Many think the Pamir highway is just one single road. The official M41 runs from Dushanbe in Tajikistan to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. However, there are many sidetrips and detours that make your Pamir highway itinerary much more interesting.
With so many things to see and do in the Pamirs, planning your Pamir highway itinerary always requires some though choices. Will you include the Bartang valley? Do you take the Wakhan route? Which sidetrips from Murgab do you include? In the end, your Pamir highway itinerary is often a compromise between the time available and the costs.
In theory you could finish your Pamir highway itinerary in 3 long days travelling from Dushanbe to Khorog, Khorog to Murgab and Murgab to Osh. This won’t be much fun though. To really appreciate the Pamirs you need at least a week.
In seven days you give yourself some more time to enjoy the views and get to know your surroundings. But even then, I sometimes felt I only got to see the tip of the iceberg. The Pamirs are really out of this world with its spectacular lunar landscapes and glistening lakes. The more time you have, the better.
A one week Pamir highway itinerary
This Pamir highway itinerary is the route I did in April 2019. In 7 days I travelled from Dushanbe to Osh along the M41 with a detour into the beautiful Wakhan valley along the border with Afghanistan.
I rented a 4 by 4 with a driver through Visit Alay, who also helped in pairing me up with other travellers. In the end we were in a group of three people. They were one of the cheapest agencies where I could book my tour beforehand and I was very happy with their communication and services. We had an excellent driver and good car that made our trip as comfortable as possible.
Below you will see a map of my Pamir highway itinerary. If you click on it you will go to an interactive map including all the places to see along the way.
This map might help you in planning your own Pamir highway itinerary. During my one week trip I didn’t really have time for any hiking, so if you want to add some hikes into the Vanj valley, Bartang valley or Pshart and Madiyan valleys, make sure you add some days to your Pamir highway itinerary.
Day 1: Dushanbe – Qalai Khumb
There are two ways to travel from Dushanbe to Qalai-Khumb and Khorog. The northern route looks shorter, but it is a mountainous dirt road that is closed from October till June. Therefore most people take the Southern route through Danghara and Qulob where the road is in a much better condition.
It would be possible to travel onwards to Khorog in a very long day from Dushanbe. The journey can take up to 16 hours and because there are also some interesting stops along the way I decided to break up the journey in Qalai Khumb.
I travelled in spring and from Dushanbe to Qalai Khumb the scenery was very green. The meadows and fields were also full with red and yellow wildflowers. Our first stop was the Nurek reservoir viewpoint. The Nurek lake formed by a dam is a popular destination for local tourists. The road doesn’t come that close to the lake, but the views from above are spectacular.
Shortly after Nurek we passed by Danghara. This rural town is the birth place of Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon who invested a lot in Danghara. The results are some luxurious homes of the presidential family, a beautiful palace of culture with a Rahmon museum and the third biggest tea house in the world.
It’s not a place to linger around for a very long time, but the contrast between the extravagant buildings and the rural poverty surrounding it is a sad reminder of the complicated political situation in Tajikistan. Furthermore, since July 2018 Danghara is now also famous, because of the terrorist attack that killed 4 cyclists on the road.
It was an isolated incident and the Pamir highway is still a very safe place for travellers. Not once did I feel any hostility towards foreigners. On the contrary, Pamiri hospitality is legendary and everywhere I went I was greeted with smiles and friendliness. The Tajik government put up a simple, but beautiful memorial for the cyclists.
Hulbuk fortress and Qulob
After Danghara we continued our journey to Qulob. It is the second biggest city of Tajikistan, but not a very attractive one. Our driver did know of a good lunch spot, but first we made a quick stop at the Hulbuk fortress. An old fortified palace that was destroyed by the Mongols.
The fortress was reconstructed in 1951 and looks pretty new. The wedding procession that was going on in front of the fortress was actually much more interesting.
Along the Afghan border
So far we passed through rural farmlands with several towns and villages, but after Kulob we entered a more desolate part of the Pamir highway. We crossed our first mountain pass and at the top we had our first view into Afghanistan.
Below runs the Panj river, the border with Afghanistan, that we followed the rest of the day. It’s a strange experience to be so close to Afghanistan. At the other side of the river runs the Afghan road where we see villagers passing by on motorbikes or walking around with their donkeys.
At our first checkpoint to enter the Gorno Badakshan Autonomous Region the river was so narrow that we could hear the Afghan people talking. With no common language they wave and stare at us.
