Ultimate guide to trekking in Tajikistan
Trekking through the high mountains of Tajikistan is a unique and unforgettable adventure. Traversing the breathtaking landscapes is something any trekking adept needs to experience. At the same time, trekking in extreme conditions through touristically under-developed regions comes with particular challenges. Trails are not indicated, public transport to the mountains is lacking and accommodation options are limited. Traveling to the end of the world under such circumstances requires a proper preparation. This article gives some general information you need to know before setting off on a hiking adventure in the Tajik mountains.
Table of contents
- Road infrastructure
- Hiking trails
- Weather, travel time and clothing
- Camping equipment
- Food and cooking
- Drinking water
- Electronic devices
- Local people
- Final remarks
The first step when going for a trek is of course to get to the start of the trails. Getting deep into the mountains is not that straightforward in Tajikistan. When you depart from Dushanbe, a drive of at least several hours awaits you to reach the nearest treks. For most treks in the Fann Mountains and Zerafshan Range, you are looking at somewhere between 3 to 6 hours. As for the Pamir region, you need to plan at least two days to get to most places as the drive to Khorog – the capital of the region – takes already 16 hours.
The main complicating factor is the absence of public transport going into the mountains. Car rental companies are not common either. Instead, shared cars are the most common option in Tajikistan to travel to places far away. The most remote places in the mountains however are not served by shared cars either. For that reason, a personal driver is required to reach the start of most of the trekking routes. Usually, there are enough people around willing to take tourists to their desired destination with a price being agreed upfront.
The roads near Dushanbe are mostly in a good state. The further you move away, though, the road conditions deteriorate. In the high mountains, a seemingly short drive can turn into bumpy and painfully slow expedition. Such mountain roads typically run through narrow valleys, which makes them vulnerable to road blockings due to landslides and rockfall. You have to take into account the possibility of serious delays because of this as there are often no alternative roads around for a by-pass. You can read more details about the Tajik road infrastructure and transport here.
With hiking trails not being indicated in any way, finding your way through the Tajik mountains can be complex. There are no signs showing you which trail leads whereto. Most trails exist because they are used by local people moving through the mountains and not necessarily by tourists. And the locals obviously do not need any signs to help them finding their way around. Trails are even absent at many places, leaving no choice but to cross scree slopes or snowfields.
A guide can obviously solve all the trail-seeking for you. Otherwise, a good preparation is indispensable to trace your route in advance. For example, you can choose to rely on a mobile application like Maps.Me, which shows many routes and places of interest throughout Tajikistan. Nevertheless, when visiting an area for the first time without prior knowledge, it can turn out that in reality some river crossing on the map is impossible or some 'awesome' camping place is actually not that good. It is best to not plan your trip too tightly when you are planning everything by yourself.
Especially during the early season, there can still be a lot of snow on the trails crossing most mountain passes. Most passes above 3.000 meters generally have considerable amounts of snow throughout May. When you are going to cross large snowfields, it is best to start walking as early as possible. The snow quality is best at night and early in the morning. The top layer is then solid and easy to walk over. Spikes or cleats under your shoes can help tremendously to walk comfortably over icy surfaces.
Throughout the day, the snow tends to become more and more slushy due to the heat of the sun. Crossing snow fields in the (late) afternoon can be extremely arduous and slow with your feet sinking deep into the snow with every step you take.
The Tajik landscape is raw and rugged. Most existing trails though run through wide valleys, so that you stay away from steep dangerous cliffs most of the time. Thanks to the arid climate, there is not much vegetation or muddiness on the trails, which somewhat eases the hiking. Nonetheless, it is nowhere close to a walk in the park as the trails are mostly rocky, narrow and unmaintained. In the end, most routes are not frequented a lot, to put it mildly. Sturdy hiking shoes are indispensable to move swiftly and securely.
The extreme altitudes pose the largest challenge to trekking in Tajikistan. Trails can go up really steep so that you find yourself climbing step by step. Covering an elevation difference of more than thousand meters in a single climb is no exception. The climbs can seem endless at times and require some mental toughness and perseverance. Since trekking in Tajikistan is physically so demanding, you need to make sure that you are in good shape to get the most out of the experience.
