Windswept Desolation In Karakul, Tajikistan
Windswept Desolation In Karakul, Tajikistan was originally published in June 2020
Most travelers journeying along Tajikistan’s main tourist attraction, the Pamir Highway, tend to only make a short stop in Karakul to break for breakfast lunch and to gaze at the blue waters.
Sure, the village of Karakul isn’t the most happening place, but you’ll quickly find that most of the locals are truly kind, inviting you into their homes or just walking around with you.
The landscapes in this part of Tajikistan are lunar, and with the salt dusted shores of the impact crater that is Karakul Lake, it feels out of this world.
When people ask me about planning their trip along the Pamir Highway I always recommend spending at least a day in Karakul to experience the area, and also to break up the incredibly long drive between Murghab and Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
Looking for more adventure into the Eastern Pamir? Check out my Eastern Pamir Travel Guide
The existence of Karakul is argued to date back to the Pliocene Epoch, with estimates coming in at 23-25 million years ago by some and 5 million years ago by others. The lake was created by the impact of a meteor, though scientists didn’t stumble upon this until a little over 30 years ago when analyzing the area.
The lake’s name means ‘black lake’, in Turkic languages, such as Kyrgyz, Uyghur, and Uzbek. As you’ll see researching a trip to Central Asia there are several lakes and places by the name of Karakul (some with alternative spellings), including Karakol, Kyrgyzstan, and Karakul, Xinjiang, China.
How To Get To Karakul
Getting to Karakul is fairly easy as it’s located right on the Pamir Highway.
From Murghab: You’ll want to take an Osh-bound shared taxi from the Murghab Bazaar in the early morning. They leave when full, but its best to make arrangements the day prior for one of the departing shared taxis to pick you up in the morning (sometimes drivers will stop by guesthouses in the late afternoon, peaking their head in to ask if anyone’s looking for a ride the next day). It takes about three hours to reach Karakul. You can expect to pay 50-70 TJS for the ride.
From Osh: From Osh, you’ll need to head to nearby Murghab-Baza where Murghab-bound shared taxis depart from. Most depart between 3-5 am, so you’ll need to arrive early. Expect to pay around 1,000 KGS for the roughly 12 hour drive.
From Say Tash: Sary Tash is just over the Kyrgyz border at Kyzyl Art from Karakul, taking about two hours. Osh-Murghab shared taxis make a stop here to let out passengers and to stop in for snacks at the shop along the highway, so it would be smart to have your guesthouse call ahead to arrange one to pick you up here in the morning.
Heading to Murghab? Check out my Murghab Travel Guide for ideas
Getting Out Of Karakul
Getting out of Karakul can be a bit trickier than getting to it as you’ll need to find a car passing in the direction you plan to go with an empty seat. It’s best to have your homestay host call to see if anyone is coming through but know that it may be a day or two you’ll wait.
Things To Do In Karakol
Walk The Salt Dusted Shores
Karakul is a massive salt lake. If you walk down to the shore from Karakul Village and walk north along its edge you’ll see what looks like snow all around. It’s actually salt (though there could be snow, it snowed when I was there!) that’s evaporated and blown onto the shore. If you don’t mind total desolation with anything more than the sound of the wind, you’ll likely find hanging out on the shores of Karakul relaxing.
Karakul is one of the best areas in Tajikistan to go birdwatching thanks to the somewhat marshy patches along parts of the shore.
Wander Through The Village
Wandering the maze of low-slung white hovels is a good way to meet people here in Karakul. Life is harsh out here in this stark region of the Pamirs, and I found people to be very welcoming.
Hike Up Aral Yuj
You’ll either need your own transport or will need to arrange for someone to take you and pick you up (unless you don’t mind tacking 30 kilometers onto the hike) for the trek up Aral Yuj, on the south shore of Karakul. The hike offers gorgeous views of the lake and its island of Aral Severnyi. Unfortunately, I did not do this trek on any of my visits to Karakul yet, but my friend Saidali let me in on the secret.
Looking for more treks in the country? Check out the 10 best treks in Tajikistan
Things To Do Near Karakul
Karakul makes for a good base for those wanting to really dig in and explore what the Eastern Pamir has to offer.
The Tanymas Valley is located southwest of Karakul, accessible by a jeep track following the Kokuibel River, passing Shurali in route to Kök Jar, the start of the Tanymas Valley. The Tanymas Valley continues southwest to Gudara to become the Bartang Valley.
Need help planning your Pamir Highway adventure? Check out this perfect 10 day Pamir Highway itinerary
Where To Stay In Karakul
Several homes in Karakul Village function as homestays offering room and board for $10-20 USD per night.