The Pamir mountains, or Pamirs or Pamir Knot, is a large region of high ground at the junction of several other mountain ranges of which the best-known is the Himalayas. The terrain is difficult and the population sparse. There are several mountains over 7,000 m (higher than anything outside the Greater Himalaya region) and some large glaciers.
This article covers only the part of the range in Tajikistan, officially the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. However, the Pamir range extends across borders; see Northeast Afghanistan and Northwest Pakistan for the parts in other countries. The Ferghana Valley region of Kyrgyzstan runs along the northern edge of the Pamirs and one end of the Pamir Highway is the Krygyz town of Osh.
- 1 Badakhshan. This historical state's territory was the Pamirs. The history is long; Badakshan gemstones (lapis lazuli and spinel) were mined before 6000 BCE, and were traded at least as far as the Indus Valley Civilisation and Ancient Mesopotamia before 2000 BCE. Both gems are still mined there today.
The history is also complex; over the centuries Badakhshan was conquered by or allied with a whole range of nearby states. Today most of it is divided between Badakhshan Province in northern Afghanistan and Gorno-Badakhshan in southern Tajikistan, with a small piece now in China.
Nearby regions with relatively flat land and denser population are the area around Kashgar (China) to the east, the Ferghana Valley (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan]) to the north, and Bactria (Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan) to the west. The main route of the historic Silk Road ran from Kashgar through a pass just north of the Pamirs into the Ferghana Valley and through it to Samarkand. Central Afghanistan is to the south, with the Hindu Kush range (a spur off the Pamirs) as its northern boundary.
The Pamir River starts in the Pamirs and leads down to Bactria where it joins several other tributaries to form one of the region's greatest rivers, now called the Amu Darya but known in ancient times as the Oxus. Further north, in the Ferghana Valley, other rivers that start in the Pamirs combine to form the Syr Daria, known in ancient times as the Jaxartes.
Alexander the Great stopped at the edge of the Pamirs; he took Transoxania (north of the Oxus) and the Jaxartes became his northern border. The Mongol Empire also took nearby areas but did not much intrude into the mountains. The Persian Empire and later the Russian Empire, however, did take control in these mountains as well as nearby lowlands. The British Raj nibbled at the southern edge, taking parts of the range that are now in Pakistan.
The region has no big cities; the largest town is Khorugh with a population around 30,000.
- 1 Karakul — on the Pamir Highway surrounded by a large crater lake of the same name
- 2 Murghab — a very remote town in beautiful surroundings
- 3 Ali Chur — "Ali's curse" is reputed to have been spoken by the prophet's son-in-law Ali on a journey through the area because of the harsh climate and penetrating winds there
- 4 Langar — a small village on the Parmir Highway between Ishkashim and the Military Post Khargush towards Murgab
- 5 Ishkashim — a town of 7,700 people on the Afghan border, joined by bridge to an Afghan town of the same name
- 6 Khorugh — a town in a steep river valley surrounded by the Pamir mountains that offers hiking and mountain climbing
- 7 Qal'ai Khumb — an important overnight rest stop 168 km from Kulob and 235 km from Khorugh, it has several hostels, and is almost entirely surrounded by the Pamir Mountains
The Pamir Mountains are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
- 1 Ismoil Somoni Peak
- 2 Lake Kara-Kul
- Pamirsky National Park
- 3 Sarez Lake
- The 4 Wakhan Corridor is a long narrow bit of Afghan territory extending across the southern part of the Pamir range.
The Pamirs are home to a diverse makeup of Indo-Iranian peoples. The two most common ethnicities/groupings you're likely to come across are the Pamiris and the Badakhshanis (with some overlap depending on the source). All of the region's groups are related to their neighboring Tajik and Afghan peoples, but many identify only as "Tajik" or "Afghan" in the sense that their passport is issued by Tajikistan or Afghanistan. Calling these peoples "Tajik" or "Afghan" is equivalent to calling a Buryat "Russian" or a Navajo person "American" - while correct in the political sense, it might be offensive to someone who views themselves as Pamiri/Badakhshani first.
As elsewhere in Central Asia, most people in the area are Muslim. Unlike most of their neighbours, many in this region are followers of the Ismaili branch of the faith. Pamiri Ismailis will often describe themselves as more "free" than other branches of Islam, and indeed attitudes are noticeably less conservative than in Dushanbe. The Aga Khan heads one branch of the Ismalis, centered in India, and is among the world's richest men. He is held in high regard by Pamiris and has done a huge amount to help the region; schooling and healthcare in Khorugh for example is often of a higher standard than in Dushanbe, and generous international scholarships are provided for Ismaili children. During the Tajik Civil War (1992-97), aid from the Aga Khan Foundation was practically the only thing keeping the Tajik region of the Pamirs afloat, which is another reason for his reverence in the region.
