Tajikistan; traveling the Pamir highway

A Central Asian country that is still relatively under the radar, is located south of both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, countries which are currently well-known by travelers. It is the smallest country in the region and more than half of it is over 3.000 meters. This country is of course Tajikistan. One of the main attractions of this destination is the Pamir highway, a road that passes through an autonomous region called Gorno-Badakhshan with a population density of only 3,2 per squared kilometer!

The plan was to start in Dushanbe for a few days before exploring the Pamir highway and make my way back to Osh in Kyrgyzstan in just under two weeks. A side trip from the famous highway through the so-called Wakhan corridor should be the highlight of the trip. This area, with a width not exceeding 20 kilometers, is extremely remote with tiny villages and beautiful vistas with the mountains of Afghanistan just on the other side of a river. Needless to say, the Wakhan corridor also has a very interesting history. It contains the trails of the silk caravans that went from China to Europe but also traces of Buddhist pilgrims going to distant India. Let’s see how this trip worked out!

The Pamir mountains are also referred to as “The roof of the world” because they are comprised of those mountain ranges which are the highest in the world according to sea level. The Himalayas, Karakorum, Hindu Kush, Tian Shan and Kunlun mountain ranges all come together in this part of the world. In Central Asia, the Pamir mountains are situated in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and some parts of Russia. Whereas Pakistan and China also have some of the parts of the Pamirs. The M41, the official name of the Pamir highway, is the second highest international highway in the world after the Karakoram highway in Pakistan. This road crosses the Pamir mountains and offers spectacular scenery along the way. As it turned out, this highway did not really meet the criteria of a highway…

the Pamir highway offers spectacular scenery but isn’t your typical highway

As pointed out earlier, I started this trip in Dushanbe. This capital city is quite comfortable but there is not much to see. So, I used my time to find other people interested in a tour along the Pamir highway since transportation in Tajikistan is a costly thing. In certain parts of the highway, the roads are in very bad condition and public transportation is almost non-existent. And guess what, the most sought after places along the Pamir highway are such parts. Sharing taxis is a popular thing in Central Asia except for the Wakhan corridor. In other words, private transportation had to be arranged in order to discover the most beautiful parts of the Pamir. Relatively expensive petrol makes such an adventure even more costly. Therefore, ideally one would like to share the ride…

The hostel I stayed at was full of Indian people waiting for a visa, not an ideal target group. I decided to visit the two most popular hostels in town, the Green House and Yeti hostel. Yeti was almost empty so Green House was my only remaining hope. There I found two Dutch guys who were interested. Unfortunately one of them was capable of producing so much unbearable nonsense that I had to tell them no. Listening to this guy for eight days in a row was simply no option. Even though this would have been an opportunity to explore the Pamir highway for about USD 600 instead of USD 1500 when going solo in a private car…

Since I thought USD 1500 was a bit on the high side, I decided to do things slightly differently. From Dushanbe to Khorog, the first 600 km or so of the Pamir highway, can be done by shared taxi. This way I would skip the first two days of a private tour which, according to many, are the least interesting of the Pamir highway. Also, in Khorog I might find other people to share the remaining part with or still go on a private tour. In the latter, a tour would hopefully be significantly cheaper compared to one starting all the way from Dushanbe. All in all, it turned out to be quite complicated to get started in Tajikistan…

first glimpses of the Pamirs with Tajikistan on the left side and Afghanistan on the right side of the Panj river

After an extremely bumpy ride of 14 hours, I arrived in Khorog by shared taxi. The last part of the journey is along the Panj river which separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. It’s very strange to realize you’re only within 50 meters at times from a country that is mostly known for everything related to terrorism. Every now and then there was a tiny settlement on the Afghan side of the Panj but mostly the scenery was made of huge impressive mountains. At certain moments during the ride, the river seemed so small you could almost swim to Afghanistan. Luckily my water skills are so limited, I didn’t seriously consider it…

Khorog itself is nothing special but it is the starting point for exploring the Wakhan corridor. It is also the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO). Having been independent after the civil war broke out in 1992, this autonomous region is nowadays part of Tajikistan. Just like in Dushanbe I asked around for people to share the transportation with. Everywhere I went, people had just left on a tour. A private tour would still be quite costly and also limited my freedom. What if I would like to spend more time in a certain village than a tour would allow me?

