Eagerness to reach Khorog at the heart the Pamirs should be tempered. The journey from Dushanbe is remarkable in its own right and many travellers miss the spectacle by travelling the fourteen seat-numbing hours in a public taxi, missing the opportunity to look over their shoulder, take in the experience and relaxing en-route in one of the many attractive tea houses or homestays.
The routes from Dushanbe to the Pamirs offer two alternatives:
The ‘extended’ journey via Kulob is the preferable tourist experience. Despite the fact that it is a longer route in terms of kilometres, the roads are better and the scenery is more spectacular. The Nurek reservoir and dam are sights worthy of a stop. The dam is the tallest in the world (over 300m) and can hold over 10km3 water. Travelling nearly 120km from Khirmanjo (Southern Tajikistan) to Kala-i-khum (where to routes converge) the road keeps on the Tajik side of the international border with Afghanistan and the Panj valley hardly accommodates it for many narrow sections. The road is being improved each year but many that travel this route recognise that the conditions are part of the experience. Crossing flooded rivers and driving through waterfalls is real adventure travel!
The ‘direct’ route, via the Sagirdasht pass, coverges with the extended route at Kala-i-khum but the road to here is particularly badly maintained and is also more likely to be snow affected (from October to May, but potentially at other times of the year if snowfall occurs). Minibuses and taxis take this route. Kala-i-khum is the most obvious location for an initial overnight break in the journey. It also provides some fine views and the opportunity for some pleasent walks around this and surrounding villages. Everywhere, there is the intriguing view of the Afghan side of the river and Kala-i-khum provides a bridge access for locals although access for tourists is not possible). The Afghan side reveals even more precarious paths along the valley which, in some places, are reduced to narrow ledges along high cliff faces – not for those of a nervous disposition.
Beyond Kala-i-khum, the Pamir Highway continues for nearly 250km to Khorog, hugging the river bank and under steep cliffs. Its difficult to guage distances and much of what surrounds you because of the narrowness of the valley and the steepness of the surrounding mountains. Only the views forward and back offer any distance perspective until there is a confluence from one of the larger rivers that join the Panj. At those points a wider panorama unfolds and you see the true magnificance of your location.
Perhaps the only way to really gain perspective of your journey into the Pamirs is to take the stomach-churning small aircraft flight that is scheduled daily between Dushanbe and Khorog. The flight hops between valleys and over passes and provides (very) close inspection of the mountain tops, snowfields and ridges. However, the reliability of the flight is also very difficult to forecast as it is dependant upon satisfactory weather conditions (the pilot flies by sight as there is no radar facility), customer demand and seat availability. The above dependancies and absence of an ‘open’ booking system limits the ability of any tourist and all tourist operators to assure travel. Pamir Highway Adventure can seek to arrange this method of travel but it is best to have a road alternative in mind if we are not successful.
Legends of the route to the Pamirs:
North-east of Kulob, there is an ancient landmark which is poetically named Childukhtaron (the Valley of Forty Girls). According to the legend the 40 boulders standing one after another used to be 40 pretty girls. But when cruel invaders came there, with the intention to make the girls their concubines, the girls begged Allah to turn them into silent stones. Since then local residents, piously believing in the legend, decorate their self-denying stone “sisters” with bands and flowers each spring.