PAMIRS AREA OF KYRGYZSTAN
Pamirs is a 800-kilometer-long range made up of very high rounded mountains between 5,000 and 7,000 meters high that stretch across eastern Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan into western China. Known as “The Roof of the World,” "The Foot of the Gods," and "Midpoint between Heaven and Earth," they occupy one of the least explored and most sparsely populated regions of the world. The Pamirs offer some of the most spectacular Alpine scenery in the world but is difficult to get to.
Pamir means "pasture." In some ways the Pamirs are better described as a high plateau with mountains than a mountain range. There are many flat, broad, treeless valleys that are as high as the low mountains and filled with grass. Winding through the valleys are meandering, sometimes swampy rivers, and occasionally an Alpine lake. Between the peaks are large glaciers, including 72-kilometer-long Fedchenko glacier,the longest glacier in the former Soviet Union.
The Pamirs have been described as a big mountain node The mountains around Pik Kommunizma are called the Pamir Knot. Geologists regard it as a hub, from which the Tien Shan, Hindu Kush, Kunlun and Karakorum mountains branch out. All of these young mountains have been produced by the collision of the Indian subcontinent into the Asian land mass during the past 50 million years, which also pushed up the Himalayas..
There are several high pass through the Pamirs, one of which was use dby Marco Polo in 1271. Wildlife in the Pamirs incline Marco Polo sheep and snow leopards. Some yeti stories originated from here. Herders keep sheep, goats and yaks. The winters are long and harsh and the summers are cool. The Mountain-Badakhshan District in the heart of the Pamirs recives only 12.7 centimeters of precipitation a year. The amounts of precipitation decreases as one climbs in elevation not increases as is the case with most mountain ranges in the world.
Mountains and Geography of the Pamirs
The Pamirs embrace three of the four highest mountains in the former Soviet Union: 7495-meter-high Qullai Ismoili Somoni (formerly known as Pik Kommunizma,or Communism Peak), the highest mountain in the former Soviet Union and Central Asia; 7134-meter-high Pik Lenina, the third highest mountain in the former Soviet Union; and 7105-meter-high Pik Korzhenevskaya, the forth highest. Other landmarks mountains include Revolution Peak and Academy of Sciences Range.
Almost the entire territory of the Western Pamirs is occupied with ridges of latitudinal direction: Vanjskiy (5584 meters), Yazgulemskiy (peak Revolution, 6974 meters), Rushanskiy (about 6000-6100 meters), and Shugnanskiy (5704 meters). In the same region ridges of meridional direction are focused: peak Ismoili Somoni (7495 meters), Akademiya Nauk, Ishkashimskiy and etc. Also the longest and the most powerful glaciers of the Central Asia are nested here: Fedchenko (area 651,7 square km, length 77 km), Grumm-Grzhimaylo (area 142.9 square km), Garmo (114,6 square km.), which generate the rivers Pyanj, Gund, Shahdara, Bartang, Yazgulem and Vanj, which supply the entire Central Asia with water.
A wide high mountain desert has stretched from the southern slopes of the Zaalay ridge in the north to the banks of the river Pyanj in the south. This area with a severe and long winter, with tenuous and arid atmosphere, cold, rough atmosphere, and clean sky is the Eastern Pamirs. Here at the height from 3500 to 4200 meters above sea level the Eastern-Pamirs valleys and lake kettles like: Alichur, Murghab, Rangkul and etc. are located. After Tibet, this is the second highest plateau in the world. The absolute minimum of temperature in Murghab reaches -47*С, and Karakul -50*С; summers are short and chilly. Average temperature in July is 13-14*С.
