What was once an important ”Silk Road” route, along which Marco Polo, as well as tens of civilizations and empires, traveled, today, has today become one of the most epic road trips on Earth, as the Pamir Highway or M-41, as it was called during Soviet times, goes through one of the most impressive, remote and wild mountain ranges in the world.
From Osh to Dushanbe, over a period of over 3 weeks, we decided to hitchhike 1,250km of landscape, geographical and cultural contrasts. From wandering around the beautiful Alay Valley to the 300km of road bordering Afghanistan where you can see Afghan villages, climbing 4,600-meter-high mountain passes and attending some nomad games where horses and violence are the main protagonists.
The Pamir Road has everything, both good and bad, as this road is also the main channel for heroin coming into Europe from Afghanistan, the largest opium and heroin producer in the world.
When driving the Pamir Highway, adventure is more than guaranteed.
Things you need to know before traveling the Pamir Highway
When to go – The road is open all year long but, from the end of September till the beginning of June, cold takes over the Pamir plateau. I was there in August and I remember that, in a town called Alichur, the morning temperature was -6ºC. This village, in particular, had registered the lowest temperature in the country, around -60ºC. Traveling here in winter may be pretty tough. You had better come from June to September, especially if you want to go hiking.
How many days do you need – It depends on what you want to explore. If you just want to drive along the road and stop in the most typical places, people tend to finish it in 5 or 7 days. However, if you want to go around the side valleys, you will need more time. Add a few extra days for each side trip you take. I spent more than three weeks there.
Where does the road begin and finish? – The beginning and end of the Pamir Highway is such a controversial topic. If you look north, it definitely begins in Kyrgyzstan, in a southern city called Osh. However, some sources claim that it ends in Afghanistan, while others say that it is in Termez (Uzbekistan), Dushanbe (capital of Tajikistan) and Khorog (also Tajikistan).
And what about the tourist route? – For most travelers, the journey begins in Osh (Kyrgyzstan) and ends in Khorog (Tajikistan), a small town which is the gateway to an autonomous region named GBAO. After Khorog, people also continue to Dushanbe. You are going to spend 85% of your journey in Tajikistan.
Visa and GBAO permit – For Kyrgyzstan, most nationalities get a 2-month free visa on arrival at the airport. If you are not one of the lucky countries, read this article from Caravanistan. On the other hand, for Tajikistan, most countries need to apply for a visa in advance. Besides, the road goes through GBAO, a region which requires an additional permit. Here you can find everything related to the visa process: How to get a Tajikistan visa.
Electricity – After Khorog, in the Tajik part, the region has been without electricity for years, so they use solar panels. Some guesthouses (only a few), have solar plugs where you may charge some of your devices. What I recommend is that, if you have a DSLR, bring it fully charged and a spare battery. I was able to charge my phone only once, thanks to a kind man I met who had a generator in his house.
Internet – In Kyrgyzstan, the internet works pretty well, both Wi-Fi and 3G. However, in Tajikistan, you will barely be able to send Whatsapps, so forget about internet until you reach Khorog.
Food – Pamir villages are so remote that they barely receive food and other supplies, besides all the basic stuff, of course. If you aren’t planning to go trekking and you just want to go village-hopping, there’s no problem, as in all homestays and guesthouses, meals are included. However, if you want to go to the mountains, I suggest you get supplies at the supermarkets in Osh and Khorog
Altitude – After the Karakoram Highway (China and Pakistan) and Khardung La (India), the road that goes through the Pamir plateau is considered the highest in the world, going over 4,600 meters at Ak-Baktal pass. I felt absolutely nothing, because I had spent 4 months trekking in Kyrgyzstan and traveling in Pakistan, but I met people who had just arrived in Central Asia and they got altitude sickness. Take all necessary precautions, like drinking lots of liquid and have Diamox with you.
Safety in the Pamir Highway
The Pamir Highway is very safe. People are lovely and crime is unheard of.
Therefore, the only danger you may encounter is anything related to trekking, mountains, and adventure in general. Remember that you will be in a very high altitude and the health care in the area is quite rudimentary.
The only advice I can give you is to travel with proper travel insurance.
I strongly recommend World Nomads as it is the only insurance provider that gives unlimited medical coverage, besides covering for a large number of adventure activities, such as trekking up to 6,000 meters, something quite useful when you are traveling the Pamir Highway.
The people in the Pamir Mountains
One of the most fascinating things about Central Asia is its large mix of people and ethnic diversity as, for centuries, an endless number of civilizations and empires have been wandering and trading along these roads, popularly known as the Silk Road.
