Despite possessing some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world, Tajikistan is not a major trekking destination. Meanwhile, neighbouring Kyrgyzstan did manage to gain some fame outside of the Russian-speaking world as a trekking destination. Why is that?
We can think of a number of reasons Tajikistan is not so popular. Transport takes longer and is more expensive. Tajikistan is less connected to the outside world via air. Political instability hasn’t helped. Tourist facilities are limited in many areas. No marked trails. No advertising budget.
If you are willing to overcome some of these hurdles, be prepared to be amazed. Because Tajikistan truly is a world-beating hiking destination. The landscapes are invigorating. The cultures are unique. The hospitality is second to none.
Who is it for?
For anyone with a decent level of fitness who enjoys mountains and mountain cultures, who is not expecting 5-star comforts. Even on a guided trip, roads will be bumpy, homestays sometimes basic and meals not always that varied.
Those looking to blaze new trails will enjoy Tajikistan. Many mountains have never been climbed before, and there are hundreds of routes still waiting to be discovered by tourists.
If you are traveling independently, come prepared. Tajikistan’s mountain areas are remote and sparsely populated. You should be able to navigate, read the terrain, prepare for all weather conditions and emergency situations, and do your own research. On top of that, getting to and from trailheads on a small budget can be time-consuming.
If that sounds out of your reach, know that there are some well-worn trails in the Fann mountains where hiking requires less of an expedition-style mentality. In the high season, it’s possible to find a hiking buddy for the most popular routes.
On top of that, not all of Tajikistan is remote and high altitude. There are also beautiful, culturally interesting hikes you can do without having to scale +4000m passes. You will need a lot less preparation and mountain skills for these.
If, on the other hand, you can set aside the money to support Tajikistan’s small businesses and go on a supported trek, then the logistics are of little importance. All you need to do is walk. Your guide, cook and pack animal will take care of everything else.
Season and weather
Trekking in the high mountains is restricted to the short summer season from June to September. High passes are blocked by deep snow for the rest of the year. In spring, river waters are high and fast from snowmelt, adding additional road blocks.
The Fann mountains experience frequent, short rain showers. The Rasht, Bartang, Yazgulem and Vanj valleys also get the occasional summer shower. The Western and Southern Pamirs are very dry.
In the lower altitude regions around Dushanbe and the southern Khatlon area, spring and autumn are the best times to trek to avoid the oppressive summer heat. Even winter is fine in Khatlon, where temperatures rarely go into the single digits for long.
Gear and equipment
Large temperature differences are to be expected as you ascend and descend from the peaks to the plains. Layering is all-important. Make sure you bring adequate protection from the sun (sunscreen, broad hat), the cold (warm hat, gloves) and rain or snow. 2 liters of water capacity is generally considered enough, except for a few very dry areas that lack mountain streams. Purify all water, whether from a tap or a stream.
Sandals for river crossings will come in handy, as well as trekking poles and a buff to protect against the sun and for whenever dust gets kicked up by a jeep, a herd of sheep or a big wind.
Crampons are recommended for some treks. We assume you have already taken care of other basic trekking items (water purification, torch, …).
Outdoor gear in Tajikistan
We discuss your options for renting or buying camping gear, camping stoves and stove fuel at camping in Tajikistan.
Insurance, beacons and medical care
Mobile reception is limited outside of the main population centres. Satellite phones or beacons to signal an emergency situation are an increasingly popular alternative.
Medical care in Dushanbe is of limited quality. For more complex treatments, you will have to be transferred to a hospital in Istanbul, Dubai or Delhi.
There is no formal rescue service. Good insurance is worth paying for. Whichever provider you choose, make sure your policy includes search and rescue and high altitude coverage. We recommend battleface as the insurance of choice for adventurous travelers.
Maps and trekking guides
There isn’t that much choice. For a good overview of your options with regards to both digital and offline maps, see Takali’s discussion of maps, apps and gpx file repositories.
EWP’s Fann Mountains Map is a decent orientation help for the Fann mountains, but a bit too large-scale and by now dated (it was made in the 90’s) to completely rely on. The 3 1:500 000 Tajikistan maps from Geckomaps are good for route planning but insufficient for orientation.
The Trekking in Tajikistan guidebook by specialised publisher Cicerone offers a wealth of information that goes beyond the scope of this introductory article. It describes 27 treks of varying length and difficulty, spread out over the country and comes with 1:100 000 maps and gpx files of all routes in the book.
There are no marked hiking trails in Tajikistan. There are of course many shepherds trails and ancient caravan routes you can use but you will need to use a map or GPS device to pick your route. Wikiloc probably has the biggest collection of gpx trails at the moment.
There are no long-distance hiking trails in Tajikistan yet, but 2 are under development. The first is the Pamir Trail. It’s a work in progress, with no timeline established yet, but you can help with the scouting and funding.
