The Tajik Pamirs independently

In April 2018 we ventured through the Wakhan Valley and the Pamir Highway independently. Doing our research many sources made it sound like incredibly time consuming, and most sources advised to hire private transportation. After our Pamir adventure we met travellers asking the exact same questions, and we decided to share how we did and what we learned about travelling in this amazing area on your own!

To give you and idea of our tour here is our itinerary:

  • Day 1: Shared taxi from Osh to Murghab.
  • Day 2: Relaxing and acclimatizing in Murghab.
  • Day 3: Private taxi from Murghab to Langar.
  • Day 4-5: Independent trek on the path towards Engels Peak (the hard way from Langar to Zong).
  • Day 6-11: Walking through the Wakhan Valley from Zong to Ishkashim.
  • Day 12: Relaxing in Ishkashim.
  • Day 13: Shared taxi from Ishkashim to Khorog and restocking in Khorog.
  • Day 14: Shared taxi from Khorog to the road junction to Bulunkul.
  • Day 15-17: Trekking on the old road from Bulunkul to Alichur with some detours.
  • Day 18: Relaxing in Alichur and hitchhiking to Murghab.
  • Day 19: Shared taxi from Murghab to Osh.

Transportation

What most people worry about is how to get from A to B in this sometimes quite deserted area, so lets start by saying that this is definitely not impossible! But it will require you to accept that you can only plan it on the go, and at the same time it may require you to plan a bit ahead whenever you arrive in a village — and maybe learn a few basic phrases in Russian and/or install Google Translate’s offline version (Android, iOS) 😉

We give our best advice on the different legs for other options than hiring a car with driver for a multi-day tour.

Transport in general

Remember that every car on the road in Central Asia is a potential taxi, and therefore most would also expect you to pay a bit if you hitchhike. Generally, both shared taxis and the price asked if you hitchhike are reasonable and not worth bargaining over. Although it is always best to agree and confirm the price before getting in, and to pay the exact amount in cash. However, every now and then you will encounter somebody asking for a ridiculous high price. Ask at your accommodation what you should expect the price to be.

When going with a shared taxi on the longer trips it seems to be the norm that you pay at the beginning of the trip. It is our experience that the driver stops at a petrol station within the first 30 minutes to get petrol for the day’s ride (and probably no more than that 😉) and expects the passengers to pay at this point.

Transport is usually in private cars of all standards. For some legs it is only possible to go by 4WD. No matter what, expect that the drivers are just ordinary people either going for private reasons and therefore want to fill up the car or are doing the trip on a regular basis as a way of generating an income. They are nothing like licensed taxi drivers, and the cars are prone to breakdowns. However, they all hide a want-to-be mechanic in them and will usually fix the car on the road within an hour or so.

Transport times given by locals are to be considered rough estimates. Do not travel on a tight schedule as all drives seems to take forever, or at least a few hours more than expected 😉 Start early in the day, as roads are often bad, and you really want to end the trip in daylight.

Osh to Murghab

The most reliable option is by shared taxi. Get in touch with a driver at least the day before you want to go. You can ask your guesthouse for help, or you can reach out to our all time favourite driver Ibrahim (Kyrgyz number +996 556 650 128 — also WhatsApp (Android, iOS) or +996 778 790 365, Tajik number +992 550153071 or +992 915235758). The price is 2000 KGS for a seat in a 4WD, and it will take 6-7 passengers plus children, luggage, commodities to sell/use in Murghab, etc. The ride takes about 10 hours, and they will stop for toilet breaks and a lunch break on the way. Various guidebooks will also give you destinations around Osh where taxi drivers wait for passengers to sign up. However, you risk waiting for hours and get on the road very late in the day, so better find a driver and make an agreement at least the day before.

Another option is to hitchhike. You will probably get to Sary Tash very easily, but then it gets more tough. To us it seemed that people only cross the border if their car is full. Most things are possible, but on this route you may prefer to play things safe and arrange a ride 🙂

If you want to go to Sary Tash e.g. to trek near Peak Lenin we recommend that you agree with a driver from Osh to reserve a seat for you at an agreed date when he goes from Osh to Murghab, and then meet with him in Sary Tash. Although you would probably still be charged the full price of 2000 KGS.

