26 November 2017
Rugged, remote and incredibly photogenic, the Pamir Highway will undoubtedly be a highlight of any trip to Central Asia.
Initially constructed as a trade route through the mountains and a way to link the peripheral villages to their growing empire, we doubt the Soviets considered this passage would one day become one of the region’s biggest tourist draws.
Though today the road itself is ravaged by time, marred by a destructive concoction of potholes, fractures and deep corrugations, you could not pick a more spectacular route for it to pass through.
Bound by pristine alpine lakes, golden plains and snow-capped peaks, there’s easily enough to keep you (and your camera) occupied here for weeks, but travelling in this remote region is certainly not without its quirks and challenges.
These are our best tips for driving the Pamir Highway to ensure you have an epic adventure.
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Between Osh and Khorog, there are no ATMs so be sure to take all the cash you’ll need and then some in case you decide to deviate from your planned itinerary.
If you’re hiring a car with a driver, you’ll be paying the bulk of the money in advance. Aside from the car costs, budget at least $15 to $20 per person/night for accommodation as well as around $3 for lunch each day.
If you’ll need to withdraw a large sum of cash, we’d definitely recommend not leaving it to the last minute like us. We struggled through a number of ATMs in both cities. Some that just wouldn’t accept our cards, others that were fresh out of dollars and then there’s the daily withdrawal limit to think about.
Also, very few guesthouses had change so if you can, try to bring a number of small Dollar bills or change the bulk of your money into Tajik somoni before leaving.
Every good roadtrip needs an epic soundtrack to go with it.
Unless you want that soundtrack to be silence interspersed with Russian hip-hop and Evanescence remixes, bringing your own music isn’t a bad idea (trust us!)
With just a CD player in our car, any sound was swayed by the musical whims of our driver or when Freya decided to hum her own tune thinking no one could hear her over the throng of the car.
A portable speaker and charging cable is probably the best way to go as most cars have a USB charging socket available.
Confusingly, when we crossed the Tajik border from Kyrgyzstan, unbeknownst to us our phones changed times.
For the rest of the day, everything seemed a little out of whack and we just didn’t know why.
Eventually, we discovered that while Tajikistan is officially an hour behind Kyrgyzstan, the Murghab district, roughly running from Bulunkul east to the border, runs on Kyrgyz time (GMT+6). West of Bulunkul, including the Wakhan Valley, operates on normal Tajik time (GMT+5).
If there’s any confusion, simply ask if they’re referring to Kyrgyz time or Tajik time.
We bought a SteriPen for purifying water just before leaving for our trip through Central Asia and it has quickly become one of our favourite accessories.
When it came to the Pamirs though, we were a little concerned we wouldn’t always be able to find water in the first place and passing through such high altitudes, this is definitely not the place to get dehydrated.
In the end, we decided to bring a pair of 5L bottles of water, just in case.
In hindsight, you could probably get by using just water along the route, but we’d recommend planning ahead to ensure you have enough each day.
Many villages now have water pumps where you can fill up and there are a number of rivers on the route. You will definitely need some kind of purification system though. Our favourite is the Steripen, otherwise, we’ve heard LifeStraw Go Waterbottle or purification tablets are also a good option.
And always take more water than you think you’ll need each day.
With most of the route sitting above 3,500m, altitude is probably the biggest risk heading into the Pamirs.
To spare yourself a few headaches and bouts of nausea or the cost of having to be helicoptered out (this does happen), spend a few days acclimatising before setting out on your trip.
In the beginning, try to take it slow, drink plenty of fluids and plan an itinerary where you climb just 500m in altitude each day. If you do begin to feel ill, communicate with your driver and change your plans accordingly.
Though hiring a car with a driver is arguably the most common option, there’s certainly no ‘right’ way to travel the Pamir Highway.
Whether you’re a convoy of Landcruisers hot-footing it through the landscapes, squeezed into a shared taxi with the locals, hitchhiking in a beat-up Lada, flying through on a Harley or burning those thighs on a bicycle, you’ll find plenty to love along the route. We even heard of a guy hiking it with his donkey.
It’s when you want to get off the main highway that some of these options may be a little limiting.
