23 November 2017
Striking snow-capped peaks, lonely mountain passes and dusty roads to nowhere make the Pamir Highway the epitome of a classic roadtrip adventure.
For those in the know, it evokes memories of lush grassy plains, impassable mountain peaks, isolated communities, rubble remnants of the ancient silk road and time-ravaged roads through one of the most remote and untouched regions of the world.
The perfect place for the adventure of a lifetime, whichever way you choose to do it.
We found the travellers’ obsession with driving the Pamir Highway to be the source of great confusion for many locals, with one even questioning why we would even want to take the trip. For them, it represents a desolate wasteland of terrible roads, seclusion and mountains that block the easy way between A and B.
For us, and we suspect many others, this is precisely its appeal. The sense of excitement that comes from setting foot in a little-explored corner of the world and the thrill of an adventure with the roof of the world at your fingertips.
As we discuss in this post, there’s no right way to travel the Pamir Highway. Some fly through in four days, others spend weeks peddling like champions, and there are even the select, diehard few who cover the immense distances on foot.
You could easily get stuck for months in the Pamirs along one of its many rubble tracks without the distraction of the outside world to call you back.
We spent just 10 days on the road with a car and driver, taking several detours off the main M41 route and, though not everything went according to plan, we found ourselves in some of the most spectacular places we’ve ever been.
This was our Pamir Highway itinerary between Osh and Khorog including where we stayed, the detours we took and perhaps most importantly, the things we would have done differently.
We have tried to include our accommodation where possible but unfortunately many of the homestays we stayed at were unnamed. Prices include a bed, dinner, breakfast and sometimes lunch.
After running a few last-minute errands, including changing our remaining cash into Tajik somoni and stocking up on snacks, water and the last wheels of fresh bread we’d eat for the next week, we set off from Osh toward burnt red canyons, painted mountains and a ridge of snow-dusted peaks in the distance.
In late September winter was well on its way and it was the herds of cattle being mustered down from the highlands that congested the roads, rather than the ant trails of banged up cars we had grown accustomed to in Kyrgyzstan’s second city. It was often slow going, an amusing muddle of flailing arms and beeping horns as we ineffectually tried to unravel ourselves from the tight knots of livestock that swarmed the road.
Onward past the bustle, we wound our way up the impressive zigzag of the Taldyk Pass; the once distant Pamirs growing tantalisingly closer with every minute.
Following a quick lunch stop in Sary Tash, we forged on towards Tulparkul driving parallel to the mountains before veering left onto the first of many terrible dirt roads we would encounter during our trip.
Meandering past golden countryside, turquoise lakes and men sauntering gracefully on horseback, we edged closer to the enormous Peak Lenin, now shrouded in mist, and the tiny yurt camp at its base that would be our home for the night.
By now the weather was not on our side. The wind, laced with sleet and snow, whipped through the air, but keen to stretch our legs, we set off to explore the beautiful surrounds and watch the sun set on what had been an incredible time in Kyrgyzstan.
With temperatures expected to drop well below zero we knew we were in for a chilly night in the yurt and our hosts hastily set about building us a fire.
This would be the final night for these nomads in the wilderness. The arrival of the first snow hinted that it was time for them to return to their village and live out the winter indoors.
Tulparkul Yurt Camp
$15 per person
We woke early to catch a final sunrise over the beautiful Kyrgyz countryside. Stepping into the frigid morning air, the skies were clear and we got our first proper glimpse of the striking peak.
Dawn crept in slowly and we enjoyed the wee hours photographing the rose-coloured peaks and attempting to catch our breaths as we crisscrossed the golden hills in search of better vantage points.
Though many travellers bypass this area altogether in their rush to reach the ‘real’ Pamir Highway, with views like this in every direction, we think they’re making a huge mistake!
After nearly four months in Central Asia, we still consider this one of the most spectacular places we’ve seen, anywhere, ever. Whether you’re short on time or money, do yourselves a favour and keep this spot firmly on your itinerary. You can thank us later!
