Uncornered Market » Pamir-Mountains http://uncorneredmarket.com travel wide, live deep Sun, 20 Apr 2014 18:28:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 Central Asia Travel: A Beginner’s Guidehttp://uncorneredmarket.com/central-asia-travel-beginners-guide/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/central-asia-travel-beginners-guide/#comments Fri, 06 May 2011 14:40:33 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=8023 By Daniel Noll

Deserts and dictators. Yurts and nomads. Silk Road cities, staggering yet underrated mountain ranges, Soviet detritus, and one of the world’s greatest road trips. This is Central Asia. The ‘Stans. Never well understood, but absolutely worth an attempt to understand. Although a visit to Southeast Asia kicked off our around-the-world journey back in 2006, the […]

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By Daniel Noll

Deserts and dictators. Yurts and nomads. Silk Road cities, staggering yet underrated mountain ranges, Soviet detritus, and one of the world’s greatest road trips.

This is Central Asia. The ‘Stans. Never well understood, but absolutely worth an attempt to understand.

Line of Horses and Peak Lenin - Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan
A glimpse of Pik Lenin (23,000+ feet) along the Pamir Highway near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

Although a visit to Southeast Asia kicked off our around-the-world journey back in 2006, the former Soviet Union – the Caucasus and Central Asia (known as the ‘Stans) — was the real impetus for our trip. Before we’d set off, Audrey had worked with these countries (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan) remotely from a desk in Prague for over four years. During that time, she’d built up an appetite to experience them firsthand.

I, too, was game. But our guidebook made the region sound somewhat menacing.

Truth was, we weren’t really quite sure what to expect.

Dan with Bactrian Camel - Murghab, Tajikistan
Stroking a lonely wooly Bactrian camel in Tajikistan’s high desert.

Some of you may be thinking and many of you have asked: “Central Asia? Is there really anything to see and do there? Is it safe?

Yes, and yes. Now let’s go!

Beautiful, Offbeat: Central Asia Travel Overview

If you’re looking for something off-path in all ways literal and figurative, Central Asia makes a good travel candidate. Filled with incredible mountain landscapes, friendly people and quirky experiences of the Soviet hangover variety, Central Asia is hard to beat when it comes to raw, discover-the-world potential. To this day, it remains one of our favorite and most fulfilling travel experiences.

Because tourism is still relatively new across Central Asia (for us, this was one of its appeals), there isn’t the same fully fleshed out tourism infrastructure that you’ll find throughout the rest of Asia. So you’ll have to make an effort. The flip side is that you’ll find friendly locals to shepherd you to your next — and often unexpected — adventure.

Kyrgyz Man and Dog - Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan
The Kyrgyz shepherd, holder of great life and travel wisdom.

Still curious and undaunted about what you’ll find in the ‘Stans of Central Asia? From west to east, here’s a country-by-country beginner’s guide to some of our favorite travel spots and experiences in the region.

Note: In this piece, we’ll only cover Central Asia. We’ll cover The Caucasus region in a separate piece.

Turkmenistan

Crater in the Desert - Darvaza, Turkmenistan
One of Turkmenistan’s collapsed natural gas craters. But this one’s not on fire.

From a red tape and visa perspective, Turkmenistan is the trickiest of all Central Asian countries to navigate. But don’t cross it off your list immediately, for it will likely surprise you and reward you for your perseverance.

Caspian Sea

If you have some flexibility in your schedule and you find yourself in Azerbaijan looking for a way out, we highly recommend taking the overnight ferry across the Caspian Sea from Baku,Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. Talk about a stunning and peaceful way to transition to a new region. Just stay away from the woman attendant on board who looks like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
More reading: Reflections Crossing the Caspian Sea

Ashgabat

Large Dome at Turkmenbashi's Mosque - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Ashgabat’s Kipchak Mosque: Turkmenbashi’s final resting place.

Las Vegas meets Pyong Yang in Turkmenistan’s quirky capital city of white marble, fountains and 20-mile “health walks.” While the rotating gold statue of Turkmenbashi is no longer on display, there are still plenty of reminders of Turkmenistan’s bizarre, self-consumed former leader (let us know if Turkmenbashi vodka is still on the market – good stuff).

Ashgabat’s Tolkuchka market on Sundays is the largest open air market in Central Asia; worth getting yourself out of bed to get there early. And if you look hard enough, you’ll find an active disco scene complete with Russian mafia, gorgeous women and enough drama to pack a Brazilian soap opera.
More reading: Ashgabat, The City of Love: A Scavenger Hunt

Gonur Depe, Merve and Konye-Urgench

Camel in Front of Kyz Kala - Merv, Turkmenistan
Merv: More camels than tourists at this Silk Road City.

