Tajikistan 2023 Expedition

Monday 6th November 2023

Tajikistan 2023 Expedition

Dr Chris Clark, veteran of many CFZ expeditions, had for some time wanted to return to the Central Asian country of Tajikistan. He decided to take a small team back there in the summer of 2023. He wanted to concentrate on the Karatag Valley, in the northwest of the country. Chris had worked on editing Russian scientist, Boris Porshnev’s, unpublished 1963 book on relic hominids. From Porshnev’s expeditions and research he thought the area would prove fruitful.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology had published Porshnev’s work as The Soviet Sasquatch and it contained many accounts from the west of Tajikistan. He wrote:

“The area situated between the Karatag and Shirkent Rivers, and the Karatag Valley stretching to the mountains to the Mura Pass leading to Iskanderkul Lake, was once, according to the nomadic Uzbek people, inaccessible to people. A Tajik villager from Hakimi said that the Pashmi Valley has a rich walnut forest and water, but had long been devoid of people because …”the hairy wild men from the mountains would push boulders down the mountain and throw stones and force people to leave these places.”

 “According to G.K. Sinyavski there was a rumour that most villagers from Hakimi practised a mysterious craft. They smelted iron ore from the local area, and at the same time melted out the fat from killed wild men for the production of precious medicinal drugs. We are very interested to know if there is any truth to this.”..

“In July 1961 I made a trip to the Karatag Valley (together with zoologists S.A. Side Aliyev and A.I. Kazakov). High in the mountains near the Kaltakol Pass, we met a shepherd called Nuchaev (Tajik, 57 years old, Lenin collective farm, district of Hissar). I asked him whether it was true that in the old days this area was home to the wild men. Nuchaev said yes, and that they now can be found in the Duzah-gift gorge, which is in the middle of a lot of inaccessible lateral cracks in the rocks; there may be other unknown animals there as well.”

Porshnev found the area to be very fertile with food enough to support a population of relic hominins.

“The Duzah-gift gorge is a majestic cut in the rough stone. The slopes are covered in unusually lush vegetation. This is not hell, but truly a paradise for wildlife: it is filled with plums, apples, wild rose, walnut, almond, hawthorn, blackberry, and many wild rhubarbs. The river at the bottom of the gorge is supposed to be full of fish (possibly trout?). We also found tracks of wild boar and bear faeces. According to our guide, in the upper part of the gorge there are bears, wild boar, lynx, wolf, marten, fox, badger and porcupine. The descent down to the bottom of the gorge was extremely difficult, and we had to go back up. The vegetation is so dense, it would be virtually impossible to get through without special means.”

The year before,  V.A. Shake and A.L. Kazakov, found massive, human-like footprints in the area and whilst camped below Hakimi village, they heard vocalizations that they thought came from the Tajik wildman, the gul. They also found smaller prints that led them to conclude that a family of such creatures were living in the area.

“In 1 May 1960, around 5p.m., during a break, they heard a loud cry of surprise from the mountain above. They could see an animal walking by on two legs. It was difficult to see its outline in the snow, but it looked black. for a few moments it stood motionless, then dropped down on all fours and quickly galloped to the top. There it got back on its hind legs, crossed the mountain and disappeared on the other side of the ridge. The whole event lasted for 5  minutes. Another incident occurred during an overnight stay from 28 to 29 October 1960, also on the right bank of the river valley. Around 3 a.m. Shake woke up with a sense of alarm and woke Kazakov. When they looked outside, their fire was still smouldering. Suddenly the tent leaned over, 殿and at that moment we heard footsteps. The animal undoubtedly passed near the fire, as the firewood that was stacked two feet from the fire crunched under its feet. After this the animal proceeded onto the stone scree, where we could hear stones rolling down for about 1.5 minutes. Then it headed back towards the tent. I rushed to unfasten the entrance. At this point the animal was at the back corner of the tent, and made a terrible cry like I have never heard before. Then it ran to the river and disappeared upstream very quickly. About 10 minutes later, when I was looking at the area, it cried far up ahead, somewhere near the dammed lake. We are certain it was not a bear. It sounded human, and the tracks were about as large as size 43 human shoes.”

At Timur-Kul Lake, Porshnev found large, bare, tracks like those of a man but with a larger big toe.