Murghab to Langar

This part is extremely tricky, as the road from M41 (Pamir Highway) to Langar does not really seem to be in regular use by the locals. They simply do not go this way. This means that there are no shared taxis or other public transport — and hitchhiking would be extremely unreliable.

We chose to hire a driver in Murghab to drive us from Murghab to Langar. As he could not expect to find any passengers going the other way we had to pay for the full car going both ways. The “standard rate” for a 4WD including driver is $0.65 per kilometre, and there is 225 km each way. Negotiating a bit we got it down to $250 for the car. It is expensive, but for us it was worth it.

Cheaper options would be one of the following (supposing you don’t want to hitchhike this part):

  1. Make your way from Murghab to Alichur and find a driver in Alichur. This would save you about 100 km with a private car each way. From Murghab to Alichur there are shared taxis on weekdays. Ask at your guesthouse for timing and prices, but it should be about 25-30 TJS. It is also quite possible to hitchhike from Murghab to Alichur with the trucks going between China and Dushanbe — or with locals.
  2. Take the shared taxi from Murghab to Khorog and then another shared taxi from Khorog to Langar potentially changing in Ishkashim. Expect this to take two days spending the night in Khorog or Ishkashim.
    1. Murghab-Khorog: They leave every day from the “bus station” near the bazar in Murghab when they are full (usually 6 or 7 passengers plus children and luggage). Price is between 120 and 150 TJS. Try ask your homestay/guesthouse and they may just call a driver or go with you to the station to agree on a pickup time, then you don’t have to hang around at the station.
    2. Khorog-Langar: It is not totally clear what days the shared taxi is leaving, and you may find that you will have to go to Ishkashim and from there to Langar. Ask around, and the taxi drivers would be happy to help you find the right car 😉 We are not sure about the price either, but around 100 TJS sounds reasonable to us. The leg from Khorog to Ishkashim is about 40-60 TJS depending on what way you go.

Langar to Ishkashim

As we walked this 113 km leg we have no personal experience with this. But there is a shared taxi going all the way from Langar to Ishkashim (or opposite) a few times a week. You will have to ask around for the timing. But even if you do not hit the day of the shared taxi I wouldn’t be too worried. The locals go from village to village all the time, and with moderate patience it is possible to find a ride. You will probably not be able to hitch with just one car all the way, but if you count in 3-4 days to include some sights along the way I wouldn’t be too worried that you will eventually reach Ishkashim 🙂

Also, it seems that the shared taxi picks up passengers in all villages on the way if there are empty seats, so ask at your homestay if you want to take the shared taxi.

Or you can do the walk like we did — it is amazing nature and lovely locals, so definitely worth spending some days here!

Ishkashim to Khorog

This leg is easy — plenty of shared taxis every day. And at Hani’s Guesthouse (and probably elsewhere as well) you can just ask them to reserve a seat a day in advance and you will be picked up the next morning in front of the guesthouse. We paid 40 TJS per person.

In Ishkashim taxis are lined up on the main street for both Khorog and to destinations in the Wakhan Valley, so ask around a bit and you will be helped 🙂

Khorog to Bulunkul (or Alichur, or Murghab)

Also, on this leg there are shared taxis going to Murghab with the option to be dropped off along the way (for the full price, though). You can either go to the shared taxi stand at the bazar and get a ride on your day of departure or ask your accommodation to call for you. The latter option may save you some hours of waiting at the taxi stand for the car to fill. The price is somewhere between 120 and 150 TJS, and you will probably have to pay the full price even if you are dropped off at the junction to Bulunkul or in Alichur. The ride should be 7-8 hours all the way from Khorog to Murghab, and maybe 2 hours less to the Bulunkul junction.

From the junction between the road to Bulunkul and M41 there are 14 km to the Bulunkul village. Do not count on getting a ride here, even though we were lucky.

This is also a reasonable option if you want to go to Alichur. Alichur is located right next to M41, so you can just be dropped off and find a homestay.