Kick up 1000s of years of relatively undiscovered history as you walk just about any of Turkmenistan’s archaelogical sites. Check out the mostly unexcavated site of Gonur Depe where you’re literally sifting through 4,000 years of history. Yes, 4000 years! Then, stop by the cities of Merv and Konye-Urgench for a taste of Turkmenistan’s station on the Silk Road.

More reading: Kicking Up 4,000 Years of History in Turkmenistan

Darvaza Gas Crater

Looking into Darvaza Gas Crater - Darvaza, Turkmenistan
The Darvaza gas crater, on fire 24×7.

Standing at the edge of a collapsed, blazing natural gas crater in the Karakum desert is one part hellishly hot, another part downright cool, particularly when you appreciate it from a tent, full moon overhead. Along the way there, pop by the oasis village of Jerbent for a peek at desert life that feels Thunderdome-ish and otherworldly.

More reading: Natural and Not-so-Natural History Sites in Turkmenistan

Uzbekistan

Smile! Girl with Shaved Head - Bukhara, Uzbekistan
A hearty welcome to Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan offers some of the best-developed tourism infrastructure in the region thanks to its Silk Road cities. A range of guest houses, train connections, and tour companies connect the region. During the time of our visit, Tashkent was the city with the best internet connectivity; its selection of wifi cafes made it an ideal place to catch up on our work.

Classic Silk Road: Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand

Celebration at the Registan - Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The Registan – Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Get your fill of Silk Road snapshots and history along Uzbekistan’s Silk Road route: Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand, and Shakhrisabz. Although Samarkand is the most architecture-loaded, each of the cities is worth a look. Our favorite is Bukhara, perhaps because it feels like living history. People still live in many of its old buildings, and merchants still bargain in the same market areas, much as they might have a thousand years ago. Additionally, it’s hard to find a friendlier and more colorful fresh market than the one on the outskirts of town.

And if you time it right (August time frame), you’ll catch the drivers of the Mongol Rally and their beat up cars — and refashioned ice-cream trucks.

More reading: A Real Peek at Uzbekistan’s Silk Road: A Reflective Scavenger Hunt

Nukus and Moynaq

Crescent Moons on Tombstones at Mizdakhan Cemetery- Nukus, Uzbekistan
Mizdakhan Cemetery, one of the most fascinating and elaborate cemeteries around.

Nukus doesn’t have any Silk Road glam, but it is home to the eclectic Savitsky Museum, which somehow escaped Soviet censorship. It’s also home to Mizdakhan, an extraordinary cemetery featuring mini-mosques and marble- and stone-engravings of the dead.

Once a fishing town on the Aral Sea, Moynaq is today’s bone-dry testament to man’s stunning ability to prosecute war on nature. Rusted boats lay across land that was once shoreline, but is now desert. In full disclosure, we did not visit here but after talking with other travelers we regret this decision.

More reading: A Real Peek at Uzbekistan’s Silk Road: A Reflective Scavenger Hunt

Kazakhstan

Even though we enjoyed two “we’re going to die here” experiences in a relatively short time — crossing the land border from Uzbekistan and getting lost in the Tian Shan mountains – we still recommend you visit Kazakhstan. Among other things, you’ll find that the film Borat is more than a little shy of reality.

Big Almaty Lake and Kosmostancia

Big Almaty Lake in Tian Shan Mountains - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Big Almaty Lake, Kazakhstan. Yep, it’s that blue. No foolin’.

The Tian Shan mountains just outside Almaty provide some great hiking opportunities. Take a city bus into the base of the mountains and follow the trails up or walk atop a giant water pipe to Big Almaty Lake and enjoy the mountains and its surreal blue water.

After the lake, continue further up the mountain path for more surreal, this time of a Soviet variety, at Kosmostancia. Don’t be deterred by the rusted vehicles and abandoned look of the place. Astronomers still live and work in those hills and they usually have a few rooms to rent out. Try to squeeze in a stargazing session with the mad Russian astronomer (if he’s still there) and his big telescope. If you continue over the mountain pass, be sure to carry a real trekking map. We didn’t and very nearly disappeared, for real.

More reading: Big Almaty Lake and Kosmostancia: The Hike and The Observatory and Getting Lost in the Tian Shan Mountains (or, How Kazakhstan Nearly Killed Us)

Kyrgyzstan

If you must choose one country to visit in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan might just be it. Not only is the country over 90% mountainous and studded with beautiful landscapes, but the traditional nomadic culture and people are warm and welcoming. Kyrgyzstan also has a terrific community-based tourism (CBT) network throughout the country that makes it easy to connect and interact with locals, stay in yurts, and take mountain treks on horseback.