On the left side of the Karayag Valley, lies Lake Payron. There have been a number of reports of wild men from this area. Some people told Proshnev that a family of wild men, a male, a female and one young, living near Lake Payron. A hunter called Khikmatullo, from Karatag, told him that when hunting in the summer of 1958, he was dozing by the fire at night, at the shores of the lake, when he suddenly saw a gul coming out of the water. He was so frightened that he couldn’t reach for his gun. The gul stood knee-deep in the water, and then disappeared in the dark.

Chris and myself were joined by Dr Darren Naish, acclaimed palaeontologist, and Jon ‘Orrin’ Hare, who took an active part in the early CFZ expeditions and after a long break was glad to be back on board.

After an uneventful flight to Dushanbe, the capital, we were met by Halim, our guide. We arrived fairly late and spent the night at the excellent Rumi hotel and ate a sumptuous meal. In the morning we met up with our guide and the drivers and began the long journey to the Karatag Valley. We arrived in the late afternoon and set up camp on some land by a river. One driver left to return to Dushanbe and another stayed with us.

Tajikistan is 91.9% mountains, making it the world’s second most mountainous country, after Bhutan. When I first visited in 2018, I was expecting an Alpine look to the country, but it much more resembles the dry mountains of Greece. There are many rivers and lakes, but the soil is dry. The forest cover is far more sparse than I had expected, but the wilderness is vast.

We decided, on our first full day in the wild, to set out for the remote Lake Payron. Halim had not been there, but thought he knew the way and pointed us in the right direction. I was surprised that he did not accompany us. We trekked up through farm land meeting big, savage looking, but actually friendly farm dogs. We followed the track upwards beside the Karatag river, which gives the valley it’s name. A tributary of savage rapids blocked our way and the rickety wooden bridge was broken, hanging into the white water. The road to Lake Payron was lost to us.

We decided to try and find another lake mentioned by Porshnev, Lake Tamir-Dara.  We walked into the forested slopes and spent the rest of the day following steep mountain paths, through thickets with vicious thorns. Every single path petered out and we were finally forced to turn back.

The following day I felt awful, I had an upset stomach and felt truly exhausted. Halim set out with us to find the path to Lake Tamir-Dara. As we walked into the mountains I felt worse and worse. I decided to return to the camp and spend the rest of the day resting. As it turned out, I had dodged a bullet.

After a day of rest and several doses of medicine, I was feeling much better. Chris, Darren, Halim and Jon returned in the late afternoon.  The climb up to  Lake Tamir-Dara had been treacherous with very steep paths that crumbled underfoot, thick vegetation and a long, long slog. The steep sided lake was a beautiful blue but the evidence of humans was everywhere, with litter left, right and centre. Apparently, the lake, despite it’s hardness to reach, was popular with anglers. It was a great disappointment to hear this and it seemed that the Karatang Valley was a good deal more disturbed and less remote, than the Romit Valley that we have explored in 2018.

That night the man who owned the land, Abulla Mon, came to talk with us. He had never seen a gul himself, but he told us that back in the 1960s, a Russian man and woman had visited the area and saw a family of guls. They approached to within 500 feet of the witnesses, before fleeing. Could these witnesses have been Boris Porshnev and the legendary hominin researcher Marie-Jeanne Koffman? Sadly this is unlikely, as Koffman only ever saw one, single hominin, in the Caucasus and at a distance. As far as I know, Porshnev never saw one.

That night the farm dogs were barking like crazy. In the morning Halim told us that a bear had walked by in the wee small hours.

The following day Jon felt ill and stayed in camp. Darren, Chris and I went out with our driver and Halim, to explore some of the smaller valleys that branched off the Karatag.

Saradik Gorge was being developed by a Chinese company. They were digging for coal at the end of the valley and there were lorry tracks all down the gorge. A power station was being built to bring electricity to the valley. The area was far, far too disturbed to be a home to any unknown primate.

Further down the valley is Duzuma Gorge. A small river runs down it and the gorge is very beautiful, but also very disturbed. Families were bathing in the river. Halim spotted some wild boar on a distant mountainside.

We visited the village of  Hakimi. We spoke to one of the village elders, Abduma, who was 75 years old. In 1975 his father saw a gul at  Lake Payron. His father said that some French tourists were at the lake as well, and one of them took a photo of the creature. Could there be an unseen snap of a relic hominin in somebody’s drawer in France, long forgotten?

Back in 2018 we had many people including  farmers, hunters , honey farmers and even a park ranger tell us of encountering tigers along the two forks of the Romit Valley. In the Karatag it was no different. Abduma had seen one back in 1960, it stood around three feet tall and ten feet long. The cat sported stripes and a long tail. He said that the tigers came down from the mountains in winter and ate donkeys and sheep.

