Sitting on Top of the World – The Pamir Highway – Part 1

One thing we weren’t going to miss while in Central Asia was a chance to drive across the Roof of the World – the Pamir Highway. We’ve owned 4WD’s back in Australia for years so for us the most convenient, logical and adventurous way to see the Pamirs and the Wakhan Valley was to self-drive. There are two major companies in Kyrgyzstan that offer 4WD rental both with or without a driver.

Iron Horse Nomads, based in Bishkek, is owned by an American named Ryan. We spoke to him over the phone and he was super pleasant and helpful and offered to have the vehicle delivered to us in Osh (for a fee) which we could then return to Bishkek, and the total cost would have been the same as hiring in Osh. If in Bishkek we definitely recommend Iron Horse Nomads for self-drive trips.

MuzToo is a Swiss owned operation based in Osh. They charge around USD$100 a day to hire a 4WD without a driver. We dealt with one of the employees who the manager at TES Guesthouse put us onto and in the end we paid $100 USD a day for a 2004 Toyota 4 Runner for 12 days.  This car was great to drive and we fit five people in it without discomfort including all the baggage and food. While it drives great on dirt roads it’s not as rugged as the Ford Couriers offered by Iron Horse and we we’re a little disappointed that we couldn’t venture into some rough off road tracks further than we did.

Off road tripping through the Pamirs
Our self drive wheels courtesy of MuzToo

As with any car rental make sure that you get a contract signed by both parties.  Make sure it includes everything like who is responsible for accidents, who pays for maintenance repairs whilst on the road, unlimited or set mileage and car washing fees. Ensure you know what is required of you with regards to International Driving Permits or just your home country license, a Power of Attorney allowing you to drive the car across international border etc. Both Iron Horse and MuzToo should provide you with everything you need.

We’d previously posted on Couchsurfing, Lonely Planet Thorntree Forum and Carivanistan looking for potential travel mates to share the adventure but nothing had worked out as yet. Thinking that we’d end up driving alone in one of the most beautiful places on the planet we were contacted the night before departure by a 73 year old German guy currently in Osh. A quick meet up at our hostel eliminated any thoughts that this guys was going to be a) hard work or b) that his ticker may give out at any minute and within minutes we realised that Arthur was going to be a perfect travel companion to share the drive. Actually he wasn’t keen on driving but more importantly, he was a fan of an end of day cold beer. Or four. We arranged to pick him up the next morning and get the journey underway.

Picking out in them fields
Working in the fields outside Osh

Day one: Osh to Isfara

Arthurs first impression of our new wheels was as a mobile laundry as our guesthouse had failed to dry ours in time and he spent the morning happily helping us rotate our wet t-shirts and underpants around the back seat. Driving along the edge of the Fergana Valley and the ridiculously illogical border set out by Mr. Joseph Stalin saw us cutting between small enclaves of Uzbek Nationals cut off from the mainland like unwanted citizens. At one point we were driving in Kyrgyzstan with Uzbekistan borders to either side. Strangely the Kyrgyz side is mostly a dry barren land whilst immediately across the border the Uzbek’s’ have managed to toil the soil into verdant green croplands…perhaps because they’ve managed to keep their land within the river valleys.The drive for the most part is unremarkable and the border crossing a cinch (see Tips below) and soon enough we’re in the nowhere town of Isfara in Tajikistan.

Driving to Dushanbe
The drive from Osh to Isfara

Middle of Somewhere
Lunch stop in the middle of nowhere

Driving to Dushanbe
Soviet memorial on the drive from Osh to Isfara

Isfara is only good for a stop-over point as it breaks up the drive from Osh to Iskander Lake or Dushanbe. While hunting for an ATM and waiting for Matt to cut a few laps of the block Sarah and Arthur are apprehended by a crazy lady who babbles on while alternating between pointing at Sarah’s bare shins and the crucifix around her neck. The only words we managed to comprehend are Catholic and Islam and when a sane man approaches telling her to leave us alone she shouts at him until he gives up, leaving us alone until Matt comes to the rescue. Checked in to the best shitty hotel in town (Hotel Vatan, TJS20/USD$2.50 each) with some of the most random items of décor (a stapler, a pool cue and a used razor to name a few) we’re thankful our first bathroom offered wasn’t covered in shit like Arthur’s and he soon reads our minds.

‘Beer?’

‘Too right’

Now Tajikistan is a little more Islamic and a little less liberal that the surrounding countries when it comes to liquor availability as Matt found out when he was scorned by the lady at the hotel reception when he enquired as to the closest place to buy a cold one. This was the commencement of a fruitless beer hunting endeavour which ended up with a black BMW rolling up alongside us. Winding down the window a

‘What are looking for?’

came to us.  Thinking that maybe buying alcohol was not the done thing in Isfara our new driver buddy soon had us in the car with promises of beer. Sure enough he drops us off at a shop with heavy reflective one way glass and a ‘Pivo’ sign on it. Turns out he’s an immigration officer on the border and recognised Matt. 

