PAMIR, High Karst Project

About the Pamir High Karst project:

For speleologists, Tajikistan is a little-known country in Central Asia. Very little Speleological knowledge of the country is related to its remoteness and geographical closeness, as well as the lack of caves and people interested in cave exploration. Karst areas are located far from civilized centers very high in the mountains. Political problems did not allow exploring this region in the past. At present, Tajikistan is a rapidly developing secular country with favorable conditions and hospitality.

Currently, numerous groups of tourists visit Tajikistan every year. In Soviet times, many areas in Tajikistan were closed to the public. Most of the territory of Tajikistan is occupied by the great mountain range of Central Asia - Pamir, which means "Roof of the World."

Pamir is a harsh alpine climate region, where locals and geologists know about several caves which entrances are located on inaccessible steep walls, which are composed of limestone of the devonian, carboniferous, cretaceous and jurassic geological periods. In such paleokarst conditions caves of different genesis were formed.

To date, we do not know much about Pamir and Tajikistan in general. For speleologists, the Pamir is an unexplored geographical area. On the territory of Tajikistan, there are several karst areas. It is an interesting and unique area of the Khoja-Mumin salt massif with large and beautiful caves formed in the salt strata. This is also the area where the cave Rangkulskaya (Syykyrdy-Unkur) in Eastern Pamir is located.

Also, an interesting area is located on the mountain plateau of one of the spurs of the Vakhsh Range, located north of the city of Nurek. Located on a plateau in the east-west direction, there are hundreds of karst sinkholes that haven’t previously been investigated. Very interesting is the karst area on the border with Kyrgyzstan. This is the Kuramin Range, where in ancient times silver and lead ores were mined in cave mines. Villagers say that in ancient times, and during the rule of the Bolsheviks, the local rulers hid treasures in deep caves.

In 2019-2020, our Foundation is planning to conduct a reconnaissance speleological expedition to the karst regions of Tajikistan. The purpose of such a trip is to be acquainted with potential karst areas. We want to see these areas; we want to learn how to organize logistics, to know which area is more promising for searching new caves.

We plan to carry out this expedition in the second half of July 2019 in order to explore and study all karst regions. We are planning to start from the northern part of Tajikistan to explore the karst areas of the Kuraminski Range. Further, our route to the south will allow us seeing and exploring areas of Eastern Pamir and the Tajik Depression. We plan to explore the salt crust of Khoja Mumin and Khoja States in the vicinity of Dushanbe, as well as to the south. These are giant salt mountains with salt caves where fantastic cave formations have developed.

Further, the expedition will continue to the northeast, where we are going to continue our speleological exploration in the karst regions to the northeast of the city of Nurek (South Tajikistan). Here in the northwestern spur of the Vakhsh ridge on a large kast plateau, numerous sinkholes were formed, these formed in the layers of gypsum and limestone rocks.

Our route continues through the Pamir towards Kyrgyzstan. Along the way, we plan to explore other karst areas of the Western Pamir and Southern Tajikistan. The duration of the expedition is 15 days. The optimal number of participants is 10-12 people. In Tajikistan, our local colleagues will provide us with good support and hospitality.

If someone wants to take part in the expedition, he/she can notify us no later than April 1, 2019. To visit certain border areas of Tajikistan, you must have a special permit. To this expedition, we invite speleobiologists to study the biodiversity in the caves, surrounding karst areas and sources.

Description of promising areas of research

Those who are interested can also take part in the exploration of individual areas specified  in the complex expedition route.

Khoja Mumin Salt Mountain is located in the south of Tajikistan, 25 kilometers south-west of Kulyab. Khoja Mumin is shaped like a gigantic dome, towering 900 m above the surrounding plain (altitude 1332 m). It is visible for tens of kilometers. Because of the white salt that makes up the mountain, it seems that the mountain is covered with fresh snow. The length of the mountain in diameter reaches 8.5 km. Together with the neighboring Khoja Sartis ridge, it belongs to the largest diapir in the world. Similar salt mountains are found in southern Iran, this is Kuhi Namak. The remaining known salt massifs are known in Palestine and on the Arabian Peninsula.
 
