With no strenuous hiking under our belts since our time in Armenia and too many oversized free Uzbek breakfasts at our hostels, we left Bukhara bound for the Nuratau mountains. We’d heard about the small village of Sentyab (also known as Sentob) where we could stay with a local family and head off on a 9-10 hour hike to Fazilman lake in mountains so we flagged down a taxi and headed to the shared taxi terminal. As it was right by the 15th century Ulughbek Observatory we hiked our backpacks up the steps and took turns visiting what’s now left of this once grand site and the small accompanying museum. Ulughbek was an internationally renowned astronomer up there with the likes of, and predating, Copernicus with a passion for music, the arts and spirituality above religion who had eleven wives and a crater on the moon named after him.
Visit over we negotiate our way into a shared taxi to Jizzakh and hit the road. Arriving a couple of hours later we stupidly hand over our money before we’ve got all of our bags out of the boot. Big mistake! Our driver, with two passengers in the back heading all the way to Tashkent, seems to think he’s swindled us into agreeing to pay UZS30,000 each when the actual fare to Jizzakh is UZS15,000. Cue massive argument as he attempts to close the boot on Matts shoulder with his bags still inside while he demands we pay him double what we’d agreed. We’re soon surrounded by a group of local men and attempt a sit in, telling him we’ll happily leave our bags in the car and go with him back to Samarkand. Eventually we reach a standstill, throw him a couple of extra notes with some nasty words shared between us.
Quickly we find a friendly taxi ride to the next town of Forish and are promised we won’t be charged extra for putting one backpack in the back seat. When we arrive we take all of our bags out before handing over the agreed price and surprise surprise, we’re asked for another UZS5,000 for the bag. A laugh and a shake of the heads settles that quickly. The local CBT office is located in town (opposite the large telephone towers) but when we arrived unannounced nobody was around, however it seems we were expected a affable local guy approaches and hands us his mobile phone to speak to the manager. In perfect English he explains that he’s currently on a tour but he will call ahead and arrange our stay, all we have to do is pay UZS50,000 to the taxi driver he’s organised and he’ll drop us where needed when we arrive. Smooth sailing so far.
Stopping for a quick photo opportunity on the drive to the village, as cloud hangs off the mountains rising to our left and the Aydar Kol lake appears on our right, the smell of rain splashed wild herbs permeates the car and we find ourselves immediately itching to hike into the approaching valley. Turning right we head towards the foothills and into the small village of Sentyab and a few kilometres into the lush green valley we cross over a small creek and reach our homestay. Run by Gulmurod and his wife Rahima the place has been running as a homestay since 2006 and is a little slice of heaven after a couple of weeks of city hopping. Towering walnut trees provide the shade and the small fields fenced in stone are brimming with wild grass, red poppies, pink hawthorn roses, tiny yellow and white wildflowers and a canopy of flowering purple wild onions. Lunch was provided on arrival (even at 2pm) and we sit down to a huge plate of manti (dumplings), four salads each, bread, compote, fresh herbs, tea, a tasty fresh tomato chilli and some awesome local village cottage cheese.
With a few hours of daylight left we head out on foot to explore the small village as the remoteness, sweet smell of wild onions and goat shit has us glad we’d made the effort. We stumble across a small farmhouse with dung patties drying on the walls and the old lady inside the gate, noticing our curious faces, imitated goat horns on her head and beckons us inside. They’re in the middle of herding the goats in the for the night and he can hear bleating coming from a small stone room to our left. Taking us outside she shows us to a window where we she removes a bag of goat skins and points to her pride and joy, the newest members of her goat family, all of 1ft tall and still fluffy. Around the back we find half the herd wedged against the wall attempting to shelter from the rain. After a massive dinner back at the homestay, encompassing four salads each, we turn in early for tomorrow’s leg burner.
Another big breakfast has us ready to put some kilometres and altitude behind us and loaded with a picnic lunch courtesy of our hosts we head up the valley, passing boys on donkeys, workmen building stone houses and goats and cows roaming. Once we pass out of the village proper we begin to feel like we’re in a fairy tale. Babbling brooks crisscross man made aqueducts which dip in and out of shady stone walled fields of rhubarb and other crops. Passing one farm about an hour into our hike we’re greeted by a farmer and his wife who invite us in for tea. A blanket is spread, the fire is stoked and water is boiled. Bread is broken and we contribute a packet of chocolate coated peanuts as we sit and converse in our minimal Russian, some German and a little Uzbek beneath the shade of the trees. The husband is from Samarkand, his wife from the region, and they spend several months of the year tending their two fields by hand before returning to the city. It’s a peaceful moment and we’re sad to leave but they understand we have a big hike ahead of us and happily wave us on our way several cups of tea later.
Soon enough we pass out of the green valley and face an uphill hike along rocky paths, eventually reaching the toughest part, a series of steep switchbacks that leavex us out of breath and aching from calves to glutes. With the top in sight we paused to watch the nearby shepherds herding their flocks across near vertical grass covered slopes. Ok we stopped for a break from the brutal hike but it was a good excuse. Reaching the top we’re greeted by a vast alpine meadow where smoke emerges from a nearby farmers hut and horses mill about.
There’s a couple of paths to choose from and with our trusty Maps.Me on the iPhone we choose what seems to be the most direct one to Fazilman Lake, our final destination, and relish in what feels like flat terrain after the last few hours incline. Finding ourselves without a path we eventually end dodging spiky vegetation and horse shit, sure that each little grassy hummock with reveal the lake on the other side. Another hour later we finally spot it and dumping our packs by some rocks take our shoes off and dig into the bag of goodies. Some stale bread is compensated by a couple of pancakes stuffed with meat patties, boiled eggs, cucumber and apples.