This is one of the areas described in the books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. These books describe the work of the Central Asian Institute and of Greg Mortensen, the mountain-climber turned school builder. These books are highly recommended and are largely responsible for his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Because of the difficult terrain of the region, the Pamirs are sparsely populated and follow rivers or the eponymous pamirs - literally mountain plateaus. The Tajik portion of the region, for example, makes up 41% of the country's area but only 3% of its population. Most people in the region survive as herders or subsistence farmers.
As "empty" as this region may seem, it has been at the crossroads of history more than perhaps most of the world. Until later iterations of what is called the "Persian Empire" first conquered the region, the Pamirs had served as the outermost limit on numerous different empires, including Alexander's Macedonia, the Mongol Empire (which controlled the region in name), and Imperial China. Marco Polo is said to have journeyed through the Pamirs on his way to China/Mongolia, and during the 1800s British and Russian spy-diplomats scoured the region in attempts to claim the most land before formal colonial borders were drawn.
A special permit is required to enter the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (short GBAO, which covers all of the Tajik part of Pamir) (Nov 2022). It costs US$20 and is available online (for nationals of countries eligible for the e-visa) or in Dushanbe OVIR for about 70 somoni. It is not available on arrival, if you are asked to pay for a "permit" when crossing the internal border, this is a blatant bribe.
- Department of Visas and Registration (OVIR), 5 Mirzo Tursunzoda street, Dushanbe. M-Sa 08:00-17:00. Go here to get your GBAO permit. If it's not too busy and you arrive before noon, you will be able to pick up the permit in the afternoon of the same day. If you stay in Tajikistan on a Visa on Arrival, more than 10 days, you will also have to register here.
You could take a flight from Dushanbe to Khorog. There is a 14-seater flight every morning to Khorog, but its departure depends on weather conditions and the number of passengers. Tickets to the flight are sold a day in advance at the Dushanbe airport.
- Pamir Highway (M41). This is the main road through the region; it runs from Dushanbe to Osh via Khorog. You could share/hire a jeep from the jeep stand near the airport in Dushanbe to Khorog. This will take between 12 and 15 hours and privately hiring a jeep costs around $400.
From Khorog you can hitch on a fuel tanker or truck on its way back to Kyrgyzstan, or hire your own vehicle from Khorog. It is also possible to get an occasional shared van to Murghab and from there to Osh. Most days will also see a jeep or shared taxi head towards Ishkashim. Lorries and fuel tankers in the Pamirs are mind-numbingly slow, hitching the M41 is not a game for the impatient or the time-pressed. The first vehicle with space will usually give you a ride, but as with many places in the former Soviet Union, you are expected to pay for the ride. It can take anywhere from 2 hours to 2 days to get a ride. There many only be 2 or 3 vehicles going in your direction each day.
The 5 Kulma pass is the only border crossing between China and Tajikistan. Although the pass is officially open for nationals of all countries, travelers repeatedly reported they were not able to cross through the borders. The Chinese side is downhill 14 km away, right next to the Karakorum Highway.
The Wakhan Corridor is an old trade route leading across the southern edge of the Pamirs from Afghanistan to China. However, it was never a major route because the terrain is difficult and the hill tribes can be. Since it is all in Afghan territory, it is almost certainly too dangerous for travel today.
There are some typical arranged itineraries:
- 5d/4n road trip from Osh to Dushanbe (including the Wakhan Valley) or vice versa (which is by far the better option, if you are prone to altitude sickness)
- 4d/3n road trip from Osh to Dushanbe via Mardzh (not including the Wakhan Valley, going along the classical Pamir Highway instead).
- since there are regular Tajik-Kyrgyz border clashes (and therefore the border may be closed as it was in Oct 2022), a good way is to stay on the Tajik side and do a 9d/8n trip from Dushanbe to Khorog, and from there going round counter-clockwise (via Ischkaschim, Langar, Ali Chur, Bulunkul and back to Khorog)
These trips can also be done by public transport, which may take a few days more. The routes are also frequently used by cyclists, organised or independently.
Example for a typical 5-day/4-night trip from Dushanbe to Osh:
- Day 1: Dushanbe - Khalaikum, 400 km
- Day 2: Khalaikum - Khorog (altitude 2000 m), 250 km
- Day 3: Khorog - Langar (altitude 3000 m), 300 km
- Day 4: Langar - Murghab (altitude 3600 m), 310 km
- Day 5: Murghab - Osh, 360 km
A six-day tour may add a stop in remote Ali Chur.
