Wow, wow, wow. What an amazing week we’ve had on the Pamir Highway. Snowcapped mountains, lunar-like landscapes, rushing rivers, high mountain passes, endless (mostly unpaved) roads, turquoise lakes and villages where time has stood still passed by as we drove from Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan crossing the eastern Pamir mountains in Tajikistan, passing the Wakhan corridor bordering Afghanistan (with views of the Hindu Kush) and ending our trip after an 11 hour drive on the last day in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe.
We read and heard many stories of people getting sick (it seemed almost part of the deal) or experiencing adverse weather conditions but we were extremely lucky. Sure it was cold sometimes (no surprise at altitudes around 3.500 meter) and accommodation was basic, but except for the last day we had almost perfect, sunny weather and what was even better: we didn’t get sick despite eating everything that was put in front of us. Even the sketchy fish (always a risk) at end-of-the-world Bulunkul Lake went down without a hitch.
Day 1 – Still in Kyrgyzstan: Peak Lenin
The first day of our trip we were still in Kyrgyzstan. The scenery was as always great with many herders leading their flock to lower pastures now that temperatures in the high mountains had started to drop. Our goal for the day was to get close to the Pamir Alay mountain range on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border to get a view of 7.134 meter high Peak Lenin, one of three 7.000+ peaks in the Pamirs.
Originally we were planning to spend the night in a homestay in the nearest village of Sary-Mogol, but after we’d driven the 45 minutes off-road towards the snowcapped Pamir Alay and saw the picturesque setting of the yurt camp near Tulpar lake, we decided to brave a cold night’s sleep and rudimentary toilet facilities one more time.
In the afternoon we walked in the direction of Peak Lenin for a while. It refused to show its peak completely, but the surrounding area made more than up for it.
Day 2 – Crossing Pamir Highway passes
On the second day we crossed into Tajikistan, the scenery getting more impressive the further we drove to the border crossings. Just a few days earlier the first snow storm of the year had passed over the eastern Pamirs leaving a dusting of fresh snow on the mountains which made it even more picturesque.
The actual Kyrgyz-Tajik border is at the 4.282 meter high Kyzyl-Art Pass. We passed the Kyrgyz border post 20 kilometers before the pass, Tajik immigration was a few kilometers down from the pass on the other side. Our driver Jarkin, who we had arranged through Biy Ordo Hostel in Osh, had brought some bribes in the form of bottles of liquor to smooth the border formalities a bit. At the various military checkpoints that followed small amounts of money changed hands for the same reason.
After crossing the highest pass of our Pamir Highway trip – 4.655 meter Ak-Baital – we had lunch near salty Karakul Lake (3.914 meters), the biggest lake in the Pamirs. The village here was typical for the few small settlements we saw in the vast empty landscape: a scattering of simple low-slung houses that looked a little picturesque in the sunshine but must be hard to live in during the long and very cold winter months.
After driving along the Tajik-Chinese border for most of the time since Tajik immigration, we ended the second days’ drive in Murgab, the largest village in the eastern Pamirs. Our homestay here was beyond expectation: although basic, it had a sit-down toilet and a hot shower and both were inside the homestay, so no need to go outdoors in the middle of the night for a toilet visit. Absolute luxury for the Pamir Highway!
Day 3 – End-of-the-world Bulunkul
The drive from Murgab to Bulunkul was maybe a little bit less exciting than the previous two Pamir Highway days, but the road – which had been mostly dirt and gravel since the Tajik border – was pretty decent asphalt most of the way. After lunch in windblown Alichur we arrived early afternoon at Bulunkul lake where we stayed in a hamlet with the same name. Here we stayed in a very basic guesthouse.
Bulunkul (3.737 meters) is supposed to be to coldest place in Tajikistan. It was cold, especially at night, but the sun was warm enough during the day. We can’t imagine what it will be like here in winter though. Harsh we’re sure. Going out to the toilet in the middle of the cold night will be even harsher. The amazing starry sky made up for our nightly outings though.
The surroundings were beautiful. We had Jarkin drive us up to nearby Yashil-Kul lake after which we walked the 4 kilometers back to the homestay. We also had him take us to a geyser in an adjacent valley 17 kilometers away. Despite doing many Pamir Highway tours even Jarkin had never been here. The geyser itself was pretty underwhelming, but the remote lunar-like landscape was fantastic.
Day 4 – Picturesque and friendly Langar
Instead of following the M41, the actual Pamir Highway, to Khorog, we took the detour to the Wakhan Corridor today. After driving for two hours over sometimes very bad dirt roads and crossing the Khargush Pass (4.344 meters) we got our first glimpses of Afghanistan and soon enough there was a military checkpoint as well. Apparently we were the first to arrive, because the border guards had to come rushing from their camp a few hundred meters down to check our papers.
From this moment on we would be following the Tajik-Afghan border for about 700 kilometers. Many of the pictures we took are actually of the Afghan side. Following the Pamir River the landscape started to become more gorgeous as we descended towards the Wakhan valley. Dramatic stark mountainscapes with views of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the distance interspersed with small patches of fall colors had us have Jarkin stop his Mitsubishi Pajero many a time.