The vast majority of travellers do the trip from Osh to Khorog via the Wakhan Valley or vice versa, but this doesn’t necessarily take in the most beautiful sights in the area.
Deviate from this classic route and you’ll quickly be rewarded with golden grasslands, jagged rock spires and unspoiled mountain lakes. Admittedly these roads are some of the worst, but if you’ve got the time and the budget, it’s well worth exploring away from the main highway.
Based on our initial 9-day itinerary and the detours we wanted to take, we were advised that we’d spend about 3 to 4 hours driving each day leaving plenty of time to take it slow, lounge in the hot springs we came across, take leisurely lunch breaks, make all the photo stops we wanted and still arrive in time to enjoy our accommodation in the evening.
This turned out to be utter nonsense.
On more than one occasion we were still hurtling towards our final destination as the sun sank below the horizon after a solid 10 or 12 hours on the road.
Knowing we still had many more hours of driving ahead often made us more reluctant to stop for photos, set out on an impromptu hike or generally just take the time to sit and soak up the beauty of the place.
For us, this was the one small downside of an otherwise incredible roadtrip.
Based on the rather rubbish advice we had been given, we had expected to have plenty of time to stop, explore and enjoy. Instead we ended up feeling rushed and exhausted by the end, not to mention the strain this put on our poor driver.
The scenery along the route is truly spectacular and we’d recommend enjoying it at a slower pace, factoring in a few hikes that allow you to escape from the car and breathe the mountain air as well as time to kick back and relax.
If you’re short on time, we’d suggest picking a smaller stretch of the route to explore well rather than trying to squeeze it all in.
Check out this post for our full itinerary and what we would have done differently.
The remoteness of the Pamirs means most villages just don’t have power.
The ones that do generally run off a generator or limited supply of solar energy and often just for 3 or so hours in the evenings.
Try to start your trip with absolutely everything charged and only charge what you need to each day – there will be fights over the one power plug at each guesthouse.
Many cars have a USB charger so it’s generally easy to recharge your phone on route. If you’ve got a lot of electronics though, consider bringing a splitter or a battery pack (this is the one we use).
We’d also strongly recommend bringing a surge protector as the towns that do have a ‘constant’ power supply have very inconsistent currents and surges are not uncommon.
After blowing out two chargers (and half the appliances in our guesthouse) because some idiot tried to fiddle with the powerlines with absolutely no experience, we can confirm, this does happen. Your electronics will not survive and finding replacements in Tajikistan is a massive pain. We’d say you’re better to be safe than sorry!
No power means no internet so you’ll want to do all your research before setting out.
For those hitchhiking or relying on taxis, you likely won’t have much opportunity to take many detours. If you’re with your own transport though, it’s best to factor in any detours, hikes or side trip in advance so your driver can plan to have enough fuel, food and water.
The Lonely Planet has some good suggestions for interesting sights along the way, though we also found the Mark Hauser map and other travel blogs to be helpful as well.
Check out our full Pamir Highway itinerary here, for all the details of where we went and the places we stopped.
It’s all about going slow on the Pamir Highway, often by necessity.
Considering the corrugations, potholes, river crossings and offroading required for most of the journey, some days your average speed may be no more than 30km/h. Add in a few photo stops and food breaks and travelling even 100km could very well take you most of the day.
Go slow and factor this into your itinerary by allowing extra time to cover the worst of the roads
Based on our research before the trip, we had been led to believe we would be plied with so much food at breakfast and dinner, there would be little need for any midday snacking.
We absolutely did not find this to be the case.
While some breakfasts were varied and delicious (the Wakhan Valley easily has the best food along the route), others consisted of a few bits of dry bread, jam and tea – hardly enough for a day of high-altitude exploration.
Depending on your route there aren’t always logical places to stop for lunch so it’s best to have a stash of snacks that you (and your driver) can nibble on when your bellies start grumbling for their midday feed.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are a rarity in the higher parts of the Pamirs so it’s a good idea to include some in your pack for a bit of variety, otherwise you’ll be eating plenty of plov, plov and more plov.
A hot shower and indoor flushing toilet are considered the height of luxury in these parts.
