Planning a Pamir highway tour: the ultimate guide
A Pamir highway tour is for many a dream come true and a highlight of travel in Tajikistan. It is called the roof of the world and is one of the highest highways in the world. The M41 runs through spectacular and desolate rugged mountains with deep blue glistening lakes and lunar landscapes.
Depending on one’s perspective it starts in Mazar-I-sharif in Afghanistan or in Termez, Uzbekistan. However, most people start their Pamir highway tour in Dushanbe, Tajikistan while ending in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
So far it sounds pretty simple, but planning a Pamir highway tour can be a daunting task. There are a lot of tour companies out there selling Pamir highway tours that come with different price tags and a huge variety in quality. Before booking a Pamir highway tour there are a lot of things you should think about.
This guide will tell you everything you need to know when planning your Pamir highway tour so that you come well prepared to this beautiful part of the world.
Do I need a Pamir highway tour?
The first question you might have is whether you need a Pamir highway tour in the first place or whether it is also possible to travel the Pamirs independently.
The pro’s and cons of public transport
If you are on a budget, travelling the Pamir highway on your own is probably the cheapest way. Public transport in Tajikistan and the Pamirs is through an informal system of shared taxi’s that leave once they are full. There is no schedule and cars only operate on demand. There should be at least one car every day between Dushanbe, Khorog, Murgab and Osh. From Khorog there are also shared taxi’s into the Wakhan valley as far as Langar.
So even though it is very well possible to travel independently, traveling by public transport can be a pain in the ass. Quite literally if you end up in an old bumpy soviet car. It can take ages for cars to fill up, you won’t see much and travel times can be excruciatingly long.
You cannot stop along the way for pictures or interesting side trips, instead there will be a lot of unannounced stops. People want to pick up extra luggage, the car might break down, the driver earns some extra money by picking up and delivering parcels, family visits, lunch breaks, toilet stops etc.
In addition, your safety is not the drivers main priority. Earning money it is, so once they are finally on the road they often go as fast as they can.
Conclusion: travelling by public transport is possible, but only for those that have a lot of time on their hand and are on a tight budget.
Good to know: Sundays is the informal day off for drivers and there is much less chance of finding public transport along the Pamir highway.
The pros and cons of Pamir highway tours
Pamir highway tours don’t come cheap, but have a lot of advantages over traveling by public transport. If there is one place on earth where it is worth paying extra for a tour it is the Pamir highway.
You have group tours or tour companies that work with you to establish your Pamir highway itinerary and through which you can then rent a 4 by 4 with a driver. The latter is the best option in my opinion, because it gives you the biggest flexibility and the opportunity to see as much as possible.
My biggest reason for opting to book a Pamir highway tour was first of all safety. The profesional tour agencies have a reputation to uphold and they make sure their cars are well maintained, have spare wheels and drivers are somewhat trained in dealing with tricky situations on the road.
In my situation it paid itself off when I got severe altitude sickness at lake Karakul. Not only did my driver brought me to the local health clinic, but also followed the doctors advice to go down immediately even though it was already late in the afternoon.
The second reason is that a Pamir highway tour is a once in a lifetime trip and you actually want to see something rather than being stuck behind a dirty window. Furthermore, there are a lot of interesting sidetrips you can make to local shrines, lakes, observatories and petroglyphs that are impossible with public transport.
Conclusion: Renting a 4 by 4 with a driver through a proffesional tour agency is the best and safest way to travel the Pamir highway. This way you will get the most out of your trip and you are able to make some nice sidetrips as well.
Alternative ways to travel the Pamir highway
Cycling: Cycling the Pamir highway is quite popular and in summer you will likely meet fellow cyclists along the route. Here are 9 great tips for those considering to cycle the pamir highway.
Hitchhiking: Another option to save money is hitchhiking, but it is not one that I would recommend as you might get stuck for some time or get into awkward situations.
