Trucking through Tajikistan

Retracing the ancient Silk Road was something I’ve been lucky enough to do a couple of times, but this didn’t do anything to quell the excitement of driving the Pamir Highway. I’d heard all about the stark beauty of the road across the “Roof of the World”, not to mention tales of the “interesting” road conditions. I was ready for it all!

The Pamir Highway, named by the Soviets as M41, snakes a path through the high Pamir Mountains.  Due to the impenetrable nature of the terrain it is the most popular route through, and has been used for centuries. The road rises over 4650m, making it the second highest altitude international highway worldwide.

I was travelling with Oasis Overland, running a private charter trip. We planned to drive the Pamir Highway from Osh, through Tajikistan, and into Uzbekistan. We would leave the M41 in Termez, although some argue that the ‘real’ Pamir highway continues to Mazari Sharif in Afghanistan. 

Our first glimpses of Tajikistan were incredible: snow capped peaks stiff against a powder blue sky. Even the grey storm clouds that threatened to crash down on us were broken up with shards of sunshine; a good omen for our early start the next morning. 

We left eagerly; the group buoyed with excitement and apprehension about the high pass ahead. The border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is over 4000m, and begins the start of the weaving mountain pass. Leaving Kyrgyzstan was simple, and as we started climbing we all added an extra layer of clothing against the sharp chill. As we drove deeper into No-Man’s land, the landscape changed colour and a deep sienna red marked the beginning of the crazy colours these mountains would display. 

The crossing was pleasantly simple, and we were welcomed into the new country by smiling officials. The locals, it seemed, had a much tougher time than us; we saw land rovers piled high with goods being made to unload each and every item. We were lucky to only have a brief search, more out of curiosity than anything official.

The views that unfurled over the next 12 hours were breath-taking. We drove through crimson dusted hills, snow capped peaks, blue sky stretching out from the sandy outcrop beneath – it changed all the time!  We followed the Chinese border for a while, smiling at the strategic holes in the fence where people have obviously sculpted their own short cut. Evidence of the road’s alter-ego, the “Heroin Highway” perhaps? 

Our first section was from the border to Khorog, one of the most popular treks along the highway. We passed the twinkling jewel of Lake Karakol, and the overlanding-popular stop in Murghab. Every day we past teams of cyclists, picking their way around the pot holes; sand covering their faces against the dust.  While the road quality varies along the highway, I think all of us agreed it was ‘sub-par’. We actually preferred the gravel and its dust clouds to the paved-but-pot-holey sections. Damaged by erosion, earthquakes, avalanches and landslides, this highway suffers, and it’s very evident! Along the way we saw pockets of civilisation, but it’s a harsh and unforgiving landscape. The yurt camps were small and sprinkled far off the main road, but their inhabitants were kind and welcoming, and very excited to see us. 

Khorog is a charming town nestled in the mountains. It’s a tourist hub where most people prepare themselves for journeys into the Pamirs. You also have a direct view into Afghanistan across the river. We were tempted to dip a toe into this forbidden country, but the Afghan bazaar is unfortunately only on a Saturday. This bazaar is where both Tajik and Afghan people can come to sell or purchase goods, and tourists can come to watch too – all without a visa.  May be next time….!

Our next step of the journey was 2 days to Dushanbe, following the road as it snakes north along the Panj River. This part of the highway has been carved out of the sandy-coloured rock, and hugs the river as it twists and bends. We crawled under overhanging rocks and edged round sharp corners, all the while waving to villagers in neighbouring Afghanistan. Life across the water looked like it hadn’t changed for millennia, with donkeys loaded up with straw and people on horseback herding their goats. 

Dushanbe was our last stop in this beautiful country. It was a modern and clean capital city, and a world away from the rest of the country. Eastern Tajikistan, where we’d trundled through, accounts for 45% of the country, but a mere 3% of the country’s population lives there. This bustling city was a shock, but not an unwelcome one – you could get great coffee ?

I recently read that the Pamir Highway boasts 1250 kilometres of spectacular landscapes. Judging by what I saw, I totally agree.

Oasis Overland are running an Exploratory Expedition from London to Istanbul, via Tajikistan and the Pamir Highway in 2020. Click here for more details!