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Mountaineering and Trekking in the Fan Mountains

More easily accessible than the Pamirs, the Fann Mountains (Fannsky Gory) offer trekkers, climbers, mountaineers and even the occasional day tripper a bewildering array of routes and the opportunity to quickly escape all signs of habitation, getting in the midst of some awe-inspiring scenery. They can be accessed either via Iskanderkul (also part of the Fann), or travelling south from the valley road between Penjikent and Aini, and the best time to visit is between June and September.

The majority of routes centre on Seven Lakes or Artuch. The Seven Lakes, or 'Haft Kul' in Tajik, are a necklace-like string of turquoise lakes stretched out through the mountains to the south of Penjikent. There are numerous photogenic picnic spots and short walks along the various lakeshores, the best of which is at the seventh and final lake, Hazor Chashma.

Trekking from Seven Lakes to Iskanderkul takes five days. Starting at Marguzoryou cross theTavasang Pass (3,300m) into the Archa Maidan Valley, from where the trail splits to either the northern Zurmech Pass (3,250m) and Artuch (see below), or to the Sarimal Valley and the Pshtikul Pass (3,820m) into the Archamaidon Valley. Keeping to the left side of the Archamaidon River, cross the bridge and climb the Dudandon Pass (4,000m), which has impressive views of Mount Pushnovat (4,637m) to the northwest and Mount Dudandon (4,300m) to the east. You descend to the junction with the Karakul River, and follow the north bank along to Sarytag, from where it is just 5km to the western end of Iskanderkul.

For a more demanding six-day route, try the Chimtarga Loop starting from Artuch. Trek southeast to Kul-i Kalon, then climb either the Laudan Pass (3,628m) or the steeper Alaudin Pass (4,104m) to the Alaudin Lakes and thence south to Lake Mutnoe. Climb the icy moraine of the Chimtarga Pass (4,740m) between Mount Chimarga and Mount Energiya, both of which are considerably over 5,000m. The path descends to Great Alio Lake. Continue northwest into the Archamaidon Valley, following the river as far as Gazza before taking on the Zurmech Pass (3,250m), which neatly leads you back to Artuch.

by Rick Allen

The border between Uzbekistan to the north and the Western part of Tajikistan is defined by a range of arid mountains called the Turkestan Range. The Zarafshan River, originating in the Alai peaks flows to the south of this range past the ancient city of Penjikent before it enters Uzbekistan. South of the Zarafshan River, the Hissor range of mountains also runs roughly east-west and is clearly visible from Dushanbe. Between the Hissor and Turkestan Ranges, in the Zarafshan Range, west of the Anzob Tunnel, lie the Fan mountains or Fannsky Gori. This fabulous alpine area is one of the best kept secrets of Central Asia.


The geology of the area is immensely varied, although the main rock ridges are composed predominantly of metamorphosed limestone. Mountain ridges comprising shales have been more extensively eroded and tend to be lower and more rounded. There are granite intrusions, coal measures and some fine dark red sandstone exposures also. Semi-precious stones have been found, particularly around the area of the Seven Lakes.


The region has a semi-arid, continental climate, with an annual rainfall of about 25 cm (10"). Winter lasts from November to April. The wettest month is April. The months of June to September tend to be warm and dry and are the best time for visiting the area.


Glacial activity has gouged out the principal valleys and the northern flanks of the high peaks and passes are still covered by numerous small glaciers. The area is dotted with spectacularly situated lakes, some left behind by retreating glaciers and others formed by major rock falls that have blocked the rivers. The largest, Iskandar Kul, lies in the East of the mountain group and was formed by the partial blocking of the Iskandar Darya. The lake is traditionally supposed to have been visited by Alexander the Great (Iskandar is the Arabic rendering of "Alexander"). The western limits of the area are defined by the valley of the seven lakes feeding the Shing River which runs north to join the Zarafshan at Penjikent and the eastern limit is the Yagnob river or Fan Darya, along which the road linking the two halves of the country passes.

The highest peak is Chimtarga at 5,489m and Moskva, Energia, Chetny, Zamok, Linkor and Bolshoi Ganza all top 5,000m.

