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Photo Journey: The Pamir Highway

Photo Journey: The Pamir Highway

In September 2016, we hopped in a cramped 4WD to begin our journey along the Pamir Highway. We begun in Osh, Kyrgyzstan and finished our journey two weeks later in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. This incredible highway was built during Soviet times to transport military gear, and reaches heights of more than 4,000 metres above sea level. It has to be one of the most iconic (and sometimes dangerous) road journeys on earth.

Here are our favourite photos from our trip of a lifetime along the Pamir HIghway, the ‘roof of the world’.

Wakhan Valley Tajikistan
Three generations living in the same home in the Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan
Afghanistan Tajikistan border
Overlooking the river border between Tajikistan (left) and Afghanistan (right)
Bulunkul Tajikistan
An abandoned car in the tiny settlement of Bulunkul, Tajikistan
Yurt Tajikistan
Homemade cheese drying outside a family’s yurt camp in Tajikistan
Tajikistan girls
Two Tajik sisters with bright blue eyes in Bulunkul
Hiking Pshart Valley Tajikistan
Stunning views while hiking along the Pshart Valley in Tajikistan
Yurt Tajikistan
A small girl peers from inside her family’s yurt in the Pshart Valley, Tajikistan
The remote border fence between China and Tajikistan
Turparkul Kyrgyzstan
Watching the sunset over the small lakes surrounding Turparkul in Kyrgyzstan
Tajik grandmother
A Tajik grandmother who asked us for pain medication for her knees.
abandoned tomb Pamir HIghway
A bird settles on the side of an abandoned tomb near the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

 

Hanging Out In Bishkek

Hanging Out In Bishkek

We ended up spending far more time in Bishkek than we anticipated, which was actually a blessing in disguise as it gave us time to chill out and relax for a few days. Most travellers doing Central Asia overland seem to end up spending a few days here as they wait for visas – Kyrgyzstan is visa free for 90 days for most nationalities so it’s a handy visa stop.

There aren’t heaps of tourist attractions in the city, but there is plenty of good food and coffee to keep you occupied for a few days! Here are a few of our favourites.

Sightseeing

Wander down to Ala-Too Square, where you can check out the outside of the Parliament and head to the nearby State History Museum. It’s also worth visiting the corner of Manas and Chuy Streets, where you can see some lovely flower gardens in front of the Philharmonic Hall and see the Bishkek City Hall. If you’re in need of some greenery, head to Panfilov Park or further afield for a day trek in Ala-Archa Gorge.

Restaurants

There’s quite a large expat population in Bishkek so if you’re in need of a break from Central Asia food, this is the place! Some places are pretty pricey, but after 2 months of mutton we thought it was worthwhile. Here are our top picks:

  • Furusato – 132 Bokonbayev St – amazing Japanese food with good value lunch specials
  • Vinoteka – 140A Chuy Ave – a relaxed wine bar serving good Italian food and cheese platters
  • Coffee Relax – 140 Toktogul Street – fresh salads, sandwiches, pastas and desserts that are a bit pricey but very tasty
  • Sierra Cafe – 57 Manas St – there are a few branches of this cafe but this was our favourite. Great coffee and milkshakes.
  • Vanilla Sky Cafe – 147 Moskovskaya Street – fantastic coffee and desserts.

Shopping

  • Raritet book store near the corner of Chuy and Razzakov Streets doesn’t have a huge range but it is the only English bookstore we could find in Bishkek
  • Supermarket at the corner of Chuy and Manas has a great range if you are self-catering
  • If you’re a fan of wandering through Central Asian markets, head to Osh Bazaar.
  • Get your passport photos done at ProFoto across from Ala-Too Square on Chuy Ave.

Sleeping

Hostels in Bishkek are heinously overpriced. There is an active Couchsurfing community so it is worth seeing if you can find a host. If not, we highly recommend Friends Guesthouse. While it’s not the most central hostel in Bishkek, it is definitely the best value.

US Dollars

If you are heading onwards to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan or Iran, you will need to stockpile US dollars. You can withdraw US dollars from a number of ATMs in Bishkek. We used Demir Bank, which lets you take out US$300 per transaction.

Yay for transparency! This page contains some affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation through a link on this page, we get paid a small commission. Don’t worry – you don’t pay anything extra! And we promise that we only recommend places that we have truly enjoyed staying at.

