Pamir Highway Part 1: Along the Afghan Border

What is the Pamir Highway:

The Pamir Highway is a road originally built by the Soviet Union in the 1930´s to facilitate troop movement through the difficult mountainous terrain. Originally called M41, it began in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan and ended in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Most of the road traverses through what is now Tajikistan. The Pamir Highway is considered to be the second highest paved highway in the world after Pakistan´s Karakoram Highway. 

The Pamir Highway is a popular road today for two reasons. Locals and trucks use the road because it is still the sole road in the country connecting the west of Tajikistan to the east and the Chinese border. International tourists use the road because it leads to some of the most stunning mountain and high-altitude scenery in the world. Additionally, much of the road traverses the border with Afghanistan and allows a rare opportunity to safely look into the troubled country. The Pamir Highway is especially popular with long distance cyclists and road trippers going between Europe and Asia. 

How/Why Did I Decide to Go on the Pamir Highway:

The Pamir Highway is known for being one of the greatest road trips on earth and for being a wild adventure. It has been on my list for quite some time. It is also a seasonal trip, as the road is only snow-free for 3 months of the year. After realizing that I would have a month of free time to travel during the August 2021, I immediately knew that this is where I wanted to go. 

The preparation was surprisingly simple. While the road can be done with a rental car, I knew I wanted a professional driver/guide. Many companies offer the trip. I reached out to 3 and got the best quote (in terms of reliability, date/times and price) from Kudoguy at Roof of the World Travels. Because my trip already had 2 other confirmed passengers, I got a much better price than any other company that books trips online. Typically, the trip is offered as a one-way journey between Dushanbe, Tajikistan and Osh, Kyrgyzstan. However, due to a border closure, the trip was a roundtrip from Dushanbe. 

There was nothing else to prepare and no special packing list. 

Once in Tajikistan, I spend a day in Dushanbe, then I took an overnight trip to the Fann Mountains and finally spent a day crashing a wedding in Hisor. 

At long last, it was time to embark on this crazy 10-day journey. 

Day 1: August 16, 2021: First Glimpse

Rajiv and I met up with Fez, our driver at 8:30 at the Green Hostel in Dushanbe, the capital and largest city of Tajikistan. It was the same tan Toyota 4-Runner which took me to the Fann Mountains. 

The roads near the capital are good and an hour later we reached our first stop, Nurek Lake. This reservoir is held up by the world´s second-tallest dam. It used to be the tallest but now there is a taller one in China. 

Nurek Lake

The overlook is a major roadside stop, so there were many vendors selling food. I purchased some trail mix and kashk, the dried yogurt balls found all over Central Asia. 

Typical roadside snacks in Tajikistan

We then continued south through the dusty plains of southwestern Tajikistan. We passed by a monument to the cyclists who were murdered by ISIS in 2018, a moment that truly shook the nation. Next, we passed by Danghara, the small and humble hometown of President Emomali Rahmon. Surprisingly the road here was not perfect. I guess Rahmon did not like his upbringing very much. 

Further along, we passed by an ancient fortress, which was beautifully renovated. 

After 3 hours in the car plus stops, we reached Tajikistan´s 3rd largest city: Kulob. The city has a typical Soviet-style center. Kulob also contains the tomb of the man who brought Islam to Central Asia, but we didn´t get to see any of that. Instead, we got lunch in a Soviet-style hotel cafeteria. The food was surprisingly good…and cheap!

Typical Tajik lunch

Here we learned that Kabul had fallen to the Taliban. 

The road past Kulob was being improved and was generally in fantastic condition. However, not all of the bridges have been completed. This resulted in some very questionable segments of road. One such crossing required crossing a deep puddle that resulted in a sedan getting stuck. I am surprised that the government has not implemented a better temporary solution. 

We then climbed up a mountain pass and crossed into the region known as the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). The GBAO comprises 45% of the land area of Tajikistan but only contains 3% of the country´s population. 

A special permit is required to enter the GBAO. The permit costs $20 more than the standard visa but barely looks any different. The words GBAO Permit are added onto the normal eVisa printout. Basically, this is a scam run by the government to get more money. 

Just past the checkpoints, we reached a stretch of road with an insane number of streetlights. This is obvious graft at work. 