Geology of the Karakorum-Pamir Region
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Karakorum-Pamir region “is the most intensively uplifted area engendered by plate collision movement in the last 5 million years. The Pamirs are the area where a corner of the Indian continental plate is subducted beneath the Eurasian continental plate, causing a domino effect. The most drastic collision and prominent mountain uprising is seen between the Tarim plate and Kazakstan. The cluster of extra-high mountain peaks, mud volcanoes and the tectonic junction zone provide good evidences for this. It is one of the best areas for research of the lithosphere, plate movements and associated depositional environments. It is also a place that has attracted much neo-tectonics and geodynamics research.” [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]
“The Karakorum-Pamir region “is the most typical area for research of the Tethys tectonic zone. The nominated area has gone through tectonic evolution with several phases. It experienced a sequence of open and closed periods as an ocean basin among lands on the southern edge of Eurasia in the Early Paleozoic. The rocks and strata record the spread, subduction and closure of the Paleo-Tethys period in the Late Paleozoic and have recorded the tectonic the history of subduction, collision and closure, and the squeezing and sliding of the new Tethys between the Indian and Eurasian continental plates. The analyses of the sediments and geotectonic evolution pattern demonstrate the matching of the Eurasian and Changtang data, which has global significance for the exploration of the characteristics of the accretion process and research of the Tethys tectonic zone. Thus, it is a key region for the study of the formation and evolution of the Eastern Tethys and the collision mechanism between geologic plates. The nominated area records important information on the constitution and evolution of Eurasia. Moreover, it is the outstanding example of the evolution of crusts and environmental change since the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. As such, it is a natural laboratory for the study of the continental dynamics global change.
The nominated area is the best area for studying very high mountain glaciers. The nominated "Karakorum-Pamir Peaks" include almost half of the world's very high mountain peaks. The areas lie in the hinterland of Eurasia, however, they are the main distribution zone of the world's most typical sub-continental glaciers. Thus, the nominated area has important implications for the understanding of global climate change, glacial landforms, and processes and activities in very high mountains. Furthermore, the nominated area is the best area for the research on Central Asian dust. Ice cores of Mt. Muztag Ata have revealed dust deposits of different periods. The dust size characteristics in the ice cores reflect their material sources and their means of transportation, which have important implications for the understanding of environmental change, atmospheric activity and dust movements in the Central Asian dust source area.”
Pamir Allay is a 500-kilometer-long mountain range that runs across the southern Kyrgyzstan border and extends all the way from Samarkand in Uzbekistan to Xinjiang in western China. The 60-kilometer-long Allay Valley is regarded as the center of hiking in the Pamirs in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is the access point for: Pik Kommunizma, Lenin Peak and Pik Korzhenevskaya as well as a number of lower mountains and treks. Climbers attempting Lenin Peak go to the International Mountaineering Camp in the valley to become acclimatized to the high altitude before trying to climb the mountain. It is best reached by helicopter or treks that originate in Kyrgyzstan.
1) Ismoili Somoni Peak (in Tajikistan south of the Kyrgyzstan border) is the highest mountain in the Pamirs and the former Soviet Union. At 7,495 meters (24,590 feet) high, it is regarded as relatively easy for experienced mountaineers to climb. It used to be called Pik Kommunizma, or Mount Communism (See Below). 2) Lenin Peak (border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) is 7,134 meters (23,405 feet) high and is regarded as relatively easy for experienced mountaineers to climb. 3) Pik Korzhenevskaya (in Tajikistan south of the Kyrgyzstan border) is 7,105 meters (23,310 feet) high and is also considered relatively easy for experienced mountaineers to climb. It is the forth highest mountain in the former Soviet Union.
The main road to the regions is the A372, which runs between Osh and Sary Tash, near the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border, and the Gorno-Badakhshan region in Tajikistan. Unrest has closed down this area. Even in the best of times it is a restricted area and requires special permits to visit that are best arranged through travel agencies.