It seems so easy to build a bridge here, but the history of the Great Game between the British and the Russiand and years of conflict made the Panj river a much bigger barrier than it should be.
Day 2: Qalai-Khumb – Khorog
We slept our first night in Qalai Khumb. A small town with not much going on, but I was glad we had a break here. It was already getting dark when we arrived and I can’t imagine if we had to continue to Khorog.
As soon as we leave Qalai Khumb the next morning I am mesmerized by the views. We continue along the Panj river and pass by several Afghan villages. Mudbrick homes and farms where the oxes plough the fields. Children play football and women are doing the laundry in the river. These villages are so remote in Afghanistan that if these people would want to visit Kabul, it would be quicker for them to go through Tajikistan.
There are no particular sights of interest from Qalai Khumb to Khorog, but with such beautiful views we stopped frequently for pictures. It was late afternoon when we finally arrived in Khorog. I was looking forward to some Indian food at the famous Delhi Darbar restaurant, but it was closed.
Because the food in the rest of the places along the Pamir highway is pretty basic we decided to treat ourselves in Khorog on a nice dinner. We ended up in a relatively fancy restaurant where we had yak stew and yak burgers.
Day 3: Khorog – Langar
Khorog is one of the biggest cities on the Pamir highway, but besides luxury, comfort and a botanical garden there is not much to do. We only stayed one night and left early morning to start our journey into the Wakhan valley.
From Khorog you can choose to follow the M41 straight to Murgab or take a longer detour into the scenic Wakhan valley with its unique culture. The Wakhi people are not Sunni, but follow the Ismaili faith, a liberal branch of Shia Islam. It’s leader Aga Khan has done much for the development of the Pamirs with his Aga Khan Development Organization.
There is so much to see and do in the Wakhan valley that I wished we had more time here. There are hot springs, ancient fortresses, buddhist stupas and rural villages that give insight into people’s daily life. Seeing everything in a long day felt somewhat rushed.
Ishkashim & Namadgut
Our first stop of the day is the town of Ishkashim. Ishkashim is the major town in the Wakhan valley and famous for its Afghan border market. Unfortunately it wasn’t running when we were there and we heard it was closed for some time now due to security reasons.
Other places of interest near Ishkashim are several hot springs and the fortress of Namadgut. In April it was still a bit too cold for the hot springs, but the fort was a nice stop, although the ruins required a bit of imagination.
Yamchun Fort & Vrang
While the Namadgut fort lies right next to the road, the Yamchun fort required a scary drive up the mountain. On top of that a rockfall had blocked the road in front of us. Soon we were in a line of several jeeps waiting for a tractor that was supposed to come.
The tractor never came and at some point the police simply gathered all the men to remove the rocks by hand. The men reluctantly agreed and it seemed an almost impossible task, but after 10 minutes the job was done.
It was all worth it, because the Yamchun fort offered us a beautiful view into the Wakhan valley and the Hindu Kush mountains.
A bit further are the Bibi fatima hot springs. Local women believe the medicinal waters will boost their fertility. It’s a small pool and there are different times for men and women. Unfortunately the women’s time was just over when we arrived.
Our last stop of the day was in Vrang where there are some remains of an old Buddhist stupa. Although the Wakhan valley is now predominantly muslim, there used the be Zoroastrian and buddhist influences in the past as well.
Day 4: Langar – Alichur
Langar is the last settlement in the Wakhan valley. Beyond lies the Kargush pass that reconnects the road with the M41. It’s only 125 kilometers to Alichur, but this stretch of the Pamir highway is far from easy.
The weather that day wasn’t great as well. We woke up with rain that soon turned into snow once we got higher. Our driver carefully followed the jeep tracks in front of us untill we saw the actual jeep. They wanted to turn around, because they thought that it would be too dangerous to cross the pass with this much snow.
Our driver now went ahead while the other jeep followed us. We couldn’t see the road and everything was white. These were some of the scariest moments so far on our Pamir highway itinerary and everyone was silent in the car.
It was only when we crossed the pass and the snow turned into rain again that our driver informed us that this was one of the most dangerous passes on the Pamir highway. It is also called Proschay molodest (farewell youth), because a bus with young Soviet soldiers fell into the abyss and died while trying to cross the Kargush pass.
Kyrgyz camel caravans
After the pass we were once more in a completely different landscape. We say good bye to the Panj river and the border with Afghanistan, but not before we see camel caravans on the other side of the border.
According to our driver these are Kyrgyz people that live in the Afghan Wakhan valley. As our driver is Kyrgyz himself he shouts to them and manages to have some kind of conversation.
