The Pamir Highway. It’s a name that vibrates strongly in the belly of anyone with a taste for adventure.
The high desert of the Pamir invites expletives and superlatives. Like the Altiplano and the Tibetan plateau, this is a harsh and lonely place, inhabited by kind people. Its unforgiving landscape breathes tranquil spirituality.
The M41 is the second-highest highway in the world, after the nearby Karakorum Highway. It crosses the whole Pamir region of Tajikistan, running from Osh to Khorog to Dushanbe. From this road, you can look at China, peek into Pakistan and wave to villagers in Afghanistan.
1250 kilometers of spectacular landscapes, left and right, above and below. Plenty of side trips too, to meet hospitable locals, go on outdoor expeditions, spot wildlife or camp all alone on the edge of a lake.
Take your time to ride the Pamir Highway. The Pamirs are remote, a challenging destination for body, mind and soul. To those willing to delve beneath the surface of tourism-related travel, an interesting, living culture will bare itself. Traces of history that go back to the Bronze Age, pristine lakes and rivers… some of the highest mountains in the world.
Far away from everything, it’s more connected than it looks. The questions of the day, like global warming, economic migration and the interpretation of Islam, resonate stronger here than they do at home. You can experience the impact first-hand, instead of through a medium. Stay a bit longer, and you will feel right at home.
GBAO permit and checkpoints
To travel on the Pamir Highway, you will need a GBAO permit, and a Tajik visa. The GBAO permit is checked at various checkpoints along the road. Individual travelers have had trouble in the past with corrupt border guards at some of these checkpoints, so do have a read through the article on Pamir Highway checkpoints to know what to expect.
This article only deals with destinations on the Pamir Highway. For more information about destinations off the Highway in the Pamirs, see our Pamir travel guide.
Overview of the route
Osh to Murghab
Osh, the capital of southern Kyrgyzstan, and Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, are the start and end points of the Pamir Highway. They are both located on a low-altitude plain, searing hot in summer. From these 2 starting points, the road quickly climbs to high altitude, and the temperature drops.
From Osh, the road leads east towards Xinjiang. A steep climb into the Pamir-Alay is accompanied by stunning landscapes all the way. At the hamlet of Sary Tash, you can continue east to reach the Irkeshtam Pass and Kashgar.
Instead, the Pamir Highway turns south to the 4280m Kyzylart Pass, where the Kyrgyz-Tajik border crossing lies. The first town past the border is Karakul, on the shores of a meteoric lake by the same name. Cycling adventurers can shortcut into the Bartang valley not far from here.
Push over the Ak Baital Pass, at 4655m the highest point of the Pamir Highway, to roll into Murghab. Both Karakul and Murghab are rather depressing and uneventful, but they make a good base for eco-cultural tourism in the neighbourhood. There’s more to see and do than you would initially imagine. With your own transport, untamed frontiers await in all directions.
East of Murghab lies the Qolma Pass that directly connects the Pamir Highway to the Karakorum Highway. You know you want to.
Murghab to Khorog
From Murghab, the road continues into the wild and empty moonscape of the Alichur plain until Khorog. Interesting little side trips lead to the ancient silver mine of Bazardara, or the Shakhty caves.
Past windy Alichur, most people prefer to head over the Khargush pass to take the Wakhan valley detour, instead of heading straight to Khorog. With majestic scenery, lots of village life and a chance to glance at Afghanistan, it is one of the most captivating bits of the whole Pamir Highway.
If you take the northern route instead, you move through the Ghunt valley, the start of many treks, for instance to Lake Sarez. Just before the turn-off to the Wakhan lies the village of Bulunkul with crystal-clear Lake Bulunkul and Yashilkul. If you continue straight you come to the hot springs at Jelondy.
There is also an oft-overlooked middle route, with a turn-off 40 km past the start of the Wakhan valley. The Shakhdara valley also has interesting relics, hot springs, villages et cetera + iconic vistas of Peak Engels and Peak Karl Marx. Makes a nice loop in combination with the Wakhan, but the road is very bad. The 3 routes converge in Khorog.
