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’.
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.
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:
Tulparkul (near Sary Moghul)
Murgab (hiking through Pshart Valley)
Langar (pretty disastrous hiking day here!)
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.
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.
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.
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2. Can I apply for my visa and GBAO permit online?
You will need a visa and a GBAO permit to do the wonderful Pamir Highway. You can apply for both of these using the online system.
3. How much does the visa and GBAO permit cost?
The visa costs US$50 and the GBAO permit costs US$20. You pay online using your credit card.
4. How long does the application process take?
Your application will be processed within 2 business days. Our visa and GBAO permit arrived within 24 hours.
5. Do I need exact entry and exit dates?
No. You will be given 90 days to enter, and you can stay for a maximum of 45 days. Although the FAQ page on the Tajikistan e-visa website says you need to enter the GBAO region on the date specified in your e-visa, there isn’t really anywhere to specify this. We entered the day after our visa ‘valid from’ date, and had no problems.
Your visa’s validity dates will look like this:
Valid From Duration of Stay Valid Until
23/08/16 45 days maximum 21/11/16
6. Do I need a colour copy of my e-visa?
No. In our experience black and white copies were acceptable at the border crossing and at check points.
7. Do I need to register with the OVIR?
If you stay in Tajikistan for 30 days or more, you need to register with the OVIR (Department of Visas and Registration). We heard reports of travellers being told they had to register with the OVIR regardless of the length of stay if they had an e-visa. However, this was most likely a scam. You do not need to register with the OVIR if you stay less than 30 days with an e-visa.
8. Can I use the e-visa at land and airport border crossings?
9. What’s the difference between ‘Tourism Sightseeing’ and ‘Tourism Vacation’?
Nothing. Just pick one!
10. What should we say our address in Tajikistan is?
Just pick a hotel in Tajikistan. They don’t appear to check whether you actually have a booking or not.
11. Can we still get a Visa On Arrival?
We understand that you can still get a Visa On Arrival (VOA) at Tajikistan’s international airports. The VOA is a bit cheaper than the e-visa. However, you can’t get a GBAO permit on arrival which means you have to trudge off to a a travel agency or deal with Tajik officials yourself. Most travellers seem to be taking the far more convenient e-visa option.
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.
Bishkek – Kyrgyzstan (apply for Iranian tourist visa)
Cholpon Ata at Lake Issyl Kol – Kyrgyzstan
Kochkor/Song Kul – Kyrgyzstan
Osh – Kyrgyzstan
Murghab – Tajikistan
Khorog via Wakhan Valley – Tajikistan
Dushanbe – Tajikistan
Tashkent – Uzbekistan (apply for Turmenistan transit visa)
Khiva and surrounds – Uzbekistan
Bukhara – Uzbekistan
Turmenabat – Turkmenistan
Ashgabat – Turkmenistan
Mashhad – Iran
Isfahan – Iran
Yazd – Iran
Shiraz – Iran
Tehran – Iran
Tabriz – Iran
Yerevan and surrounds – Armenia
Tblisi and surrounds – Georgia
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.