Pamir Mountains

The Pamir Mountains are one of those mind-blowing places designed for the true adventure seekers. The secluded mountain range is the highest region of Tajikistan and offers amazing trekking routes at altitudes above 4000 meters. If it cannot get high enough for you, then the Pamir Mountains are not to be missed. Traveling to the remote Pamirs is not straightforward, but entirely worth the effort. Both the nature and culture of the region are unique and make for a one-of-a-kind travel experience. Continue reading to get an impression of the culture, nature and history of the Pamir Mountains.

Lake Yashilkul in the Pamir Mountains

Roof of the world

When talking about the Roof of the World, old encyclopedias from the 19th and early 20th century consistently refer to the Pamirs. And for a good reason! Ismoil Somoni Peak is with 7.495 meters above sea level the highest point of Tajikistan and among the highest peaks of the world. Other mountain giants in the Pamir Mountains are Ibn Sina Peak (7.134 m), Korzhenevskoi Peak (7.105 m) and the Independence Peak (6.940 m). Beside, the Pamirs are home to dozens more peaks above 6.000 meters. Most of the highest summits are grouped together in the northwest of the Pamirs, being commonly referred to as the Academy of Sciences Range. The Pamir Mountains started to develop at the onset of the Alpine orogeny about 60 million years ago and continue to build up. The Pamirs have been a renowned finding place for rubies and lapis lazuli (a semi-precious blue metamorphic rock) since antiquity.

Glaciers play an important role in sculpting and shaping the Pamirian landscape. As a matter of fact, the word ‘Pamir’ is a local geological term for the wide valley that is left behind after a glacier melts away. This typically leaves a plateau with grasslands bordered by steep mountains – a typical landscape in the Pamir Mountains. Fedchenko glacier is presently the largest of all, and with a length of 77 km, it is even the longest glacier outside the polar circles. The ice mass of Fedchenko glacier and most other glaciers in the core of the Pamirs has remained relatively stable throughout the years, so far having managed to withstand global warming. Elsewhere in the Pamir Mountains, the retreat of glacial ice masses unfortunately is stronger.

Wide valley with a stone building and snowy mountains in the back with Karl Marx and Engels peaks
Sky-high snow-capped peaks can found everywhere in the Pamirs. This picture features Karl Marx peak (6.723 m) and Engels peak (6.510 m) in the background on the left. 
Hiker in a wide rocky valley the Pamir Mountains
The landscape in the Pamir Mountains is shaped by the forces of water and ice.

Nature, climate and wildlife

The continental climate of the Pamir Mountains is most of the year cold and arid. Winters are harsh and unforgiving with ice cold temperatures starting in November and lasting until March. Summers are pleasant with temperatures around 20˚C from May through September. Annual precipitation is on the low side throughout the year, as characteristic for the entirety of Central Asia. The mild temperatures and lack of rainfall in summer make for pleasant trekking conditions.

The harsh climate of the Pamirs has its direct reflection on the vegetation and wildlife. Plant growth is generally limited to resilient shrubs and grasses. Only the lower-lying valleys in the west have more prolific vegetation, which makes them very photogenic and picturesque with the mighty rock faces on either side. Traveling through the higher Pamirs is mostly a journey through vast, desolate and barren landscapes. 

Being only thinly populated, the Pamir Mountains open up living space for a variety of animal species. Living in the relentless conditions of the Pamirs is only reserved for the toughest of the animal kingdom that are fully adapted to surviving in the high mountains. Wildlife that can be encountered in the Pamir Mountains include brown bears, wolves, marmots and grazers like Marco Polo sheep (endemic to the Pamirs) and markhor, which are a goat species with large screw horns. Arguably the most special inhabitant is the snow leopard. The Pamirs are host to a population of a few hundred snow leopards, making them difficult to actually spot.

Snowy landscape with snowfields and snow-capped peaks in the Pamir Mountains
The Pamir Mountains are covered by snow at the highest altitudes for most of the year. This picture was taken during an expedition early June at approximately 4200 meters height.

