The massive and uncompromising civil engineering scheme of the Nurek Dam, the second-tallest dam in the world, exudes the total confidence of the Soviets in the power of industry to transform society. The scheme took from 1961 to 1980 to complete. In Soviet times tourists were brought here to marvel at the construction.
The town of Nurek, or Norak, was built during the same time to accommodate the workers. These days, Nurek Lake is a popular destination for city people desperate to escape Dushanbe’s murderous heat in the summer weekends. But be warned: the water is very cold.
Nurek and Nurek dam
Starting from Dushanbe, the road passes some attractive lakes before reaching the town of Nurek, where you can fill up on green tea and qurutob at one of the town square’s choikhonas, and photograph Lenin. Beyond, several abandoned factories stand as silent witnesses to the demise of the Soviet planned economy.
The vast Nurek dam looms over everything, rising in a series of giant walls to hold back the river Vakhsh and create Lake Nurek. At 310 m it is the second-highest dam in the world, one day perhaps to be surpassed by the unfinished Roghun dam. The huge Nurek lake, 70 km long and 5 km wide, is a reservoir for Dushanbe, and the associated hydro-electricity plant provides electricity for the city. The stored water is used for irrigating 700 square km of farmland.
There is a viewing area just below the dam, but really, any angle is a good one. You can already get some excellent views of the lake from the main road towards Kulob, but driving round offers more spectacular viewpoints. The massive spill-over waterfall gets shut off sometime in early fall, depending on the water levels.
The far side of the northern tongue of Nurek Lake has a monument to the Belarusian BelAz truck (Gmaps) that’s responsible for all the heavy lifting in this mega-project (a visit to the BelAz factory near Minsk is a must if you are visiting Belarus).
The Nurek and Roghun dams cause a lot of anxiety in downstream Uzbekistan, which will soon suffer severe water shortages. Like a dam about to burst, the potential for conflict is huge.
Okno space surveillance station
20 km south of Nurek (OSM / Gmaps) sits the Okno (Window), a Russian-owned space surveillance station that tracks man-made space objects up to 40 000 km away from space, using Tajikistan’s clear night skies to its advantage.
As with all Russian military installations, you are absolutely not allowed to visit, or even come close.
How to visit
Most hotels and hostels in Dushanbe offer a driver for a day-trip to Nurek. If you are making your own way, it should be about 90 minutes and 25 Somoni for a seat in a shared car to Nurek.
The Aquaclub resort is popular with expats. Elsewhere, expect dour Soviet-style disinterest in guests, and little to no English. Avoid Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the summer, as it will be crowded.
The water in the reservoir is extremely cold and only good for very short swims.
Nurek is located en route to the Pamirs, so you don’t have to stay very long or detour if you just want to have a panoramic view of the lake, there are good views from the roadside.
Beyond viewing the lake and taking a plunge, or perhaps waterscootering around, there is not much to do in Nurek.