The term highway conjures up images of glistening tarmac and white lines converging at an infinite horizon, where the tyres of sleek vehicles pass with barely a rumble over the virgin asphalt. The reality of this route fails to coincide with any of these images, whilst remaining true to its title, namely, it’s a way and its very high. In all other respects it complies largely with the characteristics of a Romanian goat track.
So why would anyone consider a number of days of buttock clattering punishment on the world’s finest collection of potholes, in the freezing cold of Central Asia’s poorest country. For a start, as part of the M41 it has the kudos of being the world’s second highest international route, linking in the most roundabout way, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, although the quintessential element runs from Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan to Khorog in Tajikistan on the Afghan border. After this point you can leave the highway and continue into Afghanistan (where the immediate vicinity is largely safe, though further progress could depend on how chummy you are with the Taliban) or remain en route for the capital Dushanbe, where at least 16 hours later, having encountered only the merest suspicion of functioning tarmac you will have had to book immediate spinal surgery.
Only the most ardent pedant would deny that you had done the Pamir Highway if you have gone between Osh and Khorog, because it is this stretch through Tajikistan which provides the most stunning mountain scenery. At times it could be described as bleak and austere but that does not detract from its majesty, as this is BIG, really big scenery. Forget those wussy European excuses, these are proper mountains and thanks to the Russians in the 1930’s, who built the road to supply the most inaccessible outposts of its empire, you don’t need your climbing gear to see them. You will however, need a 4×4, or alternatively a mountain bike and a fair degree of lunacy. Incredibly there are enough of these unhinged cyclists to mean that you will probably encounter at least one on your way. How many of them reach the other end intact in another matter entirely.
The Soviet heritage is immortalised in the names of the Pamir’s higher summits. The highest, Lenin’s peak (7134m) keeps company with his cousins, Marx and Engles peaks. Even the low bits of the central plateau are well over 3000m, which means that nothing in the region can be described as fertile ground or verdant pasture. Short grass and the yaks which graze upon it are the only edible things you’ll find which are not imported. The only available vegetables, brought in at great expense, are onions and potatoes,or if you are lucky a trace of carrot may appear once in a while. Hence, if you are deliberating any gourmet destinations for haute cuisine you can most definitely cross the Pamirs off your list. For that matter you could reasonably cross off the entirety of Central Asia while you are at it. There is fortunately one exception, one sole reason for the dedicated foodie to endure thousands of miles of hardship to get here: yak butter. OMG! Other butter tastes like anemic margarine in comparison, relinquish any foolish dietary requirements and demand potatoes fried in bathing quantities of it. Never before have furred arteries looked so appealing.
The potential downside to all these mountainous shenanigans is altitude sickness, although you will be glad to hear that its unlikely to cripple or kill you. After our first night at 4000m, largely failing to sleep whilst completely out of breath and hearts beating wildly we settled in to a far more manageable few days of pretending to be asthmatic patients and coped successfully with the 4655m Ak-Baital pass without incident. If you have any ideas of trekking in the region don’t imagine for one moment that you’d be doing anything more strenuous than making a sandwich for the first few days of acclimatisation.
Just off the route, the village of Bulunkul has the noble distinction of being the coldest place in the country, with a record low of minus 63C, in fact our arrival was greeted with a brief snowstorm as if to ram home this fact. Those looking for home comforts will be distressed to know that, besides vegetables, the other thing entirely lacking from the Pamirs are hot showers. If you are the kind of manly cretin that regards a bucket of barely defrosted lake water and sub-zero air temperatures as ideal bathing conditions, then fine. For the rest of us God saw fit to invent wet wipes and in His munificence blessed even the lowly Central Asian supermarket with their presence, so you don’t even need to stuff your back pack with them before leaving home. Should you be considering a journey in the winter months it would be wise to consider that toilet facilities are all external and at a considerable distance from any accomodation.
One section of the road passes close to the Chinese border and the controlled zone is staked out with a security fence. This must rank as one of the most superfluous pieces of security apparatus of all time, given that anyone sufficiently determined to enter or leave China by one of the highest mountain ranges in the world, in perpetually freezing temperatures and highly erratic weather conditions is not going to give up when faced with a poorly maintained selection of wires strung between some posts. As you only see a car once every hour or two you could overcome the obstacle at the most leisurely pace before anyone spotted you.
As a final bonus the Wakhan Valley to the South offers you a view of the Hindu Kush mountains and Afghanistan which, remarkably, look exactly like the Tajik side, being only the other side of the rather narrow Pamir River which denotes the border. If you were hoping to gaze upon bearded Taliban, brandishing Kalshnikovs you will have to content yourself with the sight of a friendly wave from a weathered goat herder and the bleating of his flock.