An alternative example for a slightly longer 10d/9n trip from Dushanbe to Dushanbe (staying in Tajikistan):
- Day 1: Dushanbe - Khalaikum (340 km)
- Day 2: Kahalikum - Khorog (altitute 2000 m), 260 km
- Day 3: Khorog - Langar (altitude 3000 m), 217km (Gam Chashma hot springs, Yamchun Fortress, Yamg Museum, Wakhan Corridor)
- Day 4: Hiking from Langar to Pik Engels basecamp (from 2900m up to 3900m)
- Day 5: Langar - Ali Chur (altitude 4000 m, very cold place) (passing by Panorama Trail to Hausibek's viewpoint at 4800m), 120 km
- Day 6: Hiking or other activities (Yaksafari/Marco Polo spotting)
- Day 7: Ali Chur - Bulunkul (altitude 3700 m) (Geyser, hot springs, walking along Yashikul lake), 40 km
- Day 8: Bulunkul - Khorog via M41 (hot springs in Jelondy) 200km
- Day 9: Khorog - Dushanbe (600 km) can be done in one day, but quite rough as the roads are pretty bad (as of Nov 2022)
If you have more time, you may add a stop in Murgab.
This trip was 1,600€ in Nov 2022 (organised with PECTA, food/accommodation/tips excluded). However, 860€ of this was spent just for the transfer from Dushanbe to Khorog (both ways). You can cut the cost for this part of the journey considerably by using public transport such as marshrutka or shared taxi. It will be way less comfortable (and potentially safe), but also an interesting experience.
- Lake Karakol - A crater lake near the Kyrgyz and Chinese border; it is frozen half the year
- Lots of mountains
- Murghab's very small bazaar
- Weekly Ishkashim Afghan Bazaar
Traditional houses in the Pamirs are known locally as Chid. The basic structure hasn't changed much in more than 2,500 years. To visitors, unless they understand the history, they're just dirty, smoky hovels. The roofs are flat so that yak droppings can be dried up there and then used for fuel. The Soviets discouraged the Pamiri Ismailis from building mosques and many homes have a kind of shrine that is reminiscent of Zoroastrian practices. In older Chid, ask them to show you the pillar that represents the prophet Mohamed (Khasitan-Shokhsutun), just to the left as you enter and made of juniper wood.
- View the wild life like the Marco Polo Sheep.
- Mountain climbing.
- Hiking and trekking.
- Be part of a very expensive tour group. (Or travel on the cheap and hitch-hike.)
- Sit and enjoy the silence and views.
- Pamirs Eco-Cultural Tourism Association (PECTA), Khorugh (Information Center in Khorog City Park), ☏ , email@example.com. PECTA is a tourism association comprising drivers, homestays, as well as tour operators and hotels in Pamir. They can help you plan a trip with fair working conditions for the drivers and homestays. Accommodation is not included and paid directly to the homestay owners. The drivers will organise accommodation and point out interesting activities as you travel through the mountains. 7,000 somoni (€0.70) per km driven (incl. fuel and any costs regarding the car) and 200,000 for the driver per day.
Rice, eggs, snacks, yak butter, bread, mutton, Pamiri tea (sheer-chai), freshly made warm bread (non).
Tea, surprisingly good coffee, and vodka. Yak milk.
There are a number of homestays in most villages on the Pamir highway. They are usually in homes built in traditional Pamiri style. They are made with wood, with five pillars, a sky light and richly decorated with carpets. You are ensured great hospitality and simple but delicious meals.
Travel guides typically suggest 15,000 som per person per night as an average for these homestays, but 20,000 is closer to the mark. (Oct 2022)
Most homestays shut down during winter (ca. November-March). Ask around to find someone who opens up.
- Zong Village - Homestay of Mavluda. 130,000 som per person per night including dinner and breakfast.
- Alichur - Ask for the English teacher, meet her family, and you decide how much money to leave behind. Alternatively, there is Cafe & Hoste Marco Polo homestay which also runs Cafe Goldenfish right next to it at the Eastern end of the village. Also offers activities such as Yak Safari or Marco Polo spotting.
- Bulunkul - Either Homestay of Nisso or Orsu (another teacher).
- 1 Sanatorii Dzhielondi (Sanatorium), Jelondy (on the M41 between Khorogh and Murghab). If you're up for a little spa treatment whilst travelling through the Pamirs, take up refuge for a night in this former sanatorium from the Soviet area. Fed by one of the (very) hot springs in the area, diving into the large pool of steaming water takes some courage but luckily there's some cold showers to cool off afterwards. Entry to the pool is included in the room rate. Restaurant with basic food on site. 50 som p.p./night.
A zealous policeman in Murghab may want to register you with the police or complain if you were taking photos. This isn't a problem, registration should be known well enough simply getting to the area.
There is some risk of altitude sickness.
One end of the Pamir Highway is at Osh, from where you easily reach anywhere in the Ferghana Valley. The other is at Dushanbe, from where you easily reach anywhere in Bactria. Beyond those, anywhere in Central Asia is possible; the most interesting destination that is nearby and reasonably safe is Samarkand.
There is the border crossing at Kulma Pass into China open year round, officially open now also for foreign nationals - but have wads of US dollars handy to facilitate your passage.
- Wakhan Corridor - a beautiful detour from the Pamirs