Marco Polo once said the following of the Pamirs:
“… The plain is called Pamier, and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but a desert without habitations or any green thing, so that travellers are obliged to carry with them whatever they have need of. The region is so lofty and cold that you can not even see any birds flying. And I must notice also that because of this great cold, fire does not burn so bright, nor give out so much heat as usual….”
The Pamirs is a mountainous area in the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast of Tajikistan – known as the Roof of the World (Krisha Mira). It’s composed of some of the most remote and untouched areas in the world, including some of the tallest peaks in Central Asia and the world.
The Pamir Mountaints
As I was primarily based in Dushanbe for the last two months, when I got an opportunity to travel to the Pamirs for about 5 days before leaving the country, I knew I had to take it. It was going to be quite an adventure!
RECOMMENDATION: I highly recommend that you check out this 3-minute video below (in Full Screen if possible) first – it took so long to upload it! And then read the rest, if you like what you see.
VIDEO: The Pamir Highway – Journey to the Roof of the World and Back.
Surprisingly, the majority of people from work who have lived in Tajikistan their entire lives have never been to the Pamirs, but had a pretty unfavorable attitude towards the region.
There are a few reasons for that. For one, there is some antagonism between the locals living in the capital and the people from the Pamirs. The civil war that took place in the 90s was, effectively, between these groups, so people still have bitter memories of what happened. And the fact that they speak different languages and practice different branches of Islam doesn’t help the situation either
Getting to the GBAO (Gorno-Badakshan Avtonomnaya Oblast’ / Pamirs) is a challenge. There are only 2 roads leading there. One is a summer one which is covered by several feet of snow until the end of May. The other is open year-round, but is longer and in such poor condition, that you really need a 4×4 vehicle in order to get through.
In order for a tourist to go there, you need a special permission to enter the GBAO. It’s not particularly difficult to obtain, but when you’re running out of time, your visa is about to expire, and the consul loses the renewal documents, it becomes challenging. Fortunately, with the help of some wonderful people and their connections, along with a few bribes, the proper paperwork was obtained right on time – about 12 hours before departure.
Day 1 – Leaving Dushanbe
The 600km+ road from Dushanbe to Khorog – the biggest town in Pamirs located right on the river Pyanj – is considered to be one of the toughest roads around. Crossing several mountain passes over 4,000m high, it’s only paved a part of the way – the rest being dirt or gravel.
We left Dushanbe at around 7am on a Friday and things were going pretty well for the first few hours. The only annoyances were frequent police stops and checkpoints. For one, my driver/guide – Khamsa – had Pamir license plates and claimed that they attract a lot more attention from the cops (in Dushanbe and nearby region). On top of that, me being a foreigner wound up attracting attention as well, as many of cops requested to see my passport and documentation.
Most of the times when we were stopped, the situation was resolved by what Khamsa called a gratuity – small 1-2 somoni bribe ($0.25-0.50) from him to the police officer. Technically, all of our paperwork was in order, but in order to expedite the process, it was just easier to deal with it this way. Additionally, we agreed to simply pretend that I don’t speak any Russian, so when the officers/border guards saw that they couldn’t really communicate, they abandoned interest relatively quickly.
Sharshar Mountain Pass
We passed the next major city – Kulyab – within about 3-4 hours and started to drive along the section of the Pamir Highway that was going right next to the river Pyanj. Pyanj serves as a border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, so it was truly a fascinating experience.
The river is patrolled by a number of border guards that walk up and down each day. Although deemed as a dangerous road in the past, it’s considered quite safe these days and is regularly used by locals and tourists. Although you are often reminded of the past with signs indicating that the shore of the river has been mined (signs are outdated – the area has been de-mined by a French NGO years ago).
On a brighter side, it was truly amazing to see life on the other side as we were driving through and the drastic differences between what laid on the Tajik side to what happened on the Afghan one. Although our road was not in the best conditions, on the other side, all they had was a tiny path that was built right on the mountain It was barely wide enough for people and mules and, but followed us for hundreds of kilometers as we were driving.
Afghan Caravan On The Other Side
Village Close Up
During that time, we saw caravans walking on that path. On more even areas, we saw small settlements and people leading their lives on the other side. The view that we have on Afghanistan in the West is quite harsh – and certainly life there is troublesome – but it was still quite interesting to see how people lead their lives on the other side just the same way that we lead ours – take care of their land, raise cattle, etc.
As we continued to drive, the road was becoming progressively worse. At some point, we hit what the driver called “seli” (still trying to figure out the English work for that). In a nutshell, when there is a lot of precipitation – rain or snow – rocks and dirt from the mountain slowly comes down and pretty much washes away the road. As a result, you wind up having to cross something resembling a river with rocks and sand underneath. If you don’t do it the right way (or if you don’t have a 4×4 vehicle), you can easily get stuck in it. And many do.
Fortunately, we got lucky as it hasn’t rained for 2 days, so “seli” weren’t too difficult to get through this time around. However, the driver was visibly relieved after we gotten past that area and continued on our way.