Bulunkul village to Alichur

We heard from different sources that there is a shared taxi in the morning on weekdays between the two villages. Get this confirmed before relying too much on it 🙂

If you find that there is none you can walk the 14 km back to M41 and hitch a ride from here (probably with a truck going from Dushanbe to China). It should not be too much trouble, but may take some patience.

Or, if you have a tent, do the 30+ km trek along the old road between Bulunkul and Alichur — the nature is amazing!

Alichur to Murghab

We got reliable information that on weekdays there is a shared taxi in the morning. Ask your accommodation to book a seat for you one day in advance. The price should be around 25 TJS. At weekends and later in the day it should be possible to hitch a ride probably with a truck going from Dushanbe to China. Ask your accommodation and they may even know what time of the day the trucks usually come by (morning and early afternoon we were told).

Murghab to Osh

Either ask your homestay/guesthouse to help or go to the bus station near the bazar and find a ride. We recommend to reserve a seat the day before or in the morning in order not to leave too late, as the drive is about 10 hours. The price is 200 TJS (Yes, that is less than going the other way — the incentive to go to Osh seems to be larger).

If you would like to see Lake Karakul and do not want to hire a private car, we suggest you hitchhike there and have an agreement with a driver in Murghab about taking up a seat in his car the next time he goes to Osh. You will probably still have to pay the full price, but you avoid the hassle of trying to hitchhike across the border.

Accommodation

Almost all villages in the Pamirs have homestays where you will get a place to sleep and at least dinner and breakfast for somewhere between 10 and 15 USD. The cheaper ones tend to host you in a “pamiri room” on mattresses on the raised floor and serve you a one-course dinner. The more expensive ones are similar to guesthouses and offer you a real bed in your own room, two-course dinner, and maybe also lunch and a hot shower. At a few places we were asked for 20 USD including lunch — we paid, but did not feel it was worth it. Expect to share the outside toilet with the family.

You can get extensive lists of homestays along with recommendations for the best ones at the PECTA Information Centre in Khorog and probably also in Murghab when open (not open yet in April). We did not have such a list, as we were too early in the season, so we generally just opted for the homestays marked on the map provided by Maps.me (Android, iOS), relied on the signs along the road, or occasionally asked around in the village. Do not expect the building to have any kind of sign that it is a homestay. If you think it is the right address, look “touristic” and a local will soon realise what you are looking for and find the owner of the place 🙂

Our all time favourite homestays in this area are:

  • Ibragim Anara Guesthouse, Murghab, +992 550153071 ($15, own room with beds, English spoken) — the guesthouse has their own banya, so you can get a warm bucket shower!
  • Barieva Homestay, Zong Village, Wakhan Valley, +992 501041859 (80 TJS, pamiri room, English spoken).
  • Akim Homestay, Tuggoz Village, Wakhan Valley, +992 934774883 (on the road towards Yamchun Fortress and Bibi Fatima hotspring) (120 TJS, pamiri room, only Russian spoken).
  • Nisso Homestay, Bulunkul Village, Pamir Highway ($15, pamiri room, basic English spoken).
  • Shokhrona Homestay, Alichur Village, Pamir Highway, +992 908482612 (100 TJS, pamiri room, English spoken).

They are our favourites because the owners actually wanted to engage with us — hear our stories and share theirs 🙂

It seemed common that tourists “shops around” between the homestays in the village before they choose one — at least they always invited us to see the room and facilities along with telling us the price before they expected us to move in with our backpacks.

In Khorog and Murghab you have a greater choice among not only homestays, but also guesthouses and hotels, so here you may want a plan for where to go before you arrive. Booking ahead can also prove extremely convenient when the car breaks down and you end up arriving in the middle of the night.

In our experience the villages close to Ishkashim did not have as many homestays as those closer to Langar. In fact we ended up walking through a long row of very small villages with no homestays, and when the sun set we simply had to ask a welcoming lady if we could pitch our tent near her house. She invited us to stay inside though 🙂 But the closer you get to Ishkashim the more you need to plan in what village to stay to make sure they have a homestay.

