The Pamir Highway: Overrated or Underrated?

All about Tajikistan. Expert: Pamirski, Christian77
Gilgamesh
Posts: 15
Joined: Thu Mar 03, 2016 7:16 pm
x 4

The Pamir Highway: Overrated or Underrated?

Postby Gilgamesh » Thu Mar 03, 2016 7:57 pm

There is another thread on this site asking why we all travel, and this being my first post here, it may be something worth sharing. We increasingly live in a global society -- places are easier to get to, making the world become smaller. As a result we sometimes seem less uniqueness in the places of the world; the wide reach of global corporations, products, and culture threatens to dilute those things that make it all special and different. I also travel to be challenged. I'd stay home if I wanted things familiar and easy.

I made a trip to Central Asia as an independent traveler over a decade now, primarily through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, with a short junket in Azerbaijan. As time has passed and my life has changed though, I've been eyeing Tajikistan, the Pamirs in particular.

I no longer have all the available time I did, but my wife and I are setting up for a big trip. The problem of course, is there are so many options for "trips of a lifetime". It becomes not a choice of whether Tajikistan is a great place to visit or not, but how it ranks vs. going instead to Mongolia, India (Ladakh or back to Uttarakhand), or to Nepal and trek to Kanchenjunga.

Many of the posts here are about border crossings, ride shares, and visas -- the nuts and bolts of travel. I'm looking at this from a higher view, and would be curious in people's impressions:

1. Overall impressions? There are a lot of great places in the world to see. Is it true? Is this one of them?

2. We would probably visit Tajikistan on a Pamir Highway trip. A real concern is how much this trip would be spent in the backseat of a car, watching the world pass out the window -- opposed to getting some exercise, and interacting with people and the cultures. By nature we're active people, not sitters. Now while you have no choice but to interact with many people while traveling independently, this is a trip that would be guided and arranged in advance. I have traveled when time is no issue, which is best, but not the case here. Logistics take time, and I have a 3-4 week window I can take off from work.

3. There are a few ways to do this. We could start in Osh, looping all the way back there. Or we could fly into Dushanbe and start from there. It's the Pamirs that interest me most at this point. But would I miss this travel through Khujand, Istrafshan, and Panjikent? Starting in Dushanbe might save a week, but it's a bad deal if we're missing something good.

All that said, I appreciate any thoughts and insights from the well-traveled people on this board. Many thanks.
0 x

bwv812
China expert
China expert
Posts: 718
Joined: Sat Jan 10, 2015 11:02 pm
x 3282
x 169

Re: The Pamir Highway: Overrated or Underrated?

Postby bwv812 » Fri Mar 04, 2016 3:30 am

For me, the Pamir Highway is much more rewarding than Mongolia—especially from a people perspective. I, like most people, spent little time in the Pamirs proper, as there are few people between Bulun-kul and Sary Tash. But nearer Khorog there are lots of side valleys (from the more extensively visited Wakhan Valley to the less-traveled Bartang Valley) with amazing scenery and amazingly hospitable people. Trekking up and down these valleys is, in my opinion, much more rewarding and logistically less challenging than visiting the desolate Mongolian steppes. Pamiris also tend to be more culturally isolated and distinct/unique than Mongolians.

The actual pamirs, with their high-altitude, barren, harsh landscapes, are pretty empty. In some ways they are like Mongolia, as there is a lot of emptiness with little to see or stop for, with most people living in ugly little villages, and some summer nomads living in yurts/gers and riding horses. And since the people living in the Pamirs proper are Asian-looking Kyrgyz (those in the lower/western valleys are Caucasian-looking Pamiris), they look somewhat similar to Mongolians, right down to their windburnt cheeks.
0 x
My 2012 overland trip from Tokyo to Istanbul: https://silkroadwanderings.blogspot.com

User avatar
steven
Admin
Admin
Posts: 3698
Joined: Mon Jan 14, 2013 4:32 pm
x 3041
x 412

Re: The Pamir Highway: Overrated or Underrated?

Postby steven » Fri Mar 04, 2016 6:19 am

I agree with bwv that trekking in the Bartang, Yagnob valleys is a good way to get out of the car and talk to people while getting some exercise. About finding people who are out of touch with the rest of the world: this is not so realistic in Tajikistan.

4 out of 5 young men in the Pamirs are currently working in Moscow. People have lost their traditional foods because a) men are no longer there to help on the land and b) they got dependent on subsidies during Soviet times and after the collapse they became dependent on the market instead, baking bread from Indian flour and wearing Chinese clothes. Every older farmer in Khorog has a university education thanks to Soviets.

On the Afghani side of the Pamirs, they did not get any of this, and life is much more like 100 years ago. There is a lot more drug use than before though for various reasons. In terms of 'pureness', this is the best it gets.

