Tajikistan: The Pamir Highway

Posted by James Anderton on May 26th, 2019


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The Pamir Highway, or it's less interesting name of the M41, is one of the world's great cycling routes. It is often referred to as 'The Roof of the World' as it weaves between soaring mountains, alongside free flowing rivers and through sprawling desert. The road formed one link of the ancient Silk Road trade route and has been in use for millennia. It attracts hundreds of adventure cyclists every year. Running 1,500km from the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, and over the border to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. It is not an easy cycle by any means with rough roads and high altitudes. With a bit of persistence though it is perfectly manageable and will provide you with memories for a lifetime.

A pass approaching Murghab on the Pamir Highway

High up a pass on the Pamirs.

I'm not going to describe the route in great detail. This has been done a million times online and I would soon run out of superlatives. There are only so many alternatives for the word 'amazing'. Everyday is glorious whichever route you take. There are a few route decisions along the way which I will take you through.

The Wakhan Corridor

The biggest decision along the way is whether to take on the Wakhan Corridor. The alternative is to follow the M41 route east from Khorog. A paved section of the highway that leads you up into the Pamirs on the way to Murghab. A great road but I would heartily recommend you skip it and take the long way round through the Wakhan Corridor. It is a tough cycle. There will be times when you are struggling in the rocks and sand thinking why didn't I stick to the tarmac but believe me it is all worth the extra effort. Steep, rough-walled mountains are intersected by river valleys that braid together the Pamir, Tien Shan, Karakorum and Hindu Kush mountain ranges. It's a magical place. The road takes you through the peaceful Wakhan valley before snaking up and over a high dirt road pass that leads you back down to the M41 highway and onto to Murghab.

Looking at the Hindu Kush mountain range on the Wakhan Corridor on the Pamir Highway

Enjoying the view on the Wakhan Corridor

I cycled the corridor with two young English guys cycling from Istanbul to Shanghai. They had just graduated from Cambridge with 1st class degrees. They were able to speak Russian and converse with the locals. I asked them if they had studied Russian at University. They replied that they picked it up along the way. As you do. The road travels south from Khorog along the Afghanistan border to Ishkashim where every Saturday there is a border market. You hand your passport to a border guard and cross a rickety bridge into a strip of no-man’s-land between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The market is a chance for the people from Tajikistan and Afghanistan to come together and buy or sell their goods. Mostly consisting of cheap clothing and household items from China.

Border market Afghanistan Tajikistan Wakhan Corridor

The border market in no man's land between Tajikistan and Afghanistan

From the market the road turns up the Wakhan valley and follows the Panj river. The road is bad, the valley is beautiful and the views across the border to the Hindu Kush mountain range are sublime. The range has several high, snow capped peaks the highest of which being Tirich Mir at 7,708m. Hindu Kush translates as Hindu Killer. It refers to the days when slaves from the Indian subcontinent died in the harsh weather typical of the Afghan mountains while being taken to Central Asia. The mountains are as beautiful as it's name is sinister. Along the corridor there are a few sleepy villages resting peacefully in the valley. In every village we stopped we were invited in for tea and sweets. If you arrived at dusk it wouldn't be long before you were offered shelter for the night. The homes are stone huts with dirt floors, constructed using manure for cement. The roof is made of logs, grass, and more manure to keep it waterproof. The hospitality we were shown along the whole route was one of the highlights of the journey.

Next to the Panj river on the Wakhan Corridor Tajikistan

These guys learnt Russian in a couple of weeks. By the Panj river the other side of which is Afghanistan

At one point cycling beside the Panj that separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan the river narrowed. We all looked at each other and I could see we were all thinking the same thing. Here was our chance to swim across to Afghanistan. We left our bikes by the side of the road and made our way down to the river. I would not recommend this unless you are a strong swimmer. The river was only 50m across but the current was deceptively strong. We made it across without issue. Enjoyed a few illegal minutes in Afghanistan and then swam back. On the return leg my arms began to tire. 6 months on a bicycle having done nothing for my upper body strength. Half way across the shore suddenly looked very far away. I made it across to dry land gasping for air. The Cambridge grads were fine. After our icy cold dip we cycled along to the next village where there were some hot springs that serve as public baths. We jumped at the opportunity to warm up local style.

The point of the river we swan across to Afghanistan

The section of river we swam across. Looks easy. It wasn't.

The next day began the tough section up and over a high pass at 4,300m and back down to the Pamir Highway proper. The road was a challenge. We regularly ground to a halt as the road turned to sand. The altitude made climbing slow. I think I caught a bit of a chill after our little swim in the river the day before. It was exhausting but the scenery all day was breathtaking. The peace and quiet in such a remote part of the world was absolute. The rocky descent led us back down to the highway proper where we got on our knees and kissed the asphalt. To anyone considering the side trip up the Wakhan Corridor it will be a challenge but you will be rewarded with some of the best cycling you will ever do.