VIDEO: Driving Through Seli.
We drove for about 11 hours that day and covered about 400km. The road continued to be difficult, although there was an odd 40km stretch where the road was paved better than most roads are in the States. Turned out that it was done by a Turkish company a few years ago – but it definitely makes you wonder as to what is the purpose of simply paving 40km, while leaving the rest in shambles.
When it started to get dark, we decided to stop at a local “homestay” (gostinica). Typically, it’s just somebody offering space in their own home for about $2 per night, along with a dinner and breakfast for a little more. After a long day, it’s more than enough – so we spent the night there.
Typical Accommodations Along The Route
Day 2 – Khorog
On the 2nd day, we reached Khorog.
Khorog is the administrative center of the GBAO region. Located at over 2,100 meters above the sea level, it’s the largest town in the area – with over 28,000 inhabitants. It’s relatively big and situated right on the Pyanj River. There is a bridge going connecting the Tajik and Afghan sides, using which there is a weekly weekend bazaar taking place – where sellers from each side come together in Khorog to trade.
Khorog is an interesting town because it contains one of the best educated populations of any town in Central Asia. In general, Pamiris are well known for their pursuit of education. They live in a very difficult environment with little arable land, so knowledge is one of the few resources that they can pursue and achieve. It’s also the home to one of the campuses of the University of Central Asia, one of the top International Universities – founded and sponsored by several Central Asian governments and the Aga Khan Development Network.
Khorog with Mountains in the Background
Khamza (the driver) happened to live in the town, so he was quite familiar with it. Since we came right in the peak of Navruz – the holiday celebrating the beginning of Spring – we decided to check out the local celebrations.
In the town, they have a small stadium that has a beautiful mountainous background behind it. At times of major events, people often gather in the stadium to celebrate. Although we missed a big chunk of the day’s celebrations because we arrived late, we did make it right on time for “traditional martial art fighting” and “tug-of-war rope pulling” competitions. If you take a close look at the picture, you’ll see a pile of household goods next to the fighting area. The winner of each fight gets to take home a prize, which can range from an iron to a hot plate to an electric teapot.
Martial Arts Fighters
We spent a few hours in town and when we left Khorog, we were joined by the driver’s cousin – Bahrom. He figured that since we still have a tough road ahead, it could be useful to have a 3rd person with us – just in case. He turned out to be right.
After filling up a full tank of gas, as it would be scarce where we were going, we continued on our way. The destination for the night was a sanatorium built on top of a hot spring. It’s well-known in the area for its healing powers against all worldly ills.
Since it was not quite the peak season, when we got there, we were the only guests at the place. The place keeper opened up the door and led us to a Soviet-style room. Considering that this was the only place throughout the trip when we had an actual bed (and a shower), it truly was deluxe.
The top attraction in this place is the hot spring that runs nearby. The sanatorium has setup a little indoor pool where you can splash around in the 75c degree water, while it’s negative something temperature outside. Sharing the pool with a dozen naked Pamiris (as, we were joined by another jolly group later on) was definitely an experience that won’t fade quickly.
Day 3 – Murghab and Karakul
When we woke up, I finally understood why everybody was telling me before the trip to stock up on warm clothes. With temperature dropping to -15c outside, it was quite chilly to say the least. After having a quick breakfast in our room of leftover sausage, bread and sweetened milk that we brought the day before, we walked up to our car only to find out that it didn’t want to start.
We somewhat expected it, so we took out the battery from the car for the night before and kept it with us in the room, but it was still too cold even with that precaution. Fortunately, the group of guests that joined us the night before helped us to jumpstart it. They also mentioned that we were lucky because the mountain pass we were heading to this day was just cleared of snow two days ago by a couple of bulldozers. If we were driving here a few days prior, we wouldn’t be able to pass it. So much for a year-round road!
The driving this day went on at a much slower pace than the previous day. Although the road from Khorog was in a much better condition than before, it was covered by snow and ice, so we had to be quite careful. The driver was very good in that respect and was driving slowly and with caution.
The Way North
Although the area is remote and typically only a handful of cars pass through each day – especially in the winter, the road is maintained by “Road Masters” – people who live near the road and operate bulldozers to clear the snow or assist the stranded (theoretically). However, even when the road is cleared, the snow accumulates again so quickly, that oftentimes it would be impossible to pass it without having a jeep.
VIDEO: Driving Through Snow-Covered Road.
By lunchtime, we reached the next major destination point – Murghab. Murghab is a small village with a primarily Kyrgyz population. It’s about 200km from the KG border, but it was still pretty surprising to see that most people there didn’t speak Tajik – only Kyrgyz and some Russian.
People in Murghab also seemed very different from what we’ve seen in the rest of Tajikistan. Many people – women and men – were covering their faces entirely, with just their eyes being in the open. Evidently, it’s so windy and sunny up there, that if you leave the face uncovered, it gets burned right away. Over the long run, it can lead to the skin drying up and can have negative ramifications over the long run.
