The Pamirs are the place that defines Tajikistan in the imagination of travelers. The region is of hardly any importance to the rest of Tajikistan, though. Only 3% of the country’s population lives here, and very few of the other 97% have ever bothered to come. Notwithstanding, the Roof of the World dominates Tajikistan with its superlatives.
Here you can find the second-highest highway in the world, traversing lunar landscapes as well as valleys that are impossible-looking oases of green. Across the river, Afghanistan. Not far away creaks the largest glacier outside of the polar regions, with 3 peaks over 7000 m standing guard.
In this inhospitable landscape, Pamiris and Kyrgyz have carved out an existence, a culture. Meeting them is surely a highlight of any trip to the Pamirs.
What to expect
Traveling the Pamirs is not easy or comfortable to modern standards. Roads are in a bad state. Homestays are rudimentary. There is not enough food and energy to stave off hunger and cold year-round. Altitude sickness and landslides can mess up your plans. Hygiene is another issue: parasites can have you chained for days to a bed or toilet/bucket/hole in the ground.
This means the Pamirs are still a destination suited most to the adventurous traveler. Seekers of comfort should stay away.
People who get warm feelings around words like lonely, sparse or stark will enjoy this region immensely. A large, wind-swept plateau over 3000 m above sea level, it is always bitterly cold in Murghab. Just a few communities of Kyrgyz shepherds live in this land sea. Empty at first sight, the surroundings are surprisingly interesting for those who care to have a second look.
You can visit attractive lakes, like meteoric Karakul, which recently became the site of the highest regatta in the world, attacked by extremist kite surfers. There are some good trekking routes in the area, unpopular of course with more spectacular mountains so close. Camel treks, rafting and wildlife watching tours can be organized as well, and the area contains a surprising number of ancient relics to boot. Staying in the homes of the warm and traditional people who live here is a must. If you have the opportunity, milk a yak.
On the western edge of the region, the territory shoots upwards with another 3 kilometers. Here lies apocalyptic Lake Sarez, under the auspices of Ismoil Somoni Peak (7495m) and the Fedchenko glacier (72 km). These extremities attract trekkers and mountaineers looking for a challenge.
South: Murghab to Khorog
There are 2 ways to do this: the straight way along the Pamir Highway, or the detour along the Wakhan Valley. The detour is much preferred. There are many villages and sights along the way, and Afghanistan is just a literal stone’s throw away.
Starting from Murghab, the Alichur valley is the jewel of Murghab district with peaceful lakes like Yashil Kul, Bulun kul and Zor Kul, Sassyk Kul and Tuz Kul. Yurt encampments dot the road throughout summer. Homestays can be arranged at Alichur and Bulunkul.
Then comes the turn-off to the Wakhan Valley.
A number of fortresses attest to the ancient origins of the Wakhan. Hot springs, petroglyphs, a solar calendar. Mostly though, hanging out in the villages, meeting locals. Villages are closer together here, you could consider walking from one to another for a few days. Most, of course, will want to cycle or drive the valley.
In Khorog, finally, relax, and visit the Botanical Garden.
Valleys north of Khorog
The valleys north of Khorog are perhaps the most iconic bits of the Pamirs. Narrow slivers of irrigated crop lands to defy walls of stone and dust. It’s rather amazing, and it’s the essence of Pamir.
Bartang is the most famous valley for tourists, and best for relaxed strolls ranging from a few hours up to a week, or a complete crossing by bike until Karakul. Rushan is also great to dive into the landscape and the culture, with Vanch and Yazgulem valleys trailing (more difficult access, less dramatic scenery).
Be sure to spend some time in a village in at least one of the valleys to have a chat, savour some Pamiri food, and get a sense of what defines this unique culture.