The Pamir Highway
If you’re looking for a great road trip then the Pamir Highway could be perfect for you. As the second highest motorway in the world, it rises to a peak altitude off 4,655 metres, passing through mountains and the high desert like plateau of the Tajikistan Pamirs.
This makes an adventurous journey for a group of friends to undertake by renting their own 4WD, or you could also join in with the locals and share transport, which is the best way if travelling alone.
The route itself has been around for a long time, going back to the silk road of times past, although mostly what you see today was built by the Soviets in the 1930’s, and is in a state of disrepair in many places.
The road does pass through other countries, but most people associate it with starting in Dushanbe Tajikistan, and ending in the ancient city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan. You could also do the route the other way around, but I personally did it from the Tajikistan side first.
Leaving the rather unexciting city of Dushanbe, you head across rolling hills until after several hours you reach a river with Afghanistan on the other side. Following this river you can see all the activity on the Afghan side, with people walking on a small path often straddling the side of cliffs, which becomes mesmerising too watch.
In parts paved and fast, while in others a sheer drop where trying to overtake becomes a nightmare, the road goes on. After another several hours or so, depending on the psychotic driving speed of the driver, you reach the town of Khorog at 2’300 metres high, where it’s best to stop for a few nights to help acclimatise to the altitude.
If you are lucky enough to be around Khorog during a Saturday, you can pay a side trip to Ishkashim a few hours drive further south where a border market takes place. There you can mingle with traders from Afghanistan and maybe try your bargaining skills to pick up a souvenir, such as a traditional Afghan hat.
Moving on you can choose to either continue along the main route from Khorog up to Murgab, the main provincial town up in the Pamirs, or take a side trip through the Wakhan Valley before ascending through the mountains too reach the same destination.
On the main route you will see small villages following a river up the valley, until reaching 4000 metres high where the terrain becomes Tibetan in nature, with a dry lunar landscape and mountain peaks. I went through the Wakhan Valley a few years previously, so this time just went straight up along the Pamir Highway itself. Either way is stunning too see.
You will stumble upon truck drivers bringing supplies in from Kashgar in China sitting and enjoying a hot cup of tea in a cafe. Women on the side of the road with that famous of high altitude animals, the yak.
Reaching Murgab is nothing special, but simply a stopover for the night, and a chance too put on all your warm clothes in the chilling air. The only saving grace here is the warm hospitality of the home-stays host.
Continuing the journey in the morning you pass through similar terrain as seen the day before with more spectacular mountains. This is where you go over the highest pass at 4’655 metres. As one Polish mountaineer with me said:
Further along is one of the best sights on the trip, Lake Karakul. Shimmering in the sunlight surrounded by snowy mountain peaks it makes for a good place to stop for lunch, and too meet some of the friendly people in the village. The children are especially inquisitive and eager too have their photo taken.
Leaving the hospitality of the people in the Pamirs, you reach the border, and after passing through a 15km barren neutral zone between the 2 countries, enter Kyrgyzstan. From here it is only a 4 hour drive to Osh, one of the greatest cities along the silk road long ago.
Osh is the perfect end, or beginning, depending on which way you take, to one of the best road trips in the world. Stop in the ancient bazaar for a bite to eat, including cheap and tasty walnuts and pistachios mixed with shashlik kebabs, and finished with some fresh fruits.