Early-season trekking to Chapdarkul and Turumtaykul
The Pamirs are among the most impressive destinations for ultra-high trekking expeditions. Most hiking trails in the Pamir Mountains are unfortunately covered by snow most of the year. When summer approaches and temperatures rise, we are – like many – eager to hit the trails as quickly as possible. The early season may still be very snowy and comes with extra challenges on top of the already tough trekking conditions under normal circumstances. We hit the trail in spring to visit the lakes of Chapdarkul and Turumtaykul and got rewarded with amazing icy views and mesmerizing landscapes. Keep on reading if you are planning to trek the Pamir Mountains in the spring season.
Like most ultra-high trekking destinations, most hiking routes in the Pamir Mountains are impossible to complete most of the year due to snow and extremely rough weather conditions. The precise moment when hiking trails become passable again is always difficult to predict. The timing of snowfall and the subsequent melting down varies from year to year in the high mountains. Spring 2021 brought lots of snow. Even the lower-situated valleys along the Panj river were covered by substantial amounts of snow all the way into April.
Now we are in the beginning of June and we decide to give it a shot. Shuhrat bought new equipment and fresh provisions and I have outlined a nice route. The plan is to go trekking two weeks and visit the lakes of Chapdarkul, Zarojkul and Turumtaykul. With the amount of hiking activity being low to non-existent due to corona, up-to-date information on the conditions in the mountains is scarce. No one knows how far (i.e. high) we can get without specialized equipment. Only one thing is sure: an adventure is lying ahead of us.
After a 15 hour car drive from Dushanbe, we arrive in Khorog. Temperatures are pleasantly warm and not reveal anything yet of what is awaiting us. A genuine summer vibe is hanging around on the streets and parks of Khorog. The small capital of the Pamir is always a nice place to relax and prepare for further travelling. After a rest day in Khorog, a drive of about 6 hours brings us to the tiny settlement of Bulunkul – officially the coldest town in Tajikistan at an altitude of 3800 meters with temperatures dropping down to -40˚C in winter. The weather conditions in June are luckily not that terrible with a pleasantly warm – and very powerful – sun. Bulunkul only consists of only a few tens of houses, but its surroundings do have nice things to offer. We take on day rest to go fishing, check out some of the hot springs and prepare to start the real trekking the next day.
The first point of attention when trekking in spring are the rivers. Huge river run-off brings the water level very high as snow and ice are melting off. River levels drop throughout the season. Rivers north of Yashilkul are normally passable in the late season. The waist-high water levels now make it an absolute a no-go. Instead, we choose the car path at the south of Yashilkul as our entry point to the desolate mountains in the west. The road is scenic with at all times a nice overlook over Yashilkul and turns into a hiking trail at the end of the lake.
As the days follow, we come across several locals and shepherds along the way up. Each of them tells us the same: Chapdarkul is frozen and impassable. Beyond a doubt, local people are the most reliable source of information. Still... We are one day away from the climb to Chapdarkul, so we head on to check out how far we get anyhow.
At 3900 meters, the first serious snow fields start. Still, doable though. As we climb higher, the walking becomes more and more difficult. All north facing flanks are covered by a meter of snow. We sink down into the snow until the knees, and sometimes even deeper. Ice water fills up our boots. Getting higher up in the 4000s, we find ourselves in a winter wonderland. Crawling is a better description for our way of locomotion when we reach the point of giving up and returning. Then, like a mirage in the desert, we spot a flat piece of ground free of snow. Not having the power to mull over the fact how this can be, we rush to the spot to check it out.
We manage to fit exactly one tent into the spot. The GPS tells us we are at an altitude of 4550 meters. Sleeping together in one tent is a better idea anyhow at these altitude. We wake up in the morning with ice on the sleeping bags. Looking outside, we see a burning sun and snow already softening. The conclusion is quickly made that going to Zarojkul is impossible. Walking through the soft snow yesterday was highly tiring and uncomfortable. We do not want to repeat this. What lies behind Chapdarkul is unknown and we agree that going the same way back is the only option. We decide to take a rest day to get up the next day early – very early. The campsite is one of the most special places we have ever had for a rest day. Just the cooking costs some more effort as our only source of water is to melt snow.