Khorog to Dushanbe
Khorog is the capital of the Pamirs. That doesn’t mean much, but it’s a good base to plan the rest of your journey if you haven’t done so yet. The surrounding area also abounds in fire temples, holy springs, fortresses, shrines and petroglyphs, if you know where to look (detailed articles still to come).
Continuing from Khorog, the Pamir Highway passes the Bartang and Vanch valleys, splendid destinations in their own right with a number of attractive villages each. At Qalai-Khumb (no one knows how to spell it), the road splits into 2 options to get to Dushanbe.
The northern road crosses the Tavildara Pass before heading into Karotegin and the Rasht valley. It is a bit shorter, but it is poorly maintained and closes in winter. The southern route goes into Khatlon via Kulob and has a better driving surface.
For slow travelers, each has its attractions. If you are going fast, the southern route is quicker and more scenic.
Osh -> Dushanbe or Dushanbe -> Osh?
As you see fit. The whole route is quite spectacular both ways, but the stretches north of Murghab and the parts which trace the border with Afghanistan are the most exalted.
The main reason to doubt would be the steep ascent from Osh to Murghab. The altitude gain is more gradual coming from Dushanbe. Many travelers coming from Osh who ride to Murghab in one go end up suffering to some extent in Murghab or Karakol from the altitude.
For optimal acclimatisation, never sleep more than 400m higher than the night before once over 3000m. See the accommodation chapter for places to stay en route. See the altitude profiles for a better view.
For cyclists, the consensus is that you’re more likely to have tailwinds if you ride Dushanbe -> Khorog -> Osh. This is not a given, though.
Osh – Osh?
Another option you can consider if you don’t feel like going down to Dushanbe, is to go from Osh to Khorog and go back the same way. You will get to see the best of Tajikistan – twice! Past Alichur, you have the choice between taking the straight northern route on the M41, the Wakhan valley and the Shakhdara route.
On the way back, you can take the Bartang Valley, if the road is open. We have heard believable rumours that the Rasht Valley border crossing at Karamyk-Jirgital could re-open in 2019. If this happens, this would become a top route.
Connecting with China
A rather new route is the crossing with China at Qolma, near Murghab. In China, the first town is Tashkurgan, from where you can head north to Kashgar, or south to Pakistan.
Instead of Dushanbe – Osh you would go Dushanbe – Tashkurgan. Instead of Osh – Khorog – Osh, you would go Osh – Khorog – Tashkurgan. An interesting option.
How much time do I need?
You can cover Dushanbe-Osh in 4 days by car, driving around 8-9 hours a day. To take in the Wakhan Valley, you need to add an extra day. If you are ok with a 16-hour drive, you can even do it in 3 days. Obviously, you will not do much in that time except for sitting in the car.
You also don’t have any leeway in case something happens, like a landslide, a flood or an avalanche, and the road is blocked.
If you would like to see some of the sights, enjoy the scenery and talk to the people, budget at least a week. Those on public transport should budget a few days extra to account for waiting times and unexpected pit stops.
If you are serious about enjoying and discovering the Pamirs, 30 days will give you the time to do a serious hike, visit some side valleys, enjoy the local food and recover from the almost inevitable stomach bug.
Weather & when to go
Looking at the altitude profile of the Pamir plateau, it’s clear that you should bring some warm clothes at any time of the year. Nonetheless, dry, warm and stable weather lasts from May to September in the valleys of the Pamir. Over 4000m, however, blizzards can occur any time of the year. Be prepared.
When looking at temperature charts, don’t forget to factor in the wind chill. Especially from Alichur to Murghab and Kyzylart, the wind can be fierce.
It’s cold. Temperatures stay far below zero, and people stay inside. This is the time for village weddings, when the men temporarily return home from work in Russia. Since there is nothing else to do, these are long drawn-out affairs.
Heavy snowfall is most likely later in winter. November and December are the driest months, February and March the wettest. There is much less traffic on the Pamir Highway in winter, but cars and trucks continue to drive, and the road is kept clear year-round.
The world awakens. Trekking at lower altitudes is perfect in spring, running from April until June. The village fruit orchards are in full blossom and the winter wheat is emerald green in the fields.
