THE PAMIR HIGHWAY
A ride on the M41, or Pamir Highway as commonly known, is by many considered a journey of a lifetime, and widely seen as one of the worlds epic roadtrips. In 2019 I drove a two week round trip along the M41, starting in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), making a detour through the Wakhan valley towards Khorog (Tajikistan), and then back to Osh (Kyrgyzstan) on the M41.
Among the highlights there were hikes towards the advanced basecamp of peak Lenin, driving on dusty gravel roads three days along the Afghan border, going through corrupt mad max style border crossings in remote alpine passes, meeting fellow travellers and friendly locals, and staying at homestays with local families.
But most of the trip, however, is about being out enjoying the vast empty landscapes, wild nature and skyscraping mountains found anywhere along the road...
Being a hight altitude desert, the Pamir mountains has a strong post-apocalyptical feel, with vibrant martian-red colours, dusty desolated villages, and a tiny local population enduring harsh climatic conditions and the effects of high altitude living. Almost nothing but grass grows in this dry area, that has scarce water access, minimal phone coverage, barely electricity and no regular internet. The Pamir Highway remains the only supply route. It was built by the Soviets in the 1930s, but rarely properly maintained since then.
The M41 has several tall mountain passes above 4000 metres above sea level that puts a good challenge to all vehicles. The most special might be the Kyzyl art pass at 4282 metres, where the infamous border checkpoint and no mans land between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is located. The tallest pass, however, is the Ak-Baital at 4655 metres.
There are no big cities in the Pamir mountains, but you can find a few small settlements along the M41. The climate here is challenging, very dry, and It barely rains. During wintertime temperatures normally hits - 40 degrees, making them among the coldest inhabited places in Central Asia. Almost nothing grows in this area, making the locals heavily dependent on cargo trucks for food and supplies. A common commodity like regular gasoline is practically impossible to find, so the drive has to be well planned ahead.
The Wakhan valley is a detour from the Pamir Highway. It is split between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and is spectacular in many ways, both in terms of landscape and road conditions. The road here is both challenging and dangerous, with maximum speeds barely reaching more than 30 km/h throughout the day. Several times it passes just a few metres from the small spring that marks the Afghan border (down left in the image below).
The Afghan part of the Wakhan valley was never ruled by the Taliban during the 90s, and the local population has always resisted Taliban rule, for several reasons. It remains an enclave separated by tall mountains and valleys, in many ways spared for the intense fighting and terrible civil war going on in the other parts of the country. Unfortunately by the time of our visit the Taliban was advancing on the Afghan side, slowly gaining more access to the valley. So the local population on the Afghan part were badly cut of from the rest of their country, mainly relying on self sustainability and border trade to survive.
The nature surrounding the Wakhan valley, however, is breathtaking with more 6000 meter peaks than you could possibly count. The road gives you a special opportunity to watch straight into the wild, rugged and desolate Afghan landscape found just on the other side of the river. I took the following images of Afghan peaks from my car while driving through the valley.
The Afghan side of the valley is not heavy populated, but we frequently spottet locals, like these two guys, who were driving on the even poorer road on their side of the river.
Eventually we hit the worn asphalt of the M41 again, with heading back towards our final destination Osh in Kyrgyzstan.