• PAMIR HIGHWAY ROAD TRIP

    AN ALTERNATIVE 15 DAY ITINERARY

  • PAMIR HIGHWAY ROAD TRIP

    AN ALTERNATIVE 15 DAY ITINERARY

    A Toyota Landcruiser parked at 4300 m with distant mountains in the background while on a Pamir Highway road trip

PAMIR HIGHWAY ROAD TRIP

AN ALTERNATIVE 15 DAY ITINERARY

When you hear the words Pamir Highway, what do they mean to you? What picture enters your mind at the mention of them? Is it one of epic mountain ranges, nomadic yurts, long dusty roads and high plateaus? Or one of fertile river valleys, fruit trees, hot springs and ancient forts? Whichever it is, the lands along the Pamir Highway have it all – and then some.

This mountainous land of over 100,000 km² and 230,000 people offers a fascinating mix for the intrepid traveller. Stretching through much of Tajikistan and parts of Kyrgyzstan, the Pamirs are far from a homogenous whole.  There is a keenly felt dividing line between the deep river valleys of the west and the high plateaus of the east, but as you travel from one region to the other, each has its own attraction. Although not often pretty, the lands along the Pamir Highway are starkly beautiful. And while not always an easy place to travel, it is a rewarding one.

  • The wide expanse of the Wakhan valley: The blue grey Panj river is bordered by green with dusty orange Pamir mountains rising either side
  • The wide expanse of the Wakhan valley: The blue grey Panj river is bordered by green with dusty orange Pamir mountains rising either side

How to travel the Pamirs?

There are many different ways to travel the Pamir Highway, but while everyone has their own opinion, there’s no one correct way. Each offers a quite distinct experience and has its own unique challenges. Many brave the rocky roads on motorbikes. More hardy souls cycle or walk. Some drive their kitted out Land Rovers. Plenty take their chances hitch hiking, while others squeeze into shared taxis or join a pre-planned group tour. 

We chose to hire our own driver and 4WD, setting out on a rough 15 day itinerary and paying by the kilometre. It’s not the cheapest way to do it by any means, but it does give you the most flexibility. Having your own vehicle gives you the freedom to choose your own itinerary, stop whenever you want and set your own pace.

PAMIR HIGHWAY GUIDE

FOR OUR FULL GUIDE TO THE PAMIR HIGHWAY CLICK
HERE

OUR ITINERARY

While researching our own trip we found that most Pamir Highway road trip itineraries follow a standard 7-10 day route: Khorog to Osh or vice versa, via the Wakhan, Bulunkul, Murghab, Karakul and Sary Mogul. We also found that most accounts seemed to conclude that this pace was far too rushed. We were planning a trip to one of the most spectacular regions of the world on a once in a lifetime journey. The last thing we wanted to do was rush it. We wanted to savour our time in the Pamirs, breaking up our journey with hikes, wild camping and rest days.

We settled on a 15 day itinerary including Jizeu, Peak Engels Meadow, Zorkul Lake, Jarty Gumbez, Tulparkul and more. What follows is an account of our journey: the things we saw, the people we met and our experiences along the way. We’ve also included useful information about the places we stayed, prices, distances and travel times. 

Read through our account day by day, or jump to a particular section by clicking on the links below

The map below shows our route, accommodation, and hikes.  You can download our Maps.Me bookmarks for offline use here. Be sure to download the Maps.Me app first (iOS/Android).

*Note that the travel time listed for each day is the total time from start to finish. This includes all stops for food, sightseeing and photos. Also beware that the spelling of many place names in the region varies*

PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 1
~
DUSHANBE TO KALAI KHUM

DISTANCE

344 km

TRAVEL TIME

7 hours 15 minutes

ACCOMMODATION

Roma Jurev Guesthouse
150 Somoni/$15 pp
Double Room (pvt. bathroom)
Dinner & Breakfast


On the first morning of our Pamir Highway road trip, we were tired, a little flustered and a touch unprepared. Having just returned from two weeks in the Fann Mountains, we’d spent the day before trailing the sweltering streets of Dushanbe, hunting down ATMs, food shopping and buying supplies for the journey ahead. We’d then gone to bed late, repacking the bags for this next stage of our Tajikistan trip. So it was a bit of a blur as we handed over $800 to the ever helpful Murod, met our driver Ibrahim for the first time, and left Green House Hostel at 9:30. 

 After ten minutes at the petrol station, we were on the move in our reassuringly robust Toyota Landcruiser, driving through the morning’s bright yellow haze and leaving the baking hot streets of Dushanbe behind. Driving south and climbing slowly, the haze continued to lie over the land and the hills faded into distant layers.

 Past the perfect reflections of the Nurak Reservoir and down from the hills, we headed northeast through flat farmland toward the Afghan border. After a quick plate of roadside cafe plov in Kulob, we climbed to almost 2000 metres on broken road, passing through a serious looking checkpoint and handing over our passports for the first of many times.

Descending on a deliciously smooth switchback road, we met the slow moving blue grey Panj with a growing sense of excitement.

The paved road of the Pamir Highway winds down through dry land towards the Panj River

Our first view of the Panj River, with the mountains of Afghanistan rising behind


The paved road of the Pamir Highway winds down through dry land towards the Panj River

Our first view of the Panj River, with the
mountains of Afghanistan rising behind


Looking across to the towering mountains of Afghanistan, the earth and rocks were a delightful display of pastel pinks, yellows, greens and browns. On the Tajik side, the hillsides were mottled like a hyena’s skin, a patchwork of dark rock and tough bushes. Soon the valley narrowed, steep sided ravines plunging to the now roaring Panj below. 

A person standing by a Toyota Lancruiser at the side of the road on a Pamir Highway road trip

Stopping roadside to appreciate the dramatic scenery


The churning fast flowing brown Panj River cuts through a steepsided gorge of dry dusty mountains, forming the border between Tajikistan on the left and Afghanistan on the right

Tajikistan to the left of me, Afghanistan to the right…


A person standing by a Toyota Lancruiser at the side of the road on a Pamir Highway road trip

Stopping roadside to appreciate the dramatic
scenery and our closeness to Afghanistan


Afghanistan was within spitting distance. On the Tajik side, we drove on what was recognisably a road. On the Afghan side, a motorbike sped along a narrow sliver more reminiscent of a Fann Mountains donkey track. The valley widened, narrowed and widened again, the river’s violence surging and abating. The blue grey Panj was now an unchanging grey brown – a painter’s dirty wash water.

The calm and wide Panj River with the harsh mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan on the right and left

The Panj River was to become an integral part of our experience in the days ahead. It forms a large part
of the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, running alongside the main Pamir Highway route for nearly 600 km,
all the way to Langar in the Wakhan.


The calm and wide Panj River with the harsh mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan on the right and left

The Panj River was to become an integral part
of our experience in the days ahead. It forms
a large part of the Tajikistan-Afghanistan
border, running alongside the main Pamir
Highway route for nearly 600 km, all the
way to Langar in the Wakhan.


The road passed through bucolic village after bucolic village, the leafy trees offering welcome shade from the sun. Just before five we arrived at the busy little town of Kalai Khumb, settling into the riverside Roma Jurev Guesthouse. After guzzling a few beers, we enjoyed a feast for dinner: chicken noodle soup, thick cut chips, watermelon, a huge bowl of grapes and the softest, most delicious bread we were to have on the entire trip.

Our first day had been long, but the scenery had been eye-catchingly dramatic, and we felt ourselves on the edge of the Pamirs, tired but eager for the days ahead.

PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 2
~
KALAI KHUM – JIZEU

DISTANCE

201 km (Car)

8 km (Hiking)

TRAVEL TIME

5 hours 45 minutes (Car)

2 hours 30 minutes (Hiking)

ACCOMMODATION

Our Tent in the Jiseu Valley


After stuffing ourselves with more tasty bread, we set off at eight and joined the M41, the official Pamir Highway. We hugged the riverbank on a gravelly road, trundling through more sleepy tree-lined villages. Small sandy beaches appeared alongside, clean and perfectly sculpted by the power of the Panj. The looming rock faces of neighbouring Afghanistan stared back at us, pocketed by near identical villages.

A village of mudbrick houses surrounded by trees on the Afghan side of the Panj River, mountains of the same colour as the houses rising behind, seen on a Pamir Highway Road Trip

Looking across the Panj to Afghanistan


Two local men wander along a sun-dappled dirt road in a Pamir Highway village in Tajikistan, surrounded by tall leafy trees with a massive sandy mountain rising in front of them

Walking through a village on the Tajik side


A village of mudbrick houses surrounded by trees on the Afghan side of the Panj River, mountains of the same colour as the houses rising behind, seen on a Pamir Highway Road Trip

Looking across the Panj to Afghanistan


Like the day before, the valley narrowed and widened, at times just a dirt road. We passed other 4WDs and large trucks, the roadside falling sharply to the angry Panj as dust clouds hung in the air. The river surged, churned and heaved as if massive beasts clashed below the surface. Its power was impressive.

Approaching Rushan the valley opened up again, the now wide river lined with fields and villages. We’d been photographing old Soviet bus stops along the way and here we found a particularly fine example. It was busy with local girls resting from the sun, and three Australian cyclists who’d just come down through the Bartang Valley. The girls scampered but the bikes made an interesting foreground for the shot. While two of the cyclists rested in the shade, the other was positively beaming, telling us with unrestrained enthusiasm about the beauty of the Bartang Valley and the hospitality of its people. This raised a smile. We were enroute to the Bartang, planning to hike to Jizeu on the first of our Pamir Highway side trips, and his excitement stoked ours.