Once you’ve spent a week having to run into below zero temperature just to pee into a hole in the middle of the night, you’ll really appreciate them too.
Homestays are the main form of accommodation along the route (though there are a couple of guesthouses) and all are fairly basic, though in our experience, they are always comfortable and cosy.
Beds are often very traditional with a thin mattress on the floor, but if you’re lucky, you might get a proper mattress and bed. In the colder parts of the mountains, a fire will often be made which is a perfect way to stave off the chilly nights.
Toilets tend to be a small outdoor shed with a hole in the ground. In the more remote parts toilet paper is often not provided so definitely bring some with you.
We found there was no real need to plan accommodation in advance. Our driver would simply take us to a homestay and, after a look around and a short discussion about the price, we could decide whether to stay or not. In high season, this may be a slightly different story.
Unless you have your heart set on a specific guesthouse or homestay, you’ll most likely just be dropped at your drivers’ preference. We have heard that many drivers make a commission by bringing guests to certain houses though, so if you’re really not happy with the place or the price, don’t be afraid to shop around town for something better.
Our accommodation ranged from $11 to $20 per person for a bed, breakfast, dinner and sometimes lunch, though we found most homestays sat around the $15 mark.
… but just how chilly is the question.
In late September, the scales had certainly begun tipping from ‘chilly’ to bloody freezing!
Our first night at the yurt camp at Tulparkul we were told the temperatures would drop to -5, possibly -10 degrees. The Wakhan Valley was much milder though, only needing a light layer.
Still, above 3,500m altitude, the nights can be bitterly cold, the passes incredibly windy and hiking trails covered in snow, so you’ll want to come fully prepared for what the mountains throw at you, or just for those unbearable evening trips to the outdoor toilet.
At any time of year, layers are key – thermal underwear, a down jacket and an outer shell are essential along with a pair of solid boots.
As the most popular option, we heard mixed opinions about people’s experiences.
For somewhere as budget-friendly as Central Asia, hiring a car and driver for the Pamir Highway can prove to be an incredibly expensive outing, especially if you want to add a few out-of-the-way detours or don’t find fellow travellers to share the cost of the trip.
As you’re already paying a premium, you don’t want to be surprised with any hidden costs along the way or at the end of your trip.
If you’re taking the standard route (Osh – Wakhan Valley – Khorog or vice versa) this shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but if there is any uncertainty in the route you plan to take, be clear before setting out on what you will be expected to pay for.
This could include unexpected police stops that result in additional bribes, detours that lead to checkpoints where you’re required to either bribe the officials or drive a considerable distance back or bad road conditions that require backtracking or abandoning this section of the trip.
Both additional bribes and kilometres driven could lead to you footing the bill if this isn’t discussed ahead of time.
Approaching police and military with logic and reason doesn’t always go down so well in Tajikistan.
One of the biggest annoyances on the route, one that fueled endless discussion between travellers both before and after the trip, are the bribes demanded by any and every Tajik official.
Crossing the border into Tajikistan will yield a number of ridiculous (and unofficial) requests. Driving a Kyrgyz registered car past police will get you stopped only to leave a few dollars lighter. Perhaps you’re hoping to drive a route that passes vaguely nearby a military checkpoint. That madness will require 45 minutes of awkward small talk before the extortion begins.
If you’re driving your own or a hired vehicle, you’ll most likely be hassled the most as the guards tend to know you have no idea what things should cost and have no option but to do what they ask. For those with a driver, he will generally take care of it, though excessive bribes will probably be asked of you separately.
You can argue, you can request receipts, you can threaten to call your embassy, but in these places those threats generally mean nothing. Be courteous, try to bargain gently but if you want to get through, you’ll most likely need to just suck it up and pay, or go back the way you came, which on principle, we did when we could.
Driving anywhere in Tajikistan will have its share of quirks, but bad roads and bribes aside, travelling through the Pamirs is bound to be a trip that you’ll not forget in a hurry.
The epic mountain scenery, untouched natural landscapes, middle-of-nowhere villages, friendly locals and unparalleled natural beauty will ensure this is a trip of a lifetime, however you decide to do it.
Ready to plan your trip? Read our full itinerary here.