We get up at 04:30, temperatures are close to freezing and the snow is hard. We quickly break down the tent and pack our bags. At 05:00, we quickly start walking down. The experience is completely different. Where it took us more than 4 hours to move up to the camp site, the way down not even lasts an hour. We never appreciated that much before to feel a normal trail again below the feet. We spot foot steps of wolfs all the way down to the shepherd camp at the base. They indeed confirm that last night they were assaulted by wolfs and lost two sheep in the act. We continue very down to set up our camp site at 3800 meters – it feels like a low mountain. We take advantage and make a campfire to enjoy the evening.
The next days bring us first along the Gund river to Bachor and after we take an old jeep (or rather a museum piece) dating far back into the Soviet times to reach the village of Jelondy. Bachor and Jelondy have normal accommodations – a roof above our heads is highly welcome after the hardship in the snow. We relax at Jelondy, which has some great hot springs. Because the trip to Chapdarkul was so difficult, we wonder if we should even try at all to go to Turumtaykul...
Revigorated by the soothing hot spring water, we decide to go for it and simply return when it gets too difficult. We have not even left the boundaries of Jelondy as various locals already warn that Turumtaykul is still covered by ice and unreachable. With the trust on a successful outcome brought down, we stubbornly start hiking anyway.
Starting at 3600 meters, the first part passes like a breeze. We pass the boundary of 4000 meters and still no problem. Our hopes go up until we encounter two local boys in the afternoon. The guys are spending their free day also attempting to reach the lake. Without success though... And indeed, then it starts – the damned snow fields. The first few steps onto the snow directly brings us ankle-deep into icy waters. We know: this ain't gonna happen today.
The same trick as in Chapdarkul then plays in our minds: getting up early when the snow is still hard. One caveat though for this trek: the hard part is not over after getting over the first pass. A second part awaits after Turumtaykul at 4300 meters that needs to be crossed to get to the inhabited valley to the south. We take the radical decision to set up camp and get up the next day at 03:00.
The alarm sounds. Darkness still immerses the tent and the stars twinkle brightly. We get up quickly and follow the same routine as at Chapdarkul. The snow is rock solid and we climb up the pass. After one hour, we reach the top and are rewarded with a great view over a frozen Turumtaykul. It feels like a victory! The way down over the south slope is much easier, as it is free of snow. Melt water does turn the slope overnight into an icy slippery surface, but nothing too bad.
After crossing a river at around 07:00, we directly head to the second mountain pass of the day. We waste no time to take the most advantage of the hard snow conditions. The mountain pass south of Turumtaykul leading to Javshangoz is a gently-sloping ascent and poses no serious challenges. As soon as we drop below 4000 meters going down through the valley on the other side, we feel that we finally entered the safe zone again and pitch our tents. The next day is an easy hike down to Javshangoz with nice views on the Karl Marx and Engels peaks.
Like Bulunkul, Javshangoz is a remote village at the end of the world. With a relentless sun and incessantly tormented by hurricane-force wind gusts, Javshangoz is quite an unpitying place to live. Cars back to Roshtqal'a and Khorog are not running on a daily basis. We wait two days before getting on a car. The road is rocky, bumpy and slow. The speed is not promoted as the car runs out of gasoline halfway through – the common problems when travelling in the Pamirs. Gasoline stations are obviously non-existent in the most of the Pamir and we wait several hours for a jerry can to save us. In total 8 hours pass until we have covered the 80 km back to Roshtqal'a. From Roshtqal'a, returning to Khorog and Dushanbe is easily arranged.
A safe end conclusion is that trekking in the Pamir in the early season in May and June is a true challenge. Trails are still hidden under the snow and icy. Making your way through snow fields can be extremely tiring – if hiking at 4000 m was not already exhaustive enough. During this trip, we found a clear boundary at about 4100 meters, above which hiking was practically impossible during the day. Specialized equipment for winter hiking could have gotten us further, but would have also meant carrying more weight. Although the physical challenges were harsh, the icy spring landscapes and amazing views are worth it all in the end.