Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway is the world’s second highest international highway and one of the most challenging bike touring routes out there.
Grace Johnson cycled the route in the summer of 2013 with her husband Paul Jeurissen. Along the way they picked up a few tips and updates for this route, which Grace has kindly shared in the article below.
Paul and Grace on the Pamir Highway. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.
Her notes build on the advice given in 10 questions: Cycling The Pamir Highway (an earlier guest post written by Christine McDonald) so please read that post before reading Grace’s observations.
Grace’s Tips For Cycling The Pamir Highway
There have been many changes since Christine travelled the Pamir Highway:
Visas - There is now a next day visa service (which includes a GBAO permit) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. A letter of invitation is no longer necessary. On the visa form we didn’t have to present a complete route itinerary. We just wrote down that we were planning on cycling the Pamir Highway. That turned out to be enough information for the embassy. The embassy operates on regular opening hours and was easy to find since we looked up the GPS coordinates beforehand via internet.
Telephone and Internet - Internet is still pretty much non-existent. The only connection we came across was a very slow one via a single laptop in Murgab’s Pamir hotel. Telephones are more accessible. The main Pamir towns such as Lake Karakoal and Murgab have telephone send masts powered by solar panels and the villagers own mobile phones. At Lake Karakoal the Swiss cyclists at our homestay decided to take a day jeep tour to a scenic outlook. The homestay owner got on her mobile phone and within a half hour a had jeep arrived.
Transport - There are no buses on the Pamir highway. You could hitchhike (as Christine noted), however it might not be very easy. We saw 5-10 vehicles per day between Sarey Tash (Kirgizistan) and Murgab but most of them were fully-loaded and didn’t have room for cyclists. Between Murgab and Dushanbe there is more traffic – Chinese trucks (with Tajik and Chinese drivers) heading to Dushanbe – so it might be possible to get a lift with them.
Water - Of course in the summer months there was less water and some of the rivers were murky. Since we only had a steripen and water sterilizing drops we often had to fill our Orlieb folding bowl with river water and wait for the sediment to sink to the bottom before sterilizing it with the steripen.
Grace Johnson cycling across the Pamir landscape. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.
Winter versus summer cycling - If you cycle in the winter as Christine did, you will miss one of the biggest attractions of cycling the Pamir highway: the colourful landscape. It will be covered in snow. We didn’t find the strong summer sun too much of a problem. We just carried a couple bottles of strong sun block. There was always a strong wind to cool us off. Make sure you carry cold weather gear, even in the summer, since storms and sharp drops in temperature can happen at any time.
Route finding via GPS - You don’t need a GPS for the Pamir highway and the Wakhan valley. There is only one road and even though there isn’t a sign marking the turnoff to the Wakhan valley – it’s still quite obvious. If you want to try some off-road cycling to the more remote villages, you definitely should consider using a GPS. The routes to outlaying villages are via jeep tracks and as soon as the main track becomes too rutted the locals create new ones. When we rode from Bulun Lake to Alichor, we regularly checked our GPS to find out if we were still on the “correct” jeep track.
A sign for a homestay on the Pamir Highway. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.
Homestays - The homestays are now marked by English signs in front and for 100 Somoni you sleep on a blanket mattress on the floor plus you receive three meals of tea, bread plus eggs or soup. The toilet is an outhouse. Most of the homestays can provide a hot shower. Sometimes the hot bucket shower isn’t included in the price so ask beforehand. In most homestays, electricity is only available after dark. Don’t count on it working. Note: the homestays are often poorly ventilated so if you are sleeping in a room with a number of other cyclists you may find yourself breathing hard due to the lack of oxygen in the room.
Pamir hotel in Murgab - In 2013 the Pamir hotel in Murgab opened. It has hot showers, clean sit toilets and serves “substantial” food such as omelettes, meat, salad, potatoes and pancakes in the hotel restaurant. It also has 24-hour electricity (via the hotel generator) so we were able to recharge all of our camera batteries plus laptop there. The Pamir hotel manager speaks English and completed the required Tajikistan registration for us. The registration was a hassle (the forms aren’t in English and the police complained that the first photocopies of our passport weren’t “dark enough”). It took the manager 7 hours before we (and the other hotel guests) finally received our registration papers. We offered to pay the manager afterwards for the service but he refused our money. Our registration papers were checked at the police checkpoint just south of Murgab.
The People - Christine is right when she says that the Pamir people are great. We especially enjoyed the kids. They love having their picture taken and will even run up to you smiling and yelling, “photo! photo!”
Towns - The villages and surrounding area are very desolate. Everything is built using whatever material is available. Car doors are used for gates, and sea containers as market shops.
An improvised shop on the Pamir Highway. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.
During the months of July and August you will come across other cyclists every day. They are a colourful bunch (we met a Hungarian carrying mountain climbing gear on his bike, Italians on Decathlon bicycles) and are another good reason to cycle there in the summer instead of winter months.
- Pamirs.org - contains a number of links to Pamir cycling sites
- Carry On Cycling – a report from a cyclist who rode the Pamir Highway in May 2013
For more on Grace and Paul’s trip around the world, please see their website Bicycling Around The World.