I am kind of skeptical in general of finding people untouched by global civilization. I was once on an island in Vanuatu and found people who rejected Western customs and kept their ways. Yes, they were different, and it was very interesting. But some in the village still wore clothes or went to church, and I could speak to them in French and pidgin English. So,..

But you spoke of India. I think in places there people are still sufficiently different from us to get a culture shock.

All of this being said, the Pamir Highway and Kyrgyzstan are generally the highlights for many people visiting the Stans. Especially the cyclists and backpackers.

I think you can just fly into Dushanbe and head straight for the Pamirs, skipping Osh and Khujand.
0 x
If you like Caravanistan: we have opened a tip jar! We love you back! :D

Gilgamesh
Posts: 15
Joined: Thu Mar 03, 2016 7:16 pm
x 4

Re: The Pamir Highway: Overrated or Underrated?

Postby Gilgamesh » Fri Mar 04, 2016 9:44 pm

Thanks for all the responses so far. Naturally there is no place that escapes from the wide global reach, though there are places -- amid a world of changes -- that still keep their own personality and a spark of uniqueness. More than some expectation of a lost world, this is what excites me about travel.

As I mentioned in the initial post, I traveled through Central Asia over a decade ago -- 2005, in fact. I started in Uzbekistan, mainly keeping around the Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara triangle. I saw amazing things, and met some excellent people. Overall, though, I felt an guarded nature and an atmosphere of mistrust; and after a couple of attempted shakedowns from the police, I got a real sense why. I didn't go in with much of an Uzbekistan plan -- I had intended to spend my time in Kyrgyzstan, only that was right when the Tulip Revolution was happening. This was also a couple months before the incident in Andijan, so in retrospect it was a rather tense time in the region. No doubt my impression of Uzbekistan was colored by that.

From there I headed south to Turkmenistan. Part of what I wanted to do, and to get a visa, I went with a guide service. This turned out rather well. We went to the Koytendag, spent a night at the Darvaza Crater, and spent some time in Karakala before ending up in Ashgabat. It was spring and more beautiful than expected. It was a lot of time with my guide and driver, camping out by a fire, cooking shashlik, and toasting alternately to international friendship, the beauty of nature, and the Great Patriotic War. Ashgabat, though unique, wasn't a place I needed to spend a lot of time. I did buy a 2 sq. meter carpet at Tolkucha (with great haggling support, and all the paperwork that followed). Interestingly I had everything in order at the airport, though the woman at customs still attempted to shake me down (unsuccessfully trying to palm my paperwork and make it disappear). As it happened then the power went out at the airport, allowing me to slip away to my gate.

I have pretty good memories of Central Asia, only I have good memories of other places too. I traveled independently in China, though Yunnan and Szechuan, the parts that were Tibet until 1950. And I've spent time in Nepal and Himalayan India -- struck in all these places by the beauty and great kindness of people. One thing I can't quite shake from my earlier travels in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan was that thinly veiled police state feeling. Some of that likely belongs to that time, but that does give some background to my questions about the vibe in Tajikistan.

We're thinking, very interested in the Pamirs, but I don't recall Central Asia as an especially cheap place to travel, and there's always more great places to see in the world than time. That said, I think I have some follow-up questions:

1. For those who've done a Pamir Highway trip, to what extent did it have a "sitting in the car" feeling? This is my wife's big question. Is it just looking at the world through a window. Do we get to stretch our legs and interact? We're both rather fit, and wondering if we'd get restless.

2. How does trekking in Tajikistan work? I have some suspicion it involves permits, red tape, and a guide. Or not. For those who've done it, any recommendations (thanks Steven for Bartang and Yagnob) to consider?

3. As I reminisce about earlier trips, can you buy a carpet in Tajikistan? I mean, you can buy a carpet anyway. But I felt like I hit the sweet spot in Turkmenistan, that felt very much part of the culture. I almost never pick up souvenirs, but this is something I'm glad I brought back. Just curious.

Thanks again, Steven and BWV. I have read about how remittances from Russia represent a large percentage of the Tajik economy, and about the 20th century history of the region, and can understand how many traditions are lost. One thing I consider in travel is what places are on the verge of change, where that spark of uniqueness may be at risk, where I need to go and see it before it's gone. I don't know if Tajikistan is that place, and don't really know if many of these kind of places still exist. But if a little of that exists, that increases the pull.

Thanks. I really appreciate any thoughts and insights...
0 x

bwv812
China expert
China expert
Posts: 718
Joined: Sat Jan 10, 2015 11:02 pm
x 3282
x 169

Re: The Pamir Highway: Overrated or Underrated?