Bulunkul & Yasilkul lakes
The plateau of the Eastern Pamirs is well above 3000 meters. We passed by several streams where marmots play and several lakes that are solid frozen. Despite the gloomy weather it was absolutely beautiful.
We entered the M41 again, but only for a short while as we made a small detour along the Bulunkul and Yasilkul lakes. Bulunkul is a small setllement with white washed concrete buildings. It is one of the coldest places in Central Asia and even though it was already April it was indeed freezing cold.
We drove up close to the lake where the yaks were grazing at its shore, but the icy wind only allowed for a quick stop. Further up is the bigger Yasilkul lake that was even more beautiful. From there it is a short ride to Alichur where we spent the night.
Day 5: Alichur – Karakul
Alichur is at 3991 meters high, an increase in altitude of more than a 1000 meters compared to Langar. I was therefore not surprised that I woke up with a slight head ache after a rather sleepless night full of vivid dreams. All symptoms of mild altitude sickness that I am familiar with from my hikes in the Himalayas.
I felt pretty miserable, but wasn’t really worried yet, hoping my body would acclimatize. We left our friendly Kyrgyz host family in Alichur and made our way to Murgab and Karakol.
Shorbulak Observatory & Shakty Petroglyphs
Shortly before Murgab we went off road to visit the Shorbulak Observatory and some ancient petroglyphs. An abandoned Soviet observatory would normally make me quite exciting and the location is nothing less than absolutely spectacular with the views extending into China.
It was only a few meters to climb up the hill, but it’s a struggle at this altitude. Every step felt like torture. I had no energy, not enough air and my head still felt like it was about to explode. I made it to the top, but as soon as I was there, all I wanted was to go back to the car again. In a similar way I visited the Shakty neolithic petroglyphs.
Murgab & Ak Baital Pass
We made a quick lunch stop in Murgab. The major town in the Eastern Pamirs with a large Kyrgyz community. Murgab is slightly lower than Alichur and I also started to feel a little bit better. Enough so that I could enjoy my pelmeni soup lunch.
But our break in Murgab was short and we soon continued towards Karakol lake over the Ak Baital pass. At 4665 meters this was the highest point on our Pamir highway itinerary and my head ache was vack in full force.
After the Ak Baital pass we drove right next to the Tajik Chinese border fence. Behind the fence lies a controversial piece of no mans land that Tajikistan gifted to China to end a century old border dispute.
From far away we could already see lake Karakol. In summer famous for its deep blue colour, but now a pure white because of the ice. It was beautiful, but all I could think about was that I could soon lie down somewhere in some kind of bed. Probably a matrass on the floor.
Karakol is a typical eastern Pamir village with concrete white washed homes and herds of yaks walking around the town. We stop at a nice homestay.
As desolate as things may look outside, inside is a completely different world. Once we arrived the host family started to burn the fireplace with yak dung and started to prepare tea and dinner. It’s always a warm welcome in the Pamirs.
Day 6: Karakul – Sary Mogol
In Karakul my situation detoriated fast. Even though I took some paracetamol, my head ache was only getting worse. As our host family was preparing dinner I went from being not sure I was hungry to not even being able to think about food at all.
Our driver took it serious enough to bring me to the local health clinic. A friendly Kyrgyz doctor with a Kalpak hat came to see me and gave me some pills. If I did not feel better in an hour the only solution was to go down to a lower altitude.
This thought made me pretty scared. The only way to go down was to go back to Murgab over the 4665 meters high Ak Baital pass or to cross the border to Kyrgyzstan over the 4280 meters high Kyzylart pass. In addition, it was already getting dark.
I really wanted the pills to make me feel better, but as I sat there with a Kyrgyz doctor, two friendly nurses and our driver looking at me I had to admit I didn’t. When I started vomiting the decision was made. We had to go down and because Murgab wouldn’t be low enough we would cross the border to Kyrgyzstan.
We packed all our stuff and off we went. It was now pitch dark, but our driver assured us he had done this before at night. I was not the first victim of altitude sickness in Karakol.
The Kyzylart pass
I tried to sleep, but my headache kept me awake. We were actually pretty soon at the Tajik border post. Our driver got out to wake up the border guards. They wanted to invite us for a cup of tea, but quickly went through the procedures when they saw me.
I thought the Kyrgyz border must be very near now, but I did not know that there was 60 kilometer of gravel road ahead of us that is neither Tajikistan nor Kyrgyzstan. In other words, nobody feels responsible to maintain it. Somewhere in the middle is the Kyzylart pass.
