Much of my guiding career was spent working with my friend Vladimir Gavrilov on California’s Tuolumne River. Vlad lived in the Soviet Union before moving to the U.S. in 1991 and explored many of its whitewater rivers. I joined him in the Sayan Mountains of southern Siberia for a commercial trip the Kaa-Khem River in 2001. After that trip I wanted to see more rivers of the former Soviet Union.
After watching some of Vlad’s videos from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan I decided it was time to visit and explore some of their whitewater rivers and look for new trip opportunities. Last month four NWRC guides and a guide from Orange Torpedo Trips met in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan with some inflatable kayaks and a loose plan to explore whitewater rivers of the "Stans."
We met in in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and made our way four hours south to the Kekemeren River. Here, we explored 30 miles of this roadside river with sections that vary from Class II to Class V.
We stayed at a wonderful guest house in the village of Kyzyl-Oi that made for a wonderful base camp.
After paddling the Kekemeren we decided to make our way to the City of Osh which Vlad suggested we visit for its enormous street bazar. While driving from Ayni to Osh we stumbled across the small Chychkan River near Toktogol that was perfect for our inflatable kayaks. We started as high as we could and finished above a section of non-stop Class V+ rapids.
Osh was incredibly interesting with its Soviet area statues, famous bazar, and fun restaurants. We spent a couple days exploring Osh before heading to the Zerafshan River in Tajikistan. While driving to the Tajikistan border we found a small river on the map that we wanted to check out so we drove up and explored the Ifsayramsay River south of Kyzyl-Kiya.
We all wished we had more time to explore different sections of this beautiful river canyon.
From Kyzyl-Kia we continued driving west into Tajikistan and stayed in the city of Khujand before heading south over a steep pass to the Zerafshon River where we spent a few days. Here we paddled the Zerafshon below the town of Ayni. The next day we looked at several tributaries of the Zerafshon before finding the Iskander Darya River.
The Iskander Darya was my favorite river of the trip. It had challenging rapids but nothing too crazy. The people in the villages were really excited to see us and followed us down the river. It was surreal to have a continually growing audience watching us.
After a few days in Tajikistan, we headed west down the Zerafshon Valley to the Uzbekistan border and the famous city of Samarkand.
The famous silk road hub of Samarkand was Our introduction to Uzbekistan. Here we explored ancient Mosques, ate at wonderful restaurants, and once again enjoyed city life. After two nights, we were all anxious to paddle so we headed north to mountains near the capital of Tashkent.
We explored the rivers that flow into Charvak Reservoir, a mountain resort area near Tashkent. First we tried to go up the Chatkal River but were stopped by a military checkpoint close to the Kyrgyzstan River. Next, we drove over to the Pskem River where we found another checkpoint. We were able to get through this checkpoint an found river access where a dam is currently being built.
This Pskem was a fun Class III river. It's fairly close to the capital city of Tashkent and would make a great commercial rafting trip. After paddling the Pskem we returned to Tashkent where our group finished our trip.
We all enjoyed spending time in this part of the world. Getting around was fairly easy, we always felt safe, and there were TONS of rivers to paddle. We began our trip in late October and paddled through the first week of November which was a bit cold with shorter days. Here are a few things I would suggest if you're considering a paddling trip:
- Begin with Vlad's book Rivers of an Unknown Land for river descriptions and stories
- Check out the Whitewater.Guide App for more river descriptions
- To maximize paddling, fly into in Dushanbe, Tajikistan and paddle rivers between there and the Zerafshon
- We all loved Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and would begin a trip here for a great mix of paddling and travelling
- Kayaks and rafts are nearly impossible to rent
- Visit in September and October when river flows and weather are more likely to be optimal
These countries have endless mountains and rivers and with increased infrastructure for tourism will likely be one of the next big paddling destinations.
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