Travelling the M41, the official name of the Pamir Highway, is an exciting adventure in itself. One of the ancient Silk Road trade routes, the Pamir Highway passes through the beautiful Pamir Mountains through Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Having 90% of the country covered by mountain range, more than half of Tajikistan is situated at 3,000-meters above sea level.
If you are a sucker for breathtaking scenery and off-the-beaten path destinations, then adventuring along this remote road is definitely for you. Being the second highest road in the world after the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan, enjoy an exhilarating feel of road-tripping the “Roof of the World”!
Visa & Permit
Most visitors need a visa to enter Tajikistan. There are 121 nationalities eligible for an E-Visa which is super simple and can apply online here. The single-entry visa used to be valid for 45-days within a 90-days period from the entry date you filled in. Since March 1st 2020, visa validity has increased to 60-days. The visa cost US$50 and it took us 3-days to receive it through e-mail.
You can’t apply double entry visa online, but you can apply for another single entry visa after you’ve entered Tajikistan (means you had already utilized your first visa). Alternatively, you can apply for double entry visa from an Tajik embassy if you have time. Anyways, you only need a double entry visa if you’ve means to visit Afghanistan from Tajikistan.
If you are going to take a trip down the Pamir Highway, you will need a GBAO Permit. This will cost you additional US$20 when applying with your Tajik e-visa. If possible, make some copies of your visa as you’re going to keep showing it at various checkpoints along the Pamir Highway.
Best time to go
Anytime between late May through September is ideal to travel Pamir Highway. Peak season is July and August when it’s best to do hiking. Winter lasts from November till March, with temperatures well below zero, with a risk of avalanches and landslides in the higher mountain areas. We were in Tajikistan in May/June 2019 and were blessed with good weather almost everyday.
The official currency for Tajikistan is Somoni (TJS). As of May 2020, US$1 = 10 TJS. Exchanging money is easy in major towns like Dushanbe, Khorog and Khujand, especially the borders. There are no ATMs between Khorog and Osh and paying by credit card is impossible in most part of the country. So, be sure to bring enough cash to cover your whole journey. It is possible to pay in US Dollar for accommodation and transport along the way.
Electricity & Internet
Electricity is rare in most part of Pamir Highways. Locals turn on generators for a few hours per day. You may be able to charge your phone and camera batteries at the guesthouse every night, but it’s not guaranteed. Consider on investing a portable solar panel if you need a constant supply of electricity.
Having said that, don’t expect any Wi-fi or data connection between Khorog and Murghab. Even in these two towns, the connection is pretty bad. This means you need to be prepared in advance: download any maps you want to use offline, save any useful blog posts, and websites that you might want to reference later, and download the offline google translate for Tajik and Russian language.
Note: You need VPN to access to social media app in Tajikistan on some days.
Essential things to pack:
- Sunscreen & Sunglasses – The sun can be very strong at higher altitudes. Bring enough sunscreen with at least factor 50 to prevent harsh burnt.
- Extra batteries & power banks – As electricity is rare, it is advisable to bring extra batteries for your camera and power bank to charge your phone so you can snap all you want without worries.
- Water filter or purification tablets – To prevent diarrhea and plastic waste.
- Torch – Toilets are usually outside so it’s useful to have one. Also helpful if your guesthouse has no electricity for the room at night.
- Toilet paper & wet wipes – You can’t find any toilet papers in any toilet and sometimes there’s no water as the pipes are frozen.
- Warm clothes & sturdy footwear – Even in summer it can get very cold at the Pamir highway, especially at night. You need sturdy shoes for day hikes.
- Charcoal pills – Diarrhea is the common illness you can get in Pamir Highway. You may also consider bringing diamox for altitude sickness, and ibuprofen.
- Snacks – There were many times you’re in the middle of nowhere so it is important stock up snacks and some food.
There are 2 time zones along Pamir Highway: Tajik or Kyrgyz. Tajikistan is officially an hour behind Kyrgyzstan. The Wakhan Valley till West of Bulunkul, operates on Tajik time (GMT+5). The Murghab district, roughly running from Bulunkul East to the border, runs on Kyrgyz time (GMT+6). If you’re confused, just check with your host & drivers to clarify.
