The Ultimate Fann Mountains Trek

In September 2017 we went with KE Adventure Travel on a trek to Tajikistan's Fann Mountains, a trip which included a visit to Samarkand in Uzbekistan. It was a good trip: beautiful scenery and remote mountain walking shared with a nice group of people; but it did have some serious problems.

Tajikistan is in the middle of central Asia, remote and landlocked. It sits north of Afghanistan, east of Uzbekistan, south of Kyrgyzstan and west of China. The Fann Mountains, part of the huge Pamirs range, are north of the capital Dushambe.
On a pass in the Fann Mountains



My first central Asian adventure involved a visit, many years ago, to the Tian Shan on the border between Kyrgyzstan and China. The scenery was great but the food and general organisation of the holiday, relying on an inexperienced local supplier, was poor and far below the standard I'd got used to in Nepal. Given that KE called this a 'pioneer trek' I wasn't expecting things to be that much better.

The itinerary comprised a 17 day round trip including 12 nights camping and 11 days walking in the Fann Mountains. Our 12 strong group flew into Dunshabe via Istanbul in the early hours of day 1 and, after 2 hours recovery time in a hotel, we were on the way to the mountains and our first campsite.
On the Chukurak Pass in the Fann Mountains

The trek was full-on and most days included substantial ascents and descents with little recovery time. The trails themselves, generally used by mules and donkeys, were reasonably OK albeit very dry and dusty (there had been virtually no rain since late spring).

The weather for our September trip was perfect, warm but not too hot. We were walking between 2,000 and 4,000m so altitude wasn't a problem and it wasn't really cold at night. Although the walking season is short the weather is pretty reliable in this part of the world with dry summers.
Parched landscape and Glaciers

The route circumnavigated the central core of the Fann Mountains where summits exceed 5,000m. The scenery was fabulous with a sharp contrast between deep, dusty sunburnt valleys and mountain tops decked with glaciers.

Apart from one night in a local village house, every night was spent in a tent next to either a lake or stream (good for washing off the dust and grime). The campsites were generally good although 'leave no trace' principles are not always understood in this part of the world, especially near the popular 'seven lakes' route. That said, the campsites in the first week were pristine and wonderful.
Catching the rays in the Fann Mountains

Although we've seen more wildlife on other trips we did spot what our resident expert (Stuart) confidently confirmed to be an Asiatic Mountain Lynx. We also saw Ibex, Golden Eagles, Lammergeier, Black Vultures and Himalayan Griffin Vultures.

There were lots of sheep and goats and many of the valley sides have clearly suffered from some savage overgrazing. The animals were looked after by nomads or local villagers practising transhumance, some of whom spent the summer months in a nissen hut version of a yurt. The nomads, like everyone else in this country, were very friendly and, despite having very little, keen to share food with visitors.
The shepherd and his sheep

The Fann Mountains are a great place to go trekking but this trip did have problems. Although the equipment and campsite management was better than I expected something went seriously wrong with hygiene and nearly all the group suffered from food poisoning. The food itself was not that appetising, with many bland and virtually protein-free meals, but the problem went beyond that of diet and KE will have to sort it out to make the trip sustainable.

The crew were friendly but clearly not that experienced and we were lucky to have a western guide, Karl, who knew what he was doing. Karl, however, had to make himself understood and again we were lucky to have Nilyu, a lovely 17 year (turned 18 on the trip) who, employed as interpreter, became the group's adopted daughter. She handled some tense situations brilliantly.
Nilyu supervises lunch

The visit to Samarkand at the end of the trek was also problematic. Although the prospect of visiting this famous silk road city was a big draw the extra 4 days spent getting to and from it and then to Tashkent airport was not very enjoyable. The border crossing from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan has been moved further north and now takes much longer, and the final transfer from Samarkand to Tashkent involved a further day's minibus journey rather than the anticipated train ride. This meant that three of the last four days were spent driving along bumpy roads across the endless steppe. With the benefit of hindsight we would have preferred to come straight home at the end of the trek.

The rest of the blog provides brief comments on what happened each day.

Day 1 Dushanbe to Iskander Lake

We got to hotel at about 5-30 in the morning but still managed to get a bit of sleep before breakfast. The promised visit to the market didn't happen because it was shut and the botanical garden was not that interesting. Every significant building in city includes a large-scale portrait of the president and on the journey to Iskander Lake we passed both the new palace, huge and still under construction, and the president's summer residence. Although the Soviet Union has gone in Tajikistan, many Soviet style practices seem to linger on.