Lenin Peak (border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) is 7,134 meters (23,405 feet) high. It is the forth highest mountain in the former Soviet Union and is relatively easy for experienced mountaineers to climb. The snow-covered ridges and slopes are not technically demanding. There are serious dangers from weather and avalanches though. The world's worst mountaineering accident claimed 43 climbers in July 1990, when a small earthquake triggered an avalanche that the buried the climber's camp on Lenin peak. In 1974, eight of the Soviet Union’s best women climbers died while ascending the peak.
Traveling in the Pamirs
July and August are the best times to visit the Pamirs although it possible to travel in the region from late May to October. Transportation, accommodation and food other than bread, rice, potatoes, yoghurt and koumiss are hard to come by but things are a little better than they used to be. There are few places to buy food other than small kiosks and canteens set up for truckers and essentially no places to change money. Bring your own food, a tent and warm clothing. Many farmers and herders are willing to put you up in their homes or shed and prepare you some tea and goat’s milk and porridge for a small fee
There are no buses. The only way to get around is to hitch a ride with a truck, hire a vehicle or go on an arranged trip with a travel agency. The best way to reach some of the mountaineering camps is by helicopter. The best places to organize everything are Khorog, Dushanbe, Bishkek, Osh or even Almaty. A fair number of trucks traverse the route but they are slowed by check points set up to look for drugs. Hiring a vehicle and driver is expensive.
The region was largely spared from fighting during the civil war and is regarded as politically stable. Even so poverty is widespread and some people have turned to banditry out of desperation. The only area that has a reputation for being unsafe is the section of the M41 highway which hugs the Afghanistan border between Komsomolabad and Rushan. There are numerous check points on the roads here set up to catch drug smugglers. Many travelers avoid this section by flying into Khorog.
Have the right travel permits and paper work is vital if you want to avoid being arrested or turned back or pressured into paying a bribe. It is essential to have the places you are going, particularly in the Khorog and the Gorno-Badakhshan regions, in your visa. To do this you have to get these places mentioned in your letter of invitation used to get your Tajikistan visa.ITMC Tien Shan Travel in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan can do this for you. The best places to get the visas for the Pamirs are Dushanbe and Almaty.
The Pamir Highway is a spectacular, poorly-surfaced, 728-kilometer road between Khorog in Tajikistan and Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Regarded as one of the most awesome stretches of road in the world, it crosses 4277-meter-high Koi-Tezek Pass, 4137-meter-high Naizatash Pass and 4655-meter-high Ak-Baital Pass, passes by Lake Karakul and then crosses over 4282-meter-high Kyzyl-Art Pass at the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. Because snow often closes the passes. This route is usually only passable from June through October but is most comfortably done in July and August.
Much of the route is above 3,000 meters. Along the way are small herding settlements, blue Alpine lakes, snowcapped mountains. The road was built in the 1930s to move soldiers and weaponry to remote outposts along the Chinese and Afghanistan borders. The route has been covered in 20 hours but usually takes two days or more. The road between the Gorno-Badakhshan Region and Osh is steep and winding in some sections. It generally stays open in winter. After crossing the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border, the road descends through the Kyrgyzstan town of Sary Tash towards Osh.
The Pamir Highway is a part of the M-41, which begin in Termiz, Uzbekistan and stretches for about 1,200 kilometers between Dushanbe and Osh. The One branch of the road begins in Mazari Sharif in Afghanistan, passes through Dushanbe, Khorog and Murghab in Tajikistan and ends in Osh in Kyrgyzstan
The section which hugs the Afghanistan border between Komsomolabad and Rushan may be dangerous. It runs near the Afghan border and passes through Wakhan Valley, a narrow valley with steep mountainous sides and a river running through it. Many travelers avoid this section by flying into Khorog. Worries about Muslim extremist and drug dealers has made traveling this route difficult. The road has many military check points and has a restricted area in Kyrgyzstan that require special permits to visit. Travel is best taken care of with the help of a travel agency.
