Road trip on the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan
The legendary Pamir Highway, also called M41 Highway! That name might not ring a bell, because it’s not that famous among the general public, but all those who travelled in Central Asia know at least the name “Pamir Highway”, and all those who go to Tajikistan are basically going there for the Pamir Highway. What’s so special about that highway?
That route starts at Osh (south of Kyrgyzstan), and goes all the way to Mazari Sharif (Afghanistan), passing by Tajikistan. Beyond the length of the Pamir Highway (2000 kilometers/1250 miles), the incredible landscapes you pass by while riding through that road is what attracts all the visitors here. On a portion of the road, 30 meters only (100 ft.) separate Tajikistan from Afghanistan. Indeed, the Pamir Highway goes along the border with Afghanistan, and the two countries are separated by a small river (the Panj river).
But let’s start from the top. Almost all travelers decide to ride from Osh in Kyrgyzstan, to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, with several stops in different villages on the road to sleep. Actually, the best and most interesting portion of the road goes from Osh to Khorog. By the way, like most people, I did Osh-Dushanbe but you can also do it the other way around, from Dushanbe to Osh.
After leaving Osh in the 4×4 we rented for a few days, the first step seemed pretty simple : ride all the way to the Tajik border, and cross it! We left Osh at 8:45am, and we arrived at Sary Tash, the border town with Tajikistan, around noon. That little town, for your information, is at an altitude of 4282 meters (14000ft)! The first thing the miliary men say when they reached our car “No pictures here!!!” Actually they told us not to take pictures at least four times. Then they thoroughly searched through our bags, inspected our passports… I’m used to it now! Since it was noon, most customs officers were having lunch. The few ones who were there asked us to wait. One of the customs officers was watching something inside the car, I could see him becoming agitated, but from his look nothing threatening.
Oh I finally get it. He’s watching me, he’s actually staring at me with that look of amusement on his face and he’s now calling his colleagues via walkie-talkie. His buddies come out of a building behind us, big, tall and strong military men. They greet me in a friendly way, they laugh and then ask for pictures. I said “No“. “Huh??? Why not?“. Thinking about it, it was quite audacious, talking like this to those guys. I’m depending on them to get in the country, I was at their mercy, I could have stayed there, stuck in the middle of nowhere!
“Why? Why don’t you want to take a picture with us?” “I’m just obeying your orders, you said no pictures in the area“. They burst out laughing “Hahahaha! All right we’ll make an exception just for you haha!” I took advantage of the opportunity to ask for a picture, too! “No“, in a firm and serious tone. Friendly ok, but they kept it professional. All right, no souvenir for me…
Crossing the border took like three hours. Waiting for the customs officers who were having lunch, the long time we waited while they were searching through our bags, the paperwork, the pictures with me… Oh and there’s a 25 kilometers (15 miles) section of no-man’s land separating Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. We stopped four times, at various checkpoints, and every time our driver paid the military men a bribe. Seriously, he gave money to all of them. I think the bribe was included in the price we (tourists) paid for this trip…
Once we cross the border, the Pamir Highway is deserted. No one. We rode on the higway for like three hours, and seriously, we didn’t pass a single car! In three hours! We saw two or three stray dogs (I wonder how they got there…), but otherwise not a single soul. Oh actually we passed by a small village, Karakul. I understand. We’re at an altitude of 4000 meters (13000 ft.), it’s cooold up there and the road is unpaved most of the time. We reached a peak altitude of 4655 meters (15000ft)! We finally passed a group of cyclists. Pedalling like this, knowing it’s freezing and the road is in shitty conditions, respect!
Our first stop will be in the city of Murghab. Let’s face it, it’s a small town where there’s not much to do. A market, a mosque, and that’s it! And forrget about your social media. There’s no internet in the hotel you’re probably going to stay at, the Pamir hotel. As the manager said “No Wi-Fi, no problems!“. Since there’s no internet, take advantage of the opportunity to talk and interact with the locals. Everytime I told them “I’m from France”, they didn’t belive me. “Africa? America? But not France!”