Food

In Khorog and Murghab you can buy pretty much any kind of food at the bazar, although regular trekking meals are not available — you can get cup-noodles 😉 We could not find it in Osh either, so stuck up from home if needed. Both Khorog and Murghab have cafés where you can buy your lunch or dinner.

In Ishkashim there are quite a few “magasin” shops selling all kind of basic food, but they can be hard to find. Ask at your accommodation if you need something specific 🙂 Also, here are cafés with lunch and dinner menus offering all variations over laghman, plov, manty, and samsa like everywhere else in Central Asia 😉

In the villages in the Wakhan Valley and on the Pamir Highway they probably all have at least one small “magasin” shop — however, it can be incredibly hard to find not to mention to find it open. We had the best of luck around noon. In these shops you can buy juice, eggs, pasta, biscuits, chocolate, maybe onions and potatoes, and not much more. What is important to note is that you cannot buy bread — you will have to buy this from the homestays.

Some of the villages have small “cafés” where you can probably buy e.g. lunch. However, do not count on this.

One last thing to note is that loads of people will invite you home for tea and bread. We had a hard time figuring whether this was merely a friendly greeting where they kind of hoped we would say no, or whether they actually meant it. Experimenting a bit we learned that it was best to say no at least the first time they ask, and then if they invite the second and third time they probably mean it. If they do not ask again, it was just a kind of friendly pamiri greeting 🙂 Remember that they may expect you to pay a bit for the tea and bread (like 10 TJS for a couple).

When it comes to water the locals seem to stay hydrated from drinking tea for all meals and also in between. We kind of got used to this, as it is an easy way to stay hydrated compared to purifying water etc. However, when we went trekking we needed water. In most of the villages in the Wakhan Valley they have some kind of pipeline system leading melt water to centrally located water fountains. We just filled our water bottle in those. In other villages they use water directly from a meltwater creek. You may need to ask what water is drinkable not to confuse it with one of the irrigation canals. We preferred to purify the water with tablets, as it was not always easy to assess whether the livestock of the village were wading through the stream higher up, but you could probably drink the water from the water fountains right away.

On the Pamir Highway we got water directly from the wells in the villages. When trekking in the mountains we just used the meltwater streams, however between Bulunkul and Alichur we had to rely on the water in the side streams of the Alichur river, which was not ideal as they were quite dirty.

Activities and attractions

The main reason to go to the Wakhan Valley and the Pamir Highway is the nature and the people. But there are a few sights along the way worth a visit. Our favourites were the Yamchun Fortress, the Bibi Fatima Hot Spring, and the Bulunkul Lake.

Besides obviously walking along the main roads we can also recommend two different detours that we found amazing:

  1. Hiking on the path towards Engels Peak (as far as the weather and your skills allow) — see our guide on this.
  2. Hiking along the old road from Bulunkul to Alichur potentially with a detour to Lake Yashilkul.

Both will require you to bring full camping gear, but in return you get the place pretty much for yourself, and the nature is stunning!

Internet access

Except from Khorog we found nowhere in the Pamirs with WiFi. We bought a data SIM card from Megafon which we bought in Murghab. It worked okay in Khorog and Murghab, less reliably in Alichur, and mostly not at all in the Wakhan Valley. The Wakhan Valley seems to have better coverage by Tcell, but we could not find a place to buy a Tcell SIM card in Murghab.

Visa

Most nationalities can apply for an e-Visa to Tajikistan. Remember to tick off that you want a GBAO permit. We printed it and brought it as a hard copy at the border and experienced no trouble. Note that you will have to present it at the military checkpoints in Khargush and near Khorog as well as at the police checkpoint near Murghab.

Maps

The best printed map we found is the Markus Hauser tourist map of the Pamirs. It is good for driving, but is not detailed enough for hiking nor finding your way around the villages. You can buy it at the PECTA Information Centre in Khorog, and probably also in Dushanbe.

The best offline map for your phone is Maps.me (Android, iOS), which has all attractions and most homestays. When hiking we relied a lot on the hill shading feature in Locus Map Pro (Android).

 

For other tips on travelling in Central Asia please see our travel tips. Feel free to leave a comment below if you would like to know more 🙂

April 2018

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