Practically giddy after our morning’s jaunt, we shovelled down breakfast and set off toward the border and the impressive Kyzylart Pass, our anticipation mounting for the adventure ahead.
Two hours later, a fair few somoni lighter and our excitement somewhat dampened by the bureaucracy, we were hurtling into Tajikistan, down a potholed, arrow-straight road stretching onwards to the distant glimmer of Karakul.
We passed the afternoon exploring the pretty village of white-washed walls and sky blue window frames, caught a lively game of volleyball and dodged the many kids hooning through the tight dusty alleyways on bicycles.
Though a mere blip on the map, this remote part of the Pamirs is also home to the world’s highest altitude watersports event. Every year, people drag all manner of watercrafts over the mountain passes to participate in the event which is held at the end of September.
As darkness fell, we returned to our cosy guesthouse and settled in for a hearty meal amongst our intrepid crew of fellow travellers. Comprised of cyclists, bikies and rally drivers, this is a place where intriguing characters abound. With our marginally clean 4WD and driver, we were quite possibly the most unadventurous of the bunch.
$15 per person
Conscious of the long day ahead, we set off early.
Ashen dunes, barren wasteland and glistening lakes whipped by our windows as we bumped our way toward the Ak Baital Pass, the highest point of the highway at 4,655m.
Today would be our first major detour from the classic route – the road to Rangkul – and we were eager to see what we would find in this remote, little-visited corner of the Pamirs.
A short way after the turnoff, jagged rock formations loomed on either side of the rubble track and, drawing nearer to the most dramatic, we pulled in for a lengthy break to admire the perfect reflections of the lake and bask in the silent desolation.
In Rangkul, a tiny smattering of mud-brick houses, we stopped for lunch – the highest pile of plov we’ve ever seen – and a quick hello to the resident camels before taking the road through the marshes that would lead us to Murghab.
If you’re looking to explore here further, camels can be hired for longer excursions into the surrounds.
Veering right from the tiny outpost, we followed what we were quickly discovering to be the norm in these parts, an insignificant rubble track leading back into the mountains.
The steep, hair-raising ascent saw us skidding through marshes and across frozen rivers until the final rise gifted us with stunning panoramas overlooking the lower valleys.
Firmly clutching our seats, we rolled down the steep incline followed by a cloud of dust, back to the relative comfort of the main road. Though we didn’t pass a single car on our loop to Rangkul, this was definitely another highlight of the trip. Though we would recommend only attempting it with a solid 4WD and a driver who knows where he’s going, particularly during spring and summer.
With the sun sinking toward the horizon, we once again found ourselves zooming between golden grasslands reminiscent of the African savannah toward our homestay on the outskirts of Murghab for a much needed hot shower – the first of the trip.
$11 per person
Having spent many more hours bouncing around in the car than we had anticipated, we were keen for a day where we could finally set out and explore on two feet.
An hour’s drive up the Pshart Valley led us to barren peaks streaked with warm hues and a frozen river that acted as our guide for the start of the hike ahead.
Now in late September, the pass we were attempting to cross was blanketed in snow hinting at a challenging climb ahead. But armed with some vague instructions and encouragement from our driver, we plodded off with trepidation.
Several hours later, livened by regular instances of slipping on rubble, stumbling through snow, being whipped by the bitterly cold winds and gulping for breath as we edged closer to 5,000m, we emerged at the top of the pass, exhausted but elated.
Layer upon layer of peaks piercing the blue horizon before us certainly made the arduous hike a worthwhile endeavour.
Charging downhill through the scree on the other side, we snaked our way toward the lush Madiyan Valley and our patiently waiting driver.
Although incredibly steep and challenging, this hike offers up spectacular views of the Pamirs. It also reaches a lofty 4,700m in altitude going over the pass so be sure you are in fairly good condition and well acclimatised before attempting it. Plenty of water, snacks and warm weather gear are also essentials for the trip.
We had hoped to spend some time exploring Murghab’s marketplace which is housed in old shipping containers and a major trading post between the neighbouring countries, but the hike, sun and altitude had completely wiped us out.
Instead, Freya took a much-needed nap before dinner, Chris took a few photos and we made sure not miss the luxury of yet another steaming hot shower.
