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 -47С, and Karakul -50С; 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.”
Tajik National Park (Mountains of the Pamirs): UNESCO World Heritage Site
Tajikistan National Park covers more than 25,000 square kilometers in eastern Tajikistan and contains the so-called “Pamir Knot”, the meeting place of the highest mountain ranges in Eurasia. It consists of high plateaux in the east and, to the west, rugged peaks, some of them over 7,000 meters high. The longest valley glacier outside the Polar region is located among the 1,085 glaciers counted in the park. There are also 170 rivers and more than 400 lakes. Rich flora species of both the southwestern and central Asian floristic regions grow in the Park which shelters nationally rare and threatened birds and mammals (Marco Polo Argali sheep, Snow Leopards and Siberian Ibex and more). Subject to frequent strong earthquakes, the Park is sparsely inhabited, and virtually unaffected by agriculture and permanent human settlements. It offers a unique opportunity for the study of plate tectonics and subduction phenomena.
Tajik National Park (Mountains of the Pamirs) was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013: According to UNESCO: “Tajik National Park (2,611,674 hectares in area) encompasses almost the entire Pamir Mountains, the third highest mountain ecosystem in the world after the Himalaya and Karakorum Mountains. The Pamir Mountains lie at the center of the ‘Pamir Knot’, the term used by geographers to describe the tangle of the highest mountain ranges on the Eurasian continent. Huge tectonic forces stemming from the collision of the Indian-Australian plate with the Eurasian Plate have progressively thrown up the Himalaya, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Kunlun and Tien Shan — all radiating out from the Pamir Mountains. Along with the Karakoram Mountains, the Pamir region is one of the most tectonically-active locations in the world. [Source: UNESCO]
“Tajik National Park stands out as a very large protected area, with a stark treeless landscape of exceptional natural beauty. The outstanding scenic values are enhanced by the landform juxtaposition of heavily-glaciated high peaks and high plateaux with an alpine desert character. The property contains a number of superlative natural phenomena, including: Fedchenko Glacier (the longest glacier in the world outside of the Polar Regions); Lake Sarez (a very high, deep lake impounded just over a century ago by a severe earthquake which generated a huge landslide forming the Uzoi Dam, the highest natural dam in the world); and Karakul Lake, likely to be the world’s highest large lake of meteoric origin.
“Tajik National Park is one of the largest high mountain protected areas in the Palearctic Realm. The Fedchenko Glacier, the largest valley glacier of the Eurasian Continent, is unique and a spectacular example at the global level. The visual combination of some of the deepest gorges in the world, surrounded by rugged glaciated peaks, as well as the alpine desert and lakes of the Pamir high plateaux adds up to an alpine wilderness of exceptional natural beauty. Lake Sarez and Lake Karakul are superlative natural phenomena. The Pamir Mountains are also a major center of glaciation on the Eurasian continent.”
Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province
Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province is a special region of Tajikistan. Located in the Pamir Mountains, it makes up 45 percent of the land area of the country but only three percent (218,000) of the population (Population of the Republic of Tajikistan as of one January 2008, State Statistical Committee, Dushanbe, 2008). [Source: Igor Rotar, Jamestown Foundation, Publication: Volume: three Issue: 7. July 30, 2012]
The Mountanous Badakhshan Autonomous District or GBAO was established in January 1925 by the decree of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR. GBAO borders with Kyrgyzstan in the North, with China in the East, and with Afghanistan in the Southwest. The area of the region is 64,200 square kilometers (or 44.5 percent of the territory of Tajikistan). There are seven districts, and one municipal center — Khorog. Administratively GBAO is divided into: Khorog town, and districts of Darvaz, Vanj, Rushan, Shugnan, Roshtkala, Ishkashim and Murghab.
Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in the Pamirs “is the least-developed part of the country, totally dependent on external supplies delivered via two seasonal roads. Badakhshan is characterised by appalling unemployment rates and the lowest standard of living. Amazingly, such basic foods as potato and cabbage were only introduced to the Pamirs in 1938, and 10 years later people still wore homespun clothes. On the other hand, the ratio of people with a college education amongst the Pamiris was the highest in Tajikistan at the end of the Soviet era: 124 per 1000 employed, compared with 100 in Leninobod and 66 in Qurghonteppa. In the postwar period these graduates could not find jobs according to their specialisation in their place of birth and moved to major urban centres of the republic. Progressively, the Pamiris formed a sizeable stratum of Tajikistan’s ‘prestige elite’—that is, writers, artists, scholars, and so on. By 1991, 180 000 Pamiris lived and worked outside the GBAO—more than that oblast’s actual population. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]
Pamiri Tajiks and People in the Pamirs
Around 210,000 people live in the Gorno-Badakhshan region in Tajikistan. About 95 percent of them are Pamiri Tajiks (also known as Pamiris, or Pamirians, or Pamirian Tajiks). There are a few Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Russians. There are also some Pamiri Tajiks in Afghanistan, western China and Pakistan. The Gorno-Badakhshan region embraces most of the Pamirs. It accounts for 45 percent of Tajikistan’s territory but is home to only three percent of its people. The largely Shiite inhabitants of the Pamir mountains speak a number of mutually unintelligible eastern Iranian dialects quite distinct from the Tajik spoken in the rest of the country. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]
Pamir ethnic groups essentially differ from Tajiks. There are several dialects of the Pamir language and almost all Pamir people adhere to the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam. Pamiri people are not strong believers. There are no Islamic radicals among them. The Pamiris have close linguistic, cultural and religious ties with the people in the Badakhshan Province of Afghanistan.
Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote:“The Pamiris have always differed from other Tajiks in important cultural characteristics, such as language, religion and stronger familial affiliation. Their languages and dialects belong to the Eastern Iranian language group as opposed to the Western Iranian Tajik. The majority of Pamiris adhere to the Ismaili sect of Shiism whilst the bulk of valley and mountain Tajiks are Sunnis. All eight Pamiri sub-ethnic groups retain potent self-consciousness and can identify themselves on at least three levels: by their primary cultural name—for example, rykhen, zgamik, khik and so on—when dealing with one another; by their collective name, pomiri (Pamiri), when interacting with other groups in Tajikistan; and, finally, as Tajiks when outside the republic. In the 1980s, the official line of the Tajik leadership denied the Pamiris their cultural uniqueness: ‘the Pamiris are Tajiks by descent and their languages are nothing more than dialects of Tajik.’ [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]
The Pamiri Tajiks have developed a distinct culture due to their isolation in the mountains. The dialects they speak vary greatly from valley to valley and are often as different from one another as Spanish is from French. Although related to Tajik the Pamari languages often have more in common with ancient Iranian languages like Sogdian, Bactrian and Saka than they do mordern Tajik. Because the languages and dialects are so different from one another and from Tajik, the Dari language of Afghanistan and the Western Iranian Farsi of India often serve as lingua francas. The Pamiris are united most by belief in the Ismaili sect of Islam — a branch of Shiite Islam — and their hospitality.
Among the Pamiri groups that live in the Gorno-Badakshan groups are Shugnans, Rushans, Bartangs, Orshors, Yazgulems, Ishkashims and Vakhans. The main Pamiri Tajiks groups are 1) the Rushan-Shugnan (numbering around 50,000), who live mainly on the tributaries eat of the Pyandj River and includes the Bartangs near the Bartang River; 2) the Rushans or Rukni (15,000); and 3) Wakhan (9,000), who live in the highest pasture of the Pamirs. Yaghnobis which populate Yagnob and Varzob river valleys live separately.
Politics in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province
Igor Rotar of the Jamestown Foundation wrote: “During the civil war in Tajikistan (1992-97), the Pamiris supported the opposition. But due to the remoteness and inaccessibility of the Pamirs (the region is connected with other parts of Tajikistan by only one road), the government troops could not reach Gorno-Badakshan. So, this war is the first conflict to occur in Pamirs in the post-Soviet era. [Source:Igor Rotar, Jamestown Foundation, Publication: Volume: three Issue: 7. July 30, 2012]
“Since the Pamir is connected with the other regions of Tajikistan only by one road passing through the remote, hard-to-reach, mountainous region, Pamir fighters can easily block it and cut off the region from Tajikistan. The situation is also complicated by the fact that the militants may hope for the help from Afghan Ismailis. According to the Ferghana news agency, now on the Afghan side of the mountain Badakhshan, one may watch groups of about 200 fighters who are ready to help their co-religionists in the Tajik Pamir (Ferghananews.com, July 25).
Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: ““The ancient consanguinal commune with its patrilineal and patrilocal characteristics—natural economy, cult of ancestors, even blood feuds—has survived in the Pamirs. There used to be a joke in Tajikistan to the effect that if communism were ever to be built in the USSR, it would happen in Badakhshan as commodity-market relations were virtually unknown there. Trade was a rather disfavoured occupation there, and when in the 1970s a market was finally opened in Khorog, there was not a single local amongst the vendors. Family solidarity amongst Pamiris, and the stereotype it spawned, is exceptional even in the context of Tajikistan; for them, there is nothing inherently bad in nepotism. As an example, there was a case in 1975 when a certain Mahmadakov had managed to plant all 16 of his children in various scientific institutions throughout the republic.”[Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013]’
“Although the republican authorities paid lip-service to the necessity of the accelerated development of the GBAO, in reality nothing was being done and the region, with 0.03 per cent of Tajikistan’s total material production, was constantly on the brink of survival. Since the early 1970s, the Pamiri elite strove to upgrade the region to the status of an autonomous republic in an attempt to change the situation, but to no avail. Even worse, by 1980 all leading positions in the region had been occupied by people from the north—a situation that made an important visitor from Moscow exclaim: ‘What is this invasion of Leninobodis during the Tenth five-year plan all about?’
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.
Ismoili Somoni Peak: the Highest Mountain in the Pamirs
Ismoili Somoni Peak is the highest peak in the Pamirs and in the former Soviet Union, at 7,495 meters ((24,590 feet,, Formerly known as Mount Communism or Pik Kommunizma, it was was renamed Ismoili Somoni Peak in 2000 in honour of the 10th century founder of the first Tajik State. The peak was discovered in 1928 during a Soviet-German research. For some time it was called Stalin Peak. It was renamed Communism Peak in 1962. The summit of Ismoili Somoni Peak was reached the first time in 1933 by E. Abalakov and a group from the Tajik-Pamir research expedition via the Bivachny glacier in 1933. Until 1962 Soviet mountaineers were the only ones who had made the summit. Englishmen were the first foreigners to climb it.
According to Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “The best way for tourists and mountaineers to get to the peak area is by a 30 — 40 minute helicopter flight from Jirgatol airport. Tourists are transported to the village by vehicle or by air from Dushanbe. The most convenient places for high-altitude expedition bases are in the upper reaches of the Fortambek glacier. These are the Suloev and Moskvin glades, which lead to relatively simple and safe routes to the nearest and highest peaks in the Pamirs — Ismoili Somoni Peak and Korzhenevskaya Peak (7,105 meters). The Suloev glade is located 4,100 meters above sea level, in the pocket of the left moraine of the Turamys glacier (source of the Fortambek glacier). A medical and biological expedition of the Tajik SSR’s Academy of Sciences, which studied the problems of the adaptation of living organisms to the alpine conditions, worked on the Suloev glade in 1971 — 1977 and established two permanent houses. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]
“Mountain climbers from the “Stormy Petrel” sports society established a reasonably simple way of climbing to the Pamiri glacier snow plateau (a fairly even 12 kilometers plateau at a height of 6,000 meters) and further to Ismoili Somoni Peak along the one of the mountain ridges. Since that time it has been known as “Stormy Petrel’s ridge”. In the 1980s, a shorter route to the Pamir glacier snow plateau was established from the Walter glacier along “Borodkin’s ridge”, and the mountaineers’ center slowly moved to another glade: the Moskvin, where the Alp-Navruz base camp is now located. The camp is situated in a sub-alpine zone 4,200 meters above sea level, on the eastern terrace at the junction of Walter and Moskvin glaciers (eastern tributaries of the Fortambek glacier), and it is the most convenient starting point for climbing Ismoili Somoni Peak and Korzhenevskaya Peak because of the ease of access to it. The glade near the Moskvin glacier (total area of about 10 hectares) is fairly safe from rock falls or avalanches.
“There is a small spring-water lake on the Moskvin glade, four two-bed, shielded, warmed tents where the camp administration is located during the seasonal period, 11 two-bed houses made of wood and aluminium for mountaineers and tourists, a communication center, a canteen, a shower, a sauna and other facilities. When necessary, tarpaulin tents are set up here. The main source of electric power on the Moskvin glade is a diesel generator. Natural gas provides heat for cooking. Iron tanks with diesel fuel and containers with natural gas are delivered by helicopter from Dushanbe. There is also a convenient helicopter landing-ground here.
Getting There: Location: Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Jirgatol district. Junction of the Academy of Sciences and the Peter I mountain ranges, In the northwest part of thePamirs. by helicopter from Dushanbe or Jirgatol, by car to Devshar village in Jirgatol district and then on foot. At present there are two ways of delivering people, shipments, and food to Moskvin glade: by helicopter from Dushanbe (flight time — 1.5 hours each way) or a 350 kilometers drive to the east of the capital, along the Vakhsh, Surkhob and Muksu rivers as far as Depshar (near Jirgatol), and then a 7-day walk to the final destination — through four mountain passes (Belkandov, Irgay, Tamosha and Kuray Shapak) along the northern ridge of the Peter I range, accompanied by porters specially trained in mountain conditions. At present, the camp functions on the Moskvin glade for only two to three months (July-September). The rest of the time it is not operational due to the difficulty of access and severe climate conditions (freezing temperatures, wind, snow, and altitude)..