A Soviet bus stop on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. The bus stop is decorated with mosaics of Marco Polo sheep and an eagle. Three touring cyclists rest and three local girls wait in the shade of the trees

Cyclists, local girls and a particularly fine Soviet bus stop


A touring bike laden with bags rests against a Soviet bus stop with an eagle mosaic on a Pamir Highway road trip

A familiar sight on the Pamir Highway


A Soviet bus stop on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. The bus stop is decorated with mosaics of Marco Polo sheep and an eagle. Three touring cyclists rest and three local girls wait in the shade of the trees

Cyclists, local girls and a
particularly fine Soviet bus stop


A touring bike laden with bags rests against a Soviet bus stop with an eagle mosaic on a Pamir Highway road trip

A familiar sight on the Pamir Highway


Continuing on through Rushan, we shook our heads at Ibrahim’s suggestion of lunch, and soon turned left where the Bartang meets the Panj. Pale sandy cliffs rose either side and the dirt road ran right next to the muddy brown river. After passing through a few leafy villages, we arrived at the Jizeu drop-off much later than anticipated. Ibrahim went back to find accommodation, agreeing to meet us at noon the next day. We crossed the Bartang on a bridge of dubious strength and started up the rocky, scree covered trail into the Jizeu Valley.

A person stands in the middle of a narrow wooden and wire bridge crossing the Barting River near the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

A bridge across the Bartang that’s not for the fainthearted


The bold blue water from the Jizeu valley meets the muddy brown of the Bartang River. Bare and dry brown mountains rise skyward.

The confluence of blue and brown where the Jizeu meets the Bartang


A person stands in the middle of a narrow wooden and wire bridge crossing the Barting River near the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

A bridge across the Bartang
that’s not for the fainthearted


Both of us were still a bit out of sorts, spending so much time in the car then suddenly hiking. Everything felt a little disjointed compared to our previous two weeks of continuous trekking, making us rethink any future plans that combined hours of driving and this kind of activity.

Following the icy blue river, we stopped at the trailside for a brief late lunch of bread and cheese, making pals with a friendly dog. With our bellies full we got back on the trail. Skirting stunning aqua green lakes, we smiled in greeting to a mother and daughter as they passed us on the way down.

A female hiker with a backpack standing in front of a bright green lake surrounded by mountains in the Jizeu Valley

Admiring the view at the first mini lake in the Jizeu Valley


A female hiker with a backpack standing in front of a bright green lake surrounded by mountains in the Jizeu Valley

Admiring the view at the first
mini lake in the Jizeu Valley


The path was tricky underfoot, but the closer we got to the village, the easier and greener it became. Nearing our destination, small fields sprang up around us, with locals working in the late afternoon sun. Wandering through the collection of mud brick homes at five, signs of life were all around: cow pats drying on roofs, washing hanging in gardens, and local cats prowling the walls.

Just beyond the village we found the perfect camp spot: a flat grassy area bordered by vegetable patches, on the shores of the milky blue lake. Seeing a local woman we motioned at our tent, asking if it was okay. She smiled softly, nodding, before heading back to the village with her arms full of picked herbs. Tired after the hike and six hour drive, we made camp, had dinner, and went to bed as the stars lit up the night sky.

An orange and grey tent pitched by a lake in the Jizeu Valley, surrounded by mountains

The perfect lakeside camp spot in the Jizeu Valley


An orange and grey tent pitched by a lake in the Jizeu Valley, surrounded by mountains

The perfect camp spot in the Jizeu Valley


PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 3
~
JIZEU – KHOROG

DISTANCE

8 km (Hiking)

88 km (Car)

TRAVEL TIME

2 hours (Hiking)

2 hours (Car)

ACCOMMODATION

 Hostel Do Nazarbayg
$18
Double Room (pvt. bathroom)
Breakfast


Morning broke to a beautiful sunrise, the mountains perfectly reflected in the lake’s mirrored surface. 

Reflections of mountains in a lake in Jizeu Village

Morning reflections at Jizeu


Reflections of mountains in a lake in Jizeu Village

We’d wanted to hike further up the valley to the next village and the lakes beyond, but we had to get back to the road to meet our driver.  Essential business for the day was to get to Khorog in time to finalise arrangements for our Zorkul permits. So, we enjoyed a relaxed breakfast by the lake instead, packing up after a man’s friendly warning that he was about to open the irrigation channels.

An aerial view of Jizeu Valley, with green grass and trees lining a blue river and stark brown mountains rising steeply on either side

Looking back down the Jizeu Valley; trees, small fields, and village buildings lining the river bank and lake shore


An aerial view of Jizeu Valley, with green grass and trees lining a blue river and stark brown mountains rising steeply on either side

Looking back down the Jizeu Valley; trees,
small fields, and mud-brick village buildings
lining the river bank and lake shore


The village was a hive of activity as we began our journey back down, with locals going about their business and travellers relaxing in homestay gardens. As the regional hub Khorog is nearby, many people choose to visit Jizeu on a two day overnight trip, and there are a few different homestay options. It’s a fascinating place with plenty of opportunities to learn about local culture.

A sharp metal knife sits on top of a traditional outside oven in the Jizeu Village

A sharp knife lies ready and waiting


A traditional wicker basket for carrying things on your back sits against a stone wall in Jizeu Village

 A strong handmade basket can carry just about anything


A traditional wicker basket for carrying things on your back sits against a stone wall in Jizeu Village

 A strong handmade basket can
carry just about anything


It took us just two hours to get back to the Bartang. We passed a few hikers by the lakes on the way up, and had a quick chat with a couple more before recrossing the dodgy bridge. On the other side, gruff Ibrahim greeted us with an uncharacteristic smile. We loaded up and were soon whizzing back down the Bartang valley, speeding past the same leafy villages. Canals and irrigation systems lined the road, and tall poplars waved in the breeze like flagpoles.

Back on the Pamir Highway, the now stately Panj gleamed and glistened under the high sun, fringed with turquoise offshoots where smaller rivers joined its path. The wide valley’s lower slopes were full of verdant life, looked down upon by majestic rocky peaks. We made good time, stopping only to look at more Soviet bus stops and a particularly fine looking well.

Two local women chatting next to a colourful Soviet era well in a small village on the Pamir Highway

 We thought it was a Soviet bus stop at first but it was actually a roadside well


Two local women chatting next to a colourful Soviet era well in a small village on the Pamir Highway

Arriving in Khorog just before three, we ran into a few issues with our Zorkul permits.  We’d discussed them with Murod at Greenhouse Hostel, who’d recommended getting the permits ahead of time, especially as we were going to be in Khorog at the weekend. Murod had relayed all the information to Ibrahim. We hadn’t spoken directly to him about our plans – his English was limited and we’d assumed everything was fine. But rather than factoring in the extra days we intended to spend in the Wakhan, Ibrahim had requested the permits based on a shorter itinerary. The upshot was that the dates were wrong.

With communication difficult it all got a bit frustrating, but after a couple of calls with Murod all was sorted and the dates changed. We also now felt that Ibrahim had a better understanding of our plans – he said he’d drive us anywhere we wanted, whenever we wanted. In hindsight, we realised that we should have checked the itinerary fully with both of them together before leaving Dushanbe.

All that dealt with, Ibrahim dropped us off at Hostel Do Nazarbayg near the main road, agreeing to meet us there at nine the next morning. The hostel was basic but clean, and the friendly owner spoke good English, asking if we liked William Wallace when he found out we were Scottish.

As it was getting dark, we took a walk through the very pleasant Khorog City Park, busy with families spending time on a warm Saturday evening. Dinner was at Delhi Darbar, an Indian restaurant we’d seen recommended. The food was pretty decent, but sadly not as good as the Taj in Dushanbe.

PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 4
~
KHOROG – YAMCHUN

DISTANCE

189 km

TRAVEL TIME

8 hours 30 minutes

ACCOMMODATION

Akim Homestay
135 Somoni/$14 pp
Private Room (sleeping on floor)
Outside Squat & Shower room
Dinner & Breakfast


Before we left Kim went to the PECTA office (Pamirs Eco Cultural Tourist Association), surprised to find it open at 8:30 on a Sunday morning. She managed to pick up the Markus Hauser map of the Pamirs for 140 Somoni. We had tried to buy it in Dushanbe but everywhere was sold out. It’s a detailed map with tons of interesting information about the history, geography and culture of the region. It’s totally worth getting and we’d recommend buying it beforehand given the difficulty of picking one up in Tajikistan. 

The guy at PECTA was helpful, friendly and spoke excellent English. Turned out it was him that issued our Zorkul permits and subsequently changed the dates. He told us they can also arrange drivers, advise on homestays or book homestays and help with all sorts of information.

From Khorog the usual tourist route parts company with the eastward bound M41, the official Pamir Highway. It heads south to the Wakhan Valley instead, but as everyone still refers to this as the Pamir Highway, we’ll continue to do the same. Leaving just after nine we headed along the Panj once more, the mountains a dusty shade of orangey brown, shot through with grey. Huge rocks, house size, were strewn across the valley floor. A breeze through the open window carried a slightly perceptible chill as we climbed higher up the valley, and a noticeable blue tinge coloured the grey Panj. 

A view over Khorog from above the town, the Panj River flowing between the Afghan and Tajik sides of the Wakhan

The view back down over Khorog, from the
road heading south to the Wakhan


A view of the Panj River, Afghanistan on the left and Tajikistan on the right

A tale of two countries; looking back down on the Panj,
Afghanistan on the left, Tajikistan on the right


A view of the Panj River, Afghanistan on the left and Tajikistan on the right

Looking back down on the Panj River,
Afghanistan on the left, Tajikistan on the right


More Soviet bus stops caught our eye, with Ibrahim beginning to anticipate our desire to stop.

A tourist sitting at a colourful Soviet era bus stop along the Pamir Highway

One of our favourite Soviet bus stops of  the whole trip, positioned perfectly below an overhanging cliff face 


A tourist sitting at a colourful Soviet era bus stop along the Pamir Highway

We felt our growing proximity to the Afghan border post in the groups of soldiers we passed, marching the road in their mustardy lime fatigues. Stopping for five minutes at a checkpoint in the village of Andarob, we waited patiently for our papers to be checked. Soon it was lunchtime. A quick bowl of laghman and a basket of fresh bread at a busy lunch place, then back on the road. As we approached the Wakhan our excitement grew, stopping to get out as the road, bordered by more flagpole poplars, ran arrow straight toward the Afghan mountains.

