The route of the Pamir Highway on a map of Central Asia. I went from Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Dushanbe, Tajikistan though the reverse is perfectly manageable, too. Image taken from Wikipedia.
Why do it?
It’s an awesome road trip through spectacular scenery alongside some of the world’s highest mountains. There are stunning glimpses of the Hindu Kush, and this is arguably the best way to see some of Afghanistan (albeit from the outside). A large chunk of the route travels along the Afghan border, separated only by a small river and a few dozen meters.
As an old Silk Road link, the Pamir Highway has served as a trade route for thousands of years. After centuries of fading into relative obscurity, nowadays its more lucrative commercial activity revolves around smuggling heroin from Afghanistan. Hence the route’s nickname as the Heroin Highway. My Central Asia guidebook claims that a large majority of Tajikistan’s economy is rooted in heroin, with much of the rest coming from Tajiks performing unskilled labor in Russia and sending small sums back to family.
A clear day in the Hindu Kush. I took this photo in Tajikistan, but the mountains across the river are all in Afghanistan.
Nestled among the world’s highest mountains, this has historically not been the easiest place to visit. Traversing the poorest part of the poorest Soviet republic, this region is still extremely underdeveloped. After ties with Moscow were severed, Tajikistan plunged into civil war for much of the 90s. Gorno-Badakhshan, the region of the Pamir Highway, tried to separate with the help of the neighboring Taliban. People bearing ID cards from the region were publicly executed on the streets of Dushanbe, the capital city.
The separatists lost the war, and the current regime has brutally maintained order. Coalition forces entered Afghanistan from the Pamir Highway in late 2001.
Is it safe?
Yes. Right before I did this trip some Islamic fundamentalists drove a car into a group of Western cyclists, killing four. It seems to have been an isolated incident with people connected to the separatists from the Tajikistani Civil War of the 90s. The government immediately and without trial executed a number of locals who may or may not have been linked to the murders, parading their bodies on television. In these kinds of places, anybody who could possibly threaten tourist dollars entering the country is quickly killed.
The New York Times posted an article the same day about 66 shooting victims in a single weekend in Chicago with no arrests. Statistically, you’re much safer in Tajikistan than in the United States. Which, as my non-American friends would counter, doesn’t really say much.
It’s gotten much easier over the past few years to visit Central Asia. Most people from developed countries can enter Kyrgyzstan without a visa. The Tajik e-visa is easy to obtain. Online I uploaded a scan of my passport’s bio page, a photo of my lovely face, and paid the $50 fee via credit card. The e-visa was in my inbox within 36 hours. You need an extra permit to visit the Pamir Highway, which costs $20 and nowadays just involves checking an extra box during the e-visa application process.
Checkpoint near Afghanistan. We had to stop every couple of hours for passport and visa inspections along the Afghan border.
Cost and Logistics
The cost of driver with car plus fuel for 4 days cost $744, split three ways. So, I paid $248 for my share. You can have more people in your car, but it wouldn’t be that comfortable. Food and lodging came to an extra $20 per day. Meals and lodging were all at homestays. The drivers know where to go, and probably get kickbacks. The people in this region are Persian, like across the border in next door Afghanistan, and it’s a great way to experience Persian life for a bit.
The most common way to do this trip is to rent car plus driver for 4 to 6 days. You can start in either Osh or Dushanbe. From what I heard the best place for organizing the trip is the Osh Guesthouse, and in the summer months there are departures every couple of days. There’s a signup board with names and contact info for people who are looking for others to help split the cost. I contacted a guy from the signup board, but I got bad vibes from him and instead ended up posting my Kyrgyz phone number at caravanistan.com (the best website for travel details in Central Asia). A couple of guys from Romania contacted me within a couple hours, and the three of us organized the trip through the Guesthouse. The driver picked me up at my hotel in Osh early the morning of day one.
The beginning of the route on the Kyrgyz side is mostly paved, but once you get into Tajikistan it’s rough dirt road. Stalin had the highway built in the 30s to help with troop movement.
The village of Sary Tash, near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. We stopped for lunch here at a local hole in the wall. All the meals were pretty much the same: black or green tea, with some kind of pasta accompanied by a chunk of meat.
The first night we stopped at a yurt camp populated by Kyrgyz nomads. They let me set up my tent in their pastures. It got below freezing that night, and I’d wished I’d stayed in one of the yurts with a fire.
Closer photo of the yurt camp. The Kyrgyz herders bring their sheep up here during the summer months. Lenin Peak, the tallest mountain in the former Soviet Union at 7,100m/23,400ft, rises in the background. I’m not sure exactly which peak it was… The herders asked for a couple of dollars for a hot dinner.
At the beginning there were a couple of other of cars, mostly French guys. Here’s a stop where we got out of the car to stretch our legs along with some others.
This is one of the Romanian guys with whom I rented the car plus driver. He didn’t really speak English but his friend, who was closer to my age, used to live in the US and was fluent. The highest point on the Pamir Highway was here at Ak-Baital Pass, 4655m (15,270 ft.).
Going from Osh to Dushanbe over the course of 6 days gave me time to do some side trips, like this solo hike I took for about an hour off the main route.
