Climbing Kyzyldong in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains
Updated August 2023, Climbing Kyzyldong in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains was originally published in September 2021
Sat there one morning with my friend Zhandiya in Khorog I was mulling over the Pamirs Map, trying to decide where I wanted to go after my next move- the Shokhdara Valley. The only limiting factor was time, as this visit back to Tajikistan for the seventh (or was it the eighth) return was winding down.
I wanted a challenge but nothing too time-consuming, as many things in the Pamirs are- sometimes it takes days to travel to the starting point of your trek, or maybe you have to wait two extra days to find a car bound for your destination. I also wanted something that would fit nicely between my adventure to the Shokhdara Valley and Murghab, my final destination before heading back to Dushanbe to fly home.
That’s when Zhandiya suggested that I climb Kyzyldong. She had led an expedition up there a couple of years back, assuring me that it was difficult but nothing too technical.
So my mind was set. I was going to Kyzyldong, which fit perfectly in my plan.
Start here: The Tajikistan Travel Guide
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A Journey through Shokhdara Valley en Route to Kyzyldong
I had an aim of traveling the length of the Shokhdara Valley from Khorog to Jawshangouz before the start of my climb up Kyzyldong. What I did will be a bit different than most others, but as I’ve traveled the Pamir Highway so many times now that I’ve lost count. Not to worry, I will also tell you how to access the trek and climb from Khorog and Murghab.
Fast-forwarding through the Shokhdara Valley, I arrived at the scattered settlements of Jawshangouz at sunset. On arrival, I met a family willing to take me in for the night, functioning as an impromptu homestay. Their home, located quite close to the start of the route leading to Tayrumtaikul Lake.
I got up with the intent the next morning to trek to Tayrumtaikul and camp for the night and carry on to the village of Jelondy that sits on the Pamir Highway. This plan was quickly thwarted by my hosts. They had gotten word that some friends of theirs were taking their UAZ up the track to the east of Jawshangouz and to the green jailoos around Tayrumtaikul to go trout fishing.
Before long, I was bouncing along a jeep track in an old UAZ packed to the gills (as you do in Tajikistan), hysterically laughing with the crew as we made our way up to the river that feeds into the lake.
I ended up staying to fish with them for the afternoon (I realize this is getting long-winded, so I’ll tell the rest of the Tayrumtaikul story in a different post)- needless to say, the fishing trip turned into a dance party and fish fry, laced shots of cheap Tajik vodka of course.
Around 4 pm my newfound friends sent me on my way, wanting me to get down to Jelondy before dark. So there I was full of fish and a little tipsy, meandering my way down to the next village.
I did make it to Jelondy without much hassle, crashing at a homestay that hadn’t seen a tourist in almost two years.
Plan your stay with the Khorog Travel Guide
Getting to Koitezek Pass to Begin the Trek
I said goodbye to my homestay host in the morning around 8 am to start hitching on the Pamir Highway to Koitezek Pass. As I made my way toward the highway I did see a couple of Kamaz trucks trundle by, giving me hope that I had times this well.
In all, I waited less than 30 minutes before a Landcruiser came into view in the distance. At this point I had crossed the highway to get a closer view of a statue, an arm broke off lying in front of it and nothing indicating who it was.
I ran back across the road and began flapping my arm to get the driver’s attention. The Landcruiser lurched to a stop and a door popped open. Four men were sat inside, one asked where I was going, so I replied “Koitezek”.
A clanking of empty vodka bottles, followed by a rustling of bags happened. I was then given my formal invitation into the vehicle.
We chatted en route, the men eventually asking what I was going to do in Koitezek Pass. If you’ve never been to Tajikistan and went past here, know that it’s a fairly barren moonscape. I explained that I was planning to summit Kyzyldong from there.
I was peering out the window looking for a set of jeep tracks veering from the top of the pass south toward the Southern Alichur Range. Once the tracks came into view the Landcruiser started to come to a stop, turning onto them.
