The Pamir Highway, roughly speaking begins in Kyrgyzstan and winds its way through Tajikistan. Here's an outline of some of the highlights of one of the world's greatest road trips.
A stopping point for travelers and truck drivers alike in southern Kyrgyzstan. The road forks, one way to Tajikistan, the other to China. If you spend the night, beware. Temperatures are frighteningly low and winds exceptionally brutal. This explains the permanently reddish cheeks you see in our photos of kids there.
Pik (Peak) Lenin: Located 20 kilometers outside of Sary Tash, Pik Lenin (7,134 meters) dwarfs the surrounding plains, as the autumn light bathes some of the most spectacular scenery we’ve ever seen. If you find yourself here in summer, it would be worth taking a few extra days to do some hiking in this region. Peak Lenin is supposedly one of the easier 7,000+ meter (21,000+ feet) mountains to climb.
Tajik Border Crossing:
At 4,282 meters (13,000 feet) near the Kyzyl-Art-Pass, this border crossing is perhaps the most beautiful and the most desolate we’ll ever encounter. Two metal cylindrical buildings sat rusting on the crest of a hill. Several young military conscripts exited as we pulled up and circled the jeep with their guns slung over their arms. After correctly surmising that we posed no threat, they returned to their normal routine of breaking and collecting ice for drinking water in a nearby pond.
Lunch Stop Near Lake Karakul:
The Pamirs means Roof of the World and we began to understand why as the light and landscape seemed to bend around the edges of the high desert plateaus (4000+ meters or 12,000+ feet). Abandoned, rusted containers took on a surreal, Dali-esque feel to them. Even an outhouse somehow seemed poetic and beautiful in this setting.
Murghab to Langar:
More high desert terrain, a random Bactrian camel and a few salt lakes dot the landscape between Murghab and the Khargush Pass (4344 meters). The road went from bad to worse as we left the main Pamir Highway. Pakistan’s Hindu Kush Mountain Range, with snow-covered peaks at 7,000+ meters (21,000 feet), began to peek through a narrow corridor of Afghan land. Peering into Afghanistan (and at a distance, Pakistan) from across the Pyanj River, we hoped to see camel caravans carrying goods over the roadless terrain. We were a bit late; it seemed that the camels had already gone home for the season.
Langar marks the start of the Wakhan Valley if you are coming from Murghab. Langar is a friendly and pleasant village to spend the night and is worth a long walk around. The setting is beautiful and the river valley views into the Pamir and Hindu Kush mountain ranges are magnificent. Seek out this kind woman for some pleasant company and conversation in English.
The traditional Pamiri house, huneuni chid, compliments the natural hospitality of the Pamiri people. From the outside, these homes look like simple mud rectangles. The interiors are outfitted with dark wood and are often intricately carved or painted. A large open rectangular area in the middle of the house, ringed by an elevated platform, serves as the main common area where visitors sit, eat and sleep.
The most interesting feature of these homes is the depth of symbolism behind their common geometric design. The five vertical pillars in the main room represent the five Muslim prophets – Fatima, Ali, Mohammed, Hassan and Husain. A skylight in the roof – consisting of four concentric squares representing earth, fire, air and water – illuminates the room. Pamiri home design supposedly dates back almost 2,500 years.
Although the Buddhist caves described in the guidebook aren’t much to see, the village kids are. They will lead you up and around the hills to the caves. Vrang also marks a possible starting point for a hike from Peak Karl Marx (6,723 meters) to the Shokh Dara Valley.
Bibi Fatima Springs
After days without bathing water, the picturesque hot springs above Yamchun Fort are a welcome respite. Even if you can’t bathe, you'll still find yourself thankful for the luxury of warm water. The springs are purported to boost fertility in women; Audrey was advised by the woman running the place to drink as much water as she possibly could.
A 3rd century BC fort that is now serves as a Tajik military border station. We were stopped by several young Tajik conscripts toting AK-47s. They even ran down the hill from their station to greet us. They gruffly asked us in Russian what we were doing there and what we wanted. Audrey, the only quasi-Russian speaker of the bunch, explained that we hoped to see the fort and offered that we had obviously made a mistake and would leave. Not accepting our answer, the soldiers asked to see our passports and documents. We were surrounded by rocky terrain, meaning that no one from the road could see us, including our driver. Audrey lied and said our passports were in the car.
The look on our driver's face (something equivalent to “oh shit”) was precious as the five of us walked out of the rocky area, escorted by three gun-toting soldiers. Once our documents were examined and deemed in order, the soldiers' expressions changed to something resembling smiles. Although we were still all a bit frightened, they insisted on taking us on a tour of the fort and their living areas. One of our French companions plied them with cigarettes to ensure that we stayed on their good side.
At the Wakhan Valley's western end, Ishkashim is the most populated village of the valley. We stopped by to visit the town market and met some friendly locals along the way. The Afghan town of Ishkashim nearby is connected to Tajikistan by a new bridge built with donations from the Aga Khan. Rumor has it that the border officials will let foreigners into Afghanistan and back to Tajikistan for the weekend market. We didn’t try it since we only had a single-entry Tajik visa, but we’re curious to hear if anyone has.
Hot springs set in calcium pools, reminiscent of Pamukkale in Turkey. A pleasant stream runs nearby, making it perfect for a picnic and walk. Although the locals swear by the health benefits of the mineral water, we found it a bit too mineral-laden to consume. Again, people are very friendly. We collected numerous offers to spend the night. Beware of the man who knows every fact and detail of French history; he stumped our French companion with the question of who wrote La Marseillaise.
While this regional capital is not full of sights, it is a pleasant place to wind down after several days on the road. It also serves as a jumping-off point for the Wakhan or Shokh Dara Valleys. The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect of Shiite Islam and the Pamiri people and founder of numerous schools and universities, has put an emphasis on foreign languages and business skills. It shows. Khorog may have the highest concentration of English speakers in all of Central Asia. At least that’s how it sounded to us.