The Pamir mountains are not only full of great hiking opportunities, it’s also a great place for whitewater rafting. The country is full of exciting, fast, wild rapids.
There’s not so much for those interested in a quiet paddle around the country. It’s all steep canyons and gorges, and rafting and kayaking in Tajikistan is something that should not be taken lightly: either you are a seasoned kayaker striking out on your own, or you have an experienced guide to help you, but best is a combination of both.
Rafting in Pamirs
There are many rivers to choose from for your rafting and kayaking adventure in the Pamirs. Almost all are tough Class IV to Class VI rivers for experienced paddlers only, and some are in very remote, uninhabitated high mountain areas. The following is an excerpt from the kayaking.su guide to Pamir rivers. For more information about the climate, access and conditions when kayaking or rafting in this area, see their website.
The 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 it has not been run yet in its entirety. 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 into Kyrgyzstan. It has a number of big volume class 5 rapids in a deep gorge at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. The river has been run in the past, but nowadays running it would involve illegal border crossing.
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 a few hard but short gorges. An earthquake some 100 years ago formed the 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).
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 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 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 a 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 4×4 vehicle.
Muksu has been known since Soviet times as one of the ultimate challenges of the Pamirs and of 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 confidence-crushing class 5 gorges in a completely uninhabited valley of the northern Pamirs to finally join 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.
Upper Zerafshan River
The Zerafshan river is mainly glacier-fed and therefore sees a significant volume rise during the summer (200-250 m3/sec comparing to usual 30-60 ??/sec during spring and autumn). The upper Zerafshan consists of two parts: the upper section from the glacier to Revomugk village and the so-called “Grand Canyon” from Revomugk to Aini. Most of the upper section of the river is a wide flat meandering river of class 1 with only a few short gorges. One is 500 m long, with several class 3-4 drops in an impressive wall canyon. There is another class 3-4 rapid a few hundred metres after the canyon opens.
A second gorge, some 5-6 km downstream, is 1,500 m long and also contains several class 3-4 drops. The best point to start paddling lower part of the river is near Revomugk village. From here almost all the way down to Aini the river you will traverse a deep gorge, but the water is not too difficult (mainly class 2-3). The section from Revomugk to Pastigav has some impressive walls and narrow canyons.
After Pastigav a landslide has formed a nasty class 5 rapid (the only one on this river), and portage is almost impossible even for kayaks, so it is not recommended to raft this section (Pastigav to Oburdon). At Oburdon village, it is possible to rejoin the river at the bridge. There is one quite difficult section: in high water this can be class 4+ paddling and may require long scouting from the top of the canyon, as there is no escape once you’re inside it. In low water it can be run without bank scouting.
After this section the river eases and continues as a series of class 2-3 canyons and open flat sections all the way down to the confluence with the Fann river at Aini. For easy rafting it is recommended to start somewhere on this section. After the Fann confluence, the river enters the “Aini landslide”, a 2 km-long gorge. In high water this can be a very powerful, big volume class 4 section. Another similar landslide is located some 10-12 km further downstream, near Dardar village, but further downstream the river easies to class 1-2 and gradually exits the mountains.
The upper Yagnob river has been reported as a brilliant grade 4-5 expedition, paddling through awesome gorges, but without much portage. (This is really a self-support expedition as there are no roads in the upper Yagnob valley). The lower Yagnob is not a particularly nice river to run, because it consists of several short stretches separated by unrunnable (sometimes underground) sections. The first such section is the giant Tolok landslide, said to have happened almost 300 years ago. The river goes underground here, emerging about 1 km downstream. It is possible to climb down to the place where the Yagnob comes out of the landslide and from here a good 4 km-long class 4-5 section starts.
The Iskandar river is very good for technical kayaking, not too extreme, starting from the famous Iskandarkul Lake. The Iskandar river rises significantly during the summer snow and ice melting (from 10-20 m3/sec in the spring/autumn to some 40-60 m3/sec in summer). Rafting is not recommended, as the river is too tight and technical. Put-in is possible directly at the lake, but there is a 30 m waterfall some 2 km downstream followed by a 200-300 m section which is not runnable. However, it is possible to carry rafts around this section. The rest of the gorge is full of solid class 4 and 5 rapids.
Further downstream, the road rejoins the river, and the same level of Whitewater continues for 2-3 more km. This is the natural starting point if you do not want to run the gorge. This class 4-5 section finishes near Narvad village and then the river eases to mainly class 3-4. The last two class 4 rapids are located within Zerafshan II village. Takeout is possible after the confluence with the Yaghnob river, or you may continue down the Fann river, which is formed by the Iskandar and Yagnob confluence.
The Fann river (Fann Darya) is formed by the confluence of the Yagnob and Iskandar rivers and breaks north through the Zerafshan range in a very narrow and impressive gorge, to join the Zerafshan river near the village of Aini. Almost all of the river can be rafted, with the exception of two rapids in the middle.
We would recommend the lower part of it for very good “adrenaline” style rafting. The upper part is less impressive in terms of landscape and white-water. Normal flow during spring and fall is usually some 30-60 m3/sec but as for all rivers here summer flow is much higher (up to 200 m3/sec in July). The first 7-8 km to the village of Pete are quite easy class 2-3, as the river gradually enters the gorge. From Pete, the rapids become more solid, and by the time Yafch creek comes from the right 3 km later, it is full-on class 4 paddling.
A particularly nasty rapid is found just after the Yafch entrance, where the remains of an old bridge obstruct part of the river. Some 2 km downstream is the first class 5 rapid. In high water it may require portage, which can be quite easy done by the road on the river left. After a further 2 km there is a 200 m canyon which cannot be entered due to a drop plugged by a rock.
On the other side of this canyon, for the next 10 km down to the Zerafshan confluence, the Fann river becomes a class 4 “Fun” river. It is slightly less continuous than before, so there are pools to catch your breath and plenty of rapids of all sorts. The river becomes quite flat 2-3 km before the Zerafshan confluence. Take-out can be at the bridge in Aini or elsewhere where the road is close enough to the river.
Varzob Gorge has the advantage that it is very close to Dushanbe, so is suitable for acclimatisation and practice before heading further afield. The upper section of the river (30-70 km from Dushanbe) is good fun, with not much scouting required and some good drops. Most of the runs on this section of the river are class 4.
Rivers in the Pamirs are almost completely glacier-fed, with extremely high flows during the summer (up to 10-20 times the May/September volume). Therefore the most suitable paddling season is September and early October. The first half of May is also possible, but the spring weather is less predictable and road access may be difficult due to snow on the passes.
These rivers were all run in catamaran rafts during the Soviet era, although there are some sections which have never been attempted. Some parts of Yazgulem and Shakhdara (and possibly Muksu) were also kayaked.
Elevation: 2,000-2,500 m This river is the first major tributary of the Panj when travelling from Dushanbe to Khorog along the Pamir Highway. The valley is quite populated and a road exists all the way up. The upper section of the river, near the glacier, is suitable for rafting. Expected volume in September is 40-80 cms (1400-2800 cfs).
Elevation: 2,000-2,500 m The next valley to the south, the Yazgulem has only a few villages in its lower stretch. The road goes up the valley only for some 20-30 km to the last village of Djamak. From here it is possible to hike up another 20-25 km to Yais, with donkey support for part of the way. From Yais the river starts as a quite continuous class 4, and then there is a difficult (class 5 ?) section upstream of Djamak and another such section few km downstream. Average river gradient is 20 m/km. Expected volume in September is 30-60 cms (1000-2000 cfs). Yazgulem was run at least twice in the 1980s and once in 2004.