On the other hand, spring is the least rewarding time for high-altitude trekking in the Pamirs. High valleys and passes are still clogged with snow, the mountains are frequently cloud covered, and the risk of avalanches and rockfalls is at its highest.
July-August. While the rest of Tajikistan swelters in the heat, the Pamirs are pleasant. This is the time for mountaineering and high-altitude trekking. On the lower reaches, the sun might burn, but it never gets oppressively hot. But the vegetation has turned brown for a large part – it’s a bit less attractive.
September is the harvest month. It’s a short, delicious and colourful time, as the Indian summer sees poplar trees leaves turning a ravishing yellow. A sight for an impressionist painting, it’s the Pamiri version of sakura. Its ephemeral beauty heralds a new winter. By and large, when October comes, the travel season is about to finish.
The majority of the Pamir Highway is paved. Do expect potholes, and many twists and turns. An average speed of 40-50km/h is reasonable.
- Osh to Sary Tash: perfect tarmac
- Sary Tash to the border: mostly smooth
- Kyzylart pass: 20 km of mud and gravel.
- Until Ak Baital pass: smooth but very undulating tarmac
- Ak Baital pass: rough gravel with deep potholes, snow cover and muddy bits when it rains
- Ak Baital – Murghab – Wakhan turnoff: very good tarmac
- Wakhan valley has quite a lot of sand and gravel, but is generally alright to drive. Only the area around the Khargush pass is a hard slog for cyclists and cars alike.
- Alichur – Khorog: generally good tarmac, except the 20 km of the Koitezek pass, which is rough like Kyzylart and Ak Baital
- Dushanbe to Qalaikhum over the Tavildara pass is a very bad road. No tarmac, not kept open in winter. Driving yourself takes some courage. The southern road via Kulob is in a good state.
We don’t have the perfect altitude profile yet, so we offer 2 versions: a Google Maps-generated profile (via Doogal), and another one registered on GPS from a motorbike (via Panomoto – Murghab to Sary Tash is missing). GMaps has invented 2 scary peaks on either side of Qalai-Khumb; it looks a lot smoother on the GPS-track.
Otherwise, I would judge the first profile more reflective of reality.
- Dushanbe – Kulob: 3h
- Kulob – Qalaikhum: 6h
- Dushanbe – Qalaikhum via Tavildara: 9h
- Qalaikhum – Khorog: 8h
- Khorog – Murghab (straight): 8h
- Murghab – Sary Tash: 4-5h
- Sary Tash – Osh: 4h
These are approximate times. Life in the Pamirs does not run to a Swiss clockwork, and a flat tire or an unexpected road stop can happen at any time.
Landslides and earthquakes do happen in Tajikistan as well, and they can disrupt traffic on the Pamir Highway for days. It does not happen every year, but there is always a chance that you get stuck while road workers are cleaning up the rubbish. So pencilling in a few extra days and coming up with a fun plan B is never a bad idea.
Hygiene standards in the Pamirs are low. You can try to avoid diarrhea by washing all food, filtering water, relying on your own supplies and avoiding homestay meals. Pack appropriate medicine in any case.
Altitude sickness can happen to anyone staying over 2500 m (8200 ft) for more than 12 hours. As a general rule, you should not sleep more than 300-400 m higher than the night before to stay on the safe side. Diamox is a medicine that can help with acclimatising (talk to your doctor).
At altitude, UV rays are much stronger. Factor 45 sunscreen is recommended even if you don’t burn easily.
Finally, motion sickness is a huge problem on the Pamir Highway. Especially when using public transport, you can expect multiple vomit breaks. If you are prone, dimenhydrinate doesn’t exist in Central Asia, but dimedrol is widely available and works well enough, though it will leave you feeling quite stoned (worse than dimenhydrinate) so it’s not appropriate for all travel.
ATMs exist in Khorog, Qalaikhum and Vanch. We recommend not to rely on them because of the volatile situation in Tajikistan’s banking sector – they may very well be empty. Take as much money as you think you will need for the trip in US dollar. Exchanging is not a problem. Euros are not common – bring dollars.
