The Pamir mountains capture the imagination of travelers more than any other destination in Central Asia. From the high wind-swept semi-desert of the far east, to the Wakhan valley where you can wave and chat to villagers in Afghanistan: the Pamirs are a unique place that have captured the hearts of many adventurous, hardy travelers.
Hardy and adventurous are keywords here, though. The roads are bad, the homestays rudimentary at best, and a stomach bug is difficult to avoid. If you are not fussy about comfort, get ready to dig into the distinct landscapes and culture of the Pamirs.
To all adventurers who prefer their trails unmarked: the Pamirs are your spiritual home. Get on the Pamir Highway.
Building an itinerary
Flights to Dushanbe are expensive. If you are planning to fly in and out, it makes sense to start and end your journey in a neighbouring country. Nearby airports are Tashkent, Samarkand and Osh. If you are planning a longer trip, read our multi-Stan itinerary advice.
Especially Osh makes a lot of sense for a fly-and-drive holiday. Placed just outside of the country, it neatly ties a loop around Tajikistan.
Starting off in lowland Osh, the Pamir Highway goes up, up, up until some of the highest mountain peaks in the world start coming into view. If you have the time, a visit to the Kyrgyz Pamir-Alay is worthwhile both for hikers and horse riders and for those who just want to gaze up Peak Lenin from their yurt entrance.
Cross the border into Tajikistan at over 4 000 m and arrive at desolate Karakul. Then it’s onto frontier town Murghab, through the wind-swept Alichur valley to one of the world’s coldest villages, Bulunkul.
After Bulunkul, turn off to the Wakhan Valley to peek across the border to Afghanistan, and even Pakistan in the distance. Culturally, a different world. Khorog is the capital of the Pamirs, which means you can access the internet here.
Then it’s time to leave the Pamirs and head towards lowland Tajikistan, but before you get there, you still have the chance to explore several side valleys – the Bartang Valley is the most popular one.
Dushanbe is interesting mostly for what it says about the deplorable mindset of Tajikistan’s elites, and the possibility of getting a real coffee. Once rested, head back into the mountains – the Fann mountains this time. Exit to Khujand, which bustles with the energy of the Ferghana Valley, and make your way back to Osh through southern Kyrgyzstan.
The rest of Tajikistan
With all the focus on the Pamirs, you would almost forget there is another side to Tajikistan as well.
Dushanbe is the natural hub for travelers, and it’s a pleasant place to prepare for or cool down from mountain exploits. From Dushanbe, hikers can move north to the Fann mountains. They are just as stunning as the Pamirs, but not as big. East of the capital lies the Rasht Valley. Few people visit the mountains here.
Panjakent and Khujand are trade towns near the Uzbek border, more bustling in their vibrations than the laid-back tempo of the rest of Tajikistan. These are the gateways to Uzbekistan and Southern Kyrgyzstan.
The Khatlon district south of Dushanbe is boiling hot in summer, but also has its share of attractions, and works great for day and weekend trips out of Dushanbe when the mountains become too snowy, or as a stopover en route to the Pamirs.
Traveling by road in Tajikistan is exhausting (due to bad roads and high altitudes), frustrating (due to frequent breakdowns, mudslides or avalanches), scary (tired drivers, big cliffs) and exhilarating (due to the spectacular scenery).
Road transport in Tajikistan drives without schedule, instead waiting for passengers and departing when full. For the long stretches, examine your driver’s face before you get in: drivers sometimes work until exhaustion, so make sure you feel safe. Also inspect your vehicle (spare tire, tire pressure, …): shit happens (often), so try to be prepared!
If you are heading for smaller settlements you will need to book a whole car if you don’t want to wait for ages for enough passengers to assemble. Make sure you get a 4WD vehicle if heading for the mountains: 2WD taxis tend to overestimate the off-road ability of their vehicles.
Planes and trains
Flying in and out, both Dushanbe and Khujand host international flights, although both are not well-connected and more expensive than Osh, Bishkek or Tashkent. Dushanbe also has internal flights to Khujand and to Khorog to cut travel time.
After a 20-year interruption, trains between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are running once more after the death of old president Karimov. Local trains are super-slow: only for true train geeks and slow travel fanatics.
For more specifics on cross-border transport, see Tajikistan’s border crossings.
Self-driving and cycling
Generally a very good way to get around Tajikistan. Car rentals should be booked in advance if you are planning to come in summer. Roads are bumpy and petrol is bad, so go easy on your vehicle to make it last.
Transport in winter and spring
As soon as winter falls over Tajikistan, many places hidden behind high passes become very difficult to reach over land because of snow. The Pamir Highway remains open year-round though. The same goes for the road to Khujand and the southern plains.
In spring, road blocks do not come from avalanches, but from mudslides or rockslides. Only in high summer relatively easy access to all parts of the country is ensured, but even then, make sure you factor in some rest days to buffer possible delays.
Khorog – Dushanbe
Should you take the airplane or the road? If the air service is working, it’s worth considering, since the views are spectacular and the long overland journey tends to take its toll on travelers.
Have a look first to see if you need a visa for Tajikistan. Tajikistan has had safety issues in the past decade: a rogue attack killed 4 cyclists and civil unrest has blocked off the Pamirs on several occasions. We discuss possible concerns in detail on the safety in Central Asia page.
Health-wise, diarrhea is very common for travelers in the Pamirs. Few people complain about altitude sickness, actually. Going off the beaten track, you should take more precautions to prevent cholera, malaria and Lyme’s disease.
There is no mains electricity in much of the Pamirs and outside Dushanbe, black-outs are common, especially in winter. Locals turn on generators for a few hours per day. Think about taking along a portable solar panel if you need a constant supply of electricity.
Exchanging money is easy in major towns like Khorog, Dushanbe and Khujand, but getting money from an ATM is unreliable outside Dushanbe. Paying by card is impossible in most of the country.
Despite an interesting culinary heritage, food security in the Pamirs is an issue, and you should not rely on buying food between Osh and Khorog besides what is offered in homestays – shop in advance. Outside of Dushanbe’s restaurants, it’s the standard dull and unhealthy Central Asian menu. We discuss your options as a picky eater.
For orientation, Maps.me is often better than google maps.
Budget and accommodation
Although Tajikistan is the poorest post-Soviet country, services are not super cheap, even if the quality is often so-so. Blame its remote location and local elites’ stranglehold on the economy.
A Pamir homestay will cost around 15$ with half board, and petrol costs around 1 euro / liter. The lack of transport in the Pamirs forces a lot of budget tourists to shell out for a tour with a driver, while bad roads mean the price of car rentals is high as well. We go in depth on the budget question at the Tajikistan travel budget page.
There are no hotels in Pamir outside of Khorog, only homestays. Dushanbe’s accommodation options are cramped, especially in the midrange, but otherwise adequate.
For more on homestays, camping, electricity black-outs, unexpected hospitality, tarof, … see the accommodation chapter.
- Pamirs: The Pamir Highway winds its way through landscapes from another planet
- Karotegin: Dushanbe and around + the Garm valley
- Sughd: Khujand, Penjikent, 7 Lakes, Fann mountains and Iskanderkul
- Khatlon: a different Tajikistan: hot, flat, but also nature and history