The M-41, Pamir Highway is is the second highest international route in the world and was part of the ancient Silk Road. It is the only continuous route through the Pamir Mountains and is the main supply route to Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. In the Pamir Plateau, the road is often blocked in spring by flocks of sheep and goats. Strong winds, common at higher elevations, can make driving or cycling difficult. Rain storms can develop quickly.
According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT): Road conditions vary considerably along the route. Some sections are paved, but many are unpaved. Some sections are steep and winding. Hairpin curves are common in mountainous areas. Earthquakes, erosion, landslides and avalanches have heavily damaged some sections.Provisions for drainage are inadequate. Many small streams run over the road. Flooding can close the road. Rockslides or landslides can occur after or during heavy rains and can block [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), 2009]
Driving from Khorog to Kyrgyzstan
Khorog is approximately halfway between Dushanbe and Osh, Kyrgyzstan and Kashgar, China along the Pamir Highway (M-41). Khorog is 525 kilometers from Dushanbe, 825 kilometers from Osh, and 615 kilometers from Kashgar.
Khorog to Murgrad is covered by a 300-kilometer section of the Pamir Highway that passes through popular-lined Pamiri villages in the Gunt Valley and then climbs up series of switchback to 4272-meter-high Koi-Tezek Pass. Before the pass is a small village of Jelandy where you can hike to the lake Turuntai-kul and enjoy the views of 6773-meter-high Pik Karla Marxa. After the pass the road traverses the “Roof of the World” Pamir plateau on a narrow one-meter-high embankment that trucks sometimes topple off of.
Murgab (300 kilometers from Khorog) is a small town with 4,300 people on the Pamir Highway. Occupied by Kyrgyz and Tajiks, it is a rough place used primarily by truck drivers as place to spend the night and break their journey. Homestays and treks to Sarez Lake, Yashilkul Lake and other destinations can be organized here.
Mugrab to Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan is covered by a section of the Pamir Highway that straddles the Chinese border, sometimes within 20 meters of the barbed-wire fences that mark the no-man’s land. Spectacular mountains shadow the road as it climbs to 4655-meter-high Ak-aital Pass, the highest point on the highway. From here the road descends to Karakul Lake then rises again to 4282-meter-high Kyzyl-Art Pass at the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border, after which there is a long up and down descent to Sary Tash. . The checkpoints for the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border are at considerable distance from the border: in Karakul in Tajikistan and Sary Tash in Kyrgyzstan.
Batken (also called Batkent, 250 kilometers west of Osh) is a small town in southwestern Kyrgyzstan, on the southern end of the Fergana Valley. It is the capital of Batken Region and encompasses 205 square kilometers (79 square miles). The population of the town proper was 13,435. Its population including the villages Bulak-Bashi, Kyzyl-Jol and Bazar-Bashy was 19,718 in 2009.
The name Batken is Iranian-Sogdian and means "The city of wind". Batken Region is the newest of Kyrgyzstan's seven regions. It was created from the three westernmost districts of Osh Region in 1999 because of concerns over radical Islamist activities in neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan led to demands for a more direct and visible governmental presence in this remote and mountainous region. Batken Airport links the town with Bishkek. A small university was established in Batken.
Aigul Tash mountain (at the entrance of the Kara Bulak village) is home to an amazingly beautiful flower with red and yellow petals endemic to the area, called aigul, that blooms in April. According to legend, a maiden named Aigul was unable to withstand the news that the man that she loved had died in battle, and threw herself off the cliff of this very mountain. When spring came, wonderful flowers started growing in the places where the maiden’s drops of blood had fallen. People named the flowers Aigul and the mountain Aigul-Tash, after the maiden. The flower is listed in the Red Book.
Sarkent National Nature Reserve (in the Leilek district of Bakten province) park covers an area of 400 square kilometers. It was established to preserve the biological diversity of natural systems and is home to animals listed in the Red Book, such as brown bears, snow leopards, lynxes, golden eagles, saker falcons, and Himalayan vultures. The landscape is characterized by juniper forests. The reserve contains five different lakes.