Hitchhiking is actually quite common in Tajikistan, but not for free and a small payment is expected. Locals know that some foreigners don’t pay so they have become reluctant in picking up backpackers. On the other hand there are stories of locals that made use of the desperate situation hitchhikers found themselves in and asked exorbitant prices.
Considering the cost of renting a 4 by 4, other tourist jeeps and their drivers, might also not be very happy to give away rides for free, even if they have a spare seat.
Remember that Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in this region and that unemployment in the Pamirs is high. Tourism or using their car as a shared taxi are one of the few possibilities for people to earn a living.
Don’t be a begpacker and pay a fair amount for your transport. I will talk more about costs later in this post, but if you want to hitchhike plan to pay the same amount as what a shared taxi would have costed you.
The Pamir Highway Route
When people talk about the Pamir highway they can mean different things. I already explained that people disagree where it starts and there are many detours that you can take.
The official Pamir highway refers to the M41 highway that runs from Dushanbe to Khorog to Murgab to Osh. This would be the quickest and cheapest route, but not necessarily the best as there is so much more to see and do in the Pamirs.
For a one week itinerary I can recommend my detailed post with my Pamir highway itinerary. Below I will give an overview of places to visit on your Pamir highway tour.
Bartang & Jizeu valley
Rushan lies mid way between Qalai-kumb and Khorog. 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 often closed for 4 by 4 vehicles due to landslides or snow. Most people return to Rushan to continue their journey to Khorog.
Khorog is one of the biggest towns on the Pamir highway and not a bad place to stay a couple of days. While in most towns there is nothing else than basic homestays, Khorog offers a good choice of accomodation that is relatively comfortable.
In Khorog you can even get your fast food fix at Mac Dolands (not a typing misstake) or find good Indian food at Delhi Darbar restaurant. Other highlights include a botanical garden and the new Ismaili center with its beautiful architecture. Also check if the Afghan border market is running when you are there on a Saturday.
The PECTA office aims to promote community tourism initiatives and is very helpful in giving advice about your travel ideas in the Pamirs.
One of the most popular sidetrips on a Pamir highway tour is the lush and green Wakhan valley with its hot springs and ancient fortresses along the border with Afghanistan.
The Wakhan valley is home to the Ismaili muslims. A rather liberal branch of Shia Islam that has their own unique traditions. Central in their belief is the religious leader Aga Khan whose Aga Khan Development Organization has done a lot for the development in the Pamirs.
From Khorog the route goes south to Ishkashim famous for its Afghan border market and Ismaili centre then continues to Yamchun fort and Langar. After Langar you need to cross the Kargush pass at 4344 meter to reconnect with the M41 near Alichur.
Bulunkul and Yasilkul lakes
Bulunkul is a small detour from the M41. This small village is one of the coldest places in central Asia and is also the gateway to two beautiful mountain lakes. Bulunkul famous for its fish and Yasilkul.
I was there in April when both lakes were still solid frozen. A wonderful sight and certainly worth the detour. Bulunkul is only 16 kilometer from the M41.
Sidetrips from Murgab
Murgab is a typical high altitude town with a large Kyrgyz community and a sea container market. The town itself is not very appealing, but the lunar landscapes surrounding it are spectacular and there are several sidetrips you can make. Therefore Murgab makes a good stop for a couple of days.
First of all there is Rangkul lake. With many tour agencies you can book a camel or yak trek. Other sidetrips include the abandoned Shorbulak Soviet observatory, the Shakty neolithic cave paintings or treks into the Pshart and Madiyan valley.
At almost 4000 meters high, Karakul lake is one of the highest lakes in the world. It was formed by an impact crater millions of years ago. In summer the lake has a deep blue colour and in winter it is solid frozen. It is a great farewell of Tajikistan before crossing the border to Kyrgyzstan.