The slopes at the foot of the mountain are steep and the height of the exposed salt walls reaches 500 m. The formation of the salt mass of the massif occurred in the second half of the Mesozoic era in the Late Jurassic era.
 
On the slopes of the massif there are many karst craters. Karst dips reach 200 m in diameter. Many dips have the form of vertical wells or mines with black holes. The abundance of salt caves is not amenable to accurate calculation. Of the famous caves of the giants, the Great Circus Cave is 1200 meters long. On the southeastern slope of the massif there is a large stalactite cave Tiger Spring. Baths, holes, salt gurs and other formations are formed at the entrance.
 
Inside the cave there are narrow corridors and spacious rooms up to tens of meters high. The atmosphere of the cave is saturated with salt. As a result, fantastic snow-white formations are formed on the walls. Giant stalactites hang from the ceiling, and stalagmites grow on the cave floor. In the cave there are helectites, salt bouquets and others.
 
The caves of Mount Khoja Mumin consist entirely of salt stalactites and stalagmites. The height of the halls in the largest caves reaches 8-10 meters. Many of the caves make sounds similar to the music created by the wind passing through the stalactites hanging from the ceiling and stalagmites growing from the bottom of the caves. These caves arose as a result of washing out sodium chloride from the depths of the mountain.
 
Since ancient times, the locals mined salt from the slopes of the mountain. The Khoja Mumin salt is one of the largest in the world. A plant “Khoja Mumin” has been built at the foot, producing and processing salt, providing enterprises and the population with salt, preventing osmotic diseases based on a dispensary
 
Salt-laden streams flow out of the mountain after the rain, which give rise to more than 160 salt streams. At the top of Khodzha-Mumin there are freshwater reservoirs. Thanks to fresh water, numerous herbs and flowers grow on the salt cap. In spring, the top of Khoja Mumin is covered with a bright red carpet of blooming tulips.
 
Little is known about the salt mountain caves. About caves written in the reports of geologists. Speleologists visited the caves of the salt mountain only at the end of the 20th century.
 
In Tajikistan, there have never been cavers. Kyrgyz cavers were in Khoja Mumin in 1988. We explored several caves that left very vivid memories of the salty karst of Khoja Mumin.
 
A visit to Khoja Mumin will be the most interesting part of our expedition.

Karst plateau of the Vakhsh ridge.

Southern Tajikistan is very different from the Pamir mountain system with its climatic and geological conditions. Absolute elevations are much lower here than in the Pamirs.

Our Tajik colleagues were provided with information on an interesting and promising karst plateau that is located north of the Vakhsh River. The nearest town is Nurek. Nurek is the energy capital of Tajikistan, where the Nurek hydropower plant was built.

The Karst plateau stretches from the north-east to the south-west. The total length of the plateau is more than 30 km, width is about 1 km. Exceed over the base of the slopes 300-400 meters. Numerous karst sinkholes are found on the plateau (see the satellite image). The diameter of the funnels reaches 20-25 meters.

Previously, this karst area was not mentioned anywhere. According to Tajik geologists, plateaus and karst sinkholes are formed in limestone layers of Cretaceous age. In addition, there are interlayers of gypsum rocks.

A lot of sinkholes indicate a fairly common karst system. Some sinkholes are located on the same line relative to each other, indicating that they are confined to tectonic faults or contacts of rock layers.

The climate in the area of the planned expedition is quite warm. The air temperature in summer reaches in the valley part of 40 degrees. In the karst plateau the temperature reaches 30 degrees. The average annual amount of precipitation varies from 450 to 550 mm. The main water basin is the Vakhsh River valley, which is located to the south of the parallel stretched plateau. The Karst region is relatively easy to access and is located 100 kilometers from Dushanbe.

Goals and objectives:

1. Assessment of the prospects of the karst area.

2. Investigation of karst sinkholes.

3. Search and study of caves.

4. Topographical survey

5. Hydrogeological investigations

6. Speleobiological Investigation.

Logistics

Arrival of participants in the expedition to the capital of Tajikistan in the city of Dushanbe. Overnight at the hotel. Discussion of plans, preparation.
 