A white Toyota Landcruiser sitting in the shade of tall yellow poplar trees lining a straight road, with snowy mountain peaks ahead

The moment we realised we were almost at the Wakhan; a scene too picturesque to resist


A white Toyota Landcruiser sitting in the shade of tall yellow poplar trees lining a straight road, with snowy mountain peaks ahead

Just before Ishkashim we spotted the bridge to Afghanistan. A lone soldier stood by the barbed wire gate, burning under the hot sun. This place is famous for a weekly Saturday market, in the area between the two countries. It’s closed sporadically however during periods of tension along the border.

Next we stopped at the ruins of Khaaka Fort. A border guard stared down from his post above as we wandered the old ruins alone and admired the views of the valley below. Driving on we were hugely impressed by the iconic views unfolding around us. On the Afghan side, the large steep-sided sandy mountains dominated the skyline. Long coverings of loose scree fanned out like skirts, with deeply scarred rock bursting through and snowy peaks rising behind. The wide Wakhan Valley floor was in contrast to the dry mountainsides, swathes of green mixed with fields of golden wheat, cut through by the blue grey Panj.

A view over the fertile Wakhan Valley

Looking across the Wakhan Valley to Afghanistan;
both countries use this fertile land to produce wheat


A view over the fertile Wakhan Valley from crumbling Khaaka Fort

The view over the Wakhan from
the ruins of Khaaka Fort


A view over the fertile Wakhan Valley

Looking across the Wakhan Valley to
Afghanistan; both countries use this
fertile
land to produce wheat


Turning off the main road at Yamchun, we rose past houses and homestays on a series of switchbacks, the views becoming better and better as we climbed toward Yamchun Fortress. The fort was impressive, its crumbling ramparts glowing orange in the afternoon sun. Given the area’s susceptibility to earthquakes and landslides, it’s amazingly well preserved. The fort’s dominant position atop a rocky rise gives it a commanding view over the Wakhan and Hindu Kush beyond.

The ruins of Yamchun fortress sitting on a rocky outcrop high above the Wakhan Valley and one of the real highlights of a Pamir Highway Roadtrip

Yamchun fortress was one of the most spectacular sights in the Wakhan Valley


Crumbling Yamchun Fort with snowy mountain peaks behind

Continuing a little further up the dirt road, our next stop was the famous Bibi Fatima Hot Springs, named after the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter. Tucked into a crack in the mountainside where the water issues forth, the baths are housed inside a stone building. We were under the impression that one of us would have to wait, as men and women’s bath times alternate, but I was shown to a door leading to a more utilitarian looking bath, while Kim was guided to the cave that we’d heard so much about. We’re not sure if men and women still take turns using the original bath, or if this is the regular setup.

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The men’s wasn’t too busy – only a few locals, myself, Ibrahim and a bunch of curious kids. The women’s on the other hand, was a different matter entirely. The Bibi Fatima Spring is famous for its effect on fertility. Women believe that if you climb up into the little calcite cave and find a small stone, a pregnancy is all but guaranteed. It was packed with women of all ages, children to grandmas, and the hot air was alive with a real sense of camaraderie. Women were encouraging each other up into the cave, literally giving a helping hand as they pushed bare bums from behind. Those who spoke English welcomed Kim, asking where she was from and saying how the place was so special – many had travelled far to be there.

Outside afterwards, both men and women were concerned that we didn’t have enough clothes on, dressed as we were in t-shirts. Everyone was bundled up in coats, scarves, hats and even thick Pamiri socks, despite the warm evening air. At the gate, we signed the entrance book, paid our 10 Som each, and wandered back to the car.

Soon we were working our way zig-zag fashion down the switchback road, arriving at Akim Homestay, a traditional house with a beautiful garden full of flowers and fruit trees. The family welcomed us warmly. The father was a school teacher who’d studied at the Moscow State University, a lean wiry man in his early sixties with a kind face. His daughter took care of us, making sure we had enough tea, bread, apricot jam and fresh apricots from the garden.

A bowl of fresh orange apricots on a table

A bowl of delicious fresh apricots


A bowl of fresh orange apricots on a table

A bowl of delicious fresh apricots


We’d arrived just before dark, the only guests, but were soon joined by others, spending an enjoyable evening with a loquacious French motorbiker and a couple of Taiwanese cyclists. Treated like part of the family, this turned out to be our favourite homestay in the whole of Tajikistan.

PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 5
~
YAMCHUN – ZONG – LANGAR

DISTANCE

41 km (Car)

8 km (Hiking)

TRAVEL TIME

1 hour (Car)

6 hours (Hiking)

ACCOMMODATION

Behruz Guesthouse
140 Somoni/$15 pp
T
win Room (shared modern bathroom)
Dinner & Breakfast


We awoke to the sound of Ibrahim talking on the phone. As soon as the sun was up, his deep gravelly voice issued forth from the common room in a near constant stream. This wasn’t the first time. He’d basically been on his phone the entire time we’d been driving. We don’t know who he talked to but he kept repeating one word that sounded like ‘cheese’.

After a hearty breakfast we said goodbye to the family, leaving the homestay at 8:30 with  Ibrahim still muttering cheese periodically on his never ending phone call. We’ve since looked it up and discovered that it basically means ‘okay’ or ‘alright’, sadly removing the mystery and making it seem all too mundane.

A view of the Panj River and Wakhan Valley

Early morning views of the Wakhan Valley from Akim Homestay


A view of the Panj River and Wakhan Valley

Early morning views of the Wakhan
from Akim Homestay


Our plan was to hike around 12 km from Zong to Peak Engels Meadow, camp overnight, and meet Ibrahim in Langar the next day. Driving to the start and in need of supplies, we asked Ibrahim if we could pick up some bread. Stopping in a roadside village, he got some guy’s attention through the window. Said guy dived in an open door, produced some bread, and seeing it was for us, generously and strenuously refused payment. 

We arrived at the trailhead within the hour, filled our water bladders and sorted our bags for the hike. Kim has a history of suffering from altitude sickness, and with Peak Engels Meadow at 4000 metres, she was concerned about the potential effects. Someone had given her spare Diamox pills in Dushanbe, and with only vague memories of the correct dosage, no data connection and no info leaflet, she popped a whole pill in her mouth, swallowing it down with a good slug of water. That was a mistake.

Agreeing to meet Ibrahim at Behruz Hostel (found on Maps.Me) the following day, we began walking at ten. Following a switchback dirt road up the hill for a kilometre or two, we passed a sudden green patch where animals grazed and a lone shepherd boy waved hello. The sun beat down and it was already stinking hot.

A woman with a backpack hikes up a rocky trail with a view of the Wakhan Valley behind her

A steep and rocky section coming up from Zong gets you high above the Wakhan Valley floor


A woman with a backpack hikes up a rocky trail with a view of the Wakhan Valley behind her

The steep path gets you high above the Wakhan


The dusty hiking path left the road, working its way sharply up until it leveled off into a long gradual climb. A narrow channel with fast flowing grey water ran alongside for a few kilometres. Walking steadily, we admired the views of the Wakhan Valley and the Afghan mountains above. At a distance, their loose covering of scree was like skin, a thick hide; here and there misshapen rock burst through like broken bones. It felt great to be out, hiking in this amazing landscape and having time to take it all in.

A person with big backpack and tent walks on a narrow trail looking out to the Wakhan Valley below

This channel runs for miles, fed by the river running down from Peak Engels Meadow


A person with big backpack and tent stands on a narrow trail looking out to the Wakhan Valley below

A great feeling to be high above the Wakhan


A person with big backpack and tent stands on a narrow trail looking out to the Wakhan Valley below

A great feeling to be high above the Wakhan


As we walked Kim started to feel bad, struggling with the altitude we thought. We stopped for lunch a bit early, hoping she’d feel better, but if anything she felt worse. We’d come 4.5 km from Zong and climbed about 600 m. A further kilometre on it was time to make a decision: turn left and head north to the meadow, or right down the steep path to Langar. It was a hard decision to make. Kim was dizzy and extremely nauseous, but this hike was something we’d both been looking forward to as a real highlight of our trip. It would’ve been foolish to carry on though, so we decided to descend.

 Coming slowly down the steep rocky path, past the heavily graffitied petroglyphs, the descent took us a long time. Kim had to stop and rest several times, her head spinning. In the end we got to Langar by late afternoon, a smile on our faces when local kids greeted us excitedly in the street.

A petroglyph of a Marco Polo sheep on the rocks above Langar in the Wakhan Valley

One of the untouched petroglyphs still in good condition


A petroglyph of a Marco Polo sheep on the rocks above Langar in the Wakhan Valley

Horseback hunters and Marco Polo sheep are a common theme


A petroglyph of a Marco Polo sheep on the rocks above Langar in the Wakhan Valley

Horseback hunters and Marco Polo sheep
are a common petroglyph theme


We wandered into the grounds of Behruz Hostel at four, greeted a surprised Ibrahim, then got cleaned up. Kim crashed out, waking up a couple of hours later feeling much better. I got tucked into a few beers on the upstairs veranda with a good group of fellow travellers. There was a great atmosphere at the guest house and we formed friendships with quite a few folk, people we’d meet again the following month at the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan.

Much later we were able to check the correct way to take Diamox, starting with half pills days before you reach altitude. We’re almost certain that Kim’s reaction was due to taking a whole pill suddenly, out of nowhere. It’s a great reminder to be fully prepared and do all your research. And when you’re on the Pamir Highway, expect to have no internet in most places.

PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 6
~
PEAK ENGELS MEADOW TREK

DISTANCE

17 km

TRAVEL TIME

7 hours (Hiking)

ACCOMMODATION

Behruz Guesthouse
140 Somoni/$15 pp
T
win Room (shared modern bathroom)
Dinner & Breakfast


With the events of the day before, we had to come up with a new plan for the day ahead. Having missed out on reaching Peak Engels Meadow, I was keen to head back up into the mountains. Kim didn’t want to risk it, deciding to stay in Langar to rest and catch up on laundry instead. A few new friends from the guesthouse left early to start the hike. After taking my time with breakfast, I followed on behind.

Unencumbered by camping equipment and the big bag, I steadily climbed the first 700 metres, passing the petroglyphs and stealing the odd look back out over the Wakhan.

A view from high on a mountain trail of Langar in the Wakhan Valley, a regular stop for people doing a Pamir Highway Road Trip

The view down towards Langar from high above the Wakhan Valley


A view from high on a mountain trail of Langar in the Wakhan Valley, a regular stop for people doing a Pamir Highway Road Trip

The view down towards Langar from
high above the Wakhan Valley


Reaching the point where we’d stopped yesterday, I followed the channel round and up through the valley. Peak Engels rose in the distance and the churning grey river cut its way downwards far below. After a few kilometres of gentle walking it was time to climb again, up over rocky trails, across green pastures and along dusty paths. Now walking with the others, we topped the final rise, seeing the valley open up to reveal the idyllic meadow.

Looking down on the snakelike meandering river at green Peak Engels Meadow, a must visit place on a Pamir Highway road trip

Local herder kids play at the edge of the river at Peak Engels Meadow, the mountains rising behind

Two donkeys chew on the grass of Peak Engels Meadow, high above the Wakhan Valley

Local herder kids play at the edge of the river at Peak Engels Meadow, the mountains rising behind

Looking down on the snakelike meandering river at green Peak Engels Meadow, a must visit place on a Pamir Highway road trip

Two donkeys chew on the grass of Peak Engels Meadow, high above the Wakhan Valley

Meandering wide and slow across the grass, the river was a fat lazy snake. The towering mountains surrounded us panoramically. A few herder homes sat on the hillside. Curious kids came calling excitedly, “What’s your name? Where you from?”, splashing barefoot through the shallow river. A flat, dry area – perfect for camping – sat to the left. A spring of clean clear water poured gently out into the cloudy river from below the trail. It was a genuinely beautiful spot. 

I spent two hours there, taking pictures and chatting with the others. A group of Lithuanian climbers were crashed out on the grass, having just returned from a week in the mountains. A couple who’d camped there the night before were packing up and I rued the missed opportunity to stay overnight. It felt like a world away from the valley below, a real hidden gem on the Pamir Highway. It would remain one of the most special places on the whole trip, and I felt sorry that Kim wasn’t there to see it.

A person stands at the top of the valley leading down from Peak Engels Meadow to Langar, one of the best hikes to do on a Pamir Highway road trip

Starting the long walk back down to Langar, 1000 m below


A person stands at the top of the valley leading down from Peak Engels Meadow to Langar, one of the best hikes to do on a Pamir Highway road trip

The long walk down to Langar, 1000 m below


Arriving back in Langar, muscles ached and bodies were weary. A 17 km round trip with a difference in elevation of 1000 metres, often on steep and rocky paths, the hike was not unchallenging. But the chance to spend time at the meadow, and soak up the magnificent mountain views along the way, was more than enough to make the aches and pains all worthwhile.

Back at the guesthouse Kim was feeling much better. More people continued to arrive and the place was pretty much full. We spent another fun evening with dinner and beers, talking and laughing around the large tables on the upstairs veranda. By this point we’d come to appreciate that there was a real sense of community on the Pamir Highway. It didn’t matter whether you were cycling, motorbiking, hitchhiking, walking, travelling with your own vehicle or scrambling to find your next ride; everyone swapped stories, shared experiences and helped each other out.

PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 7
~
LANGAR – ZORKUL

DISTANCE

Around 180 km

TRAVEL TIME

About 5 hours

ACCOMMODATION

Our Tent by Kokjigit Lake


Things were a little bit hazy on this day, for me at least. I’d woken an hour after going to bed the night before, shivering uncontrollably. What followed was a hellish night of multiple trips to the bathroom to heave my guts up, the first time I’d vomited in ten years. Possibly it was the food, although everyone else was fine – did they avoid the scraps of chicken in the stew? Kim certainly did. One thing’s for sure, I was lucky to have a modern sit down toilet right beside the room, rather than the outside squat far more common in the Pamirs.

Everyone was getting ready to leave and head their separate ways. We’d discussed the idea of others joining us, but without a Zorkul permit it wasn’t possible. Swapping contact details instead, we made loose plans to meet again further along the road. With me in a bad way, Kim had suggested we wait it out a day. We certainly had days to spare, but it would’ve impacted on our plans for later in the trip. So once I felt well enough to move, we loaded up and left Langar just after nine.

Putting the relative lushness of the Wakhan behind us, the Landcruiser climbed steeply towards the plateau of the Eastern Pamir.  We finally said goodbye to the mighty Panj, the road instead winding above then along its tributary, the Pamir River. Like the Panj before, the Pamir now effectively formed the border with Afghanistan. Some cyclists we met later called this the hardest section of the Pamir Highway, a steep climb and extremely rocky. Before reaching Khargush the land levelled off, a high mars-scape like desert.

A Toyota Lancruiser is parked on the dirt road to Zorkul in Tajikistan

Drier and more barren, the rocky landscape was marked only by tough and common dwarf shrubs


A Toyota Lancruiser is parked on the dirt road to Zorkul in Tajikistan

More dry and barren, the landscape was marked
only by tough and common dwarf shrubs


68 kilometres and two hours later we rolled up to Khargush, essentially no more than a few buildings and an army checkpoint. Here the road continues north to the more familiar Pamir Highway names of Bulunkul, Yashikul and Alichur. Our plan was to head east into the restricted Zorkul Nature Reserve. We handed our visas and permits to the rather shifty looking guard, waiting a nervous twenty minutes to be let through. Others following the usual route were waved through in seconds.

When we eventually got through we were smiling in delight. The bumpy dirt road snaked alongside the bluest river we’d seen in days. Flanked by low sandy brown hills, the narrow green-fringed river was shallow enough to wade across, making Afghanistan seem closer than ever. Camels grazed on the opposite bank, a multitude of birds swooped playfully, and furry red marmots scampered everywhere, bushy tails bumping as they dashed for their burrows. This river land seemed like paradise next to the parched desert we’d just left behind.

Camels resting on the bank of the Pamir River in Afghanistan, seen from Tajikistan on a Pamir Highway Road Trip

Camels resting on the Afghan side of the divide, on the far bank of the Pamir River


Camels resting on the bank of the Pamir River in Afghanistan, seen from Tajikistan on a Pamir Highway Road Trip

Camels on the Afghan side of the Pamir River


Sadly such scenes could only distract me for so long, every jolt of the bumpy ride sapping my remaining strength. As we approached Zorkul Lake, the road passing a little higher on the slope above, I couldn’t take much in. Now Kim’s turn to feel bad for me, she enjoyed the views as best she could, taking over camera duties and jumping out the car at every opportunity. Meanwhile, I lay in the back, thankful for a few moments of stillness every time we stopped.

There was some confusion about where to stay and I wasn’t any help. Our original plan had been to camp around the Zorkul area for two nights. We’d been told that drivers were happy to sleep in their vehicles and fend for themselves, but Ibrahim didn’t seem to be up for that. The guy at PECTA had mentioned a yurt camp near the end of the lake, and we thought Ibrahim could stay there. But by the end of the lake there was still no yurt camp. We were also still a bit far above the lake and Ibrahim showed no desire to go off-track, so without a camp spot we pressed on and left Zorkul behind.

A Toyota Landcruiser is parked on the side of a sandy track in the Zorkul Nature Reserve in Tajikistan while on a Pamir Highway Road Trip

Driving on the sandy track between Zorkul and Kokjigit Lake


A Toyota Landcruiser is parked on the side of a sandy track in the Zorkul Nature Reserve in Tajikistan while on a Pamir Highway Road Trip

It wasn’t long before we reached the next lake, Kokjigit. A stiff breeze bent the golden grass, the sun glinted off the choppy water and the northern wall of the Hindu Kush marked the skyline like a broken saw-toothed blade. Smaller than Zorkul, its northern shore was close to the road and looked relatively flat, so with a good looking camp spot sighted, we decided to stop. Still no yurt camp, but Ibrahim said he’d drive on, promising to return at twelve the next day.

We set up camp with the sun shining, and although it was a little cold and windy, Kokjigit was a genuinely beautiful place. I soon felt better as we lay still on our mat, listening to the birds and watching the afternoon light play off the snowy peaks across the lake. We had the world to ourselves. The only people we’d seen since entering the restricted area were three cyclists back near Khargush. After a while, we got the tent up and set about preparing dinner.

Kokjigit Lake glowing golden at sunset, mountains rising behind

A person stands next to their gray and orange tent on the shores of Kokjigit Lake in Tajikistan

A tent is pitched on the shores of Kokjigit Lake in Tajikistan at sunset, low mountains rising behind

A person stands next to their gray and orange tent on the shores of Kokjigit Lake in Tajikistan

Kokjigit Lake glowing golden at sunset, mountains rising behind

A tent is pitched on the shores of Kokjigit Lake in Tajikistan at sunset, low mountains rising behind

At 4200 metres, this was the highest we’d slept in the Pamirs, and having climbed more than 1000 metres that day, the air was noticeably colder and thinner. As darkness fell we climbed into our sleeping bags, huddling together on what was the rawest night we’d experienced so far.

With hindsight we would’ve liked to have camped fairly soon after Khargush, somewhere along the river paradise, and then camped at Kokjigit the following day. Had we been travelling by ourselves this could certainly have worked, but with nowhere for our driver to stay, this wasn’t really possible.