The second is the Bactrian Trail, which runs in the less mountainous south of Tajikistan. The trail is there in gpx waypoints, you could already go for it. Or you can wait until better gpx tracks are made available.
Hiking and mountaineering very close to the Kyrgyz border will also require a permit. This is not a common destination, we don’t know where to get it. Ask a tour operator.
The Tajik National Park, centrally located in the Tajik Pamir, also levies a visitor fee. Supposedly this is 18 somoni per day. There are no clear boundaries to the park, no entrance or exit areas and no offices, so it’s all a bit vague. If a ranger asks you for a payment, make sure you ask for his ranger ID, and a receipt.
The PECTA office in Khorog might have more recent information to fill you in.
If you are flying in and out specifically for the trek, you can prepare adequately and freeze-dry a stock of delicious, nutritious meals. If you are traveling for an extended period of time, you will have to settle for local food.
Buy everything you need in Dushanbe, Khorog, Khujand or Osh. These cities have big bazaars and supermarkets – Khorog is the least well-stocked. Don’t rely on getting food on the trail. In a pinch you can get some bread or milk products from villagers, but food security is a problem in the mountains. Sure, have a cup of tea, but meals should be refused at least 3 times (see tarof). The only exception to the rule are homestays.
Camping has to be your main housing on a multi-day trek in Tajikistan, but the trailheads often have homestays that are a great way to meet locals and sleep in a heated room.
In the Pamirs, walking through the gorgeous Bartang Valley is not difficult physically, and there are homestays in the different villages so you don’t need to take a tent. Spend anything from 2 days to a week or more here.
The day walk from Langar in the Wakhan Valley to the meadow below Pik Engels is a bit of a calf-biter if you have been sitting in the car for too long (1100 m of elevation in 8 km), but the views of 6510-metre-high Pik Engels are worth it.
The Dushanbe area also has some nice day hikes.
Medium and hard
All other hikes may or may not be very heavy on the legs, but they will likely be quite remote, so they should not be attempted by beginner hikers without more experienced hiking companions.
Watch out for
Besides classic mountain risks (it’s very high and very sunny), here are a few things to watch out for particularly in Tajikistan.
Tajikistan’s civil war lasted from 1992 until 1997, but the landmines that were put in place then have continued to claim victims ever since. While some areas have been demined (notably the border with Uzbekistan), others haven’t. Known minefields are marked with a red sign or the zone is fringed with white rocks.
The border with Afghanistan and the inner regional borders of Tavildara and Rasht especially, still have areas with marked and unmarked minefields. Other risk areas include the area north of Qalai-Khumb and the Tavildara region, as well as some of the valleys around Jirgatol.
Rock fall and rivers
Avalanches, mud flows and flash floods occur mostly in spring. They are bigger and more frequent than in the past due to climate change. Rock fall can happen at any time, really, so make sure not to pitch your tent in a place where a rock could fall on your head at night.
Rivers are very cold and often fast-running. Bridges can be scary balancing acts. If there is no bridge: make sure you assess the danger of fording properly. Even knee-high water can signal the end if you fall down with a full backpack.
Shepherd dogs are scary. They will notify you with their bark that you are entering their territory. Give them a wide berth, or wait until the flock has passed. Try to alert the shepherd to your presence. Walking sticks and rocks can be a defense.
Takali has some more things to say on shepherd dogs, as well as other hard-earned mountain advice.
Plastic is a big problem in Tajikistan and the world. Don’t make it any worse. Avoid it at all cost and take your rubbish with you, there is no formal waste disposal or recycling in Tajikistan.
Deforestation is another big problem in Tajikistan, and once again, the world. Do not make camp fires! This includes using dead wood. Lack of dead wood encourages locals to chop living trees. 70% of Tajikistan’s trees have disappeared since independence.
Use bio-degradable soap to wash clothes, and don’t wash them in a stream or lake to avoid harming the aquatic life. Faeces should be buried to avoid endangering the health of local people and animals (a hole at least 10 cm deep, at least 50 m away from a body of water). Toilet paper should be taken out or burned, if there is no risk of wildfires.
If you are using the services of a local guide, porter or cook, keep in mind that their awareness of environmental matters is perhaps low. Make sure you set some clear guidelines if they don’t offer any themselves, like having them show that all rubbish is taken out, and using a designated latrine spot.
We are very selective when it comes to picking the people we work with. Sharaf is a very experienced mountain guide who accompanies climbers and trekkers in the Tajik and Afghan Pamir. Saidbek is also a great trekking guide and trek organiser from the Pamirs.
Alovaddin is our go-to guy for all trekking requests in the north of Tajikistan: Fann mountains, Yagnob and Zerafshan valleys.