A unique, pioneering winter expedition into Central Asia’s majestic Ala Too and Pamir mountain ranges in search and support of the elusive snow leopard
Panthera uncia, the snow leopard: there can be few mammals on earth whose habits we know less about, yet which garner such intrigue and wonder. Listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List, only perhaps 9,000 remain in the wild, seven hundred of which inhabit the snow-bound peaks of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s Pamir and Tien Shan ranges.
Run in close partnership with local conservation organisations, this thrilling two-week expedition will take you deep into the mountains of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in search of the snow leopard and other key species. This is as much about being involved in the conservation efforts of these enigmatic animals as it is about seeing one for yourself.
You’ll track snow leopards, wolves, Ibex, Markhor, Marco Polo sheep, elk and other key species, stay in cosy mountain lodges, enjoy talks from local conservationists and have the rare chance to experience the wild winter beauty of some of the least explored mountain ranges on earth. You will be directly involved in some innovative conservation efforts and will support initiatives that help understand and preserve the snow leopard in its natural habitat.
In between these two mountain locations, you’ll enjoy the luxury of Bishkek and Dushanbe’s best 5* hotels and travel in top-spec 4WD vehicles.
A unique – very special – opportunity to learn about the lesser-known Central Asian snow leopard population and experience the majesty of these mountains in winter.
||Manas International Airport, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Dushanbe International Airport, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
||Please ensure you arrive in good time for our scheduled departure from Bishkek
- 4WD vehicles + drivers – properly insured, prepared and maintained for our use.
- Accommodation in rustic mountain lodges and 5* hotels
- All meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some alcohol.
- Local airport transfers
- A professional local guiding and conservation team plus one of the directors of Silk Road Adventures.
- Conservation lectures from local Tajik and Kyrgyz snow leopard experts
- Air Astana flight from Bishkek to Dushanbe
- Wildlife tracking with expert local rangers
- Fresh filtered water + a Water 2 Go water filtration bottle, in order to reduce plastic waste
- All entry fees
- White camouflage clothing (for tracking in the snow)
- Professional route planning and logistics, backed by risk assessments, emergency procedures, satellite communications (where necessary) and medical support. We don’t take risks lightly and we plan for all eventualities, believing it is better to have prepared and not require a procedure than not to plan at all. We also carry a very well stocked First Aid and Trauma medical kit and have been First Aid and Trauma trained by the excellent team at Crux Medical.
- International Flights – we can organise these under our ATOL protection as part of the package so please advise us if you need this.
- Guide and ranger gratuity
- Your personal clothing and any equipment – details to follow after signing-up.
- Extra daily costs for snacks, alcohol or souvenirs
- Your personal travel insurance including medi-evac
- Extra camera traps you wish to donate to the conservation groups
- Visas and other permits as required
This incredible trip focuses on two conservation areas – one in Tajikistan’s south-western Pamir mountains and the other in Kyrgyzstan’s Ala Too ranges.
After a night of 5* luxury in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, you’ll be driven to a basic but charming lodge in the heart of a wildlife reserve beneath the magnificent peaks of the Ala Too. Here, guided by a team of expert local rangers and conservationists, you’ll spend three days exploring the surrounding mountains and forests by horse, foot and 4WD. In the evenings, you’ll return to the warmth and comfort of the lodge – which is owned by one of our rangers – where hot food, good cheer, conservation talks and traditional Kyrgyz entertainment await. There is a varied range of species here, ranging from deer, elk, wild boar and wolves in the nearby forest, to lynx, ibex and Marco Polo at higher elevations. Although snow leopards have been caught on camera traps in this region, we are unlikely to see them in this first, Kyrgyz part of the trip.
“According to local legends [in Tajikistan], the snow leopard is a pari or mergich, a holy and powerful being, that needs to be propitiated to ensure the success of summer herding and dairy production by the community, as well as the success of hunters.”
(Tanya Rosen, formerly of Panthera, writing in National Geographic)
From Kyrgyzstan, you’ll fly to Dushanbe in neighbouring Tajikistan, where – after another night of 5* luxury – you’ll spend five days at a Conservation Lodge in the south-western Pamir mountains. We’ll be making this comfortable with soft duvets, fluffy pillows and fresh linen, plus a selection of good wines for supper and a well-mixed G&T at the end of the day. As our spotters will have been out tracking the big cats for the week before we arrive, you’ll have a really good chance to see not only the leopards themselves, but also Pallas’s Cat, Asiatic Ibex, Tajik Markhor, Marco Polo sheep, Bukhara Urial, Eurasian Wolf, Wild Boar, Golden Eagle, Bearded Vulture, Himalayan Griffon, Egyptian Vulture and plenty more besides.
