually leaving the river, the road climbs the valley side, switchbacks and steep drops ensue.
Make sure you stop to take a view over the valley and the astounding geology.
After a bumpy drive, you’ll first be met by the sight of snowcapped mountains many over 5000 meters high.
As your eyes adjust to the beauty of the area, you will make out an azure lake nestled between mountain slopes. This area stepped in stories almost looks as though it shouldn’t exist, and it shouldn’t!
Stories talk of an armour-clad Alexander the great rising from the lake atop his black steed Bucephalus, anyone who sees will never leave the lake.
Many locals also mention of an ancient city locked bellow the crystalline waters, its inhabitants refused to yield to Alexander, so he had the stream blocked. This created the lake and flooded the city.
The lake sits at an altitude of 2,195 meters.
It is 70 meters deep and has a surface area of 3.4 square kilometres.
Alexander lake often appears in differing colours. This isn’t always due to photoshop - but a combination of high mineral content and the reflection of light on the surface of the water.
Likely, the lake never existed during the time of Alexander the Great. And even more unlikely that he ever visited this area. Alexander Lake formed when the side of one of the mountains slipped, blocking the river valley; this may have been earthquake-induced or natural erosion.
Around the lake, there are some small holiday chalets and guest houses. These are open from May through summer.
On the western edge of the lake sits the holiday residence of the president. It is not as flashy as you may think - although it does have a helicopter pad. Visiting by us meer mortals is not allowed!
There are some lovely walks around the lake. The most popular is from the area in which you arrive.
Upon arrival, you will find an official entrance, toilets, and a ticket booth close to a small bridge.
The walk begins just 100 meters beyond the bridge following the river.
The area is part of a registered nature reserve, although someone has already started the construction of a holiday dacha. You will pick up the trail following the river valley. It's a return path so not too tricky. It can be a little rocky, so watch your step.
You will eventually arrive at the waterfalls known by locals allegedly as little Niagara Falls.
They are impressive as is the rather precarious viewing platform looking as though it was itself constructed using old soviet era beds.
The best and safest time to visit is from Mid-May to September.
Early May is possible, but the road can be treacherous due to heavy rains and landslides.
If travelling to the lake, a tour group/ company is the most comfortable option as everything will be arranged and prepared for you.
If going it alone, public transport will get you as far as the turning at Zeravshan 2.
From there, you will need to wait for someone heading to the lake or beyond.
The other option is to arrange ar private car/ taxi from one of the cities.