The Ak Baital pass had been free of snow, but now all I could see outside was sparkling ice and a white blanket of snow. It was a bumpy ride and I could feel our jeep slipping away sometimes as the road was frozen. This was even scarier than the Kargush pass and again it was dead silent in the car.
It seemed to go on forever, but after two hours we finally saw the Kyrgyz border post. Our driver knew the guards and once they were out of bed it all went pretty quickly.
From now on we would finally go down in altitude. Something I felt immediately and when we finally arrived in Sary Mogol at midnight I felt much better.
It was only when we were at a lovely homestay that our driver told us that this was indeed another very dangerous pass at the Pamir highway, but that he actually prefers to drive it at night. During the day the ice melts and the road is even more slippery.
Day 7: Sary Mogol – Osh
The only good thing about our overnight adventure was that we now had much more time in Sary Mogol. A lovely town in the Kyrgyz Alay valley that is the gateway to Lenin Peak Basecamp.
Tulpar Lake & Lenin Peak Basecamp
Most people head straight to Osh, but the Alay valley is really a detour worth making and I would have gladly even spent more time here if I had. There was still too much snow to hike all the way to Lenin Peak basecamp, but our hike to Tulpar lake was spectacular enough.
Visit Alay organizes beautiful treks in the spectacular Alay mountains. From easy day hikes to multiple day treks.
From Sary Mogol we went back to Osh crossing our last mountain pass. The Taldyk pass is only 3615 meters high. Beyond it is green meadows with horses and yurts. It was good to see grass and trees again after the lunar landscapes of the Eastern Pamirs.
At Osh we say goodbye to our wonderful driver. We will mis him, his limited mp3 collection with Modern Talking less so.
Other Pamir highway itinerary ideas
In a week you get to see most of the highlights on the Pamir highway, but there are a number of ways to extend your Pamir highway itinerary if you have more time.
I would definetly liked to have a few more days in the Wakhan valley in Tajikistan and the Alay valley in Kyrgyzstan. Also in Murgab are some interesting sidetrips that I missed like the Pshart & Madiyan valleys and Rangkul lake.
For more information about Backpacking in Tajikistan I can recommend my practical travel guide about travel in Tajikistan, my post on the best things to do in Tajikistan and my 3 week Tajikistan itinerary.
The quick Pamir highway itinerary: the M41
For those that actually have less time it is still possible to do the Pamir highway. The quickest way brings you from Dushanbe to Osh in 3 days
First day: Dushanbe to Khorog (603 kilometers – 15 hours)
Second day: Khorog to Murgab (317 kilometers – 8 hours)
Third day: Murgab – Osh (412 kilometers – 10 hours)
The off the beaten path Pamir highway itinerary: Bartang valley
The M41 is getting more popular and especially in summer there are lots of tourists on the Pamir highway and in the Wakhan valley. For a more off the beaten path Pamir highway itinerary you can consider the Bartang valley.
From Rushan rather than following the road to Khorog you take the road along the Bartang river. The Bartang highway is about 400 kilometer and eventually reconnects with the M41 near Karakul.
Highlights include the Jizeu trek and homestays in the villages along the valley. Gudara is the last village in the Bartang valley. After that the road is sometimes closed for 4 by 4 vehicles due to landslides or snow. In that case you must return to Rushan to continue your journey to Khorog.
Where to stay during your Pamir Highway itinerary
There is no need to book your accomodation in advance and few homestays have a presence online. Most of the time you are fine in just showing up. However, if you do prefer to arrange your accomodation beforehand a handful of guesthouses can now be booked online.
Kalai khumb: For sure much more expensive than your average homestay, but if you want comfort and luxury you can book a room at Hotel Karon palace.
Khorog: In Khorog you will have a decent choice of options. The Pamir lodge is the most popular among backpackers and a great place to meet other travellers, but it is often full during high season. Other options for budget travellers are Roof hostel, Pamir hostel & Bed and breakfast Mir. For luxury and comfort choose the more expensive Zafar hotel & Zarya hotel.
Murghab: The only place to book online is the nice and comfortable Guesthouse Erali.
Sary Tash: When coming from Tajikistan Sary Tash will be your first stop in Kyrgyzstan and you will receive a warm welcome at Pamir extreme
Sary Mogol: When going to Tulpar lake and Lenin peak base camp you can base yourself at Tilek guesthouse
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Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.