I decided to go independently. The region I planned to visit has no public transportation whatsoever, hardly anybody speaks English and internet connectivity (and sometimes even any connectivity at all) is non-existent. Accommodation is limited to homestays. Hotels and restaurants are not around. So, armed with a list of homestays (names and phone numbers only) and hope, I started the first leg of the trip into the Wakhan corridor from Khorog to Vichkut…

on my way towards Vichkut, checking the motor almost became a ritual on this trip…

On a Sunday taxis are very limited in Khorog and, according to the owners of the homestay in Khorog, it would be impossible to find any car willing to drive me to Vichkut. The following Monday was the end of Ramadan, another day without many cars. Tuesday turned out to be a national holiday, so transportation would also be more difficult to arrange than usual. Traveling in the Wakhan isn’t easy in general, but I guess my timing was far from optimal…

Next to the bazaar there were a few taxis going to Dushanbe and Murghab but not one of them was going to Ishkashim, the most popular first stop in the Wakhan. However, one man was willing to help me out. Not much later I had changed some money, bought some food supplies and was on my way to Garm Chashma in a shared taxi. From there a private taxi would take me to Vichkut for only 100 Somoni (about €10). However, on arrival in Garm Chashma there was no taxi and this village consisted of only a few families. How could I make my way to Vichkut from here?

life in a homestay in Vichkut

There was one man in Garm Chashma who spoke a tiny bit of English and there was one car which did not belong to a tour group. Somehow I managed to link them together and negotiated a ride for 350 Somoni (40 USD), not bad considering drivers usually charge at least 0.5 USD per kilometer which equates to more than 50 USD one-way and, of course, the driver also has to go back…

So, against all odds, I made it to Vichkut which is home to the Yamchun fortress and Bibi Fatima hot springs. The fortress dates back to the 3rd century BC and played a key role on the great Silk Road leading from Pamir to India and Iran and back controlling the traffic, cargo and security in the region. Nowadays, you go there more for the views than for the fortress itself. It’s not difficult to spend quite some time taking in the spectacular views of the mountains across the valley…

enjoying the views of the Afghan Pamir from the Yamchun fortress

When I left the fortress a taxi came by and I hopped in. The guys in the taxi were all family and apparently I could stay at their house. This homestay was definitely not on my list. It turned out to be a great choice. They made me feel at home. The father of the guys, Habib, was crazy in a good way and had a nice Musso jeep. He was willing to drive me to Zong, my next destination, the following morning after I had visited the hot springs. Not for free of course, but still nice to have arranged my transport this easily!

Homestays are a big part of traveling the Wakhan. Or, they were for me at least. Due to the lack of any other form of accommodation, camping or homestays are your only option. I ended up staying in four true homestays (some of them are called homestays but are in fact more of a guest house), all of them turned out to be slightly different but also had many similarities at the same time. The hospitality is generally absolutely amazing. Often it feels like you’re truly part of the family. Food is basically unlimited, every time you show up, there is food. And of course, they want you to eat it all since you’re their guest. Tea, bread, plov (the local rice dish with some meat), cookies and more. All generations of the family live in the same house and often friends and other relatives come over once they know a foreigner has arrived. It’s a great experience but at times also a bit exhausting. The language barrier and the fact they never leave you alone, is something you have to deal with. Three of the homestays I stayed at, were not on my list provided by the tourism office in Khorog. They were probably the most authentic experiences while the other one had clearly dealt with tourists before.

The Pamir houses are very interesting. They tend to be quite big, all generations have to fit in after all. There is a basic kitchen which reminded me of my homestays in Georgia and then there is a huge living room without much furniture but with beautiful pillars and carpets. Sometimes the living room is also the bedroom. A pile of futons and blankets in the corner of the room can be used to simply turn the room into a nice dormitory (or private room for the guest!). Because of their hospitality I always found myself in a huge bedroom on my own while the family shared a room to get through the night. Curtains have not arrived in the Wakhan, so I usually woke up at 4:30 am, when the sun rose. As a result I was ready to sleep again around 9 pm…

this house in Vichkut turned out to be my home for a night

The next morning Habib’s son took me to Bibi Fatima. Pamir houses don’t have showers, so relaxing in the hot springs was a welcome event. Since I went early in the morning (7 am), I was all alone. Fresh and rejuvenated, I returned at the homestay for a huge breakfast. Grandmother Katja was also awake and joined me for the first meal of the day. In the meantime Habib prepared his Musso for the ride to Zong. Due to the lack of public transportation, people rely on their own vehicles. Therefore all men are heavily interested in cars. Habib, his sons, his brothers… everybody had a jeep or was a taxi driver. They proudly told me everything about their cars, not realizing I don’t even have a driver’s license let alone know anything about these vehicles…