Surprisingly, in the eastern part of Tajikistan, most people are not Tajik but Kyrgyz, an ethnic group with strong Mongolian features, whereas Tajiks are closer to Iranians and Afghans. The Pamir mountains are, physically, closer to Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, its inhabitants are closer to Mongolia, a country which is thousands of miles away! Fascinating.
Pamir Highway route – The ultimate travel itinerary through the M-41
From Osh to Khorog and getting finally to Dushanbe, the M-41 is home to such a vast quantity of beauty and hidden places that it would one whole lifetime to explore all of them. The following itinerary is the one I did personally. It took us more than three weeks to complete but, to be very honest, we traveled on a slow path and did a couple of side trekking trips.
Note – You will see that many bloggers mix the Pamir Highway with the Wakhan Valley in the same article. While the valley tends to be part of the same trip, it’s totally wrong to include it as part of the M-41, because it’s not; not geographically and not even culturally. For this reason, I’ve decided to write a separate article:
1. Osh – The second most important city in Kyrgyzstan
Located in the south of Kyrgyzstan, in a very strategic position for anyone who is traveling to China, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, it’s not surprising at all that Osh has become a mere transit point for a lot of travelers, which means that its timid beauty is often overlooked by most of them. However, it’s precisely due to its location that Osh is home to an awesome cultural blend, both ethnic and culinary.
2. Sary Tash – More than a border town
Distance: 184km from Osh
Located in the middle of the Alay Valley, with stunning views of the Pamir range, Sary Tash is not a typical, unattractive border town but totally the contrary, as it is positioned in such a privileged location, that it has become an awesome base to organize treks and other trips. Moreover, even though the village is rather small, it has a couple of homestays, a few restaurants and a gas station, which makes it a great place to rest on your way to Tajikistan.
Things to do in Sary Tash
Alay Valley- Located at 3,200 meters, this dreamy valley limits the border with Tajikistan and the Pamir range. One of the most beautiful spots in the country.
Sary Mogol – 15 kilometers from Sary Tash, Sary Mogol is a dusty but quite photogenic village. This is the gate to the Lenin Peak base camp.
3. Kyrgyzstan – Tajikistan border crossing at Kyzyl Art Pass
Distance: 45km from Sary Tash
At 4,200 meters, Kyzyl Art Pass is the second highest border crossing in the world, after Khunjerab Pass, the border between China and Pakistan. The landscape is freaking awesome and, regarding bureaucracy, it’s a hassle-free border to cross.
4. Karakul Lake – The first settlement within Tajikistan
Distance: 50km from the border
A small village composed of a couple of mud-brick houses but located on the shore of Karakul lake, the largest lake in Tajikistan. Honestly, there’s not much to do in this village, besides wandering around the lake or climbing the side hills to observe the beautiful views. Here you will also find a military base where you can see the remains of old Soviet Union tanks. Apparently, the village is also a good base for trekking.
We didn’t stay here more than 30 minutes, enough time to rest, walk around and take a couple of pictures.
5. Murghab – The main town in the Pamirs
Distance: 133km from Karakul
Before starting your journey along the Pamir Highway, you will see that all travelers talk about a place called Murghab, which is nothing less than the largest settlement in the Pamir mountains and a transportation hub that even has an airport.
However, when you arrive, what you’ll find is just another set of mud-brick houses with no electricity, a bazaar where shops are inside shipping containers and, in general, a lot of misery. People from Murghab live mainly from the few tourists who pass by and in our experience, they were the most money-oriented people in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
However, this small village has a lot of potential, as it’s surrounded by beautiful valleys where authentic nomads live and from where you can organize great treks. We stayed here for 6 days.
Things to do in Murghab
At Chabysh festival – In the middle of August, At Chabysh festival takes place, a sort of competition, internationally known as horse games, where participants play polo with a dead goat and do horse racing and wrestling, also on a horse. At the festival, you will see a few tourists but 90% of the attendants are locals, so this is quite an authentic event. It lasts for 2 days and we were very lucky to arrive on the second day, which was August 13th, so I recommend you plan your trip accordingly. However, try to find out about the exact dates beforehand as the day of the month may vary every year to make it fit on the weekend.
Murghab town – From a peculiar mosque to the remains of Soviet Union machinery and a very weird bazaar where the different shops are inside shipping containers, we actually enjoyed wandering around Murghab for a day or two.
Pshart valley – For us, this was one of the best experiences we had throughout our journey along the Pamir Highway, as here we finally met a group of nomads who were at all used to tourists, so unlike most yurt camps you find when you are traveling in Kyrgyzstan, here we slept and ate with them and they didn’t even want our money, even though we decided to pay them generously. The truth is that visiting the Pshart valley is great because the landscape is also gorgeous. The nomad camp is 5 or 6 hours walking from Murghab.