Fedchenko Glacier is the longest glacier in the world outside of the polar regions. Situated in the Yazgulem Range of Pamir Mountains in north-central Gorno-Badakhshan province, it holds more water than the Aral Sea and offers some of the most spectacular Alpine scenery in the world but is difficult to get to.
The Fedchenko glacier is long and narrow. Vurrently it is 77 kilometers (48 miles) long and covers over 700 square kilometers (270 sqare miles). The maximum thickness of the glacier is 1,000 meters (3,300 ft), and the volume of the Fedchenko and its dozens of tributaries is estimated at 144 cubic kilometers (35 cubic miles)—about a third the volume of Lake Erie. [Source: Wikipedia]
The glacier follows a generally northward path to the east of the 6,595 m (21,637 ft) Garmo Peak. The glacier begins at an elevation of 6,200 meters (20,300 ft) above sea level, and eventually melts and empties into the Balandkiik River near the border with Kyrgyzstan at an elevation of 2,909 meters (9,544 ft). Its waters eventually feed down the Muksu, Surkhob, Vakhsh, and Amu Darya rivers into the Aral Sea. To the west is the Academy of Sciences Range, Mount Garmo, Ismoil Somoni Peak, Peak Korzhenevskaya and the headwaters of the Vanj River and Yazgulyam River. To the south is Independence Peak and to the east Gorbunov Peak (6,025 meters). To the north is Altyn Mazar.
The glacier was discovered in 1878 but not fully explored until 1928 by a German-Soviet expedition under Willi Rickmer Rickmers. It is named after Alexei Pavlovich Fedchenko, a Russian explorer (but not discoverer of the glacier). In 1910-1913 the glacier expanded and moved forward by 800–1000 meters, blocking up the Balyandlik River the following year. It continued to recede between 1928-1960, stopping its inflows such as the Kosinenko, Ulugbeck, Alert and several others.
Other very long glaciers include the Siachen Glacier (76 kilometers long), the Biafo Glacier (67 kilometers long), and the Baltoro glacier (63 kilometers long) in the Karakoram Mountains; The Bruggen or Pio XI Glacier (66 kilometers long) in southern Chile; and the South Inylchek (Enylchek) Glacier (60.5 kilometers long) in Kyrgyzstan.
Lake Sarez (on central-western Tajikistan in the middle of Badakhshan National Park, 150 kilometers northeast of Khorog) is a 500-meter-deep Alpine lake that occupies and area about half the size of Lake Geneva. Located at an elevation of 3,265 meters, it was created in the winter of 1911 by an earthquake that dislodged an entire mountain side (an estimated six billion tons of material), creating a 60-meter-high natural dam composed of rocks and earth that blocked the Mugrab river, a major tributary of the river Amu Darya. .
Sarez Lake is a stunning lake with very cold, bluish-green water but is regarded as a “sleeping dragon.” It stretches for almost 55 kilometers long, has an average width of 1.5 kilometers (maximum width 3.3 kilometers) and covers about 80 square kilometers. The temperature of the water is 4-6ºC. Despite these temperature there are people that swim by the lake’s shallow sun-warmed bays is the summer time. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]
The dam that blocks the Mugrab River and creates the lake is called Usoy Dam. From the bottom of the lake it is about 570 meters, with an average height of about 67 meters above the water. It is about five kilometers long and has an average width of 3.2 kilometers. The six billion tons of material that slid off the mountain now comprise this dam. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]
According to the Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “There is about 17 cubic kilometers of fresh water in the lake. Small streams filter underneath the Usoy dam and form a river as they join together. After several kilometers it joins the Kudara River, after which it is called the Bartang River, which flows into the Panj River. From Sarez to Panj the Bartang flows along the narrow crack of a stone valley. It flows roughly and fast, carrying millions of tons of sand, mud and anything else that can be carried. The depth of the valley in some places reaches one and half kilometers. Stone scree cover the valley’s slopes.