Glad to see tarmac again on the Pamir Highway

Kissing the tarmac back on the Pamir Highway

Leaving Dushanbe

Another route choice comes shortly after you leave Dushanbe. Just after the town of Vahdat a mere 25km from Dushanbe you have options. To take the more challenging M41 route north to Kala-i Khum or take the South route along the Kulob road. The South route climbs through farmland and open country on good quality tarmac. It then continues through dunes and desert before finally descending to the Panj river along narrow gorges to Kala-i Khum. It is the easier but longer route and although it can hardly be called busy there will be more traffic than on the north route along the M41. I took the north route. It is known to be the hardest section of the M41. A little over 100km from Dushanbe the road turns to loose gravel and stays that way pretty much all the way to Kala-i Khum. Although progress can be slow it is a wonderful place to cycle. There is precious little traffic. The scenery is stunning as you meander through canyons and tight valleys before taking on the Saghirdasht Pass, at an altitude of 3,252m. Both routes are fantastic and whichever way you choose you win.

Tajikistan Saghirdasht Pass

The descent from the Saghirdasht Pass

Bartang Valley

The other route choice is whether to take on the Bartang Valley. It starts in Rushan, about 50km north of Khorog, and rejoins the M41 in Karakul via Kök Jar. Apparently the Bartang Valley offers the most varied and scenic views in the whole Pamirs. The road is bad but you will enjoy dramatic scenery and true wilderness. For once in my life I took the easy option and continued on the M41 on gradually improving roads until I hit Khorog. Khorog is a great base to rest and re-fuel before deciding on whether to take on the Wakhan Corridor. You can read one man's take on the Bartang Valley here.

Above 4000m on the Pamir Highway nearing Kyrgyzstan border

The Pamir Highway often stays up above 4,000m after Murghab

There is no choice about the final section of the Pamir Highway which for many is the real highlight. Where the road earns it's name and heads up to 4,000m and pretty much stays there all the way through Murghab and onto the Kyrgyzstan border. This is my favourite kind of road. One that goes high and stays high. The views are breathtaking the whole way. After entering Kyrgyzstan many people cross the border into China at Sary Tash and continue east. I recommend you resist the temptation. I carried along to the finale of the Pamir Highway at Osh and then onto Bishkek and it gave the majestic Pamir Highway a run for it's money.

Time to Go:

May to October. Due to the high altitude the route is likely to be snowbound at all other times of the year. You need warm clothing even in the height of summer. You can get strong winds and storms at any time. I cycled it in October and it was cold, dropping below freezing each night, but every day was beautiful, sunny and the wind was rarely an issue. I would recommend a 4 season sleeping bag if cycling at this time of year.

Roads:

Ranging from nice asphalt to a hideous mess and everything in between.

Road conditions on the Pamir Highway as of August 2017

Wild camping:

Wild camping is extremely easy and excellent. It can get very cold at night at any time of the year. If you are near human habitation then it's best to ask as the land might be used for grazing animals. The result is you will probably be invited into the home to sleep and be royally fed. Dushanbe is your best bet for camping gear. You can get gas at the Munisa Mall near the Flag Pole park.

Visa's:

You need a visa to travel to Tajikistan and an additional GBAO permit is required for travel to the Pamirs. When I cycled along the route I had to go through the palaver of visiting an embassy and obtaining a letter of invitation. I even had to write a few paragraphs on why I wanted to visit wonderful country of Tajikistan. Nowadays you can apply for an e-visa online and it is valid at airports and international borders. Price is $50 for the visa and $20 for a GBAO permit. The visa is valid for 45 days within a 90-day period from the entry date you fill in, and is single entry. You can apply as early as you like. You don’t have to enter on the first day of entry. If you want a double-entry visa, you will need to visit an embassy. It is easier to just buy 2 e-visas. Be warned the e-visa site is up and down like a yo-yo. You will need to print out both e-visa and GBAO permit when entering the country.

Bicycle Shops:

There's a good bike shop located on the corner of Abay street and Borbad Street in Dushanbe. They have some decent components and spare parts, also a range of mountain and road bikes. A young mechanic by the name of Zoir is very helpful. Apparently the manager of the Green House Hostel can get you any bike part you want sent from Moscow within 3-4 days. It is a good idea to get your bike in tip-top working order before you set out on the route. There is very little along the way although there is a kiosk selling bicycle parts in Kala-i Khum.

Tips:

It is much better to cycle the route from Dushanbe to Osh than the other way around. You will have more chance of tailwind, the climbs won't be quite as steep and there is less chance of altitude sickness.

The Panjakent-Samarkand border with Uzbekistan is now open having been closed for years. If you are travelling this way it is highly recommended you avoid the tunnel on M-34 affectionately known as 'Death' tunnel. Say no more. You can take on the Anzob pass instead which is extremely tough but can be done.

September/October is the best month for finding fresh fruit in Kala-i Khum and Khorog.

The Green House Hostel in Dushanbe comes recommended by other cyclists.

Interesting facts:

In the 1985 film Spies Like Us, the decoy GLG-20s played by Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd are told to meet their contacts on the "road to Dushanbe,". A reference to the M41 highway.

It is sometimes referred to as the "Heroin Highway,". Much of the ninety tonnes of heroin that are trafficked through Tajikistan each year pass along this route.

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Right.