So many streetlights in such a random area

Later on, we passed by a rockslide. Here, a worker in a truck led us through the rubble. 

Finally, we reached a sweeping valley containing the mighty Panj river. Afghanistan was on the far side. It was crazy to be staring at one of the world´s most dangerous and discussed places. 

First glimpse of Afghanistan on the far side of the river. The green areas in Afghanistan are trees covering the towns.

Even crazier is that there were two tiny villages on the other side. The Taliban must be there! Northeastern Afghanistan fell to the Taliban weeks ago, so this area was secure. This part of Afghanistan is also mostly unpopulated. The nearest large towns or cities are at least 2 days away by motorcycle. Additionally, the border is patrolled by the entire Tajik army plus 7,000 Russian soldiers. We could safely glimpse into another world.

The canyon narrowed and soon enough we were no more than 50 meters from Afghanistan. The river was raging so there was no chance of someone swimming over to migrate or attack us.  

Very close to Afghanistan!

The Afghan villages were noticeably poorer than the Tajik ones. Instead of a paved road and cars there was a dirt road and motorcycles. Most of the houses in Afghanistan were made of mud, while the Tajik ones were made of stone and a corrugated steel. 

Afghan village

Along the drive, we saw two white Taliban flags. The first was atop a TV tower and the other was on a hut. I still couldn´t get over the fact that we were safely looking at this. I suppose it is sometimes good to have a powerful dictator and the backing of a global superpower. 

The white Taliban flag is visible on the TV tower in the center of the village

It felt strange to be here on the border on the day Kabul fell. While most of Afghanistan is in chaos, this remote area of the country was calm. 

After 90 minutes of stunning canyon driving, we reached the town of Khalai Khum. Here, my phone got an LTE signal and we saw some seriously impressive buildings such as the glass and steel women´s center. We also passed by an amusement park seemingly built to troll the Afghans.

The town center was average by Tajik standards, but still impressive given the location. The town´s most unusual feature was the gorgeous town hall that reminded me of President Snow´s mansion in the Hunger Games. 

City Hall in Kalai Khum, Tajikistan

We spent the rest of the day relaxing in our hotel room which featured purple bedsheets and a mural of a deer hanging out at the Kuang Si Waterfall in Laos. What a sight!   

My amazing hotel room

After a mediocre dinner, we went to bed early. Today was crazy. I can only imagine what is in store tomorrow. 

Day 2: August 17, 2021: Them

I woke up way too early at 4:00 and stayed up until it was time to go. Breakfast was two oily eggs and a tiny sausage. I did a little walk around the town. Lots of construction workers were out. While the workers were Tajik, the crew chief was Chinese.  

We left at 8:30 and continued up the Panj river canyon. The road east of Khalai Khum was terrible road. There were bumps every few seconds. It was so bad that you had to focus the entire ride. 

Typical stretch of the Pamir Highway between Kalai Khum and Rushan

Just after town, we passed the first border crossing with Afghanistan. The bridge was obviously closed as the Taliban controlled the other side. 

A few kilometers later we detoured up a steep 2-kilometer dirt road to reach the lost city of Karom. The site contains ancient Buddhist ruins from the 3rd century including a stupa and small town. Amazingly, some of the wood used to construct the buildings was there and in good shape! The canyon views were also spectacular. 

1700 year old Buddhist stupa

We then went into the “museum”, which is basically a storeroom for the artifacts that did not go to Dushanbe. A guy handed us pots and mortars. I could not believe we were touching artifacts from 1700 years ago. 

Piles of ancient artifacts

For the next couple hours, we drove along the long windy bumpy road along the Afghan border. The steep canyons were stunning. Since we were on the Tajik side, we could only really look at Afghanistan I am sure that the Tajik side is equally as pretty. 

Afghanistan is on the right, Tajikistan on the left

Most of the terrain was uninhabitable on both sides due to the steep terrain, although we did pass a couple villages in both countries. Tajik side had “paved” road and the Afghan side had a dirt motorcycle track. We passed by a couple Afghan villages where we could see boys hanging out by the river. We waved to them. They waved back and yelled but their words were drowned out by the raging Panj River. 