How much money will you need? That will depend on your type of transport and accommodation, and we have included estimates in the chapters below.
There is mobile reception almost everywhere along the Pamir Highway, although it can be weak in places. Megafon is currently considered as the company with the best coverage in the Pamirs. It’s possible to go online with mobile data.
In Murghab and Khorog, you can find wifi and computers with internet access. Be aware that electricity to recharge batteries is hard to find. A small solar panel (Anker comes recommended) comes in handy.
Find more info in our article on phones and internet connectivity in Tajikistan.
There are 6 ways of traversing the Pamir Highway.
Cycling the Pamir Highway
Cycling the Pamir Highway is no longer a frontier, with more bicycles than cars on the road in recent years. That does not make it any easier though. It is still a very tough ride.
Summarizing the key questions:
- The consensus is that you’re more likely to have tailwinds if you ride Khorog – Osh, but the views are better the other way. I don’t think it matters that much.
- Foodwise, you need to stock up on everything in Dushanbe, Khorog, Murghab, Karakol and Sary Tash. Shops have limited supplies of fruit and vegetables, only in September does it get better.
- In summer, lack of water is not a severe issue. The stretch from Alichur to Langar in Wakhan is the worst. The lakes are mostly salty there so take enough supplies before tackling this bit. Otherwise, fill up at every opportunity and definitely use a water filter.
- In terms of clothing: be prepared for all weather circumstances. A down jacket and gloves is never a bad idea. Strong winds mean good protection for your hands and face is essential; don’t forget sunscreen! And of course a good sleeping bag for the nights.
- There’s no need for MTB tires or wider trekking tires, neither would help in the sand, but both would slow you down a lot on everything else.
- Take spares and know how to use them. You are on your own.
- Do budget enough time. The altitude and bad road surface not only means you need to push harder. It also means you will have less oxygen. Most cyclists get sick, so factor in at least 1 toilet-day and 1 altitude headache-day to avoid rushing.
Bartang valley shortcut
Hitchhiking the Pamir Highway
Hitchhiking is like going on public transport, except you spend a long time waiting and travel times are longer, since only slow trucks are likely to pick up people who refuse to contribute on principle. And even they are not too keen. In general, it is Tajik drivers who will take you, not the Chinese truck drivers.
For local rides, you can wait for local cars to take you for free. It will take time, since everyone will ask for a contribution. But, wait long enough and someone will want to take you for free. In general, though, in the Pamirs, refusing to pay for food, accommodation or transport (even if it is offered to you), is a practice restricted to the wholly oblivious.
If you have your own set of wheels, self-driving is a great way to explore the Pamirs. Here is what you need to know.
- The Pamir Highway is not a 1-lane road. It is a 2-lane road and 99% of the time 2 vehicles can easily meet. Small bridges might be missing which means you would need to do some water crossing, but it will always be very shallow (5-10 cm).
- As discussed in the road conditions, the road is not terrible nor terribly dangerous, but there obviously isn’t much tolerance for driver mistakes. The valley roads can be ridiculously bad, but the Pamir Highway is paved for the most part. The asphalt/bitumen ranges from terrific to bad, but never terrible (except perhaps the Tavildara section). Bad means many potholes, uneven road, chunks of asphalt missing etc.
- Basic adventure driving rules apply. Know (how to fix) your car, don’t drive at night, concentrate on the road and adjust your speed.
- Riding the Pamir Highway in a sedan 2-wheel drive is possible all the way, although some parts will be a struggle. You will see that most local vehicles are 2-wheel drives, and very old ones at that. Of course, chances of a breakdown increase, and certain off-road side trips will be impossible in a sedan.
- Petrol stations are rare and often empty, but there is always fuel stored in plastic bottles and canisters inside the homes of villagers with cars. Just ask the locals what they have on offer. With a range of 400 km, you should not have to worry about falling without petrol. Alichur, Ishkashim, Langar, Murghab and Sary Tash all have petrol for sale.