Song Kul Lake

Kyrgyz Man Drinks Tea Outside Yurt - Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan
Yurt at Song Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan

Combine great mountain scenery and a glimpse into rural Kyrgyz life with a three-day horse trek from Kochkor to Song Kul Lake. Sleep in yurts along the trail and on the edge of the lake. In the spring to summer months, you’ll run into shepherds tending their animals in the hills. We went in October and were blessed with a view of the first snows on the lake and the animal drive as shepherds took their animals to their villages in lower altitudes for the winter. Even if you have no experience on a horse (like us), you’ll be able to manage. After all, we did. Just don’t expect to walk normally the next day.

More reading: A Goat and Five Fingers: A Ramadan Experience in Kyrgyzstan

Karakol Animal Market

Old Kyrgyz Man with Kalpak, Smoking - Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
Animal Market in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

We arrived in Karakol, a sleepy town on the eastern fringe of Kyrgyzstan in time for its Sunday animal market. With an early rise, we enjoyed the scene as old men in kalpaks (traditional Kyrgyz hats) bargain away for stubborn donkeys and fat-rumped sheep.

More reading: Kyrgyzstan: Women Can Do It and Kyrgyzstan: Best Tourist Sights and Landscapes

Altyn Arashan

Trekking to Ala Kul Lake - Kyrgyzstan
Trekking to Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan

Hike around 4-5 hours from the town of Karakol to Altyn Arashan, a natural mountain hot spring. Stay for the night and you can spend as long as you’d like relaxing in pools of piping hot water. Feels sooooo good after a day of hiking. Stars up there are also amazing.

If you have more time, continue in the morning to Ala Kol Lake. Although we and our companion had to turn back because of a blizzard whiteout, other friends all had great things to say about the trek.

More reading: Kyrgyzstan: Best Tourist Sights and Landscapes

Lake Issyk Kul and Manzhyly

Breakfast Inside a Yurt - Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan
A meal in a cozy Kyrgyz yurt.

Various subranges of the Tian Shan mountains surround both the southern and northern shores of Issyk Kul, the world’s second largest mountain lake. The point? You never have a bad view when you’re at Issyk Kul.

Hook up with CBT to spend a night at Manzhyly on the southern shore of the lake. Do some hiking, talk with a friendly shepherd, eat a wonderful homecooked Kyrgyz meal and sleep as soundly you ever have in the dark womb of a Kyrgyz mountain yurt.

More reading: A Perfect Day in Kyrgyzstan

Tajikistan

Pamiri Women with Buckets of Water - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
A group of women take a photo break in the Tajik Pamirs.

Unlike their neighbors, Tajiks are of Persian rather than Turkic origin. For this reason, Tajikistan features cultural, physical and culinary differences from the rest of Central Asia.

Pamir Highway Road Trip

Yamchun Fort  - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
12th century Yamchun Fort. An average view along Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway.

Most of our time in Tajikistan was spent in the Pamir Mountains on the border with Afghanistan. We began our journey across the Pamir Highway in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, which we highly recommend for a view of Peak Lenin (7135 meters or 23406 feet) on the way to the border.

Make your way from the high desert outpost of Murghab through a series of mountainous roads with views of the Hindu Kush in Pakistan to Langar at the start of the lush Wakhan Valley. The local Pamiri people are renowned for being some of the friendliest people on earth; they will literally try to give you the shirt the back if you need it. Try to fit in a visit to Bibi Fatima hot springs (supposedly good for fertility) and the nearby ruined fortress. You’ll be peeking into Afghanistan across the river the whole way.

To visit the Pamir Mountains, you have to get a GBAO permit at the same time you apply for your visa. When we did this at the Tajik Embassy in Kyrgyzstan it was a rather easy process.

More reading: The Pamir Mountains and Wakhan Valley – People and Landscape, Stories and Highlights from the Pamir Mountains, Pamir Mountains and Wakhan Valley: Transport, Accommodation and Food

Tajik Air Over the Pamir Mountains

Tajik Airplane - Khorog, Tajikistan
Fly unpressurized in Tajik Air’s itty bitty lunchbox of a plane.

Easily the most frightening and stunning flight we’ve ever been on. In an unpressurized plane where person and bag has been weighed before takeoff, we flew through (not over, through) the on the way from Khorog in the Pamir Mountains to Tajikistan’s capital city of Dushanbe.

Once you get to Dushanbe, we recommend spending time in the fresh markets – people are incredibly friendly and curious.