Postby bwv812 » Sat Mar 05, 2016 2:20 am

If you've got limited time, you're almost certainly going to hire a car or book a tour for the Pamir Highway. If you want to stop, you stop. If you want to have lots of stops where you get out and interact, you can do that. If you want to hike anywhere in the region you get out and hike. Permits and guides are not required.

Knotted carpets aren't a big thing in the Pamirs or Tajikistan. Like I said, that Pamirs proper are ethnically Kyrgyz, and felted shrydak carpets are more typical. In other parts of Tajikistan you can see things like suzani, but I really didn't see much in the way of quality knotted (or woven) carpets.

Culturally, the CIS 'stans are well Russified (as I'm sure you saw), and have been for a long time. Xinjiang probably offers a better opportunity to see more 'authentic' culture on the verge of disappearance, and the culture there is more sterotypically/romantically Central Asian. Knotted carpets are also a much bigger thing there (there's a hand-made carpet factory in Hotan you can visit, and Yarkand is also known for carpets).

http://silkroadwanderings.blogspot.com/ ... round.html
0 x
My 2012 overland trip from Tokyo to Istanbul: https://silkroadwanderings.blogspot.com

User avatar
steven
Admin
Admin
Posts: 3698
Joined: Mon Jan 14, 2013 4:32 pm
x 3041
x 412

Re: The Pamir Highway: Overrated or Underrated?

Postby steven » Sun Mar 06, 2016 5:53 am

I agree with bwv that the sitting in the car feeling really depends on how much time you have. If you have a month it's ok, you can spend a week hiking this valley, another couple of days the other one, and then you can deal with the annoying transport. If you have 2 weeks, it's already far more tight. It takes a loong day to get to Pamir from Dushanbe, then another day to recover from the ride. Do that twice and there's only 10 days left. Going full circle Osh to Osh is definitely not recommended in 2 weeks, that is indeed just sitting in the car.

Permits (besides the GBAO) are only necessary for out-of-the-way places near the Chinese border.
0 x
If you like Caravanistan: we have opened a tip jar! We love you back! :D

Gilgamesh
Posts: 15
Joined: Thu Mar 03, 2016 7:16 pm
x 4

Re: The Pamir Highway: Overrated or Underrated?

Postby Gilgamesh » Mon Mar 07, 2016 5:56 pm

This is all very good information to consider. As I suspected, the consensus seems that the Osh to Osh drive is a grind, particularly under any kind of tight schedule. We probably have three weeks, all in all, so flying into Dushanbe and starting from there might make the most sense. I have a couple of questions on that:

1. I understand probably the best option is to fly in from Bishkek. Anyone know about how much that flight costs, and its availability?

2. Alternately we could fly in from Turkey. However, a good friend of mine recently took a job in Astana, so while "in the neighborhood", it would be right to visit him for a couple days. Are there direct flights into Dushanbe from Kazakhstan?

At this stage the biggest draw for this trip are the Pamirs and GBAO. I believe a Dushanbe to Osh drive, at an exploratory pace with a bit of trekking mixed in, could be a fine 15-20 day adventure. Naturally if anyone disagrees, I'd love to hear it.

I've begun looking at trekking options in the Wakhan, or elsewhere in the Pamirs. The Darshay Gorge is an early thought (http://www.wildlife-tajikistan.org/en/t ... in-darshay); this Tajikistan wildlife site has been quite interesting , and describes several potential areas.

As for carpets, I'm not surprised. Turkmenistan certainly was a hotspot in this regard. I had thought perhaps, given the border with Afghanistan, you might see some knotted carpets in Tajikistan. Through its history, Northern Afghanistan has been populated by many groups, all fleeing south across the Amu Darya to escape trouble; and memory serves me it's a place associate with carpet weaving. That said, all has not been well in Afghanistan over the last decade, so further migrations are expected. Also a decent carpet is an investment, and not something you see in every market. They're not all like Tolkucha outside Ashgabat; with most crowded with food, people, and Chinese goods -- daily needs and the things people can afford.

On that subject, is the market at Ishkashim even open (earthquake, disturbances)? I've read some conflicting reports. Also I haven't been able to find much on the impact of the December 2015 to the people and infrastructure in the Pamirs, and what that might mean for traveling in the area. Curious if anyone knows more...
0 x

User avatar
steven
Admin
Admin
Posts: 3698
Joined: Mon Jan 14, 2013 4:32 pm
x 3041
x 412

Re: The Pamir Highway: Overrated or Underrated?

Postby steven » Tue Mar 08, 2016 7:13 am

For 1 and 2, I recommend a flight search engine. There are direct flights Dushanbe - Istanbul, perhaps preferable to detouring via Bishkek. I don't think there is a Dushanbe - Astana flight.

