Central Asia is a frequently forgotten part of the world. It is marked by many contrasts from the unending steppe of Kazakhstan to the unending sky-high mountain ranges of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (whose mountain ranges are all part of the continuous series of ranges that eventually make up Tibet and the Himalayas). The countries making up Central Asia are Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and some add Afghanistan.
Central Asian Visas
If you are going to Central Asia, then on visas. For most Western passports Kazakhstan is visa-free for one month, Kyrgyzstan is visa-free for two months, Uzbekistan is visa-free for one month (except for American passports then it's a simple eVisa), Tajikistan is a very simple eVisa but be sure to add the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) in the application (this is the Pamir region and just adds another $20 to the fee), and then there's Turkmenistan .... well that's a nightmare of its own that we will write a whole article on!
Visas Needed For Pamir Only:
- Krygyzstan (Visa Free)
- Tajikistan (eVisa $70)
About The Pamir Highway
Besides exploring the ancient silk roads, one of the top things to see and do in Central Asia is to travel the Pamir Highway. It is a mountainous road beginning in Kyrzgystan and winding its way up and through the wild hinterland of Tajikistan while hugging the Afganistan border. Passes on this forgotten road are high and there are intrepid folks out there who cycle it!
Passes Up To: 4,600 Meters or 15,000 Feet
This road only passes through remote alpine villages but don't be worried, these villages are full of guest houses. The hosts are incredibly friendly and hospitable. Just if you are traveling this route, it really is best to know at least some Russian. Also, the peoples in this mountainous route are often of small minorities that have nothing in common with the Tajiki majority or national majority. The sparsely populated Pamir region has also struggled for independence in the past.
How To Travel The Pamir Highway
The starting point for this most epic of road trips is Osh in Kyrgyzstan and the endpoint is Dushanbe in Tajikistan (or in reverse if you chose to do it the other way). The easiest way to travel this route is to get a driver/tour. Often people carpool with other people seeking to travel this road. Often people will stay at a popular guest house or hostel looking for other travelers to spread the cost of hiring a car and driver and to share the experience.
- Cost Of All Included Packaged: Around $2,000
- Normal Time Of Travel: Around 8 days (negotiable)
To find a trustworthy and experienced driver with a 4WD who can also act as your guide, all you need to do is contact the main hostels or travel guides in the region like Apple Hostel in Bishkek - the capital of Kyrgystan. Central Asian Guide linked below is also excellent and fully trustworthy! While you can negotiate how much time you would like to travel the highway in (one could drive it in 3ish days), most driven tours are 8 days giving you time to really enjoy the trip.
- Cost Of Bed In Dorm: Around $5
- Cost Of Private Room: Around $25
When To Go And What You Will See
The time to go is late spring or during the summer. One can't go too early in the spring as the snows still need to melt. Also, make sure you pack warm clothes - it can be so much colder up in the mountains than on the lowlands. Enjoy watching the seasons literally changing in front of your eyes as you ascend and descend through the mountains.
- Start Of Season: As Snows Melt Around April
- End Of Season: As Snows Fall - End Of Fall
In this epic journey, you will see endless barren mountain ranges, hairpin turns with steep dropoffs, frozen lakes, remote traditional villages. If it is the right time of year (spring), you will see the valleys along the border green, blooming, and traditional with the villagers out plowing their fields with oxen - just as they have done for countless thousands of years. As you descend out of the mountains you can visit various ancient castles and refreshing hot springs. For those who are not vegetarian, one of the few animals that can survive at 13,000 feet in altitude is the yak. So you will be served yak for dinner and if you are lucky, you may even be able to ride one.
This is the journey of a lifetime and one of the highest in the world. For much of the trip, you will be traveling along the border of Afghanistan - the border is a river that cuts deep into a valley. At the start, when you first see the Afghanistan border, the river is small and if it's early enough in the spring the river will still be frozen. As you head down the river, it grows into a raging torrent cutting ever deeper into the ravine.
Internet Access And Electricity
The guesthouses are all very warm, beautifully decorated on the inside with carpets, and will all serve you traditional mountain food (probably including yak). The electricity is temperamental at best, but most guesthouses will have a generator. One can count on only having very limited internet access while in the mountains - if at all. In the main cities of Kyrgyzstan, the internet is fine, but that changes once you head into the mountains. In Tajikistan, internet speed is something of a problem - even in the main capital Dushanbe. So you may need to audio call and not video call while there!
In short, if you are looking for a truly unique and the trip of a lifetime then consider the Pamir Highway.