Just a quick little file note in case people want to know the latest rules – and are looking for some practical advice – about visiting the Urungach Lakes (also known as the Jade Lakes or Нефритовые озера Урунгач) in Uzbekistan. We found lots of advertorials about the lakes, and some rough guidance on the tracks and difficulty levels, so here are some extra details that we wish we’d known but couldn’t easily find online.
The lakes are about a 3-3.5 hr drive from Tashkent city, depending on your vehicle and the condition of the roads. The remoteness of the lakes and the lack of any tourist infrastructure makes it one of the most wonderful highlights in the wider Tashkent region (viloyat) area.
If you are a foreigner residing in Uzbekistan, you do not need a permit to visit the lakes anymore, at least as of June 2020. This was confirmed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs office in Gazalkent, which seemingly has authority over the frontier/border permit regime for the road to the lake. At the frontier area checkpoint on the road towards Piskom, the border guards will check your passport and registration details (the propiska stamp in your passport). They may ask for your diplomatic accreditation. This is a big positive development, as getting a permit can sometimes be a hassle. I do not know if this same permit-free regime applies to tourists who do not live in Uzbekistan.
You also do need any special permits to camp overnight. You just arrive at the national park entrance and pay the entrance fees. The turnoff to get to the campsite is not well signed in Google Maps, but Yandex Maps has an excellent route map all the way to the bottom lake).
Best time to go: We hear that mid-to-end spring is the best (May-ish), but our attempt to go then was thwarted by COVID-19. We went in June 2020 after the easement of internal travel and tourism restrictions, and the water levels in the lower lake were less than peak but still gorgeous. The upper lake looks like it’s an all-year water body, but all the colors and photography happens at the more scenic lower lake which ebbs and rises seasonally. The water will decrease even further in the next few weeks/months and by end-Summer there’s almost no water. Tradeoff if you go in April/May: it gets biting cold at night. Even in peak summer in June, it was 12 degrees Celsius at night, which is cold enough to need a sleeping bag with some insulation, or thicker clothes.
Best way to get there: Once you arrive in Chorbog/Charvak, make sure you get onto the left-hand side of the Charvak Reservoir lake. Otherwise, you’ll add another hour to your journey time at the very least. Drive on the road to left of the Reservoir lake all the way past Sijak. As the water becomes more jade-colored, you’ll get to a fork where the main road is a U-turn into the bridge to Nanai. Don’t take that, but instead take the left fork and continue straight on. Yandex Maps has all of this very clearly signed in the route directions. The Piskom/Pskem river is always to your right.
Road conditions: From the fork across the river from Nanai, it’s a gravel road (or what has become one over time) with varying degrees of potholes. Shortly after you take your final left turn towards the park, you’ll find a car park after which the road conditions worsen considerably into just a rocky track. Set aside about 1 to 1.25 hours for the section from the Nanai fork to the Urungach turnoff.
Vehicle advice: For all-season access, you need a vehicle with 4×4 – differential lock and low-range capability. Now that doesn’t mean that the locals don’t try getting up there with a Chevy Cobalt, but the ones that do try tend to have two or three strong family members running behind the car to keep pushing it out of ruts. There are some particularly steep inclines where a low-range capable vehicle is needed. If you don’t have a good vehicle, don’t sweat: at the car park you can organize a Niva transfer to the lake. Make sure to make return arrangements as there’s no cellphone reception at the lakes. Also make sure to bargain for a ride. Though we didn’t need one, the rate fell from 100,000 soms to 45,000 soms one-way within 10 seconds of discussions.
Camping advice: Once you arrive at the lake, please let the ranger know you would like to camp. You’re ability to camp on the lake itself is lottery, so your options are the campsite about 8 minutes before the lake, or a chance at the lottery via practicing your best Uzbek to get the ranger’s permission to camp on the lake. We succeeded with the later, and there is a gorgeous little area about 10 minutes down the track towards the upper lake where you can scramble down some rocks to an old nut tree. It’s just at the point where the river widens into the lower lake. There are two sites under the tree, and if you walk from the nut tree towards the water and turn the corner on the left, there is another flat area where you can pitch a few more tents. The nut tree site is far enough from the water for year-round safe camping, but the other site closer to the river may be risky when water levels are higher or are subject to rise. The only other option is to camp at the lakefront, but on the weekends it’s absolutely chockablock with visitors, and even on weekdays is not a very private/quiet area.
The campsite on the lake is a bit more compact and so not a lot of safe spaces for kids to run around and play. It’s also a good 10-min walk from the lakefront from where you have to carry everything you’ll need for your stay. But the bonus is being right by the water, the thunderous noise of the water, and the sheer isolation of being all by yourself when the day-visitors go home.
We didn’t see the other campsite, but friends of ours camped there, and it’s a lovely flat grassy piece of land near a creek. Lots of trees to climb and play with, and some open space for kids.
There’s a “bio-toilet” 300-400m before the lake. Other than that, there are no other facilities, so it’s either a shovel or a bag. Consider the bag as the whole area is a water source that could be polluted. There is no treated potable water, although the ranger swore that the river water was pristine and potable. We didn’t chance it and carried our water with us. If you’re traveling light, a water filter or tablets are a must.
Lots of insects and relentlessly burning sun. Bring insect repellent and sunscreen.
Wear good shoes that have a good grip: the rocks and somewhat slippery track to the upper lake need solid footwear that can hug the ground on the inclines.
Track to the upper lake: It was harder than we expected it to be. The track to the upper lake is unmissable. Left of the lower lake, it’s the only track. Lots of rockfalls, so be careful for the first part until the track opens up into the climbing section. The lower lake is at 1371m ASL. The upper lake is 1522m ASL. The track from the lower to upper lake is a easy-to-medium difficulty hike of about 40-50m without kids, and about 1:15 with kids. It comprises a flat section of about 500m, before a series of switchbacks takes you up very quickly the 150 odd meters that separates the two lakes. Be careful with kids: there is a lot of loose rock and scree-like material, making it very easy to slip all the time in the vertical section.
The water is bloody cold: The water temperature makes swimming in the NZ ocean feel like a sauna. It’s biting cold – in the single digits Celsius, even in the peak of the 45-degree tinderbox Uzbekistan summer. The lower lake is supposed to be colder than the upper. Both felt close enough to ice for me not to know the difference.