Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
For a skiing expedition with a twist, adventurer Huw Kingston journeyed to Tajikistan’s remote Fann Mountains, where you’re more likely to spy untouched glaciers than you are any other travelers. Because there are none.
“Fancy skiing in the Fann Mountains?” my friend Dave asked me. “Doesn’t seem like anybody ever has.”
I’m not very good at saying no.
Fast forward a few months and a long-haul flight later, and we found ourselves at Dushanbe airport, loading our ski bags and packs into two small, beat-up cars that were neither Uber nor taxi. You are perhaps at your most vulnerable arriving at the airport in a new country at an ungodly hour.
With the streets of Dushanbe deserted, our drivers were free to put the pedal to the literal metal, and they raced to deposit us, at the first hint of dawn, to Hotel Tojikiston, to sleep off our jetlag.
The ‘Stans’, that jigsaw of former Soviet Republics in the vastness of Central Asia, were a mystery to me until then. Tajikistan is the smallest and most mountainous of them and where, in the east, the Pamirs rise to over 7,000 meters. Further west, you’ll find the Fann Mountains, topping out at 5,500 meters.
In contrast to our airport ride 24 hours earlier, Eraj met us at the hotel in his gleaming white Lexus 4WD to drive us to the Fann. At every turn and roundabout, billboards of President Rahmon smiled upon us. In the mountains beyond Dushanbe’s outskirts, we passed the turn-off to Safed Dara, Tajikistan’s sole ski resort.
There, the omnipresent president looked smart in ski jacket and sunnies. We would come to understand that with food, education, healthcare and housing provided to satisfy most of the population, the president stands, if not as a benevolent dictator, then certainly as a man of much power. We’re also quickly learned that we have lucked out with Eraj, a travel operator we had originally contacted online.
“Perhaps you are the only vegetarian in Tajikistan,” smiled Eraj as he licked his lips at a roadside Shashlik stall.
Soon though I was tucking into Kurutob, a vegetarian delight of flatbread in a warm sauce of yoghurt, onions, tomato and herbs. At Pasrud, one of the last mountain villages along a bumpy dirt track, we came across some locals celebrating the festival of Navrus; which involved colorful clothing and endless food, smiles and welcomes.
Ski touring is very much in its infancy in Tajikistan. You need to be fully self-sufficient and have an understanding of big mountains and avalanche threats—there is no real mountain rescue service in the country, nor ski guides.
Eraj took us as far as he could in the now-filthy 4WD. Our planned entrée to ski touring in the Fann would be a week going in on the eastern side for an explore and acclimatization. We certainly saw the potential of the range on that trip—before being forced out by a meter of fresh snow that buried both our tents and our plans to attempt one of the higher peaks.
We did manage to ski some slopes, and Eraj was there to meet us when we came out to drive us the five hours to Artuch to begin our main course: Two weeks attempting a ski traverse of the Fann.
Ski touring is very much in its infancy in Tajikistan. You need to be fully self-sufficient and have an understanding of big mountains and avalanche threats—there is no real mountain rescue service in the country, nor ski guides. There are good hotels in Dushanbe and an ever expanding network of homestays out in the country, and there’s one fast developing ski resort, Safed Dara, close to Dushanbe. But that’s not where we’re going.
Artuch is an ex-Russian mountaineering camp that Eraj now owned and which he had staffed to open early especially for our visit. In the huge dining room on our last night, Eraj and his father, the chief magistrate in Dushanbe, joined us for dinner and the obligatory vodka. They toasted our travels, the politics of our nations, our families and much else besides.
“We are Tajiks first and Muslims second,” Eraj told us as we discussed the potential for Islamic fundamentalism in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation. They told how the constitution set down that Tajikistan was a secular state and how laws banning the wearing of the veil and the growing of long beards existed to temper any fundamentalist moves. I imagined the police, wielding trimmers not truncheons, accosting bearded young men in acts of barberism.
A thousand meters of vertical took us down a powder-filled gully with glacier ice to our left and steep rock to our right. Beyond the glacier snout, our exclusive piste widened into a valley. The knowledge we were the only people in the whole mountain range added spice to our turns.
The Fann are spectacular; steep, challenging mountains that offer no easy ways through, particularly when carrying a big pack and pulling a small sled. We were blown away by the rock spires, big walls and glaciated peaks and the most stunning camps. We skied some of the best snow I’ve encountered; powder that had us screaming for joy like big kids. And we encountered some of the worst; seemingly bottomless slush, only a small step away from hell.
Threading a ski route through such big country always inspires awe; sitting with hot chocolates in hand and watching the sunset at camp equally so. We skied up and over three high passes: Alaudin (3,800m), Chimtarga (4,750m) and Dvoinoi (4,300m), taking in some side trips along the way.
We came onto Chimtarga, our high point, as the weather closed in again. It was a desolate place, where winds had scoured the pass almost clear of snow. But that was soon forgotten as we dropped off the pass into the most glorious of ski runs. A thousand meters of vertical took us down a powder-filled gully with glacier ice to our left and steep rock to our right. Beyond the glacier snout, our exclusive piste widened into a valley. The knowledge we were the only people in the whole mountain range added spice to our turns.
On our twelfth day, we stopped at the village of Sarytag to a hot bucket bath and, of course, to Eraj waiting. We drove back to Dushanbe via the now favorite Shashlik stall and a carwash too. The president does not allow dirty cars in the city..
With 2018 being celebrated as The Year of Development in Tourism and Handicrafts we met with the Minister for Tourism, a meeting brokered of course by Eraj, before heading to a celebration dinner in our honor.
Tajikistan had surprised us at every turn. Sure, we expected the buzz and hard work that comes with exploring a mountain range where we believed no-one had skied before. But there was also much to enjoy about the people and places of this Presidentdom. Fanntastic all round, I’d say.
With reasonable flight connections to both Dushanbe and Samarkand from Europe and China, the Fann have now become even more accessible. Eraj can help smooth the way in Tajikistan.
Huw would like to thank Osprey Packs and MSR for supporting the journey
Writer and environmentalist Huw Kingston has spent over 30 years undertaking long, human-powered journeys in wild places, and has long been involved campaigning against single-use plastics.