The village itself also seemed very interesting and different from what we’ve seen thus far, but was somewhat gloomy. All foreigners are required to register with a local KGB upon entering the area, which seemed somewhat odd – considering how remote this place is. However, it so happened that because of the holidays, we weren’t able to get to the KGB, so we figured that we’d move on without the registration. At the end of the day, the worst that could happen was play dumb and pay a bribe.
Before we could leave the village, we had to fill up on fuel. We were running out and this was our last major populated point, so there wouldn’t be too many other opportunities to fill up. After driving around the village for a bit, we found a door with a chalk sign that said “Benzin” (Gas in Russian). We walked in to talk to the owner, but it turned out to be a disappointment since they only sold low quality gas that could’ve been used by trucks and Soviet vehicles, but was unusable by our car.
We were getting a bit worried about our prospects, as nobody could tell us if higher-quality gas was available in the vicinity. Finally, one of the guys that we met in the village took us to another house which sold 80 grade gasoline. It was still sub-par (considering that most modern cars typically run on 92), but it would have to do under the circumstances. The guy brought out two large canisters of fuel and filled up our tank. We figured that this should last us to our next destination and back.
Getting Gas In Murghab
Woman in Murghab
After getting some lunch, we were eager to move on to make it to our final destination – Karakul Lake – before sundown. So, after getting a shortcut tip from a driver’s friend, we left town. The effects of poor quality gas was evident from the get go. The car would stall whenever we would slow down (if the RPM would drop).
We were driving for about an hour and a half when we decided to stop for a quick break. Meanwhile, we saw a truck heading our way, so our driver stopped him to ask what were the conditions of the next mountain pass we were planning to pass. Imagine our surprise when the driver gave us a strange look and informed us that we were on the wrong road – heading towards China, rather than Kyrgyzstan.
Cursing the heavens and the guy that gave us the wrong directions, we jumped back to the car and drove back to Murghab to start over. We finally reached Karakul lake – which was frozen solid this time of year – at about 6.30 in the evening. Since it was sunset, we decided to take a few shots. So, we went off-road and drove closer to the shore of the lake.
Karakul Lake - All Frozen
After taking care of that, we headed back to the car only to find out that it wouldn’t start – again. The battery was dead.
This could’ve been a problem. We were on the road that only saw a few vehicles per day. Moreover, it was almost sundown, at which point it would start getting quite cold. After quickly weighing our options, me and the driver decided to try our luck and head to the village which we thought would be a few km away. The 3rd guy – driver’s cousin that came along – would stay in the car and see if any other cars would pass by.
We set out to walk on the road. Fortunately, we reached the village in about an hour of walking. It was truly a relief to finally see a little light shimmering at the end of the road. The next big question was whether anybody in the village would have a car that they could use to help us.
We walked into the first door that we saw a light in. It was occupied by a sleeping grandmother and her son – whom we wound up waking up after we entered their house. Neither of them spoke Tajik or Russian (only Kyrgyz), but we managed to somehow explain our predicament and what we were looking for.
The boy came outside with us and started walking to village “club.” Since Navruz was still being celebrated, most of the village folk has gathered there for the holiday. When we got there, a small crowd gathered around us to find out what has happened. The elders were able to communicate in Russian, so we asked if somebody owned a car. We were in luck yet again – one guy had an old Russian Jeep, so they sent for him.
He agreed to drive with us back to where we left our car and jumpstart it, as long as we paid for gas. The rest went well. After getting everything fixed up, we returned to the village and spent the night at somebody’s house.
The Trip Back
In the morning, the villages took us to show the traditional Kyrgyz yurts. Because of Navruz, they’ve installed several of them, so they were eager to show them off. It takes several hours to set them up and each can accommodate a little over a dozen people. The floor and walls are covered with elaborate carpets and overall, they look quite beautiful.
Traditional Kyrgyz Yurts
The goal was to get back to Khorog in one day (about 550km) and then either take the plane back or drive back. The first option would be somewhat preferred, as the plane would mean that we’d avoid driving for another 600km on the bad roads.
Unfortunately, the only plane going from Khorog to Dushanbe only flies in perfect weather. According to my research, this was the only flight route during the Soviet Union where pilots would get paid extra “danger” pay, as it flies right through the mountains. That being said, due to the expansive precautions, there never had been any accidents.
We got to Khorog late in the evening and the driver has invited me to spend the night at his home with his family. This is just one aspect that never seizes to amaze me here – how hospitable people are in this region. For some reason, I could never see a tour guide or a driver doing the same thing back in the States.
When we got up on the last day, the weather turned out to be pretty rainy, so the flight was canceled and we wound up driving all the way back. The drive went pretty well. One interesting side element, though, was that on the way back, we were asked twice by the police or border patrol guys to give a somebody a lift to where we were headed. Once, it was a woman with a young kid, the other time it was a journalist who was in the mountains making a report on Navruz celebrations. Well, the more, the merrier.
2,200km later, we were back home in Dushanbe.