As I said earlier, the Pamir Highway is at high altitude (Murghab is at 3600 meters/12000 ft), you get tired faster since there’s less oxygen. Two of the people I was with had headaches, they were even dizzy at times. Take all the necessary precautions before heading there! I had a little headache but nothing more, my body was now used to high altitude after spending a few days horse riding along Song Kul in Kyrgyzstan, at an altitude of 3400 meters/11000 ft.
The day after, we hit the road quite early in the morning. Once again, the landscapes were breathtaking and the ride was enjoyable, even though the road on the Pamir Highway is not in good condition. The driver made us listen to some traditional Tajik music. He recorded it on his cassettes (a cassette player in a car, I haven’t seen those in a looooong ass time!).
We keep riding, and we keep passing by villages in our 4×4! People stare at us, trying to see who’s inside the car. We pass by Langar, and we stop at Bibi Fatima, at an altitude of 3100 meters (10000 ft.). This is where you’ll find the famous Bibi Fatima Hot Springs! The entrance fee is 10 somoni (one euro) for foreigners, and men and women are given separate pools to bathe in.
As soon as I got in the water, I realized I was the only one with a swimsuit. “Get it off!!!” kept telling the few guys there. Yep, we’re all naked in there. I was ill at ease, the young locals kept staring at me and apparently, they were taking great care of every single part of their body, which is definitely not the priority of a backpacker, if you know what I mean…
In the same area, you’ll also find a 2200-year-old fortress. This fortress is in the heights of the Bibi Fatima, and is in ruins but from there you get to see astonishing landscapes of Afghanistan, just in front of you. One hour is enough, just climb around to enjoy the view, take some pictures, relax in this peaceful atmosphere, and then you can go!
This is in Bibi Fatima that I noticed that I hadn’t seen men and women walking together in the street. Every time, groups of men, groups of women, but no mixing. Bibi Fatima is also the village where I interacted the most with the locals. It was easier, in this area, people greet each other in the street. And I also tried to talk a little bit when they were asking to get a picture with me.
Anyway, the locals told me that there are four languages in the country : Tajik (normal!), Russian (like anywhere else in Central Asia!), but also Wakhan (specifically spoken in this area, Wakhan Corridor, located in the south of the country and northeast of Afghanistan), and Khorog (spoken in Khorog only). Tajik people have their faces marked with deep wrinkles quite young. They look like Persian people (Iran), a little bit like Asian people but not like Russian people
Further on the Pamir Highway, we stopped at Ishakshim, exactly at the Ishakshim fort. We were riding along the border with Afghanistan. From the fort, we can very distinctly see Afghanistan, which is just a few dozens meters in front of us. And Pakistan is like 30 kilometers away (20 miles). Sentries were hiding in the fort, and they were watching the river, just in case a reckless idiot tries to cross the river by swimming.
We finally made it to Khorog, a big city. It means this is the end of our road trip! I met a lot of travelers there. Khorog is what I call a city where you just rest. You see people who just finished their trip on the Pamir Highway, and others who are about to start. A lot of cyclists, too, having a break there for a few days. Since there are many tourists, people speak good English in Khorog. Even better than the neighbouring countries in “Stan”. Just walk around in the city, watch their daily routine… And enjoy a good meal there! Either at Varqa, delicious Tajik restaurant, or Delhi Darbar, very popular Indian restaurant. You can go there by marshrutka (mini van), the ticket costs 1.5 somoni (0.15€…). If there are no more marshrutkas because it’s too late (it happened to us), ask the locals if they can pick you up and drop you where you want to. They’ll do it with pleasure, and won’t ask for any money 🙂
One thing you definitely cannot miss in Khorog : the Saturday morning Afghan market. It’s the only opportunity to interact with Afghan people without going to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the market doesn’t take place every Saturday. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not, and there’s no annoucement beforehand. They make the decision at the very last minute, which means the same day very early in the morning! I went there on a Saturday market but “Sorry, no Afghan market today” 🙁
From Khorog, you’ll have to go to Dushanbe, the capital. It’s a 12-13 hours ride, once again along the border of Afghanistan. On the other side of the river, we could see little kids playing, women doing laundry. We were waving at them, and they always waved back us, with big smiles.
As I said, the road on the Pamir Highway is definitely not in a good condition (unpaved, rocks on the road here and there…), and our driver was driving way too fast. Because of his driving, one rock burst the car’s right tyres. And we only had one spare wheel… In less than 10 minutes, six cars and one truck spontaneously stopped, asking if we needed some help. Nice!
