I have enjoyed and engaged in some of the most incredible road trips but none of them quite compare to the magnificent and challenging, Pamir Highway. This route is said to be one of the greatest road trips on the planet and that is a claim I certainly cannot refute now that I’ve experienced it for myself. The Pamir Highway is a truly unforgettable journey and an adventure of epic proportions
The scenery along the route is breathtaking and diverse. The highway stretches for 1200 km across terrifyingly high mountain passes, through lonely deserts, past magical glacial lakes and in close proximity with pretty villages that are almost lost in time. The Pamir Highway starts at Dushanbe in Tajikistan and runs along the second highest road in the entire world and ends at Osh in Kyrgyzstan, crossing Afghanistan on the way.
As the UK and Russia were battling for control of Central Asia in the 1800s, the Soviets were building the majority of the Pamir Highway. Little did they know in that moment that it would one day become one of the most unusual tourist attractions in the world, and even citizens of the UK would eventually be travelling by that route.
There is so much to see on the journey, it’s wise not to travel at great speed so you don’t miss any of the little touches that are awaiting to amaze and captivate you along the way such as the remains of ancient medieval fortresses at the top of the mountains, built during the silk route days to protect the trade routes.
Immersed in timeless beauty
It’s hard to describe the sheer natural beauty of the Pamir Highway. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful and just when you think you’ve seen it all, around the next bend is something to amaze you and take your breath away. The Pamir mountain range is one of the highest in the world, surpassed only by the Himalayas, Hind Kush and Karakorum. Throughout the trip you will encounter many majestic snow-covered mountains, some of which are over 7000m high. It certainly makes you feel small when you gaze up at these giants. It’s no wonder the locals call the mountain range Bam-i-Dunya, which roughly translates as ‘ the roof of the world ‘. Passing through such a stunning mountain range is a surreal experience, certainly one to be savoured, creating memories that will last a lifetime. Look to the horizon and you can even see the Hind Kush mountain range in the distance.
The magical glacial rivers add yet another dimension to the beauty of this region. No other river in the region is as prominent as the mystical river Panj that forms the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Across the river Panj you catch a glimpse of the enchanting Afghani villages with their mud houses and colourful apricot trees, set against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains. You tend to wonder how a completely different world exists just across the river. I spent some time imagining what it would be like to live in such a remote and spellbinding place.
Along the highway you also cross the Wakhan corridor, a rather eerie place concealed by the towering peaks of the Pamir and Karakorum ranges. This stretch of road is considered to be one of the loneliest in the world, yet even with that ultimate solitude, I felt so entranced by the sheer beauty of the place. Like most of my experiences along the Pamir Highway, it’s hard to put into words quite how the Wakhan corridor made me feel.
Tajikistan is home to some 2000 lakes and along this journey you’ll get to visit some of the most spectacular lakes, not just in the country, but in the entire world, and that’s no exaggeration. Lakes that are comparable in beauty to the ones in Canada or New Zealand, albeit in a totally different visual setting.
The amazing thing about the Pamir highway is the remoteness of the region and how few people you’ll encounter on the journey. This is unspoilt natural beauty of the highest league. One fact that is quite thought provoking, is that it is believed that there are more snow leopards in the region than there are people living in the local villages! For most of my journeymy party and I were the only living souls there to witness the surreal beauty of the journey and that feeling of peace and tranquillity is really something, a feeling that would be tough to recreate back home! If you want to get away from it all, there’s really no better place.
Kind people and tight-knit communities
Another major draw of the Pamir highway are the people who have been inhabiting this region for centuries. Undoubtedly one of the friendliest regions I have ever visited. Pamiri people will make you feel right at home and despite the language barriers will help you understand their culture and give you an understanding of their community and how they survive, and thrive in this beautiful yet unforgiving region. I was amazed by how friendly and accommodating the people were along the highway, given the circumstances. The whole region has faced suppression for a long time due to their religious beliefs as the people of Pamir are Ismaili Muslims. For decades, mainland Tajikistan has ignored the region and it is usually overlooked when it comes to the allocation of vital resources. Even when I was there, people were protesting the injustice and in response the government decided to shut down the network in the whole of Badakshan. It is a reactionary culture that we are unfamiliar with in the western world, yet it’s an everyday problem for these people.