I am not a Tajikistan expert so don't want to recommend anything here in terms of destinations as I need to do some exploring myself, really.

As for the Ishkashim market, I am not sure myself. And things could be different again by the time you go there. But I read something this morning that does not bode well for the near future of the market: http://www.eurasianet.org/node/77696

The destroyed roads after the floods and earthquake of 2015 have mostly been repaired and you can get everywhere. Could be different again of course by the time you arrive.
0 x
If you like Caravanistan: we have opened a tip jar! We love you back! :D

Gilgamesh
Posts: 15
Joined: Thu Mar 03, 2016 7:16 pm
x 4

Re: The Pamir Highway: Overrated or Underrated?

Postby Gilgamesh » Tue Mar 08, 2016 9:42 pm

Thanks, for the information. I had searched for international flights into Dushanbe, with arrivals coming from Istanbul and Moscow. It's been very difficult to tease out information about flights within the CIS however; this may require a separate and more general post. Flights into Dushanbe are very expensive, by the way -- over 2x the cost of a flight into Bishkek, and over 3x for a flight to Delhi. At this stage it's the Pamirs vs. Ladakh in deciding our next big trip.

Back to the subject of the Pamir Highway, I wonder if anyone can give their impressions of taking the route due south from Osh -- Karakul to Murghab to Kholog. Many tours seem to take the route counter-clockwise, heading from Osh to Khujand to Dushanbe first, then into the mountains. Altitude sickness is the most obvious concern, with the potential for a pretty rapid 4000m gain. But this can be managed with pace. Our thought was to use our time to go a little slower and explore a little more, incorporating some trekking in the Wakhan Valley. This is in good part why I'm wondering about Dushanbe-Bishkek flights. Mostly what draws me are the Pamirs, where I'd like to focus my time. This trip would either end driving to and flying out of Dushanbe, or retracing our route and taking M41 back the way we came. It's said you can never step in the same river twice, so this could work, though I always do like to see something new.

Thanks too for the link. This is concerning, the incidents and instability along the border. For one I had hoped to visit the Ishkashim Market. If you can't, you can't, but this seemed a very interesting slice of life (and maybe have someone try and sell me their worst carpet). Overall, the security situation will play into our overall choice. I'm pretty confident this part of the world is much safer than many people think, but it is worth paying attention.

My favorite line in that article, by the way, was "This being Tajikistan, however, exotic theories are already circulating..."
1 x

matt2matt2002
Posts: 28
Joined: Tue Oct 28, 2014 8:11 pm
x 1

Re: The Pamir Highway: Overrated or Underrated?

Postby matt2matt2002 » Sat Apr 16, 2016 12:39 pm

Last year I cycled Bishkek, Dushanbe, Khorog, Murgarb, Osh and back to Bishkek.
I did parts of the trip in the back or front of a jeep.
The Jeep's parts were the worse.
I didn't experience much apart from fear at the awful driving skills.
Going by bike i had no altitude problems butas has been advised, read up on altitude sickness and take things slow.

Great scenery, no security problems and helpful local folk.

It's very popular now with bikers so lacks a little of the adventure sparkle.
Bit I will return next year.
!magical
0 x
SIGNATURE
2014 Scottish End2End 1 month
2015 Pamir Highway Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan for 2 months
2016 Sri Lanka for 1 month.
2017 Herbrides Lewis Harris 2 weeks
2018 Ethiopia.5 weeks.
2018 Marrakech 2 weeks.
On a Thorn Raven/Rohloff hub.


  • Similar Topics
    Replies
    Views
    Last post
  • Pamir Highway Help Please!
    by doug27 » Mon Aug 01, 2016 10:09 pm » in Tajikistan
    8
    4434
    by doug27 View the latest post
    Fri Oct 07, 2016 7:05 am
  • Pamir highway mid-May
    by Kineky » Thu Apr 28, 2016 11:01 am » in Tajikistan
    16
    7448
    by roro View the latest post
    Thu Sep 22, 2016 7:42 am
  • Pamir Highway checkpoints
    by steven » Tue Oct 18, 2016 7:37 pm » in Roads, borders and security updates
    8
    6221
    by Solsticio View the latest post
    Sun Feb 26, 2017 8:34 pm
  • Pamir Highway - Weather
    by Peter.S » Sun Jan 08, 2017 6:02 pm » in Tajikistan
    4
    3564
    by bike-shuttle View the latest post
    Tue Feb 28, 2017 9:43 pm
  • Pamir Highway in Winter
    by WitekM » Sat Jun 11, 2016 4:18 pm » in Roads, borders and security updates
    4
    2352
    by WitekM View the latest post
    Sat Jun 11, 2016 8:57 pm

Return to “Tajikistan”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest