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River Guide • Pamirs
Rivers by Region

Pamirs map
Pamirs map

Overview
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.

Permits
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.

Rivers

Pamir / Pyanj
Pyanj is a major river of the Pamirs, draining water from most of the area. For its whole length it marks the border with Afghanistan and due to strict border rules has not been run yet (at least completely and officially). There are huge completely flat sections on this river as well as huge big volume class 5 rapids. The road follows the river all the way up making access and support easy.

Kyzyl-Su / Surkhob
Surkhob is another major river at the northern edge of the Pamirs, flowing from Alai Valley in Kyrgyzstan. It has a number of big volume class 5 rapids in a deep gorge at Kyrgyz-Tajik border. The river has been run in the past, but nowadays running it would involve illegal border crossing.

Vanch
This is surprisingly easy (no more than class 2-3) tributary of Pyanj, flowing through a well populated valley. Extremely bad, but 4x4 passable road goes nearly all the way to the river origin from the glacier and offers stunning views of the major peaks of the Pamirs there.

Yazgulem
Located in the next valley to the south this river, as almost all Pamirs rivers, is a difficult class 4-5 run. Quite a good road goes halfway up the valley and most interesting whitewater sections are accessible from the road. Still, trekking to the upper Yazgulem valley is very spectacular, despite not much whitewater up there.

Murghab / Bartang
This is one of the biggest rivers of the Pamirs, crossing the whole area from east to west. The river is generally easy (class 2-3) with few hard but short gorges. An earthquake some 100 years ago had formed 80-km long Sarez Lake on the river which would need to be paddled across, as there is no road around the lake and further up the valley (put-in is possible at the town of Murghab on the East Pamirs Road). Sarez was recently declared prohibited area due to possibly unstable state of the natural dam – there are fears it may become a target for some terrorist groups.

Alichur / Gunt
This is another big river that crosses the Pamirs from east to west. It joins Pyanj at the town of Khorog and for most of its length is followed by the East Pamirs Road, making access easy. There is a number of solid class 4-5 rapids concentrated mostly in the lower river, not far from Khorog.

Shakhdara
Shakhdara is the left (southern) tributary of Gunt, joining it right in the town of Khorog. It is very nice and very continuous class 4 river easy accessible by the road. There is an extremely difficult and still unrun waterfall section in the upper river though.

Kudara
Kudara is the right (northern) tributary of Bartang, joining it just below Sarez Lake thus eliminating flat paddling and administrative restrictions. The river has several class 3-4 sections and flows in remote and nearly uninhabited valley. Access to the put-in is possible from the East Pamirs Road by a rough track passable by a good 4x4 vehicle.

Muksu
Muksu has been known as the utmost river of the Pamirs and the whole USSR. It sources from Fedchenko Glacier (being almost 80 km long it is the longest mountain glacier in the world) and drains all three seven-thousanders of the Pamirs (Communism, Lenin and Korjenevskoi peaks). The Muksu then cuts through a series of awesome class 5 gorges in completely uninhabited valley of northern Pamirs and finally joins Surkhob River. The put-in for Muksu is at altitude of 4300 m above sea level on the tributary accessible from the East Pamirs Road. A short trek over 4600 m pass is required to get there.

Obikhingou
This is another major tributary of Surkhob which has several class 5 sections but unlike Muksu the lower river is followed by the Dushanbe-Khorog road and a local fork goes further up the valley. Still, the uppermost (and the most difficult) gorge requires a trek from the road head.

Varzob
Varzob is a medium size river flowing from the Alai range directly into Dushanbe city and is followed for its whole length by the Dushanbe-Khujand road. It has a lot of continuous and technical class 4-5 sections within just an hour drive from Dushanbe.

Sorbo / Kafirnigan
This is another river with easy access from Dushanbe. The Sorbo is mainly class 3-4 with an unrun waterfall class 5 gorge in its upper stretch. The river changes its name to Kafirnigan after Sardai-Miena confluence and becomes even easier, being class 2-3 most of the time.

Sardai-Miena
This is the right (northern) source of Kafirnigan and is basically very similar to Sorbo. A rough road goes all the way up the valley and over the pass to some old mines in the upper Yagnob valley.

Matcha / Zerafshan
Matcha is a major river of the Gissar-Alai flowing east to west through all the area. There is a rough road all the way up but the upper river is mostly flat. Lower half of the Matcha flows in a very deep and splendid, still relatively easy (class 3-4) canyon. River is crossed by the Dushanbe-Khujand road at the town of Aini.

Yagnob
Yagnob is a river that flows east to west in the valley south to Matcha. Lower part of it is followed by the Dushanbe-Khujand road but the upper section is a completely self-support run in some very impressive surroundings and class 4-5 canyons. Access to nowadays abandoned upper Yagnob valley is (or was) possible by a road built in soviet times from Sardai-Miena valley to rare-earth mines in Yagnob. The state of this road is not known after tajik war though, and short trek may be required to reach the river.

Iskander-Darya
This is a small and short river flowing out of exceptionally beautiful Iskander Lake in the hearth of the Fann Mountains, a popular trekking destination. The river is a continuous class 4-5 run for most of its 20 km before it joins Yagnob and resulting river gets the name of Fann-Darya. Note that there is an unrunnable 30-m waterfall in 1 km after the lake with very hard portage and class 5 canyon just afterwards.

Fann-Darya
Combined river of Yagnob and Iskander-Darya is Fann-Darya that cuts 30 km north through crack-like canyon in the Yagnob range separating Yagnob and Matcha valleys. Fann-Darya then joins Matcha at the town of Aini and the resulting river becomes Zerafshan. The Dushanbe-Khujand road is cut into the walls of the canyon and therefore access to the river is easy, but it may be impossible to climb up to the road in many places. The river is continuous and funny (would be named Fun-Darya) big volume class 4, all runnable from the water in just 3-4 hours, with exception of two deadly-looking class 5 rapids.

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