Guide to Pamir Highway
It is no wonder why this is Tajikistan’s most prominent attraction. Called “the roof of the world”, the magnificent Pamir Highway stretches from Afghanistan (Mazar-E-Sharif) to Tajikistan and ends in Osh, Kyrgyzstan (which is the second-highest border crossing). Pamir Highway’s striking environment certainly offers adventurers one of the most jaw-dropping and memorable road trips in the world. Nothing can prepare you for the immense beauty you’ll witness in this ancient region. The Highway crosses several stunning mountain ranges like the Hind-Kush and Pamir, as well as sparkling, crystal green rivers like Panj. Much of the way you can see picturesque Afghani villages dotted with colourful trees and mud houses just across the river. Another major aspect of the Pamir Highway is its unique communities, which are isolated yet welcoming. In all of my travels, Pamiri’s are amongst the friendliest people I have ever met. The Highway is not for the faint-hearted though, especially in the winter season. However, its rugged environment is part of its mysterious charm. Travelling this road offers the adventure of a lifetime and takes you to some of the remotest places on Earth. In my case also the coldest, because I decided to go in the winter.
Attractions in Pamir
The first stop on the Highway is the small town of Kalaikumb, often regarded as the gateway to the Pamir Highway. The town does not have much to offer other than being a stop on the journey to Khorog. Kalaikumb is 6-7 hours away from Dushanbe. The best option for accommodations here is Hotel Roma (although it is a guesthouse) and Darvoz guesthouse. Both charge $20 per night with breakfast and dinner included.
The journey from Kalaikhum to Khorog is 7-8 hours long. The capital of the Gorno Badakshan (an autonomous region) is a small but fascinating town. The people in Gorno Badakshan are Ismali Muslims and around the city, you can see the influence of Aga Khan, the imam of Ismali Muslims. People here are warm and well educated. It is very interesting to talk to locals and experience the difference between people from Dushanbe and Khorog. This is the last town where you’ll have access to essentials like ATMs and supermarkets.
Attractions in Khorog
Every Saturday Afghanis cross the border and set up a market in Khorog. Visiting the market is the perfect opportunity to interact with Afghani people and buy unique items.
The Botanical Garden and Khorog City Park are both beautiful as well as being great places to observe the local life.
The drive from Khorog to Ishkashim is only three hours and the shortest of the entire trip. There is not much to do in Ishkashim apart from seeing another Afghani market. However, Ishkashim is a necessary stop for those who want to go to Afghanistan as this is the most favourable border crossing option. Ishkashim is also the gateway to the famed Wakhan Valley. (Read more about Afghanistan HERE). If you’re looking for overnight accommodations here, Hami’s Guesthouse is the best place to stay in Ishkashim and charges $15 per night including breakfast and dinner.
The Wakhan is incredibly beautiful with the mountain ranges of Pamir, Tien Shien, and Hind Kush visible in all their glory. Along the way you get to see stunning Tajik and Afghani villages just across the various rivers that you pass. The Wakhan also has a great history attached to it and as recently as 1873 both sides were ruled by the same Emir. The present corridor was created at the conclusion of the great games between Russia and Britain and acted as a buffer between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Attractions in Wakhan
Kaakha Fortress – This fortress is only 30 minutes away from Ishkashim and is a great lookout point for views of the river Panj and Afghanistan.
Yamuchan Fortress – Yamuchan is quite a remarkable fortress surrounded by the majestic Hind Kush mountains. The fortress was built 2000 years ago by the Kushan Empire.
Bibi Fatima Hot Springs – If you are planning to travel to Tajikistan in the winter, you must go to the hot springs, which are located in the town of Yamuchan. The temperature was -17 when I was in Yamuchan, which certainly led to a much-needed break from the cold and made the hot springs even more inviting.
The village of Vrang consists of a Buddhist stupa which is quite fascinating considering it is in Tajikistan. The stupa was made in the 4th century, unfortunately with no record of its origin.
This is the biggest town in wild Eastern Tajikistan. East Tajikistan is where Pamir’s outstanding beauty truly lies. The region is so rugged, wild, and remote that you feel as if you’re on another planet. Murghab is a small town but very fascinating because of the people. There is a Kyrgyz settlement within the town that has been established there for a long time. Interacting with the locals and seeing how they live and make ends meet is a valuable life lesson and a unique experience.
