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How to get to Lake Sarez
Updated April 2020, How to get to Lake Sarez was originally written January 2018
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’ve visited Tajikistan several times now and 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.
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.
In 2015 the Tajik government began allowing foreigners to visit Lake Sarez after having forbid it for 15 years.
Start planning your adventure here: The Tajikistan Travel Guide
LAKE SAREZ TABLE OF CONTENTS
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.
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 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 hurtling 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.
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 Shaimak 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 Rushan 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 Vakhsh join is where it becomes the Amu Darya, sometimes better known by its old Latin name Oxus- one of Central Asia’s most important rivers.
The Amu Darya along with the Syr Darya is 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?
More adventure awaits in the Central Pamir: The Bartang Valley Travel Guide
What Do You Need To Visit Lake Sarez?
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
You will need to contact one of the above-mentioned agencies to secure a Lake Sarez Permit. For Nurmuhammed at Sarez Travel, email: info @ sarez.travel, phone: +992 (93) 407 25 46. For Saidmamad at Discover The Pamirs, phone: +992 (93) 120 11 14, email: info @ discoverthepamirs.com. For Bartang & Sarez Tours phone: (+992) 93 597 37 25, email: bartangsareztour @ gmail.com.
Especially in summer/fall try to get in contact a good amount of time in advance as many of the guides that do take people here will be out leading tours and phone coverage is spotty out here. Tell them 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). They 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 your visa if you applied for them together)
- Proof of travel insurance (World Nomads is an option, although skip their article on ‘How to stay safe in Tajikistan’- clearly whoever wrote it 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 $25 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 honesty, I was never asked to show mine anywhere, and I have been to 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. I found this to be the case in 2019, when I met a park ranger in a different part of the Tajik National Park, he just asked for the number of days and calculated the fee- no biggie.
How To Get 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.
Barchidev To Lake Sarez Trek
Barchidev ➤ Lake Sarez Camp ➤ Barchidev
2 Days, 1 Night
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 Rushan- 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 15 kilometers 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.
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 trek usually takes 2 days and 1 night to complete. Once you include driving to/from Khorog the trip easily becomes 4 days, 3 nights. 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 arrange a boat take you from Usoi Dam to Irkht where you can continue trekking down to either Bachor or Yashilkul.
Looking to do more hiking? Check out the 10 best hikes in Tajikistan for more ideas
Bachor Or Yashilkul To Lake Sarez Trek
Bachor/Yashilkul ➤ Tsaxinkul ➤ Zarojkul ➤ Uchkul ➤ Irkht ➤ Lake Sarez ➤ Barchidev
Bachor/Yashilkul ➤ Langar Pass ➤ Uchkul ➤ Irkht ➤ Lake Sarez ➤ Barchidev
8 Days, 7 Nights
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 as altitudes reach just over 46,00 meters at the highest point. The trek is roughly 100 kilometers to go from Bachor or Yashilkul to Barchidev.
For one option you can from Bachor or Yashilkul head north first to Tsaxinkul Lake, on to Zarojkul then Uchkul, and eventually on to Irkht where you can arrange for a boat to take you to the geological camp at Usoi Dam and complete the trek to end in Barchidev.
For those wanting a more gradual altitude gain, you can opt to head up the Langar Pass from either Bachor or Yashilkul to reach Uchkul and then continue on the same trail the remainder of the way.
Lastly, you can do this trek as a loop, starting from Yashilkul, up Langar Pass to Uchkul, and onto Irkhut for views of Lake Sarez and then head back south via Uchkul, Zarojkul, and Tsaxinkul and finish in Bachor (can also be done in reverse).
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.
Planning to head east into the Murghab Plateau? Check out my Eastern Pamir Travel Guide
Tours & Guides
Nurmuhammed of Sarez Travel is who I arranged to go to Lake Sarez with as at the time it was the only agency taking trekkers out here. 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.
Saidmamad of Discover The Pamirs has begun guiding tourists out to Lake Sarez as well as other parts of the Pamir. He’s offering scheduled group departures in addition to custom and private trips.
Bartang & Sarez Tour is a newer company that’s popped up offering tours to Lake Sarez. I don’t have experience with them, so I can’t personally comment on their trips. You can find their Facebook page as well here.