- From central Samarkand, we took Bus 74 outside Registan to Kaftarxona bus station (1,000 Soʻm/10 cents)
- From Kaftarxona bus station, we took another Bus 273 to Uzbek border. The journey is about 1-hour (3,000 Soʻm/30 cents)
The distance between Uzbek border and Tajik border is just a short walk across. We were the only foreigners at that point of time. The officers of both sides were friendly and we cleared the immigration without much hassle. We even had a Tajik soldier came towards and made small talk with us. Outside Tajik immigration, we took a shared taxi straight to Dushanbe which is a 4-hours ride that cost us 100 TJS per person (US$10).
Ways to travel Pamir Highway
Planning your transport for the Pamir Highway is probably the most important step in organizing your trip. Depending on your budget, how time time you have and how tough you wanna challenge yourself, there are all ways to travel across this highway. This 1,300-kilometres highway can take anywhere from 5-days to 1-month depending on how much you stop and what you decide to see. No matter what kind of transport you choose, you will pass through some of the most impressive mountain ranges on earth including the Hindu Kush (Hindu Killers) and the Pamirs themselves.
If you have the money, enjoy the comfort of having your own personal space and the freedom of flexibility, then hiring a private driver is your best option. We met a Canadian solo traveller who did this, and he paid a whopping sum of US$3000 for a 7-days Pamir Highway tour.
We met a lot of overlanders driving their own campervan or motorbike from Europe to Central Asia. This is definitely a very cool and freer way to travel like we did in New Zealand.
Shared 4×4 tour
Finding a tour at a reasonable price can be rather difficult, not to mention the effort of finding a group of people to share the experience with and to keep the costs down. Most Pamir Highway tour only includes the driver, car and petrol, which means you still need to pay for accommodation and food on top of the tour price. In some circumstances, you may even need to pay for your driver’s food and bed so do check properly before making the booking. Prices for homestays range between US$10-US$15 which include dinner and breakfast.
Public transport is rare and far in between, but still possible to travel the Pamir Highway with a lot of patience! If you are on a very low-budget like us, this is an option you may want to consider. We decided to do this because we met 2 other travellers from Uzbekistan and want to do it an adventurous way. Since there were 4 of us, we thought it would be easier to flag down any car and bargain a good price. We were told that fuel is about US$0.70 to US$0.90 per kilometre, so we always use this as a benchmark for haggling.
Travel costs breakdown (per person):
- Dushanbe to Qal’ai Khum: 130 TJS (7-hours)
- Qal’ai Khum to Khorog: 130 TJS (8-hours)
- Khorog to Ishkashim: 50 TJS (3-hours)
- Ishkoshim to Namadgut: 10 TJS (45-minutes)
- Namadgut to Sang: Walk (2-hours)
- Sang to Yam Chun: 85 TJS (2-hours)
- Yam Chun to Langar: 70 TJS (5-hours)
- Langar to Alichur: 400 TJS (7-hours)
- Alichur to Murghab: 40 TJS (3-hours)
- Murgab to Osh: 180 TJS (12-hours)
In the end, our transportation costs add up to only 1,095 TJS (US$108), almost half the price cheaper the tour.
Hitchhiking is common across Central Asia, even the locals do it! However, you will be expected to pay for the journey, just as the locals do. Prices of trips vary, so make sure to agree on a price beforehand to avoid any confusion.
The Pamir Highway is a cyclist’s paradise. We passed a few travellers cycling the route. Some anticipated the journey to take 4 weeks, and others for 7 weeks. Nevertheless, it is not an easy road to cycle with unpaved roads, harsh climate and high altitude. Kudos to the cyclists!
YES! There are people who literally walked the whole stretch of Pamir Highway! We met one traveller at his seventies who had been walking for 1-month already at the time we saw him.
Which route to travel?