We ended the spectacular drive in Langar, where the Pamir and Wakhan rivers converge to become the Panj River. Idyllic Langar was by far the prettiest village we saw during our trip. We stayed at a fantastic homestay in the upper village with gorgeous views of the valley and the snowcapped mountains across the border.
Having arrived early afternoon we had enough time to walk through the village. People were busy harvesting and children were playing. We met the friendliest people ever, everybody saying hello and inviting us for a talk, curious about where we came from. Unfortunately nobody spoke English and we don’t speak Russian, but still it was great.
I also scrambled up the slopes behind the village to have a look at some petroglyphs. Going up was doable, but the descend was pretty hairy sometimes, especially higher up on the mountain. The petroglyphs didn’t amount to much (I didn’t even bother to take a picture) but the panoramic view of the valley below was incredible.
Day 5 – Through the Wakhan Valley
This day was not only about nature – biggest surprise: there were sand dunes in the valley –, it even had some light cultural stops along the way. The first one was an ancient Buddhist stupa on top of a hill in the village of Vrang, where a trio of cheeky, enterprising kids showed us the way to get there. The 10-year old girl who was in charge was a real drama queen. Loved it.
In the village of Yamg we stopped at a small house museum featuring several traditional household and farming items and some musical instruments that the caretaker played for us. It wasn’t really great, but it made for a nice change nonetheless.
A six kilometer perilous switchback drive (think World’s Most Dangerous Roads) from Yamchun brought us to the ruins of Yamchun fort. It’s the best preserved of the many fort ruins in the valley. The remaining walls still give some kind of indication of what it must have looked like in the old days. The views from up here were really amazing too.
Just a little bit further up the road we made a stop at the Bibi Fatima hot springs for an eggs and sausages lunch and a bath. That’s to say, I took a bath. Eugénie didn’t fancy dipping buck-naked into a pool with strangers. I was joined by a local man and two Ministry of Health officials from Dushanbe. Both were eager to crawl into the tiny womblike niche that supposedly helps boost fertility. I was impressed that they managed to squeeze in.
The last stop we made before we made it to our homestay in Iskashim was the Qah-Qah fort. It is believed that it was already a strategically important outpost in the third century BC. It has been reused by many cultures since then. Now it’s still used as a military watchpost by the Tajik. The soldier accompanying us was kind enough to take a photo of us together but didn’t want his photo taken in military dress. You never know who’s going to see the picture….
Our homestay had room for many guests, but since it was the end of the Pamir Highway tour season we were the only ones present. It was one of the advantages of traveling the Pamir Highway this late. We had most sights all to ourselves, the weather was stable and we didn’t have to share the one toilet (or shower) or our room with many other people. Except for the yurt camp near Peak Lenin we always had private accommodation.
Day 6 – Saying goodbye to Jarkin
From Iskashim it was a 3,5 hour drive to Khorog, which marked the end of our trip with Jarkin. Although his English was very limited we had a great time with him, driving relaxed and safe all the time. Just before we reached Khorog he had the bad luck of being stopped by some policeman who wanted money from him. It took quite a while before we could drive further. Corruption still is a real thing here.
The drive itself was not spectacular but still beautiful, with one exception that even Jarkin was unaware of. Maps.me helped us find the steep sand road up to Dasht village from where we had one of the most picturesque views of our entire Pamir Highway trip.
Enclosed by towering mountains Khorog is the administrative center of the Pamirs. The small city is not really pretty but it had a kind of a nice university town vibe, with lots of young stylishly dressed people walking the streets. We spent most of the afternoon trying to arrange transport to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.
Our intention was to take the daily morning flight, but since it flies low between the mountains (the reason we wanted to fly!) it’s highly weather dependent if it flies at all. When we went to the airport to inquire about the possibility of flying the next day we were told however that there would be no flight due to technical problems. The day after was unsure.
The alternatives for getting to Dushanbe 600+ kilometers away were a 14-18 hour shared taxi ride or buying all seven seats and to do the journey in two days with possibilities for photo stops. We chose the second option. Unfortunately trying to find travelers to share the cost proved impossible, the major drawback of traveling the Pamir Highway late in the season.
Day 7 – Pamir Highway comes to an end
After having had sunny weather the previous six days our last day on the Pamir Highway turned out a bit grey and wet. Our young driver Ibrohim also was a bit more restless than Jarkin so we drove at a brisk pace across the bad and later also wet roads to Kalai-Khum where we’d planned to break up the journey.
Arriving in drizzly Kalai-Khum just after two in the afternoon we decided it was no use staying here and decided to make one long driving day of it. Luckily just after Kalai-Khum the unpaved and broken tarmac roads gave way to good asphalt for most of the last 300 kilometers. The last two hours driving in the dark were a bit spooky but we made it safely to our Dushanbe hostel in just under eleven hours.
It was an exhausting last leg of one of the most awesome trips we’ve ever made in our lives. We can truly say that the Pamir Highway really rocks!
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