The Pamir Highway in Tajikistan is quite simply the highest in the world – it’s the M41 to the Russians or a strand of the Silk Road to those more romantically inclined – and it travels through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.
It’s the ultimate road trip!
After all our adventures with public transport getting to Khorog in Tajikistan we chose the relative luxury of private jeep hire for the Pamir Highway drive from Khorog to Murgab. This is definitely the best way to travel the Pamir Highway. A sturdy green Russian UAZ (pronounced Waahz) was our steed and the driver’s name was Pamiri-bek, or Mr Pamir, most appropriate for a Pamir jeep driver! He’s a skinny, ex-army Kyrgyz from Murghab and he was a great driver, guide and friend.
The approach to the Pamir Highway is through the Wakhan valley, which follows the river that is the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It is green and dotted with places of cultural interest, including fortresses built to guard the Silk Road, a ruined Buddhist stupa and monastic caves, Zoroastrian fire platforms and ancient petroglyphs carved on red rock (along with modern graffiti). The local children ran to greet us shyly whenever we stopped.
Climbing up onto the plateau, the Hindu Kush rose up behind us, looking steeper with every minute. Then the road bounces through a dun landscape, only relieved occasionally by small lakes fringed with grass, snow or salt. Beside one, a few herdsmen watched their foraging flocks. The hills are alternatively velvety or sandpaper-like. The great curling horns of Marco Polo sheep lie in the desert at the side of the road, their points upward like some strange snake.
We had an incredible view of Tajikistan’s magnificent Wakhan range with the great Pamir (plateau) between us and the mountains. We played spot the marmot as the fat golden furry creatures scampered across the desert, sat up in the sun then disappeared into their burrows. Pamiri-bek beeped the horn to make them run faster.
Perhaps the highlight of our Pamir Highway experience was camping for two nights beside the gorgeous lake Yashil kul (see photo at top). Getting up early to take pictures of the lake and mountains. Having yak-milk on my breakfast cereal. There was no-one else but us to enjoy this incredible environment.
Hundreds of miles of high altitude landscape, at or around 4,000 metres. Driving and driving across Gorno-Badakhshan province (GBAO). After the village of Alichur the high plain of Tajikistan becomes gold green and there are herds of yaks and goats. See the yaks run across the plain, majestic in their size and shagginess, their tails pluming out behind them.
There are small groups of yurts because many Kyrgyz people live in this part of Tajikistan. Some are still being constructed, the felt walls hoisted onto the red wood frame. Applique decoration and tufts of black yak fur. In every one we are invited in for bread, yoghurt and deliciously rich and yellow yak cream. Then they insist on the photo session – I (the paparazzi) must take photos of various family groups before we are allowed to leave.
Murgab is a wild east ghost town of Tajikistan. At 3,600 metres the light is blinding from the whitewashed buildings and dusty streets. Many Kyrgyz men walking about in their long coats and distinctive tall squashy felt hats.
Murghab is a good base for more jeep safaris into surrounding valleys, and more yurt hospitality in the jailoos! The families here have many children and in the yurt we visited the oldest boy performed the handwashing ritual for the guests and his father and uncle (the women don’t join the group but sit at the side of the yurt watching). The grandmother rocked a low cradle and spun wool on an old spindle.
After being flung about the interior of a jeep, had my insides rearranged and knocked my funny bone twice, I think I can safely say I won’t be taking up 4X4 driving as a hobby, at least not in a UAZ.
In some sort of personal Silk Road tradition, it must always be difficult to get to Osh. The long last Marshrutka journey had the usual initial concerns over the health of the vehicle – stopping frequently to haul buckets of water from the river to fill the radiator and pour over the engine.
Getting over the 4,655m pass was a small miracle, the tension in the back was palpable as we all willed the engine to survive. There were more delays at the middle-of-nowhere border posts (there are seven checkpoints to go through, each a small shed with a couple of army guys bunking down). On the Kyrgyz side, finding anyone willing to place an entry stamp in my passport proved impossible.
Through the mountain passes, eventually the marshrutka rolled down into the soft green, forgiving hills of Kyrgyzstan. It is still high enough for yaks here but now the first Kyrgyz horse herds could be seen galloping in the valley. Arriving at Sary Tash, the great Pamir Alai range was behind us now, including Pik Lenin, soft pink fading in the twilight.
One final mountain pass and then, about 10 o’clock a hissing puncture. The spare proved deficient and the driver and his mate had to spend long hours attempting a repair. Sometimes we crept forward a couple of miles, mostly we sat in the dark. With the help of a passing truck the original tyre was finally repaired and we limped into Osh around 6am.
Travelling Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway is an incredible experience. Staying with local people every night for 17 days; enjoying the incredibly harsh and beautiful landscapes; dealing with the bureaucracy; falling in love with the hospitable people. Tajikistan is certainly unforgettable.
By Natasha von Geldern
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