Next on the mini bus Mercedes Sprinter, moving from Dushanbe to the place of the base camp. (100 km.). Setting the base camp at the base of the northwestern slope of the mountain range. For movement in the area of the expedition will be used off-road car.
 
During the expedition, we plan to explore also alternative karst areas of South Tajikistan. For this will be used cars provided by our colleagues from Tajikistan.

Cave Rangkulskaya (Sykykirduu-Unkur). Continuation of research.

The entrance to the cave is located at an absolute altitude of about 4400 meters on the southern slope in the thickness of the limestone mountain range Chyrak-Tash. The entrance is on a steep limestone cliff, at an altitude of about 250 meters from the bottom of the vertical wall.

Despite the long history of the exploration of the cave, its description, topographic survey and prospects for its continuation remained very incomprehensible. The expedition of the Ukrainian speleologists in 1992 set itself the task to find out the main characteristics of the cave. The cave has a complex 3-dimensional structure and is part of an ancient hydrothermocarstic system formed in the Triassic limestones and subsequently exposed by glacial erosion.

The length of the investigated part of the cave is 2050 m, the amplitude is 268 m (-240; +28). According to geological features, and with further research, the amplitude of the system can be 600-700 m.

The cave is located in the limestone massif of Charok-Tash, which is located to the south of Lake Rangkul. The relative excess of the entrance over the adjacent valley is 600 m.

Above the entrance to the cave there is a sheer rock wall about 100 m high, which goes higher into a steep slope that ends with a rocky ridge with a peak of 4774 m. The entry hole  is irregular in shape (about 3.5 m in height and 5.0 m in width). The entrance is formed along an inclined tectonic fissure, which cuts the whole limestone massif and is traced in a steep wall. The exposition of the entrance is southern.

The cave begins with a large hall, steeply descending in a northeasterly direction. Its height reaches 25-30 m, and the width is 15-25 m. There are several fireplaces in the ceiling of the entrance hall (vertical stone pipes leaving to the top), which are taken out to the upper gallery above the hall. Several of the continuations of this gallery, both up and down, are blocked by cork of ancient ice. Some of the fireplaces were left undetected and presumably lead to the upper tiers of the cave. One of the signs of the existence of these tiers is the presence of a number of cave holes in the rock wall above the main entrance, which are framed by a crystalline crust.

Just behind the entrance is a large hall. Hence the network of horizontal and inclined corridors diverges in different directions, which then turn into relatively narrow (1.0-1.5 m) vertical or steeply-pitched wells. Some of the wells lead to the underlying subhorizontal tier, consisting of a number of galleries and halls.    

Further inland, the cave consists of a number of relatively small galleries and halls located at different levels and connected by a network of fractured (along the cracks of bedding) and cylindrical wells. The maximum depth of the cave was reached at the southeastern point of the cave system and amounted to -240 m. Together with the upper floor of the cave (+28 m), the total amplitude of the investigated cave part is 268 m.

The total length of the cave passages plotted on the map, according to the materials of the expeditions of Russian and Ukrainian speleologists, was 2050 m.

The limestone layers are inclined in the southeastern direction (azimuth 110-125 °), with an angle of incidence of 45-65 °. In the same direction, the development of the cave system, which is a three-dimensional labyrinth inclined sub-parallel to the fall of the limestone stratum, is observed. In the cave formed 7-8 tiers of horizontal cavities of the cave.

On the opposite slope of the ridge, in the Kalak-Tash gorge, in the rock wall there are several cave entrances, laid also on the fall of the mountain layers. This indicates the relationship of these inputs to the common cave system. If this hypothesis is confirmed, the prospective depth of the system can reach 500-600 m. Upward, inside the mountain massif, it is also possible to continue the cave to a height of about 100 m. Thus, in the future, the amplitude of the development of the cave system can be 600-700 m. so that the length of the uncovered part of the cave may exceed a certain length, by 2-3 times.

There are no modern watercourses in the cave. Condensation waters are also not formed, since the air temperatures in the cave are either negative or close to zero, and the air humidity in the Eastern Pamirs is extremely low.

An interesting fact is finding a cave of fossil ice. Ice formations are relict fragments of a larger underground glacier that existed in the past. The age of the cave glacier can be attributed to the time of the existence of extensive glaciation in the Eastern Pamirs.

