Fann Mountains, Tajikistan
There’s always a moment when you’re trekking uphill that you wonder why you’re doing it. Legs aching, chest heaving. Each step hurts a little bit more and you need to summon the will from deep inside to continue towards the top.
It’s even harder when you’re at altitude and, on this occasion, I’m pretty high up, heading towards a pass that is about 3200 metres above sea level.
But, as a general rule, the higher you go up, the better the reward. This time is no exception.
When I get to the top of the Laudden Pass and look over to the other side, the view is more than I could have hoped for. Dramatic snow-covered mountains framing the background, the dazzling Kulikalon Lakes stretching out below, with the green trees, brown earth, and blue sky adding vibrance to the whole scene.
This is Tajikistan. More specifically, the Fann Mountains of Tajikistan.
It’s one of the most spectacular trekking destinations in the world – yet it’s also one of the least visited. Knowing this just adds to the incredible sense of wonder I feel when I gaze out across this view for the first time.
Trekking in the Fann Mountains
If you don’t know much about Tajikistan, you may not think of it as a country for hiking. But, in fact, it’s one of the best things you can do in Tajikistan. Along with neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, you’ll find the best trekking in Central Asia (some would say the whole world) here.
Traditionally, it was the Pamir Mountains in the east of the country that got most of the attention when it came to trekking in Tajikistan. That’s because it’s the highest range in the country, with many of the peaks well over 5000 metres high, and some above 7000 metres. The dramatic landscapes and challenge of exploring such an uninhabited region drew in serious adventurers.
But in recent years, it’s the Fann Mountains that have started to attract many new hikers.
The Fann Mountains still have stunningly beautiful landscapes, but it’s easier to reach them from Dushanbe or from Samarkand in Uzbekistan. There’s also slightly more tourism infrastructure for the casual traveller who wants to do some hiking but hasn’t come completely prepared.
It’s one of the reasons I’m now here. On a journey through Central Asia that has also taken me to big cities like Tashkent, ancient sites like Sarazm, and Silk Road heritage like Samarkand, I’m not in a position to do a long and difficult hike. But the Fann Mountains offer the perfect opportunity to do a challenging – but achievable – trek.
Lakes Loop Trek, Fann Mountains
I’ve headed off on one of the best multi-day hikes in the Fann Mountains, known as the Lakes Loop Trek. It begins in Artuch and takes you to the most breathtaking lakes in the region, with the option to then return to Artuch. (I’ll tell you more about the other options and specific details shortly).
My climb up to the Laudden Pass at 3200 metres is the first day’s feat – but it’s not the highest I’ll have to go on this loop. The second day brings another big uphill trek, higher than the day before, this time up to about 3800 metres.
This one is called Alauddin Pass and I feel the uphill even more. The rocky path winds its way back and forth up the side of the mountain. I take one step at a time, closer each moment.
But other than my sore legs and thumping heart, it’s a stunning climb. Whenever I pause for a quick breather (which becomes increasingly frequently as the morning goes on), I look around at the views in every direction.
The mountains surrounding me have formed with striking shapes and angles. An alpine lake glitters in turquoise down below, and the sun beats down on the plants and the rocks, giving them life through their colour. There’s something about these peaks that create drama through their majesty.
But, just as the day before, the ultimate view is waiting for me at the top. When I reach Alauddin Pass, I look down the other side and can see Alauddin Lake at the bottom. It’s impressive but what makes this scene so special are the enormous mountains that rise up behind it until the snow on the top blends into the passing clouds.
Camping on the Lakes Loop Trek
The mountains may create the drama but it’s the lakes that offer the serenity. And on this multi-day hike in the Fann Mountains, they are the best places to camp each night.
On the first night, we camp at the Kulikalon Lakes. On the second night, we stay next to Alauddin Lakes.
Both offer very different views but what’s common between them both is the glorious evening calm as the sun goes down around you and the last light disappears from the tops of the mountains. And, even better than that, is the sunrise in the morning as the blue turns to yellow and the scenery comes to life again.
It’s not just a matter of looking at things through the eyes of a photographer. For anyone, there is something so special about that first and last hour of daylight, when the world seems to glow and every beautiful little piece of nature around you is accentuated.
But we’re not just camping by the lakes because of the scenery. Although the Fann Mountains are still relatively wild and uninhabited, there is now a little bit of infrastructure for hiking tourists – and this is where you’ll find it.
At both lakes there are a couple of small shops where local families sell basic food and drinks (including some much-appreciated beer). At Alauddin Lake, there’s even a drop toilet.
I’m doing the hike with a local support team who arrive at the camp before us and start to pitch the tents and prepare dinner. They know this land well and can find the safest and most comfortable spots to set up camp.
It’s certainly one of the advantages of doing the trek this way, as opposed to trying to do it independently.