There is no right or wrong route to travel, it all depends on where you’ve landed in the first place. The Pamir Highway stretches from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan to Osh, the second largest city of Kyrgyzstan. The most spectacular part of the road is between Khorog and Sary-Tash. You can start your journey from Kyrgyzstan and finish in Tajikistan or vice versa. The first version is more popular, but the latter is actually better, in our opinion.
After having trekked through Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, we learnt an important thing: Altitude Sickness. Altitude sickness becomes a concern at altitudes of around 2,500-meters and above. It can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex or physical fitness. Starting from Kyrgyzstan will be ascending quickly at an elevation of 4,280-meters just after the border, and the effects of altitude sickness might begin. And the problem is, you have to exit Tajikistan and go back to a lower altitude in Kyrgyzstan in order to recover. This means more time and money will be wasted as you need to apply for another Tajik visa again. If you are planning to do this route, I would advice you to spend time doing some hikes at altitude of around 4,000-meters to get yourself acclimatized.
Osh (963-meters) → Sary Mogul (3,000-meters) → Karakul (3,900-meters) via Ak-Baital Pass (4,655-meters) → Murghab (3,618-meters)
The altitude gain travelling from Dushanbe to Osh is much more gradual therefore it is less likely to suffer from altitude sickness as your body is slowly acclimatizing day by day.
Dushanbe (706-meters) → Qal’ai Khum (1,200-meters) → Khorog (2,200-meters) → Langar (2,909-meters) → Alichur (3,991-meters)
Dushanbe to Qal’ai Khum (281-kilometres)
Accommodation in Dushanbe: Green House Hotel (65 TJS/bed with breakfast)
As early as 7 am, we headed to the Badakshanskaya Avtostansiya where most shared taxis departing for Qal’ai Khum/Khorog. It is just behind the Hilton Hotel, through the gates and continue walking until people start asking where you are going. The locals are helpful to point you to where the Khorog taxis are. As we didn’t want to sit cramped up for over 14-hours from Dushanbe to Khorog, we chose to break up the journey with one stopover in Qal’ai Khum. This 7-hours ride costs us 130 TJS each (US$13).
The driver took the Southern route to Kulob first passing the Nurek Reservoir before beginning the ascent up the Shurubad Pass, once over the pass you’ll descend down onto the River Panj with views into Afghanistan. He made a few stops along the way to deliver some items. It was after some time that we realized there were 2 poor puppies in one of the boxes as part of delivery item! Eventually we begged the driver to let the dogs out and sit with us.
Qal’ai Khum is a small town with not much going on, but we were glad to have a break here. It was getting dark when we arrived, and we got to mingle with the local kids before dinner.
Accommodation in Qal’ai Khum: Roma Guesthouse (150 TJS/bed with dinner & breakfast)
Qal’ai Khum to Khorog (241-kilometres)
As soon as we left Qal’ai Khum the next morning along the Panj river, we could several Afghan villages just next to us. Mud-bricked homes and farms where the oxes plough the fields. Children playing and women are doing the laundry in the river. These villages are so remote and peaceful in Afghanistan that you wouldn’t believe it’s a war country. This mesmerizing journey took 8-hours, costing us 130 TJS/person.
Khorog is a great place to base yourself for trekking in the Central & Western Pamir, Bartang Valley, Wakhan Valley, Shokhdara Valley and more. It is also where you pick up an Afghan Visa if you plan to cross the border into the Afghan Wakhan Corridor. There are several restaurants in Khorog, Delhi Darbar for Indian food, fast food named KFC and Mac Doland’s. Khorog has a decent sized bazaar in the middle of town where you can stock up on just about anything.
Some 5-kilometres West of Khorog, a bridge linking Afghanistan with Tajikistan at nearby Tem. Here, Afghans cross the river to sell their goods including traditional clothes, food, and trinkets. It is a great photo opportunity and a way to meet Afghans without a visa. Because of its unpredictable schedule, we found ourselves lucky to be able to witness this bazaar while we were in Khorog. The border market usually runs every Saturday from 9 am to 2 pm, but it’s better check with your host if it’s open before going there. You may take Marshrutkas #1 and #3 to get you there for 2 TJS.
