Perhaps the most beautiful and remote location in Central Asia, Karakul Lake lies at the extremity of habitation. Nearly 4000m in altitute, the community of Karakul survive through nomadic herding of yaks, sheep and goats. From April to October they stay in the high pastures but in the winter they stay in the village and endure the freezing temperatures and thick snows by tending fires to warm the central room of the house.

Lake Karakul, known as ‘Black lake’ is a salt lake of 52km circumference lying in an endorheic basin, which was formed from a meteoritic impact approximately 25 million years ago. During the period of the ‘Great Game’, the lake was known as “Lake Victoria of the Pamirs,” named in honour of Queen Victoria, the British monarch. All British maps of the time, and even the Imperial Russian maps, used Victoria for the name of the lake. The name fell into gradual disuse with the advent of the Soviets and the British departure from India and the Kyrgyz name is now used.

From October to May the lake is entirely frozen and forms a white expanse when viewed from Karakul village. However, over the summer the lake displays green/turquiose/deep blue hues as a foreground to the permanent ice fields of the Pamir Alay Range and Pik Lenin (7134m) – the second highest peak in Tajikistan (and 56th highest in the world).

Apart from simply admiring the stupendous views to the west, that change in the different lights of the day and evening, there are several worthwhile excursions:

  • Aproximately 7 km north of Karakul village there are burial mounds (kurgans) and geoglyphs close to the lake shore.
  • On the southern shore of the lake is a promitory and 4313m high point that offers magnificant views over both halves of the lake.

Access into the Sarykol Range in the east is prohibited and now under Chinese control – the Chinese ‘no-man’s land boundary runs a few hundred meters to the east of the road in these parts and occasionally comes much closer. However, the valleys, hills and mountains to the west all offer the remotest, high-altitude, trekking experiences.

In the summer, thousands of bar-headed geese, gulls, shelducks, cormorants, and other birds nest on the islands in the centre of the lake.

Legends of Lake Karakul:

It was very hot when a traveller came to the place named Kol Bashy (‘Mouth of the Lake’) on Lake Karakul . The traveller had come far and was tired so he unsaddled his mare to let her graze. He rested on the grass in a light breeze from the lake and soon fell asleep.

Suddenly, he was woken. He leaped up and noticed a grey stallion, which he assumed had escaped, that was near his mare. Settling back down, he had some dinner before preparing to recommence his travels. He called his mare to no avail and then ran and struggled for some time to catch it and saddle up before eventually departing.

Some months later his mare gave birth to a grey foal, like the one he saw at Karakul lake. The foal grew strong and was soon the best pacer in the region. Everyone in the area recognised the grey and was amazed by its beauty and stature. But the owner grew proud and saw an opportunity for more foals. So he saddled up once again with the mare and his new pacer and set off back to Karakul to seek the stallion.

He arrived back at the lake at the same location and released the horses, then hid. However, he soon fell into sleep before being woken by a strange noise. He opened his eyes to see waves on the lake. In the twilight he made out the grey stallion again but this time it was coming in on the waves of the lake. It arrived at the shore then drew the mare and pacer to it before all three set off back into the lake, swiftly disappearing in the waves.

Local people still believe that the grey horse exists in the lake.

Sources include: ‘Legends of Sarykol’ by Sultan Parmanov and Suyuntbak Tajidinov, 2007.