This is the first part of our roadtrip across Tajikistan, traveling from Dushanbe to Khorog and in the Wakhan valley all the way along the Afghan border.
The road is long and in the end, the journey is the destination.
There is probably no place on Earth for which this quote holds more truth than for the Pamir highway in Tajikistan.
So we made it to Osh, the second largest city in Kirgizstan after spending the last 7 days roadtrippin’ through the incredible beauty of Tajikistan. The Pamir (officially the M41) is the second highest highway in the world (after the Karakorum connecting China and Pakistan) and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, alpine lakes, bright turquoise streams, lush valleys and just immense natural treasures. We would also pass remote mountain villages with some of the friendliest people we have met despite the hard life they are living.
The most popular way to “do” the Pamir is apparently by cycling. But since we didn’t have bikes and also didn’t have the time, we decided to hire a driver and rent a car. But even with a 4WD, the Pamir is no walk in the park! With the highest point at 4655m, the altitude is quite a challenge, nights are freezing cold and the homestays lack some of the basic facilities we take for granted (like water, electricity and heating). On top of that, Nicole, Stefano and David all had to battle stomach problems to some degree (only Kevin with his Asian body was exempt).
For us, it made most sense traveling from Dushanbe (the capital of Tajikistan) to Osh, with the actual Pamir starting in Khorog, the administrative center of the GBAO region, where the Pamir goes through. In our hostel in Dushanbe (Green House Hostel), we were already able to talk to a lot of travelers either about to start the journey or just ending the Pamir in Dushanbe and were really stoked about the road ahead.
However, we were short on time.
Because Stefano had to return to Italy at October 2nd and we also wanted to hit some hiking before the really hard winter arrived in Kirgizstan, we wanted to be in Osh at the latest on September 29th.
As such, we had to plan well ahead. Back in Uzbekistan, we contacted Green House Hostel and another tour operator recommended by Caravanistan and asked for offers from both of them. As it turned out, it was wise contacting more than one source because the pricing and the planned itinerary varied quite a bit! After basically merging the itineraries of both operators and some back and forth emailing, we decided to go with the driver by Green House Hostel as the cheaper of the two options.
Our plan was now to start in Khorog on the morning of September 22nd, take a long and hard drive through the Wakhan valley, do some hiking on the next day, and continue on the actual Pamir highway (the infamous M41) on September 24th. Before arriving in Osh in Kirgizstan, we wanted to make a short detour to Sary Mogol to visit the Peak Lenin (a 7000m+ summit!) basecamp. We factored in one day of delay and would thus arrive in Osh on September 28th.
In the aftermath, it would probably have been wiser to organize even more details in advance. We had two drivers (we switched because of the Tajikistan-Kirgizstan border crossing) and both seemed to be most interested in covering the most kilometers in the least amount of time. So unless you explicitly tell them you wanted to go here or there, they would just try to play innocent and skip the places! Our first driver even drove past (or charged us extra) for places that were mentioned in the itinerary.
With more time, it is definitely worth spending more days on the Pamir as there are lots of hiking opportunities and neighboring regions that are just as beautiful as the main road. And maybe the worst thing you can do is to just drive through the Pamir.
So, we will definitely keep cycling the Pamir on our bucket list and hopefully come back to Tajikistan!
A ride to hell (Dushanbe to Khorog)
The ride from Dushanbe to Khorog should actually make a blog entry of its own.
It was definitely the worst transport we have ever taken on our journey so far and should we ever do it again, we would take a plane, or even better, cycle the distance with bikes.
There are no buses connecting the Tajik capital with the administrative center of the GBAO-region, so the transport of choice is going with 4WDs for 14 (!) hours on mostly unpaved road. Though the 4WDs were in pretty good shape, they somehow managed to cram 7 passengers into the car. Stefano and Kevin had to sit in the back where there is basically no space for your legs at all.
On top of that, we had a pretty rude and unfriendly driver: Nicole had carried some serious stomach problems all the way from Uzbekistan and when we asked the driver to stop at a pharmacy, he waited until we were way out of Dushanbe and stopped at some village pharmacy where you probably couldn’t even get clean Ibuprofen. He was also driving parallel to one of his friends and it seemed like they more interested in overtaking each other than the safety of their passengers. (For some goddam reason he also had a honk that sounded like a spaceship and his phone was literally flashing with bright light all the time.)
We made a couple of stops on the way, but the lunch at the place we stopped was almost inedible and at the place where we stopped for dinner we weren’t even offered food. In the end, we were just glad that we made it to Khorog in one piece!
However, Khorog itself turned out to be a pleasant surprise – a neat town tucked between gigantic mountains with a small river and a really green central park. The hostel we stayed in, the Pamir Lodge was also very well equipped, with hot showers, pretty decent breakfast and WiFi, all of which we would miss on the Pamir. According to Lonely Planet, Khorog is also Central Asia’s most educated town. We have no clue whether this is true, but we did manage to find quite a lot of people with decent English. On the evening before we would leave for the roadtrip, we also met our driver Ibrahim and talked about some more details.
On the edge of Afghanistan – traveling the Wakhan valley
Most travelers (such as us) don’t directly start out with the M41 but rather make a detour to the Wakhan valley. The craziest fact about this region might be that the whole time we were driving through the valley we could basically see Afghanistan on the other side of the river! We made our first lunch break at Ishkashim and there is actually a border crossing to the war-torn nation. Apparently, every Saturday the border would open for a controlled bazaar between the villages of both sides of the river. It is definitely a strange realization that the North of Afghanistan is actually a quiet, peaceful and beautiful region quite different from what one would imagine.
After lunch, we continued on the unpaved road and visited some of the “sights” of the Wakhan valley, passing old fortresses and two hot springs. Although the Islamic religion is not very obviously present in Tajikistan, it’s still a Muslim country and the pools of both hot springs are strictly gender separated. Arriving at the first hot spring it turned out, the pools were currently only open for men. Another tiny concrete pool inside a tin-cabin was supposed to be for women, though it was not very appealing. Nicole first decided to just wait outside until the guys would come back, but our driver talked with the managers of the hot spring and finally allowed Nicole to enter the men’s part. She was super happy to be able to take a hot bath though the whole situation was a bit strange. The other old Tajik men probably have never seen a white woman in bikini. And maybe Nicole just started a new revolution with this ;).
The second hot spring, Bibi Fatima, is supposed to boost the fertility of women and Nicole had a surely memorable experience: The pool is build against a bare rock with many stalactites and creates a nice, mysterious atmosphere. The hot water comes from a tiny cave, basically a small whole in the wall. Lots of women took a hot bath and some old women first explained to Nicole to splash hot water from inside that cave on her body – apparently the ritual to boost her fertility. Later on, two girls about our age entered and then climbed into (!) this very small cave – almost impossible to fit in unless you’re rather slim. Fascinated by this, Nicole also climbed into this hole – once you managed to climb inside water is chin-deep and just leaves enough space for one person. Instead of just splashing the water from the cave on your body but completely climbing inside probably tripled Nicole’s fertility :D.
Day 1 of our roadtrip ended with some slight organization problems: The homestay in Hizor where we actually wanted to stay (with amazing food and working showers), was occupied by a travel group, so we had to cram into another, much less comfortable place. We stilled had dinner at the originally planned place and it was probably the best food we got along the entire road.
The next morning, our group split, with us going into the mountains for some hiking and camping, while David and Stefano stayed on the ground. Hiking up the Engels Peak Meadows was an amazing experience in itself, with stunning views over the Wakhan valley, and so deserved a blogpost on its own (to follow soon!)
Kevin and Nicole, written in Sary Mogol
Part 2 following soon!