A Guest Among the Yaghnobis

The Yaghnob, or “icewater,” is a tributary feeding the Zarafshan River, which in turn feeds the great Amu Darya further downstream. Its headwaters are in the lofty peaks of the Fan Mountains of northern Tajikistan, from which it flows through a high (averaging 3000 meters above sea level) and steep-sloped valley which is at certain points pinched by sheer cliffs into stretches of narrow gorge. These natural obstacles have made the Yaghnob Valley and its inhabitants notoriously difficult to reach. A rough track winds its way up the riverbank from the neighboring Ayni region, but this is accessible only for determined 4×4 vehicles during the summer months. This isolated valley is home to the Yaghnobi people, the last descendants of the ancient Sogdians who once ruled the great cities along the Silk Road in wealth and splendor. According to legend, when unstoppable armies of Arabs, bearing the sword and zeal of their new faith of Islam, toppled the Persian Empire and penetrated Central Asia, the cities of Sogdiana were helpless before them. Rather than fight to the death or submit to the invaders, some Sogdians chose to flee to the impassable mountain fastnesses hoping to ride out the storm. While they came to accept Islam and contact with outsiders in the subsequent centuries, their unique Eastern Iranian language survives to the present day, despite determined efforts to assimilate them into the dominant lowland cultures. The population of the valley is counted in the mere hundreds, with livestock herding and subsistence agriculture the means of survival. Fascinated by the rumors of this unique mountain refuge and blessed to know a fearless driver from the area, our ERLP Fall 2018 group set out for a weekend visit in early October to see the Yaghnob Valley for ourselves.

After a very cozy three-hour drive from the capital Dushanbe, our group of eight arrived in the evening in Margib, a village known as the gateway to the Yaghnob Valley. Already we were impressed by the scenery, with formidable peaks in every direction to rival the highest of the Rockies. We were treated to rice pilaf and fresh fruit by our hosts, a local family who rent out a house on their property to guests. Unfortunately, I was unprepared for this rich feast and became violently ill during the night. Faced with the decision to return to Dushanbe to convalesce or continue the journey on an empty and upset tummy, I chose the latter. The next morning our group split into two, with half hiking the distance to the next village, Bidev, and the other half electing to drive to the end of the road and continuing to a third village, Pskon, on foot from there.

After a very bumpy few hours on the rocky track, we encountered a young man astride a colorfully ornamented horse, who informed us that we had unknowingly passed Bidev some distance before. His Yaghnobi speech was nearly incomprehensible to our Tajik driver, Zafar, grumbling as he performed a nail-biting K-turn on the narrow road to turn us around. We had missed Bidev because it was hidden from the road upon a lofty hill, accessible only by a winding donkey path. As we climbed, my churning stomach and weak knees made it abundantly clear that this would be my only hike for the day, and that I would need to seek shelter and rest in this town while Zafar ferried the others onward.

When we crested the hill, panting, and walked into the hamlet of stone and mud-brick houses, we were met with staring faces from behind grimy window panes. A distinguished older woman emerged from the largest house and announced in accented Tajik that we were welcome to stay, but regretted that all the men, save one, had left for a neighboring village to attend a wedding. The only male remaining male resident, a grinning 20-year old introducing himself as Ismoil, dropped his chores for the day and played both host and amateur doctor for me as I lay cringing in pain under a mound of blankets. We talked for hours in Tajik, during which time I learned several phrases in Yaghnobi and that my new friend was to be married in a week’s time. Caught unawares, I searched my bag for anything that might serve as a wedding present, landing on a USB battery pack for charging cell phones. Ismoil was delighted and promised to ask his older brothers to invite our whole group to watch a game of buzkashi, or headless goat polo, to be held in honor of that day’s wedding on the following morning.

The next morning, we gathered in the appointed place, a potato field at the river’s edge, and waited for the players and their steeds to assemble. The sight of a sizable portion of the Yaghnobi people on horseback, in various garments of fur, leather, and the odd Adidas tracksuit, was quite impressive. After a short prayer by a local mullah, the players galloped off toward the opposite end of the field, where they scrambled to lean in their saddles to retrieve the headless carcass of a freshly killed goat from the ground. After a vicious scrum of kicks and shouts, one rider emerged from the fray dangling the goat by one leg and spurring his horse as fast as he could manage. As his fellows closed in around him to snatch the “ball” away, he dropped the goat neatly into the patch of dirt designated as the goal post. A cheer and whistling went up from the spectators, as the victorious rider claimed his reward of 20 somoni (about 2 dollars) from the pooled money of the players. As we watched the game from a small hill overlooking the field, we heard the anxious bleating of a goat tied up nearby. My suspicions about this pitiful creature were confirmed by the boy assigned to watch it. When the “ball” being trampled, tossed, and dragged around on the field become too torn up to be used, a spare was available with only a few minutes’ preparation. I was relieved that our group left to return to Dushanbe before this switch was performed.

Despite my illness, I found my time as a guest of the Yaghnobis to be rewarding and unforgettable. I only hope that these descendants of the lords of Sogdiana can benefit from engagement with the modern world without losing the living memory of their ancient lineage.

By: Sean Heyneman

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Fall 2018

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