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PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 8
~
ZORKUL – JARTY GUMBEZ

DISTANCE

32 km

TRAVEL TIME

1 hour 30 minutes

ACCOMMODATION

Jarty Gumbez Guesthouse
240 Somoni
/$25 pp
Quad Room
Outside Squat & Private Indoor Hot Spring
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner


With only a short distance to go today, we were in no rush. Ibrahim was back in good time, parked and waiting near the road, and after a leisurely morning, we were underway by twelve. 

As we drove off, the Landcruiser rolling westward back towards Zorkul, Kim and I looked at each other uncertainly. ”Eh… Ibrahim,” we said, “aren’t we going to Jarty Gumbez?” He looked at us. “Yes, Jarty Gumbez,” he rumbled slowly, a hint of impatience in his deep voice. Okay we thought, maybe we’ve got something wrong, but continuing to head back the way we came, we challenged him again. “But Ibrahim,” Kim said, showing him the route on Maps.Me, “Jarty Gumbez is this way.” 

For a good five minutes he just kept saying “I don’t know”, and it was clear he’d never driven that way before. He was trying to take us back to the main Pamir Highway route, swing round on a detour of a couple hundred kilometres, and come at Jarty Gumbez from the north. With less than 50 kilometres to our destination, that was just plain crazy. Eventually we convinced him to turn around and start heading east again.

We’d read and heard that this road is often impassable. After periods of heavy rain it turns into a bog, where even the most rugged vehicles struggle to cope. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case. The dirt trail wasn’t remotely level, but the Landcruiser capably crawled up and down dips, across small streams and past herds of shaggy cattle.

  • Shaggy cows graze on pastures in front of distant mountains
  • Shaggy cows graze on pastures in front of distant mountains

We passed the yurt camp where Ibrahim had stayed the night before and soon reached the turning point. The trail curved round to the north, and after Ibrahim looked at us questioningly and Kim confirmed this was the way, we headed up the gentle slope to pass through the low mountains to Jarty Gumbez.

Soon we witnessed the first of only two times when Ibrahim was genuinely excited or interested. After reaching the pass, we cruised down through a beautiful green valley. Spotting something on the hillside, Kim asked “Marco Polo?” Glancing over, Ibrahim gave a shake of the head. Two lakes appeared ahead and we got out to take photos and appreciate the views. 

Two small lakes sit below a mountain as the dirt track winds down towards Jarty Gumbez on a Pamir Highway Road Trip

The valley leading down towards Jarty Gumbez


Two small lakes sit below a mountain as the dirt track winds down towards Jarty Gumbez on a Pamir Highway Road Trip

The valley leading down to Jarty Gumbez


Suddenly, jumping out the car, Ibrahim shouted “Marco Polo, Marco Polo!”, realising they were indeed two of the rare animals bounding up the distant hillside. I changed from my wide angle lens quickly but the horned mountain sheep didn’t hang around. Hunted in these parts, they’re understandably wary of humans.

Two Marco Polo (Argali) sheep run for the safety of the hills

The two Marco Polo sheep running for the hills


Two Marco Polo (Argali) sheep run for the safety of the hills

Jumping back in the Landcruiser, we soon arrived on the hills above Jarty Gumbez. The widening valley revealed a vast stark landscape, making us feel small and insignificant. Seeing a cluster of buildings either side of the Istyk River below, we rolled downhill, dirt and stones crunching underneath the heavy tyres. We’d read about people staying at the hunting lodge so we stopped there first, only to be told it was $50 a day per person. At the Jarty Gumbez Guesthouse 50 metres down river, it was a much more reasonable $25. That was still the most expensive we’d had by far, but it was also the most remote location. Greeted with tea, bread, fresh yoghurt and even a plate of plov, it was a good start. 

Aware that the Eastern Pamirs would be culturally different, we had our first taste of it here in Jarty Gumbez. The guesthouse was owned and run by a Kyrgyz family. The women’s style was noticeably different and family pictures on the wall showed men in kalpaks, traditional Kyrgyz hats. The yurt outside the main modern building, with its tall profile and felt coverings, was different to anything we’d previously seen in Mongolia.

After lunch we wandered further, admiring the contrast between dusty mountains and lush green grass bordering the river.

  • The river valley at Jarty Gumbez, green grass fringes the blue Isstyk on the right, ruins sit to the left of the road and mountains rise in the distance
  • The river valley at Jarty Gumbez, green grass fringes the blue Isstyk on the right, ruins sit to the left of the road and mountains rise in the distance

 As the sun dipped and the shadows grew long, we felt the cold mountain chill seeping in. Time to return to the guesthouse and make use of the hot springs. Split into two baths inside, the first was busy with the family’s kids when we returned. Splashing around, they were having a great time. We were keen to get in but weren’t quite sure of the etiquette. Motioning to a woman of the household, she quickly ushered out the kids and told us to lock the door from the inside.

That done, we were ready for a soak. Easier said than done. The sulphurous water, flowing from a crusty orange and white pipe, was pretty much scalding. Over a period of ten or more minutes, we gingerly lowered our bodies bit by bit into the stone bath. It was an experience bordering somewhere between pleasure and pain. Rinsing off with a cold bucket of water, we composed ourselves and put on clean clothes.

We’d been told dinner was at 7 o’clock, and were surprised when someone knocked on our door at 6:15 saying dinner was ready. Only then did we remember another difference between the East and West Pamirs: in the East, they follow Kyrgyz time, one hour ahead of the rest of Tajikistan.

Sitting at the dining table, we heard a ‘hello?’ at the door as darkness fell. The three cyclists we’d passed the day before arrived, looking for food and a place to spend the night. Once settled they joined us for dinner. They were on a tight budget, but as it was one of their birthdays the next day, they’d opted for warm beds instead of cold tents. Conversation was good and we lingered over dinner, enjoying the company.  Later, as we went to bed, we noticed the stars coming out beautifully, their bright lights somewhat hidden by the overpowering waxing gibbous moon.

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PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 9
~
JARTY GUMBEZ

DISTANCE

0 km

TRAVEL TIME

0 hours

ACCOMMODATION

Jarty Gumbez Guesthouse
240 Somoni
/$25 pp
Quad Room
Outside Squat & Private Indoor Hot Spring
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner


That morning we had a leisurely breakfast with the cyclists, chatting and talking about future plans. Our plan was to stay one more day to hike around the area and they were having an easy morning for the birthday boy. Breakfast was fried eggs, yoghurt, semolina, loads of fresh bread with creamy yak butter, jam and huge pots of tea.  A birthday gift of much coveted chocolate spread was also produced, the three of them taking great delight in lathering it on the bread.

After breakfast we headed down the Istyk, further than yesterday, exploring Iron Age Saka kurgan (burial grounds) and the surrounding ruins of a later age. On the hills above, bones and skulls of dead Marco Polos lay scattered around.

The skull of a Marco Polo sheep sits high on the hill above the river valley at Jarty Gumbez

A  discarded skull of an Argali: otherwise known as Marco Polo sheep 


Mud brick ruins an Saka kurgan burial grounds on a Pamir Highway Road Trip

Ruins of  a settlement amidst the ancient Saka burial grounds 


The skull of a Marco Polo sheep sits high on the hill above the river valley at Jarty Gumbez

A  discarded skull of an Argali:
otherwise known as Marco Polo sheep 


Mud brick ruins an Saka kurgan burial grounds on a Pamir Highway Road Trip

Ruins of  a settlement amidst the
ancient Saka burial grounds 


We spent the day wandering the wide valley, where the river snaked languorously across the flat plain, startling blue among the bright green. Stopping to make coffee, we delighted in spotting more bushy tailed marmots, and laughed when a local herdman passed us with his army of amusing goats. Heading further along the river, sandy hills on either side sloped up into low, sharp mountains, captivating us with their displays of reds, pinks and oranges. Climbing up for a vantage point, we watched as once or twice a local Lada or small beat-up truck sent dust trails flying on the road to Murghab. At 4,300 metres the air was noticeably thinner and breathing more difficult. As the afternoon wore on, we wandered back down to the guesthouse, nodding and smiling to locals we passed along the way. 

A Kyrgyz herder and his dog follow about 100 goats alongside the banks of the Isstyk River at Jarty Gumbez in the Pamirs of Tajikistan

The herdsman and his dog follow their goats


The Hunting Lodge buildings sit on the banks of the Isstyk River at sunset in Jarty Gumbez, seen on a Pamir Highway Road Trip

The Jarty Gumbez Hunting Lodge


A Kyrgyz herder and his dog follow about 100 goats alongside the banks of the Isstyk River at Jarty Gumbez in the Pamirs of Tajikistan

The herdsman and his dog follow their goats


Back in the dining room we were served more tea, bread and yoghurt. We braved another soak in the scalding hot springs, before sitting down to a quieter dinner that evening. 

With darkness falling we went outside to set up some star shots, but the near full moon rose even earlier. It was so bright we could wander around without head torches, making astrophotography a complete waste of time. Heading for an early bed, we slept in our spacious room with the window open. It was below zero outside, but with the room heated by piping direct from the hot springs, it was sweltering. The combination of chilled and hot air seemed to work perfectly, and we both fell into a deep restful sleep.

PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 10
~
JARTY GUMBEZ – MURGHAB

DISTANCE

110 km

TRAVEL TIME

3 hours 30 minutes

ACCOMMODATION

Mansur Tulfabek Guesthouse
60 Somoni/$6 pp
Private Room (sleeping on floor)
Outside Sit-down Toilet & Hot Solar Shower
Breakfast


After another huge breakfast, we said our goodbyes to the family and got ready for the road. Down the hill from the guesthouse, Ibrahim wrestled the Landcruiser across the shallow stony river and we set off for Murghab. Soon past the familiar landscape of the previous day, we drove on to even more spectacular scenery. A wide moonscape stretched out, painted in pastels, broken into valleys and passes by jagged low mountains. The air was deathly still, compounding the sense of aloneness whenever we stopped to get out. An impressively lifeless place, our only company was the chubby red marmots, startled by vibrations from the speeding car.