More reading and video: Badakhshani Express: Scraping the Pamir Mountains with Tajik Air

Practical Advice for Planning a Trip to Central Asia

Planning a Central Asian itinerary

If you don’t have a few months to spend in the region, let your theme of choice (e.g, Silk Road, desert, mountains) guide you. Then, find a country (or two) that suits your needs. You can cross over from country to country by flight or land transport. For more ideas on where and what to do and see in Central Asia, read: Golden Camel Awards: Sights, People and Scenery

When to go

This region is great from springtime to fall, but best to be avoided in the wintertime unless you favor frigid and gray. We traveled through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in July/August. Although it was the hottest time of year (100+ F), the dry desert heat didn’t bother us. Mountain areas in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (e.g., Pamirs, Wakhan Valley, Tian Shan) can become numbingly cold as early as October.

Farmers Preparing for Winter - Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan
Autumn in Tajikistan’s Wakhan Valley.

Safety

We never felt unsafe in the three months we traveled through Central Asia and we were on every form of public and private transport available. Our guidebook made us fearful of police harassment and bribery, but we never once encountered this in three months. We were asked for our papers once, from a policeman in the Tashkent metro, whereupon we pretended not to speak Russian. He apologized and went on his way. If you must provide your passport, begin with a paper copy first.

Language in Central Asia

Each country in this region has their own language (e.g., Turkmen, Kyrgyz, etc.) that use either the Latin or Cyrillic alphabet. However, Russian is the lingua franca. Many young people are learning English, but don’t expect a lot of English speakers anywhere. Our suggestion is to learn your numbers and the Cyrillic alphabet (it really isn’t that hard) so you can read street and bus signs. Carry a dictionary in case you get stuck.

Visas and bureaucracy

The visa process is one of the biggest barriers to travel in Central Asia. Bureaucracy and cost can sap both your savings and patience. We arranged our visas independently as we traveled (i.e., Turkmenistan visa in Yerevan, Armenia, Uzbekistan visa in Baku, Azerbaijan, Kazakh and Kyrgyz visas in Uzbekistan, Tajik visa in Kyrgyzstan). If you are setting off from your home country, we would advise you to take care of them all ahead of time, if possible. For all the nitty gritty details read: Sex and the Central Asian Visa

Accommodation

Hotels and guest houses in Central Asia run the gamut from pleasant to appalling. In Kyrgyzstan, we used the Community-Based Tourism (CBT) program to book family homestays throughout the country. Uzbekistan also features guest houses for all budgets in the Silk Road cities. Tashkent can get expensive. In the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan, the only place with proper hotels is Khorog. You’ll likely have to stay with families in the other areas (one of life’s greatest experiences). Accommodation in Kazakhstan can be shockingly expensive, and you may find yourself sleeping in a brothel if all are booked. For the best and worst of logistics across Central Asia, read: The Golden Camel Awards: Logistics

Transportation

Planning Travels on Jeep - Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan
Planning our route along the Pamir Highway from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan.

Transportation in Central Asia is surprisingly good and accessible – buses, mashrutkas (minivans), trains and shared taxis run throughout the region, with the exception of along the Pamir Highway/GBAO. In general, shared taxis are a bit more expensive than buses or mashrutkas, but they are often the fastest way to get you to your destination. Hitchhiking is also common in some areas, and may be required along the Pamir Highway for those on a tight budget.

Food

You don’t come to Central Asia for the food. Expect to find a lot of mutton, which is best eaten piping hot before the fat can congeal on the roof of your mouth. Vegetarianism is not widely understood. For more details on what to expect from food across Central Asia, read: Golden Camel Awards: Food and Markets and Central Asian Food: The Good, the Bad, and the Inedible

Women Traveling in Central Asia

What’s it like traveling as a woman through Central Asia? These countries are Muslim, but of a more moderate, open and secular variety than you might find in parts of the Middle East. This combined with Soviet and Russian influence, can make Central Asia feel like the land of paradox.

Woman Tying Head Scarf - Tolkuchka Market, Azerbaijan
Audrey gets a helping hand with her scarf at Tolkuchka Bazaar – Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

You will find village women in colorful headscarves, but you’ll also find city women wearing mini-skirts so mini that you might be wondering if someone ran out of fabric. Audrey always kept her legs and shoulders covered and wore a head scarf in a few parts of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, partly to fit in and partly to help with the fierce heat and sunshine. Local women absolutely loved this and Audrey and her headscarf became an attraction and a point of tea, conversation and connection. We met several solo female travelers in Central Asia and they felt the same.

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Any questions about traveling in Central Asia? Drop us a comment or send us an email and we’ll do our best to help.