Highlights of the Pamirs

A visit to the Pamirs gives the opportunity to witness a long list of wonderful places. It is no wonder that large parts of Pamir Mountains are within a national park that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2013. The infrastructure is limited though, with the only main road through the Pamirs being the M41 highway. It is colloquially referred to as the Pamir Highway and is the second highest international highway of the world, reaching its highest point at the Ak-Baikal Pass at 4.655 meters. Traveling the entire Pamir Highway requires several days and is an experience on itself.

For being so impassable, most natural beauties of the Pamir Mountains have been well-preserved and remained untouched. One of the absolute highlights of the Pamir Mountains is Lake Sarez. Lake Sarez formed in the year 1911 after a huge landslide created a natural dam in a valley in the central Pamirs. In this disastrous event, causing the death of many people, a small river quickly developed into an enormous long-stretching reservoir. The huge Udoi dam is with a height of 567 meters currently even the tallest dam in the entire world. Lake Sarez is highly secluded and cannot be visited without undertaking a long expedition.

Lake Sarez is not the largest lake in the Pamir Mountains. This honor goes to Karakul Lake located in the far northeast. With a maximum width of 52 km, Karakul is even the largest lake in Central Asia. The lake lies in an impact crater of a massive meteorite that struck some 3 to 20 million years ago. The eastern part of the Pamirs is an attraction on its own. The base level lies at a staggering 4.000 meters. Because of the great altitude, the landscape is completely barren giving free rein to the elements. Murghab – with 4.000 inhabitants the main city in the east – is an excellent base to explore this desolate region.

Pamir Highway along the Panj River on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan
The unpaved Pamir Highway visible on the right side of the image runs for several 100 kilometers along the bank of the Panj River. The Panj forms the border between Tajikistan on the right and Afghanistan on the left.
Old jeep next to a building on the Pamir Highway with two schoolboys walking
The Pamir Highway gradually climbs up to more desolate landscapes further to the east.

History of the Pamirs

The Pamir Mountains are a unique region with its own culture and historical evolution. The cultural extent of the Pamirs is not limited only to the Gorno-Badakhshan province of Tajikistan, but also stretches out to minor parts of Afghanistan and China, covering altogether the historic region of Badakhshan. The oldest known records of the Badakhshan region go back thousands of years. In antiquity, the region functioned as an important trading center: transport routes of the silk road passed through the Pamirs and lapis lazuli was exported already more than 5000 years ago. Through the years, Badakhshan has been controlled by many different emperors, kings and nobles (‘mirs’ in islamic tradition). 

From the late 19th century onward, the Pamirs got involved in territorial disputes between the United Kingdom and the Russian Empire. Eventually, the historic Badakhshan region ended up divided between Afghanistan and the Russian controlled territories with the Panj river as an important natural border. The part controlled by the Russian Empire became known as Gorno-Badakhshan in 1925. In 1929, the Soviet Union attached it as the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) to the newly created Tajik SSR. 

Soon after the independence of the Tajikistan from the Soviet Union in 1992, the Tajik Civil War started following unrest between local leaders in Gorno-Badakhshan and the government seated in Dushanbe. The civil war was sparked as the Tajik government intervened to suppress anti-government protests. During the civil war that eventually lasted five years, ten thousands of people were killed while many others lost their homes. An armistice made an end to the war in 1997 to return peace, which has remained since then. The war left deep traces in the memory of the Pamiris and a country in disarray. Only with peace returned, the focus could be shifted to the build-up of the country to finally become an overall stable and safe place.

Map of Tajikistan in Central Asia with the location of the Fann and Pamir Mountains indicated
The Pamir Mountains cover the eastern half of Tajikistan

Pamir people

The inhospitable mountain ranges of the Pamirs are only thinly populated. The Pamir Mountains are located in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), which covers almost half of the entire land area of Tajikistan. Nevertheless, the total population is a mere 230.000, equaling to only about 2.5% of the Tajik population. Most people live in the outmost west and southwest along the Panj river, with Khorog being the largest city and capital of Gorno-Badakhshan with 30.000 inhabitants.

