This is an unchronological chronology of my travels over the Pamir Highway, using public transport.
First of all – Whatever the Lonely Planet or travel blogs might tell you about the importance of renting your own vehicle in Tajikistan, forget about it – I neither had the cash nor the motivation to look for a group of travelers and hire a driver, and made it.
To me, traveling Tajikistan on public transport has three major advantages:
1. You don’t have to decide between the Wakkhan Valley in the south and the northern route along M41 – just do both!
Once you make it to Khorog, it’s easy to find shared taxis into the Wakkhan as well as along the spectacular M41 north to Murghab.
2. you decide about the pace – if you like a place, just stay!
I spent four days in Zonk and Langar where most people rush through in one afternoon and got countless invitations for tea, accommodation and the rare chance to take a look into an old soviet English book (see below).
I climbed on old fortresses and to Peak Karl Marx and Engels (my knees remember until today), read a terrible book by Michel Houellebecq, plucked ripe apricots and watched shepherds wrangling their livestock back to the valley from high up in the mountains.
3. (that’s my personal opinion): you get to travel with locals.
Tajikistan is the poorest place I have been to in Central Asia and frankly speaking, I wouldn’t feel very comfortable taking photos with an expensive camera while being chartered down the Wakkhan in a big 4×4, knowing that I am just a lucky visitor to the poverty and loneliness in the Pamirs, who can choose to leave at any time.
Shared taxis that locals take as well might not be as comfortable as the front seat of a 4×4, and YES it means a lot of bargaining about prices and a lot of waiting, but the people you meet and the experience you make will make up for that.
Just don’t sit in the very back if your knees mean something to you.
So the Pamir Highway started off with a lot of phone calls – I was in Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan, the jump-off to the tajik border, and tried to find out if there was a shared taxi coming by today.
Finally, i teamed up with a romanian couple that was bold enough to bargain the price down to 1500 som for the three of us (18€). My nervousness around borders proved to be needless once more: without further ado, we were stamped out of Kyrgyzstan by a friendly official who reassured we appreciated the beauty of his motherland and the taste of кымыз (say: Kumus, fermented horse milk).
So far, so.. far. We were about about 20km from the tajik border post at the Kyzylart Pass (around 4300m), and decided very quickly we were not going to cross this noman’s land by foot.
Instead we waited for a car to wave down, took photos, ate weird corn snacks and compared the banknotes we had collected all over the world.
Half an hour passed by without any sign of human living, and we started to get a little nervous – we couldn’t be the only ones crossing the border today, could we? Right?!
When finally a violet Tico came up the hill. We jumped up, smiled hopefully and waved our arms, and to our relieve the tiny car stopped next to us. A grinning border official in black boots and green military clothing got out, sensing his chance to make a few easy dollars.
Everything went well for exactly 20 minutes – euphoric, we sat in the lowered Tico, marvelled at the nomans land around us and reassured each other about the smartness of this move, when the road got a little steeper. Suddenly the Tico slowed down, stuttered and then stopped.
We sighed and got out, and figured out the little Tico wouldn’t get the four of us PLUS our backpacks up to Kyzyl Art Pass and that we, whether we liked it or not, would have to walk up to any hill and get back into the car on the plain.
Breathing heavily, we pushed the car up the hill and continued our ride, as the engine died away again.
The driver cluelessly messed around under the bonnet until some tourists in a 4×4 came to our aid (in that very moment I envied the comfort they had chosen, I have to admit).
The Tico stuttered and rattled along, trudged through the mountains and finally collapsed just before the Kzyzlart Pass, behind which the Tajik border post laid.
It was over, the patient was was dead, every try to revive him doomed to fail.
The border official raised his arms helplessly, smiled apologetically at us and took our 20$ that sat next to the wind screen.
Fortunately (and weird enough), we found a homestay between the two border posts with a family just waiting for desperate tourists willing to cross the border.
We agreed with them to take us to Karakol, the next big village behind the border. As customs seem to dictate, the guys disappeared to “prepare the car” and we were invited inside for tea and admittingly the best bread I had in all of Central Asia.
Half an hour later, we finally got on our way up the pass, checked into Tajikistan and arrived in Karakol at sunset.
Karakol Lake sprawled deep blue and wide throughout the valley, and at the northern lake shore lay the small village of Karakol.
Considering all the money we spent for transportation today, we asked for a cheap guesthouse and were dropped at a canteen with a few cold rooms right at the shore.
When you come to Karakol, don’t just rush by.
To absorb the scenery around the lake, it is definitely worth taking a day and maybe even a dip in the ice cold water.
When I opened my eyes that night, freezing and a little dizzy from the altitude, i looked right out of the window at a darkblue sky and twinkling stars, and the comfort this outlook gave me is hardly comparable.