Trekking to Gumbezkul Pass – If you want to get a glimpse of what’s trekking in the Pamirs like, Gumbezkul pass is a 5,200 meters mountain pass from where you can appreciate a significant piece of the Pamir range. The pass links both Madiyan and Pshart valleys and climbing it is quite a challenge but anyone reasonably fit, with little experience, can do it.
If you want to know more information about Gumbezkul Pass trek, I wrote this article for Everything Everywhere:
6. Alichur – One of the coldest places on Earth
Distance: 104km from Murghab
From the road, Alichur seems an exceptionally uninteresting town but actually, just entering any of its side valleys, the landscape becomes really impressive. This is where the lowest temperature in the country ever was registered (-60ºC) and actually, even when we were there in August, it was freaking freezing, around -6ºC at 6am in the morning, apart from a very strong wind, which tripled the cold feeling. Bring warm clothes!
Things to do in Alichur
The village – Like any other Pamirian village, this settlement is composed of just a couple of shacks, so we just killed our time hanging out around the village and taking photos of the local life and the yaks that were wandering freely around the village.
Tulpar Lake – A couple of kilometers before Lenin Peak base camp, you find Tulpar Lake, a beautiful lake surrounded by velvet-green rolling hills, from where you have fantastic views of the Lenin Peak. The lake has a yurt camp and doesn’t require any permit, unlike the Lenin Peak base camp, which actually does require a permit.
Lenin Peak – Standing 7,100 meters above sea level, Lenin Peak is the second highest mountain in the Pamir range. We trekked to the advanced base camp and it was our best trekking experience in Kyrgyzstan. Theoretically, visiting the base camp requires a special permit but we didn’t have it and, obviously, no one asked for it.
The article about How to get to Tulpar and Lenin Peak base camp is on its way.
7. Route between Alichur y Khorog
Distance: 211km from Alichur to Khorog
We completed this route in only one day, in 10 hours. Since we did it hitchhiking, we stopped in different villages where we ate and met real Tajiks for the first time, since, unlike in the eastern Pamirs, people living here are Tajiks.
Except for the first few kilometers, where you see Lake Bulunkul, among other lakes, the rest of the way is not as impressive as what you’ve been seeing for the last days, so I would recommend going straight to Khorog. However, I would also recommend spending one night in Bulunkul, located 15km from the M-41, and where you can find a few homestays
Note: After Alichur, a couple of kilometers before Bulunkul, you find a detour that leads to the Wakhan Valley, which means that most travelers never drive this section of the M-41. We did it because, before going to the Wakhan, we urgently needed to connect to the internet to apply for our online Iranian visas, so we really needed to go to Khorog.
8. Khorog – Welcome to civilization
Distance: 211km from Alichur
If you come from eastern Tajikistan, arriving in Khorog is sort of a cultural shock, as here you can finally get electricity, internet, supermarkets where you can buy actual cheese and a few good restaurants. Khorog is a great place to enjoy for a couple of days.
Things to do in Khorog
Saturday Afghan market – Khorog is located right on the border with Afghanistan, so every Saturday, Afghans are allowed to cross to attend a market where they can sell their typical products, as well as buying Tajik stuff, like vodka and fabrics. The market takes place in a military area, which means that there’s a lot of security and Afghans can’t enter Tajikistan proper. They have so much fun in this market as, unlike in highly restricted Afghanistan, here they can get drunk and even flirt with the local women. And indeed they do! At the end of the day, you may see a few Afghans completely smashed. Actually, if I was an Afghan, I would also, definitely, come to this market every Saturday.
Khorog City Park – Khorog has a pleasant park where you will find one of the best local restaurants in town (Choi Khona), by the river. There’s also the information center, where you can connect to the internet, order an espresso and, of course, get all the tourist information you need.
9. The way to the capital Dushanbe
Distance: 520km from Khorog
Khorog and Dushanbe are separated by 520km of road, 300km of which go along the Panj river, a 20-meter wide river, whose other side is Afghanistan territory.
That’s the most incredibly interesting thing about this part of the journey.
For miles, you will pass by countless Afghan villages, where you will see men riding their donkeys, working in the field and even women doing the laundry in the river.
You are so close to them that you could actually talk to them. In fact, I was continuously yelling and waving at them and they always waved back at me! It was amazing.
In some sections, you will see that you could even cross the river if you wanted, without any problem. Actually, that’s the main smuggling point from Afghanistan to Tajikistan. Most heroin in Europe has crossed this part of the river.