River crossings are a usual part of trekking in Tajikistan. In the more inhabited parts of the mountains, there are luckily bridges at most places to make life easier. In the more remote parts, you often have to walk straight through the icy river to get to the other side. Rivers can be pretty wild – as they follows the rugged relief. A stick or hiking pole as support and a fixed look towards the opposite side should mostly get you across safely.
Crossing rivers is more difficult during spring as the discharge of meltwater is higher. Water levels gradually decrease throughout the trekking season. Some rivers can only be crossed in the late summer and autumn. Especially in the most remote parts of the mountains, it can be hard to predict without good knowledge of the region if a river that you plan to cross will be actually crossable. Not being able to cross a river can be a real deal-breaker as it can urge you to hike back tens of kilometers.
Weather, travel time and clothing
The best time to go trekking in Tajikistan is from May to September. Day time temperatures are then mostly around a comfortable 20-25˚C. Outside the main trekking season, the conditions quickly get icy cold and thick layers of snow cover most of the mountainous areas.
Even in summer, the temperature difference between day and night is usually large high up in the mountains. Whereas the weather is pleasant and warm during the day, temperatures drop quickly after sunset. Above 3000 meter, the nights are freezing cold throughout the year. It is an absolute must to bring a set of warm clothes to get yourself comfortably through the night while camping.
Campfires can help out during the cold nights. Luckily, there are no restrictions to make a campfire. You just need to use your common sense. Especially when it cools down at night, it is amazing to sit around a campfire. Finding firewood can be a complicating factor though. Especially above 3000 meters, there is usually not that much woody plants or trees to get a fire going. Because there is cattle in most valleys, it is frequently possible to find dried up piles of cow dung (ghursh) that serve as an alternative amazing combustible – and no, it does not smell.
Rainfall is low is summer, yet not completely zero. There is considerably more precipitation during spring. Especially in the Fann and Zerafshan mountain ranges, rainfall is common during the early season. Although you may get lucky and not get any rain at all during your trekking expedition, you should always bring proper rainwear to be prepared for the worst.
Another important note is that the dangerous combination of the clear Tajik summer skies, lack of vegetation and extreme altitudes give free rein to the sun. Even the slightest bit of inattentiveness may leave you with a severe sunburn or even worse a sunstroke. The sun can be extremely fierce in the high mountains. Wearing a head covering, long sports pants and a shirt with long sleeves is highly recommendable to protect your skin – even a high SPF sunscreen may not always provide sufficient protection when you are out there hiking all day.
There are no large hotels or hostels in the Tajik mountains. Homestays are the only type of lodging available – these are houses of local families that have a room reserved for visitors. In most mountain villages, there is at least one house functioning as a homestay. Sometimes it is not really clear where to find the homestays, as most of them do not have any online visibility. Usually though, the local people gladly guide you to one once you enter into a village towards the end of the day.
The homestays are absolutely the most authentic way to experience the Tajik culture. The get into close touch with the local people and get to taste the Tajik dishes prepared the traditional way. The homestay hosts can usually prepare both breakfast and dinner for you. Some homestays have normal beds available, but it is also common that a bed is made on the ground with cushions. Hot water is not that common, but you may get lucky and be able to get a warm shower. The same goes for Wi-Fi, which is highly rare to be available in homestays.
Wherever homestay accommodation is not available, the only option left is to pitch a tent and spend the night under the stars. For most trekking itineraries, camping is required at some point because the mountain villages are often too far apart from each other to do a full homestay trek.
Fortunately, wild camping is allowed everywhere in the Tajikistan. When you spot a nice camping place, you can go ahead and set up your tent (as long as it is not on someone's property obviously). Finding a suitable camping spot is usually not too difficult, especially in the larger valleys.
There are literally zero facilities on the campsites. Self-sufficiency is the keyword. From digging your own toilet to cooking meals and doing the dishes in the river water. And above all, it is important to not leave any trash behind – always bring a garbage bag or else burn the trash in a campfire.