Driving into Dushanbe
From Osh to Dushanbe

Tajikistan is known for having the cheapest beer in the world and for the price of TJS8(USD$1) for 2LT the local Sim Sim beer isn’t too bad (grab the green label, it’s better than the blue). Beers in the bag and walking down the street back to the hotel (shithole) we spot a wall side billboard with a wooden barrel and a beer tap on it. 

Sarah: ‘I think it might be a beer joint’

Arthur: ‘Nah it’s not beer’

Matt: ‘Pigs arse it’s not! That’s definitely beer!’

Crossing the street we discover a tucked away beer shack pouring out some of the coldest beers imaginable.  For TJS3(USD$0.35) we’re given frosted glasses and a complementary kurt (dried yoghurt) ball, stupendous!  Yeah you can just imagine how this one goes.

After a few too many pints, some great travel stories from our old friend (think Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan back in the days) and with a bag still full of beer we sit down to a meal in the restaurant in front of our hotel. As drinking doesn’t seem to be Isfara’s favourite sport Arthur orders a pot of tea to disguise our continued venture into inebriation. Just after we get busted by the tea ladies as the foam spills over the edge of the cups

‘That’s not tea!!’

a man approaches Matt as he’s paying the bill, flipping out what seems to be a police badge.

‘WTF is going on here’

Matt thinks as the gentleman wastes no time in starting his interrogation. Wondering if this guy is legit the waiting staff soon give him the nod that he is and we’re sat back down at our table as he demands our passports. Sarah insists he can’t have them as his badge, a little beer goggled, doesn’t look real. Back at hotel reception we finally hand them over and he goes over them asking questions that soon have us realising that he is drunk or on drugs and only wants to practice his English. Finishing up he apologies for freaking us out stating that he indeed only wanted to practise his English. The bloke could have simply come and sat at our table and shared a beer with us making the entire stressful ordeal unnecessary.

Driving to Dushanbe
From Osh to Dushanbe

Sim Sim beer.  Cheap!
USD$1 for a large Tajik beer

Driving to Dushanbe
From Osh to Dushanbe

Day two: Isfara to Iskanderkul

The next morning, a little fuzzy in the head due to typical first day over enthusiasm, we head south to Iskanderkul, deep in the Fann Mountains. Alexander Lake is so named as rumour has it that the famous conquering Macedonian once trooped his army through the area on the way to India 2,300 years ago. To this day they say that after his horse Bucephalus fell into the lake it now comes out to graze on clear summer nights at around midnight, Tajik time. With Sarah steering the 4WD along the increasingly rocky road along the increasingly narrow gorge we highly doubt anybody would be stupid enough to bring an army here.

Driving into Dushanbe
The road to Iskanderkul Lake

Driving into Dushanbe
Weird mining mosaic on the road to Iskanderkul Lake

Driving into Dushanbe
The road to Iskanderkul Lake

The road and the views are stunning and we find ourselves using our new protocol – Stop = photo/toilet/cigarette break (Arthur being a heavy smoker) – to enjoy the vistas. It’s at one of these stops that an old man drives up with his middle aged son in the passenger seat and greets Sarah still sat in the drivers seat. When Matt approaches sure enough a full bottle of vodka is fetched from the back seat and a porcelain tea cup is filled to the brim. Unable to say no he downs it and leaves Arthur in the firing line. Politely declining the offer three times the old Tajik man puts the handbrake on, exits the car and presents the cup to Arthur with both hands, leaving him unable to say no. Valiantly finishing the cup Sarah is next up and her limited Russian, along with being a tiny female, allows her to get away with a half cup and after giving them some fresh apricots in thanks we head off in opposite directions without a word of English being exchanged.

Driving to Lake Alexander
Driving to Iskanderkul Lake

Driving into Dushanbe
Driving to Iskanderkul Lake

Made to drink vodka with  local bloke.
Vodka with passersby on the way to Iskanderkul Lake

Staying right on the lake shore at the river outlet the small hotel located at the entrance is run by a friendly family and with the few words of Tajik we’d learnt Matt’s soon having a rock throwing competition with the young son who looks older than the five years he apparently and is strangely missing as many fingers. 

Lake Alexander
Rock throwing competition by the lake

Lake Alexander
Iskanderkul Lake

Lake Alexander
Iskanderkul Lake

The Guest House
Our dirt cheap hotel at the park entrance, Iskanderkul Lake

Day three: Iskanderkul to Dushanbe

The next morning it’s an early start and an easy walk around the lake up to the nearby village of Sarytag. Following the lake the impressive dacha of the president, complete with helipad, is the only other shore line property on the lake. Here we’re joined by a couple of young black dogs who we nickname Starsky and Hutch who follow us the rest of the way, joining the mangy old dog who’d joined us from the lake. The dirt road winds up a couple of kilometres before the valley spreads out below as the rocky mass of Mount Sarytag dominates over the village, around 10km from where we started out. Small stone buildings dot the hillside, winter hideouts for the villages sheep and goats, and the village itself doesn’t look inciting enough to lure us in as with clouds massing overhead we head back to the lake.

