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Mysterious, remote and beautiful describes Lake Karakul in the Pamir Region of Tajikistan. The highest lake in the country and the highest saltwater lake in Central Asia, Karakul Lake formed from glacial meltwater in the crater created by a meteor strike over 25 million years ago. Sheltered by the surrounding mountain range, the area receives less than 12 inches of precipitation a year. All of the incoming water comes from small inflowing glacial streams and melting groundwater. There is no outlet so evaporation has left Karakul Lake increasingly saline. Only the stone loach fish lives in its waters. Tajikistan is bordered by Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, so border-crossing problems often make reaching this remote location difficult except for the most adventurous of travelers.
In September, 2014, Lake Karakul was on the radar for the world's most adventurous of sailors. The Roof of The World Regatta took place on the lake, replacing the Alpine Bank Dillon Open, held on Dillon Reservoir, Colorado. Borders were closed at the time of the regatta, so participants traveled at their own risk. Determined kite sailing and windsurfing enthusiasts participated in the event located at 12,800 feet. The high altitude and poor roads to the area posed additional challenges for the participants. The lake holds no permanent launch facilities, no nearby lodgings, and none of the amenities most would expect for a world-class regatta. Indeed, most of the spectators were Kyrgyz villagers from the only settlement on the lake-Karakul Village. The small population subsists as herders of yak, goats and sheep. The ultimate prize is not the annual trophy to display at the local yacht club but world records to be set for extreme altitude sail events.
The participants in the regatta prepared for cold conditions. The lake is ice-covered for eight months a year, with only late May through early October ice-free. Portions of the banks have ice cover year round. The impact crater circle is broken by a peninsula on the south shore and and several islands, creating two nearly separated lake basins. The eastern basin is considerably more shallow, with a maximum depth of only 62 feet. The larger western basin reaches depths of about 780 feet. The surface of the two basins is almost 94,000 acres.
Lake Karakul is located within the Tajik National Park, although much of the treeless grassland is still used for grazing by the sparse local population. The marshes and wetlands around the lake are named among RAMSAR's Wetlands of International Importance. Birdlife International also works to protect the area around Lake Karakul; the lake and wetlands are important breeding and habitat areas for both native species of birds and migrating birds and waterfowl. Sometimes spelled Qarakul, Karakul means 'Black Lake' in the local language. The lake isn't actually black but varying shades of dark blue. Against the stark hills, the view over Karakul Lake is extremely beautiful. A few tour buses occasionally arrive for visitors to take pictures and wander along the shore, but there are no lodgings, restaurants or shops. A few adventurous hikers bicycle to the lake and trek the mountains nearby.
Often, when Lake Karakul is part of the discussion, the lake being talked about is not Karakul in Tajikistan but another Lake Karakul in western China's Xinjiang Province. The Chinese Lake Karakul is also remote but more easily accessed than the one in Tajikistan. Tajikistan is attempting to develop a tourism economy based on the unusual features found within this extremely rugged part of the world. Several unusual sightseeing opportunities are available in Tajikistan. The country holds over 300 petroglyph sites dating from the Bronze Age to the middle ages. The best of the petroglyph sites are located in the eastern Pamir Mountains. Also located here is the medieval mining town of Bazar Dara, built in the 11th century as a silver mining center.
The West Pamirs hold the ancient Yamchun fortress built in the third century BC. Located near the amazing fortress is a hot radon spring, used in the treatment of medical disorders. The fortress can be reached by car, but as for most roads in Tajikistan, 4-wheel drive is advisable and a bit of walking required. The best-known peak in the Pamirs is Ismoili Somoni Peak, formerly named Stalin Peak or Mount Communism. Popular with tourists and mountaineering fans, the best way to reach the peak is via a 40-minute helicopter ride from the Jirgatol airport. The mountain can also be reached by air or bus from Dushanbe. Glacier climbing in the area is available through a few touring companies catering to outdoor adventure tourists. A small tourist area has been constructed with cabin-style camping facilities, water and heat at the seasonal base camp.
Lake Karakul and Tajikistan may currently be only for the most hardy of travelers, but efforts are underway to improve the small country's tourism offerings. Those who wish to see it soon are best advised to work with a reputable tourism operator to facilitate the sometimes tricky border issues in this area of the world. Their help will be needed to locate lodgings and transportation. Come and explore a little-known part of mysterious Asia, its unique geographical features and its people.
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