To wash yourself, you have to resort to a river or lake as well. The mountain rivers and lakes are fed directly by meltwater and have glacial temperatures. Hence, it does not make for the most comfortable of baths. But when you are all sticky and sweaty, sometimes there is simply no choice but to go for it. Only in some parts of the Pamir Mountains, there are hot springs where you can take a relaxing bath in warm water. Jelondy is the most famous village with many hot springs and spas, but you can also encounter natural hot springs at several spots in the mountains.
The lack of comfort when camping at high altitudes may prove challenging, yet the idyllic campsites and complete immersion in nature are the best compensation imaginable.
Now another important question – what to take on my trekking trip? As mentioned, it is hard to escape from camping during basically any multi-day trek in Tajikistan. Full camping equipment includes a tent, a sleeping bag and preferably something to lie on like an inflatable mattress or insulation mat.
As the tough trails in Tajikistan relentlessly go up and down, you want to carry as less weight as possible and go for light-weight equipment. All the more because a decent trek in Tajikistan can easily last over a week. Nevertheless, even when going for the most light-weight models, the camping equipment easily adds several kilograms to the total weight of your backpack.
The nights high up in the Tajik mountains are cold. The sleeping bag should have a temperature limit of maximum 5˚C, but preferably even lower for trips above 3500 meters. Down sleeping bags are the best choice to save a lot of weight and space in your backpack.
Cooking equipment and utensils are other camping essentials. To prepare and eat your meals, you need to bring gas canisters, a burner, pans, cups and bowls – altogether adding considerable weight. Flashlights are also not to be forgotten. After sunset, the moon and stars are the only light sources left. A flashlight is indispensable to prepare and eat your dinner or go to your self-dug toilet at night.
Altogether, a backpack of approximately 70 L is the best pick to be able to bring all necessary equipment, food and clothing. Try not to bring any unnecessary items or unnecessarily large food/toiletry packaging. Depending on the length of the trip, expect your backpack to weigh in at around 12 to 18 kilograms.
In various villages, especially in the Fann Mountains, donkeys can be hired to take away some of the weight.
Food and cooking
During an average day of trekking, you easily burn more than 3.000 calories. And those lost calories need to be replenished. Good food is the foundation for a nice trekking experience. In order to carry as less weight as possible, energy-rich foods that are not too perishable are the way to go.
The best foods to bring do not differ that much from other trekking destinations. For dinner, rice and pasta dishes or ready soups are good picks and easy to prepare. For breakfast, you can think about cereal, oatmeal or wraps. For lunch, it is best to bring along a mix with nuts, dried fruits and candies. Such a trail-mix can provide an energy boost whenever needed.
All these aforementioned products are readily available in supermarkets and bazars throughout Tajikistan. If you want to make life easier and rather eat freeze dried meals, you would have to bring them from home, as such meals are not available in the country.
The extreme altitudes in Tajikistan can make cooking into quite a challenge. The higher you move up into the mountains, the air pressure drops and therewith also the boiling point of water. The boiling point at 3000 meters is 90˚C and at 4000 meters just 86˚C. As a result, rice and pasta must be cooked much longer than usual, while potatoes are difficult to cook at all. Altogether, you will be burning much more gas than you are used to when camping on sea level. So it is an absolute must to bring a decent amount of gas when going trekking in Tajikistan. Otherwise, you need to resort to cooking on a campfire.
Homestay owners are able to prepare meals when you are staying there. Dinner is typically a local soup or rice dish. Breakfast is mostly simple with bread, porridge or oatmeal. And prepare to drink a lot of tea when staying in a family's house.
Water is the most essential element in any survival show. Even though temperatures are not that high in the Tajik mountains, the intense physical exercise will make you sweat a lot anyhow. During a full day of hiking, you easily drink 3 liters of water to keep yourself hydrated.
Bringing bottles of water for a week-long trek is impossible obviously. When trekking in Tajikistan, you need to rely on natural water sources. Luckily, water is around most of the time. There are many lakes around and most hiking trails go through valleys with a river or stream. The lack of vegetation usually makes the streams and lakes easily accessible. Be aware that at the highest altitudes, you may encounter yourself in the situation where all water is frozen. In that case, you have to resort to melting snow.
