Murghab, Tajikistan

Murghab, Tajikistan

Murghab is a small mountain town (pop. 4000) on the Murghab Plateau in eastern Tajikistan (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast). It lies at the junction of the Pamir Highway, which runs through the center of town and links the province with Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, and the main road linking Tajikistan with China over the Qulma Pass. For this reason it was built during Soviet times as arrest stop, and is an important transportation hub as well as the biggest town in the eastern half of GBAO. The majority of its inhabitants are ethnic Kyrgyz, though they live in dwellings more typical of Tajiks. Lately, it has become an important tourist base, and is one of the few places in Tajikistan which has tourist facilities, including a Community Based Tourism network.

The town is the highest in the former Soviet Union at 3,650 m, and sits on a bluff in the Murghab Valley; it boasts a hospital, military base, bazaar, bank, and several guesthouses. The few cafes which operate here are concentrated around the bazaar. The Murghab River flows along the base of the town, where livestock graze. A nearby hydroelectric station provides electric power, although there is no running water or gas. Most residents rely on wells set up by the Swiss charity "ACTED" for water, and burn small shrubs which grow in the area for heat.

Weather in the area is extreme; winter lasts from mid-September to late May, and temperatures in winter may reach -50 C (-60 F). In summer temperatures can reach +40 C (105 F)in July and August. The area is considered to be a high desert, with little rainfall, though downpours do occur. Strong winds blow all year and severe storms may appear suddenly; it may snow any day of the year, even in the valleys. 

Transportation to any point in GBAO can be organized from Murghab, mostly in Russian-made jeeps and off-road vans. Drivers and vehicles may be hired at the bazaar; alternatively, ask at the "Murghab House" described below. In general, transportation costs are high due to the remote location and difficulty importing fuel. Remember to negotiate vigorously, as you would for anything else at the bazaar.

The "Murghab House", a joint project of international aid agencies and local guides, operates a headquarters building on the eastern edge of town, on the highway on the bluff (in a round building). They can provide advice and C.B.T. accommodations, as well as find jeeps, vans and drivers for any destination in GBAO. There is also a shop where locally handmade goods are sold, including woolen blankets, carpets, Kyrgyz hats and bags. If you ask very nicely, they may allow you to use the internet (the only place in the entire region!)

Murghab is the best spot to use as a base for travels to remote locations in the mountains and border regions near Kyrgyzstan and China. Some fascinating locations to visit:

  • Madian Valley and hot springs - Entrance to the valley is located at the south end of town; rough dirt road leads 40 km up the valley to the village of Madian, and a road up a side valley takes another 5 km to reach Madian Hot Springs. Hot springs are developed, with a bathhouse, greenhouse, cafe and yurt camp. The Murghab River flows further down the valley to Sarezkol (purple lake), which is not accessible by road from this point (rafting down the Murghab River to Sarezkol can be arranged). Views of beautiful and strange rock formations and cliffs along the way.
  • Karakol Lake - A huge, salty lake near the Kyrgyzstan border, 130 km north of Murghab on the highway. Fantastic views of peaks and glaciers on all sides, camping on the beach.
  • Sarezkol Lake - Beautiful glacial lake surrounded by sheer, multi-colored cliffs and huge mountain ridges. Lake is accessible from the south, from the village of Alichur, along a difficult and high road, 130km to the southwest of Murghab.
  • Shaimak village and hot springs - A road runs east of Murghab to the Qulma pass and Chinese border. The road splits near the border and one route follows another valley south towards Afghanistan, past several summer nomadic camps. At the end is the Kyrgyz village of Shaimak, where home and yurt stays may be organized, and a few kilometers further, an undeveloped hot spring. Amazing views of mountains in China. 100 km from Murghab.
  • Shorkul Lake and Rankul village - Shorkul Lake and Rankul Village are located 20 km and 50 km east of the Pamir Highway, respectively, approximately 50 km and 80 km northeast of Murghab. Short treks can be arranged in the area.