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Want to get all this information and more in one easy PDF guide? Click through on the image below to buy and download our Ultimate Guide to Exploring Central Asia. Enjoy exploring this fascinating region!
Central Asia Guide

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Pamir Mountains, Pamir Highway and Wakhan Valley Siteshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/pamir-highway-sites/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/pamir-highway-sites/#respond Sat, 05 Jan 2008 07:13:57 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=6464 By Audrey Scott

The following is a bulleted list of sites and markers along the famed Pamir Highway, all the way from Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Khorog, Tajikistan. This particular list follows the southern route (Langar to Ishkashim) along the Wakhan Valley that traces the Tajik-Afghan border. We offer this up not for our casual readers, but for those […]

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By Audrey Scott

The following is a bulleted list of sites and markers along the famed Pamir Highway, all the way from Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Khorog, Tajikistan. This particular list follows the southern route (Langar to Ishkashim) along the Wakhan Valley that traces the Tajik-Afghan border.

Donkeys Walking Home - Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan
Donkeys walking home through the Wakhan Valley. Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan.

We offer this up not for our casual readers, but for those headed to the Pamir Mountain region. We found the Lonely Planet Central Asia to be mildly confusing, particularly when we tried to determine the most significant points of interest in sequence along the Pamir Highway. This list may also help you in labeling all of the photos you’ll likely take on your journey along the Pamir Highway. Even armed with a GPS geotagging device, it was helpful to have this list to reconcile where we’d been with all the photos we took.

In order to derive the maximum amount of value from your drive along the Pamir Highway, consider carrying this list, your guide book (e.g. Lonely Planet) and a detailed map of the Pamir Mountain region and the M41 Highway.

START: Osh, Kyrgyzstan

  • Bas Bulak
  • Papan Reservoir off to the right
  • Along the Toldik river
  • Chigirchik Pass at 2406 meters
  • Gulcho
  • Murdash
  • Zhergetal
  • Kichi Karakol
  • Taldyk Pass at 3615 meters
  • Sary Tash
  • 21 of the 33 km on A372 to Sary Mogol
  • Pik Lenina at 7134 meters
  • Kyrgyz border post at Bordoba
  • Tajik Border
  • Kyzyl-Art Pass
  • Markansu
  • Uy Bulak Pass at 4232 meters
  • Eastern side of lake, just before Kara Kul village, home stay and saka kurgan and solar calendar
  • Lake Karakul at 3914 meters
  • Just before Akbajtal Pass, caravanserai
  • Akbajtal Pass at 4655 meters
  • Tabortakbajtal
  • Chechekty (museum, too)
  • Murghab
  • Saly Unkjur Cave
  • Mamazir, home stay
  • Neizatash Pass at 4314 meters
  • Chatyr Tash (rock formation)
  • Off road to Bash Gumbez
  • Aluchur (Alichur) at 3863 meters
  • Lake Sasyk Kul
  • Lake Tuz Kul
  • Off M41
  • Khargush Pass at 4344 meters
  • Hausibeks Viewpoint
  • Khargush (on Afghan border)
  • Past Tilabay Nature Reserve on left
  • Castle and petroglyphs (just before Langar)
  • Langar
  • Hisor
  • Zong (castle)
  • Zugvand (solar calendar)
  • Shirgin (mazar, shrine)
  • Drizh
  • Nizhgar
  • Iniv
  • Vrang (castle, shrine, cave, museum) – kids led us up
  • Vnukut
  • Yamg (solar calendar, museum)
  • Yamchun (baths, castle)
  • Vichkut
  • Tuggoz
  • Ptup (mazar/shrine)
  • Navabad
  • Zmudg (solar calendar, shrine, dune)
  • Past Pik Karl Marx at 6723 meters
  • Shitkharv (waterfall, mazar/shrine)
  • Darshai (castle, petroglyphs, mazar/shrine)
  • Togakhona
  • Boibar (Ramanit)
  • Udit
  • Namadgut-Bolo – where we stayed
  • Namadgut-Poyon (mazar/shrine)
  • Dasht
  • Ryn (solar calendar, mazar/shrine)
  • Pyanj River
  • Ishkashim (at 2510 meters)
  • Border cross at Darwan (to Sultan Ishkashim, Afghanistan)
  • Sumjin
  • Yakhshwol
  • Malvoj (hot spring)
  • Barshor
  • Kozideh (can off-road to Bagush)
  • Shanbedeh
  • Voeg
  • Sist
  • Kuh-i La’l
  • Andarob (off to Snib, Garam-Chashma)
  • Khaskhorug
  • Shichozg
  • Nishusp
  • Pish (café)
  • Gozhak

END: Khorog (at 2070 meters)