Sary mogul and Tulpar lake
Our Pamir highway tour with visit Alay included a sidetrip to the small village of Sary Mogul from where we could visit Tulpar lake and hike to Lenin Peak base camp. Unfortunately in early May there was still too much snow so we only made it as far as Tulpar lake, but the views were spectacular.
After Karakul most people head straight to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, but a visit to the Alay valley and the village of Sary Mogol is definetly worth your time.
You might ask yourself if it is better to travel from Osh to Dushanbe or Dushanbe to Osh. Both are possible in theory and the views are equally spectacular, but altitude sickness can be a real problem. For acclimatization purposes it is much better to travel from Dushanbe to Osh to prevent the quick rise in altitude if you travel from Osh to Murgab.
Conclusion: Before booking your Pamir highway tour make sure you know what you want to see. I can definetly recommend to take the Wakhan valley route and the small detour to the Bulunkul and Yasilkul lakes. Depending on how much time you have you can add other sidetrips to your Pamir highway tour as well.
How much time do you need for a Pamir highway tour
How much time you need for your Pamir highway tour is a difficult question to answer. With so much things to see and do you could spend weeks in the Pamirs.
In theory you could finish your Pamir highway tour in 3 days traveling straight from Dushanbe to Khorog, Khorog to Murgab and Murgab to Osh. This won’t be much fun though with three long and tiresome travel days where you only get to see a tip of the iceberg.
A week will make your schedule much more comfortable also allowing for the Wakhan valley route. If you are renting a 4 by 4 with driver the longer you go the more expensive it will be, so in the end you will need to make a balance of how much time you have and what your budget allows.
My budget allowed for a one week Pamir highway itinerary. It was a good compromise, but sometimes I wished I could have stayed longer to spend some more time in the places along the way.
If you want to include the Bartang valley or make day excursions from Khorog and Murgab you will definetly need more than a week.
How much should a Pamir highway tour cost?
The cost of a Pamir highway tour was my biggest concern when planning my trip to Tajikistan. On the internet you sometimes see exorbitant prices.
After some research I figured out that for renting a 4 by 4 with a driver it is fair to pay 0.65 – 0.90 USD per kilometer which comes between 150 and 200 USD per day. If you can share this between 4 people it comes to 40 – 50 dollar per day per person.
It’s good to keep this as a rough guideline in mind when looking to rent a car with a driver. This is excluding costs for food and accomodation. Some companies might ask more, some slightly less. Always check what is included in the price and what not.
Food and accomodation is pretty cheap along the Pamir highway. A basic homestay costs between $10 and $15 dollar per night per person including breakfast and dinner.
Good to know: There are no ATM’s, so bring enough cash with you in both US dollars and Tajik Somoni. Most guesthouses and restaurants accept both, although some do insist on either dollars or somoni.
Should I book my Pamir highway tour beforehand?
No, it’s not necessary to book a Pamir highway tour before you go. It’s still possible to book it when you are in Dushanbe or Osh.
That said, there are only a number of well trained english speaking drivers that are often fully booked by the renowned tour agencies in summer. Arranging your Pamir highway tour might take some time and if you book it last minute it might be more difficult to meet other people to share the costs with.
Finding people to share a ride with on the Pamir highway is relatively easy through the Caravanistan ride sharing forum. Sometimes the tour agencies also help in pairing up travellers.
Where to book a Pamir highway tour?
There are a lot of agencies out there selling Pamir highway tours. I booked my journey through Visit Alay and I was very happy with their communication and proffesional services. I had an excellent driver and good car and they also helped me to find other travellers to share the cost with.
Based on my personal experience I can definetly recommend Visit Alay for your Pamir highway tour. Other agencies that I don’t have experience with, but have good reviews include Roof of the World travel and Pamir highway Adventure.
Visas and Permits for a Pamir highway tour
Everyone that is going on a Pamir highway tour needs a Tajik visa and a GBAO permit. Most nationalities can apply online for the Tajik e-visa. It is a quick and easy process in which you can at the same time request the GBAO permit.