8 hours (6 hours hiking)
$11 per person
Now, the road to Jarty Gumbez was the one we had the most uncertainty about and where things would start to go a little pear-shaped on this adventure of ours.
With another long drive ahead (though we didn’t yet realise quite how long), we set of early toward Shaimak and the southern road to Jarty Gumbez that runs alongside the Afghan border.
As one might expect in a part of the world infamous for corruption, things quickly went downhill when we had a run in with the Tajik military.
Following a brief stop at a meteor crater, lunch, and a wander around the picturesque village of Shaimak, we headed onwards toward the formidable barrier of peaks lining the gateway to Afghanistan only to be stopped at the military checkpoint 15 minutes down the road.
“The road is closed, ” the officials insisted.
Under normal circumstances in an area known for its instability, we would have taken this brush off as concern for our safety and happily returned the way we came. Having been faced with a few of these situations, we quickly understood that this actually meant, ‘when you pay us, you can go through.’
After an hour of stilted small talk between the officials and our driver, the passing around of passports, making of calls and the arrival and departure of several more ‘senior’ men, we finally got down to business.
They wanted 100 somoni. The equivalent of just $12, but far more than any other bribe we had been asked to make and certainly an excessive amount by Tajik standards.
Often in these situations, the officials know that there just isn’t another option – at a border checkpoint or roadblock – the only way out is onwards, and so you pay. This was one situation where there was another way around and we had a choice. And so, on principle, we turned around and took the long way around rather than play their little games and perpetuate this cycle.
Though it added several hours to our trip, this far longer detour led us through some spectacular scenery – across desolate moonscapes, seasonal lakes and through a narrow red rock canyon – which we’ll admit had us feeling just a tiny bit smug under the circumstances.
Night fell quickly as we trundled slowly onward to Jarty Gumbez taking a few wrong turns along the way, but the large thermal pools, the entire reason this dot on the map even exists, were waiting to melt away the frustrations of the day.
We stayed at the beautiful, newly built guesthouse on the opposite side of the river where the hot springs run on a schedule rotation for men and women of around 2 hours, though if it’s not busy you can generally book in your own private session.
$20 per person
Although we were tempted by a final muscle-melting dip in the hot pools, another long day was ahead and after a lovely breakfast in the sunshine we set off toward the Zorkul Nature Reserve, yet another question mark on our itinerary.
We had been advised that getting the correct permit for this region would be somewhat problematic, and while this turned out to be a simple matter of a few dollars and a short wait outside some guy’s house near Murghab, it was the steadily worsening road conditions that eventually put an end to our little ramble in this remote protected reserve.
With the needle already struggling to hit 20km/h, we knew there was worse to come. Dense marshlands, a number of deep river crossings and a few too many boulders for which our car just didn’t have the brawn for. It would be foolish to continue on without the support of another vehicle and so we were forced to turn back.
Our time was not wasted though.
We were treated to a sighting of the of the elusive Marco Polo sheep (sadly considered a trophy for international hunters) and yet another mountain lake. The beautiful ring of cerulean punctuated by patches of ice provided the perfect setting for a picnic before we began the slow retreat back to the M41.
After a quick chai stop in Alichur, we pushed on somewhat hesitantly to Bulunkul – a tiny lakeside town with the reputation of being the coldest place in Tajikistan. Having already experienced some bitterly cold nights in the mountains, we were not in any particular hurry for the temperatures to plunge even further.
A toasty fire pushed that thought from our minds though (until the inevitable dash to the outdoor toilet later that evening, that is!), and with fish on the menu (rather than the usual plov) we couldn’t have chosen a cosier place to hunker down.
Having spent two excessively long days driving on terrible roads, backtracking and taking wrong turns, and spending far more time in the car than we would have liked, we opted to take a rest day to give both us and our driver some respite and a chance to enjoy the surrounds rather than push on to the much-anticipated Wakhan Valley just yet.
$15 per person
After a much-needed lie in, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of eggs, yak yoghurt and several pots of tea in the sunshine before taking the short drive to a nearby hot spring for another soaking.