The Pamir Mountains are a unique region distinct from the rest of Tajikistan when it comes to languages, cultural habits and religion. Cultural and linguistic variations exist even on a local level across the Pamirs. Clothing styles change visibly as you move your way through the region. Many local cultural traditions have managed to withstand the test of time due to the isolation of the Pamiri people in the high mountains.

The predominant religion in the Pamirs is Ismailism. This is a branch of Shia Islam in contrast to the Sunni Islam that predominates in the rest of Tajikistan. Many of the Ismoilites adhere to the Aga Khan – the main religious leader within this branch of Islam. Apart from native Pamiris, communities of Kyrgyz people live in the east of the Gorno-Badakhshan province.

Judo championships in the Pamirs during Navruz festivities
Sports competitions – here judo – are held in the Pamir Mountains as part of the Navruz (Persian New Year) festivities. Judo is one of the most popular sports.

Pamir languages

The cultural diversity of the Pamir Mountains comes with a dozen of local languages. The Pamir languages fall within the Iranian language group together with Persian and Tajik. Despite a certain degree of similarity, the Pamir languages and Tajik belong to different linguistic sub-groups and are not mutually intelligible. The Pamir languages are spoken not only in Tajikistan, but also by communities in the northeastern Badakhshan province of Afghanistan and the far west of China. In total, approximately 100.000 people are native speakers of a Pamir language. 

The Pamirian languages mostly have a spoken use, while Tajik is used as written language on schools and for governmental affairs throughout the Gorno-Badakhshan province. Most people in the Pamir Mountains are bi- or trilingual, speaking a local Pamir language, Tajik and often Russian. Among the Pamir languages, a considerable deal of variation exists, which can be noticeable even between adjacent valleys. The high mountain ranges form natural barriers that allowed communities to persist for long times in relative seclusion from one another and languages and dialects to diverge over time. Shughnan and Rushani are the most widely spoken Pamir languages, in particular along the Panj river and in the capital of Khorog.

View over Khorog - capital of the Pamir - between the mountains
View over Khorog – the capital of the GBAO and the biggest city in the Pamir Mountains

Trekking

The spectacular sights and vast nature of the Pamir Mountains provide the ideal ingredients for great trekking expeditions. There are few trekking destinations that are more remote than the Pamirs. While the local village life can be experienced in some of the more fertile valleys, most of the Pamir nature has been left untouched. Prepare for walking for days through spectacular landscapes without encountering any signs of civilization. Find yourself exposed to the elements while camping on the roof of the world. Trekking at altitudes between 4000 and 5000 meter is challenging yet comes with unforgettable experiences.

Two tents on a camp site in a valley in the Pamir Mountains
Camping in the remote Pamir Mountain during a trek is a unique experience

Reaching the remote Pamir Mountains is no easy task. Only two decent entry roads connect the outside world to the Pamirs: one coming from Dushanbe and one from Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Other ways out from the Pamirs are highly impassable because they lead through the extremely high and rugged terrain that characterizes the rest of the border area. To China and Afghanistan, there are only a few very rough roads that are very difficult to pass. When landing in Dushanbe, be prepared for a drive by car of more than 500 km that will take at least 16 hours over bad roads to get to the Pamirs.

Best time to travel

The Pamir Mountains are an extreme region in many ways – the area is sky-high and the climate is unforgiving. For that reason, the time frame for trekking expeditions is rather short. Generally, the trekking season in the Pamirs runs from July to September. Before July, there can still be a lot of snow on the trails and water levels are high due to melt water discharge. The high water can make it hard or even impossible to cross rivers that often do not have bridges in the most remote parts.

After September, days get shorter and the cold starts to kick in. Trekking is still possible throughout October and sometimes even November, but you will be spending most of the day in your sleeping bag sheltering from the cold. Precipitation and rain seasons do not play much of a role for the best travel time. Not much rain reaches the high desert plateau of the Pamirs. 

For any questions regarding trekking in the Pamir Mountains, do not hesitate to contact us!