Flora and Fauna

The lower reaches of the river valleys are forested with willow, walnut, apricot and maple but at altitudes above 2,000m juniper is the predominant species with gnarled specimens surviving high amongst the mountain scree slopes. These trees are under pressure from the summer inhabitants of the mountain valleys who use them for fuel.

Excessive hunting has decimated the animal population of the region. Snow leopard and lynx are extremely rare, although occasional sightings of the magnificent horned sheep and wild goats can be had. Wild boar inhabit the lower reaches of wooded river valleys and wolves, foxes and marmots are still to be found. The only animal to be feared in the region is the shepherd's dog, trained to keep wolves and any other unknown visitors at bay.


The mountains are inhabited from May to September by herdsmen and women from the valleys who bring their flocks and cattle to the high valleys for grazing. They are generally very hospitable and will usually press the passing traveller to sit down for tea, chunks of delicious, heavy wholemeal bread and yoghurt. No payment is expected. This can slow down progress on a trek considerably but is one of the highlights of travelling in the region. Some of these people will be fluent in several Central Asian languages and Russian. Most folk love to have their photographs taken but always ask first.

Police and army units also patrol the region to deter drug smuggling.


Systematic exploration and mapping of the area began with officers and civil servants of the Russian government after the area was annexed for the Tsar in the nineteenth century. Fedchenko, of the eponymous glacier in the Pamir, visited the area. Exploration for fun, commonly known as mountaineering, began seriously in the 1930s when Soviet alpinists succeeded in making first ascents of Chimtarga and a number of the other prominent peaks. In the 1960s visitors from Eastern Europe as well as the Soviet Union began to discover the attractions of this alpine playground just half a day's travel from the bazaars of Samarqand. All of the passes were crossed and classified, the peaks climbed and a number of difficult routes were established from the 1970s onwards on the main peaks. Tourists and holidaymakers from the industrial centres of Dushanbe, the Ferghana valley and further afield were accommodated in purpose-build alpine holiday bases at Iskandar Kul and Artuch.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, visa barriers arose, money for travel evaporated and a civil war erupted in Tajikistan. Visitors to the region dwindled to a trickle, leaving the high mountain valleys once more to the summer flocks and their herdsmen. After peace had returned to Dushanbe in the late 1990s a few travellers and mountaineers began to rediscover the Fan mountains but the area remains quiet and little visited, not much more than a record in the annals of Soviet alpinism.

Approaches and Accommodation

The mountains may be approached from Dushanbe via the Anzob Tunnel, and Khujand via the Shahristan Pass (a tunnel is due to open in 2012). It has also been possible to come from Samarqand, via Penjikent, but at the time of writing this route was closed. Once off the main road the tracks are potholed, steep and involve fording rivers. All wheel drive vehicles are essential. The southern approach is for trekking only, there is no accommodation.
Beginning in the West, from Penjikent it is possible to drive south to the Seven lakes from whence access to the high passes leading eastwards can be gained. An hour further east along the road towards Aini there is a turning South to the birthplace of the great Tajik scholar and poet Rudaki. Continuing on an increasingly rough road leads eventually to the mountain base of Artuch. Constructed for a trade union, this substantial establishment has a number of small chalets, long bunk houses and a large round central cooking and dining structure in natural stone and timber. It has a separate, dilapidated, shower and sauna block where, given enough notice, hot water can be delivered. Booking in advance is essential as all food is ordered specially from Penjikent. This base provides access to the northern part of the range over a number of high passes. There is a short, 50m crag for rock climbing nearby but this base is not ideally suited for easy access to the main mountaineering areas.

The approach from Dushanbe via the Anzob Tunnel leads in five hours to a turning westward at Zarafshan. This leads after 25km to the lake shore of Iskandar Kul where a Soviet-style holiday camp remains. Basic wood and stone chalets are scattered amongst the wooded lake shore and a there is a communal shower block, sauna and dining area. The toilets are fairly disgusting. Visiting parties need to bring all their own food. The lake is visually stunning and extremely refreshing for swimming on hot days. Mountains surround the lake on 3 sides and many treks through the range naturally lead to the valley at the far side of the lake where the president has a dacha. It is a great place to end a finish a trek with sizzling kebabs beside the lake shore as the sun sets on the tops.