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Pamir Mountains and Wakhan Valley: Transport, Accommodation and Foodhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/pamir-highway-transport-accommodation-food/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/pamir-highway-transport-accommodation-food/#comments Sat, 05 Jan 2008 06:13:45 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=6465 By Audrey Scott

If you’ve ever wondered how to travel to the Pamir Mountains — how to get there and what transportation and accommodation options you’ll have once you get there, this is the post for you. Transport to and from the Pamir Mountains: Osh to Murghab: We hired a Russian UAZ jeep through Nemat (abdulaziz18@gmail.com) for $170 […]

The post Pamir Mountains and Wakhan Valley: Transport, Accommodation and Food appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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By Audrey Scott

If you’ve ever wondered how to travel to the Pamir Mountains — how to get there and what transportation and accommodation options you’ll have once you get there, this is the post for you.

Transport to and from the Pamir Mountains:

Road Trip through Pamir Highway, Tajikistan
Road trip through the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan.
  • Osh to Murghab: We hired a Russian UAZ jeep through Nemat (abdulaziz18@gmail.com) for $170 (expect to pay a bit more with the falling US dollar). The jeep fit five travelers plus the driver, snuggly. We stopped overnight in Sary Tash and arrived in Murghab the next afternoon.
  • Murghab to Khorog via the Wakhan Valley: If you have a lot of time and flexibility, you can conceivably hitchhike this route, but beware that vehicles of any sort are few and far between, particularly outside of summer. We hired a driver with jeep to take us the 400km over three days. The cost was $300. We also paid for his return trip from Khorog to Murghab since he couldn’t find any passengers that needed to return. ACTED in Murghab can set you up with a driver for a slightly higher fee. Hang around the market in Murghab or just walk through town – available drivers will find you since there are not many tourists.
  • Other transport options: There are more regular marshrutkas (shared vehicles) going from Murghab to Khorog and vice versa on the main Pamir Highway. Cost is around $25/person. Go early to the Murghab or Khorog markets. From Khorog, there are infrequent buses going to Ishkashim and other nearby villages.
  • Transport to/from Dushanbe: By plane, it’s a quick and terrifying 45 minutes on Tajik Air. By car/jeep, it’s 15 hours if you’re lucky and up to 24 hours if you’re not.

Accommodation in the Pamir Mountains:

  • Sary Tash: There are a couple of home-stays/guest houses in town; we just stayed at the place our driver recommended. Simple sleeping arrangements and food (fried potatoes) for around $6-$8. Dress warmly. Temperatures dropped to -15 Celsius when we were there in early October.
  • Murghab: We stayed with our driver for 10 Tajik somoni ($6), including dinner and breakfast. There are several other guesthouses in town.
  • Wakhan Valley: ACTED offers a series of home stays that your driver is likely to know about. Or, just ask around at the local store. Expect to pay from 5-30 somoni, depending upon the place and food options. Don’t expect water for bathing and bring toilet paper with you for the outhouses. We bathed, very gratefully, at the hot springs in Bibi Fatima and Garam Chasma.
  • Khorog: For its lovely hosts, delicious food and hot showers, The Pamir Lodge is a great place to stay in Khorog, especially for $5 per person. The Pamir Lodge is located across the river from the market near a school and friendly bee keeper whose bees produce some of the world’s strappiest honey. Contact info: visit their website or email pamirlodge@hotmail.com

Food in the Pamir Mountains

You don’t come to the Pamirs to eat. In Murghab, we ate yak meat and yak yogurt, both of which were both surprisingly tasty. After that, we mainly ate fried potatoes, a grain resembling bulghur wheat, bread and tea until we reached saturation…and the town of Khorog. A wider variety of food may be available during the summer months, but pack power bars, nuts and dried fruit and other goodies to get you, your mates, and your driver through sparse eating opportunities.

We highly recommend ordering kurtob, a fresh, light layered dish made with strips of bread, homemade yogurt, onions, tomatoes and coriander, at the Pamir Lodge in Khorog. A welcome treat after a week of bland fried potatoes and uninspired bread.

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Stories and Highlights from the Pamir Mountainshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/pamir-mountain-highlights-stories/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/pamir-mountain-highlights-stories/#comments Sat, 05 Jan 2008 05:13:41 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=6466 By Daniel Noll

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. Kyrgyzstan Sary Tash: A stopping point for travelers and truck drivers alike in southern Kyrgyzstan. The road forks, one way to Tajikistan, the other to […]

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By Daniel Noll

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.

Kyrgyzstan

Sary Tash:

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.

Audrey & Dan in Front of Pik Lenin, Kyrgyzstan
Dan and Audrey at Pik Lenin, Kyrgyzstan.

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.

Tajikistan

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.

Rusted Container in Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
Rusted trailer along the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan.