An Afghan villave

Omnipresent was the huge military presence on the Tajik side. The road is of vital strategic importance for Tajikistan since it is the only one that connects east and west parts of the country. The Russian army is also here with 7,000 troops aka more than the US had in Afghanistan. Russia inherited military bases from the Soviet Union and has kept them. Tajikistan is also probably happy to have Russia here to deter would-be-terrorists and Islamists from crossing the river. So far, there have been zero incidents of violence along this border. 

When driving by one Afghan village approximately halfway through the day, we heard a loud siren. We stopped and got out of the car. Then we saw Them…the Taliban. 

This was not a random flag or a villager under their control, but real fighters. About 200 meters away across the river. With guns. It appeared to be some sort of victory parade to celebrate the fall of Kabul yesterday. 4 jeeps rolled through the town. Two had the distinctive white flag of the Taliban. Another had loudspeakers blasting some sort of religious chanting.

The Taliban rolling through a village across the river in Afghanistan. The sound is so eerie!

It took a bit of time to process what we just witnessed: real terrorists and true evil in the flesh. Typically, when an American sees these gunmen or hears these chants, there is a good chance it is the last thing they see. The Taliban definitely noticed us too, but there was nothing they could do since we were in safe Tajikistan. Needless to say, Rajiv and I were shaken. 

The road itself was quite busy. There were some passenger cars and public minibuses speeding along like maniacs. They do the 12-16-hour drive between Dushanbe and Khorog in a single day. Still, most of the traffic was truck traffic coming from China. The road quality is very bad and I wonder how the trucks are able to navigate the road! The trucks and truck drivers are all Tajik. However, I learned that this is a temporary COVID requirement, as China won´t allow the drivers back in. Tajikistan still needs the Chinese imports, so the solution is switching the load from a Chinese truck to a Tajik truck at the border. 

Further along we passed by another Afghan border crossing. On the Taliban side was a large militant complex with barracks and storage for many jeeps and other vehicles. Fez, my driver, pointed out that it was built by the United States. Inside the complex we witnessed Taliban security guards chatting to each other. 

Another border crossing. Hard to see in the picture, but the Taliban flag is flying on the left bridge tower.

Just beyond the most dramatic canyon yet, the river widened to about 800 meters, the road improved and we found cell coverage. A few minutes later, we reached the town of Rushan. 

A gorgeous canyon on the Panj River

We were now in the territory of the Pamiri people. They are a separate ethnic group from Tajiks. They speak a different language (some say different dialect), they have a different religion (Ismaili Shia while Tajiks are Sunni), and look different. At first glance, the Pamiris look Polish or Eastern European with light skin. A local legend is that they are the descendants of the generals of Alexander the Great who loved the region so much they decided to stay. The Pamiris also speak English. This is due to a directive from their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan. 

Lunch with Rajiv and Fez, our Pamiri driver.

Fez dropped us off at a homestay. This was a real home with a husband, wife and three children. The oldest boy was 15 and speaks perfect English. The youngest daughter, 3, loved me. She showed me all her toys and I pushed her on the homemade swing.

My homestay

Then we walked into town. There was a football match going on. There seemed to be a mix of younger and older kids. Eventually, the army came and escorted all the older kids off the field! 

Pamir kids and Afghan refugees playing soccer. The man on the right by the goal has his phone out and probably was the snitch.

A local man came over and explained what had just happened. It turns out that the older kids were Afghan refugees who swam over the border. They were most likely caught by a man videotaping the game behind a goal. He probably called in a tip to the army. 

The older man asked me if I was afraid to be here. I responded by asking him if we should be afraid. He said no and that Tajikistan is safe, but many people don´t understand that. I asked him what he thought of the situation in Afghanistan. He said that Afghanistan has always been a problem for Pamiris: the Soviets were a problem, the first Taliban government was a problem, the Americans were a problem, and so is the new Taliban government. In short, a transition of power in Afghanistan means nothing on the north bank of the River Panj. 

We ate dinner and went to sleep in what clearly was the little girls bedroom. Her pillow said Secret Princess on it. Regardless of the decor, we needed to sleep well for our hiking adventure in the Bartang Valley. 

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