There were no discharges of karst water in the vicinity of the massif. But, there are data from some local researchers (Muratov R.Sh.) that at the bottom of Lake Rangkul unloading of high-yield sources with sufficiently high, apparently carbonate, mineralization occurs.

Inside the cave, in some areas there is a fairly strong flow of air, which can be observed by a strong deviation of the candle flame. Following the direction of the air flow ("by pull") inside the cave, the last expedition found that it does not originate from the deepest, southeastern part of the system, but from the northeast. Here, the passage of the cave stopped in front of several narrow wells, clogged with caving blocks. Ascending streams of air come out through blocky debris in the wells.

The gas composition of air was not determined. However, there is an oral message from speleologists from the city of Balashikha that during one of the expeditions in the cave there was a smell of hydrogen sulfide.

The walls of the cave and the ceiling are almost universally covered with a layer of milky white coarse-grained calcite, from several millimeters to several centimeters. In many places, the calcite layer evenly covers also collapsed blocks.

At a depth of about 130 m there are corallites. Some cave formations, possibly associated with condensation waters, which were formed during short periods of warming and humidifying the climate on the surface.

А characteristic feature of the cave is the wide distribution in it of silty sediments, the so-called "cave-forests". These deposits have aeolian origin and are especially actively accumulated in those parts of the cave where air flows are as weak as possible. In such places, a layer of non-caked dust reaches 5-10 cm.

The question of habitation of bats remains open. But, the biogenic deposits are represented by the litter of bats.

Mention of bats is only in one of the legends, which says that when several Kyrgyz tried to penetrate deep into the cave, they found themselves in a "long narrow corridor, in which there were many huge bats, often blowing out candles." Thus, the time and nature of the habitat Bats in this cave remain a mystery.

Among the locals, the cave is known for a long time and is surrounded by various legends. The first mention of the cave in literature refers to 1898. It also cites one of the legends that tells of the death of a Chinese detachment during a forced wintering in a cave.

In 1988 the expedition of the Moscow speleologists reached a depth of 240 m. Topographic survey was conducted.     

In 1992 an expedition of the Ukrainian Speleological Association was held. During the expedition, an underground ascension was made, as a result of which an upper gallery was found in the entrance hall with deposits of ancient ice. At the same time, topographic surveying of new parts of the cave was carried out, as a result, 0.5 km was added to the total length of the cave. Work was carried out to find promising extensions and disassembly of debris.

As a result, it should be noted that the cave Rangkulskaya (Sykykirduu-Unkur) is unique for the Pamir speleological object. It is part of an ancient hydrothermocarst system, which was opened by glacial erosion. Due to the successful location of the entrance, it was not buried beneath moraine deposits, nor under a deluvial plume. At the same time, due to the dry climate in the Eastern Pamirs in the Holocene, later karst processes did not develop further, and the cave was preserved in a relatively primitive form, completely preserving the signs of hydrothermocarst development (Dublyansky, 1990).

Despite the vigorous research activities of several expeditions, the cave still remains insufficiently studied and is of great interest, both from the speleological and archaeological point of view.

The climate in this area is severe. There is a sharp temperature fluctuation during the night and daytime. The average annual precipitation is about 100 mm.

Logistics

The route of the expedition lies along the Pamir Highway, through high-altitude valleys and high mountain ranges.
 
The road passes at an altitude of more than 4,000 meters through the high rocky  Markansu desert to the Kara-Kul lake. The path to the cave is along a dirt road that leads you to the Rangkul lake.  
The base camp is planned to be installed on the southern shore of Rangkul Lake, not far from the entrance of the cave.

Goals and objectives:                                          

1. Estimation of the karst area                                                                                                                                                 

2. Research of the cave Rangkulskaya (Sykykirduu-Unkur)

3. Topographic shooting in 3D.

4. Analysis of debris inside the cave with the aim of opening new galleries and continuing the cave

5. Investigation of entrances located on high rock cliffs in a given area.

6. Search and exploration of new caves in the expedition area.

7. Geological investigations

8. Hydrogeological investigations                                                                                                                                            

9. Speleological research                                                        

10. Speleo-archeological research.