Turkestan Range is a region of mountains along the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. One of the northern extensions of the Pamir-Alay system, the Turkestan Range stretches for a total length of 340 kilometers from the Alay Mountains on the border of Kyrgyzstan with Tajikistan to the Samarkand oasis in Uzbekistan. It runs in the east-west direction, north of the Zeravshan Range, forming the southern boundary of the Ferghana Valley in Tajikistan and Golodnaya Steppe in Uzbekistan. [Source: Wikipedia]
The Turkestan ridge area is poorly surveyed because of its length and inaccessibility. This area has many walls and peaks which have not been explored. The highest elevations are in the east, near the border with Kyrgyzstan. The maximum elevation is the Pik Skalisty at 5,621 meters (18,442 ft). Glaciation occurs especially in the east. The southern slopes are bare cliffs and mountain steppe; the northern slopes are covered with forests. A highway through the Shakhristan Pass at 3,378 meters (11,083 ft) connects the capital Dushanbe with Khujand in Northern Tajikistan (Sughd Province). The Turkestan Range is where the Japanese geologists were abducted (See Below).
Ai Köl Lake is located on the northern slope of the Turkestan range, about 3000 meters above sea level. It is a small lake surrounded by large cliffs. One can observe its beauty only from afar. The lake is fed by two brooks.
Ak Suu Valley
Ak Suu Valley (120 kilometers to the south of Khujand city, on the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border) in the Turkestan Range is known as "the Patagonia of Central Asia" among rock climbers. Ak-Suu area is distinguishes by its beauty of its rugged nature, unusual gorges and passes. Among the that exceed 5000 meters are Ak-Suu (5355 meters), Block (5239 meters) and Iskander (5120 meters). These mountains are formed from compact granite with minor “hooks” and cracks. The walls have heights drops up to 1500 meters.
The main attraction, 5359-meter-high Ak Suu Peak is a pyramid-shaped peak with a spectacular two-kilometer-high rock face. Independent hikers can reach the foot of the wall.
Ak Suu lies within Kyrgyzstan trekkers approach it from Uzbekistan through Tajikistan. This makes the visa and trekking permit situation tricky and there isn’t much public transport to the starting points of the hikes. Thus it advisable to do the trip with a travel agency that specializes in doing the trip.
Treks to Ak Suu Valley begin from the Tajik village of Ozergeryosh, which can be reached by minibus or shared taxi from Isfana, which has a military check point and can be reached by bus from Khojand. The Ak Suu base camp can be reached in a long day of hiking from Ozergeryosh. The route follows the Lyailyak Valley and then the Ak Suu (“White Water”) river and valley.
From the base there are hikes to the rock wall of Ak Suu peak and the surrounding glaciers. Destinations of longer treks include 4390-meter-high Ak Tyubek Pass, the Karavshin Valley, the Ashat Valley and the glaciers around 5282-meter-high Sabakh Peak. For more detail check the Lonely Planet guide.
Karavshin: a Rock Climbers Paradise
Karavshin Gorge is situated in the Turkestan Range. This marvelous piece of nature contains rocky mountains, fast flowing rivers, clean spring waters, and green meadows. It much resembles the South American Steppes, giving itself the nickname "The Asian Patagonia," as deemed by lovers of the outdoors.
According to the Kyrgyz Alpine Club: The canyons are located on the northern slopes of the Turkestanskyi range and administrated by Lyalakskyi raion of the Batken oblast. This is “paradise” for climbers. Rocks of the region are similar to Southern Patagonia by its structure and composition. It’s sometimes referred as Kyrgyz Patagonia but unlike the original weather is much warmer here and extent of walls is much longer. For example, the northern wall of Ak-Suu peak is 2,000 m high. Rocks are composed with solid, monolith granites, limestones and sandstones. Great opportunity for technical climbs on the known routes as well as first ascents and new routes are at climber’s disposal. Warm weather settles from mid June till September. Major precipitation is in autumn.