After having spent some time with the neighbors of my homestay (also family of Habib), it was time to hit the road, or anything that qualifies as road in this part of the world. Together with one of his sons, we descended from Vichkut, which is located a few kilometers uphill, back to the main road alongside the river. Between Vichkut and Zong, several villages are located. Yamg, Vrang (the most popular ones) and several others are all tiny villages where the locals are fascinated by every car passing by in general and especially when there is a foreigner inside. We stopped in Vrang to have a look at the stupa which shows the region has gone from Buddhism to Muslim in several centuries. From there we continued the ride all the way towards the lovely village of Zong. The journey from Vichkut to Zong was about 60 kilometers and had some beautiful scenery along the way. In the meantime Habib’s son had gained some experience in order to show tourists the hotspots in the region in the near future…

Check out this short video which gives an impression of both the scenery in the Wakhan corridor and my animated driver Habib:

The only homestay in Zong on my list was closed. Habib knocked on the neighbor’s door and arranged for me to stay there. Arranging accommodation in the Wakhan is difficult, what are you talking about? Another typical Pamir house was my home for the night. The eldest daughter in the house spoke some English due to the fact that she studied in Dushanbe to become a nurse. Because of the summer holidays she was in Zong during my visit. She helped me out with most of the practical issues. According to local customs, a lot of food was brought into the room while friends of the family had gathered around me in the meantime. Tourists are just as big of an attraction to the locals as the locals are to the tourists!

Another attraction of Zong, besides the friendly locals and relaxing atmosphere, is Abreshim Qala. According to the history, this “Silk Fortress” was built to protect against Afghan and Chinese invaders along this particular section of the famed Silk Road. Just like the Yamchun fortress, the views are probably even more spectacular than the ruins themselves. The combination of colors that composed this panorama made the climb to the fortress particularly worthwhile. Even though it wasn’t that easy to find the route uphill, it was nice to get some exercise after having spent quite some time on the road the previous days. After an hour or so, I decided time had come to go back down and explore the village a bit more…

the hike up to Abreshim Qala offers excellent views (the fortress can be seen in the lower right of the photo)

Back in the homestay I met Sunil, with 11 years the youngest of the family. He seemed to be fascinated by the visiting foreigner. We decided to become friends for the time being. We enjoyed some food together and he showed me all the pictures they had on the wall before we went for a nice walk around the village. The pictures mostly showed family members who had spread their wings all over the country. One picture in particular had a prominent place in the house. Sunil told me the man on the picture was Aga Khan IV, someone I heard about for the first time. He turns out to be the 49th imam of Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam, which is professed by the majority of the Pamiris. This branch of Islam is popular in Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of India as well. The vast majority of Tajikistan’s population however are Sunni to make things more complicated. One thing I have learnt during my travels in Central Asia is that Islam is a very complicated religion with many, many different branches and divisions!

The village of Zong actually consists of two parts separated by some grasslands. The surrounding mountains are spectacular but I also wanted to get a feel of village life and somehow meet its people. Together with Zong I went for a walk. We took the main road in order to reach the other part of Zong where we were greeted by the locals. The population of Zong is so small that everybody knows Sunil and, of course, this time he was an even more striking appearance because of this tall white stranger walking on his side. Even though talking was impossible (some people asked if I spoke Pamir even though it was very clear I didn’t speak Russian, Tajik or anything related which is the equivalent of asking someone if he or she speaks Frisian without speaking Dutch…) there was a basic form of communication. They were all more than curious to find out who I was. Children were both extremely curious and shy at the same time. “Hello, hello” and “What’s your name” were frequently asked from a distance but once I gave an answer they starting giggling as if they didn’t expect me to reply. Once I got closer though and their parents assured them I was no danger, they usually calmed down and their shyness turned into excitement. Before I knew I was followed by several children while wandering through Zong…

the children of the Wakhan

I knew before I started my journey to the Wakhan corridor that getting out of it would be the hardest part. On arrival in Zong however, Rahmon, the owner of the homestay, informed me there would be a jeep available to take me to Bulunkul the next day followed by a ride to Murghab the day after. Unfortunately things worked out slightly differently…

The negotiations started at 9 am and roughly half an hour later I had supposedly arranged my ride for 1200 Somoni including an overnight stay for the driver in Bulunkul. Around 10:30 am the driver showed up only to inform me he wanted to go to Alichur for 800 Somoni. That was not what we had agreed upon, right? So, I decided to go to Langar in order to arrange a ride there. After all, Langar is the place where most jeep tours make a stop, so there must be cars around. Taxi’s from Zong to Langar were not available and when it turned out that the truck driver which offered me a ride (arranged by 11-year-old Sunil!) took things very slow, I decided to cover the 5 kilometers to Langar on foot. I arrived in Langar at 12:30 pm, 3,5 hours after the first negotiations had started!

