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How to get to Lake Sarez, Tajikistan

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Lake Sarez

So you’re planning to visit Tajikistan eh? Looking for an impressive, beautiful and interesting destination within the country to visit that’s newly open to foreigners? Then Lake Sarez might be the adventure for you.

I visited Tajikistan in both 2016 and 2017 and finally made it to the lake the second time around. I had been interested in visiting on my first trip, however I couldn’t track down much to any information on it.

In 2015 the Tajik government began allowing foreigners to visit Lake Sarez after having forbid it for 15 years.

After going home and researching it for the planning stages of my second trip all signs led me to one person who could get me there, and that is a man named Nurmuhammed who runs Sarez Travel.

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Okay, this won’t take place at Lake Sarez, but if you’re interested in experiencing life with Kyrgyz nomads in Tajikistan’s Eastern Pamir, seeing the Chinese Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Tashkurgan and exploring the super remote Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan check out my group tour I’ll be leading with Inertia Network in June & July of 2018!

A little about Lake Sarez

Lake Sarez only exists because of disaster. If anything ever causes the destruction of Lake Sarez it will be one of the largest scale disasters the world has ever seen.

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Usoi Dam splits Lake Shadau from the main Lake Sarez.

In 1911 a 7.4 magnitude earthquake rattled the Bartang Valley in the Central Pamir and shook down an entire mountainside into the Murghab River, in what would become the Usoi Dam, the tallest and highest dam in the world. The landslide buried the villages of Usoi and Sarez and killed an estimated 90 people. With the new dam blocking the water from flowing down from Murghab a lake began to form and continued to grow over the years.

Lake Sarez now is 75km (47mi) long and is heavily monitored for any changes. Usoi Dam is regarded to be stable by some and extremely unstable by other groups. If the Dam were to ever breach it would send a wall of water hurdling down the Bartang Valley, likely destroying most everything in its path. It would wipe out the villages in the narrow Bartang Valley below Lake Sarez, northern Afghanistan and possibly even into Uzbekistan.

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The Aksuu flowing toward Murghab.

The Murghab River

The river I’m referring to here is the Aksuu-Murghab-Bartang River. The river rises from Chaqmaqtin Lake in the Little Pamir Mountains in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan where it is called the Aksuu River, it continues east across the Tajik border near the village of Shimak and then heads north toward the city of Murghab. Once the river passes the city it is usually referred to as the Murghab River where it flows west into Lake Sarez. Below Lake Sarez the Gudara River flows into the Murghab, and at this point the name changes to the Bartang River. The Bartang River continues to flow southwest down the valley until close to the village of Rushon where it joins into the River Panj. From there the Panj continues southwest joins the Vahksh River that tumbles down from Tajikistan’s big glaciers like the Fedchenko. When the Panj and Vahksh join is where it becomes the Amu Darya, sometimes better known by it’s old Latin name Oxus- one of Central Asia’s most important rivers. The Amu Darya along with the Syr Darya are what fed the Aral Sea.

*There is another Murghab River That flows from central Afghanistan to the Murghab District in the Baghdis Province and onto the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan. This is a completely different river. Confusing, right? 

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What do you need to visit Lake Sarez?

Long story short: You need to contact Sarez Travel in order to obtain the permit and necessary guide.

When I was researching how to get to Lake Sarez, really the only solid piece of information I had tracked down was that you need a Lake Sarez permit in order to go there. How to get one? Well that’s where things get a little murky. In Lonely Planet’s Central Asia edition it does mention that the permits are issued in Dushanbe by the Ministry of Emergency Situations (however, I’ve never tracked down any evidence of foreigners getting the permit directly). After asking several agencies in and around Tajikistan about obtaining the permit the resounding answer was that I needed to contact Nurmuhammed with Sarez Travel, as this was the only agency that could obtain the permit.

How to get a Lake Sarez permit

First you will need to contact Nurmuhammed at Sarez Travel, email: info @ sarez.travel, phone: +992 (93) 407 25 46. Especially in summer/fall try to get in contact a good amount of time in advance as sometimes Nurmuhammed is leading tours (he does employ a few local guides that take travelers out) and if he’s out of phone coverage it may be quite a while before he can respond. Tell him what route you’d like to take, and which dates (most people choose to trek from Barchidev to Lake Sarez over the Usoi Dam and return to Barchidev, and a 4×4 from Khorog to Barchidev return, as this is the shortest trekking route to access the lake). Nurmuhammed will need four things from you:

  • A copy of your passport information page
  • A copy of your Tajik Visa
  • A copy of your GBAO Permit (should be on you visa if you applied for them together)
  • Proof of travel insurance (World Nomads is a good option, although skip their article on ‘How to stay safe in Tajikistan’- clearly whomever wrote is has never stepped foot in the country- fear mongering at best)

These items are what he needs to obtain your permit for you. The Sarez permits cost $50 per day.

It is mandatory to have a local guide to visit Lake Sarez. You will be fined if found by park rangers/police/local KGB without a permit. It is a large fine, with possible detention and/or deportation. Sarez Travel can arrange a guide and donkeys to porter gear if necessary.

