The Pamir Highway – Bishkek to Dushanbe

It’s been five years now since my first trip to Central Asia, which also included a glimpse into Kyrgyzstan. During that trip it became apparent, that there is more to the region than just culture and history … I clearly had to come back, to get a first hand experience of the region’s high mountains, beautiful valleys, breath-taking views – and insight into the ways of life in this sparsely populated area with only limited infrastructure.

This year I finally found the opportunity, to actually come back. The tour I had picked would come in the format of an epic road trip all the way from Bishkek (the capital of Kyrgyzstan) to Dushanbe (the capital of Tajikistan) following major portions of the Pamir Highway and including a side trip along the Tajik side of the Wakhan Valley (with great views to the mountain ranges on the Afghan side, including the Hindu Kush range).

This trip being a road trip, most of the time was spent getting from A to B – overall more than 2200km had to be covered – most of which on fairly bad roads. Below the summary statistics … more details on the blog entries for the respective days.

Start here, start in Bishkek.

Day From Via To Distance
Jun-14 Bishkek Töö Ashuu Pass (3150m) Lake Toktogul 340 km
Jun-15 Lake Toktogul Jalal-Abad Osh 330 km
Jun-16 Osh
Taldyk Pass (3615m) Sary-Tash (3170m) 185 km
Jun-17 Sary-Tash (3170m) Kyzyl-Art-Pass (4280m)


Ak-Baital Pass (4655m)

Murghab (3650m) 230 km
Jun-18 Murghab
Pereval Nayzatash Pass (4137m)


Khargush Pass (4344m)

225 km
Jun-19 Langar Yamchun Fort Ptup 70 km
Jun-20 Ptup Eshkashem Khorog 180 km
Jun-21 Day in Khorog local
Jun-22 Khorog Rzvay 240 km
Jun-23 Rzvay Kulob Dushanbe 360 km
Jun-24 Dushanbe Hisor Dushanbe 60 km
2.220 km


Rzvay to Dushanbe

From the market it was back to the jeeps (the same ones as during the previous night, plus an additional car, to add some comfort to the journey) for the 360km ride to Dushanbe.

Stops en-route were limited. Our drivers were clearly more used to a local clientele than tourists … so stops were only put in, where needed (i.e. at checkpoints, for lunch and to receive tickets from friendly police officers).

The drive continued along the Panj river. Eventually we hit a modern, paved road (yes … new !! infrastructure). We were now going at 70 km/h (rather than the 30km/h we had gotten used to, ever since we had entered Tajikistan).

Eventually we left the Panj valley and also the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region and were heading towards the city of Kulob (in the outskirts of which we had a lunch stop). We were now on a main road and heading straight for the capital, where we did arrive in the late afternoon.

Rzvay Border Market

We had made it into Rzvay fairly late last night. The program today did continue as normal nevertheless.

Some of us (including myself) had decided, to have breakfast outside with straight views across the river to the Afghan side – but also the bridge connecting Tajikistan with Afghanistan.

After breakfast we did visit the border market on the Tajik side, offering both goods from Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Some in the group also used the opportunity to get some Afghan money as souvenir.

Khorog to Rzvay

Today we had a stretch of about 240km ahead of – from Khorog to Rzvay – and today was also the day, that someone in the Intrepid (travel company for this trip) head office in Australia had gotten very nervous.

We left Khorog in the morning, made it back to the Panj river and were now heading in a Northern direction; we were now also back on the M41 road, i.e. the Pamir Highway.

We had numerous photo stops on the way – and also a first incident, when a tire had given up and had to be replaced. This surely was no big deal; one of our replacement tires was taken out of the van and from here it was a simple replacement job – and we were back ready to go within 15 minutes.

We had lunch in a nice little restaurant close to the river, the summary being: great food, but atrocious toilets.

We continued along M41 following the Panj river. About 5km after the village of Lyakhsh (at 38°19’28”N, 71°13’24”E) we were hit by bad luck: while going through a bump in the road the ball bearing of the drive shaft was hit and destroyed.

Sasha got the car of the road and went straight into trying to replace the ball bearing. And while he had an impressive collection of spare parts with us, the specific one – of course – was not included. Sasha tried to improvise, but after some hours it was clear, that this would not work … so Jam had to organize a plan B, to get us moving again. About five hours after the incident two jeeps were pulling in and we were soon on the move again – making our way to Rzvay in the dark.

You may now ask yourself, why someone in Australia may have become nervous – right? Well … very simple … the breakdown occurred literally 50 meters from the border to Afghanistan (with just a wild river between Afghanistan and us).

We were certainly a bit of an attraction for the people over in the village of Jamarj-e Bala on the Afghan side of the river – – despite the distance (maybe just below a hundred meters to the village) there was some good interaction here – including loads of waving.

Ptup to Khorog

We were heading back into town again today, the destination being Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region with a population of 28000. A trip of overall 180km was ahead of us.

From Ptup we continued along the Panj river, had a stop at Khakka Fort on the way (see previous entry) to eventually reach Eshkashem. Here we continued North (still following the river) to – after a lunch stop en-route –  reach Khorog in the late afternoon.

Khakka Fort

En-route from Ptup to Khorogh we had a stop, to get to see the remains of Khakka Fort. The fort these days has been taken over by the Tajik military, so most of it is off-limits to tourists and only the entrance and outer walls can be visited.

Prior to the fort we stopped at a nearby museum, where the proud owner was guiding us through the collection. The highlight here was clearly the showcase of a traditional Wakhani house. Here we got a good introduction to the key features of the traditional architecture (setup and naming of pillars, setup of the roof light, resistance against earthquakes etc.) and also a demonstration of traditional Wakhani music (played on a traditional instrument). Overall an informative and worthwhile stop.

Yamchun Fort

We left the homestay after lunch for – what turned out to be – the highlight of the whole trip for me. We made our way up the mountain side … and further up … and – well – further up – until we could see the first stop of this afternoon excursion – Yamchun Fort.

Yamchun Fort sits on a cliff well above the Panj valley … at – I would guess – a good 400m above the valley floor. The fort clearly offers some of the – if not the – most stunning views of the whole trip … covering the valley and beyond into the Wakhan corridor.

While all sources agree on the stunning setup of the fort, there is quiet a bit of dispute regarding its history. Some sources see the fort as going back to 300 BC with it playing major role in silk road history, while other sources associate the fort to the 12th century AD only.

In the end for me, the age of the fort did not matter … walking around the premises and taking in the different views and angles certainly was a key highlight of the trip.

Another highlight was waiting for us after the visit of the fort. We were now continuing on the same road, we had used to come up – and made our way further into the mountains. After a drive of about 15 minutes we had arrived at our destination – the Bibi Fatima hot springs.

For the locals (especially the women) bathing here has a purpose, as soaking in the hot water here for women (supposedly) has a positive impact on her fertility (I just hope, she does not send her husband to bath in parallel, as the hot water would certainly have a negative impact on his near future fertility). For us though, the hot spring was a basically a very welcome bath after days of travel on dusty roads with only rudimentary shower options … also add to that the relaxation effect of the hot water – and you have a winner 😉