- Diesel may be a little bit more scarce than petrol, but it isn’t an issue like in Uzbekistan. Keep in mind that prices for fuel are higher in the Pamirs than they are elsewhere. Fuel is also of bad quality: octane 60 has been rumoured, just as diesel mixed with kerosene.
For more tips, see driving in Tajikistan.
On public transport
Public transport is a good option if you have a lot of time, and don’t mind being stuck in an uncomfortable position without a view for hours. You can for instance get a drive up to the Bartang or Wakhan Valley, and spend some days walking or taking short taxi rides there, before getting another ride to the next valley.
Of course, taxi drivers will not stop for pictures, and do not want to go on a side trip for you to visit a lake or a petroglyph site. If you want that kind of flexibility, you need to rent a car to self-drive or rent a car with driver.
Like we said before, you can traverse the Pamir Highway in 3-4 days in shared taxis. However, we feel that if you don’t have a sizeable time budget, public transport is a major pain in the ass (you can take that literally). You won’t see much, travel times are excruciatingly long, and you cannot stop along the way.
Although negotiating can be quick, waiting for a car to fill up can take ages. Once it is full, there are usually many unannounced stops – someone is picking up extra luggage, the driver wants to eat, we decided to stay over at my brother tonight, etc. This is especially true on the short distance. Long distances have more efficient drivers, driving fast to earn more.
Drivers come in all forms. Cheaters, drinkers, kings of the road: they are all out there. Keep your wits about you.
On a Sunday local (short-distance) transport is virtually non-existent. More tips can be found at public transport in Tajikistan.
Osh <-> Murghab
From Osh, shared taxis can be found through your guesthouse or under the bridge in downtown Osh. Expect 1-4 cars to do the route daily. The basic price is still 1500 som per seat (150 somoni), everything extra is guesthouse commission or surcharge for leaving asap.
In Murghab, shared jeeps leave from the bazaar. Come around 7am to the taxi stand and get numbers from drivers, hang around and hedge your bets. Although coming early is always best, taxis sometimes also leave in the afternoon. Expect a maximum of 2 cars per day to leave. Make sure it’s a Kyrgyz car, or in case of a Tajik car, that the driver has all necessary papers.
If you want to get off in Sary Tash to go to Kashgar, you will still need to pay for the full ride to Osh.
Stuck in Sary Tash?
When coming from China or for some other reason you find yourself stuck in Sary Tash: most shared jeeps make a break at Guesthouse Akun for food. If you are lucky they might have a free seat. This is not very likely, though. But here you can exchange numbers and reserve a seat with drivers who are plying the Osh-Murghab route and will come back the following days.
Murghab <-> Khorog
To Khorog, cars and minibuses leave almost everyday, especially in summertime. Weekends see fewer passengers. If you want to go to places in between you will have to pay the full fare or hitchhike. Expect to pay 100-150 somoni for a seat.
In Khorog, transport to Murghab and Dushanbe can be found on the parking lot behind the bazaar. Get there no later than 8am. They will start leaving around 10am, or maybe earlier, depending on when the seats get filled.
For the Wakhan Valley you need to negotiate with local shared taxi drivers.
- Khorog-Ishkashim: 3 hours, 50 somoni/seat
- Ishkashim-Darshai: 100 somoni for a car
- Darshai-Yamchun: 150 somoni for the car
- Yamchun-Zong: 140 somoni for the car.
- Zong-Khorog, 350 somoni for the car
Dushanbe <-> Khorog
In Dushanbe, jeeps (mostly Pajero’s) leave from a parking lot close to the airport. Ask for ‘povorot aeroporta terminal Pamira’, Badakshanskaya avtostansiya, or if that’s too hard, say “Khorog-Khorog-Khorog”. Come at 6 or 7am for the best options, but note that it is also possible (though more difficult) to find drivers going overnight.
All drivers take the longer southern route via Kulob because the road is better. Expect to pay 250-300 somoni and drive for 16 hours. Delays happen. When coming from Khorog, you can stop off in Kulob to break the journey, then it is another 3 hours to Dushanbe by bus.
Car & motorbike rental
Otherwise, car rental for the Pamir Highway is restricted to companies operating from Osh and Bishkek. You will have to return the car there. For more info and booking, see our car & motorbike rental partners.