Climbers do well to continue down the Fan Darya a further 5km before heading west up the Pasrud Darya for a bone shaking hour and a half. The reward at the end of this trail is a group of three relatively new (1993) chalets run by mountaineering enthusiasts from Moscow for three months each summer. Each chalet holds 10 people and there is a communal dining room where food is prepared daily. It has much more character and life than either Artuch or Iskandar Kul. Each summer, climbers, mostly from Eastern Europe, are re-discovering the big walls and mixed climbs that the heart of the range has to offer. Each year a week long climbing competition, Russian style, is held. Chimtarga, Energia, Chapdara and Zamok are all accessible from the valley system leading South up the Chapdara, past the ravishing turquoise Lake Alaudin. The glacial streams feeding this lake make swimming here a very brief pleasure.

The shortest approach to the range from Dushanbe is to drive towards Hissor and head north to pick up the Karatag river valley. At some point, the most robust four-wheel drive will fail at one of the river crossings and from there the walking begins. There is no accommodation in this valley so this is for those who wish to spend four days trekking over Mura Pass to Iskandar Kul.

Passes are graded by the Russian numerical and adjectival system and a general definition is offered to help the traveller interpret the grading.

Not classified - easy walk.

1a - pleasant walking, passable by pack animals.
1b - tough walking, normally not passable by pack animals.
2a and 2b - steep and requiring an ice axe, crampons and the experience to go
with them.
3a and 3b - very nasty. Not passes in most accepted senses of the word. Likely to require full mountaineering equipment and advisable only to approach neighbouring peaks as part of a climb.


The Fan mountains offer excellent treks of varying difficulty ranging from a few days to a week in length. The most obvious are described below but a number of other variations are possible.

The West-East Traverse

Described in this direction so that you have the accommodation at Iskandar Kul to aim for. Allow five days. Road transport will take you as far as the sixth lake on the Shing River south of Penjikent. From there proceed up the valley of the Kiogli river to a level camping spot below the Tavasang pass. Cross the pass 3,300m (not classified), from where the long haul up to the next pass is all too obvious and drop down to the valley of the Sarimal river. Cross the river and follow the Abusafedsol to another fine camping place. Cross the Munora pass in the morning 3,520m (la) and descend to the valley of the Archamaidon. Although a path is marked on the right (East) bank it is recommended to stay on the true left bank of the river all the way down and drop further down the Archamaidon to a bridge before beginning to travel up river again on the North bank of the Archamaidon. Cross this river after a couple of hours and continue up towards the Dukdon pass. Fine camping amongst trees can be found although some scrambling is required to reach the water.

The Dukdon pass at 3,810m (la) is magnificently poised between the Dukdon range to the south and the end of the range leading up to Peak Moskva to the North. A variant over the Pushnovat pass 4,100m (also la) is possible. The descent of the Dukdon is steep and without camping sites until a junction is reached with the Kara Kul River. It is advisable to cross to the West bank of the Dukdon and then re-cross to the East bank on the way down the gorge. From the junction with the Kara Kul River continue along the North bank of the Sarytag until the dirt road from Iskandar Kul to Kanchoch is reached. A hot and dusty descent of that road leads to the Western end of Iskandar Kul from where an hour's walk leads to the chalets and a welcome beer.

After crossing the Tavasang pass on day two it is possible to branch up stream on the Sarimal River and head South East towards the Sarymat Pass 4,160m (la). This would lead the following day over a small glacier down into the upper reaches of the Kara Kul River. This can then be followed all the way to Iskandar Kul. This route offers less variety than the one described above.

The South-North Traverse

Described in this direction because there is accommodation in the North but not in the South. This trek can be split at Iskandar Kul or either half undertaken separately.

Drive up the Karatag river from Hissor until your vehicle cannot cope with the fording the boulder-strewn river beds. This leaves you stranded just off any published map. Keep walking North up the Karatag to a junction with a stream flowing in from the East where there is good camping. Continue next day up the Karatag and Zambar to the highest flat area conveniently to be found below the snow line. If you have any porters, they will need to collect firewood on the way up because the upper valley is barren of trees. Cross the Mura pass 3,790m (la) next day and descend the valley of i he Zambar towards a wooded glade where there is good camping. From there it is possible to descend to Iskandar Kul in an easy day.

