Driving the Pamir highway is described by many people as “a challenge”. The route is one of the greatest possible road trips. To drive to the Roof of the World (or so the region is called) one must travel through winding and steep sided river valleys, along roads that, if anything, are perhaps improved when the inevitable landslide hits them in the wet summer months. Through villages and towns full of immensely freindly people and along a border (the mighty River Panj) across which you see people going about their lives in an entirely different culture, in a country as intriguing as it is (in the UK at least) infamous; Afghanistan. To top (litterally) this all off, you will find yourself dragging your slightly tired 33 year old Land Rover up to the whopping altitude of 4600 m.
The first part of our trip along the Pamir Highway involved us making our way from the capital, Dushanbe, to the town of Khorog on the Afghan Border. One can choose either the Northern route (which follows the original route of the M41) or to take a slightly longer but much smoother southern option, via the town of Kulob. After chatting to loads of tried and tested overlanders at the Green House Hostel, we decided to go the southern route. This was mainly due to the quality of the M41 being disastrously poor in this section.
The route was pretty easy to navigate and we managed to get from Dushanbe to the Afghan border in one day. The road is in pretty great nick up until the point where you start climbing the steep long valley out of Kulob. If you get chance, stop at the massive lake half way between Dush and Kulob, it’s quite picturesque.
We made camp just before the turn north and the Border, on the edge of a sheer cliff looking 1000m down to a tributary of the Panj- it was a stunning first mountain camp site.
The road by this point had started to crack and become less asphalt based, but generally it was smooth going up until Darwaz (Aka Khalaikhum), the Gateway to the Pamirs. This small town had been described to us a mere stopping point, a place where everyone passes through but no one stays. In our short time here we parked up next to a massive gig in the towns stadium, waded through thousands of people heading to and from it (mainly school kids with crazy large Pom poms in their hair) and got given two gigantic pomegranates by a great petrol station owner. We also stopped in a chaikhana overlooking the fast flowing river that runs through the town and had a good bit of soup- good place for contemplation of life, the mountains and what we could expect for the next few days.
Upon leaving Darwaz our optimistic expectations about reaching Khorog that afternoon were roundly dismissed by some of the worst “road” quality I have ever seen. Words can’t really do this justice so I will leave it to photos. As a wise overlanders on Dushanbe told us before we attempted this; “Don’t underestimate the stretch from Darwaz to Khorog.”
In the end it took us a solid day and a half of driving, mainly going at 15kmh to try to ensure that the Beaut didn’t shake herself to pieces. We didn’t get stuck once, though there were several occasions where we had to use low range to drag her 3.5 tonne derrière over some pretty fruity and narrow dirt track – mainly at the points where the recent landslides had all but demolished the roads. We did however take heart from what we saw late that evening, which was a gigantic lorry negotiating the difficult stretches of road we knew we had to face in the morning, whilst towing another gigantic lorry behind him!
The main events which transpired during this tricky stretch require a bit of background. We had always been aware of the slightly delicate security situation along the Afghan Border, mainly due to it being where a ridiculous percentage of the worlds heroin is smuggled through to the north and west. However, two weeks prior to us attempting this stretch we found out that the Taliban had taken an opportunity to take control of the Afghan Province adjacent to us by mounting a raid on the town of Kunduz. We found this slightly unsettling but were assured that no security issues existed along the Pamir highway, so went ahead…
Cue our first night on the Afghan border, deserted road litterally a stones throw away from an abandoned Afghan farm house. We set up camp only to find that we are being stared at intently by three people on the roof. Now, these people were undeniable curious farmers, but having spent the day worried about the frequent men dressed solely in black just across the river, I’m not ashamed to say we were spooked. We moved on under cover of darkness to a place 5 km down the road and slept soundly… Until approximately 1am when we were woken by a car pulling up abruptly next to our camp site, shouting voices and frantic activity. Convinced of our impending abduction we were gently relieved when we heard the voice of a small child desperate for a pee, and the slightly stressed banter common to people all over the world who are trying to change a tyre at 1 in the moorning.
Enter stage left a large Tajikistan Army OP just past Rushan, at a very narrow stretch of the Panj river border. These guys looked like they meant business; all APCs, RPGs and other assorted three letter acronyms of death. Again, gently unsettled, we drove past. Only to hear and see a genuine, no holes barred explosion two hundred meters behind us and across the river. Wasting no time, I promtly shat myself and yelled to Tom; “Drive, Just Drive!”. Five minutes later, slightly more composed, we saw the groups of men working to clear a land slide and the rocket attack transformed into harmeless blasting to clear debris (we think).
Somwhat shaken, we entered into Khorog feeling like we had started to get a feeling for the Pamir Highway, and impatient to see what the next stage had in store for us.