A key driver for this trip is our desire to traverse the Pamir mountains.
With public transport infrequent hired drivers with 4WDs are the usual mode of travel. We depart Dushanbe with the driver we’ve found tomorrow for a 10 day Pamir adventure that will take us to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, via the Pamir Highway, with one detour off the highway to travel through the Tajikistan side of the Wakhan Valley.
So why are we so excited about this?
The Pamir mountains are fabled to be one of the most highest and beautiful ranges in the world. Occupying Tajikistan, China and small parts of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan they lie between the Hindu Kush, Tien Shan and the Himalayas.
Known in Persian as ‘Bam-i-Dunya’ or ‘Roof of the World’, they apparently form one of the most unexplored regions on earth due to their geography – as in they are high, cold and remote – combined with them being closed to western travellers during Soviet times.
In the last part of the 19 century, because of its location in relation to the Russian Empire, British India and China; Tajikistan – particularly the Pamirs – were considered to be very strategically important. The Great Game which took place between the British and Russian empires as they each defined the boundaries of their empires was largely played out in the mountains of the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush.
The second-highest highway in the world after the nearby Karakoram highway, the Pamir Highway stretches from Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) to Termez (Uzbekistan) crossing Tajikistan through the Pamir mountains. Some claim it finishes at Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan rather than in Uzbekistan. The section between Tajikistan’s city Khorog and Kyrgyzstan’s city Osh is the part most commonly known as ‘The Pamir Highway’.
The route has been in use for millennia as part of the ancient Silk Road trade route, primarily used for the transportation of caravans loaded with rubies extracted in the mountains around Rang Kul lake.
The road between Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe and Khorog was built in 1915 by decree of the tsarist government, taking it into Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) region, which covers 45% of the country – basically the entire right half. The road from there was built between 1931-1934 by Soviet engineers to connect the GBAO and Pamirs with the rest of Soviet empire. It was a complicated project made more so because the road could only go by the right side of Pyanj river in the Wakhan Valley, as the left side is in Afghanistan.
The GBAO may cover 45% of Tajikstan but it is home to only 3% of its population. With the insurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Tajikistan has placed precautionary travel restrictions on foreigners by requiring special permits to travel in the GBAO region. This is despite the Taliban having declared no interest in entering Tajikistan and not even being known to be present in the Afghan side of the isolated Wakhan Valley until 2015.
The Pamir Highway is said to be one of the world’s greatest road trips. The Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border crossing on the highway is also the second highest highway border in the world.
Frequently damaged by land slides, avalanches, floods and the trucks that ply the route. Paved only in some areas – where it is the condition of the road reportedly varies significantly – where it isn’t it is worse, and given these stretches are often traversing deep valleys it apparently takes nerves to traverse and all adds to the Pamirs’ reputation of being a remote, challenging destination for mind, body and soul.
Whatever its claim to fame it is said to reward the hardy with 1,800 kilometres of spectacular landscapes; with descriptions such as this capturing our imaginations:
“The Pamir Highway. It’s a name that vibrates strongly in the belly of anyone with a taste for adventure.
The high desert of the Pamir invites expletives and superlatives. Like the Bolivian Altiplano and the Tibetan plateau, this is a harsh and lonely place, inhabited by kind people. Its unforgiving landscape breathes tranquil spirituality.” Caravanista