Alternatively, cross the Kara Kul and head North up the Arkh for the second and more challenging section of this route. There is good camping along the river valley. Continue up the river, now called the Kaznok, and follow it as it turns west below steep peaks. Branch up northwards right towards Kaznok pass. Obvious dark red screes characterise the upper slopes. The scree is steep and loose and this ascent is hard work. The pass straight ahead is Kaznok West 4,000m (2a) with a serious snow/ice climb awaiting on the other side. Instead, branch off right the top and go up the Col of Kaznok East 4,040m (lb). A steep snow runnel leads down onto a glacier. An ice axe is a valuable asset at this point to avoid an uncontrolled glissade. Follow the glacier down heading slightly east of north towards a moraine slope that opens out between two rocky walls. Descend the snow and scree towards Mutny lake. Camping is possible here at a cave on the far side or continue down the valley, with Chimtarga looming above on the left to reach the glorious turquoise Alaudin lakes. Either branch up left to cross the Alaudin pass 3,860m (la) or continue down the Chapdara to meet the Pasrud Darya and climb more gently to the top of Laudan Pass 3,630m (not classified). Either way leads to the high Kul-i Kalon lakes from where it is possible to descend in half a day to Artuch alpine base. Allow four days for each half of this trek, or a total of eight.

Chimtarga Circuit

This route circumnavigates the highest peak of the range and offers unsurpassed views. It can be done from Artuch or from the alpine base at Chapdara. It is described in a clockwise direction. Reverse the last day of the previous trek past Kul-i Kalon and over Alaudin or Laudan Passes to reach the Alaudin lakes. Ascend to Mutny Lake (half day). From there follow the glacial moraines coming down from Chimtarga pass. Turn up rightwards and ascend steep scree or snow as early as reasonably practical. Do not go to the end of the moraine and attempt to scale the steep scree gullies leading back right. They lead onto dangerously steep and loose shale ridges. Once at the top of the scree a path becomes quickly apparent and traverses the slopes of Chimtarga towards the pass 4,740m (lb). There is snow all year round here and an ice axe is useful. The pass is flanked by the icy summit slopes of Energia on one side and the steep rocks of the South face of Chimtarga on the other. Once over the pass, descend the valley heading north-west to arrive eventually at Great Alio Lake, formed by a massive rock fall blocking the outlet from the glen. There are small level sites for tents above the lakeside in this remote and dramatic setting.

Descend next day down the Zindon gorge where the river is hidden under the rock fall and emerge in the valley of the Archamaidon where a motorable road follows the river. From here it is possible to cut the trek short and be collected by a four- wheel drive vehicle. However, the more adventurous or goal orientated parties will stride manfully northwards up this hot valley for some 6km past the village of Gazza until a tributary appears from the right. Strike off east up this river, where camping can be found after 2km. Leave the stream and head south east from here through a narrow defile between rocky bluffs. Follow the trickling stream from the spring in the upper valley and keep heading up and eastwards towards Zurmech pass 3,260m (la). Descend from here to the small Chukurak Lake where two crags offer single pitch rock climbs on clean limestone. Descend to Artuch base in 30 minutes from here to complete the six day circuit and take a well earned sauna.


Government charges are now levied for climbs: for peaks over 7,000m: $100; 4,000-7,000m: $50. Russian climbing grades translate roughly as follows:


Russian French UIAA
1a, 1b F, PD inf I-II
2a, 2b PD II-III
4a, 4b D-TD IV-V
5a, 5b TD-ED inf VI
6 ED VI+

-    Chimtarga South East ridge is a two day outing on very steep rock and easier snow with a further day to descend, VI or TD. The mountain has 4 other grade V routes.
-    Energia offers two grade V routes, one of which is the short icy face directly above Chimtarga pass.
-    Chapdara has twelve grade V routes and two at grade VI.
-    Bodkhona has seven grade V routes and two at grade VI.
-    Zamok has five V and three VI grade routes, and also an easy route.

Most of the routes on these peaks are big limestone walls and ridges.