  • A woman walking near a Landcruiser on a remote stretch of road running through the Pamirs near Jarty Gumbez
  • Kim walking near a Landcruiser on a remote stretch of road running through the Pamirs near Jarty Gumbez

Now and again the road, no more than tyre tracks in the dust, forked or split into multiple directions. Ibrahim would turn to us, motioning first one way, then the next. “This way,” his deep monotone voice droned. “This way,” deep drone unchanging as he nodded in the other direction. Kim, trusty Maps.Me route in hand, would gesture confidently in the desired direction – “This way!”

After coming over and down from a high pass, we asked Ibrahim to hang a right and climb again. “Up there!?” He looked at us dubiously, having never gone that way before. We nodded confidently so right he turned, the muscular Landcruiser rumbling up the trail to the old Soviet Shor-bulak observatory. The PECTA guy in Khorog had mentioned it, and it was every bit as impressive as he’d suggested. Sitting solitary at 4300 metres, rusty and abandoned, its rounded dome and big metal flaps gave it an alien feel, like some bizarre creature from a 1950’s sci-fi movie.

  • The abanonded Soviet era Shorbulak Observatory, a rusting building with a commanding view over the Pamirs and mountains of Xinjiang Province of China
  • The abanonded Soviet era Shorbulak Observatory, a rusting building with a commanding view over the Pamirs and mountains of Xinjiang Province of China

Even Ibrahim was impressed, the second time we’d seen his emotions roused in a positive way. He too was out of the vehicle, taking pictures on his phone, a half smile on his gruff face. A 360° mountain panorama encircled us, a hundred subtle shades of brown. To the north, south and west, the many ranges of the Pamirs; to the east, the mountain fastness of Xinjiang Province in far Western China.

A woman standing looking out over a vast mountain landscape towards China from the viewpoint at Shorbuloq Observatory, off the Pamir Highway

Standing at 4300 metres, looking out to the mountains of Western China


A woman standing looking out over a vast mountain landscape towards China from the viewpoint at Shorbuloq Observatory, off the Pamir Highway

Looking out to the mountains of Western China


Down the hill and back on what passed for the main road, we headed a bit further and came off again to see the Shakhty cave paintings. A short scramble up the hillside from the road, these paintings were discovered in 1958 by Soviet archaeologists. The story goes that they took shelter in the tiny cave during a storm, waking in the morning to find the Neolithic red ink painting looking down on them.

Red Neolithic cave paintings of animals in Shakthy Cave

The red ink Neolithic Shakhty Cave paintings


Red Neolithic cave paintings of animals in Shakthy Cave

The red ink Neolithic Shakhty Cave paintings


Rejoining the road, we passed our cyclist friends from Jarty Gumbez.  After a quick catch up we left them behind, churning up dust until soon, seemingly out of nowhere, the tarmacked M41 appeared. After three days of isolation, in which we’d seen only three other travellers and a handful of local vehicles, we were almost back on the Pamir Highway. As we approached, four Marco Polo sheep ran across our path, over the road and up the opposite hillside. They were gone in an instant. 

The road wound through tight rocky cliffs, and before long, we drove down into the green Madian valley and approached Murghab. Trucks, jeeps and motorbikes passed us, and we were a little taken aback at the sudden contrast between where we’d been, and where we were. Five minutes at the army checkpoint and we were driving into the relative metropolis that was Murghab. The highest town in Tajikistan at 3650 m, Murghab is the administrative capital of the district. With a population of around 4,000 people, it’s the largest town in the eastern half of the GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region).

After getting a room at the Mansur Tulfabek Guesthouse, we set out to explore, wandering the streets of Murghab as the magic hour glow took hold. The town had an interesting look, dusty streets made attractive by whitewashed walls and light blue painted windows and doors. Residents went about their business, many collecting water from nearby wells. Local kids waved hello from their bikes. The odd cow wandered randomly here and there. Colourful clothes hung from washing lines. Rusty old trucks or cars lay hidden in lanes, behind corners. Painted wrought iron gates added an extra splash of colour. It all had a certain charm.

A man painting his window sill green in Murghab

Two boys on their bikes posing for a photo on the streets of Murghab
Colourful laundry hanging in front of a traditional house in Murghab

A woman in striking red dress pushing a pram with a baby along a street in Murghab

A man painting his window sill green in Murghab

Two boys on their bikes posing for a photo on the streets of Murghab

A woman in striking red dress pushing a pram with a baby along a street in Murghab

Unlike most places we’d stayed, our guesthouse didn’t serve dinner, so we hunted for somewhere near the bazaar instead. Seeing a fellow traveller standing in the doorway of a promising looking establishment, we asked if they served food. “Yes,” he replied enthusiastically in an English accent, “they even serve beer!” The little cafe had a lively atmosphere inside, busy with locals and foreigners alike. Two bowls of passable but slightly oily Laghman, some bread and a bottle of local beer was pretty reasonably priced at a total of 50 Somoni. Dinner done, we headed home to bed, ready for the next day’s adventure.

PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 11
~
MURGHAB – PSHART VALLEY

DISTANCE

23 km (Car)

4 km (Hiking)

TRAVEL TIME

30 minutes (Car)

1 hour (Hiking)

ACCOMMODATION

Our Tent in Pshart Valley


When planning our Pamir Highway trip, we’d always intended to camp in the Pshart Valley near Murghab, hiking the Gumbezkol Pass the next day. We’d heard stories of the colourful mountains and looked forward to the challenge of the pass. But since Langar, Kim hadn’t been confident about it – the pass, at 4,700 metres, was higher than we’d previously hiked, and considerably higher than when she’d felt sick in the Wakhan. We still wanted to camp in the Pshart Valley as planned, but decided that only I would go over the pass. Kim would go back to Murghab with Ibrahim and meet me on the other side. From there we planned to head up the Madian Valley to the Eli Suu Hot Springs.

With not far to drive and in no rush, we left Murghab around eleven. Entering the Pshart Valley to the northeast of town, Ibrahim drove the first 20 kilometres, leaving us to walk the final four to our intended camp spot. Shouldering our packs, we followed the tyre tracks west, admiring the multitudinous shades of vibrancy on the valley’s north side. Oranges, reds, yellows and pinks formed wavy lines and shapes on the mountains, coming to brilliant life every time the sun appeared. The parched valley floor seemed lifeless in comparison, stony ground sloping gently down to the dry bed of the Eastern Pshart River.

A female hiker wearing a backpack walking in the Pshart Valley with colourful mountains behind

Hiking up the Pshart Valley towards our planned camp spot


A female hiker wearing a backpack walking in the Pshart Valley with colourful mountains behind

It’s always a surprise in such bare and seemingly barren land when you come upon any sign of greenery. As we approached the Gumbezkol Valley, the ground was wet and covered with grass. To our left, water trickled down in multiple rivulets, spread out like a garden rake. The stream feeding them was in turn fed by higher streams, in turn fed by the snowy peaks above. To our right, a large kurgan loomed: another Iron Age burial mound.

A picturesque yurt camp sat nestled in the smaller valley, smoke rising from chimneys, the sounds of nomadic life drifting down on the cold breeze. We made our camp about 100 metres below, enjoying the sunshine but wrapping up against the cold wind from the west.  A woman wandered down from the yurts, dressed warmly in a traditional wool coat and patterned shawl, motioning to come inside and get warm. We thanked her for the offer, but were happy to be outdoors appreciating the views.

A yurt camp in the Pshart Valley, with Gumbezkol Pass rising behind

The perfectly positioned yurt camp


A man and woman walking towards mountains in the Pshart Valley

Enjoying the wide Pshart Valley expanse


A yurt camp in the Pshart Valley, with Gumbezkol Pass rising behind

The perfectly positioned yurt camp


A man and woman walking towards mountains in the Pshart Valley

Enjoying the wide Pshart Valley expanse


As the afternoon wore on, the local kids came down for a visit. The oldest girl at 13 spoke remarkably good English and the younger kids were quite frankly hilarious. They delighted in picking up all our gear and inspecting it with mock seriousness. We took photos and videos, showing them back to the kids for further amusement. After a ton of laughter, they wandered back up the hill and headed home for dinner.

Three nomadic children from a yurt camp in the Pshart Valley playing and smiling

The kids were happy to meet us, and us them


Some nomadic children and a female tourist posing for a photo in the Pshart Valley

Kim and the whole gang get organised for a group photo


Three nomadic children from a yurt camp in the Pshart Valley playing and smiling

Kids from the nearby yurt camp


Some nomadic children and a female tourist posing for a photo in the Pshart Valley

Kim and the whole gang


The wind coming down the valley was starting to chill us to the bone, making us fully conscious of the 4000 metres in altitude. We ate earlier than usual and climbed in the tent to get warm before the sun went down.

A tent pitched at a wild camp spot in the Pshart Valley

A tent pitched at a wild camp spot in the Pshart Valley

PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 12
~
PSHART VALLEY – MADIAN VALLEY – MURGHAB

DISTANCE

15 km (Hiking)

Around 125 km (Car)

TRAVEL TIME

4 hours 45 minutes (Hiking)

3 hours (Car)

ACCOMMODATION

Mansur Tulfabek Guesthouse
60 Somoni/$6 pp
Private Room (sleeping on floor)
Outside Sit-down Toilet & Hot Solar Shower
Breakfast


It was a bitterly cold morning, the chill of the cold wind burning hands and face. The small streams now ran under a thin coating of ice – I had to break through to get water for our morning coffee. When it arrived, the sun’s warmth was welcome, its light producing another display of kaleidoscopic colours on the mountains. 

We were slow packing up, so I didn’t start hiking until well after eleven. As Kim drove off with Ibrahim, I headed up through the yurt camp towards Gumbezkol Pass, waving back at the friendly locals. The water ran clear and icy blue, crisscrossing the wet ground in three or four streams. Looking back, the colourful mountains dazzled even more as the sun rose; cows and horses peppered the foreground of the valley, completing the scene.