Not only will you be tracking wildlife, you’ll also have the chance to help the conservation effort. You’ll be setting camera traps, helping to analyse the footage and visiting a local school where pupils are taught the importance of conserving these key species. This small conservancy is also home to the highest recorded density of snow leopards ever recorded, with ten individuals in a 100km² (39 miles²) area.
Two years in the planning, and run in close conjunction with international and local conservation teams, this is a trip that we hope you will be as excited about as we are.
How is this different from other “snow leopard” trips I’ve seen advertised?
It has taken us more than two years to get this trip ready for you and no one offers anything like this. Most other trips offering snow leopard spotting are in Ladakh in North-West India which, while being a very beautiful part of the world, is also high (3,500 m, or 11,500 ft) and this can create issues with altitude. Our lodge in Tajikistan is only just over 1000 m (3300 ft) above sea level. In Kyrgyzstan we are around the same height, so again there will be no issues with altitude sickness.
India is also a far better-known destination than Tajikistan or even Kyrgyzstan. We would encourage you to try something new, something where the income we generate is of great benefits to a local economy that is only recently beginning to see the fruits of slowly increasing tourism. Further, Ladakh – in Indian-administered Kashmir – is sometimes subject to security concerns that are not an issue in Central Asia.
We are specialists in Central Asia and know these countries incredibly well. Our directors, Marley and Antonia, have between them spent years in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and have spent months at a time living in these countries. We know the best places, the best people and where to find the best coffee: it is our insider knowledge and attention to detail that makes us different.
This is also a trip led by one of our own Directors, whose extensive local knowledge will help you to extract the very most from there two very different but marvellous countries.
The trip is designed to provide not only income but other real, tangible benefits to the conservation effort to understand and preserve the iconic snow leopard. Finally, the density of prey species and numbers of snow leopards hereabouts – particularly in Tajikistan where this trip will end – together with the highly professional approach of our local team allows us to believe that you stand an excellent chance of spotting a snow leopard here without creating any risk to the species itself or to any prey species. This is of the utmost importance to us.
The highest density of snow leopards ever recorded is in the community based conservancy where we end the trip.
Are the conservation efforts here linked to commercial trophy hunting?
In Central Asia, as in many parts of the world, conservation efforts are often ‘supported’ by controlled hunting. Whilst it may not be something we find personally palatable, this income stream has allowed for the training of guides, purchase of camera traps, monitoring of populations, development of lodge facilities and – in many cases – has been critical to the preservation of endangered species. The hunting of snow leopards themselves has been illegal in Central Asia for decades, but prey species such as Marco Polo Sheep and Markhor goats are hunted in controlled numbers each season. As an example, to hunt a Marco Polo in Tajikistan costs upwards of US$50,000, with a percentage of these funds going back to conservation efforts. This hunting – and the rangers trained to track and enforce the numbers killed – has had a direct correlation with a marked reduction in illegal poaching. It is in the interest of the species managers to ensure that populations of ungulates are maintained at viable numbers and that poaching is kept at bay.
So, the presence of hunting is not something we can affect. Our efforts to support the conservation efforts by bringing small amounts of wildlife tourists do help to diversify away from a pure hunting agenda and we are keen to see this increase – whilst also realizing that a single hunter paying $$$ has arguably less environmental impact than the number of traditional tourists needed to raise the same income.
This is a balance that we are acutely aware of and are trying at all times to improve by carefully considering all of our actions. We want to be open about the presence of hunting in some of the places we stay and whilst there will not be a physical overlap between hunters and guests on this trip, we don’t want anyone to think we are hiding any truths.
The reserve we will visit in Kyrgyzstan was once a hunting concession and now a place of total sanctuary where species are being protected by rangers. This is the kind of good news story that we are keen to see, and it is our hope that properly managed small group trips like ours will form a key part of the income stream that helps to manage these reserves in the future.
If you want to read more about this subject, a fascinating article has been published in Biographic Magazine, produced by the California Academy of Sciences. You can read this in-depth article here.
Is this trip benefiting local conservation efforts?
Yes! Because of our knowledge and contacts in the region, we are working directly with local conservation organisations in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, rather than arranging things through a local tour operator. This means that a large proportion of the trip costs is directly funding conservation efforts here. For example, the mountain lodges we are staying in are also the homes of local (volunteer) wildlife rangers, and 25 per cent of the costs of staying at the lodge go directly to funding local conservation efforts. We have also worked hard to incorporate conservation into this trip: you will have briefings and talks from local experts, spend each day with specialist rangers, help set camera traps and analyze the footage and visit local schools and families to learn about the importance of human-wildlife relationships in these fragile mountains. The fact we are staying in the rangers homes also adds an enriching cultural dimension to the trip.
