The Pamir Highway

Rene heads through Tajikistan on the famed Pamir Highway and its many mountain passes and peoples.

Words and pictures: Rene Cormier. Editing: Adam Hay and Rob Harris

Leaving Dushanbe made us realize that the first challenge of the Pamir Highway was going to be getting to the bloody thing. There is debate on where exactly it begins on the western end, but my guess — good as any — was the city of Khorog, a dusty 20 hours east of Dushanbe.


Pamir Highway in red. Rene’s route in blue.

[Editor’s Note – Wikipedia reckons that the Pamir Highway starts at Mazari Sharif in Afghanistan, but also recognizes that it is open to interpretation, with Khorog being a possible starting point as well.]

Our goodbyes to Erwin and his broken leg made us get off to a late afternoon start, but the weather was good and by nightfall we managed to make the Panj River. This river acts as the international border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and its swirling water would stay on our right for the ensuing days as we worked our way south.

We found a great campsite overlooking the river but a carpet of flowers, however beautiful, kick-started every allergy I’ve ever had. I spent a sleepless night with a faucet nose.

From the city of Khorog, the Pamir Highway leads 311 km east to the town of Murgab, there crossing the Murgab River before turning northward. Other bikers had told me about another spectacular road, one that links Khorog with the town of Ishkashem, continuing south along the river (see map).


Camp Sneezy.

From there the road and border swing east along the Wakhan Valley now alongside the mighty Amu Darya River, doing a half loop that reconnected the Pamir Halfway to Murgab. This is the section that got rave reviews, with Afghanistan’s mighty snowcapped Hindu Kush mountain range rising up from the south side of central Asia’s longest river.

Guillaume and I got the maps out and divided the trip into three sections, including the recommended detour. From Khorog, we followed the river south to the border town of Ishkashem. Day two was east to the town of Langar before leaving the river and heading north on day three, back to the Pamir Highway.


Water = Life.

We were pleasantly surprised with a large section of asphalt road on the three hours to Ishkashem. Good roads allowed my mind to wander and take in the surroundings. The mountains on both sides of the river were rocky and bare but where a spring had appeared or a stream ran out from the mountain, lush green areas exploded with cherry and peach trees, gardens and crops.

In this region, like many others, water equals life.

Our Tajik side had a ‘proper’ road, electricity, and brick houses, while the Afghan side across the river sported a track that followed the sides of the mountains and mud huts. This part of Afghanistan is remote, despite the occasional satellite dish.



Market day is good for some, not for others …

We were lucky enough to find ourselves in the small town of Ishkashem for the cross border market on a Saturday morning. Joining a few other travellers, we made our way to the market, handing our passports to the guard at the gate. We left Tajikistan and temporarily entered Afghanistan to witness the market, held on a large patch of river delta.

Traders from both countries came to make every possible business. All goods were literally carried in … you were lucky if you had access to a wheelbarrow. TVs, spices, hundreds of carpets, pirated DVDs, plastic shoes; one vendor even brought a huge cooler with ice cream in it.


The road out of Ishkashem.

By noon I had eaten more than enough ice cream and Guillaume bought the ‘silly hat’ that he so wanted and we left Afghanistan and headed east.

Halfway through the day I’d had about enough with a clanking coming from the front end of my GS. Every sharp hit on the front wheel felt like I was bottoming out the tire.

I’d had this problem before and thought it was loose steering head bearings, but tightening them in Dushanbe had seem to have little effect. With the road getting worse and worse, I decided to stop at the next town to try to tighten them again.

I asked some of the local kids if they could find a 12mm Allen key and a 30mm socket in the village – two of the tools I didn’t carry with me because of their limited function. The kids and tools returned along with half the village to watch me tighten the bearings as much as I dared.

Thirty minutes later we were on our way and the problem was finally solved.


Leaving the Langar valley.
photo: Guillaume

We continued along the river as it twisted past in a muddy swirl. I read later that — like the Colorado in the USA — not a drop of this river would reach its original destination (in this case, the Aral Sea). Heavy irrigation for crops in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan suck it dry well before then.

At Langar we left the riverside and wound our way up into the mountains and quickly up to 3,400 metres. With the sun dropping we pitched tents in a shallow depression, staying out of the wind, and fired up the stove for the usual (but  delicious) two-minute noodles.




When I wanted the boys to smile I pushed the sides of my mouth up. I gave them the thumbs up sign to let them know they were doing great, and they responded…

We awoke the next day to the sound of goats and after snapping a few pictures of the boy shepherds we packed our tents and headed off to the 4,344-metre Khargush Pass.

Because of the proximity to Afghanistan and its drug trade, the pass is patrolled by the Russian military, which is responsible for keeping things clean. It was a no-nonsense checkpoint with two sets of gates and armed guards stationed behind sandbagged walls.

The commander of the post came over once the passport and permit checks were complete and shook our hands and said ‘hello’ (in Russian, of course). They thought I was German.

“No, no. Canada. Hockey,” I said.

“Ah, hockey. Gretzky!” he replied.


Reminders of past conflicts.