Day 2

The first day on the trek, was a near disaster. Our Tajik guide had a bit of brainstorm and missed a turn, taking us the wrong way up a valley for several hours. Panicking he then compounded his error by attempting a non-feasible shortcut up a steep gulley before we had to retrace our steps. The guide can't map read and it was too early in the trip for Karl to work out what was going on. The result was a huge, difficult first day (someone calculated that we had climbed over 2500m and walked 23km) and we didn't get to camp until about 10.30pm. Luckily we had a full moon but a number of people picked up blisters and our confidence in the guide was shot.
And the mistake starts here!

Day 3 Over the Dukdon Col (3800m) and down to Sarikhodan

For those without blisters today's walk was fabulous. The ascent and descent of the pass could hardly have been better and took us close to the huge hanging glaciers which looked ready to avalanche. Our campsite, set in the middle of an enormous outwash plain surrounded by a semi-circle of huge cliffs, was one of the most spectacular I've ever stayed in. Today was incident free and Christine even managed a successful stream navigation on the pony.
In the footsteps of Genghis Khan

Day 4 - a visit to Lake Pitshikul.

Today's walk was shortened slightly to provide some recovery time, and without much climbing to do felt relaxed. We met our first nomad families and got a friendly reception, although the second group seemed desperately poor, bedraggled, and with some obvious health problems. There was no hassling for money and the children, in particular, met us with a mix of friendliness and curiosity. Just before lunch we made the short climb up to the beautiful enclosed Lake Pitshikul and Christine, determined to make use of her costume, went for a swim. It was a short one and there was no rush to join her. The campsite, next to a river in a deep valley, proved a good place to get rid of the dust.
A chilly Lake Pitshikul

Day 5 - Over the Agmat Pass.

A big day involving a long climb up a valley to the pass and an even longer descent on the other side. Despite the distance, it was a great walk with the crew getting their act together. We met nomads and shepherds on the way up to the pass and were treated to a feast of wild apricots from the local farmer's tree (they were busy harvesting potatoes) on the way down. Just before arriving at camp we came across a woman spinning wool with a bobbin, a technique thousands of years old.
Traditional spinning

Day 6 Descent along the Archamaiden Valley.

Today's walk followed a dusty road along the bottom of a valley before climbing up to the village of Guitan. The relative dullness of the walk was more than compensated for by the warm reception we received from the locals. It started when we met two girls riding a donkey from one village to the next. The girls were lavishly attired in gorgeous costumes and were naturally a little shy when everyone pointed their cameras at them. We stopped at the village for lunch and the girls' shyness was replaced with curiosity and hospitality and they first brought us a bowl of delicious yoghurt and then a loaf of freshly made local bread, a treat given that our bread was by now 5 days old.
Mobile donkey hay stacks

In Guitan we stayed in what I think was a traditional village hostel, a couple of large rooms where everyone slept on the floor, and a terrace where guests ate their meals. Again the reception was wonderful and despite the language barrier, the grannies were able to bond.
No pictures!
International Granny Convention

Day 7 - to the Chukurak Lakes

Another day and another 1000m of ascent over a pass where evidence of overgrazing was everywhere. The views to the valley below were stunning. The campsite, next to a lake surrounded by cliffs, was not as idyllic as it sounds.  The lake was full of dirty grey meltwater and a few broken glass bottles. At dinner our guide, through Niylu, did a mea culpa, telling us how sorry he was for getting lost on the first day, how he loved working with us, and that he hoped his mistake hadn't spoilt the trip. It was a very emotional moment, slightly strange because his mistake happened six days ago and on a trip like this, that's a lifetime away.

Day 8 To the Kulikon Valley

Another climb (900m) to a pass (Chukurak) with stunning views down to a series of turquoise lakes. The descent felt particularly long and was totally devoid of shade. The campsite was the most dramatic yet, set immediately below the north face of the Chimtarga (5487m),  and it turned cold suddenly once the sun set. I got a dose of what Christine calls man-flu (too much sun not enough water I suspect), and suffered a complete loss of appetite and decided to miss the nightly joys of the mess tent. This is despite the fact that our guide, still apologising for a mistake he insists on reminding us about, had bought a sheep, dispatched it behind a rock with his grandfather's despatching knife, and for the first time since the first night protein was part of the evening meal.
Stunning turquise lakes in the Fann Mountains

Day 9 - to the Alaudin Lakes.

Our 8th day of actual trekking and it's the beginning of the end. After climbing out of our cold shadowy campsite we descend into a valley which will be home for three nights before we finish the trek. It's perhaps just as well because as well as the tough walking, food poisoning had taken a visible toll on several members of a group. This should have been called the Fann Mountains weight loss trek. The particularly steep ascent doesn't help and is very tough on the ponies. Our guide was clearly relieved when they belatedly emerged over the pass behind us.

The campsite, near a beautiful but strangely turquoise coloured lake, had been well used (we were there at end of the season) and felt dirty and dusty, not a particularly comfortable place given the growing concern about hygiene.

