Originally a northern segment of the Silk Road trading route, the Pamir Highway has been in use for almost 2,000 years. But few travellers make it there today. By Audrey Scott and Daniel Noll, published in BBC on December 18, 2014.
Setting off on the Pamir Highway
The Pamir Highway, known more formally as the M41, runs 1,252km from the southern Kyrgyzstan town of Osh, through the Pamir Mountains – known as the “Roof of the World” – and along the border of Afghanistan until it ends in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Originally a northern segment of the Silk Road trading route, the Pamir Highway has been in use for almost 2,000 years. In fact, Marco Polo journeyed along this route on his way to China in the 13th Century. But few other travellers have followed suit since. (Audrey Scott)
Public transportation along the Pamir Highway ranges from infrequent to non-existent, and rockslides and under-funded road maintenance make for a bumpy ride. As such, many travellers leaving from Osh hire a local driver with a UAZ, the Russian version of an all-terrain utility vehicle. (Daniel Noll)
A lonely border crossing
About 220km south of Osh, a statue of a Marco Polo sheep, a prized animal in the region, marks the official – and desolate – border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, at the 4,282m-high Kyzylart Pass. Tajik National Park, an area encompassing almost the entirety of the Pamir Mountains, was added to the Unesco World Heritage List in 2013. It’s a keen reminder that some of the world’s most beautiful places are also the most difficult to reach. (Audrey Scott)
A high desert cafe
The dust-blown, high desert town of Murghab, Tajikistan – located about 190km south of the border crossing – served as our first stop for the night. Its position near the intersection of several main roads makes it a natural trading outpost between Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. As a result, the Murghab market quarter is littered with train and shipping containers. The one pictured has been fashioned into a makeshift café.
Because of Murghab’s high elevation (3,560m), options to raise crops and animals are severely limited. Most vegetables and grains are difficult to cultivate, and the only domesticated animals whose hearts can withstand the altitude are yaks and donkeys. (Audrey Scott)
A taste of local culture
En route from Murghab to the Tajikistan village of Langar, we stopped for lunch at a high desert teahouse run by two Kyrgyz women. A majority of people living in the eastern regions of the Pamir Mountains are ethnic Turkic-speaking Kyrgyz, in contrast to their western Pamiri neighbours, who speak an Iranian dialect.
Prior to the establishment of the Soviet Union, this region of Tajikistan was recognised as Kyrgyzstan. However, when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin drew the borders of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic in 1929, he did so in a way that deliberately divided local populations and created pockets of ethnic minorities. (Audrey Scott)
Going home for the night
We followed a group of donkeys piled high with firewood as their owners returned to the village of Langar. A view to the snow-covered peaks of Pakistan’s Hindu Kush in the distance marked the beginning of our descent into Tajikistan’s Wakhan Valley. Although the Panj River serves as the natural border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the ethnic Pamiri residents who live on either side of it share a similar language, religion and way of life. (Daniel Noll)
Breakfast time in a Pamiri home
There are no hotels in the tiny villages along the Wakhan Valley. Instead, travellers stay in local Pamiri homes, some of which can be found by consulting NGO-organized homestay networks such as Murghab Ecotourism Association or Pamirs Eco-Cultural Tourism Association. The traditional Pamiri house, called a huneuni chid, exhibits symbols of Shia Ismaili Islam, the sect followed by a majority of the Pamiri people. From the outside, their homes appear as simple timbered stone and plaster structures, but inside, they are warm and welcoming. At our homestay in Langar we were served a breakfast of homemade bread and milk tea.
Known for their hospitality for centuries, several Pamiri families invited us into their homes as we passed through their villages. We were repeatedly humbled by their offers to drink tea, even though the families had very little themselves. (Audrey Scott)
Cleaning the fields for winter
The Wakhan Valley remains primarily agricultural, as its comparatively lower elevation allows more grains and vegetables to grow. Families often own small plots of land where they raise staples like potatoes, barley and wheat. Local residents also tend cattle, goats and sheep, but eating meat is reserved for special occasions and holidays. During our meals with Pamiri families we ate a combination of bread, potatoes, porridge and a kashi-like barley stew. Watching the families prepare for winter illustrated how difficult life can be in this remote area, as it follows the natural rhythm of the seasons. (Audrey Scott)
A hillside Pamiri welcoming committee
During our visit to the village of Vrang, a group of local children led us to a cluster of 4th-century Buddhist stupas at the village edge. Local legend claims that Pamiris with lighter skin and blue eyes are descended from Macedonian explorers who settled in the area throughout the campaigns of Alexander the Great in 300 BC.
The children often spoke an impressive range of languages, including Russian and English, in addition to their local Pamiri dialect. The Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, has invested heavily in local schools and has emphasised the importance of girls’ and foreign language education. (Daniel Noll)
Ruins of a 3rd-century Yamchun Fort
Built by traders atop a cliff overlooking the Wakhan Valley, the Yamchun Fort is a Silk Road fortress that dates from the 3rd Century. Located 5km off R-45, about 180km southeast of Khorog, it is one of several fortifications in the area built to enable control of the trading routes from China westward to Iran and southward to India.
Structures like this serve to underscore the role of the ancient Pamir Highway, whose significance was powered by trade and whose people are evidence of the crossing of cultures. Today, few travellers make it to this remote region. Those who do are rewarded with striking landscapes, Pamiri hospitality and the promise of an epic adventure. (Daniel Noll)