The Badakshan region is also prone to extreme weather. In the winter, the temperature can drop to -60 in some of the villages and in the summer the temperature can soar to 45. Surviving both the extremes of summer and winter is certainly very difficult and people here are not at all well equipped to deal with either extremity, with most houses not even having any heating. I even saw people using their gas stoves to heat their homes as this was the only option available to them. Badakshan is one of the poorest regions in the world and most people here rely on their livestock and the little income they get from tourism.
Young children are also hard hit by the harshness of a Pamir winter, many of them walking very long distances to get to school each day, distances that would be unfeasible for most western children to even contemplate. Added to this is the fact that the region is incredibly remote, with essential supplies getting through to the villagers only once a month.
Given all the incredibly difficult circumstances, it’s heart-warming to see how the people of this region face it with a smile and despite being so disconnected from the rest of the world, they welcome foreigners with open arms. I felt totally overwhelmed by how these people accepted me warmly into their homes and their world.
This severe and hostile environment, despite the hardship and complexities of living here, has been home to these people for many centuries. It’s a unique intersection where East meets West, North meets South and people create communities that in other areas would be considered rather odd. These areas in the heart of the Wakhan Valley have been travelled by pilgrims, traders and soldiers throughout history. This almost multi-cultural aspect to the area gives those who live here a unique view of the world, the likes of which I have never come across anywhere else.
Most inhabitants of the region are Ismaili Muslims. Aga Khan is their spiritual leader and the 49th heredity Imam of the Ismaili Muslims. Ismaili is a progressive branch of Shia Islam that eschews many conventional Muslim practices and you’ll find the Pamiri much more open minded than the Tajiks. Another fascinating community is that of the Wakhi people whom mostly inhabit the Wakhan Corridor and are ethnically Persian. The Wakhi people are also Ismaili Muslims, however, their language and culture is different from that of the Pamiri people. Both groups have been present in the area for over 2500 years and have managed to keep their culture and traditions alive.
Every Saturday there is an Afghan market in many of the villages, giving tourists an unmissable opportunity to interact with Afghanis. Most Afghanis are Ismaili Muslims but again their culture, language and traditions are different from those of the people of Pamir or Wakhan. Many of the Afghanis that sell things on the market rely predominantly on the barter system, as they exchange their goods for the things they need. The market is a captivating site as people from many different ethnicities, cultures and countries interact. The markets have been present for centuries and have somehow remained unchanged. It’s a unique experience and one that obviously works well for all involved. If you one day decide to follow in my footsteps and travel the Pamir Highway, this is one experience that is well worth seeking out, it’s truly unforgettable.
Another interesting village is Vrang, where you’ll find a 4th century Buddhist stupa, indicating that Pamir was also home to a small Buddhist population. The Buddhism influence carries through to the present day as the people continue to perform ancient religious rites which are a combination of heathen, Buddhist and Ismailite rituals.
As you go east you will see more and more settlements of Krygyz people, particularly in Murgab. Once you reach Kyrgyzstan you will come across the nomadic people with their ancient lifestyle, moving their yurts from one place to another as they tend to their livestock in the mountain pastures known as jailoos, returning to the plains in the winter. Never pass up the chance to meet the nomadic people, it’s an unrivalled opportunity to meet a veraciously unique people with their centuries old traditions. Some of these traditions may even be demonstrated to you if you are lucky, and they’re as spectacular as they are peculiar in many ways. Imagine seeing someone use an eagle to catch food for a meal, or spectating a game of ‘kok boru’ which is polo played with the carcass of a goat. Finally, adding tto he diversity of the area, the proximity of Badakshan to Kashmir has also meant that a small population of Kashmiri people have made Pamir their home.
A rewarding but difficult journey
A word of warning, tackling this journey is not for the faint hearted. Firstly it’s the second highest road in the world so suffering from altitude sickness is not uncommon. Also, being a very poor region, the amenities are basic to say the least, so you need to be prepared for that. Roads are narrow and are pitted with large potholes, your journey is never going to be smooth here! Medical facilities are few and far between, should you need a hospital on your travels, you’ll find only one and the facilities may not be of the standard you’d expect back home. There are language barriers which can become exacerbating when you’re trying to ask for help and the weather is extreme and highly changeable. Travel this route and be prepared for weather than can do anything at any time!