A man walking in the Gumbezkol Valley

Taking a moment to appreciate the views


Horses grazing on green grass, the colourful mountains of the Pshart Valley in the distance

Cows and horses grazing but no people in sight


A man walking in the Gumbezkol Valley

Taking a moment to appreciate the views


Horses grazing on green grass, the colourful mountains of the Pshart Valley in the distance

Animals grazing but no people in sight


A couple of hundred metres below the pass, the steep path became loose scree. The sun flashed blindingly off the icy peaks, and shiny reflective rocks embedded in the ground were a thousand tiny mirrors. Reaching the pass at 4,700 metres, I took shelter behind some rocks, the bitter wind a biting banshee. Hungry after the 2 hour plus climb, I chomped through my snacks, drinking in the spectacular views and revelling in the splendid isolation.

  • View from the top of Gumbezkol Pass looking back towards the Pshart Valley
  • View from the top of Gumbezkol Pass looking back towards the Pshart Valley

From the top I plunged steeply, heel first through soft sandy scree – half an hour of focused concentration and one or two wobbles on loose rock. Back on solid ground the wide valley extended far, a gradual descent over tough grass and rocks towards the Murghab River. Following the stream, I half marched, half jogged my way down to the pick-up point. Passing a couple of yurts, a woman restraining her barking dog was the first person I’d seen in four hours. 

Looking towards the Madian Valley from Gumbezkol Pass, mountains everywhere

After the Gumbezkol Pass it’s a long but steady descent down to the Madian Valley


Looking towards the Madian Valley from Gumbezkol Pass, mountains everywhere

After the Gumbezkol Pass it’s a long but
steady descent down to the Madian Valley


 I met the Landcruiser winding its way towards me up what was now a rocky dirt track, surprised when two strangers got out until Kim followed behind. Turns out it was Ibrahim’s friend and younger brother. All very confusing (some chat about Ibrahim meeting the President?), but anyway, they were taking us to our next stop, the Eli Suu Hot Springs, in the mountains across the Murghab River.

So off we went with the friend driving, back down to the Madian Valley, turning westward along the wide dirt road. Further on, we crossed the river at Madian Village, climbing steeply into the mountains of the Northern Alichur Range. Winding higher and higher past precarious drops, we now drove on a tight rocky track, thankful for the reassuring robustness of the Landcruiser and skills of our driver. His English far exceeding Ibrahim’s, our driver chatted all the way, pointing out Ibex trails on the opposite side of the gorge. Turns out he worked as a National Park Ranger, and we learnt more from him in a couple of hours than we had in the past two weeks.

Eventually we stopped, got out, and scrambled down the steep sided ravine. What used to be the hot springs was now a total shambles. We crossed the first branch of the river on a length of metal ten centimetres wide, one foot in front of the other. The next part was worse, a thin metal pole bouncing up and down. Any bridges were long gone. With passports in our pockets and cameras round our necks, that was as far as we were going. 

Our driver continued on to investigate, ending up waste deep in the river, then splashing around a while longer, checking out the old buildings. When he returned, he said the stone baths containing the hot springs had been washed away. It looked like no one had been there in a long time, but he assured us he’d been there just a month before.

Looking down over the Eli Suu hotsprings, now just a few decrepit buildings

All that was left of the Eli Suu Hot Springs when we were there


Looking down over the Eli Suu hotsprings, now just a few decrepit buildings

All that was left of the Eli Suu Hot Springs


Back at the car, we met a French couple who’d somehow driven their large campervan up the mountain track, parking a little further back. We told them what we’d found, and while they went to take a look, our driver stripped to his pants, hopped in behind the wheel, and with that we were off to Murghab.

The three hours we’d spent getting there and back felt a bit like a wasted trip. One to skip unless new information says otherwise. It was a beautiful drive though, the late afternoon light turning the valley dreamlike.

  • Golden Hour view of the Madian Valley
  • Golden Hour view of the Madian Valley

When we arrived back the day’s exertions were taking their toll, but wandering into the guest house, we were in for a surprise. Three Land Rover Defenders sat in the courtyard, one of them, our friends from Polaris Overland whom we’d met in Northern Mongolia a month before. A chance and welcome meeting, entirely unexpected.

With not many choices available for dinner, we headed back to the same place as before. Sitting round a big table in the back room, we joined a Czech couple who were hitchhiking the Pamir Highway. The guy recommended the veggie stew so we both ordered the same, not entirely surprised to find it shot through with meat. A couple of local men joined us at the table and a friendly exchange ensued, aided by the Czech guy’s good grasp of Russian. With dinner done we headed home, ready to crash out after a long energy sapping day.

That night, Kim woke feeling sick in the early hours. She had to rush across the courtyard to the toilet and was violently sick for several hours. Still being sick in the morning, she was in no state to travel. We’d been due to leave with Tamreez, Ibrahim’s youngest brother, but had to put him off till the next day, which he was fine with. I paid Ibrahim what we owed, said goodbye, and spent the day wandering Murghab while Kim recovered. While out, I met the Czech travellers at the market. The guy told me that he’d been sick too, putting it down to the previous night’s stew. That evening I cooked up some simple pesto pasta with supplies brought from Dushanbe, hoping to put it all behind us and start fresh the next day.

PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 13
~
MURGHAB – RANGKUL – KARAKUL

DISTANCE

223 km

TRAVEL TIME

5 hours

ACCOMMODATION

Sadat Homestay
160 Somoni/$17 pp
Private Room (sleeping on floor)
Outside Squat & Sit-down Toilets
Lunch, Dinner & Breakfast


This day it was my turn to be ill, again. I woke with a dodgy stomach that got progressively worse. Thinking back to the potential cause, all we could point to was an apple from the market that I’d washed with unsterilised water. I was weak and not really fit to travel, but we couldn’t afford to wait any more, so after a delayed start, we left Murghab just before ten.

Where Ibrahim had been taciturn, Tamreez was positively chatty. More than ten years his brother’s junior, he was youthful and spoke pretty good English. He also drove a black Landcruiser with badass extra large tyres. We were heading north on the Pamir Highway towards Karakul, but we’d also planned another little side trip, one that would take us to two more lakes, Shorkul and Rangkul.

Leaving the M41 not long after Murghab, we drove up a wide dirt road, passing the two lakes on one side and low mountains on the other. 

  • A black Landcruiser and trail of dust behind it, driving by Rangkul Lake off the Pamir Highway
  • A black Landcruiser and trail of dust behind it, driving by Rangkul Lake off the Pamir Highway

We went as far as Rangkul Village, a dry and dusty place with watchtowers and army checkpoints, a mere ten kilometres from the Chinese border.  Kim took photos and chatted with a few local kids, I lay in the back with my head swimming. Our journey to Rangkul and back was an uncomfortable blur for me, having to stop and run for cover more than once, but Kim enjoyed the spectacle of the salt encrusted blue lakes, their grassy shores pocketed with picturesque yurts.

An old Soviet truck sitting on bricks in Rangkul Village, Tajikistan

No scrap metal merchants around here


A smiling girl and her yournger brother peering out from behind a wall in Rangkul Village, Tajikistan

Curious kids wondering what’s going on


A smiling girl and her yournger brother peering out from behind a wall in Rangkul Village, Tajikistan

Curious kids wondering what’s going on


Back on the M41, the mountainous land was dry and unforgiving as we gunned it to the top of the Ak-Baital Pass, the highest on the Pamir Highway at 4655 metres. Tamreez put his feet up for five minutes while Kim took in the views; I lay in the back and appreciated being still.

  • View looking down from Ak-Baital Pass, the highest pass on the Pamir Highway at 4655m
  • View looking down from Ak-Baital Pass, the highest pass on the Pamir Highway at 4655m

Heading down from the pass the landscape opened up, the blue river winding through salt and patches of green. We drove on, suddenly spotting a couple of cyclists waving us down. The guy, Simon, was sick and asked if we could take him to Karakul. Tamreez agreed, strapping his bike to the roof. His girlfriend, Vanessa, was okay and said she would meet us there.

Back on the road, Simon and I languished in the back while Kim sat up front with Tamreez. As we all talked, we quickly realised it wasn’t our first meeting –  this was the same English guy we’d spoken to outside the cafe in Murghab. And when Kim mentioned the cyclists we’d met in Jarty Gumbez – Lukas, Elis and Adam – Simon suddenly said, “Wait! I’m travelling with them. They’re my friends.” Followed by, “Ah, you’re the Scottish couple.” To compound the weirdness, we soon caught up with the same three cyclists, stopping to say hi and let them know the situation. Driving on I continued to feel worse, but approaching Karakul, even through my stupor I could appreciate the scene: a brilliant blue lake, crowned by the white peaks of the Trans-Alay Mountain Range.

  • Karakul Lake and snowy peaks of the Trans-Alay Range
  • Karakul Lake and snowy peaks of the Trans-Alay Range

At the homestay, I slept huddled under the covers in our room while Kim attempted some lunch, or pushed soup around a bowl as she put it. After wandering round town and down to the lake, she caught up with the arriving cyclists. A little later I was well enough to join them, and it was my turn to push soup around a bowl. Lukas, Elis and Adam said goodbye, heading out of town to camp, while Simon and Vanessa stayed to get some rest. Soon others arrived, an Australian couple and a couple of Dutch guys who were self-driving the Pamir Highway. It was an interesting bunch making for a good atmosphere, another instance of that real feeling of community. The food at dinner seemed decent, but neither Kim or I could stomach much, and we both went to bed hoping to feel considerably better in the morning.

PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 14
~
KARAKUL – TULPARKUL 

DISTANCE

160 km

TRAVEL TIME

5 hours

ACCOMMODATION

CBT Yurt Stay (Tulparkul)
500 Som/$7 pp
Bed in Yurt
Outside Sit-down Toilet
(1000 Som pp with dinner & breakfast)


I woke in the morning, not 100%, but determined to get out and see the town. Grabbing the camera, I shuffled out into the bright hazy morning, working my way through the narrow dusty streets towards the lake. The low whitewashed buildings were reminiscent of Murghab, but the town had a much quieter feel. A few people were out already, fetching water. A couple of kids wandered by, staring as they went. An old lady, sat in her doorway, smiled as I waved hello. 