Much of this trip is designed to give our guests hands-on involvement with conservation efforts. Indeed, the trip has been designed in two parts with the first placing high emphasis on being involved with conservation of species and habitats that benefit the snow leopard, whilst understanding that the chances of spotting them is low. However, in the second part of the trip all that effort will hopefully be repaid to our lucky guests, as the chances of seeing the cats themselves in that location is far greater.
Where will we be staying?
On this expedition, we’ll be staying in some excellent 5* hotels in Dushanbe and Bishkek. In the mountains of Tajikistan we will be staying at a hunting and conservation lodge with hot showers, comfortable beds and good hot food. These lodges are simple and due to space constraints room sharing might be needed – this is a wild part of the world with little infrastructure after all, so we see this as part of the experience. In Kyrgyzstan we will be staying at a comfortable mountain lodge which has hot showers and underfloor heating. Some of the rooms are en-suite but you may have to share. These lodges belong to local wildlife rangers and 25 per cent of the money we spend there goes directly to funding the pioneering work of this community based conservancy. As the 13 rangers who work in this reserve are all volunteers, the money they earn from us is also a huge boon to them, their families and the local economy. We will have exclusive uses of these lodges whilst we are there.
In order to maximize comfort at these lodges, we will be adding soft duvets, fresh linen and good pillows to each bed. Furthermore, we’ll make sure you all have hot water bottles at night, and that the rooms are warm and cosy. We will also be bringing with us a generous stash of good wines, G&T and delicious food.
What size of group will it be?
Our group sizes are always small, allowing for an intimate experience of the cultures we meet along our path. On this expedition, group size is limited to just ten guests. We like our expeditions to have a personal touch throughout and you’ll be accompanied at all times by one of the Silk Road Adventures directors, as well as our highly-knowledgeable local guides and wildlife rangers.
Why is this expedition in February?
February is the best month to see snow leopards. At this time of year, snow and cold weather up in the mountains drive key prey species down to lower altitudes, making the cats easier to spot. Yes it will be cold and you won’t be sipping margaritas on the veranda at night, but if you want to see the cats, February it is!
How good are my chances of actually seeing a snow leopard?
In Kyrgyzstan we will be very lucky indeed to see a leopard. But in Tajikistan our chances are good. We have chosen the best spots to try to locate the animals and whilst there is unequivocally no guarantee that any species will perform to our schedule, our local rangers have extensive experience and years of local knowledge that maximize our chances of seeing these majestic animals. We are in the right location at the right time of year, with the right resources and local knowledge.
In 2013, the reserve we are visiting in Tajikistan recorded the highest density – at that time – of snow leopards in the world, with 6 cats in a 100 square kilometre area. A team returning in 2016 identified ten cats in the same reserve.
We don’t feel there is much more we can do to increase your chances of seeing these iconic creatures. As we’ve outlined above, this is not a pure “photography”- style trip, but is intended to provide not only a real opportunity to see a snow leopard but also to get involved in the efforts to conserve the species we are here to see.
What will the weather be like?
A very difficult question to answer when traversing high mountain ranges. But the temperatures are likely to be down to around -15 and you will need to be prepared for cold, dry, snowy conditions. However, we will be issuing people with a very detailed equipment list once they have signed up.
How fit do I need to be?
You will need to be relatively fit and prepared to spend days in cold, snowy, mountainous terrain – fit enough to walk perhaps 10 km per day (at the most) in rough and often steep terrain. We will generally be walking far less than this, but we want to illustrate that you need a good level of fitness and that this is not armchair wildlife spotting, nor is it a safari conducted from the back of a Land Cruiser. You will also be spending some time on horses – see below To get the view for the photos you want, you will need to put some effort in!
Do I need to be able to ride a horse?
While we will be using horses for the Kyrgyz section of the trip, you don’t need to be an expert rider to come on this adventure. The small, sure-footed Kyrgyz horses we are using are lovely and calm, the saddles Western-style and comfortable, and – since it’s likely there will be at least a foot, or more, of snow – we will not be going faster than a walk. Horses mean we can travel much further into the mountains, and in greater comfort. The smell of the horses also helps to disguise our own human scent and therefore helps to make our presence more palatable to the local wildlife, in turn making it more likely we will see what we came to see. If you have never ridden a horse before and want to come on the trip, we would recommend you take a few very basic riding lessons before you come, so you at least know what it feels like to sit on a horse.
I’m a solo traveller – is this for me?
Yes. More than 85 per cent of our guests travel alone as part of our group. We don’t usually charge single supplements to solo travellers and there is no single supplement on this trip.
Do you charge single supplements – I can’t see them in your information?