The evisa is single entry and valid for 45 days. If you need a double entry (in case you like to make a sidetrip to the Afghan Wakhan valley) or need more than 45 days you need to get a visa at a Tajik embassy.
What to expect on a Pamir highway tour
Checkpoints on the Pamir highway
The Pamirs lie in the Gorno Badakshan Autonomous region and a part of the road also goes along the Panj river that at the same time forms the border with Afghanistan.
Once you enter the Gorno Badakhan region you will come across several checkpoints where you have to show your passport and your visa with the GBAO permit. This is nothing to worry about and the police officers were quite friendly, if not a bit flirty towards female travellers.
Money matters in the Pamir highway
With the exception of Khorog there are no ATM’s on the Pamir highway and even the one in Khorog is not very reliable. Make sure you bring enough cash in US dollars and Tajik somoni. Theft on the Pamir highway is not unheard of so keep it safe in a money belt under your clothes.
Electricity and charging
In most homestays you can charge your batteries over night. However, some don’t have electricity and power cuts are common. Make sure you have spare batteries. A power bank or solar charger might also be useful.
Internet and communication
Outside of Khorog and Murgab, wifi is a rare thing in the Pamirs. Your best bet is to have your own local sim card with data, but as a foreigner it is not easy to obtain them. On top of that, even with a local sim card the internet can be frustratingly slow.
Hostels in Dushanbe can sometimes help out in getting your sim card. Megafon and T cell work best in the Pamirs.
Accomodation on the Pamir highway
There is no need to book your accomodation in advance. Most villages and towns have several homestays and guesthouses that cater to tourists. Homestays are the norm and are a great way to learn more about the local culture.
The prices vary between $10 to $15 dollar a night per person including dinner and breakfast. Don’t expect any luxury on your Pamir highway tour. With the exception of Khorog, things are very basic. A typical Tajik home has a room with matresses and blankets on the floor while sometimes there are actual beds.
I travelled off season and therefore it was relatively quiet and I always got a room for myself, but in high season when it gets more busy you might have to share the room with other travellers.
In almost all of the guesthouses there was some kind of bathroom with the exception of Alichur and Karakul. Toilets are of the squat variety. Often outside, so bring a torch.
Food on the Pamir highway
Before I went I thought it might be difficult to find enough restaurants on the Pamir highway. Things weren’t that bad in the end because our driver knew exactly where to go for lunch. The fact that our driver loved good food really came in handy. But then, nobody comes to the Pamir highway for its cuisine.
Tajik food can be a bit bland and greasy. Expect to eat a lot of plov (rice with carrots and chunks of meat), laghman (noodle soup with vegetables and sometimes meat) or dimlama (potatoe vegetable stew). Potatoes are also quite common and can be served for both breakfast (often fried) or dinner (boiled with meat).
Plov, laghman and dimlama are actually foreign foods to the Pamirs. They hold a high prestige and locals think this is what tourists prefer to eat. Nowadays traditional Pamiri food is hard to get by.
If you are really interested in Pamiri food I can recommend the book With our own hands. The authors have done an amazing job watching and documenting the culture and recipies of Pamiri cuisine. Some highlights that you might be able to find if you are lucky include osh (noodle soup), guzkharvo (walnut soup) and noshkhukpa (dried apricot soup).
Part of what makes travelling in Central Asia so special are the people. Together with Iran they are among the friendliest people I have met on my travels. An invitation to someone’s home for a cup of tea is never far away, especially if you travel alone or if you are cycling the Pamir highway.
Pamirs hospitality is famous, but realize that giving you free rides or free food comes at a high cost for your host. Life is expensive in the remote Pamirs. Most items had to travel a long way to get there and food security is definetly an issue.
Don’t be a begpacker and discreetly leave some money that is equal to what you would pay in a regular homestay or restaurant, even if your hosts tell you it is free. For a meal that would be between 20 – 40 somoni per person. Either give it to the female head of the family or leave it under your plate.