Guide To Driving The Pamir Highway

Guide To Driving The Pamir Highway

Driving along the high altitude Pamir Highway in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is an absolute highlight of Central Asia. You climb above 4,000m above sea level during this epic journey, and the scenery is spectacular. There is also plenty of hiking opportunities and friendly locals who open their homes to give you a comfy bed along the way. Here are our tips on how to organise your own unforgettable Pamir Highway trip.

Suggested itinerary

Most people travel the Pamir Highway between Dushanbe, Tajikistan and Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Many people also make a detour to drive through the stunning Wakhan Valley between Khorog and Murgab in Tajikistan – a side trip that is well worth the extra kilometres.

We spent 12 days driving from Osh to Dushanbe via the Wakhan Valley. This gave us time to do some hiking, and ensured we weren’t driving all day every day. We really enjoyed all of our stops along the way. If you have less time, you could certainly cut out the hiking and the night at Rushan. Here was our itinerary:

  1. Tulparkul (near Sary Moghul)
  2. Karakul
  3. Murgab
  4. Murgab (hiking through Pshart Valley)
  5. Bulunkul
  6. Langar
  7. Langar (pretty disastrous hiking day here!)
  8. Ishakshim
  9. Khorog
  10. Rushan
  11. Kalaikumb
  12. Dushanbe
Bulunkul Tajikistan
Exploring the rather post-apocalyptic town of Bulunkul

Public transport vs hired vehicle

We decided to hire a vehicle and driver as it was super easy, gave us more flexibility with our itinerary and (importantly) gave us more room in the car! The driver also knew the best guesthouses to stop at, and could handle all the bribes along the way (there are a lot). It was also reasonably cheap as we shared the cost between 5 travellers.

Public transport (especially in the Wakhan Valley) can be hard to find. If a shared taxi does ply your route it will usually be completely jam packed with people, and certainly won’t be stopping for you to take photos! However, it seemed fairly easily to find shared taxis between Osh and Murgab, Murgab and Khorog, and Khorog and Dushanbe. Just be prepared for some very long travel days in cramped conditions.

Pshart Valley Tajikistan
A small yurt camp at the beginning of the Pshart Valley

Choosing a tour operator

We booked our trip through Osh Guesthouse in Osh. Our car and driver were fantastic – if you book with Osh Guesthouse be sure to ask for Daniyer (although he doesn’t speak much English). We had a few issues with their calculation of kilometres, but were able to sort this out. While we got a pretty good deal overall, definitely be on your toes if you book with Osh Guesthouse. We have heard terrible stories from other travellers about being waaay overcharged. As with many tour operators, we are sure that Osh Guesthouse takes a very healthy cut of the hire fee. It would be preferable to deal with a driver directly, but realistically you probably need a Russian speaker to help you with this. If you want other options, Biy Ordo and CBT Osh can also book cars and drivers.

There are a huge number of tour operators in Osh, Khorog, Dushanbe and Murgab who can arrange a car and driver for you. Your best bet is to get recommendations from other travellers – they will be able to suggest companies and drivers. Online reviews are handy too, but often your experience will depend on your particular driver and car. You really don’t need to book in advance – we turned up to Osh Guesthouse the day before we wanted to leave and it was fine.

Finding travel buddies

We found our travel buddies on the Caravanistan forum and by checking the noticeboard at our hostel (Biy Ordo). There is also a big noticeboard at Osh Guesthouse with plenty of travellers looking to share rides. We were lucky enough to find a great group of people to travel with. Considering you will be jammed in a small space with these people for over a week, it is definitely worth having a chat and heading out for a drink to check you will actually get along!

How much should it cost?

Expect to pay between US$0.60 and US$0.75 per kilometre for the car, plus US$15 per day for food and accommodation for your driver. This cost includes petrol and bribes (there are plenty paid along the way!), but does not include your food or accommodation. Make sure you budget for a decent tip for your driver at the end (if you are happy with their service) – our group tipped around 10% of the hire fee.

Most guesthouses along the Pamir Highway charge between US$10-$15 per person per night, which includes breakfast and dinner. The meals are huge – we often didn’t even eat lunch!

What to expect

We usually drove for around 3 to 4 hours per day. The roads in Kyrgyzstan are pretty good, but they aren’t great in Tajikistan! The roads are pretty rough, and the journey can be pretty hair-raising for those of us afraid of heights. The guesthouses are quite basic – you will often be sharing your room with the other travellers in your vehicle and sleeping on mats on the floors. Not all guesthouses will have hot water or showers either, so pack a few wet wipes.