For accommodation, you certainly won’t find any deluxe hotels here. But you will find some friendly and habitable, yet very basic guest houses. If you’re happy to live minimally, you’ll be comfortable enough, but be prepared for a room with no proper heating or cooling. Also, you’re unlikely to find many places with a western seating toilet which can certainly be a culture shock for some travellers.
With such a sparse population, you can travel a long way without seeing a single soul. While at times this is the highlight of the journey, it does make it difficult to solve any problem that might occur during the journey if you need help or advice. Also, mobile network connectivity is very poor and you could literally be without connectivity for several days so it pays to be well prepared.
Make the most of your visits to the larger towns, as there are only two locations where you’ll find an ATM, a general store and a pharmacy. Stock up on what you need as it could be days before you get another chance. Being a vegetarian can also be problematic as the guest houses can only offer fried potatoes as a vegetarian dish. As a vegetarian myself, on my return home, it was a long time before I could stand the sight of fried potatoes again!
But all these complexities are a small price to pay for the incredible experience this route has to offer you. Good planning and knowing what to expect will help to prepare you for this journey of a lifetime. This is the sort of trip where overcoming problems becomes part of the big adventure.
Never one to take the easy option, I took my trip along the Pamir highway during winter, a time when the environment is even more extreme than usual. It’s safe to say that it was the most adventurous trip of my life. I faced many problems during the trip and at times it felt as if continuing my journey was going to be impossible. Yet, the sense of achievement when I overcame the obstacles and moved on to the next stage of my journey, was so rewarding and uplifting.
I had not taken any food with me, and being a vegetarian, I had to survive on potatoes, bread, jam and green tea for the entire duration of the trip. There was literally nothing else available. I have been to places with extreme conditions, but none were as wild as this. With temperatures getting close to -40 and gale force winds blowing, at times it was quite a harrowing experience. With lack of proper food, it was inevitable that I would become sick and with no medical treatment available, I just had to wait out my illness until I felt better.
None of the houses I stayed in had a heater and so coping with the cold was one of the greatest ordeals of the trip. In one guest house, the family used the gas stove to heat the room, in another all twelve of us slept in the living room, surviving on the heat of others and in some I invariably had to sleep with 7-8 layers of clothing along with just a few blankets.
The complete network blackout in the region that had been enforced due to the protests during my visit meant that I had no internet for most of the journey which certainly increased the feeling of isolation. Lying in bed, freezing cold, and so cut off from home and all it’s comforts certainly made me reflect on my life, and while part of me just wished I could transport myself away from this tortuous place, another part of me felt so incredibly grateful that I was here to experience all of it, the lows and the incredible highs. It was at my lowest points that I knew this journey was going to be indelibly etched on my mind forever, and I would never be quite the same again.
On one of the days there was a snowstorm and we got completely stuck in snow, of course this happened when we were in the absolute middle of nowhere without a soul around nor any method of contacting anyone. The network blackout meant that the driver couldn’t reach out to anyone for help and we ended up spending the whole night in the car in the most extreme of conditions. That was frightening at the start but soon turned out to be a hugely memorable night, as the clouds cleared and the sky was as bright as I have ever seen. We even spotted a few foxes, adding a bewitching feel to the night.
As hard as the journey had been, I have no regrets and only feelings of joy when I think back over the time I spent traversing the Pamir Highway. This most special and memorable road trip will always be close to my heart and I will never forget how beautiful and magical this entire region is. I learnt a lot about myself and now know that I really can survive in the most extreme places and that has given me encouragement for my future travels. I also learnt a lot from the locals, who despite all their hardships were so warm and friendly.
The distances are huge, the terrain is wild, the region is incredibly remote and the weather conditions are extreme. You’ll barely spot another vehicle or tourist, but what you will see is an undisturbed view of some of the world’s most stunning scenery. You’ll also have the adventure of a lifetime, one that will make you learn a lot about yourself, the diversity of the world in which you live, and offer you many opportunities to grow as an individual. This is one adventure I personally wouldn’t change for the world.