Dushanbe was the last stop. Not much to do there, no need to stay for a long time, three days are more than enough. There’s a market, some beautiful green spaces and parks, and many portraits of the president, Emomali Rahmon. At the Dushanbe airport, taking a flight to go to New Delhi, I forgot I had a full bottle of water in my bag, but apparently they didn’t care, I made my way through the security and they didn’t say anything. Before that, a security guy (the one searching through your bag) started talking to me “You’re from Paris? I looove France, blablabla…” I saw him coming… Then he asked “Do you have money? Where is it? Show me your wallet! Dollars or somoni?” And then “Give me some money please, for a coffee“. He didn’t get anything from me, but I guess it’s time for me to leave Central Asia, and to explore another part of the world…
Wanna travel the Pamir Highway?
- First thing first, you need to go to Tajikistan! Check the visa policy here! Unless you’re from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia or Ukraine, you’ll need a visa to get there. Nothing complicated, you don’t need to go to an embassy, just apply online here! You’ll have to pay 50 US dollars. During the process, they’ll ask you if you want a GBAO permit, which allows to go to the territory of Badakshan. The Pamir Highway being on that territory, you’ll have to ask for the GBAO permit, and pay an additional 20 US dollars. That means the Tajikistan will cost you 70 US dollars.
- You’ll probably start from Osh in Kyrgyzstan or the other way around from Dushanbe, thecapital. In both cases, to travel the Pamir Highway, you can travel either by public transport (not recommended, sometimes you’ll wait for hours in some villages, waiting for the marshrutka to be full before leaving), hitchhiking (doable, but most cars passing by are already full, you’ll have to be patient), with your own car if you have one, cycling (all the cyclists I met in Khorog said it was one of the best experiences they ever had), with a travel agency (the most expensive!) or the more convenient, rent a 4×4 with driver. That’s what I did.
- If you decide to rent a 4×4, the best thing to do is to travel with a full car, to split the costs. Ask your hotel/hostel if anyone plans to travel the pamir highway. I don’t know for Dushanbe, but in Osh you’ll find easily. We were five, and we paid 700 US dollars total (140 US dollars each) for 5 days/4 nights. The price included the car, the driver, and the ride from Osh to Khorog. The price didn’t include the meals, accommodation in the different villages and the ride from Khorog to Dushanbe.
- Since I’m talking about it, regarding Khorog-Dushanbe, we paid 250 somoni (25 euros).
- Regarding accommodation, you’ll see by yourself, it’s quite expensive for what you get. 10 US dollars per night at Murghab with no internet and power cuts, 15 US dollars per night at Bibi Fatima with no shower and of course no internet (we had to go to the hot springs to have a wash, 10 minutes away!).
- You’ll have to pay for the meals but it’s cheap. We never paid more than 15 somoni (1.50€) for a meal with tea. Actually it was more about 10 somoni (one euro).
- Not only on the Pamir Highway, but also in the whole country (Dushanbe might be the exception), internet is reaaally slow… I really needed the internet, so I took a local SIM card. The SIM card costs 35 somoni (3.50€) with 1GB, 58 somoni (5.80€) with 2GB. I didn’t get it to waste my days on Facebook or Instagram, but with a local SIM card, you can use your phone as a modem (tethering & portable hotspot), and work on the blog so that you guys can read me 😀
- I did Khorog-Dushanbe in one day, but of course you can do it in two days. A lot of travelers spend a night in Kalai Khum, a small village between the two cities. Oh and while we’re at it, we did Osh-Khorog in five days, but many people told us it’s a bit too fast. If you have time (and if that doesn’t bother you being cut off from the rest of the world), one week, or even ten days, it’s better!
- In Khorog only (and its area), the time zone is different than in the rest of the country (one hour ahead of time!). It can be confusing at first…
- The best time to travel the Pamir Highway? From April to October. Actually from June to September. From November to March it’s freezing.
- Dushanbe means “Monday”! This is Persian, it literally means “the second day of the week”, which starts on Sundays.
- In Kyrgyzstan, they have 3 soms coins. In Tajikistan, they have 3 somoni bills! Someone needs to explain me their logic…