Getting There and Visiting the Lake: Sarez Lake is located in the upper part of the Bartang Valley in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. It can be reached helicopter, rented car or on foot. Visiting the lake via the Bartang Valley requires permission from the Ministry of Emergencies and Civil Defence of Tajikistan. It is best to visit the lake with a reputable travel agency since there is little infrastructure in the area and there are risks traveling the Lake Sarez area.
Creation of Lake Sarez
In February 1911 a huge earthquake in the center of the Pamirs caused a massive landslide that blocked the Murghob River. A huge part of the Muzkol slope collapsed and buried Usoy village while people were sleeping. Around 90 inhabitants of the village were killed, probably without ever realizing what had happened. The obstruction in the river caused a lake to form, which after about a year flooded Sarez village. The natural barrier that block the lake was called Usoy dam after the buried village. The lake was named Sarez after the flooded village. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]
According to UNESCO: Lake Sarez is a very high, deep lake impounded just over a century ago by a severe earthquake which generated a huge landslide forming the Uzoi Dam, the highest natural dam in the world. It was created by an earthquake-generated landslide of an estimated six billion tonnes of material and is possibly the youngest deep water alpine lake in the world. It is of international scientific and geomorphological hazard significance because of the on-going geological processes influencing its stability, and the sort of lacustrine ecosystem which will develop over time.
Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas wrote in “Tajikistan and the High Pamirs”: “The 1911 Sarez earthquake, estimated at 6.5-7.0 on the Richter scale, occurred about midnight, 5–6 February 1911 (old style). Deaths were estimated at 302. The landslide was 2.2 billion cubic meters and formed the Usoi Dam which is approx. five kilometers long, 3.2 kilometers wide and up to 567m high, the tallest natural dam in the world. Usoi was a village buried under the landslide...The area was so isolated and the destruction of mountain tracks so complete that it took six weeks before word reached the Russian posts at Murghab and Khorog. [Source: Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas, Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, Odyssey, 2008]
Lake Sarez Catastrophic Dangers
Earthquakes are fairly common in the Lake Sarez area. There are concerns that a large one could cause the natural dam to break up, causing a catastrophic flood resulting from water suddenly emptying from the lake. Such a flood would likely produce a 30-meter-high wave that would sweep through Tajikistan into Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, obliterating everything in its path, sweeping away entire villages and towns, causing the death and destruction on a Biblical scale and possibly producing one of the worst floods in the history of mankind.
According to the Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “The formation of the lake brought with it several problems. The main one is the possibility of the Usoy dam breaking or the lake spilling over. If that were to happen, billons of tons of water could wash everything out of the way below the dam — not only along Bartang but also Panj and Amu Darya valleys as well. To prevent such a possible catastrophe, the idea was suggested of discharging water in the lake and using it for irrigation or power production in Central Asia. [Source:Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]
“Others think that the Usoy dam is a natural, stable formation, and there is no reason to fear its collapse. Numerous specialized expeditions were organized during the Soviet period to study the problem. In the 1950s an expedition Room the Academy of Sciences of the USSR visited the lake to look for the legendary Yeti. Various hypotheses and scenarios, both optimistic and pessimistic, were made as a result of research, and various projects developed. However, the specialists could not come to a consensus on the issue. Taking into account the contradictory results of research, the Tajik government appealed to the world community with a request for assistance in solving the Lake Sarez problem.
Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas wrote in “Tajikistan and the High Pamirs”: “In 1968 a landslide caused two-meter-high waves in the lake. A 1997 conference in Dushanbe concluded that the dam was unstable and might collapse if there were another powerful earthquake. A 2004 study by the World Bank held that the dam was stable. The principal danger seems to be a partially detached mass of rock of about 3 cubic kilometers that could break loose and fall into the lake. Since the valley below the dam is so narrow, any flood would be very destructive. The result of a global risk analysis carried out by Stucky for the World Bank was presented at the 2002 IAHR Symposium in St Petersburg and at the 2006 International Congress on Large Dams in Barcelona. [Source: Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas, Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, Odyssey, 2008]
Since 2000 an international Lake Sarez risk mitigation project has been implemented. The project envisions setting up monitoring and early-warning systems to minimize the potentially disasterous consequences if the Usoy dam were to break, and preparing and training the population living in the settlements along Lake Sarez in case of any other emergency situations. In summer 2004, divers went down into Lake Sarez and investigated parts of the dam. It is possible to reach the lake by a charter helicopter or to go by car to the Barchadiv village in Bartang Valley and then on foot, or from Langar through Langar pass (4,620 meters), also on foot, to reach the upper Ghunt River, and then to Irkht bay on Lake Sarez.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan (traveltajikistan.tj), Tajikistan government websites, 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