The Pamirs, literally “The Roof of the World”, occupies two third of Tajikistan, a former USSR republic. The area covers the territory of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous District of Tajikistan, extending almost 400 km west to east and south to north. The Pamirs is the highest and the most inaccessible mountains of the former USSR, the highest summit is Communism Peak (now Ismail Samani Peak, 7495 m, 24590 ft).
The Pamirs can be distinctly divided in two parts. The Eastern Pamirs is a high-altitude arid mountain plateau with very little population and relatively flat landscape. The average elevation in the valleys is 3500-4500 m above sea level, and the peaks are some 5000-6000 m. Most rivers there are quite flat and easy, with just some occasional short gorges and rapids.
On the opposite, the Western Pamirs is deeply cut by narrow gorges where side walls can be several kilometers high. Most rivers there are class 4 to 6. Lower parts of most valleys are relatively warm and fertile and therefore more or less populated.
From the west and south the Pamirs is surrounded by mighty Pyanj River that also marks the border with Afghanistan. Similar mountains extend on the other side of Pyanj into Afghanistan and Pakistan in the south, where they bear the name of Karakoram. Currently no information is available about Afghan part of the Pamirs due to the longstanding war in the country.
From the north the Pamirs is separated from the Alai range by another major river - Surkhob. Actually all Pamirs’ rivers are tributaries of either Pyanj or Surkhob. Western part of the Alai (belonging to Tajikistan) is rather well populated and is sometimes called Gissar-Alai.
Tajik people are quite distinct from other Central Asia countries – they are more Aryan than Mongolian and speak a dialect of Farsi, not Turkic. Although Tajikistan is a Muslim country, rules are not strict and you’ll hardly notice any Islam influence. People in the Pamirs are even more distinct, fair hairs and blue eyes are not unknown here (tales says they are descendants of Alexander the Great’s men and even Alexander’s tomb is claimed to be in the upper Yazgulem valley). They do not call themselves “Tajik” ever, but “Pamirs” or “Badakhshani”, and their language is completely different.
As well as the Tien-Shan, the Pamirs was an essential part of the Silk Road, a major trading route between China and Europe. Numerous caravans came over the passes from China to the fertile Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan.
After USSR has fallen apart in early 1990-s, the power vacuum in Tajikistan has caused a civil war in the country. Because of this great pity, Tajikistan was basically lost for travelers for nearly 10 years. Thankfully national reconciliation took place in 1996-1998, followed by few years of “cleaning” the mountains from various fighter groups. Now the situation became stable and safe again and there is no danger anymore visiting this wonderful country.
Type of Paddling
Typically short and medium (often self-supported) multi-day runs of high level of difficulty. Many rivers are quite short and require no more than 2-3 days on the water, so it's a good idea to have a car to shuttle between rivers. The car would be also a restock center, because local food supply is limited. On the other side, there are rivers that flow in completely isolated and uninhabited valleys, requiring solid self-support expedition experience. Emergency escape may be extremely difficult if not impossible at all.
Season & Climate
Late April to mid-May and late August to mid-October (late October is still possible on low-altitude rivers). Note though, that all passes in the Eastern Pamirs are well above 4000 m and are closed till late May or June, thus choice of the rivers is limited in the spring. Summer time is high water level because all the rivers have nearly 100% glacier drainage and rise 10-20 times in volume during June and July. Climate is very dry, especially in the Eastern Pamirs, and of strong continental type – cold nights and hot days (night temperatures in September are well below zero at 3500 m and above). The Pamirs and the Alai are mosquitoes-free areas. The rivers in the Alai and the Western Pamirs typically flow at altitude between 1500 and 2500 m above sea level, while those originating from Eastern Pamirs are well above 3000 and some even 4000 m. Effects of the altitude sickness must be taken into account when traveling above 3000-3500 m.
Getting There & Away
Major gateway city is Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, with regular flights to Moscow and few cities in Russia, Europe and Asia. For access to the Gissar-Alai in the spring, another gateway is Khujand, the second biggest city in Tajikistan located in the northern province (in the Fergana Valley). The Anzob Pass leading from Dushanbe to the north is closed from November till late May and no land connection exists to Gissar-Alai and northern Tajikistan without exiting the country. Because this road is vital for the country, the new Anzob Tunnel is now being built under the pass and may change the situation soon.
Another option is coming overland from Kyrgyzstan via the Eastern Pamirs Road, which starts from Osh and goes via Murghab over numerous 4000+ m passes to Khorog, administrative center of Gorno-Badakhshan. This road has recently opened connection to China where it joins the Karakoram Highway.
For local access to the Pamirs major (and basically the only) road is the Osh-Murghab-Khorog route mentioned above. It then continues along the Pyanj River and over the pass all the way to Dushanbe and can be accessed from Dushanbe end too. There is a short cut along the Surkhob River which creates actually a “ring road” around Pamirs (note it hits southern corner of Kyrgyzstan in the upper Surkhob valley). The road between Dushanbe and Khorog is in rather bad condition but passable for normal vehicles. Anyhow a good 4x4 car is required for most local forks.
For local access to the Gissar-Alai the only road comes from Dushanbe to Khujand over very difficult and dangerous Anzob Pass, opened no more than six months a year. In the spring this road is only accessible from Khujand end. Another option for Gissar-Alai is coming overland from Uzbekistan via Panjakent town.
There is a number of scheduled local flights in Tajikistan connecting Dushanbe with Khujand in Fergana Valley; Aini in the Gissar-Alai and Khorog and Vanch in the Pamirs.
Bear in mind that Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are now independent countries and every entry into them requires a valid visa for foreigners. Uzbekistan is known as having the most restrictive border rules for neighbors and no Kyrgyz or Tajik vehicles may enter its territory (and vice versa) therefore you have to change your car at the border. Kyrgyz and Tajik vehicles are allowed to enter each other territory without restrictions. Therefore, because almost all the Pamirs is located in Tajikistan you probably will want to just come and stay within this country.
The entire territory of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous District (that is, almost the entire Pamirs) is a borderland restricted zone and you should get an appropriate permit (known as the “GBAO permit”) with Tajik authorities in advance.