The Pamir Highway is a highlight for anyone travelling the Stan’s. It’s the second highest international highway in the world, climbing up to a staggering 4655m! It’s got a few nicknames like the Roof Of The World, due to its height, and also the Heroine Highway as apparently most of the heroin that’s trafficked through Tajikistan comes along this route. The country is 90% mountainous and this road would not only give us views of peaks over 7000 meters high, but it would also go alongside the Chinese border, give us a glimpse of Pakistan in the distance and a chance to witness the Afghans going about their daily life from across a river.
We were starting our trip from Osh in Kyrgyzstan and decided on the easiest option of paying for a 4×4 with driver. It’s quite a popular route to cycle and there are overlanders who have been travelling for years on bikes across the whole world, plus there’s the speedy adventurers who are taking part in the Mongol Rally, driving the shittiest cars from the UK all the way to Mongolia.
For a 7 day trip we were looking at $880 from the CBT office in Osh. This included the car, driver, fuel and all of the drivers food and accommodation. It was too expensive for us so we put out a notice on a forum and had a Japanese and Chilean couple approach us. A Taiwanese girl at their hostel also tagged along so the cost was split by five and we were on our way! Our driver, Genghis was only 23 years old, he didn’t speak English but we got by without.
Day 1 | Osh (948m) to Sary Tash (3167m) KYRGYZSTAN
The first day needed to be an acclimatisation day, if we didn’t stay the night at Sary Tash and continued onto Karakol, we would of gained 3000m elevation in one day and pushed our bodies too much. There’d be a risk of altitude sickness which would of really messed up the trip, so Sary Tash it was. The village was a very unattractive place with tin roofs and a ramshackle look to it. Genghis took us to a nice homestay but the toilet was the usual rural variety. In fact it was more modern than normal as it had a concrete floor instead of wood and the hole was so deep it was like looking down into Hell. Sadly the hole was an awkward triangular shape which people seemed to struggle with so I had to position my feet around nuggets of poo and also the cow-pat-splat variety. After lunch we set off on a short hike, we assessed our maps.me app to see where we were and there was a note on the homestay cafe where we just ate saying “got food poisoning here” which was slightly disconcerting. We hiked up some nearby hills for a great view across the snow covered mountain range which acted as the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The legendary Peak Lenin was caked in snow and topped with clouds, it’s one of the ‘easiest’ 7000m mountains to climb but still very demanding. We sat on a dry hill admiring the view whilst wind howled around us. It was causing lots of dust-devils which are like mini tornados and one came straight towards us with leaves slapping us in the face and piercingly loud wind. That night we heard on the news about some tourists cycling in Tajikistan and being purposely hit by a car and stabbed to death which left us all feeling very unsettled. We didn’t know if it would effect our border crossing the next day and I didn’t sleep well thinking about it.
Day 2 | Sary Tash (3167m) KYRGYZSTAN to Karakul (3914m) TAJIKISTAN
We passed two hitchhikers on the very lonely road towards the border, they must’ve had a very long wait as the traffic was extremely light and most people like us have paid a lot of money for a vehicle so a free ride is out of the question. A wide, braided river with red water flowed beside us as we headed for a pass between the snowy mountains. The border was very remote, there’s no electricity so the guards have to write every detail down by hand. Even though there was only a couple of other cars, the whole process took nearly three hours. The scenery was wonderful though as we passed the 4280m Kyzylart Pass and were surrounded by terracotta coloured mountains.
We now had China on our left hand side, it was wild and mountainous yet a 6ft tall fence ran parallel to us for hundreds of kilometres. Soon enough Lake Karakol was visible in the distance. It’s the second biggest high altitude lake in the world (Tajikistan seems to struggle to get first place in anything). We drove down to the village of Karakol which felt like a ghost town. There was no one around, just very basic rectangular shaped mud houses all painted white. We arrived at a homestay and were welcomed by a very old lady with a face that looked like a map of roads with all the wrinkles on it.
