The Pamir Highway is one of the most picturesque roads in the world and the highest mountain road on the territory of Central Asia. It appeared in the XIX century during the "Great Game" - the colonial rivalry between the British and Russian empires. At first, the route connected the Fergana and Alai valleys, and later continued to Khorog and Dushanbe.
A modern journey should start from the capital of Tajikistan and, gradually acclimatizing, climb the mountains - to the "roof of the world": when the Pamirs got this nickname, the locals did not yet know about the existence of a higher Tibet. The trip promises to be exotic and colorful: most of the Pamir Highway passes through the high mountain gorge of the Pyanj River, along the border with Afghanistan. In addition to successive green valleys and dramatic gorges, at the bottom of which the Pyanj boils, there are many sights on the way, and they are very diverse.
Foothills of Pamir
The journey from Dushanbe begins on the spurs of Gissar-Alai. The mountains are not so high yet, but there are already a lot of interesting things. Particularly impressive are the high-altitude Nurek hydroelectric power station and the multi-colored salt mountain of Khoja-Mumin with openwork caves. You can make a detour and drive to the medieval Buddhist monastery of Ajina-Tepe or the hot springs of Chiluchor-Chashma, which form the river. But the main landmark on this stretch of the path is the ancient city of Kulyab, in the center of which is the mausoleum of the Persian scientist and theologian Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani.
Valley of the Pyanj River
After the Shuroabad pass, the Pyanj river valley begins - the border with Afghanistan passes through it, the road winds after the river. This is where the Gorno-Badakhshan region begins: the mountains around are getting higher, the landscapes are getting more spectacular. The process of looking out for unusual Soviet stops in settlements and suspension bridges across the numerous rivers rushing to Pyanj is also entertaining. At the place where the river Obihumbou flows into it, the village of Kalai-Khumb is located, where you can have lunch and relax.
The most interesting begins in the village of Rushan, where you can comfortably stay in one of the guest houses for a couple of days. It is interesting to make trekking along the rivers Vamardara or Bartang, take pictures against the backdrop of the azure lakes formed by the Jizevdara river. And in the city itself - take a walk along the Vamar fortress, which offers views of the Afghan coast of the Pyanj with rare desert villages. A barely noticeable path runs along the almost sheer cliffs: if you take care of binoculars in advance, you can see rare travelers in national clothes on it - most likely, they are heading to the famous market in the village of Ishkashim.
Khorog – the capital of Pamir
Khorog is the administrative center of the Gorno-Badakhshan region and the starting point for traveling through the high Pamirs. It even has an airport, but it mainly serves helicopters.
In Khorog, there is an amazing botanical garden - the second highest above sea level in the world (after Nepalese). The collection contains more than 4,000 plants from all over the world, which you would not expect to meet in such a climate. And in the local history museum you can learn about the history of the Pamirs and about the local peoples who call themselves pomiri and inhabit the territories of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. In addition to Islam, Zoroastrianism (especially in Shungan) and Buddhism (Wakhan) are strong in the region, so religious buildings are diverse and specific, and their architecture meets the climate.
From here you can get to the balneological resort of Garm-Chashma: it's nice to relax in the hot springs, they resemble Icelandic ones and form geysers up to one and a half meters high. There will still be springs ahead, but much more modest: in the village of Avch, 27 kilometers from Ishkashim, in Yamchun (Bibi-Fatima baths) and in Zong (Sharalay spring).
Ishkashim and fortresses
The main attraction of Ishkashim is the bazaar in the neutral territory between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In addition to Chinese consumer goods, there are a lot of antiques, clothes and other curiosities here, you can spend more than one hour here. Especially decisive ones choose brides for themselves, but foreigners, perhaps, should not rush into this. Days and hours of operation to be confirmed.
The road continues to wind along the Pyanj. Behind Ishkashim you can see the largest fortresses of the Pamirs - ancient outposts built on this inaccessible section of the Great Silk Road. The Kah-Kakha fortress was built in the 3rd century BC. e. in a narrowing part of the valley on a lonely cliff in the village of Namangut, overlooking the Wakhan corridor. In the village there is a local history museum of the Wakhan Corridor, as well as a holy place for the Ismailis - the mazar (tomb) of Shokhi Mardon Hazrat Ali. The Yamchun fortress appeared in the 2nd century BC. e. and is also located in a strategically important place - on a high cliff between the canyons of the Yamchun and Vichkut rivers. She defended Bactria from nomads from the east. It was a whole military city, surrounded by walls with 40 towers.