  • Two small kids wandering the wide dusty streets of Karakul in northern Tajikistan
  • Two small kids wandering the wide dusty streets of Karakul in northern Tajikistan

At the lake, the grassy area bordering it was slightly damp and marshy, and the breeze was making the surface a little choppy. At the water’s edge, the dark blue body was fringed with green and ultramarine. Standing next to it, it was easy to get a sense of the lake’s huge scale. At 33 km long and 23 km wide, Karakul is the largest lake in the Pamirs. It lies in a circular depression believed to be a meteorite impact crater, an event that occurred less than five million years ago. The Karakul depression is also notable for being the driest place in the Pamir Mountains, with the lowest average annual rainfall of about 20mm/year.

  • A drone image of Karakul lake and village, a blue expanse surrounded by snowy peaks along the Pamir Highway
  • A drone image of Karakul lake and village, a blue expanse surrounded by snowy peaks along the Pamir Highway

Back at the homestay we had a leisurely breakfast, conversation flowing, but both of us still weren’t feeling great. Everyone was going their separate ways in different modes of transport, and after saying our goodbyes, we hit the road by ten. Making good time on the tarmacked road, we whizzed past long stretches of high fence that marked the no man’s land between us and the Chinese border. Within an hour we’d climbed to the Kyzyl Art Pass, the location of the Tajik border. The whole process was fairly smooth. We stood in a short line, hugging ourselves against the chill mountain wind and waiting to enter the office one by one. Inside, our passports were stamped and GBAO permits taken – keeping them as a souvenir wasn’t optional. 

The border was busy enough but in half an hour we were done. A further twenty minutes took us on a steep and winding dirt road descent. The route cut through more multicoloured mountains, looking like a kid had been let loose with a paintbrush.

A black Landcruiser driving towards colourful mountains in no man's land between Bordobo Border Crossing, Kyrgyzstan, and Kyzylart Border Crossing in Tajikistan on the Pamir Highway

Driving through no man’s land between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan


A black Landcruiser driving towards colourful mountains in no man's land between Bordobo Border Crossing, Kyrgyzstan, and Kyzylart Border Crossing in Tajikistan on the Pamir Highway

Driving through no man’s land between
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan


As shades of green increased, the valley opened up and the road levelled, leading us into the Kyrgyz border post at Bordobo. Another twenty minutes of checks and we were in.

It had been less than two hours since leaving Karakul but we were in a different world. The land was a verdant paradise. Countless horses, cows and sheep roamed the flat plain, yurts dotted here and there. Behind us, the mountains receded as we cruised down the arrow straight road to Sary Tash.

After managing a bowl of lamb soup, some bread and a pot of tea at a busy cafe, we headed 30 km west to Sary Mogul. Tamreez had tried to get fuel in Sary Tash, but they were out of benzene, waiting on resupply the next day. In Sary Mogul, it was the same story. Shrugging uncertainly, he said we’d maybe have enough to get to Tulparkul and back. We paid for our yurt stay (minus the food) at the CBT (Community Based Tourism) office in town. Not keen on taking chances with the food given the last few days, we picked up a couple of things at the local market instead.

Heading south, climbing a dirt track, it was a further 20 km up to Tulparkul. The looming ice-coated Trans-Alay Range was blinding in the afternoon sun; we squinted against the glare, trying to pick out the distinctive point of Peak Lenin. When the trail split in two directions, Tamreez leaned towards us, asking casually, “Have you got Maps.Me?” We laughed, thinking back to his old school  brother.

The scenery at Tulpar Lake was beautiful, but unfortunately Kim couldn’t enjoy it. She hadn’t been able to eat much, and felt weak and dizzy – as she described it, “Like I’ve been hit by a truck.” We got settled in a yurt, and while she lay down to rest, I headed back out.

  • Yurts lined up at Tulparkul, in the shadow of Peak Lenin
  • Yurts lined up at Tulparkul, in the shadow of Peak Lenin

Wandering the hills and surrounding lakes, the looming Peak Lenin and its comrades were a constantly felt presence. The fattest cows seen in many days chewed on the long lakeside grass, and a sixty strong goatherd kicked up dust on the higher hills.

  • Goat herd & herdsman in late afternoon sun
  • Goat herd & herdsman in late afternoon sun

I hiked a kilometre up the valley until stopped by a deep gorge, admiring the many lakes along the way. A few other travellers wandered the hills, daytrippers up from Sary Mogul, and a group of motorbikers had stopped to make camp. Back at the yurts, more people arrived as the day drew to a close. The sun went down and the white peaks glowed fiery orange like burning hot coal.

  • Peak Lenin at Sunset
  • Peak Lenin at Sunset

Inside our yurt, one of the Kyrgyz women running the camp had got an almighty fire going in the central stove. She’d popped in often while I’d been out, checking on Kim and building the fire. Now dinnertime, the other guests were getting tucked into their food in the communal cabin. Soothing our abused stomachs with tasty chicken cup-a-soup and plain bread instead, we stuck to our toasty yurt. 

Late in the afternoon, two Scottish women had arrived, and we’d both spoken to them briefly before dark. As we sat inside the yurt after dinner, a loud knock shook the door, followed by “Scotland! You want some watermelon?” in a distinctive Glasgow accent. Well, we never say no to watermelon.

By now Tamreez had joined us, and the three of us were getting ready to end the day. The fire however, had been almost too well prepared. Burning hot, the yurt was beyond toasty. We each took turns standing in the entrance, door half open, relishing the hot and cold, until our home for the night felt a little less like an extreme sauna.

PAMIR HIGHWAY: DAY 15
~
TULPARKUL – OSH

DISTANCE

240 km

TRAVEL TIME

5 hours 30 minutes

ACCOMMODATION

TES Hotel
2500 Som/$36
Double Room (private bathroom)
Breakfast


The heat from the fire was long gone and we woke to what was possibly the coldest morning yet. Wanting to capture the sunrise, I was outside at 6:00 am without even the animals for company. The lake was perfectly still, the air crisp and clear, and when sunrise came, Peak Lenin gleamed like a jewel. It didn’t last. A biting breeze started, stirring the lake.

  • Sunrise reflections in Tulparkul, with Peak Lenin rising behind
  • Sunrise reflections in Tulparkul, with Peak Lenin rising behind

On the road just after nine, we raced down to Sary Mogul, stopping to pick up a Spanish hitchhiker on the way. Tamreez was worried about fuel, but you wouldn’t know it the way he was driving. In Sary Mogul there was still no benzene. Having no option, Tamreez decided to try and make the 30 km journey to Sary Tash on 1 litre. Coasting, engine on, off then on again, we almost made it. Just 3 km before town, the fuel was done, and amid no little laughter, we got out to discuss our next move. Our Spanish friend, Carlos, offered to hitch a ride to town and bring back a jerry can, but Tamreez flagged down a little Hyundai truck full of coal. They offered to tow us for 500 Som, and soon we were trundling along, towed into Sary Tash and the petrol station forecourt.

View out the front window of a Landcruiser being towed by a truck

Not how we imagined we’d be travelling on the final day of our Pamir Highway road trip


View out the front window of a Landcruiser being towed by a truck

Not how we imagined we’d be travelling on
the final day of our Pamir Highway road trip


While Tamreez filled up, we went across to the local store to add balance to our Kyrgyz sim card. As we waited, one of the truck guys, a Kyrgyz Eddie Marsan, came in and slapped down 20 Som with a meaty, coal black hand. The stout woman behind the counter unfussily set a glass down, filled it with vodka, and slid it across, lifting the grubby note. Kyrgyz Eddie lifted it to cracked lips, downed it in one, and off he went. Thankfully he wasn’t the driver.

And so off we went, climbing the road to the Taldyk Pass at 3,615 metres. The view from the top was quite incredible, the road slaloming down the mountainside, a trail of spaghetti.

A road slaloming down from Taldyk Pass with mountains rising behind

The view from the Taldyk Pass


A road slaloming down from Taldyk Pass with mountai

From the pass we drove steadily downwards on smooth paved road, alongside the icy blue Gulcha, passing poplars and Soviet bus stops for the first time since the Wakhan, and swerving round herds of goats and occasionally, horses. Traveling now at 100kph, the scenery whipped by; the dusty windswept Pamirs already beginning to feel like a distant memory.

By mid afternoon we were driving into Osh, the oldest city in Kyrgyzstan. At an altitude of just under 1000 metres, it felt balmy in the warm afternoon sun. Using trusty Maps.Me, we guided Tamreez to our guest house, unloaded our gear, paid up and said our goodbyes. As we checked in to our spacious and modern room, eager for a hot shower, the experiences of the last weeks seemed far away. It was a distance not just of miles, but also of time, from an old world to a new.

PAMIR HIGHWAY ROAD TRIP

Well, that was quite the tale! It certainly grew arms and legs in the telling. What started as a brief daily account – with a few pictures from each day – turned into something so much more. We hope you enjoyed it. 

Our original plan had been to make this a post of two halves, with a practical guide following the day to day account. In the end both halves proved to be way too big, so we decided to make two posts instead of one. Be sure to check out our Essential Pamir Highway Guide for planning every aspect of your trip.

If you have any questions about our route, where we stayed or what we did, drop them in the comments below. Also, we appreciate that things on the ground can change. If you find something is different to what we’ve written, then don’t hesitate to let us know.

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The Ultimate Road Trip: The Pamir Highway. A high altitude journey between Dushanbe in Tajikistan & Osh, Kyrgyzstan, through the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). It\'s a journey to be savoured, not rushed. Here\'s a full 15 day itinerary for a road trip exploring the Wakhan Valley, Tulparkul, Peak Lenin, Jizeu, plus more remote areas like Zorkul Nature Reserve & the hot springs village of Jarty Gumbez. Includes a map, hikes, budget & accommodation info and more.
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