What will you do on your trip? Well, we usually went for a walk around the town we were stopped in during the afternoon, before settling in for dinner and tea. Our group played plenty of cards, and even picked up the odd bottle of vodka to make things a little more interesting! We did a day hike through the Pshart Valley with a local guide for $US10 – speak to your driver about doing this trek, he should know where to take you. We also did a disastrous day hike from Langar without a guide – our tip is to stick to the well-known petroglyphs hike or get a guide!

The people and languages you encounter will change dramatically along the journey, along with the weather. It is bloody freezing in the Pamirs so bring plenty of warm clothes. The Wakhan Valley is much lower in altitude so isn’t so chilly. The people along the way were very friendly and welcoming, although in pockets of the Wakhan Valley people were a little pushy trying to sell you things. There aren’t too many other travellers along the way so don’t expect to socialise much, but you will probably run into a few cyclists and motorcyclists.

Wakhan Valley family
Staying with families along the Pamir Highway was one of the highlights of our trip

Is it safe?

If your mothers are anything like ours, they will freak out completely when they realise you’ll be cruising along the Afghan border for part of your trip. But we felt incredibly safe and didn’t see any trouble. Obviously keep an eye on travel warnings, but take them with a grain of salt. For up to date local information, the Caravanistan forums are also very handy.

Wakhan Valley Tajikistan
A view of the Wakhan Valley, with Tajikistan on the left and Afghanistan on the right

Yay for transparency! This page contains some affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation through a link on this page, we get paid a small commission. Don’t worry – you don’t pay anything extra! And we promise that we only recommend places that we have truly enjoyed staying at.

Trekking to Song Kul in Kyrgyzstan

Trekking to Song Kul in Kyrgyzstan

We just returned from an amazing three-day trek to Song Kul (‘the Last Lake’) in Kyrgyzstan. We are not experienced trekkers, and we do not have our own camping gear, so we decided to do the trek with a guide through CBT Kochkor. Here is a quick run down on how to organise your own Song Kul trekking trip!

Getting to Kochkor

We arranged our Song Kul trek in Kochkor. There are a number of tour operators, guesthouses, and supermarkets here so it’s a great place to organise your trek to Song Kul. Getting to Kochkor is pretty easy:

From Bishkek – catch a mashrutka (200 som) or shared taxi (150-300 som) from the Western bus station to Kochkor. The journey takes around 3 hours.

From Cholpon Ata – catch a shared taxi to Balykchy (200-300 som) from the Cholpon Ata bus station then catch another shared taxi to Kochkor (150-200 som). The journey takes around 3 hours.

From Naryn – just grab a shared taxi for the 120km journey (around 200 som).

From Osh – don’t even bother . We were quoted an outrageous price for a private taxi for this route. Go to Bishkek first!

Arranging the trek with CBT Kochkor

As we mentioned above, we are not experienced trekkers and don’t have our own gear so we headed to CBT Kochkor (located at 22A Pionerskaya St, just off the main road) to arrange our trek. This is a very popular trek, and the lady at the CBT office had clearly organised a few of these trips before. It was very easy to arrange, and we were able to depart the next morning. The CBT office also has free wifi, which is very handy!

The total price for our 2 night/3 day trek was 8,900 som per person. This included:

  • an English-speaking, female guide
  • accommodation in yurt homestays
  • 2 breakfasts, 1 lunch, 2 dinners
  • private transport (both ways)

We gave our guide and driver a small tip, although this did not seem to be expected. We also chose to extend our stay at Song Kul for one extra night for 1,400 som per person. This included all meals and accommodation in a private yurt.

We also booked one night’s accommodation in a CBT homestay in Kochkor. This cost 500 som per person, including breakfast. Dinner was an extra 350 som per person. We had a twin room, wifi, hot showers and an outside toilet.

There is no doubt you can do this trek cheaper – we heard that other tour companies in Kochkor offer this trek for lower prices (although these companies have mixed reviews online). You can also do the trek and/or arrange your transport independently (more info below). However, we are happy to pay slightly higher prices if it means we have a good trek and there is minimal d*cking around with transport, inclusions/exclusions etc. We were very happy with our trip (especially our guide, who spoke near-perfect English), so we have no regrets over the price.

Our trekking experience

Day 1: Our driver picked us up from our homestay at 9am, then drove us to the CBT office to drop off our bags that we weren’t taking on the trip. Here we met our guide (Aruka – I’m sure I have spelled that wrong!). Aruka is studying English teaching in Bishkek, and works as a guide during her summer break. Aruka was perfect – great English, very friendly, told us about the local culture and tried to teach us Kyrgiz words, and walked with us the entire trek and checked that we were OK (because I probably looked like I was going to die). She even translated for other trekkers who we met during the trek and played the occasional Adele song on her phone.