The tiger that inhabited Central Asia was the Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata). The second largest species of tiger after the Siberian tiger, the Caspian tiger was thought to have become extinct in the early 1970s, due to habitat loss and hunting. However, boarder guards along the Afghan-Tajik border, reported seeing one in 1998. We found that sightings of them are common in the mountains.

Another elder was 68 year old Tura, who had moved to  Hakimi with his wife and daughters in 1984. He invited us to his house and we took tea with him in a summerhouse in his garden. He told us that ten families live in the village now. Many had left to work in Dushanbe and Russia.

In 1988 he saw a gul near Lake Payron. It was 2.5 meters (8 feet) tall and covered with dark hair. It was about a kilometre away from him when he first saw it. Thinking it was a friend of his, he called out to it. It made a loud moaning noise and walked slowly back into the mountains. He said that in summer the wildmen come to the river to drink. He said that 80 years back the wildmen were said to be common around  Lake Payron, but retreated further into the wilderness as people began to settle in the valley. He insisted that the gul was a wildman, not an animal of a djinn.

He also told us that three days before we were there, he had been visited by a group of Russians, who had been asking questions about wildmen in the area. We wondered if these were from the recently resurrected Snowman Commission, that existed in the Soviet Union during the 1950s.

Tura was familiar with tigers. He told us that in winter they come down from the higher levels, to eat cows and sheep. Last January or February he saw a tiger eating a Gazelle. The barking of dogs usually alerts him to when a tiger is in the area. He sees them most years. Four years ago he saw one from a distance of only 5 meters. He described a massive, striped cat with a thick tail. He identified it from a drawing I made.

Jon was feeling better the next day and we visited the village of Labidjay. We spoke with a man named Hasam, who ran a fish farm. When he was a boy in 1978, he lived in Hakimi. A man of 80 he knew from the village, saw a gul. The creature scared him so much, that he died three days later. Other people from the village found huge man-like tracks. The stride between them was two and a half feet. The people followed the tracks into the mountains and saw two gul. The creatures were two and a half to three meters tall (8 to 10 feet).  The gul fled into the mountains when the villagers approached.

Hasam said that the tigers begin to come down from the mountains in September. He saw one last October. It was as big as a large dog and had stripes and a thick tail. Many are seen around Hakimi.

Another man in the village was Abdu Mannon. He said that in 1980 his grandfather and other people in the villages, encountered guls. Back then there were far fewer houses in Labidjay. The people came across big man-like tracks. Again, the stride was about two and a half feet.  The villagers followed the tracks into the mountains and made a camp.  They saw two gul, 2.5 to 3 meters tall. The people lit a fire in the camp and the guls retreated.

He said that both gul and bears used to feed on the carcasses of wild boar killed on the road. The 1980 incident was the last time he had heard of a gul being seen.

He had seen tigers many times, including last year, when he was up in the mountains. It had a thick tail and was red with black stripes. They descend to feed on livestock in winter.

Next day we decamped to go to  Iskanderkul Lake. The journey took us across the high Fann Mountain range. There were deep tunnels that bored through the mountains. Ice fields were still in abundance on the highest peaks and we saw ice caves, not unlike the ones we had explored in Mongolia, whilst on the trail of the deathworm back in 2005.

On reaching Iskanderkul, we were met with a beautiful lake with bright turquoise water. The area had changed since Proshnev’s day though. Despite it’s undeniable beauty, it was now very disturbed. The mountain slopes around it were mostly stripped of trees and a hotel complex and several camp sites have been built. The place was heaving with tourists. It was no place for relic hominins or us.

We drove to the village of Saratog and camped just outside of it. That night we went for a wander by torchlight and got a little lost, walking further than where we had camped.

In the morning we retraced our steps in daylight finding fresh bear scat.  We visited a mountain village called Tura, consisting of a few some build shacks on the hillside. The buildings looked ancient but were only about 40 years old. We met a young girl who could speak excellent English. She told us that people lived in the village in Spring and Summer, but left for the city in colder months. Nobody in the village had seen a gul or a tiger. Bears, wolves and wild boar were common though. She said the night before a bear had slept in the village!