Technically you should have a Tajik National Park Permit as well

Whether you approach Lake Sarez from Barchidev or from Bachor/Yashilkul you do technically need a Tajik National Park permit as it all sits within the park. These are easy to obtain- just visit the PECTA office in the Central Park in Khorog where you can pick one up. The fee is 15 Somoni per day. In all honestly I was never asked to show mine anywhere, and I have been a number of places within the Tajik National Park. Word from most Tajiks is that if you are asked for it out there by a ranger and don’t have it, they’ll just charge you the 15 Somoni per day on the spot.

Getting to Lake Sarez

Most trekkers will approach from the village of Barchidev, although there are also trails that connect the Mountain Lakes of Bachor and Yashilkul to Lake Sarez. The easiest route is from the village of Barchidev.

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Barchidev.

Barchidev-Lake Sarez-Barchidev

You will likely start from Khorog, where you’ll make the roughly 7 hour 4×4 journey down the Pamir Highway to the village of Rushon- the gates of the Bartang Valley. From here you will continue up the rough and wild Bartang Highway to the village of Barchidev. After spending the night in a homestay in Barchidev (likely Nurmuhammed’s family’s home), you’ll begin the day hike to the lake. The distance is roughly 15km (9.3mi) each way, you’ll cross a suspension bridge over the river and follow a valley to Usoi Dam where you’ll climb up to the top with views of Lake Sarez and Shadau Lake which are separated by the Dam. You’ll then climb down to the edge of the lake and spend the night in one of the large tents set up outside the Geological Camp. You will get to tour the Geological Camp and meet the men that work to monitor the lake’s stability, they’ll even show you how the seismic equipment they use works if you’re interested.

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The next morning you will have some time around the lake (that is unless you opt for a longer trip to have more time at the lake) before you make the journey back to Barchidev, yet again staying in the homestay, then depart the next day back to Khorog or wherever you continue onto.

This trip usually takes 4 days, 2 driving to/from, 2 trekking. The cost including 4×4, guide, meals, and homestay was $708 including Sarez permit in August 2017, of course this cost would be divided up amongst travelers (supplemental fees would be added for necessary additional meals needed to accommodate group size) if traveling in a group, or able to join a group already going.

It is possible to have it arranged to have a boat take you from Usoi Dam to Irkht where you can continue trekking down to either Bachor or Yashilkul.

Bachor or Yashilkul-Langar Pass-Uchkul-Lake Sarez-Uchkul-Zarojkul-Tsaxinkul-Bachor

This is a much longer trip with some variations. I, personally have only hiked Bachor to Tsaxinkul and back to Bachor (got a stomach bug and had to turn back), so I don’t have personal information from doing this trek. You will want to be well acclimated for this trek, and the reason why it is recommended to go via Langar Pass on the way up and Uch, Zaroj and Tsaxin Lakes on the way back is because of the quick elevation gain if you were to approach Sarez from the lakes side of the trek, coming up the other way is a much more gradual gain. The trek is roughly 100 km (62mi) roundtrip. The trek would bring you to the village of Irkht near the Meteorological Station. It is possible to arrange a boat to take you from Irkht to Usoi Dam where optionally you could continue to Barchidev. Some of the trails around Lake Sarez may be difficult to pass, as there was a large earthquake in December 2015 that had damaged some of the existing trails.

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Tsaxinkul.

Agencies I recommend

As far as I know Sarez Travel is the only agency taking trekkers out here. I was able to have Nurmuhammed guide me on my trip. He was very kind and professional and would definitely recommend him. Also his wife cooks some great dishes at their homestay in Barchidev. If you go in August they will feed you fresh apricots until you nearly explode.

Safety

Generally speaking Lake Sarez is a safe place to visit as far as crime and people go. Your biggest concern here would be earthquakes and the things that go with it- like that Biblical flood I mentioned earlier, landslides, and the like. It is a good idea to carry an emergency beacon, like an Inreach Explorer + and a copy of the Pamirs Map just in case shit hits the fan out there.

Literature

My favorite book on Tajikistan is ‘Tajikistan and the High Pamirs‘ by Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas. It’s a great book that combines history and information with travel tips and recommendations and even info on a few hikes- it’s quite heavy so I don’t think I’d lug it on the trek with you. Lonely Planet’s Central Asia is a decent guidebook to look over before travel to Tajikistan, but is fairly limited as it covers the entire region in one book. The above mentioned Pamirs Map is handy for all travel in the GBAO.

NEED TRAVEL INSURANCE?

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Planning a Tajikistan adventure?

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Pamir Highway Guide- This guide focuses on travel along the world’s grandest road trip.

Fann Mountains Guide- Wanna visit the Fann Mountains, Tajikistan’s premier trekking destination?

Tajikistan Travel Guide- The all-in-one guide to traveling Tajikistan.

Solo Female Travel in Tajikistan- What it’s like and what you need to know before you ladies out there travel solo in Tajikistan.

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Here’s some clickbait…

10 Reasons to Visit Tajikistan- Who doesn’t love a generic ‘10 reasons‘ posts? At least it’s not a generic destination…

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