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

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.

Inside a Pamiri Home - Langar, Tajikistan
Pamiri house in Langar along the Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan.

Pamiri Houses

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.

Vrang

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.

Khakha Fortress

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.

Khakha Qala Fort - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
Guarding against Afghanistan at the Khakha Fortress, Tajikistan.

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.

Ishkashim

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 at Garm Chashma - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
Garam Chashma Springs in Tajikistan

Garam Chashma

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.

Khorog

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.

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The Pamir Mountains and Wakhan Valley – People and Landscapehttp://uncorneredmarket.com/pamir-highway-people-landscape/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/pamir-highway-people-landscape/#comments Sat, 05 Jan 2008 04:13:33 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2008/01/peak-experiences-in-the-pamir-mountains/ By Daniel Noll

Our visit to the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan introduced us to some the most spectacular scenery we’ve taken in on our journey thus far. Other mountainous areas, hyped in guidebooks and on travel websites, have only paled in comparison. The Pamir region not only stands out for the severity and beauty of its landscape, but […]

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By Daniel Noll

Yamchun Fort  - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
A beautiful defense in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan.

Our visit to the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan introduced us to some the most spectacular scenery we’ve taken in on our journey thus far. Other mountainous areas, hyped in guidebooks and on travel websites, have only paled in comparison. The Pamir region not only stands out for the severity and beauty of its landscape, but it shines most of all for the colorful, hospitable and fascinating Pamiri people who live there.

The extremity of the landscape comes at a price, however. After wearing all of our heavier clothes to stay warm, eating nothing but potatoes, bread and tea, and being without bathing water for five days, we were ready for some features of civilization. Our journey in the Pamirs fortunately knew an end.

For the local Pamiri people, however, the austerity and scarcity of their homeland are not components of an adventure holiday. For them, this is real life, day in and day out.

People and cultures are influenced by their environment. However, the way in which the various people encased in this relatively tiny sub-region of Central Asia closely matched the diversity of their landscape – from its desolate high mountain deserts to its fertile river valleys – was especially fascinating.

Skip ahead to what interests you most about Tajikistan:

Pamir Highway: People and Landscape: Desert Markets and Tracing Afghanistan along the Wakhan Valley plus photo slide show

Highlights from the Pamir Mountains: Red Cheeks, Border Guards, Hot Springs and the Hindu Kush

Practical Details: Transport, Accommodation, Food

A Bullet List of Pamir Highway and Wakhan Valley Sites

A Kyrgyz Outpost in the High Desert

Funky Soviet Cafe in Murghab - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
The hippest cafe award in Murghab, Tajikistan.

Our first evening in Tajikistan featured a stop in Murghab (3,576 meters), the first town after the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Its mud-covered houses and converted train wagons conveyed a Wild West look to the town, but abandonment and foreclosure hung heavy in the air. Murghab seemed like a place that should never been inhabited at all, but somehow its ethnic Kyrgyz population has continued to survive.

The combination of elevation and dry climate ensures that almost nothing grows, not even potatoes. Residents here must import all of their food from Kyrgyzstan or China – or bring it in from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. The prices of basic goods like flour and petrol were high. We were told that cows could not take the freezing temperatures and horses were doomed to heart attacks because of the high elevation (3,800-4,000 meters). So, instead of cows, yaks served as the primary source of meat and the more resilient donkey as the beast of burden.

While we enjoyed our dinner of yak meat and yak yogurt – both of which were surprisingly good – we abided the potatoes and hard bread as we imagined a local life of scarcity. Consider also that we stayed with a relatively wealthy family, whose livelihoods were funded by the annual tourist flow. The abundant fruits, vegetables and herbs of Osh, Kyrgyzstan just two days before seemed almost otherworldly here.

Weathered faces and tired smiles began to make sense in this harsh environment. As we walked around the town market the next morning, people were curious as to where we were from; they invited us to chat. A palpable sense of fatigue and hopelessness matched the surroundings, however.

The next day we left the high desert behind for the Wakhan Valley, a comparatively lush river valley that traces the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. No more than 100 miles separates Murghab and the Wakhan Valley, but the distance and the landscape were enough to form a cultural chasm between these vastly different areas.

Skirting Afghanistan through the Wakhan Valley

Snow, Blue Skies, Agricultural Field - Langar, Tajikistan
Wakhan Valley, Changing Seasons. Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan.

Life in the Wakhan Valley is not easy by any stretch – locals collect water at mountain springs, agriculture is still limited, public transport is almost non-existent and roads are often barely passable, and services and supplies are limited, but the natural environment was noticeably more hospitable than the high desert we had just traveled through. Trees, mountains and fields compose the visual space in the Wakhan Valley and make autumn a truly spectacular time to take it all in. For us, early October featured rich autumn colors in the foreground and snow-dusted sepia-toned mountains in the background.