traveling the Pamir in a Lada Sputnik, filling up with petrol by hand and checking the motor…

Shortly after my arrival in this nice little village I had arranged a jeep for 1500 Somoni. However, “arranged” turned out to mean something different than I thought it means, again. For some reason the jeep was not going anywhere and another guy showed up in his Lada Sputnik. Evidently I was not going to pay 1500 Somoni for a ride in that if I was going at all. After all, directly after leaving Langar some steep hairpins had to be ascended and would that be possible with a 2WD Lada?

The driver assured me it would not be a problem and since there were simply no other cars around, I decided to give it a go and trust the locals on their word. For 1300 Somoni we finally left Langar at 2 pm but not before going back to Zong to fill up on Petrol. Could we finally leave now? Nope, first a spare tire had to be picked up and some friends had to be visited before we actually left Langar 2:30 pm, only 5,5 hours after I had started the negotiations for this ride. Welcome to the Pamir!

Check out both the incredible road (yes, there are no safety fences in the Pamir) and the amazing scenery in the video below:

The idea I had in mind at the start of the day was to arrive in Bulunkul in time to see the sun set over the two lakes, Bulunkul and Yashilkul. Due to the delays I mentioned before, this was off the agenda. We arrived in Bulunkul around 8 pm, so I had to wait till the next morning to see the lakes. During the ride we had to let the motor of the Lada cool down several times and visited a “brother” at one of the checkpoint for 2 local minutes. Two local minutes equate easily to ten actual minutes. Nevertheless, we somehow made it to Bulunkul, a very remote tiny village at 3.734 meters which is in the top ten of coldest places on earth with a lowest recorded temperature of -63 degrees Celsius!

The village itself consists of only a few houses, a school, one shop and a volleyball field. There is no internet and it is 16 kilometers away from the Pamir highway which is at that point hours away from the nearest city. Winters are unbearable and in summer a few tourists visit the place to admire the nearby lakes. My driver knew a nice homestay, one that also was not on my list. We were warmly welcomed with tea and, again, a lot of food. The girls in the house were dreaming of internet connectivity in order to use Whatsapp. I tried to convince them otherwise but I guess that’s the equivalent of trying to empty the ocean with a thimble, simply impossible!

the family of the homestay in Bulunkul, a large kid from the Netherlands, my driver and a random guy from Bulunkul who wanted to be on the photo as well…

After dinner some of the villagers came over for some entertainment. Not much later I found myself playing domino with three adult men. This game is only played by children in the Netherlands as far as I know but none of the adults seemed to have any issue playing the game in Bulunkul. We actually had a very nice time putting the dominoes on the table. In my experience it was fascinating to see what can happen in isolation and, at the same time, what the influence of the internet in the Western world is. Well, based on one observation that is…

The next morning I finally got to see the lakes. Yashilkul is by far the more interesting of the two and a viewpoint can be reached by a 2 kilometer car ride. Of course walking is also an option, but as a Dutchman I preferred to take the car since I had already paid the driver for the ride. The lake is quite large with its 3.600 hectares and is surrounded by mountains which results in a nice panorama which I unfortunately do not have on camera because I forgot to clean the lens. Well, not everything regarding traveling is about photos. There is also something called the mind…

a delicious meal of potatoes, vegetables and yak meat in the Pamir hotel in Murghab

After some more food and tea at the homestay, we left this extremely remote part of the Pamir and headed towards Murghab with a stop in Alichur along the way. First we had to cover the 16 km stretch of off-road back to the M41, the highway. At the intersection some people were looking for a ride. My driver politely asked me whether it was OK to give one guy a ride to Alichur and, of course, I agreed not to let him behind in the middle of nowhere. However, it happened to me on multiple occasions that people simply joined me in a relatively expensive ride without any questions asked. In those cases, I felt used as a tourist. I pay a lot of money for the journey and the locals go for free. Daddy doesn’t like that very much. But, that’s also the Pamir…

At least our hitchhiker was thankful for the ride and happy to be in Alichur. My driver and I enjoyed, or tried to enjoy in my case, a soup in a local restaurant before I explored the village of Alichur, a very weird settlement. It feels like a random selection of widely spread houses in the middle of nowhere. Children and animals roam around freely and I couldn’t help but think how someone could fill the day without boredom. But, that’s of course from a western point of view. They simply might have been very happy to be alive and have some food on the table!