We went for a stroll around the dusty village and it felt very apocalyptic. But some life was there and when kids saw us walk past their houses they’d run out, so excited to see us and all battling to say the loudest hello. It was funny feeling like we were suddenly the attraction for the kids, not the other way around.
We walked down a dusty bank scattered with rubbish, animal bones and even a fur covered yak head and then we arrived at the salty shores of Karakol Lake. For the first time in Central Asia we experienced mosquitos and they absolutely swarmed us, causing us to frantically swat ourselves and run. Within seconds we were completely out of breath from the thin air at 4000m and we could really feel the affects.
Back at the homestay it had become pretty busy with other jeeps but it was really nice to chat to all the travellers. Two girls from England had rented their own jeep and were driving across Central Asia on their own and were interviewing a variety of local women along the trip for a documentary. A German lady we met has been living in Tajikistan for 3 years, working with disabled children and their families to help educate them on how to give proper care. It was sad to hear there is no support for disabled people in Tajikistan and families are basically told to put them in a dark room which is just awful.
I started a new embroidery piece and the host and her daughter were fascinated. They sat and watched me for ages, mumbling quietly to each other every time I did a new stitch or technique and I got a lot of smiles and thumbs up from them.
We were surprised to have a private room again, not the comfiest mind you. In homestays they make the beds futon style on the floor and sometimes if we’re in the room where all of the bedding is kept we’ll pile up the blankets to make a throne-like bed. But we were in an empty room this time, with a wonky floor and bedding so thin that my hips ached all night.
Day 3 | Karakol (3914m) to Murghab (3600m)
We only did a short drive around the lake before Genghis veered off the dirt road and made his own tracks through the barren landscape. He took us as close as he could to the base of Urtabuz Mountain which at 5000m was going to be our highest point of the trip. There was no trail but the ground was dry and rocky so it was easy to make our way up. The only problem was the altitude which we were really struggling with. We didn’t have altitude sickness, but we just found the air so thin and exhausting. When I took a sip of water I’d swallow and then almost have a panic attack trying to get more air into me. The altitude also seemed to be messing with my body and I had pins and needles in my hands and arms. If I lifted my arms up to just wave at someone an electric spasm would shoot through them, it was bizarre and three of us had this sensation so we kept testing it and swinging our arms around like the blow-up men outside car dealership.
The hike wasn’t easy at all, but the others in our group were struggling even more and after two and a half hours we made it to the ridge line. We passed a lot of sheep horns and even skulls with humongous horns from the local Marco Polo Sheep. Tourists come here in winter and pay $30,000 to hunt one of these sheep.
The mountain we were trying to climb was to the left and probably another hour away, which we just didn’t have the energy for. Luckily the ridge was at 4800m and offered us fantastic views across the bright blue Karakol Lake and the snow covered mountains towards the border. The 4000m plateau we’d been driving along was laid out in the opposite direction with the tiniest speck of our jeep was visible. Going down was an absolute breeze as we ran down the scoria slopes, not that it was a race but we had an hour at the bottom before the others joined us. An hour of nibbling on bread drier than the Sahara.
We continued the drive south which became more dramatic with colourful mountains all around us. Some were charcoal coloured and they shimmered like a glittery wall in the sunshine. The road climbed up to the highest point of the Pamir Highway, the Ak Baital Pass, 4655m. Moody grey mountains and black peaks were on one side of the pass while the other side was layered with red and orange hills. The road wound its way back down to the next plateau and we plodded on until the dusty town of Murghab. It was a very desolate place, windy, dusty, hot like a furnace in summer and colder than a freezer in winter. Miserable place to live really. But we checked into a nice homestay and took a walk down the hill to the bazaar. It was very unique because it was our first container-ship market. The locals use these containers to protect their products from the dust.
Day 4 | Murghab (3600m) to Bulunkul (3737m)
We had our worst breakfast so far, it was fried eggs but they’d literally been cooked the night before. They were completely cold and I just couldn’t fathom why they felt the need to cook eggs for three people so in advance.