Cultures and languages in the Pamirs
The Pamirs only hold 3% of Tajikistans population, but is very multicultural. The Pamiris are often described as an Iranian ethnic group speaking Pamiri languages. However, in reality there is no such thing as the Pamiri people.
In fact, there is a number of different communities each with their own culture, traditions and languages. Although Tajik is widely understood, most ethnic groups speak their own language. There is Shughni, Rushani, Wakhi, Bartangi, Yazgulyani, Khufi and Ishkashimi. In the Eastern Pamir there is also a large community of Kyrgyz people speaking Kyrgyz.
Most people practice Sunni Islam, but in the Wakhan valley you will find the Ismaili, a liberal branch of Shia islam. It’s leader is the Aga Khan whose Aga Khan Development Network has done a lot for the development in the Pamirs.
Tajik and Kyrgyz time
In the Eastern Pamirs from Alichur onwards there is a large Kyrgyz community. Therefore the Murghab district operates on Kyrgyz time, that is 1 hour ahead of Tajik time. If agreeing on a time with your driver, make sure you are both using the same time zone.
Where to stay on a Pamir highway tour
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
When to go on a Pamir highway tour
Summer in the Pamir highway
The best time to visit the Pamir highway is in summer from June till September when the weather is most stable with clear blue skies and relatively warm temperatures. Do keep in mind that even in summer, temperatures can still fall below zero at night when you are at the higher altitudes.
Autumn in the Pamir highway
Autumn is when the Pamirs are at its most beautiful. The poplar trees turn yellow and in the villages people are busy with the harvest season. But Autumn is short in the Pamirs. From October onwards temperatures get more cold and the chances of snow are increasing.
Winter in the Pamir highway
In winter the Pamir highway is very cold with temperatures far below zero and there will be lots of snow. The M41 stays open all year round, but it will be though and most homestays are closed.
Spring in the Pamir highway
Things start to open up in spring when the snow melts and Nowruz is celebrated. At the one hand its beautiful with the fruit orchards in bloom, but this is also one of the wettest times of the year. April and May are transition months and high altitude treks are still out of bounds. Furthermore there is a risk of avalanches and rock falls.
Safety on the Pamir highway
When talking about safety on the Pamir highway it is difficult not to mention the Danghara attack in July 2018 when 4 cyclists were killed by armed men that pledged allegiance to IS.
So far this seems to be an isolated incident that was condemned by most people in Tajikistan as you can read in the sober memorial on the road. Wherever I met I was greeted with smiles and friendlinnes and nowhere did I feel any hostility towards foreigners.
Ironically when I was travelling in central Asia an attack happened near my hometown in Utrecht where a terrorist killed three people in a tram. It shows these kind of events can happen anywhere.
Regarding your safety on a Pamir highway tour, your chances of becoming the victim of crime or terrorism are still extremely low. It is your health, and in particular altitude sickness, that is a much bigger concern.
Sanitary conditions on the Pamir highway are very basic and hygiene standards pretty low. Furthermore, health facilities are far in between and only provide very rudimentary health care. There are small hospitals in Khorog and Murghab, but for anything serious you might need to go to Dushanbe or Osh.
Diarrhoea is probably the most common health issue among travellers on a Pamir highway tour. Many people struggle with the food that is quite heavy in fat. Bring a water filter with you and a hand sanitizer to minimize the risk of bacterial diarrhoea.
Also be aware that at higher altitudes the sun is much stronger and you can get sunburn more easily. Bring enough sunscreen with factor 30 or higher. Also bring sunglasses and a sunhat for adequate protection.
At last, if you are prone to motion sickness make sure you bring your preferred medication with you.