Independent vs guided
And that brings me to some of the practical information for doing the Lakes Loop Trek in the Fann Mountains of Tajikistan. Once you know what you’re doing, it’s not too difficult, but there are quite a few choices you need to make.
Firstly, I would recommend you use Artuch as the starting point – or, more specifically, the Artuch Alplager Guesthouse, which is about 8 kilometres further along the road from the village of Artuch itself. You’ll probably need to use a shared or private taxi to get there, depending on where you’re coming from.
The Artuch Alplager Guesthouse (also called Artuch Base Camp) is a simple hotel but has comfortable beds and good meals. Most importantly, you can organise all the logistics for your trek here, regardless of how you want to it.
The standard route for the Lakes Loop Trek is to go from Artuch Base Camp, over Laudden Pass, to Kulikalon Lakes on the first day.
On the second day, go over Alauddin Pass and stay at Alauddin Lake.
And on the third day, continue on to an old camp called Vertical Alovaddin, where there’s a different trail that will take you back to Kulikalon Lakes and you go over the Laudden Pass again.
The first option is to do the trek independently. If you have all of your camping gear, and a good map with the route marked, then you should be ok. (Obviously make sure you take all the usual precautions).
Most days you’ll see other hikers going along the main routes, so it’s hard to get lost. You’ll be able to camp at the lakes for a small fee – normally about 20 som (US$2). Although you should bring food with you for safety, the shops at the lakes will probably be able to sell you hot meals if feel like it.
The second option is to do a guided tour, which you can organise with the Artuch Alplager Guesthouse. They will put together all the gear you need, carry it on donkeys between each camp, set up the tents, cook your meals, and show you the way.
It’s certainly the easiest way to do the trek and takes all the stress out of the planning. It’s also not too expensive. Depending on the size of your group, it’s probably between US$50 – $100 a day.
The third option is to do a mixture of the two. At the Artuch Base Camp, you can also organise just to have a donkey (and its owner) for your trip. They’ll go ahead and meet you at your camp and carry all your gear for you.
The donkey owner won’t guide you on your way, set up your tent, or cook your meals. You’ll still have to do all of this yourself, so it’s a fairly independent trip. But you won’t have to carry all your food and tents and other gear – which is fantastic.
It only costs about US$15 a day per donkey, so it’s a great deal. And you can store anything you don’t need for the trek at the base camp, so the donkey isn’t carrying any unnecessary weight.
I would definitely recommend doing one of the options where you’ll have your gear carried for you.
Day hike from Artuch Base Camp
Oh, there is another option I should mention, in case you really don’t want to do any hiking. If you prefer, you can do a one day hike from Artuch Base Camp and return there in the evening to sleep in a proper bed again.
It’s up to you how far you want to go, but you can easily get to Laudden Pass by lunchtime. If that’s enough for you, just turn around and go back. But the more intrepid hiker could go down to Kulikalon Lakes and then turn around.
Honestly, if you have time, I wouldn’t recommend just doing a one-day hike, though. Part of experiencing the Fann Mountains is to see the lakes at sunset and sunrise, to feel the glow of the snowy mountains under the moon, and to feel the fresh air surround you for days.
After all the effort it takes to get here, make the most of it, if you can.
Longer hikes in the Fann Mountains
And that brings me to the final option I want to mention – to extend the hike even further.
Although the Lakes Loop is a relatively easy and popular route, there are ways to extend it for a few more days and visit all the best sights in the Fann Mountains of Tajikistan.
I have already written a bit about Seven Lakes (also known as Haft Kul), another wonderful part of the Fann Mountains.
Although it takes a full day to drive from Seven Lakes to Artuch Base Camp, that’s because there is no direct road. But they’re only about 25 kilometres apart in a direct line, and so it’s quite easy to trek between them.
There is also a good trail that connects Artuch Base Camp with Iskanderkul Lake, the most popular part of the Fann Mountains for domestic tourists. The lake itself has a lot of development along its shore, but that also means good transport links.
So, if you’re looking for a comprehensive hike, I would suggest going from Seven Lakes to Iskanderkul Lake, via the lakes around Artuch. You can go in either direction, depending on which is more convenient for you.
One of the wonderful things about Tajikistan’s Fann Mountains is that you do have all of these options.
The infrastructure is not nearly as developed as you would find in more popular hiking regions in Europe or the US, for instance, but that is one of the advantages. The wilderness feels quite untouched, the views are more striking for their isolation, and there is still a sense of adventure in the journey.
Yet, nothing is too far from transport or a campsite. There are tour agencies and accommodation providers who can help you plan your trek for a pretty good price. And you can make your trek as short or as long as you like.
I know I have described Tajikistan – and the Fann Mountains in particular – as the “best trekking destination you’ve never visited”. I’m not sure for how much longer that description will be accurate. It will always be one of the best – but for how much longer will it be considered unknown?
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