Murghab is a small mountain town with a population of about 6000 people predominantly Kyrgyz people. The village is located on the Murghab Plateau in eastern Tajikistan GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast). The desolate town of Murghab is a fascinating example of a life lived in extremis at the altitude of 3650 m above sea level.
Murghab lies at the junction of the Pamir Highway, which runs through the center of town and connects the regions with Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, and the main road linking Tajikistan with China over the Kulma Pass. For this reason, it was built during Soviet times as a checkpoint and is an important transportation hub as well as the biggest town in the eastern half of GBAO. The Murghab River flows along the base of the town, where livestock graze.
The majority of its inhabitants are ethnic Kyrgyz, though they live in houses more typical of Tajiks. Lately, it has become an essential tourist base and is one of the few places in Tajikistan which has tourist facilities, including a Community Based Tourism network.
Harsh climate of Murgab
The first impression when you arrive you might feel emptiness, coldness, and abandoned houses with destroyed whitewashed walls that exposed the mud-brick beneath. There is no regular electricity supply, so residents rely on gas generators or small solar panels.
A few years back here was launched a small hydropower plant was. However, it is according to the schedule. Most residents burn coal because the electricity is received only according to a certain time. Guesthouses in Murgab have become popular in recent years, they provide electricity to the guest through the generattors. The conditions are quite basic, but it is best what you can get here.
The 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.
Murghab formerly known as “Pamyrsky post” is the capital of Murghob District in the Pamir Mountains of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. Russians found Murgab during the colonization period to strengthen its borders. By that time it was known as a Pamir post. 10 km from the village still stands the stone military structure. Next to the structure stands a lake “Muz-Kol” (Ice Lake). The name was given by the locals because most time of the year it is frozen.
Pamir with its trade roads and harsh climate was a confrontation field of the world powers at the end of the 19th century. Russia, England, and China aspired to strengthen in this high-altitude region. However, Russia’s construction of the military port was entrenched. Today the post areas are abandoned and forgotten.
How Kyrgyz minorities happen to be here
Before the Russian colonization, the area used to be lightly inhabited by the few Kyrgyz nomadic yaks and sheepherders tough enough to withstand its extreme climate. When the Russian Empire extended to the east and south, it became a strategic location, near the borders with China and the British Empire (today Pakistan). The Soviets further strengthened their position here. By closing the borders and building the Pamir Highway, linking Tajikistan’s capital of Dushanbe with Osh, in Kyrgyzstan. Murghab was a support post for the road. Soviets took efforts to make sure that the town was well-supplied and that its residents were. Living in such a strategic, unpleasant, and insalubrious place, was well granted.
The town owns a hospital, military base, bazaar, bank, and several guesthouses. Several cafes that operate here are focused around the bazaar. A nearby hydroelectric station provides electric power, although there is no running water or gas. Just 7 km out of town to the east lies an ancient colony tomb at Kana-Kurgan.
Murgab has a small extraordinary Ismaili Shia Mosque with a Minaret.
Murghab bazaar made of shipping containers sells cheap Chinese goods, food products of varying quality, and a few local handicrafts. All these goods mainly come from Osh. Perhaps, Chinese border control won’t allow it.
White Lenin statue stands on the southern edge of the town pointing somewhere west possible to Khoroh or Dushanbe.
Rangkul and Shorkul Alpine lakes
If you still have time in Murhab you take a half-day excursion to Rang-Kul as well as neighboring Shor-Kul lakes. Those lakes are situated 45km from Murghab in heights of 3754m above sea level in the most east remote of Tajikistan. The lakes are surrounded by severe and mountain desert scenery. The lakes are fed by the melting glaciers. Further in the eastern part of the lake in 22km sits a Rangkul settlement. However, the village sometimes is inaccessible due to the security issues towards the border with China.
Shakhty Cave Drawings
Shakhty Cave Drawings is one of the most famous of these landmarks along with the Pamir Highway. This little cave, located around 50 km away from the Murghab in the Kurteskei Valley in the Pamir Mountains. The caves date back tens of thousands of years, however, they were only uncovered in the late 1950s accidentally by a group of Soviet archaeologists. They were researching the surrounding site in the area and were caught in a strong storm and had to take cover in an overhang they found, now known as the caves at Shakty. After spending the night in the cave, they woke up to find the cave walls were filled with some of the best-preserved rock art paintings they had ever seen. The art painted many thousands of years ago with a red mineral pigment, represents a bear hunting scene with double-tipped swords and what appears to be an odd merging of a man and a bird.
There is not much known about the people who created these ancient pieces of rock art. But, several archaeological studies show a close estimate. Despite often being referred to as Neolithic art, according to the studies of G. Kuhn, the themes and semi-figurative style is resembles in likeness to Paleolithic art. Furthermore, it is unlikely that these paintings could have been created before the first humans arrived in the Eastern Pamirs, believed to be somewhere between 8,000 and 5,000 B.C, the Shakhty Cave rock paintings are more likely to be from the Mesolithic era.
You can see this impressive Mesolithic painting at Shakhty Cave just taking a day trip from Murghab. You can get there by heading towards Khorog, turn onto a remote gravel track. It eventually leads to the site of the Shakhty caves, located in a V-shaped valley surrounded by endless V-shaped valleys and an arid landscape with very few landmarks.
How to Get to Murghab
From the Kyrgyzstan side, you get a shared taxi from Osh. Usually, taxi drivers try to leave early at 4-5 in the morning to overcome the road in the daylight. Traveling time depends on the road conditions may take to 14-16 hours. Sary-Tash is the last Kyrgyz village before crossing the borders. The next village will be only after 400 km. It is best to get a meal here and stopover before the long and challenging road trip.
This dirt road appeared at the end of the 19th century. Russians built it almost 40 years when Pamir joined Russin Empire. The road is empty and without any service, but the view is stunning. If you are lucky with the weather you can see Lenin peak (7134m) approaching the border control. There will be a few 4000m high altitudes passes the most tricky one Kozel Art. In the springtime, the mountains serpentine turns into the ice slide. To get out from it taxi drivers spray with soil, taxi drivers keep a shovel in the car. After crossing the border control you will arrive at the highest pass in Central Asia Ak-Baital (4655m) above sea level. On the way, you will notice some trucks going from Murgab to Kashgar through the Kulman pass. For a long time, this pass did not function. First due to the deterioration of the Soviet-China relationship and later to the Civil war in Tajikistan. Further, you will drive along with the Tajik-Chinese birder where stands wooden poles with a sharp wire. Those places were strictly guarded by the soviet guards and later by the Russians till the 2000s. From Khorog you take vans or shared taxis to Mughrab from the local bazaar. They depart usually when the vehicle is full.
From Murbag you can find a taxi from the Murbag bazaar. Overall transportation costs are high due to the remote location and difficulty importing fuel.
Page last updated 5.12.2022