Although life is also difficult in the Wakhan Valley, locals are able to grow enough food. According to some estimates, they’ve reached 70% agricultural sustainability. This relative abundance is reflected in their simple and sincere hospitality. Even though the Wakhan Valley is secluded and its people know limited interaction with the outside world, Pamiri people are exceptionally welcoming. As we walked through villages, we were regularly invited for tea or offered fresh milk and bread. People were happy to show us their Pamiri homes and have a chat, whether or not we shared a common language. While we appreciated every invitation, we had to respectfully decline some due to time constraints and full stomachs.

Sleeping with Strangers

Pamiri Family Homestay - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
Pamiris at home in the Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan.

For our second night in the Wakhan Valley, we decided to stay in a small village. The Wakhan Valley does not have a network of hotels or hostels, but the hospitality of its people fills the void. We asked our driver to stop at the only store in the village of Namadguti, more or less in the middle of nowhere. We figured this would yield a genuine Pamiri experience.

The driver talked to a local man standing outside a local shop, but he didn’t have any ideas. Dan suggested we ask the local shopkeeper. Sure enough, this woman lived behind the shop and invited us to stay with her family. Our travel experience shows that women almost always seem to have a solution.

Our host was a thin, weathered woman with a kind, tired smile. After our inquiry, she closed her shop and showed us to her family home, a beautiful Pamiri-style house with carved pillars. Four girls, ranging from six to twenty years old, flitted around us excitedly and brought us endless bowls of apples and tea as we began to settle in. The floors were decorated in colorful carpets and mattresses, making for a warm and homey environment in spite of the setting sun and growing cold outside.

After dinner, several of our travel companions began making balloon animals – dogs, swans, bears and other unidentifiables. The youngest child, a three-year old boy, didn’t know what to make of these new gifts. Before long, the elevated floor of our hostess’ common room was covered with a balloon animal menagerie. Throughout the evening, we exchanged English lessons for lessons of Tajik and Pamiri with the sisters. Although there was a little mutual understanding in English and Russian, most of the communication was through smiles and body language. The mother sat watching the whole scene, smiling peacefully as she knitted thick leg warmers in preparation for winter.

The next morning, as we departed, we asked our hostess what we owed her for our night’s accommodation and food. She asked for less than $1.50 per person. We insisted on leaving some more money, using the children as an excuse so as not to offend her; we received a bushel of apples in return.

The family’s generous spirit was moving; we almost didn’t want to leave. Warm water, vegetables and heat awaited us in Khorog. Spending a few days in the high and remote Pamir Mountains reminded us how closely we human beings are linked to our environments. Even though basic necessities like food and clean water were sometimes a struggle, Pamiri people shared what they could and welcomed us to their homes.

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Tajikistan: Images from the Roof of the Worldhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/tajikistan-images-from-the-roof-of-the-world/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/tajikistan-images-from-the-roof-of-the-world/#comments Sun, 11 Nov 2007 15:41:07 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2007/11/tajikistan-images-from-the-roof-of-the-world/ By Audrey Scott

Welcome to the last installment of our photos from Central Asia. Yes, the umbilical cord with the former Soviet Union has finally been cut. We have exchanged Cyrillic letters for Mandarin characters and statues of Lenin for Mao. But before we get ahead of ourselves, we leave you with images from Tajikistan. We spent most […]

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By Audrey Scott

Yawning Bacrtrian Camel - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
Camel yawn in the Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan.

Welcome to the last installment of our photos from Central Asia. Yes, the umbilical cord with the former Soviet Union has finally been cut. We have exchanged Cyrillic letters for Mandarin characters and statues of Lenin for Mao. But before we get ahead of ourselves, we leave you with images from Tajikistan.

We spent most of our time in Tajikistan in the Pamirs, a remote and mountainous region in the southeastern part of the country between the Kyrgyz and Afghan borders. Our visit appeared well-timed, as the autumn landscape revealed itself in astonishing layers. And as rumored, the Pamiri people were both fascinating and welcoming. After a spectacular and terrifying flight that caused us to find numerous religions while in the air, we ended our Tajik sojourn in the capital city of Dushanbe.

Tajikistan Travel Photos

Pamiri Kids as Guides in Vrang - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
Our informal tour guides from a village in the Wakhan Valley.

This concludes our photos from Central Asia. We are not quite finished with the region yet, however. To confuse our readers even more, we’ll continue to post written reflections of our time in Central Asia as we make our way through China.

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