Refreshed we head down to the lake shore as we watch a group of 10 local men on the other side, one of whom seems to be trying to ride a horse for the first time, another who’s stripped naked and is splashing about in the duck shit filled lake like a baby, much to the dismay of his friends trying to coax him out by throwing stones at him. Vodka will do that to you. Having taken a good five hours to get here and with clouds closing in we realise the hike down isn’t going to be a quick one and reluctantly pull our shoes back on and head back the way we’d come. Finding the way isn’t hard as large rock cairns mark the point to descend and we’re soon off the grassy pastures and at the top of the descent. A local approaches on his donkey to kindly ensure we’re using the switchbacks and not heading straight down, he’s worried we’ll hurt our knees.
Blistered and with legs burning we reach the green valley below and pass by our friendly farmers from earlier who show their happiness that we’d made it up and back. We arrive at our homestay weary and dehydrated, luckily they had beer. Unluckily when Matt attempts to open one bottle with the other the top bottle pops first, spraying him with beer from head to toe and leaving our hosts rolling on the floor with laughter. Luckily they had one more beer to spare and we celebrate a hard earned brew barely able to walk. Our hosts new puppy, a whiny little runt who gets no love from its owners, nestles up to us and we can’t bring ourselves to treat it the same way. Aware that it’s being raised as a guard dog rather than a pet we know we shouldn’t shower it with affection but the little guy is too young to be away from it’s mother and on it’s own so we secretly shower it with affection with Sarah even letting it fall asleep on the daybed next to her leg. Seems we warmed even the owners hearts who apologise for their earlier slightly harsh treatment of it and seem to join us in feeling a little sorry for the guy.
We spent the next morning entertaining the two young girls as one pees her pants and the other, a bright spark, quickly realises we speak no English and proceeds to boss us around with charades and hand gestures. Seems in any language toddlers never change. Our taxi arrived to take us back to Forish where we quickly find a ride back to Jizzakh with just the two of us and a middle aged local lady. We spend most of the ride looking at videos on her phone of her blooming garden filled with bright red tulips and the occasional cat, giving us the chance to reflect that the flowers now so synonymous with The Netherlands actually originated here in Central Asia. The Dutch fell so hard for the flowers one rare variety was once worth more than a house. As we posed for selfies in the back seat we mentioned to each other how starving we were and even though she didn’t speak a word of English she just so happened to hand us a both chunk of bread that couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.
Thanks for reading, if you’d like to check out more pics of our time in Uzbekistan and Central Asia head over to our Flickr page here.
Tips for Sentyab
- To get to Sentyab from Samarkand take a taxi to the Ulugbek bus station (next to the observatory) from where you can take a shared taxi to Jizzakh for around UZS15,000 per person. From Jizzakh you can take a shared taxi to Yangiqishloq (Forish) (UZS5,000-7,000 pp) which leave from the Gorod bus station. Agree the price before you leave Samarkand and ensure you take your baggage out of the car before you pay in Jizzakh…Uzbek taxi drivers can be assholes, some of the worst we met in all of Central Asia, and will almost always try to scam more money from you.
- You can choose and book your homestay in advance via http://nuratau.com/homestays. It costs USD$24 per person per night including three meals. A picnic lunch can be provided free of charge if you’re hiking all day.
- If you haven’t arranged your homestay in advance visit the office when you arrive in Forish, otherwise one of the locals may be able to contact the manager by phone. A taxi from Forish to Sentyab costs UZS50,000 and takes about an hour. The cost is high as traffic is limited so you have to pay the drivers return fare on the assumption he won’t be able to get any passengers to pay the fare back to Forish.
- If you’re not experienced at hiking without signage or clear defined paths we would recommend taking a local guide from the village as it’s a very long hike to Fazilman Lake. This can be arranged via your homestay. Alternatively we’ve pinned some GPS coordinates via Maps.me which note the trail directions and turning points if you prefer to go it alone.
- After heading straight up the valley along the village path reach point 40.35’45.46N 66.39’49.49E – At this point take the high path on the left.
- 40.35’32.06N 66.39’28.39E – Continue to follow the path straight towards the lake as shown on Maps.me.
- 40.34’51.51N 66.39’25.4E – You’ll pass an old ruined bridge on the left, keep following the path to the right.
- 40.34’37.3N 66.39’11.44E – You’ll come to a bridge crossing
- 40.34’31.79N 66.39’02.02E – Second bridge crossing
- 40.34’24.81N 66.38’54.58 – Go straight ahead keeping the bridge on your left
- 40.34’30.33N 66.38’06.05E – You’ll come to some feed trays for cattle made out of old tyres, continue straight past them heading west
- 40.34’30.31N 66.37’54.44E – This point marks the start of the valley climb
- 40.34’27.83N 66.37’49.77E – The path is not clear, you need to head south west up the river bed a little way. The path should soon reappear.
- 40.34’25.66N 66.37’44.98E – At this point turn right up the valley
- 40.34’33.39N 66.37’10.52E – Start of the switchback section, hike gets tougher
- 40.34’10.69N 66.37’10.36E – A good spot for a rest and a panoramic photo
- 40.34’07.55N 66.37’07.28E – Start of the correct path to the lake
- 40.33’01.77N 66.35’21.76E – Fazilman Lake and the finish line