And near Namangut, there is the village of Darshay with its Zoroastrian sanctuary, fortress and ovring - wooden hanging eaves-walkways made by hand over a sheer steep. On the way to the ovring you can see well-preserved petroglyphs: rock carvings of people and animals, inscriptions of different times in different languages. A Tajik proverb says: "A traveler on an ovring is like a tear on an eyelash." The point is that without dexterity and courage this road cannot be overcome, despite the fact that there is simply no other road to some settlements. It is not surprising that the indigenous people of the Pamirs and the Tien Shan are very proud of their ovrings as a cultural and engineering phenomenon.
In the village of Vrang, from the old pyramid of the 5th century, views of Afghanistan, the multi-colored ridges of the Hindu Kush and the shallows of the Panj open up - it seems impossible to get enough of these pictures. The Museum of Muboraki Vakhani, a local scientist, theologian, musician and poet of the 19th century, is also worth a visit. Here are collected musical instruments made by him, books written by him, household items, and the original painting of the ceiling has been preserved. And at the entrance to Nichgar there are beautiful dunes: soft sand at sunset gives warmth to tired legs after walking. A worthy continuation of the fortress theme will be Abrashim in Zunga (there is also a Zoroastrian sanctuary), an observation tower (tuphona) in Ratma and Kafir-kala in Bogeve.
Langar and high mountain desert
Lyangar is interesting for its petroglyphs and views of the Panj and the Vakhandarya, which flows into it. There are a lot of petroglyphs: in several fields at an altitude of 2700 to 3500 meters there are about ten thousand images and graffiti created from the first millennium BC. e. until the 20th century. For example, there is a two-meter figure of an archer, images of a musical instrument ruboba. Why so many drawings? Langar arose at the crossroads of the most important caravan routes, was a meeting place for cultures and even civilizations. A wide variety of animals lived here, and above the village there are many flat stone blocks brought here by a glacier.
From Lyangar you can go on a difficult hike for the whole day to the plateau, from which the most difficult climbing ascents to the peaks of Marx and Engels begin. In good weather, these peaks can be seen with the naked eye, but more often they are hidden behind the clouds, like the Moskovskaya Pravda peak. On the other hand, the paths along the man-made canal, sometimes forming waterfalls, will not disappoint: it is impossible to get lost, and water is always nearby. A stream winds along the plateau - you can jump over soft bright green bumps, enjoying the long-awaited coolness and your own heroism. But it will be required: the route is about 8.5 kilometers one way, while the ascent is more than a kilometer, and oxygen starvation is inevitable. You need to start at dusk, because the sun hides behind the ridges quite early. And from the gorge with which the road ends, such a piercing wind blows, carrying also prickly snow from the peaks, that you want to immediately start descending to the hospitable Lyangar, drink hot green tea and lie down in a warm bed as soon as possible. I can't believe that yesterday you got sunburned while walking around the castle in Zong in a T-shirt. But even on this plateau you can meet people: if you're lucky, shepherds will be in the koshar, and hot tea will be guaranteed long before the night in the village.
At 40 kilometers from Lyangar, a completely different climate and relief begin: here you will not find agricultural oases of the Pyanj valley, this is a harsh high-mountainous desert with passes and rocks, where the sovereign masters are the yaks. But beyond the Khargush pass there is a life of its own, although there are much fewer settlements here: there are Kyrgyz yurts (many residents let them spend the night) and unusual cemeteries with mausoleums of various shapes.
Murgab — Osh
At the entrances to the Murgab, you can visit the endless lakes (Yashilkul is especially picturesque) and fully enjoy the loneliness and silence. And then be surprised at the sudden civilization in Murgab: this is a local tourist center, where the highest monument to Lenin in the world is located, not counting the bust of the leader on Lenin Peak. During the difficult history of Tajikistan in recent decades, the monument was brought several times to one of the highest peaks in the world by non-lazy ideologically savvy climbers, but it was lowered down by no less stubborn and non-lazy climbers, supporters of the opposite ideology. According to the latest information, the bust is on top again. In the city itself you can buy souvenirs, there are many comfortable places to stay, but there is almost no greenery, a dusty icy wind walks along the streets even in summer.
Nature here is more and more severe to humans, and only curious marmots and imperturbable yaks come across from animals. If you have time and energy, you can continue your journey to the Kyrgyz Osh - the Pamir Highway formally ends there. But the way there lies through Ak-Baital, the highest mountain pass of the former USSR (4655 meters): due to mountain sickness, the journey is not easy even for those who have spent several weeks in the Pamirs and are well acclimatized. Cars at this height also behave unpredictably. In any case, it is better to conquer the pass by traveling from Dushanbe: if you start in Osh, the climb will be quite swift and merciless. On the way to Osh there will be more passes, a Russian fortress and a border outpost of the 19th century, Lake Karakul.