Nestled in a stonework hut overlooking Yashikul, the pool was more lukewarm than ‘hot’ and we didn’t last long before leaving our driver to enjoy the spring on his own. On the way back, a small hill beside the path drew our curiosity and 20 minutes later we were enjoying the spectacular views over Yashikul from above.
Our afternoon was spent pottering around town photographing life in the village and another evening passed with us tucked up by the fire enjoying a very welcome plov-free dinner.
$15 per person
Aside from the spectacular mountain scenery of the high Pamirs, the lush Wakhan Valley, the final leg of our trip, was somewhere we were eager to explore.
Ambling past the last of the alpine lakes and mountain passes, the desolate moonscapes of the highlands gave way to arid, dusty canyon of the Wakhan Corridor.
On the way you’ll pass Panorama Peak, a steep 2-hour scramble that gives sweeping views over the mountains and is a great way to stretch your legs if you’re up for it.
Over the pass, the rock-strewn road hugged closely to the cliffs as we snaked our way through the dramatic valley, lead by the curves of the raging Panj River that separated us from Afghanistan.
Autumnal trees clung tightly to cracks in the craggy walls, a caravan of horses kicked up dust on the opposite banks, the jagged Hindu Kush loomed ominously ahead and we drove on feeling we had arrived in another world entirely.
On arrival at our homestay in the leafy oasis of Langar, we enjoyed a beautifully prepared lunch of veggie soup sourced straight from our hosts garden accompanied by freshly baked bread (heaven after the rock-solid stuff we had been eating the last week), before heading off to explore the village.
Set in the shadow of the Hindu Kush among a patchwork of wheat fields and carefully-tended vegetable gardens, Langar is a beautiful place to wander aimlessly, camera in hand with not a care in the world.
Strolling down the picturesque, poplar-lined streets with Lada’s throwing dust into the air, we quickly became the town curiosity and were approached more than once by mothers and children keen to have their photos taken.
And we were only too happy to oblige.
With Afghanistan so close at hand, just a stone’s throw across the river, the military presence here was strong with bunkers lining the hillside behind town and officers patrolling the streets. They didn’t seem too phased by our presence though and allowed us to scramble up and enjoy the sunset from their then out-of-use trenches which, unsurprisingly, have the best views over the valley.
If you arrive in time there is also an interesting shrine garden in town, though it was closed during our visit.
$15 per person
Our trip through the Pamirs had, until now, been driven by the regions natural assets, with us stopping on every whim to photograph the many mountain peaks, grasslands and lakes that flashed by our windows.
Today, however, was all about experiencing the ancient sights of the Wakhan that are peppered through the tangle of greenery that sets it apart from the desolate highlands.
After a few spontaneous stops to view the fortress ruins that dot the riverside and a seemingly out of place Buddhist stupa, we turned our sights upward and zigzagged the 6km trail to the iconic Yamchun Fortress which stands guard over the valley, and the Bibi Fatima thermal pools just a short drive further up the hillside.
Historically, there were separate bathing times for men and women, though it seems nowadays there are two separate pools accessible at all times. Nude bathing is the norm.
The warmer climate in the Wakhan meant the autumn harvest was in full swing and, after taking in the beautiful views from the Khaakha Fortress, we arrived into Ishkashim to a frenzy of activity.
Women and men with scarves wrapped tightly around their heads collected together large bundles of wheat for processing. Calves and foals roamed freely, nibbling on the stalks that survived the workers’ scythes. It’s tiring work and everything is done by hand.
Our final afternoon was spent basking in the warm glow of the setting sun, pausing to observe the blur of harvest activity and appreciating the hardship and simplicity of village life going on before us.
$15 per person
We had expected the final (and shortest) day of our roadtrip to be somewhat lacklustre. With all the tallest peaks and quaint village scenes behind us, it was merely a means for us to reach our final destination in the city.
We could not have been more wrong.
The road continued its slow meander alongside the river, the cliffs reared dramatically on either side, tiny tangles of lush foliage and mud-brick villages appeared on the opposite bank and every glance back through the rear windshield resulted in an all too enthusiastic squeal for our driver to stop for yet another photo.
