Notes From the Silk Road (Part 2/4) - Tajikistan: Riding the Pamir Highway

Updated: Mar 31, 2019



Off the Beaten Track

Ask where Tajikistan is to the average member of public and they will give you a blank look or bewildered shrug of the shoulders; even to Russians, for whom it was once a member of their empire, it is very little-known. Tajikistan was the poorest republic of the old Soviet Union, and today it is the poorest republic to have emerged from its break-up; so in that respect very little has changed. A savage civil war followed independence and raged on through most of the 1990’s, and the road to peace and relative normality since then, like most of the roads in this country, has been far from smooth. My road from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, was going to be one of the roughest I had experienced in my life – comparable only to the atrocious roads in Ethiopia - along the M41 or Pamir Highway, the second-highest road in the world – reaching 4655m - and spanning some 1100km along some of the most bleakly stunning mountain scenery in all of Asia. Having secured a Tajik visa in Bishkek without too much fuss ($75 for 4 weeks) – and a permit for the autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region (free) – I was looking forward to this part of the trip with trepidation and excitement.

The Pamir Highway is a bit of a misnomer as it is actually little more than a rough track for most of its length - the majority of it is unpaved, and this can cause extreme difficulties during bad weather. The best time to be here is May to October. The Russians built it for their army to have better access to this inaccessible region, and since they left, maintenance of it has been woefully neglected. Public transport in the region is non-existent – the last bus services finished in the chaos of the 1990’s – so 4x4 private vehicles are the only reasonable way to traverse the region. These can be hired in any of the main centres (such as they are) along the route – Osh, Sary Tash, Murghab and Khorog, and charge roughly $0.75 per km – a high price, pushed up by escalating fuel costs in the country and the poor state of the road, not to mention the skill and endurance needed by the driver to navigate this most demanding of routes. You can go hours without passing any human habitation here. To make life easier, META (an eco-tourism association) exists to help with this and other tourist needs like finding home stays.

Farewell Kyrgyzstan; Hello Tajikistan

Sary Tash is a rough frontier town, close to China and Tajikistan in the far south-east of Kyrgyzstan, little more than a windswept collection of houses, but it served as our final stop in the country and a good stop-over for the lengthy journey between Osh and Murghab. At over 3000 metres, you can also begin to feel the effects of altitude – the air is thinner and the temperature drops dramatically from the heat of Osh – one experiences a drop from around 35 to 15 degrees in late August. The road from Sary Tash up to the border with Tajikistan winds up through the Kyzyl-Art pass, which at 4252 metres is one of the highest points on the route. Views back down to Kyrgyzstan from the dizzying summit are breath-taking; whilst to the west looms snow-capped Mount Lenin (7134m), one of the highest points in the old Soviet Union.

The whole Pamir range opens up to the south and you feel to be in a different world; exposed, unexplored, moon-like and desolately spectacular. The rolling green hills of central Kyrgyzstan are gone; replaced by sheer, grey, snow-capped peaks rising in the distance and stark, red clay, treeless slopes by the road. A huge monument of a ram – the symbol of Tajikistan – peers down from the top of the pass to greet us.

Border Formalities

The border at Kyzylart Pass (4280m) is the second highest border crossing in the world and although the surroundings were stunningly beautiful, I was beginning to feel the effects of altitude sickness: a bad headache, shortness of breath and a very bad stomach, which may have been to do with a pretty dodgy pizza I'd had in Osh. More on that later. The border point is a wooden shack. We are detained for half an hour, our driver having to pay a bribe – some cigarettes and vodka – to smooth our passage. Corruption in Tajikistan is endemic and rife. Police shake-downs at border points and frequent checkpoints would occur infuriatingly frequently – infuriating in most cases to our drivers, who had to pay whatever petty bribes were demanded by the officials. This was a different world from Kyrgyzstan already, where I had seen no such activity. Corruption starts from the top and in President Emomali Rahmanov, Tajikistan have a leader as corrupt as they get. American ambassador to Tajikistan, Richard Hoagland, is noted as saying that “Tajikistan is led by cronyism and corruption and [Rahmanov] runs a corrupt, alcohol-sodden fiefdom” according to a Wikileaked U.S Embassy cable. In power since before the arrival of independence, the president has overseen several rigged elections in his time in office, and his posters adorn billboards and official buildings around the country. Dissenters are kept quiet and opposition jailed. A rather incongruous shot of a dapper president strolling through a wheat field with a loaf of bread in his hand greeted our arrival; incongruous because, at least here, the stony ground could not support even a few weeds. This landscape was as desolate as any I had seen.

A Mountain Desert The first settlement you arrive at after crossing the border is the village of Karakul, some 50km south. We pass barely a house in between and the whole scene is eerily devoid of life; no sheep graze on the mountains or birds fly above you. Marco Polo even bemoaned this when he travelled here in 1294: “..the plain is called Pamir and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but desert without any habitations or green thing, so that travellers are obliged to carry with them whatever they need of. The region is so lofty and cold that you could not even see any bird flying. And I must notice also that because of this great cold, fire does not burn so bright, nor give out so much heat as usual”

Lake Karakul, devoid of life, Pamir Highway, Tajikistan