The biggest threat to your health on a pamir highway tour is altitude sickness. It can affect anyone no matter how fit someone is. It starts to become a concern at 2700 meters and above. The higher you go, the higher the risk,
The key is to go up slowly. The general rule of thumb is that, once you are above 2700 meters, you should not ascend more than 300 meters per day. During the day you could go a bit higher and it is even adviced to do so as long as you sleep at no more than 300 meters higher as the previous day.
Unfortunately it is almost impossible to follow this advice on a Pamir highway tour. To reach the high plateau of the Eastern Pamirs it is inevitable to go much higher than the guidelines recommend.
Symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) include headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, dizziness, fatigue, problems sleeping, shortness of breath and simply feeling miserable. If left untreated it can progress into the life threatening conditions of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE).
When at higher altitudes make sure you drink enough water. At least 3 to 4 liters per day. Local remedies include dried fruits with a bit of sugar and kurut (dried yoghurt balls). You might consider taking diamox, a medicine that will help you acclimatize.
Once you have severe symptoms the only thing that helps is to go down again to a lower altitude.
What to bring on a Pamir highway tour
Enough money: There are no reliable ATM’s on the Pamir highway. Bring enough US dollars and Tajik somoni with you. Most guesthouses and restaurants accept both, although some do insist on either dollars or somoni. Also bring a money belt to safely store your money. Theft along the Pamir highway is not unheard of.
Sunscreen and Sunglasses: The sun is very strong at higher altitudes. Bring enough sunscreen with you with at least factor 30.
First aid kit: It is very important to bring your own first aid kit with you including your preferred medicines against diarrhoea and motion sickness. Also consider to bring diamox (altitude sickness), ciprofloxacine (a general antibiotic), aspirin and ibuprofen.
Water filter or water purification tablets: To prevent diarrhoea and plastic waste bring your own bottle with a water filter or water purification tablets. It’s important to drink enough fluids at higher altitudes.
Power bank and or solar charger: you might not get the chance to charge your electronics every night. Not every homestay has electricity and power cuts are common. Bring enough spare batteries, an extra power bank and or a solar charger. At high altitudes batteries also drain much faster due to the colder temperatures.
Torch: very useful for when you have to go to the toilet at night. Often it is outside and at night it is pitch dark.
Toilet paper and wet wipes: There is often no toilet paper so bring some with you. Wet wipes come in handy in all kind of situations for example when the bathroom facilities are non existent.
Hand sanitizer: you can’t control the hygiene standards in your homestays, but you can control your own. There isn’t always clean water and soap available to wash your hands so bring a hand sanitizer.
Warm clothes and sturdy shoes: Even in summer it can get very cold at the Pamir highway. Bring enough warm clothes and sturdy shoes for day hikes.
Gifts: bring some small gifts from home such as postcards or keychains to give to your hosts in your homestay or if you are invited over for tea.
Books about the Pamir highway
Lonely Planet Central Asia
The Lonely planet about Central Asia has lots of practical information about travelling in Tajikistan including the Pamir highway
Bradt Guide Tajikistan
The Bradt guide is superior to the Lonely planet if it comes to background information. The Bradt guide has elaborate sections on culture, languages and wildlife in the Pamirs
Trekking in Tajikistan
If you plan to do treks in Tajikistan including along the Pamir highway this is the best guide book available. Written by Jan Bakker and Christine Oriol.
With our own hands
With our own hands is a beautiful book to have at home with everything about Pamiri food culture. Frederik van Ouwenhoven and Jamila Haider have done a great job in documenting tradition Pamiri food recipies.
This book from Matt Traver with a visual exploration of life in the Pamirs has beautiful pictures of a Kyrgyz shepherd family around Murghab.
Peoples & Landscapes Tajikistan
This book from Nicolas Pernot is one of the best photography books depicting the people and landscapes of Tajikistan including the Pamirs.
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.
Disclaimer: This travel guide about everything you need to know when planning your pamir highway tour contains affiliate links. If you buy any service through any of my links, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. These earnings help me to keep Backpack Adventures alive! Thanks for your support!