Accommodation in Khorog: Welcome Inn (100 TJS/bed with breakfast)
If you need help to do side tracks, continue your journey along Pamirs, or getting to Afghanistan, I highly recommend our helpful host, Zhandiya. She speaks good English, very knowledgeable on travelling around Tajikistan. She encouraged our idea of DIY trip and gave us tips on haggling with local drivers. You may contact her through email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Khorog to Namadgut (120-kilometres)
From Khorog, you can choose to follow the M41 straight to Murghab or take a longer detour into the scenic Wakhan Corridor with its unique culture. Of course, we chose the latter. We headed to Khorog Central Bazaar to find a shared taxi to Ishkashim. The journey is about 3-hours for 50 TJS per seat.
The 100-kilometres that separates Khorog and Ishkashim have some of the most dramatic scenery in the Wakhan Valley and at some point the River Panj narrows so thin that you feel like you could touch Afghanistan. If you want to visit the Afghanistan, Ishkashim is the easiest and safest access point after collected your Afghan visa from Khorog. There used to have a bigger Afghan Saturday Bazaar here but it has been closed for some time due to “security concerns”. There was a Children’s Day celebration when we arrived at Ishkashim. The whole main street in town was blocked so we had to wait till the party over before getting a car out. Meanwhile, we were overwhelmed by the attention given by the local kids.
With the help of some local teenagers, we managed to get a ride to Namadgut for 40 TJS shared by 4 of us. The main attraction in Namadgut is the ruins of the Khaakha Fortress. The driver dropped us at a homestay neart the fortress. The host was very excited to see us, dressing us in Wahki costumes and showing of his Marco Polo Sheep. On top Khaakha Fortress, we could see how near we were from Afghanistan!
Accommodation in Namadgut: Pamir Guesthouse (100 TJS/bed with dinner & breakfast)
Namadgut to Yam Chun (60-kilometres)
We started out late morning and there wasn’t many cars passing by Namadgut. We ended up walking for more than 2-hours before reaching a small village, Sang. In Sang, we found a car mechanic to drive us to Yum Chun for 340 TJS. The rough ride took about 2-hours and we were glad to be away from the heat.
We stayed at Charshanbe Homestay which is about 1.5-kilomentres hike to Yam Chun Fortress. There’s nothing much left of a fortress but it offered a beautiful view into the Wakhan valley and the Hindu Kush mountains. Another 1-kilometre uphill is the Bibi Fatima Hot Springs. It is believed by local women the medicinal waters will boost their fertility. The hot spring is open from 5 am-9 pm and entrance fee is 10 TJS for foreigners. In the past, there were separate bathing times for men and women, but it seems nowadays there are two separate pools accessible at all times. Nude bathing is the norm if you do not have bathing suit with you.
Accommodation in Yam Chun: Charshanbe Guesthouse (120 TJS/bed with dinner & breakfast)
Yam Chun to Langar (42-kilometres)
Our homestay host contacted his son to be our driver. Alisho speaks good English and thus we can easily negotiate our budget with him. Eventually, we got a ride to Langar for 280 TJS with 2 attraction stops along the way. Continuing up the road on next day brought us to Vrang. Vrang is home to an ancient Buddhist Stupa. It wasn’t a spectacular Stupa like in Nepal, but the climb can help stretch your leg a bit.
Just before arriving to Langar is the village of Hissor. Hissor’s main attraction is the Zangibar Fortress. We didn’t expect the hike to be so long and we stopped halfway to marvel at the view.
Langar is a decent sized village set in a nice green stretch of the valley where the Pamir and Wakhan Rivers join the River Panj. We wanted to see the petroglyphs which supposedly a 20-minutes trek up from the Langar school, but we can’t find any. Still, we did have fun wandering aimlessly around the village.