Again, I told the man driving that they could drop me off up at the top of the pass. The men insisted at that point that they take me to the shepherding camp down the valley.
As we bumped down a set of rough tracks, I figured out that the men were from Uchkul, a small chain of lakes off of the Afghan border near Zorkul on their way up to Murghab to visit some relatives. Specifically, they were Marco Polo sheep hunting guides, meaning they knew the Pamirs like the backs of their hands.
We eventually arrived at the trail’s end, at a small stone shepherding home. A young man popped out of the front door to see what the commotion could be when we all hopped out of the car. His name was Hussain and he was from nearby Jawshangouz.
The men chatted with Hussein for a minute before hopping back into the Landcruiser to continue back to the Pamir Highway and on to Murghab. Of course, they denied my payment attempts, even though they drove me a considerable distance off the highway from Koitezek Pass.
Hussain invited me for some chai. You could tell he was quite bored out here by himself watching over his herd of cattle grazing at high pasture. He’d be here in the pasture until roughly September, with the occasional visit over the mountains and back to his wife and son in Jawshangouz.
Looking for things to do around Murghab? Check out my guide to the Murghab Plateau
On to Kyzyldong Basecamp
2 hours 20 mins
By early afternoon I said my goodbyes, to begin my trek to Kyzyldong Basecamp. Following a channel dredged to divert water, I crossed to the other side over concrete blocks. The channel eventually ended where I met back with the main river flowing north from the Southern Alichur Range.
The valley slowly gained altitude as I meandered along the river, eventually arriving into a cul de sac where the range dead-ended the valley. From here, I ventured east climbing a knoll that rolled up closer toward Kyzyldong. On the way up the knoll, I located a spring feeding into a small stream trickling down toward the larger river flowing out of the valley, making my decision to camp up there seem even more meant to be.
Arriving at 4,633 meters, atop the knoll that I deemed fit for camping (meaning it was acceptably flat enough for me), I set up my tent, barricading it with large boulders that were strewn atop the hill to protect myself from the wind that can rip through these Pamiri peaks and valleys. After a quick dinner, I hurried off to sleep knowing that I’d have an early day to come.
Summit Day: Kyzyldong
10.35 km (return)
12 hours 30 mins
+1,071 m / -1,071 m
My alarm went off at the crack of 3:30 am. Of course, I hit snooze and rolled over, finally giving up and sitting up at 4:30 am (I’m not a will never be a ‘morning person’).
After some rustling around in the freezing air of the morning, I got some water boiling for my morning chai and dehydrated breakfast. I finally found myself, boots on hitting the trail (okay, spoiler alert: there is no trail) at around 5:30 am as the sky began to shift to pale blue.
I continued walking atop the knoll due south looking for a spot I thought looked best to climb up to reach the ridgeline.
The only information I had to go on was a map, my GPS, what I could remember of Zhandiya’s tale of her summit, and a random snippet from a website. The website, written in Spanish, was a brief piece about a couple who climbed Kyzyldong.
In summary, that snippet said to follow the ridgeline to the summit and to avoid the northeast face due to falling stones. It also went on to explain that there were some passages through near-vertical snowfields, requiring crampons. So, not very informative.
Eventually, I did arrive at a spot that I thought looked like it would be the best option for reaching the ridgeline, so up I went. It was an arduous journey getting up to the ridgeline, hopping over boulders stacked steep on the mountainside, sliding on patches of scree.
After a little more than four and a half hours, I finally did reach the top of the ridgeline with the Murghab Plateau to the east coming into view. At an elevation of 5,320 meters I had to stop for a minute to take in the stunning views in every direction, and have a snack before continuing up to the summit.
The next section atop the ridge was less demanding, albeit at a higher altitude and still requiring boulder hopping. Over that first kilometer after reaching the ridgeline, I gained 210 meters in elevation, with a lot of ups and downs. By 11:45 am a cloud rolled in from the west bring snow with it as I inched closer to the top.
