Lake Karakul is at 12795 Feet (higher than Lake Titicaca)
It adjoins the Pamir highway (M41) – the second highest highway in the world
Snow-covered mountains – including Peak Lenin at 23,400 feet – surround the lake
It is served from local glacial melt
At the end of the summer, I got a last minute and somewhat unusual opportunity to head to central Asia. I was to participate in the Roof of the World Regatta; a world record attempt for the highest altitude sailing regatta ever. This unique and frankly bizarre event took me to Lake Karakul, nearly 13,000 feet up in the wilds of Tajikistan. Only accessible from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan via the Kyzl-Art mountain pass or a pot-hole ridden five-day journey from the capital, Dushanbe; this is arguably the remotest location in the Pamir region.
Prior to the trip, rumours of impending border-closures, then the restriction of the issue of international visas meant the number of prospective competitors dropped from twenty-six to just five. I travelled with the organisers, choosing to take the risk at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. We acclimatised in Sary Tash, located in the Alay region, a vast valley with an immense snowy mountain range to the south; hiding our entrance to Tajikistan. After three days we took a road into the mountains with only one destination, not knowing whether we would gain entry into the country or not. As we left Kyrgyzstan behind the road through no-mans land deteriorated dramatically. The lush grasslands gave way to sandy, arid plateaus and then steep rubbly switchbacks, which led to the apex of the Kyzl-Art pass and the Tajik border, at 14,050 feet. After forty-five minutes during which formalities in all four offices – customs, drugs, police and army – were carried out, we were in Tajikistan.
After a breath-taking 50km drive, we rounded the base of yet another mountain and suddenly all 380km2 of Lake Karakul and its island archipelago stretched in front of us. It was a relief to find the lake unfrozen, as most of the year it is under ice. We headed for Karakul village, nestled on the eastern side of the lake; the villagers here are nomadic herders but struggle for fresh food. Their isolated existence and the physical challenge of living altitude make them toughest humans I have ever met. We only had one problem – not a breath of wind. The five-day window we had for the event suddenly seemed very small.
I could hardly believe my eyes that first evening when I saw white horses suddenly appear on the lake. It was the perfect opportunity to whip out the new 15m Contra. My first tack on the lake was absolutely thrilling. The rawness of nature up there combined with the fact that I was the first person to ever kitesurf on the lake, made for a thrilling session. A few people from the village came to observe my crazy behaviour. It was such a thrill to introduce these wonderful people to the sport of kitesurfing, it was a totally alien concept to them. The kitesurfing itself was challenging, with the elements at their most extreme. The winds were wild and felt different than at sea level – thinner and gustier. Nevertheless, it was exhilarating.
I got to share this experience with the other sailors as they trickled in over the following days. Soon, we were a motley crew of five in including Kathrin Bogwardt (fellow Cabrinha team mate, ranked number one in the world for racing).
The water temperature of the lake was ridiculously low as Karakul is fed by glacial melt and was due to freeze the following month. Because the lake has no outflow, it is also incredibly salty as the salt crystals that formed on my toes told me. Keeping the kit clean meant heading to the village well to pump some fresh(ish) water every evening.
Over the week, we got into a routine. The day would start with low winds and rice porridge made with Yak’s milk. In the mornings, I used the time to wonder round the village making friends with the children, managing to get over the language barrier with the help of a little gymnastics. We taught volleyball on some days, one of the kitesurfers was a professional player and had bought some kit with him for the village school. Then, in the late afternoon the winds would come from seemingly nowhere and we would get onto the lake. Afterwards we ate Plov (rice and broth) in the homestead, owned by Sedat and her family. And if we were lucky, we got a banya – a traditional Russian steam bath heated by a wood burner. After being in the freezing water of the ‘Black Lake’ there was nothing nicer than ladling hot water on yourself from a steaming tub.
On the third day we took a trip to the northern end of the lake where it is closer to the source of the freezing water and the lake is deeper. I was lucky to have my NP Surf Lucifer dry suit; otherwise I couldn’t have spent more than five minutes in the water. Three vessels were out, Kathrin Bogwardt, a sailor living in Tajikistan and me. We raced and freestyled together until it got dark and we could no longer feel our hands. The lack of oxygen meant we got out of breath very quickly when it came to doing tricks. Unfortunately, because of her fast ascent to this altitude, one of the competitors fell ill with altitude sickness, a reminder to all of us how serious the conditions were up here.
Kathrin organised a Kite Kids clinic the following day, an initiative sponsored by the Kiteboard Tour Asia. Her and I taught over 50 boys and girls kite skills (but I only managed to pick up two words in the local dialect: ‘oнго’ and ‘cолго’ meaning ‘right’ and ‘left’ – which came in handy for figure of eights).
The crowd on the beach got bigger everyday and on the last day we had three hundred people on the shore. Even the Tajik border guards had made the journey down from the pass to see what the fuss was about. The mayor of the town reported that he had never seen so many villagers of all different ages outside together before. It was a truly spectacular sight. The salt-encrusted shore of the lake was busy with volleyball games and land kite lessons, while the elders looked on or joined in. On the lake, boat rides in the safety dingy ensued, with some men opting to wear helmets while others stuck with their kalpaks (traditional felt hats)! When I went for my last session on the lake, the shores were lined with spectators despite the threat of snow in the air. The winds were strong and the crowds cheered as Benny and I rocketed up and down for the last time.
So there it is, I now have another world record to my name; participant in the highest sailing regatta in the world and the first person to kitesurf on Lake Karakul as well as the first (and youngest person) to kitesurf across the English Channel. Thank you so much to Cabrinha for helping me get there, NP Surf for keeping me toasty on the water in a their Lucifer drysuit and Costwold Outdoor for keeping me warm off the water in their neutrino jacket.
This was an unforgettable journey and I want to thank Cabrinha, NP Surf and Cotswold Outdoor for making it happen. And of course Jackie and Tony Nelson for dreaming up this whackie and wonderful idea.