Accommodation in Langar: Behruz Guesthouse (120 TJS/bed with dinner & breakfast)
Langar to Alichur (125-kilometres)
Langar is the last settlement (or first if you’re coming from Osh) in the Wakhan valley. Beyond lies the Kargush pass that reconnects the road with Pamir Highway. Though this stretch is only 125-kilometers to Alichur, but it is far from easy. We peeked at the Lake Bulunkul, where the lowest temperature in Tajikistan has been measured: -63°C. We continued to hire Alicho as our driver for 400 TJS. If you are interested to hire a driver in Tajikistan, you may contact Alisho via Whatsapp: +992 501 12 5344
Alichur is a village made up of a scattering of homes along the Pamir Highway. Several homes will be signposted ‘столовая’ meaning canteen in Russian, which also serve as guesthouses. At 3991-meters high and close to freezing cold even in Summer, most travellers blast past Alichur or stop for a quick meal. Most residents living in Alichur are actually Kyrgyz and they are super friendly! We got to witness the whole process of building a yurt, join in a weekly market, play with the kids and amaze by the clear blue water at Ak-Balyk.
Accommodation in Alichur: Goldfish Homestay (120 TJS/bed with dinner & breakfast)
Alichur to Murghab (104-kilometres)
Today is the day we are going separate way! Ethan and Nathan would be continuing their way to Osh, Gan and I would be heading back to Khorog via M41. Nonetheless, I am going to show you the journey all the way to Osh based on the information and photos our dear travel buddies had shared.
There is a shared taxi going to Murghab passing through Alichur daily at 8 am and 1 pm. Our host had already reserved the seats the night before. It is a short 2-3 hours journey and cost 40 TJS per seat.
Murghab is the ‘big city’ in the Eastern Pamir, but don’t set your expectation too high. What you would see in Murghab is crumbling scattering of white block homes, and its unique shipping containers bazaar. Due to burning sun and the strong wind blowing dust from every direction, the stalls in this city are placed in ship containers.
Accommodation in Murghab: Pamir Hotel (400 TJS/room with breakfast)
Murghab to Osh (415-kilometres)
This last leg of the journey is a whooping 12-hours long car ride costing 180 TJS per seat. You can split it into 2-days stopping at Karakul. This route will go through Ak-Baital Pass at over 4,655-meters. If you’re lucky, you may spot some Marco Polo sheep from the highway. Due to the altitude, don’t be surprised if it’s snowing up here even in mid-summer.
At 4,282-meters above sea level, Kyzyl-Art Pass is the second highest border crossing in the world (after Khunjerab Pass, Pakistan-China Border). Wave goodbye to Tajikistan and say hello to Kyrgyzstan (or vice-versa).
Accommodation in Osh: Park Hostel (90 TJS/bed with breakfast)
Alichur to Khorog (175-kilometres)
As mentioned earlier, from Khorog either follow the M41 straight to Murghab or take a longer detour into the scenic Wakhan Corridor which we did. So, this time we took the M41 back straight to Khorog in 7-hours. The reason why we did that was because we have time and wanted to do some treks before leaving Tajikistan. Yes, we could have done the treks before doing Pamir Highway but we might not have found better buddies than Ethan and Nathan!
From Alichur, there is a shared taxi going towards Khorog daily at 10 am for 150 TJS per seat. This route is mainly used by locals and Chinese trucks, thus most part of the road is unpaved.
Is it safe on Pamir Highway?
There have been safety concerns on travelling to Tajikistan even since the Danghara attack in July 2018 when 7 cyclists were struck by a car driven by men pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. Unfortunately, 4 of them died due to injuries sustained from the collision and stab wounds. I am not including this to scare you, but to share that this is not a regular occurrence in Tajikistan. In fact, this is an isolated incident that was condemned by most people in Tajikistan. We were there for 1-month in May/June 2019, and nowhere did we feel any hostility towards foreigners.
In general, travelling along Pamir Highway is safe with the usual precautions as we had seen more soldiers patrolling along the road between checkpoints regularly. As it happens, I believe the chances of food poisoning and altitude sickness is much higher than becoming the victim of crime or terrorism.
Lastly, if you want to keep a track of all my photos and travels, remember to follow @wanderrsaurus on Instagram!