I could not think of any Russian players in the current league, so I blurted out “Tretiak!”, the amazing goaltender from the 1970s. The Russians enjoyed this and we continued to banter back and forth in the international language of hockey players’ last names.

Coming off the pass was much easier than anticipated. Travellers in a van had warned of its being a very rough road, but only one rocky section was to be had (rough is very relative in travelling circles), and we celebrated coming off the pass with lunch.

Not long after our delicious two-minute noodle soup was the intersection
back onto the Pamir Highway. I had not expected it to be so wide and
the tarmac to be so good and after the rocky pass it felt like I was
riding over huge fluffy pillows as the bike floated up a bump and down
lazily into the next slight depression in the road. Hilarious!


Exploring off the Pamir Highway.

Guillaume and I leap-frogged each other, taking photos, and with only 150 km to the next town, we were in no hurry to waste the views.

Upon arrival in Murgab, we found a home-stay for the night, and they treated us by firing up the wood-powered hot water shower. Finally clean and fed, we sank into cushions telling tales of the road, and as usual, were supplied with endless pots of piping hot green tea.



Celebrations on top of the Ak-Baital pass.

A cold but beautiful morning greeted us the next day as we headed for the 4,655-metre Ak-Baital Pass. The Pamir is the second highest paved highway in the world due to this pass, which, at 4,654 metres (15,268 ft) is up there (the highest paved highway in the world is the Karakorum Highway at 4,877 metres (15,996 ft) just over the Chinese border to the east).

As we crested the pass, orange and brown rock mixed with reds, lit up by the bright, bright blue of the sky peeking through grey clouds. Snow sat on the mountain tops, dirty with spring’s dust, melting slowly into trickling streams. It was completely barren but utterly breathtaking.


One hand in China.

At several points along the road we came within 10 meters of China, the border marked by a fence of wooden poles and barbed wire. We couldn’t resist stopping and sticking our fingers under the wire, touching Chinese soil – we don’t need no stinking visas!

A thorough and time-consuming entry process for entering Kyrgyzstan lasted into the twilight of evening.

Just over the border I stopped to photograph some yurts (traditional round, felt portable houses) and ended up getting invited into one for tea.

In addition to the tea, they served large bowls of kumis – a drink made from horse milk (!) that is left to ferment. The taste can be described as bitter skim milk and cheap champagne, but with the bubbles removed. Despite this, the drink is actually quite refreshing.


Kyrgyzstan hospitality.
photo: Guillaume 

After twenty minutes and a round of photos we excused ourselves and bid our hosts goodnight – what a first hour into Kyrgyzstan!

We drove 20 minutes to a small café that had a few beds in the back for rent; all the while I wondered how you actually milk a horse … ?


The closer we came to the capital of Bishkek, the busier the roads got – and not only with cars. Bishkek for me was a quick stop to do laundry on my way on up to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where the visa game would continue for Russia and Mongolia (as Guillaume didn’t have his Kazak visa yet, he stayed behind to sort that out).


Bishkek rush hour.

I arrived in Almaty after the easiest border crossing of the entire trip – I didn’t even have to get off the bike to leave Kyrgyzstan!

The Kazakhstan you may know from ‘Borat’ is not at all accurate. The country is rich in oil (many Canadians working in the oil patch) and natural gas. Almaty is also a city with glass shopping malls, indoor skating rinks, and patio cafes with wireless Internet access. Many small kiosks along the road and sidewalks sold ice cream and newspapers as well as beer.

Situated at the base of a string of mountains, there was no shortage of beautiful views from the surrounding roads. Also, walking downtown on a warm Friday, the best (and worst) of Russian fashion went on display. And I came to better understand this concept of a Russian bride: beautiful women who never stopped working!


To Russia!

I took solace in the fact that this was hopefully the last capital city where I needed to spend all my energy on getting visas to continue the trip. The Mongolian embassy was a delight: one day and $58 later, I had their sticker in my passport.

The Russian visa was going to be a bit more work.

To visit Russia you needed a letter of invitation. Several months earlier I’d got mine from a Moscow travel agency via the Internet for $90. For some reason, the embassy would not accept a copy of this invitation, so the agency in Moscow sent it to me by UPS for another $60. After my initial meeting with the consul, they offered a five-day turnaround for $235.

Man, Russia was expensive … I hadn’t even entered the country yet! But I accepted, and on a Saturday morning I was off to make the 1,200 km run north to the Russian border and into Mongolia.


“Hey kids, which way to Mongolia?”

Mongolia was going to be a highlight – the ancestral homeland of the great Genghis Khan has changed little in the 800 years since his Mongol rule. Roads are only paved in the cities, and those connecting small towns are only dirt tracks that change direction with the season.

Along with the Pamir Highway, the 1700 km Mongolian trek from its western border to the capital city was one of three must-do’s for me. I had already done the Pamir Highway, Mongolia next, and then the Trans-Siberian trek from Lake Baikal to Vladivostok (which didn’t even appear on my map of Russia) would be the third.

However, with money low and the bike coming onto 140,000 km, was I about to start the most difficult part of my journey on the wrong foot?


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