Just outside of Ishkashim lies the infamous cross-border bazaar where Afghan and Tajik vendors congregate to trade goods.
By complete chance we passed through on a Saturday, the only day the market is in operation, but due to a flare up of Taliban activity in the area several months earlier, the market remained closed, and will do for the foreseeable future.
This is also the main border crossing to enter the Afghan Wakhan Corridor. If you are preparing to visit, be sure to have your visa and the necessary paperwork in order and check for up-to-date safety information before arriving.
Having spent the past 10 days in the remote mountains, sometimes going a full day without passing another car and completely cut off from the outside world, we arrived into Khorog to the chaos of beeping minivans and streams of pedestrian traffic. The assault of noisy and frenetic city life.
Over a final lunch with our driver, we sat in a stunned silence, subdued by the raucous energy on the streets and mulling over the journey we had just completed.
Retreating to a peaceful booth by the river, we finally exploded into broken conversation, reliving the experience all over again over half a dozen pots of tea, of what had been an incredible adventure to the roof of the world.
$24 per room
In general, your driver will know where to go, but sometimes it’s nice to know where you are, where you’re going and whether there are any sights along the way you might not have considered.
We found our usual go-to, Google Maps, pretty unhelpful in this part of the world so we’d recommend downloading Maps.Me instead. All of the places we’ve listed in our itinerary should be searchable and savable on the app so you can easily follow our route.
Though we can’t create an interactive map with Maps.Me like we usually include in our itineraries, if you’re interested in our exact route and accommodations, just shoot us an email and we can send you the gps points for our trip.
Osh | If you’re starting (or ending) in Osh, there are a number of homestay and guesthouse options for you to choose from. Though we didn’t stay there, Biy Ordo, which has two locations in town, came recommended to us.
You can read reviews and search for available accommodation in Osh here.
Khorog | The Pamir Lodge is the main backpacker’s hangout in Khorog with a lovely leafy courtyard, friendly staff and delicious breakfast. It is quite a way out of town though if you don’t have a car or bike and we found the facilities fairly basic for the price.
We also stayed at Hostel Do Nazarbayg which had less of a hostel vibe but is well located right in the centre of town, has private rooms with ensuite, includes breakfast and has decent wifi at an affordable rate. Check rates and availability now.
Otherwise, you can check out the other option in accommodation in Khorog here.
Dushanbe | If you’re starting your trip in or pushing on to Dushanbe, we can happily recommend the Green House Hostel where we stayed. Dorms are excellent value, while the slightly pricier private rooms are spacious and comfortable. Breakfast is included, wifi is decent and there are plenty of places to meet fellow travellers. Don’t just take our word for it though, check reviews and availability here.
Yeti Hostel which is just around the corner also comes highly recommended.
Or, search for other available options in Dushanbe here.
Planning your transport for the Pamir Highway is probably the most important step in organising your trip. Though most people choose to go with a driver and car, there are many who cycle, motorbike, walk, hitchhike or taxi through the Pamirs.
Certainly not hardcore enough to cycle or hike, we opted for the classic option, a car and driver.
As they are the most established and have a decent reputation, we went with Osh Guesthouse and were paired with a really fantastic driver, Amid.
While we were satisfied with the service of Osh Guesthouse before the trip, once we set off, our confidence began to drop and we quickly realised they were definitely more sales orientated and were actually rather clueless about what it is like to drive in the Pamirs.
As we were planning a less conventional route that would take us over rarely driven roads and close to the border zones, we were careful to ask plenty of questions to confirm whether this route would even be possible before setting out and to determine a timeframe that would mean our itinerary wasn’t too rushed. Though many of our queries would have been easy to check with anyone in their fleet of drivers before sending us off, they instead dismissed all as not being a problem, and in both the instances it could have been an issue, it was, requiring lengthy detours at our own expense.
If you’re doing the standard route, Osh Guesthouse should be able to answer all your questions and organise a decent trip for you. They do also have whiteboards set up to help you find fellow travellers to share the costs with.