- Warm outer shell jacket x1
- Down jacket x1
- Fleece x1
- Merino wool long sleeve base layer top x2
- Merino wool short sleeve base layer x2
- Trekking pants x1
- Merino wool leggings x2
- Trekking socks x2
- Warm socks x1
- Sports bra x2
- Mittons x1
- Warm hat x1
- Sunglasses x1
- Microfiber towel x1
- Biodegradable shampoo bar
- Biodegradable soap
- Biodegradable wipes
- Toilet Paper
- First Aid Kit
- Hand sanitizer
- Pamirs Map by Markus Hauser
- Maps.me does have the trail marked on the Tajikistan map
- Open Street Maps has the trail marked as well
- Trekking in Tajikistan by Jan Bakker & Christine Orhiol. A super handy trekking book with loads of useful info and maps.
- Tajikistan and the High Pamirs by Robert Middleton & Hue Thomas. This is a huge book, but it has so much good info on Tajikistan from the history, great-game stories, travel information, and more.
- Bradt Guide Tajikistan by Sophie Ibbotson & Max Lovell-Hoare. This is the most in-depth and up to date Tajikistan guide in print.
- Central Asia by Lonely Planet. Handy to have with you, although don’t necessarily treat it like a bible. This is a good option if you’re traveling through multiple Central Asia nations. Things rapidly change and the currency can fluctuate so it’s not always dead on. A new edition published in 2018 and I heavily question whether the writer in charge of the Tajikistan section had ever stepped foot in the country, you’ve been warned.
- The Central Asia Phrasebook by Lonely Planet I found this to be a handy item for Tajik, Russian and Kyrgyz phrases, not so much for the Wakhi phrase section.
Recommended Gear For Those Trekking From Bachor/Yashilkul to Lake Sarez
- Inreach Explorer+
- Backpack (I personally recommend the Ariel 65 for women)
- Hiking boots (My favorite is the La Sportiva Nucleo High GTX)
- Waterproof sandals
- Katadyn water purifier
- Sleeping mat
- 3-season tent
- Hydration Pack
- Sleeping bag cold rated to -6ºC/20ºF
- Campstove and Cooking set
- Silicone squeeze tubes (for cooking with sauces, olive oil, etc.)
- Propane/butane canister (available for purchase at Greenhouse Hostel in Dushanbe)
- Trekking poles
- This trek involves three permits: A GBAO Permit, Lake Sarez Permit, and Tajik National Park Permit. You can apply for your GBAO when applying for your Tajik visa, as you will need this permit to travel anywhere in the GBAO region (ie: the entire eastern half of Tajikistan… yes this includes the Pamirs). The next is the Tajik National Park Permit which can be purchased at the PECTA office in the Central Park in Khorog for 15 TJS per day. The Lake Sarez Permit will need to be arranged by your tour operator for $25 USD per day.
- This trek takes place at over 3,000 meters, so do take care to avoid altitude sickness.
- The best time for trekking to Lake Sarez is between July and mid-September.
- Make sure that you do have your passport and e-visa paper with you. It will be checked at the GBAO checkpoints along the Pamir Highway.
- In order to get the Lake Sarez Permit, you’ll most likely need to arrange a trip with either Discover the Pamir, Sarez Travel, or Bartang & Sarez Tour and they will arrange for the permit for you and guide you there. Permits are issued by the Tajik Ministry of Emergency Situations in Dushanbe and from my understanding will usually only issue permits to the two above-mentioned agencies, not to individuals.
- You cannot fly in propane/butane tanks for cooking. You can pick one up in Dushanbe at Green House Hostel. If arriving from Kyrgyzstan it’s best to purchase one before leaving Osh.
- Tajikistan has frequent earthquakes and landslides are not unheard of. These are potential natural disasters to be aware of before heading here. The Biblical flood mentioned earlier in the post if the Usoi Dam were to breach is a concern.
- Make sure and take the proper time to acclimatize as the trek to Lake Sarez does take place at higher elevations. Learn more about preventing altitude sickness here.
- Due to the high-altitude nature of this area, it’s worth noting that temperatures can vary drastically day to night. Even in summer, it’s possible to see below freezing temps overnight.
- While highly unlikely you will run into them, Tajikistan’s mountain areas are home to Marco Polo sheep, snow leopards, bears, and wolves and are something to be aware of.
Have Questions About Trekking To Lake Sarez?
Ask your Lake Sarez questions in the comments section below.