Even though rivers generally look crystal clear, drinking water directly from them is risky. Cattle or other animals can be around that are doing their needs somewhere upstream. You can easily catch a serious illness – stomach pains, diarrhea, vomiting – from directly drinking river water.
It is thus highly advisable to purify water before drinking it. You can do it the traditional way by boiling the water (or making tea/coffee). Otherwise, there are water purification tablets that clean the water from any pathogens. Such tablets are obviously ultra-light but do typically leave a nasty taste to the water. As an alternative, there are pocket-size water filters that are capable of removing pathogens from the water while leaving the taste of the water unchanged.
Maintaining your electronic devices charged is of great importance nowadays. You do not want to be left with non-working flashlights or empty cameras and miss out on taking pictures of the amazing landscapes you are crossing. Fortunately, homestays almost always have electricity and sockets (type C or F) to conveniently charge your devices.
The situation gets more complicated when you spend most of your nights camping. If you plan to go on a trip with subsequent nights in a tent, then a power bank is indispensable. A good alternative is a solar panel. As mentioned, a great advantage of Tajikistan is that the weather is sunny most of the time. A solar panel can thus be a great asset to maintain your devices charged.
Generally, there is no network coverage in the remote parts of the Tajik mountains. Phone calls or internet are only limited available during most treks. It is wise to bring a satellite phone to be able to contact the outside world in case of an accident.
Not that much dangerous animals or insects live in the Tajik mountains. There are various snake species, of which two are venomous yet generally not deadly (Central Asian viper and cottonmouth). Brown bears, wolves and snow leopard roam around, but encounters with such animals are very rare. These wild animals generally spot you before you even know it and then do their outmost best to avoid you.
In reality, the most dangerous animals that you can encounter with an almost certain likelihood are shepherd dogs. Shepherds are around in basically any valley in the Tajik mountains. You need to avoid closely approaching flocks of sheep when you see that there are dogs around. Another dangerous animal you can encounter are bulls that graze in some valleys. These powerhouses can run around aggressively and are best to not approach too closely either.
Because of the dry climate, there are generally not that many mosquitoes, except from some minor swampy areas along certain lakesides. In general, insect repellent is never really needed when trekking in Tajikistan.
Rockfall and landslides may also pose some danger. The chances of a rock falling on your head are small yet not zero. Trails are rough and irregular, so there is the realistic risk to sprain your ankle or, even worse, break a leg. When an accident happens, you are far from any hospital and rescue parties can be days away. A proper first aid kit is indispensable. A satellite phone is also recommended to take. Like that, you always have a way to connect with the outside world and call for help whenever needed.
One of the best parts of trekking in Tajikistan are the people you encounter along the way. Many trekking routes pass through mountain villages, bringing you in close touch with the local people and culture. The locals are extremely hospitable and always eager to invite passers-by for something to drink or eat.
The people are generous despite their sometimes difficult living conditions and almost never expect something in return – up to the point to sometimes even categorically refusing to accept any money. This can be difficult, so consider bringing some small gifts to be able to give something back. And when you enter someone's house, always try to be respectful for the local culture when it comes to clothing – e.g. avoid short skirts or walking around shirtless.
Outside the villages, the hiking trails are generally quiet. You will only encounter every now and then some shepherds roaming around with their cattle or a small caravan transporting some goods or firewood.
Few people in Tajikistan speak English. Instead people use Russian as a bridge language, being a remnant from the Soviet times. There are still close ties with Russia at present. Communication can be difficult in case you do not speak Tajik/Persian or Russian, for example when you need to find the way or arrange transport. It can be worthwhile to learn some basic words in either of the two languages.
Altogether, there are a lot of things to prepare and think about before setting off on a trekking trip in Tajikistan. Do not get discouraged though to take on the adventure! You will not find anyone who did it and regretted. Even if you encounter some drawbacks along the way, bear in mind things always end well, especially thanks to the amazing local people who are always there to help whenever you are in need. Of course, going with a guide can make life even easier. You can always contact us in case you are interested to do a trekking with a local guide.