The first day, we drove for around 1 hour before being dropped off at Km 46 on the Kochkor-Jumgal road. From there we headed south. In the morning you will cross the Chaar Archa pass, then descend into a valley for lunch. You then cross the ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ over a small river, before heading up the left-hand side of the valley across another pass. Heading downhill from the second pass, you will eventually cross a small metal bridge and veer right until you reach the small village of Kilemche. The total trekking time was around 5 hours.

We shared a yurt with our guide and another couple. The food was tasty, and they were happy to cook vegetarian meals.

Day 2: The next day we headed up the valley to the Jalgis Karagai pass, which we were told was at 3,600m above sea level. This is an incline of 800m in one morning so it was pretty challenging. The views of Song Kul and the surrounding mountains are spectacular from the pass. We descended to Jamanechki for lunch in a local yurt, before walking another 2 hours on flat terrain to the main yurt camp of Baltai-Aral. The total trekking time was around 7 hours.

We stayed in a yurt labelled ‘CBT Kochkor 1’. We had our own yurt and the food was great. The family were really friendly and happy to arrange horses at the last minute. We hired horses for 800 som per day. Baltai-Aral is sometimes referred to as ‘Yurt-Vegas’ because there are so many yurts. You should be prepared for tour groups!

Trekking to Song Kul independently

The route: It is certainly possible to do this trek independently. You should have a GPS on your phone and your own camping gear.  There were quite a few tourists doing this trek by foot and horse, so it is easy to work out the route. There is also a GPS route in Wikiloc, and a decent description of the route in the Lonely Planet Central Asia guidebook (p275 in 6th ed.).

Accommodation: While there are plenty of yurtstays in Baltai-Aral, there are only a few in Kilemche. These seemed to be pretty much booked up by guided groups. Don’t bet on finding a bed last minute in Kilemche. It’s best to have your own tent just in case. It’s free to set up your tent and the yurt camps will provide dinner (for a fee) if need be.

Transport: You can find a gazillion taxi drivers in Kochkor willing to drive you to the trail head at Km 46. You should be prepared to bargain. It shouldn’t cost more than 1,000 som per car. There are also plenty of taxis at Baltai-Aral offering lifts back to Kochkor (around 1,000-2,000 som per car) or Naryn (3,000-3,500 som per car).

Self catering: If you are self-catering, bear in mind that there are no shops in Kilemche or Baltai-Aral. Buy everything you need in Kochkor.

Our 3 Month Silk Road Itinerary

Our 3 Month Silk Road Itinerary

We are lucky enough to be travelling to many countries along the Silk Road from late July to early November 2016. We are not strictly travelling along the main Silk Road routes, which traditionally begin in China, but we are visiting many of the highlights. We will be travelling by local transport, but we have met lots of people travelling this route by bicycle, motorbike or hitchhiking.

Our Silk Road Itinerary

We have posted our rough itinerary below (we may go a little ‘off piste’ from time to time), which can hopefully help you to plan your own Silk Road adventure! Planning an itinerary for this part of the world can be a headache due to visa regulations, so we have also noted where we will be stopping for visas.

  1. Omsk – Russia
  2. Astana – Kazakhstan (apply for Uzbek visa)
  3. Almaty – Kazakhstan
  4. Shymkent – Kazakhstan
  5. Bishkek – Kyrgyzstan (apply for Iranian tourist visa)
  6. Cholpon Ata at Lake Issyl Kol – Kyrgyzstan
  7. Kochkor/Song Kul – Kyrgyzstan
  8. Osh – Kyrgyzstan
  9. Murghab – Tajikistan
  10. Khorog via Wakhan Valley – Tajikistan
  11. Dushanbe – Tajikistan
  12. Tashkent – Uzbekistan (apply for Turmenistan transit visa)
  13. Khiva and surrounds – Uzbekistan
  14. Bukhara – Uzbekistan
  15. Turmenabat – Turkmenistan
  16. Ashgabat – Turkmenistan
  17. Mashhad – Iran
  18. Isfahan – Iran
  19. Yazd – Iran
  20. Shiraz – Iran
  21. Tehran – Iran
  22. Tabriz – Iran
  23. Yerevan and surrounds – Armenia
  24. Tblisi and surrounds – Georgia

Three Month Silk Road Itinerary

NOTE: For Australians, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are visa free. Tajikistan, Georgia and Armenia have e-visas. Visa regulations change regularly so make sure you check for updates on websites like Caravanistan and Smartraveller before you depart.