Day 10 Up to Lake Mutnoe.

Early morning reflections on Lake Mutnoe
Today's walk involved a steady climb up an increasingly dramatic valley lined with multicoloured cliffs and hanging glaciers. By mid-afternoon cloud covered the mountain tops and for a time it felt like snow was on the way. The campsite next to a huge grey glacial lake felt cold and austere and rather than embark on a local tour, zipping up inside the sleeping bag was the most attractive option. Thankfully as day turned to night the clouds disappeared and as on the previous nights the sky was perfectly clear. The only consolation, if forced to leave the tent at night, is a perfect view of the Milky Way.

Day 11 Up to Mazalat Pass (4133m)

Good treks finish on a high and the last 2 days were for me the best on the whole trip. Food poisoning reduced the numbers willing to make the optional climb up to the pass but it was perhaps just as well that only 6 of the 12 strong group decided to go. As Karl put it the final ascent to the pass was a little "knarly". It involved crossing an icy snowfield that was longer and steeper than it looked and in the end had to be abandoned in favour of a scramble up some steep unstable scree. Karl's experience proved invaluable and the 'knarliness' of the route added to the sense of achievement on reaching the top. A 'pass' doesn't sound as good as a 'summit' but the views from the top were huge and fabulous. Of course, we came down at breakneck speed, probably too fast for Christine's knees one of which swelled up in protest.
A retreating Christine

After the earlier experience at Lake Mutnoe the crew had moved our campsite around the lake to a much cleaner place - much appreciated.
Summit teams

Day 12 Over the Chapdara Pass

The landscape on the last day was subtly different, more open with wider longer slopes. The grass, although burnt by the sun, didn't feel as savagely overgrazed. The highlight on the way up the pass was seeing the big cat, probably about 250m away, which Stuart confidently designated an Asiatic Mountain Lynx. It was big and once it saw us watching it, lolloped away across the mountainside. I was lucky enough to see a Lynx in Spain, in the Sierra Nevada,, and this one looked bigger - could it have been a mountain lion?
Over the Chapdara Pass

Lunch, by the way, was always picnic style, with the food carried by the pony. It was generally the best meal of the day. Our last picnic, on a flat glacial outwash underneath a towering cliff, was also the best in a series of stunning picnic locations.

The final mess tent meal came complete with the usual exchange of tips and gifts. The crew were a nice bunch and seemed really happy that we were happy with what they had done for us.

Day 13 To Khujand.

Leaving the campsite at 8-30 in the morning we arrived at Khujand at about 3-30 in the afternoon. It's the 2nd largest city in Tajikistan and the comfortable hotel is located outside the city centre near a huge abandoned Soviet era military complex, complete with railway lines, repair depots, and derelict arms factories. Our host, the guy who owns the local agency (who sports- like many others in Tajikistan- a mouthful of gold teeth) is desperate for us to have a good time and takes us to dinner in the evening to an impossibly noisy restaurant. We eat in a quieter side room but 'gold teeth' insists on us hitting the dance floor before leaving and we all reveal dance moves that should have remained hidden

Day 14 Samarkand

After a 2 hour trip, we cross the border into Uzbekistan with each side replicating the other's bureaucratic steps. The dodgy money changers on the Tajik side proved to be the last chance to get rid of Tajik money as they don't change it in Uzbekistan.
Ancient and modern? - A Soviet era Gaz in Registan Square

The drive across the most fertile part of Uzbekistan is interesting but our guide assumes that we don't want to know anything about what it is we are seeing and unless asked to comment doesn't say anything. The cotton harvest is in full swing and every so often a convoy of escorted buses full of cotton pickers goes hurling down the road. Apparently every year the government 'organises' around 1 million people to pick the cotton and the degree of choice participants have is a point of controversy.

The hotel in Samarkand is lovely, right next to Bibi Khanym Mosque.

Day 15 Tour of Samarkand
Bibi Khanym Mosque

I've got very mixed feelings about Samarkand and the city tour. The distinctive architecture of the mosques and Madrassahs is striking but the extent of restoration, a complete 20th century rebuild in most cases, made me uneasy. This, combined with the tight schedule and restaurants packed with tour groups, made me feel like I was on some Disney ride. The low point was the visit to the paper making workshop, a technique everyone in the world seems to have invented. Almost reluctantly, however, I did find lots to interest me in the day.

Day 16 Tashkent

Originally we were supposed to catch a train to Tashkent but we again ended up on the bus and journey made worse by the fact that 70 percent of it was a repeat of the route we had taken on the way to Samarkand. We arrived in the city at about 4, had 45mins in the market and an hour or so in the hotel before dinner. By the time we left it at 5 in the morning we were desperate to get home.

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