Car + driver
The Pamir Highway is a stunning journey. If you are backpacking, it pays to avoid the misery of being wedged into the back of a shared taxi, seeing the beautiful landscape pass by without being able to stop to enjoy it. In this case, you need to get on a jeep tour.
Jeep tours exist for the whole Pamir Highway or just one part, either one-way or round-trip.
With the boom in Pamir Highway travel, many companies have started offering this tour. We work with 3 competitors: Talant and Daniyar in Osh, and Khudik in Khorog/Dushanbe. When you send off a request for a trip, it goes to all 3, so you can pick and compare. Between the 3 of them, they account for a significant part of Pamir Highway tourist trips.
If you need to find co-travellers to share the costs, our Pamir Highway rideshare forum is a good place to start.
Can I arrange it on the spot?
There are plenty of travellers crossing the Pamir Highway and touring the Wakhan Valley but arranging a 4WD with a driver in Dushanbe, Osh, Murghab or Khorog is not as popular as you might think, even in high season. Self-drivers and cyclists are way more common a sight than travellers who have grouped together and hired transport.
If you do not need to find other travelers, it’s easy. You can arrange it on the spot, either through us or through another tour company in Tajikistan.
If you do need to find co-travellers to share costs, budget enough time to wait for someone to show up. If you don’t have the flexibility to wait around for a few days, there is no guarantee of quickly finding others to share your transport. Even then, an element of luck is needed.
When you do find others to join in, be aware that you still need to agree on an itinerary and a pace – your travel companions might want to go slower/faster than you and visit different places.
Osh Guest House in Osh, the META office in Murghab and the PECTA office and Pamir Lodge in Khorog are where to look for fellow travellers.
What’s the right group size?
You really don’t want to have more than a group of 4 for this journey. Anything bigger would prove very uncomfortable; you would basically be back in the same situation as public transport.
Typically, 4WD vehicles used for this trip (Toyota Land Cruiser and Mitsubishi Pajero) have space for 6 passengers plus the driver. This is broken down to 1 in the front, 3 in the backseat and 2 more in the back where the luggage is stored.
The middle seat on the back row is already uncomfortable if you are doing long distances. The third row, surrounded by luggage, is really not advised.
So 4 passengers is a maximum. 3 is ideal in terms of cost/benefit: 1 in the front, 2 in the back. Make sure everyone gets some time in the front.
Food & drink
Can you drink the water?
It’s best to filter (most of) your water. Even when water comes straight from the mountains like in Khorog and Ishkashim, the pipes it travels through are not as pristine.
What will the food be like?
Typical Pamiri food is hard to find in the Pamir nowadays. People are less self-sufficient these days and rely on fluffy white bread, eggs and tea. In general, their diet is cheap, filling and unhealthy, based around carbohydrates with very little vitamins unless you come in late summer and autumn.
Food from local restaurants are the typical dishes of Central Asia: lagman, manty, plov and borsht.
There is very little food for sale in small villages. Only in bigger stops like Dushanbe, Khorog, Murghab, Karakol and Sary Tash a slightly more diverse offering exists. Shops have limited supplies of fruit and vegetables; only in September does it get better. Dushanbe and Khorog have supermarkets and a few decent restaurants.
There is plenty of space for camping all along the Pamir Highway. Pure alcohol and cartridges for camping stoves are available in Dushanbe and Osh. Be sure to carry a warm sleeping bag.
Homestays vary from great to not-so-great, and at 15$/night you can get the feeling of overpaying. You can always ask around in the village, people who are not receiving aid from development agencies are willing to host you for less, with similar comfort. Not bad since you are spreading the tourist dollars in the wider community instead of just the locals who are part of the aid-clique.
Be sure to adequately reimburse people for their costs. Life in Pamir is not cheap and although people are very hospitable and proud, they do need the money to not go hungry.
We have written more on accommodation in Tajikistan. Reviews of accommodation can be found in the travel guides to specific towns and places.
That’s it! Thanks for reading all the way through. Enjoy the ride!