June 23, 2013

Lake Iskander Kul: travel and accommodation

It has been years that I have wanted to visit this mountain lake up in the Fan(n) Mountains.  I don’t remember how I first heard about Iskander Kul; it has been a popular tourist destination all along the soviet years of Central Asia.  The lake is named after Alexander the Great who roamed the mountains and valleys of Central Asia about 330 BC (I got those facts off the Wiki, I haven’t started history lessons yet with my kids!). I heard that during Soviet times there were buses that went there regularly as people wanted to visit this beautiful glacier lake, those were the times when the roads were paved and taken care of. 

Flowering bushes at Iskander Kul
The summer really is the best time to go; the roads are dry and the weather is warmer. This summer we finally had an opportunity to travel up to the mountains.  Our friends wanted to visit us and so we decided to travel to Iskander Kul together and spend few days there.  All together we have 7 kids under the age of 9, so this wouldn’t be a hiking trip even though the men are experienced mountainhikers.   This would be more of a low key family enjoying the mountains kind of trip.

Driving in Varsob valley
The place to catch a car to Iskander Kul is a taxi/car station above Vadanasos north of Dushanbe.  The boys were excited to travel in a Jeep and so we hired two cars that would travel together.  We started driving north through the narrow Varsob valley where the rocky Varsob river bubbles and bounces down towards the capital, Dushanbe.  Varsob, being close to the capital is full of sanitariums, guests houses, and some of them looked quite fancy with blue pools and green gardens when we drove by. 

After Varsob the weather started to feel cooler, we turned off the a/c in the Jeep.  My daughter commented on grey patches on the mountains and insisted they were ashes.  However, after staring at them for a while we figured that they were the remains of last winter’s snow patching the shadier parts of the high mountains around us. 

Also seen on the road:

Central Asian women going visiting with large dastarkhons in their hands

Stopping at the road tax station
Fleeting by a village 
Iskander Kul is off the main road M34 between Dushanbe and northernmost parts of the country.  The M34 road is well paved and there are several Chinese build tunnels on the road.  The tunnel that is not Chinese build was an experience; we call it the Tunnel of Horrors.  Long, dark, not ventilated and in a very bad condition made us count the minutes to get through it.  

Crazy driving in the long tunnel
The floor of the tunnel is flooded with water, apparently from a lake on the top of the mountain and full of bumps, holes and pieces of iron sticking out of it.  Our drivers skillfully guided their vehicles around and through the rivers of water and other obstacles while making me gasp with fear at couple of points.  The smell of exhaust made me seriously wonder if our baby should be in there at all…what if he doesn't get enough oxygen?  20 minutes in that tunnel felt like a very long time. 

We made it through the tunnel of horrors!
The whole trip took almost four hours including a lunch break in a tiny road side tea house where we ate soup, bread and tea. 

Looking south on the last pass before Iskander Kul
The last part of the road is a typical mountain road in Central Asia.  It winds up and down the mountains before reaching Iskander Kul.  When I first caught a glimpse of the lake I was struck by the color: light, milky, emerald green snug between the high peaks of Gissar Range.  I wondered about the color and heard that it changes through the year.  It's more green in the early summer and more blue later in the year.  

There is a registration fee required before entering the lake area.  Here we are waiting in the cars for the guard to write down our passport details. 

Registration at arrival
At our arrival to the Iskander Kul the weather was cloudy with a hint of rain.  Time to take out jeans and fleeces!  We had gotten a phone number for the owner of the camp center by the Iskander Kul lake.  I call it camp side as it looked and felt like 70s Finnish summer camp centers! It’s situated right next to the lake which was perfect for us; that’s what we came here for!  

Tourist center at Iskander Kul
The place has numerous little wooden houses, an outdoor toilet and shower house.  I was very thankful to see a large hot water boiler…cold showers (or no showers in that case) would have been too cruel in that weather!  The owner had bought the place a couple of years ago and they were slowly renovating and improving.  There was a grumpy grounds guy, a quiet cook, a friendly waitress and a serious cleaning lady among other people who lingered in the big ‘dining room’, playing cards, watching Russian TV and drinking ‘white tea’.

Dining room and bar where you can buy water and snacks
We settled into the two houses that we chose and asked for potato fries (kartoshka fri) for dinner.  Before dinner we went for a walk along the lake but I will have to make it into another post!  

Our house had 4 rooms
Our house had four rooms; three bedrooms and one sitting room with a TV on the wall.  Very basic, no decorations, but we had clean sheets and warm blankets.  I was happy to see an electric heater in one of the rooms...it was needed at nights.  

Next I will write about the springs, waterfalls and other things we saw at the Iskander Kul area.  


  1. Saattoi tämä nielaista edellisen kommenttini, mutta todella kaunista olin sanomassa! Mahtavia (erikoisia) värejä ja huikeita vuoristoja. Piti se vielä lisätä, että kirjoitat mielenkiintoisesti. Kannattaa tarjota joskus samantyyppistä juttua jollekin lehdelle :)

  2. Hei Elina,
    ei tosiaan näkynyt missään sun ensimmäistä kommenttia! Värit oli kyllä mahtavat tuolla vuoristossa, nautin tosi paljon. Kirjoitin vähän sillä silmällä, että jos joku hakee tietoa Iskander Kulista neitn kautta...paljoa siitä ei vielä löydä.

  3. travel central asia


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