Wild in the Wakhan: A Ride along Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway

Wild in the Wakhan: A Ride along Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway

The Pamir Highway destroys everything…

laughed Farik as he gaffer-taped my number plate back on. The
pannier rack had cracked a few hours earlier, my electrics had
failed and I’d already had two blow outs. At this rate we’d have no
bikes left by the end of the trip.

A few days previously myself, my boyfriend Marley and Farik, our
Tajik guide, had left Dushanbe,
the capital of
, for a two-week recce ride along the Pamir Highway,
one of the wildest and most scenic roads on the planet. So named
because it cuts through the High Pamirs – the fourth highest yet
least explored mountain range on earth – the Highway is legendary
for its thrilling riding and formidable scenery. It promised
adventure, dusty tracks over distant mountains and the chance to be
as close to the edge of the map as it’s possible to be these

The start, however, wasn’t quite so glorious. Jet lagged and
jangling with nerves, I shakily steered and stalled my rented Honda
250-cc through the Dushanbe
traffic, my toes straining to reach the ground. But we were soon
riding east in the shimmering heat, grinning with relief at Farik,
the capital’s blacked-out Land Cruisers replaced by trotting donkey
carts, lurching Soviet-era trucks and toiling figures bringing in
the melon harvest from the fields. Oddly for an
country, there wasn’t a single other

That night, when yet another blow out and a violent thunderstorm
left us stranded in a tiny village, we were taken in by a local
family, three generations of whom lived under one tiny roof.
Pamiris are among the poorest people in the world, neglected by
their government and largely dependent on aid, but here, the guest
is king. Nina, the wizened matriarch, fussed around us, laying on
an impromptu feast of non (traditional bread), potatoes, eggs and
salad, intermittently holding my hand and calling me her daughter,
while around us green-eyed children and gold-toothed adults
excitedly watched our every move.

When it came to bedtime the three boys slept outside on a raised
platform, while I was bustled into the master bedroom to sleep with
a young couple, their baby and a dummy-sucking toddler. What an
unexpected end to our first day on the road.

The following few days took us through an ever more dramatic
landscape of deep valleys, snow-capped peaks and blustery mountain
passes. By now, the M41 (as the highway is officially known) had
deteriorated to a gravelly track and we were up on the pegs,
bumping over stones and weaving around potholes. At times the road
would twist through Tolkien-esque gorges of immense depth, great
fortresses of rock rearing above, churning rivers below. At others
it slung us through wide, lunar valleys where silvery peaks framed
the horizon and Chinese trucks lumbered through the sand,
enveloping us in dust as they passed. It’s a savage, visceral
beauty that I’ve never experienced before.

After the town of Kala-i-Kumb the road met the
border and we followed it, separated only by the rushing
turquoise waters of the Panj River, for the ensuing four days. On
occasion the Panj meandered wide and slow, but at others times the
gulley was so narrow I could literally throw a stone into
Afghanistan. There was a certain frisson to riding so close to this
other world, and as I waved at Afghan farmers, with their simple
adobe houses, hand-scythed wheat fields and neat terraces of
mulberry and pomegranate trees, I wondered what their futures

At the regular police checkpoints Tajik policemen, tummies
straining at buckled belts, laughingly pointed across the river and
said “Taliban, Taliban!” But not for a second did we ever feel in

Nowhere did we feel the ghosts of history more keenly than the
Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of land created during the Great
Game as a buffer between the British and Russian empires. Ibex
horns were stacked at roadside shrines, Silk Road fortresses stood
like sentinels on mountaintops and the windswept hillsides were
strewn with ancient Kyrgyz graves. After one lung-bursting walk up
to the ruins of a Buddhist stupa, a Wakhi boy furtively offered us
a handful of local rubies.

Not for nothing are the Pamirs known as the Bam-i-Dunya, the
roof of the world. From the Wakhan Corridor we climbed and twisted
north over the 4655 metre Khargush pass, engines straining from the
altitude. Fat golden marmots bounded away from our wheels, the only
sign of colour in the bleached landscape, and our tyres crunched
over sand and gravel. At Murghab, a tatty settlement near the
Chinese border, we slept at 3650m, our highest night of the

The environment may have been harsh, but the warmth and kindness
of the Tajik people was the defining feature of our trip. Smiles as
warm as a summer’s day beamed at us from every weather-worn face
and I rode, joyous, through villages of shrieking, waving,
excitable children. But it’s wasn’t just the children. Everyone,
from bent old women leading their donkeys in at dusk to young men
selling apricots in the shade, greeted us with a cheery wave and a
heart-lifting smile. In one of the homestays we stopped at, the
grandfather insisted on sleeping in an old bus beside our bikes out
of respect for us, his guests – not that anyone would have
considered stealing them anyway, let alone been able to ride

Make no mistake, riding in
isn’t easy. There’s little infrastructure, a
distinct lack of luxury, memorable loos, rough roads and
significant altitudes. But it’s a corner of the world that remains
refreshingly untarnished by the tentacles of mass tourism and
travelling here has an exciting, exploratory edge. Our two-week
recce trip had been everything we wanted, and so much more: we
couldn’t wait to introduce more people to this sublimely beautiful,
soul-enriching place.

The Lowdown

Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent is a travel writer and expedition
leader. Following this successful 2015 recce trip, her company
Silk Road Adventures now runs two-week motorcycle
adventures through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

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