The Roof of the World: A Road Trip Through the Pamirs

On the road

The road trip across the Pamir Mountains (or as the locals term it, “The Roof of the World”) from Dushanbe in Tajikistan to Osh in Kyrgyzstan must be one of the world’s greatest, yet least known adventures.

There are several routes, but the longer southern passage that skirts the Afghanistan border is the most scenic. I chose the best but more expensive option of hiring a car and driver. The alternative is a shared taxi, but even that option is tricky once in the Pamirs.

Initially the road was surprisingly good, but after Shurabad Pass conditions changed dramatically. Gone was the wide bitumen with shoulders and guard rails. Instead there were narrow, winding dirt passages with nothing to stop a wayward vehicle plunging hundreds of metres to a certain doom. I noticed a few vehicle carcasses crumpled by the side of the road or submerged in the fast flowing Panj River that marks the Afghanistan border.

There were three difficult water crossings due to melting snow and rain. The first was no problem as it was wide but not deep. The second crossing, however, halted our progress — a Kamaz truck was stuck on the only usable passage. Though Kamaz are famous for their winning exploits at the Dakar Rally, they were no match for this road. Ninety minutes after various plans were devised and discarded, a bulldozer arrived and hauled out the stricken truck.

The final crossing was the worst — the water was deep, fast and wide. Thankfully, the ricketiest bridge I have had the nervous misfortune to cross had been constructed. It shuddered as we tentatively rumbled across to a risky last section that involved driving over a worrying gap.

The rain continued

The rain continued as our vehicle bumped through puddles, skidded across the mud and carved our way along flowing waterways. Only 200 metres distant on my right were the imposing mountains of Afghanistan — it was the most spectacular landscape I have ever seen. Tightly packed villages were scattered among the peaks. Smoke rose from chimneys as Afghans sat by the river to wash clothes or fetch water. Scratched into the surface of this steep terrain were owrings or goat tracks that would take real dexterity to follow.

The journey became increasingly precarious the next day as the heavy rain was causing landslides. We drove perhaps too fast for the slippery conditions on the narrow road, but it was the potential choice between careering off the road into the river from a great height or being buried beneath an avalanche of stone — the lesser of two unattractive alternatives. Once, I heard rocks bounce off our vehicle’s roof and I looked nervously skyward to ascertain if more were to follow — thankfully, none did.

Passing this danger marked a reversal of the conditions; not only did the weather improve, but the roads were less treacherous. Arriving at Khorog, one can either drive along the famed M41 (the Pamir Highway), or the dramatic southern route via Ishkashim. We took the latter and passed through splendid scenery of green fields sitting beneath snowy mountains.

After sleeping in Ishkashim, we headed east through the Wakhan Valley, again with only the Panj River separating us from Afghanistan.

There was plenty to see, with two highlights being a museum in Yamg, dedicated to the Sufi mystic and musician Mubarak Kadam Wakhani, and the ruined Yamchun Fort sitting atop a steep escarpment that commanded stunning views along both sides of the valley.

The dust was blinding

The morning after resting in Langar, we continued our ascent to the Pamirs and, often travelling at heights in excess of 4,000 metres, but this treeless landscape with still frozen lakes was less impressive than the dramatic peaks and deep valleys of previous days. Once we joined the Pamir Highway, the road conditions improved markedly.

Prior to an overnight stay in Murgab, the Pamirs’ major town, we halted at the Ah-Balyk (White Fish) spring, a Chinese tomb, where there are also Neolithic cave paintings. Theses would have been more enjoyable detours had a ripping gale not made conditions bitterly uncomfortable. Due to minimal vegetation, even a small wind can cause clouds of dust and dirt to coat everything — I have never experienced a dustier environment.

The next day we left Murgab for the mountain lake of Kara-Kul in Tajikistan. We passed the highest point of the Pamir Highway, the 4,655-metre Ak-Baital pass, and a further stop allowed an exploration of a Nineteenth Century Russian military post, now crumbling beneath the brilliant sun and snowy peaks.

Part of the day’s travel saw us skirt within metres of the irregularly shaped Chinese border. This was mostly fenced, but there were gaps that allowed easy access into China if one was daring enough to do so without a visa.

Simple pleasures awaited

Kara-Kul is a beautiful lake, but unfortunately a dense haze the following morning concealed its vividly colorful waters. We continued to the Tajik border checkpoint, where we paused for a passport, vehicle and contraband check. Interestingly, the Kyrgyz border checkpoint is a further 20 kilometres along the road, so a particularly large gap between border controls. Shortly after leaving the Tajik checkpoint we crossed the physical border – identified by some rather incongruous monuments.

Before reaching the Kyrgyz checkpoint, I was afforded a final spectacular vista of the Pamirs, which I lazily absorbed one last time. After the Kyrgyz checkpoint we drove through the town of Sarry-Tash, and from this point, road conditions were excellent — smooth, broad, marked highways. Circular white yurts dotted the lush green landscape scattered with trees — a stark contrast to Tajikistan.

We quickly descended from 4,000 metres to 2,000 metres along the sometimes serpentine road, and this steep descent dissuades many travellers from heading in the opposite direction. The rapid ascent is more likely to cause altitude sickness, whereas the gentler climb from the west avoids this problem.

We arrived in Osh in mid-afternoon and the simplest of pleasures awaited me in my hotel room; a flushing toilet and a hot water shower. Travelling the route, bathroom duties are usually completed via a series of buckets used for washing one’s hand, pouring down the toilet or pouring over oneself. Standing underneath the shower and letting that wonderful warm water wash over me marked the conclusion of one of the world’s most spectacular and perilous road journeys.