“The first climbers visited area in 1936 during geological expeditions. Their names are well-known: Vitalyi and Eugenie Abalakovi, Maleinov, Austrian mountaineer Lorenz Saladin and the others. Then they unsuccessfully endeavored to ascent the highest peak of the region Piramidalnyi (5,509m). Since that time the region has been forgotten for almost 50 years. The modern exploration started in 1982 with the Russian expedition under leadership of Leonid Trochinenko to the Lyalak gorge. Later in 1986 Karavshin gorge was chosen as the ground for Climbing Championship of the USSR.
“This one region has more extremely difficult routes of grade B than in all Kyrgyzstan (more than 100). There are more than 50 grade 2-5 routes in the area. The region is accessed by road from Osh and Batken towns. Beside main road there is also air service connecting Bishkek with Osh and Batken. If you go to Laylak, you should first drive to Katran village and from there one day hike or horse riding to the climbing start. If going to Karavshin, you should drive to Vorukh village and from there one day walk or horse riding. The rout to Karavshin lies through Tadjik enclave Vorukh. For each crossing it’s required to have Tadjik visa (if your country has visa system with Tadjikistan). However, this issue can be “solved” right at the spot though there is no guarantee. Usually to deliver loads from the end of the road to base camps horses are used and can be rented right in the villages. Fresh fruit and vegetables of good quality are available here and even cheaper than in Bishkek or Osh. Other supplies, petrol for primus stoves and gas is better to stock in Osh or Bishkek. The region is in the border area and special permit is required.”
Problems with Islamic Groups in Southern Kyrgyzstan
In mid-August of 1999, Islamic militant entered Kyrzgzstan from Tajikistan and kidnaped 120 people and captured five villages in the Pamir mountains in the Batken region around Osh. Most of the hostages were soon released but four Japanese mining engineers and two other men were held hostage. The four Japanese had been by the Japan International Cooperative Agency. During the hostage ordeal the Kyrgyz government launched air strikes and a firefight broke out between the militants holding the hostage and Kyrgyz troops. The Japanese were reportedly freed after a $2 million to $6 million ransom was paid.
Garth Willis of alpinefund.org wrote: In the summers of 1999 and 2000, localized skirmishes erupted along the southern borders. The well-publicized kidnapping and subsequent escape of four American climbers in Karavshin projected the image that all of Kyrgyzstan was a dangerous place. These events, followed by the attacks of September 11 and then SARS in 2003, almost ended tourism. During these years the few expeditions in the region never saw a soul. <> [Source: Garth Willis, alpinefund.org, July 2004 <>]
“In 1999 when Islamic fundamentalists crossed the border over an unguarded mountain pass and kidnapped a large group of Japanese geologists. This event was followed in 2000 by more kidnappings of Americans, Germans, and Ukrainians. The government dispatched troops to rescue the remaining hostages and turn back the incursion, but during the ensuing battles and rescue of the hostages, 32 Kyrgyz soldiers were killed. All hostages were released or escaped unharmed. The government removed the local shepherds who inhabited the high pastures and prohibited outsiders from entering. To prevent further incursions the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have placed land mines in the high mountain passes in border areas. Due to border disputes, there is debate where the borders are drawn, creating confusion as to where these mines were laid.” <>
“ The U.S. government recommends not traveling to this area due to the political instability and the existence of land mines. For these reasons potential climbers should go only to the area with reputable local companies and be accompanied at all times by local guides. The specific climbing area described here has no reports of mines, but climbers should be aware of potential dangers in the region. Independent travel to this region is strongly discouraged, but a well-organized expedition can safely visit the granite walls of the Karavshin. In 2003 Czech climbers visited the region and had no problems.” <>
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Kyrgyzstan Tourism website, Kyrgyzstan government websites, Wikitravel, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020