Again the area seemed too disturbed, so we decided to spend the rest of the expedition in the lower fork of the Romit Valley, that had been so productive in 2018. It was a long drive to Romit and it was getting dark when we arrived. We had stopped on the way to take a look a a pretty lake and a spectacular waterfall. On the road to the valley we had to stop several times, as huge herds of sheep and goats were being moved along the narrow, dusty road. Flocks of several thousand were hearded around our cars.

We arranged to camp on the land of a local man and erected our tents as night fell.

The following day Halim led us into the mountains. We had to cross a number of rickety wooden bridges. One was so damaged, that we had to crawl across it. In the foothills we found an odd device, like some kind of sky lift sans the chairs or a huge pulley. The wires led upwards to the top of a mountain.

Halim thought he saw a bear coming down the mountain. Darren homed in on it with some binoculars. “I’m perplexed” he said. “It appears to be a mass of vegetation floating down the mountainside above the trees.”

It was then we realised what the device was. It was a pulley system erected to bring grass down from the mountainside for livestock. There were people on the mountain top cutting grass, bailing it up, then attaching it to the pulley.

We pressed on into the wilderness and the peaks grew higher. It began to rain and the rain grew more intense, until we had to turn back and leave the mountains. On the way back we stopped in Sorobu village and searched for witnesses. A 67 year old man named Dustmured invited us into his home and we ate and drank tea with him. He had never seen a gul, but had seen both snow leopards and tigers. He said the snow could be as deep as two meters in winter. Big cats would come to the village at night to hunt animals.

He last saw a tiger in 1993 at night, eating a cow. He observed it for 1 to 2 hours. He said he saw snow leopards most years.

After dinner he played a local stringed instrument, not unlike a lute. It was called a ‘tor’. Hakim told us the song he sang was about how much better Tajikistan was after freeing themselves from the Soviet Union.

That night the ran fell harder and harder and a gigantic thunder storm rolled in. I have seen some savage storms in Sumatra, including one that caused a 20 foot section of mountain road to collapse behind our minibus. But none could hold a candle to this. The rain lashed down in sheets. Thunder boomed like the roaring of a dragon and the sky was split by lightning arcs. The storm did not abate and we all lay awake fearing that the nearby river would break it’s banks and force us to run for higher ground. We were acutely aware that only the thick  material of the tents stood between us and the elements. The tents bent wildly in the storm but held fast. By the dawn the storm had moved on.

The following day we walked to the village of  Vara. We met two old men, Ali Mardo, who was 90, and Barro, who was 86. Barro told us that his grandfather said that in the 1950s a gul would come into the village and steal fruit and vegetables from the gardens at night. Bears still came at night and ate crops.

He had seen a tiger in the mountains, it had a long tail and was orange with black stripes. He said that wildmen still existed in the mountains.

That night we took a night walk along the valley for a few miles. The mountains looked spectacular by moonlight and we searched them with Chris’ night vision camera. The only animals we saw however were bats.

In the morning we broke camp and started the drive back along the valley. The storm had cause huge damage along the valley. We saw landslides and mudslides and cars crushed flat. One bridge had part of it washed away and we had to wait tow and a half hours, as gangs of locals repaired it with rocks and branches. We noted that if this was England it would have taken months for the council to have fixed it and people doing it themselves would have been frowned on. In Tajikistan everybody just pitched in and got it done.

We had been worried about getting back to the hotel and airport on time, but we made it and flew back home with no further events.

It seems that the gul has vanished from the Karatag Valley due to human encroachment. The Caspian tiger still seems to exist there in decent numbers though. We all agreed that we should have concentrated on the Romit Valley. We only spent a handful of days there, on the lower fork. Back in 2018 we spent over two weeks exploring both the upper and lower forks. We spoke to people who had seen the gul very recently and some who had been attacked by them. Many had seen the tigers too.

If we return to Tajikistan, we will probably go back to the Romit, or go further east to the Pamir Highway. Camera traps with long lasting batteries, linked to a satellite, could be placed in the mountains in September or October and left there overwinter, maybe baited with meat nearby. Film and pictures could be downloaded to computer from here in England. This may well be the best way to get proof of the Caspian tiger and possibly relic hominins.

Jonathan Downes
Cryptozoologist, naturalist, musician, singer, composer, poet, novelist and Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology since 1992. Jon was born in Portsmouth in 1959 and spent his infancy in Nigeria and his childhood in Hong Kong. His wife Corinna died of cancer in 2020, leaving him with two stepdaughters and a six year old granddaughter called Evelyn.