Today we had our first detour off the main Pamir Highway and it turned out to be one of our favourite places on the trip. But first we had to leave Murghab and we had some issues at a checkpoint. A suspicious looking taxi driver-come-translator decided to explain the situation as our driver couldn’t speak English. He said because our car was from Kyrgyzstan we couldn’t drive it in Tajikistan, but no problem, we can just move everything into his car and he will take us the rest of the way along the Pamir. Well, that sounded very dodgy to us so we told him we’ve already paid upfront and we’re not paying any more, and if there’s a problem we will call CBT who we arranged the trip with. After that it didn’t take long for the guy to say no problem and wave us along. Further up the road we came to the actual checkpoint and had a thirty minute wait for them to look over our passports. As soon as we crossed that checkpoint I felt like we were officially in Tajikistan as up until now most of the villages had been home to Kyrgyz, the timezone was Kyrgyz and everyone spoke Kyrgyz.
There were huge 18 wheeler trucks driving this section and one that we overtook had a wheel wobbling like a Latinas hips. It was about to fall off but Genghis didn’t stop to let the driver know. The Pamir so far was a mix of flat or crumbling old asphalt and gravel, but pretty good condition really, so it was a complete change when we turned off for Bulunkul and had a long stretch of awful washboarding. Our teeth were chattering together as we rode over the rough road until Genghis veered into the shrubby ground and found some tyre tracks to follow.
Bulunkul is said to be the coldest place in Tajikistan, apparently dropping to a staggering -63 one winter. The little village was similar to the other two but I preferred it, there was more life and the surrounding lakes gave greenery to the area. There was a volleyball court and basketball net, and even a greenhouse with crops! Our homestay was the most basic so far, an old man with a traditional black and white hat and murky magnifying glasses greeted us and we were led into the Pamiri home. The walls and floor were covered in colourful rugs and we sat around a table on the floor. The old man vanished and a young girl of about 10 took care of us and was a great little host. We were served a simple lunch of boiled potatoes in butter, no surprise there, it’s what I got most days as I was a vegetarian. It’s a good job I like potatoes!
After lunch Genghis took us on an unexpected side trip to Yashil-Kul Lake which we didn’t think was included. It was within a National Park so we had to pay an entry fee to enter the area. A pathetic little stop sign and a teenage girl waving a rag on a stick was our sign to pay. The family had three yurts and just seemed to be home to kids with grubby little faces. They were very unusual looking though, one had jet black hair and the other was ginger. No idea where all the adults were and why we just gave money and our passports to these kids but we did. A 4km road took us up to the lake and it was a wow moment when we reached the top and looked down at the deep blue lake surrounded by beige mountains. There was no life, just water and desert coloured scenery with our dusty track curving around the side. We drove right down to a surprisingly beautiful beach, the water was clear with the sun shining through it. It was tempting for a swim but the wind still hadn’t left us on this trip so it would be too cold when we got out. The wind actually seemed to become more intense soon after our arrival and suddenly the lake looked more like the sea with white caps and a spray from the waves when they crashed into the shoreline.
We headed back to our village and walked along the river where the locals livestock were kept including some yaks. Each house seemed to own a huge dog, clearly lots of incest amongst them as they all looked the same, it’s weird how dogs don’t get deformities like humans do with incest…none of them looked like characters from the Deliverance. We befriended an adorable puppy who I think liked us just as much. We gave her a good old belly rub and then she followed us back to our homestay where our giant dog became pretty angry and our puppy squealed with fear. We regretted giving her attention as it may of affected her safety. But we soon realised we just had to make sure we always had one hand stroking the big dog and he chilled out.
The little host served us soup and manty for dinner. Manty is like steamed dumplings, I really like them actually, but these ones were funky. They had a revolting looking slimy substance on them, like white lumps of god knows what so I ended up gagging and going hungry.
Part two where we travel from Bulunkul to Dushanbe will be coming up in the next blog.