Once we had left Alichur and the beautiful surroundings behind, we followed the Pamir highway towards Murghab. All the time during my stay in the Pamir and the Wakhan, I looked forward to my arrival in Murghab. I somehow expected it to be relatively civilized. After a week without a shower, even I was looking forward to wash myself! Late in the afternoon I arrived in my guest house only to find out there was no electricity, let alone internet, and no shower. There were no restaurants in town and locals were standby to rip tourists off. Compared to other parts of the country, Murghab has definitely seen the most tourists with all negative consequences. To summarize, Murghab was not the relative paradise I had in mind. Luckily I found a very honest manager in the Pamir hotel who also had some excellent meals, even for non guests!

Shaimak is located on a plateau of nearly 4.000 meters surrounded by giant six-thousanders…

Because Murghab was not my favorite destination of the trip, to put it mildly, I decided to visit a remote village which is not often visited by tourists in the name of Shaimak. In fact, this village is not visited by anyone on a regular basis so shared taxis are simply no option. I arranged a private jeep for 100 USD to cover the 126 km, spend a night there and return to Murghab before I would continue the journey back to Kyrgyzstan. The village itself is interesting since it is so remote but the surroundings are the most spectacular. It is located at a plateau of around 3.850 meters at the junction of the borders of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China and Pakistan. And guess what, impressive mountains were all around, again!

Unfortunately the little excursion to Shaimak turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. My driver wanted more money, some locals threw dirt (or possibly even worse but I couldn’t see it so who knows) at me, the homestay ripped me off and, as icing on the already delicious cake, people joined me in the jeep on the way back to Murghab. Of course, not all was bad. As mentioned before, the surroundings were spectacular with beautiful mountains and plenty of yaks completing the views. Besides the few bastards who had no idea of how to welcome a visitor to their village, there were plenty of friendly locals who were more than happy to exchange some words or play some volleyball. All in all, let’s say I returned to Murghab with mixed feelings…

the final section of the Pamir highway from Murghab to Osh

Looking back at my trip to the Pamir region, I can only recommend to visit it. As always there are some things to take into consideration. Ideally one would rent a jeep in Dushanbe and drive all the way up to Osh in order to have all the required flexibility. However, it might be difficult to pick up a car in Dushanbe and drop it off in Osh since these cities are located in different countries with a lot of bureaucracy and regulations. An alternative is to start and finish in Osh. You could travel the M41 first and return via the Wakhan corridor or vice versa. This is probably the best option since Dushanbe is not that interesting of a city and could easily be left out of the itinerary. By renting a car you are ensured of maximum flexibility and don’t have to deal with the hassle of arranging a car in every village you’ll visit. In case renting a car is no option, as was the case in my situation, I would highly recommend doing the trip independently and not join a jeep tour. I managed to arrange all transportation for around 250 USD which is probably similar to a tour when shared with four or five people. However, on a tour you’re committed to a fixed schedule. You’ll have some company of other tourists which might be a bonus but you’ll have to give in on flexibility.

The highlight of the trip was the visit to the Wakhan corridor with its lovely villages and welcoming people. The homestays were another aspect that added to the trip. The ones in the Wakhan were special but also the one in Bulunkul will stay in my mind for a while. Another beautiful aspect of the region is of course the scenery. The mountains are impressive making the region rough, remote and challenging to access. Therefore there is hardly any traffic. In fact, when you do come across a biker or another car, you usually greet each other. Where does that still happen nowadays…

I wouldn’t care too much about both Dushanbe and Murghab. The capital is quite comfortable but there isn’t much to see or do in my opinion. A day or two wouldn’t hurt but definitely not more than that. Murghab is almost impossible to ignore on a trip to the Pamir. Be aware of the locals, many try to rip you off in contrast to other parts of the country. They are definitely used to visiting tourists and know how to make some more money in the short term. Best advice I can give is to stay at the Pamir hotel, the manager is great and seems to be as honest as someone can be!

Overall, a trip to the Pamir highway is highly recommended. The views are unforgettable and the people, especially in the Wakhan corridor, will capture a place in your heart. One thing you’ll have to make sure is to ask your driver(s) not to play Pamir music from the Wakhan all day long unless you really enjoy listening to monotonous caterwauling for several hours in a row. The drivers seem to love this music and get into some state of trance almost, so be careful! But, besides that, it’s all pure joy to travel around this beautiful country. Finally ask yourself, what country have you visited where half the pictures you have taken were actually from another country?

Click here to see more pictures from my trip to Tajikistan!

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