Not on this trip no. We don’t believe that solo travellers should be penalized with extra charges. It goes against our ethos, so unless totally unavoidable or astronomically expensive, all costs are included in the expedition price. Please note that in many of our destinations, single rooms are simply not available due to the nature of the available tourism infrastructure.
Will I have to share a room?
At times, yes. You’ll of course have your own room in the 5* hotels in Dushanbe and Bishkek, but in the mountain lodges you may have to share a room with either one or two other people as a result of space limitations. If we have more than three couples travelling, everyone should have their own room, but if every person is travelling solo you will have to share.
What kit do I need to bring?
We will provide you with an information pack after signing up to this trip, and this will detail any particular equipment we think either necessary or useful.
Do you use decent vehicles?
Yes. We will travel in top-spec 4WD vehicles with carefully chosen drivers.
How much are flights?
This is a moving feast and depends on where you are travelling from and how you want to get there. From London, the cheapest flights to and from Dushanbe and Bishkek are via Moscow, Astana, Istanbul or Dubai. We use Turkish Airlines via Istanbul because they are good, cost-effective connections. Costs are usually around the £700 mark, return. Again, we’ll send you an information pack containing all the information you need when you book your place. We are ATOL bonded so can easily book your flights as part of a package – please advise if you’d like us to do this.
What will the food be like?
In Bishkek and Dushanbe you’ll be eating very good local and international food, and of course enjoying fantastic breakfasts at your 5* hotels. In the mountains the food will be simpler, but hearty and tasty nonetheless – a mix of local meats, delicious hot soups, salads and homemade bread. We will also bring good French wines, G&T, cheeses and a selection of tasty treats for us to enjoy after hard days in the hills. In general we think food is a core part of any cultural experience and there are a good number of local dishes to try on our route.
Will I be affected by altitude?
Altitude can affect different people in different ways. It can also affect the same person in different ways from trip to trip. We won’t be spending time at significant altitudes above 2500 m, so this is not anticipated to be an issue on this trip.
Do you perform proper risk management on your expeditions?
Yes. We are members of TRIP – the Travel Risk and Incident Prevention Group – and perform detailed country risk assessments prior to departure, in line with the ISO 31000 international standard for risk assessment. We also maintain close contact with the relevant Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice for countries we plan to visit, in addition to making use of the Australian Smart Traveller assessment tool, and the US State Department’s OSAC service. Beyond this, we have a full set of risk management and disaster contingency plans for each expedition and are expedition first aid trained by Crux Medical. For final back up we also use the services of Remote Medical Support that allows us to have a UK expedition doctor on the end of a telephone line wherever we may be. And we always carry a satellite phone where communications are at all iffy. We really don’t mess around when it comes to safety.
I can’t do your dates but love the sound of your expedition – can you be flexible?
Yes. We offer set group dates for many of our expeditions, but we can organise and deliver bespoke expeditions to groups and individuals to suit your itinerary and budget. More information is available on our tailor-made expeditions page. Note that February is the ONLY time of year such a trip can be undertaken.
Is it a guaranteed departure?
As with any pioneering itinerary we need to reach a minimum number of guests to make this viable. On this expedition this is six people from a possible ten. When you express interest in this expedition, we will send you a deposit invoice to hold your place. This is refundable according to our terms and conditions if we do not reach the minimum numbers. We recommend that you do not book your flights or other arrangements until we have communicated that the expedition is definitely departing as planned and will aim to do this in order to give you at least three months prior to the scheduled departure in which to make your travel arrangements.
Is this for me?
Although this is an extremely enlivening way to spend a couple of weeks of your life, it’s also potentially dangerous. Travelling by 4WD and horse is an inherently risky activity anywhere in the world and to compound this, you will be travelling in fairly remote, often mountainous areas.
You’ll spend days – some of which will be long – tracking wildlife in mountainous terrain. Do not book a place if you are not relatively fit – this is not a trip whereby you can watch animals from an armchair. What effort you put in will determine to an extent what results you get out of it!
Don’t even consider signing up for this adventure if you aren’t fully aware of the risks you are taking.
Furthermore, Central Asia can be very tough to travel and in most places the tourism industry is in its infancy. This is why we – and hopefully you – like it so much. There’ll be no Wi-Fi or mobile reception for some of the trip and the road conditions, bathrooms, food and temperatures won’t be the same as in London, Hong Kong or New York.
We will be doing everything we can to make it as comfortable as we can but this remains a place on the frontiers of travel so it is not a luxury trip in the traditional sense. The luxury is in the exclusivity, the wilderness and the exceedingly rare opportunity to spot snow leopards in these little-explored mountains.
If you like your holidays to include foie gras, butlers and quilted loo roll then please look elsewhere. This probably isn’t for you. If however, you want a proper, epic experience that you’ll remember forever, then you are in luck.