The Pamir Highway is one of the world’s most famous roads, stretching for over 1200km between Osh and Dushanbe. It is the second highest highway in the world (after the Karakoram), rising to over 4600m, and traverses the whole of the mountainous country of Tajikistan, 93% of which sits at over 3000m. It is the focal point for many travellers in Central Asia, but is not for the faint-hearted. A particularly challenge is the altitude, especially driving from the east. The road rises rapidly from less than 1000m at Osh to the Pamir plateau at 3700m, which can be easily reached in a day. Anyone who has spent any time at altitude will know this is not ideal, and so we broke the journey at the Peak Lenin basecamp at around 3200m. This also gave the antibiotics I was taking a chance to fix whatever bug had taken up residence in my insides.
The more remote the border crossing, the greater the chance of corruption, or so seems to be the rule. The 4200m crossing into Tajikistan is particularly renowned for their vehicle “disinfection fee”, with no actual disinfection ever forthcoming. Sure enough, after a jovial 20 minutes with the genuine border guards a bloke appeared from a hut outside the gates demanding payment. We refused, and he told us to go back to Kyrgyzstan… We stood our ground, and after half an hour of friendly but firm refusals the guards were forced to open the gate for a local taxi (the locals it seems are either oblivious to the fact they are paying a bribe, or have given up arguing). We promptly followed the taxi through before they could close the gate, told them we definitely weren’t paying a bribe now they’d let us into the country anyway, and toddled off down the road into Tajikistan stopping briefly for a chat with a Romanian couple heading for the border.
The eastern Pamir region is high and desolate. Four and five thousand metre peaks look like minor hills next to the road, and sand storms blow up and engulf everything unlucky enough to be in their path. It felt like being back in the desert, but with slightly smaller lungs. Above 4000m we were all noticeably short of breath. Engines don’t work so well at this altitude, so Giles’ slight loss of power was to be expected. But other than that, he didn’t miss a beat. After getting over the high point of the Pamir Highway, the 4655m Ak-Baital pass, we wound our way down past old caravanserais (travellers lodges) to find a nice sheltered corner of the plain, already containing both German and Swiss overlanding couples. It is very much the “overland season” now, and we see one or two vehicles a day, usually going in the opposite direction, and mostly German. It’s always nice to swap stories, though their advice that we shouldn’t bother with the Wakhan Valley, a reputedly stunning offshoot of the main highway that follows the border with Afghanistan, thankfully fell on deaf ears.
The road continues through Murghab, possibly the bleakest town either of us have seen (and we’ve seen some bleak ones…), and winds it’s rough and uncomfortable way over another 4000m pass, through a of couple of military checkpoints (you require an easily obtainable provincial permit, as well as your visa, to travel here), and along some unlikely looking cliff faces perched high above the Pamir river. Meeting a truck on some sections would involve some very interesting manoeuvring… Fortunately the only other traffic on this section were the tour parties from Osh, hammering every inch of the springs on their long suffering Land Cruisers. Eventually, after an overnight camp from which we could have waded across the river to Afghanistan, the road dropped down a series of narrow switchbacks to the village of Langar, an oasis of green sat next to the confluence of the Pamir and Wakhan rivers, from where the mighty Panj River became our constant companion for the next 600km.
The Wakhan corridor is a narrow strip of Afghanistan bordered by Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south and China at the eastern end. During Victorian-era political chess-playing known as the Great Game this then-unclaimed strip of the Pamir region formed a barrier between the empires of Russia to the north, and British India to the south. Until it’s official amalgamation into Afghanistan in the 1890’s it provided a virtually unguarded route through which Russia could attack India, much to the consternation of the governments in both London and Calcutta. Fortunately its remoteness meant such an invasion never materialised (for anyone interested, The Great Game – on secret service in high Asia by Peter Hopkirk gives an excellent account of the geopolitics of the whole region). Today, the Wakhan is considered one of the safer parts of Afghanistan, although the long Afghan-Tajik border provides an almost un-policeable conduit for the Silk Road’s modern iteration, opium.
The villages on both sides of the river are green, vibrant and beautiful. They fill any non-vertical sections of valley with a mix of modern and traditional adobe houses, surrounded by terraced pastures and fields supplied by intricate irrigation channels from high, unseen mountain springs. The contrast between bare rock and lush grazing is startling, and you really feel little has changed for hundreds of years. There are homestays and other trappings of tourism, but this feels like the least visited place we have been so far, and the local people are warm, friendly and genuinely interested in our travels. Our arms got tired each day from so much waving. Independent travel here is basic, and often challenging, so we gladly picked up Sonja and Alberto, a couple of Spanish hitchhikers in need of a ride. This interesting and entertaining couple seem to spend more time on the road than at home, and reminded us how much of a barrier a vehicle can be in really interacting with a place and its people. Alberto also managed to kidnap a small goat, enabling Cas to fulfil her main trip goal of cuddling one. And so, after spending a night at a homestay near Ishkashim, the most southern point of our trip, the four of us headed back north towards the regional capital, Khorog.
Thanks to: the happy wavy people (especially children) of the Pamirs; Alberto and Sonja for great company on the road; the Van Diesner family for reversing up the road for a chat!