Before long, the snow blew over bringing blue skies and a rainbow over the summit of Kyzyldong in what felt like the beginning of the final approach. From here on, many boulders glazed in ice and the air frigid. Eventually, this was the point where the crampons needed to go on to continue up a near-vertical patch of snow and ice-polished rock to avoid a vertical rock wall with a long plummet down to jagged rock below.
The final section to the top was challenging due to the ice, steepness, and cold, but straightforward. The one thing that I would recommend having on hand to make this last part easier is an ice ax.
At just after 1:45 pm, I finally reached the 5,704 meter (18,713 foot) summit of Kyzyldong with the sun shining down from above, warming the chilled air. I felt surprisingly well, considering this was the highest I’d ever been- 5,200 meters before being the highest. I didn’t spend too much time celebrating up top as I knew I still had a long journey back to basecamp.
On the way back down Kyzyldong I followed close to the exact route I took to the summit, sliding down the snowy sections along the ridgeline to hurry the process a bit.
As I made my way down the ridge a headache kicked in around 5,000 meters. I thought it was odd but presumed that I was having a bit of a delayed reaction to the altitude. The headache continued to get stronger as I continued downward.
I found myself rolling back into basecamp at about 6 pm still with the headache, zero appetite, and completely exhausted. In all the total time down took a hair over 4 hours.
When I began my descent, I was daydreaming about a warm meal when I arrived back to basecamp, but given my state, I decided to force down a candy bar and some water before falling right asleep as the golden sunlight beamed through the walls of my tent.
Check out the Eastern Pamir Travel Guide
Basecamp Back to Koitezek Pass
2 hours 30 mins
I popped awake just after 2:00 am, tossing and turning around. The good news was that I felt 1000% better than I did when I fell asleep the night before. Finally, I gave up around 4:00 am and started making breakfast. The dehydrated packet I intended to eat the night before but skipped because of the headache.
After a leisurely breakfast, I packed up and started moving by 6:00 am bound for Koitezek Pass and the Pamir Highway in hopes to hitch a ride to Murghab. The trek back was uneventful, following the course of the river out of the valley and back down to the shepherding camp where I met Hussein two days prior.
I didn’t see Hussein anywhere but I did run across some of who I assume were his herd of cattle, so I continued. From the shepherding house, I followed the course of the 4×4 tracks up to the highway.
About half a kilometer before I reached the road a Landcruiser drove past. I recognized the car, as I had seen it a couple of other times since I left Dushanbe- driven by a couple. Two of the very small handful of tourists in Tajikistan this year.
I had a little worry in the pit of my stomach that the car could have been one of the only cars to go by today that had room. Though that worry was completely unfounded. I arrived at the highway at 8:15 am and about 7 minutes later I could see a Kamaz truck trundling along the potholed M41 toward me, coming from Jelondy.
Kamaz trucks are slow and arduous, and on the Pamir Highway, that’s even more pronounced. The truck came to a gradual halt as it approached me. I popped the door open and verified he was going to Murghab and at 8:45 am we were off.
In all the journey to Murghab took 5 hours and 45 minutes, many times creeping along at less than 25 kph. That included a pitstop at the Goldenfish Cafe in Alichur for a hot bowl of lagman, that the Kamaz driver inevitably paid for. Of course, when we got to Murghab he refused my payments, but when he wasn’t looking I stuffed a few Somoni on a shelf built into the dash of the truck.
The Kyzyldong Summit GPX File & Info
19.85 km to 30.80 km
What to Pack for Kyzyldong
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping mat
- Camp stove + cooking utensils
- Hiking boots
- Hiking pants
- Layering pants/shirts
- Warm jacket
- Ice ax
- Backpack + daypack
- Inreach or GPS
- Pamirs Map
Have any questions about climbing Kyzyldong?
Ask in the comments section below.