The best place to stay in Murghab is the guesthouse Erali, which is $20 again for breakfast and dinner.
The road trip and landscape become more and more intense as you move towards Bulunkul. The views are spectacular and it is highly likely that you will not see another car during the entire stretch. The town of Bulunkul is known for the lakes Bulunkul and Yashikul. Both lakes are beautiful but Yashikul is especially incredible. The weather in both the winter and summer is extreme with the range being -40 to 40 degrees. The shortage of electricity, water, and heating make it a challenging place to live in during winters.To add to that, the remoteness of the place means that people only get supplies once a month or longer. There are a few accommodations in Bulunkul in the form of guesthouses, all ranging from $15 to $20.
My personal favourite place in Tajikistan and certainly the most remote and extreme place I have been to.Karakul features the largest lake in Tajikistan and the second-highest navigable lake in the world.Photos truly do not do justice to Karakul as well as the whole drive from Bulunkul. The temperature was -35 when I was there and even then we managed to stay out for an hour to enjoy the view. The conditions are extreme in Karakul (I slept with five layers and three blankets). Despite it being one of the hardest places to live on Earth, the people of Karakul are so kind and warm. Again, there are few options in Karakul to stay, all offering pretty much the same rates ranging from $15-$20.
Things To Consider
If you plan to travel to GBAO (the autonomous region of Tajikistan) than you need to get a GBAO permit. The cost of the permit is 15-20 dollars. You can get it while applying for the e-visa. If you plan to exit the country and enter again you are going to need two GBAO permits as well.
Mode of Transport
Hiring a taxi and a driver is the best option for exploring Pamir Highway at your own pace and not missing out on any locations. The price tends to be very steep, with companies charging $1000-1200 for an 8-10 day journey. Luckily, I travelled Pamir with friends so we divided the cost.
This is a very cheap option if you are travelling alone. However, you will not be able to explore at your own pace and will most likely have to travel long distances. Shared taxis go from Dushanbe to Khorog and from Khorog to Murghab and from Murghab to Osh. The journey takes just about four days and is marked with various stops along the way.
Cycling and Camping
Pamir Highway not only provides one of the best road trips but also one of the best cycling routes as well. Many cyclists and adventurers have completed the entire stretch on bikes. Some even bring their own camping tents, which can be set up pretty much anywhere along the route.
In the past, people have managed to reach Osh by hitchhiking. However, this option tends to be very difficult, particularly during the winter months when there are barely any cars on the road.
The people in Pamir are friendly and welcoming and it is unlikely you would come across any challenges with local residents. Khorog was the only place I felt slightly uneasy because while I was there, the town was protesting against the government and security was everywhere. The only problems travelers might face are ones related to road trips and adventures. The roads do get very rough and narrow at many points. Another potential challenge is health-related; as you reach heights of 14000 ft. it’s possible to get altitude sickness. A great way to get accustomed to the altitude is to stay in towns along the way and let your body adjust before you move on to higher altitudes.
Best Months to Travel
For most people, the best months to travel to Tajikistan are June through September, when there are more opportunities for hiking and exploring the villages. Just keep in mind it can get extremely hot in some places during this season, sometimes reaching 40 degrees in certain places. According to my personal preference, the best time to travel to Tajikistan is from the beginning of October through November. During these months there are no tourists, the scenery is even more beautiful, and experiencing the Pamir Highway feels even more adventurous.
If you’re travelling here during the winter months you’ll need to plan ahead to take extra care of yourself. Make sure to choose ideal travel companions as well as a driver who is experienced enough to face the harsh, unpredictable weather and road conditions. The weather became extremely challenging when we were travelling from Bulunkul to Karakul. Our car got stuck in the snow, so we ended up having to spend the night in the middle of nowhere until help came the next morning. Be sure your car is equipped for similar situations, and of course plan on bringing plenty of warm clothes.
Being a vegetarian can be difficult when you’re travelling the Pamir Highway. I made a huge mistake of not stocking up properly; I literally had potatoes for lunch and dinner for 10 days! People were really nice and accommodating though. They made me different versions of potatoes and at one homestay they even made rachallete for me!
Non-vegetarians will find plenty of culinary options along the Pamir Highway. The different homestays serve up a variety of meat, soups, and local dishes, and I have heard only positive reviews about the food.