You’ve hiked in some of the most popular—and the most beautiful—places in the world. Nepal, New Zealand, and Peru. Now you’re ready for a change of pace. At least in some respects. Beautiful locations are still in, but you’re looking for something off the beaten path. A place that isn’t well trodden, or even well mapped, is ideal. They’re getting harder and harder to find, though. Unless you head to Central Asia.
Tajikistan, to be exact. The landlocked country is home to the Pamir Mountains, the third-highest mountain range in the world. They sit at the Pamir Knot, a junction where the mountains of Eurasia, including the Himalayas, meet. Once there, you find Tajik National Park, a huge nature reserve that encompasses nearly 20 percent of the country. It’s filled with glacial peaks, piercingly blue lakes, and the highway with the second-highest altitude in the world. And there’s no one here.
Maybe that’s not quite true. As you ride along the Pamir Highway, you see yurts and yaks in the distance. So some people are here, just not the deluge of tourists you’ve found on other mountain passageways. The M41 was built by the Soviets in the 1930s. It hasn’t been well maintained. Distances that would take only hours to drive elsewhere suddenly require days. Only sections of the road were paved, and those that were have deteriorated due to landslides, avalanches, and earthquakes. But you’re hardly paying attention to the road anyway. The scenery is that gorgeous.
Part of that amazing scenery: the Fedchenko Glacier. It flows from Revolution Peak, ultimately empties into the Balandkiik River near Kyrgyzstan, and is the longest glacier in the world outside of the polar regions. At its maximum, it’s 3,300-feet thick—that’s more than a half mile. At least for now. The region is already showing the effects of global warming. Glacial peaks that surround the deep gorges are quickly receding.
It may be difficult to get close to the Fedchenko Glacier, but another area is much easier to reach. Karakul Lake is surrounded by easily hikable pastures, sandy plains, and wet meadows. Originally called Lake Victoria in the Pamirs, the Soviets changed its name in the 1920s. The meteorite-impact crater sits nearly 13,000 feet above sea level. Saker Falcons, ruddy shelducks, and Bar-headed Geese call the lake home. Marco Polo sheep dot the hillside. And Himalayan Vultures circle overhead. Geoglyphs are near the shore. The water combines every possible shade of blue. And the mountains hang in the distance.
You camp outside of the small, lakeside village. Meals start with green Pamiri tea. You eat palav, a rice dish with mutton and root vegetables, plus naan. And dinners still end with a shot of vodka—some Russian habits die hard. A hearty meal and breathtaking scenery that you don’t have to share with anyone. A change of pace indeed.