Early on day two we entered Tajikistan, which was a pretty painless border crossing. I noticed our driver slipped the Tajik border guards some cash, which probably played a big role in how quickly we were able to get through the formalities. I never had to pay a bribe at any other border crossing in Central Asia.
Ever since leaving central China, all the locals I’d encountered had been dark skinned, dark eyed descendants of Turkic nomads. The Tajiks looked very different and much more European. The high prevalence of blue eyes was a bit of a shock to see after all my months in Asia.
Tajik means “not Arab, not Turkish.” Ethnically they’re Persian, and they speak Persian. Most Tajiks live in Afghanistan but during the Great Game, when the Russian and British Empires of the 19th century carved up Asia, some of the Persians were given to the Czar (in present day Tajikistan) and the rest were dumped into the newly created buffer state of Afghanistan, where lots of completely different peoples were forced together into one bizarre amalgamation.
Sometimes the Pamir Highway wasn’t as developed as in other places.
I still have no idea what this car was doing. We saw some guys doing the Mongol Rally, which is an annual event in which people drive from London to Mongolia. They don’t really spend any time in the countries they visit, but rather just drive.
Across the river is Afghanistan. We spied a couple of small villages there, but I only saw somebody on the other side once: a man on a horse. The Afghan side of the river was even more underdeveloped than Tajikistan.
A typical sight along the Pamir Highway.
There are no ATMs on the Pamir Highway. Instead, you must bring all cash you will need for the trip. Although each Stan has its own currency of dubious value, the local economies are focused on the US dollar. You can get $100 bills out of the ATMs in Kyrgyzstan, or you can buy them from ubiquitous money change kiosks that offer very close to the online bank rate. Fun fact: I didn’t know what $100 bills looked like from my own currency, so I had to study the images online to make sure I wasn’t being given counterfeits. I never use cash in the US, especially not $100 bills.
It’s also possible to buy Tajik somoni, the Tajikistani currency, in the Kyrgyz city of Osh. I brought about $50 worth of somoni and $250 in US dollars. In Khorog, a Tajik town we spent the night in, we went to the “market” to exchange dollars into somoni. The market ended up being a semi-deserted sea of shipping containers, out of which emerged an elderly woman whose teeth were all gold.
She didn’t speak, but rather just used a calculator to tell us the rate, which was pretty decent. We weren’t sure how much she’d be able to exchange, this being a very poor country, but she was eager to get our dollars. Us plus another group ended up converting somewhere around $700 into the local currency, and once she’d gotten all she wanted she found more elderly locals who wanted to buy dollars.
By the end I was as exhausted as I look here, with Afghanistan in the background. Oftentimes there would be electricity for only a few hours a day in the places we stayed at. The homestays were quite nice! They’d usually have a big room with bedrolls on the floor, with Persian carpets covering the walls and floor.
Another shot of the Hindu Kush, closer to Murghab. Murghab is across a bridge from Afghanistan, though I don’t think anybody really crosses there. There used to be a Saturday market in the area where you gave your passport to a border guard, and could walk into Afghanistan for a couple of hours and peruse the sales. Now that the Taliban control this area on the Afghan side, the market no longer happens. In Murghab I parted ways with the Romanians, stayed a day, and then caught a 13 hour cramped shared taxi to the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. I stayed in a great homestay with a woman who did a semester abroad in college in Akron, Ohio not far from where I grew up. She was so excited to have an Ohioan stay with her, and talked to me a ton about her year in Ohio. The other members of her family sharing the large house with her didn’t speak English, but they were quite friendly. I knew some very basic Persian/Russian words and phrases, which helped. Most people in Central Asia speak Russian as their second language because of the Soviet Union, though many of the younger generation also speaks at least some English.
An old Silk Road fort that’s seen better days.
Tajikistan and especially Kyrgyzstan have some great hiking opportunities. Many people told me Kyrgyzstan was known as the Switzerland of Central Asia back in the Soviet days, and that Tajikistan is where the Soviet mountaineers trained. Kyrgyzstan does seem a lot like Switzerland, except much cheaper and with friendlier people.
The 13 hour shared taxi from Murghab to Dushanbe, the end of the Pamir Highway and close to Uzbekistan, was definitely not something I would want to do again. There’s a semi-regular flight in a small propeller plane through the Afghan Hindu Kush to Dushanbe, but I wasn’t able to get tickets because of a backlog due to recent storms. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Nobody in my car spoke English, but they seemed fascinated by the foreigner. There was a new mother who looked exhausted, and spent most of the bumpy ride in a deep coma from which she only emerged for ice cream and bathroom breaks. Her baby was passed around from person to person, and at one rest stop a guy motioned for me to pass him the baby from the backseat. I’d just met these people and they were already asking me to hold their baby and carry it briefly.
I only did the Pamir Highway because getting a visa to the isolated bizarre Turkmenistan proved overly tedious (don’t know what else you can expect from a country whose president renamed months of the calendar after his family), but overall I was glad I did it. I’d highly recommend it to anyone else doing a jaunt through the Stans of Central Asia.