Lake Alexander
Iskanderkul Lake to Sarytag

Walking around Lake Alexander
One new friend on the walk from Iskanderkul Lake to Sarytag

Walking around Lake Alexander
Walking from Iskanderkul Lake to Sarytag

Walking around Lake Alexander
Sarytag village

Finishing up by midday, the team consensus is to skip staying an extra night and head straight down to Dushanbe to get our GBAO permits ASAP. As we pack the car, this time it’s Arthur’s laundry that isn’t dry and we spread his shirts and underpants around the car and hit the road.

It’s a long, steep mountainous journey where we come to a halt several times when the road is filled with flocks of goats and sheep being herded by shepherds to their summer grazing locations and to laugh at a couple of guys holding large sheets of plasterboard on the roof with an arm out each window. Waving as we pass their smiles are infectious. The meandering M34 road is revered and feared by both drivers and cyclists alike,  with shear drops on one side, falling rocks on the other, and semi-trailer trucks adding extra spice to the mix. Throw in one of the world’s most dangerous tunnels and you have a recipe for arse clenching entertainment.

Driving into Dushanbe
Driving the M34 to Dushanbe – tunnel entrance

Driving into Dushanbe
Driving the M34 to Dushanbe – a friendly goat herder stops to say hello

Driving into Dushanbe
Driving the M34 to Dushanbe – traffic jam

By the time we arrive our brakes are smoking and we’re not sure how we feel as we approach the dreaded Anzob Tunnel, nicknamed the Tunnel of Death. Just over 5km long it was opened in 2006 before being completed in order to avoid an unessarcary detour through Tajikistan’s unfriendly neighbour Uzbekistan. When we arrived thankfully the Iranian government had stepped in and completed it in 2015, meaning the dreaded potholes were non-existent but we still had to deal with the lack of ventilation and lighting, swerving several times to avoid workers trucks parked up mid-tunnel without warning.

Exiting the tunnel we breath a fresh air sigh of relief and are greeted by mushroom sellers on the roadside and men doing weird circular motions with their hands which we soon decipher as ‘car wash’ advertisements. Passing up on the offer we arrive in town to find Dushanbe on lock down. The main streets are deserted, back streets are clogged with traffic and all along Rudaki Street the police are shaking down every driver every 15 metres for a bribe. Trying it on they pull us over with a sleight of hand gesture in the driver’s window along with quiet request for

‘Denge denge (money, money)’?

‘Denge? Oh you want to see my vaccinations card? My British drivers license’

replies Matt, shortly before the young officer gives up and waves us on our way. Well  you can’t blame them for wanting to make a quick buck when they are paid such a lousy wage.

Negotiating the now congested back streets, having been sent off the deserted main street at the president is about to drive by, we finally arrive at the superb Green House Hostel.  A popular stop for many of the cyclists, motor bikers and overland drivers the place offers a large shaded courtyard, free breakfast, tea and coffee, super comfortable and spacious dorm beds and even has heated flooring in the bathroom! Make this your one stop shop when passing through town, we didn’t meet a single traveller who was disappointed (even our 73 year old German was impressed!). Upon parking up Sarah did happen to notice a slight hiss coming from the region of our radiator, but we passed it off as the outcome of such an intense mountain drive…

Stay tuned to hear about the rest of our road trip through the Pamir’s including the outcome of our hissing radiator.

Parked up at the Green House Hostel
Parked up at Green House Hostel, Dushanbe

Tips for crossing the border into Tajikistan at Isfara

  • It is now possible to drive from Osh to the Tajikistan border without crossing into Uzbekistan and the roads are, for the most part, in reasonable condition.
  • Insist on a migration card. If they refuse, stamp your feet and insist again.  It will also help if you have your request in Russian (Google translate it). This will save you the hassle at the other border at the Kizil-Art Pass when you leave Tajikistan.
  • If driving a Kyrgyzstan registered vehicle you only need the drivers passport, the car’s documents and the Power of Attorney given to you by MuzToo/Iron Horse Nomads, nothing more, nothing less.
  • Despite what you may hear the Isfara border IS open on Sunday.

Tips for Iskanderkul

  • Stay at the hotel at the main gate (TJS40/USD$5). The private twin rooms are brighter, newer and better value than those of the nearby hotel within the park . The views out over the lake and it’s surrounding far surpass those of the others. It also has day beds that jut out over the lake.
  • We planned to spend two nights here though after completing the morning hike to Sarytag it made more sense to head to Dushanbe that afternoon  as we needed to get our GBAO permits for the Pamirs/Wakhan. They won’t issue this in Tashkent with your Tajikistan visa.
  • Entry to the National Park is USD$2 per day, if staying overnight you have to pay for two days.
  • For greater hiking opportunities Sarytag is the place to base yourself. Otherwise it’s a five kilometre walk that took us four hours return.

 

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3 responses to “Sitting on Top of the World – The Pamir Highway – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Sitting on Top of the World – The Pamir Highway – Part 3 | Si, con queso por favor·

  2. Pingback: Sitting on Top of the World – The Pamir Highway – Part 2 | Si, con queso por favor·

  3. Pingback: The Dushanbe Shakedown – Tajikistan | Si, con queso por favor·

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