If you have any uncertainty though, don’t hesitate to shop around. Other organisations in town, such as Biy Ordo, use much the same pool of drivers and charge less for the same trips.
Some of the savvier English-speaking drivers are also now cutting out the middleman and planning trips with guests directly. Though not our driver, Shamil came highly recommended to us as both a driver and guide and speaks excellent English.
Truth be told, we had an incredible time in the Pamirs, but by the end of it, we were kind of exhausted. A few excessively long days in the car compounded by skipped meals and unplanned detours left us feeling a little flat. Here’s what we would have changed if we were to do it all again.
Plan shorter days. Had we been given a more realistic idea of how long the days were going to be, we most likely would have added in a few extras to allow us to enjoy the area at a slower pace, rather than trundling along for 7 or more hours a day.
Skip Zorkul. We’re sure Zorkul is a beautiful place to explore in the Pamirs, one that very few people reach and we would be eager to return to. But our vehicle, a Mitsubishi Pajero, was never cut out for driving such heavily battered roads and we should never have been advised to attempt it. If you are set on visiting this beautiful spot, we’d recommend only making the trip in a larger vehicle, such as a Toyota Landcruiser, and ideally to be accompanied by another vehicle in case of emergency. This region receives barely any traffic.
Take a hike | With less time on the road, we certainly would have added in a few more opportunities for hiking. Having the stunning scenery whip past the window is one thing, but nothing quite beats being out in the wilderness. The stunning area around Peak Lenin is definitely somewhere we could have explored further, and the valleys around Murghab and hillsides near Jarty Gumbez also looked like beautiful places to wander.
Explore the Wakhan | The Wakhan Valley is one of the most unique and intriguing places we’ve ever set foot, where history feels alive and life seems to be from another time. As this was the final leg of our trip, the fatigue was catching up with us and though we loved exploring what we did, we didn’t get a chance to see and experience it as much as we would have liked. Though many whizz through here in a day, we’d recommend giving it the time it deserves. Yamchun Fortress is often considered the area’s showpiece, but there are many other high up fortress ruins that also offer spectacular views, such as Abrashim Qala, perched above the tiny village of Zong. Near to Ishkashim, there are also some dramatic rocky canyons leading away from the road with hiking trails running alongside them.
Visit the Bartang | Of course, in such a wild and beautiful area, there were many places we just didn’t have the time to visit, but the Bartang Valley is the one we regret the most. Some fellow travellers said it was their favourite place from their Pamirs roadtrip so we definitely wish we could have seen it for ourselves.
Plan a rest day | Based on how our days panned out, we took a rest day in Bulunkul more by necessity than anything else. Though we thoroughly enjoyed our time there, were we to do it again, we most likely would have spent the extra day exploring the Jarty Gumbez area and soaking in the luxurious hot springs, saving Bulunkul for the morning before we set off to Langar.
You can also check out our list of ‘things to know before driving the Pamir Highway‘ for other tips we picked up along the way.
Dushanbe to Khorog | If you’re heading to Dushanbe, 4WD taxis leave when full from the large parking lot west of the park where the main road nears the river (check on Maps.Me for the exact location). Arrive early (before 7 a.m. is best) to be among the first cars to leave and choose your seat wisely because you’ll be stuck there for a long time. The trip costs 300 somoni ($34) per person and takes around 14 hours.
Check out our favourite things to do in Dushanbe before arriving.
Khorog to Bartang Valley | Though we had hoped to spend a weekend hiking in the Jiseu Valley, a last minute change of plans meant we had to scrap this from our itinerary. To get here, 4WD taxis run either up through the Bartang stopping at the various villages, or to Rashan where you will need to change cars. Stop in at the Information Centre in Khorog for further details on prices and timing.
Osh to Bishkek | If you’re doing the trip in reverse, many people opt to take a shared taxi between Osh and Bishkek. Instead, we took the far more comfortable alternative and spent the night in a cargo minivan to get between the two cities. You can also break up the trip with stops in Arslanbob and Toktogul rather than doing it all in one go.