Situated at an altitude of 3650 m, the extremely cold and dry climate together with the lack of good wi-fi makes Murghab rank low on the bucket list of digital nomads.
Regular nomads, however, seem to thrive here.
Founded as a Russian army outpost simply known as Pamirskiy Post in the 1890s, Murghab was never intended to be permanently inhabited. “How these Russian soldiers can support existence there is a marvel”, wrote the Brit Francis Younghusband, who visited the valley before the Post was built.
Kyrgyz shepherds driven out by Russian colonialism did settle here eventually, in a desperate attempt to keep their way of life, and they continue to graze their herds of yaks and sheep on the meager feed that the high plateau offers. Although it is a tough place to live, many Murghabis who leave long for their home’s serenity and quiet, and its simple foods.
Murghab still has the feel of a pioneer town, albeit with a distinct tourist vibe nowadays: signs are mostly in English, and summertime sees jeeps and bicycles outnumber Chinese trucks. With so few settlements along the way, Murghab is an essential pit stop on the Pamir highway: if you have just come over the Kyzylart border with Kyrgyzstan or the Qulma Pass with China, this is where you can buy a sim card, refuel and shop for food.
If you have the time, though, detour off the Pamir Highway into the wilder edges of the Pamir Plateau.
Till Mostowlansky argues persuasively in Azan on the Moon that the name Murghab, or Murghob in Tajik, means “river of birds” or “river of ducks” (murgh = bird, ob = river, murghobi = duck). However, since the early 2000’s, local Kyrgyz scholars have posited a different etymology: in their view, Murghab comes from nurkap, meaning bag of light.
In their work, the authors emphasize the ‘kyrgyzness’ of the Eastern Pamirs, which they refer to as Sarykol. As a consequence, not only the region’s history and culture, but also its territory, are perceived through an increasingly ethnicized lens, using local history as a way of appropriating space.
Things to see and do
A bazaar made of shipping containers sells cheap Chinese goods, food products of varying quality, and a few local handicrafts. On the southern side of town, a large Lenin still points the way. 7 km out of town to the east is an ancient beehive tomb at Kana-Kurgan, an interesting destination for aspiring archaeologists and history lovers.
The At Chabysh festival, celebrating Kyrgyz horsemanship, is organised every summer.
From Murghab, beautiful places to visit are Rangkul, the Pshart Valley and the Madiyan Valley. We have not found the time yet to write detailed guides to these places, sorry.
Past Murghab, turn off for the Shorbulak observatory located at 5000 m – it does not seem to be currently in use.
On the Pamir Highway between Murghab and Alichur, there are yak trekking possibilities wherever you find yurts. Count on 100 somoni for 2h return, with the possibility to see Marco Polo sheep.
Shared taxis leave from the bazaar. Standard prices are 150 somoni to Osh and 120-150 to Khorog depending on the comfort of the car. Come around 7-8 am and wait until the car fills up.
For a more complete overview of your options, see transport along the Pamir Highway.
The quality of accommodation in Murghab is limited. Water can be irregular. However, since 2018, regular electricity is now a feature of Murghab: 24/7 for 8 months a year and 18hr per day in winter. Showers are typically from buckets or a trickle coming out of a pipe. Generators are only run in the evenings, but most guesthouses have a solar panel which you can charge a phone from during the day.
45 somoni in a yurt, 95 for a dorm with breakfast, more for a private room. This is the place to go if you want to meet other travelers and comfort is not a priority. It gets very busy in the summer months and is especially popular amongst cyclists.
The showers are often a slow trickle which never gets hot and the food is basic but decent, but at least there is no more fighting for outlets now that a permanent power supply came to Murghab. There is plenty of space to hang out with the many other travelers. Staying in the yurt is the best value as the comfort is the same if not greater than the dorms. The receptionist speaks fluent English and German.
140 somoni with dinner and breakfast. Not the most welcoming place but the rooms are clean enough, there’s a shower, and the daughter speaks a little English.
100 somoni with dinner and breakfast. If it’s not full, this is a great option. The owner lived in the US and speaks fluent English, and – unlike at the super busy Pamir Hotel – has time to sit down and have a conversation with you. The rooms are clean and the shower is a typical Russian banya (bucket shower in a sauna).
140 somoni with lunch, dinner, and breakfast. Located uphill from the main town, this clean guesthouse serves good meals and will keep the generator running as long as the guests want electricity.
15 somoni to sleep. This is by far the cheapest accommodation option in Murghab and possibly in the whole Pamirs. Quality is not sacrificed, and the conditions are pretty similar to everywhere else in Murghab. There is a western toilet, a solar-heated shower, and a very welcoming owner who speaks no English whatsoever. Many migrant workers from other parts of the country stay here but they have 2 rooms reserved for tourists.
95 somoni to sleep, plus 45 to include dinner and breakfast. Nice and pretty clean place with a nice sauna.
A small restaurant and a cafeteria near the bazaar serve standard local dishes. The container bazaar sells fruits and vegetables as well as the usual staples. Ice cream made from yak milk is served just behind the yurt-shaped meat shop in the bazaar. It’s delicious!