by Liz Dodd, The Telegraph, November 27, 2017
Wild and remote, the Pamir Highway - the unofficial name for the stretch of Soviet-constructed M41 road that passes through the mountainous Pamir region of Tajikistan between the capital Dushanbe and Osh in Kyrgyzstan - is an adventurous traveller’s dream.
Traversing lush river valleys and snow-capped peaks, the scenery alone is reason enough to visit - if you can handle the altitude, at its highest point 4655m, the frequently unpaved road surface and the brutal temperature, which can dip to -20C in winter.
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But whether you’re travelling by jeep, motorbike or - as some hardy explorers chose to do - bicycle, tackling one of the hardest and highest roads in the world doesn’t have to be all hardship. From spas to bazaars, here are seven reasons to challenge yourself to the world’s craziest road trip.
1. Spas and saunas
Jelondy, in the heart of the Pamir region outside Khorog town, sits on top of sulphurous hot springs. The Soviet-era Hot Spring Spa and Hotel has a certain ramshackle charm but when it’s -10C outside the scorching baths feel better than a pristine resort. Wood-panelled twin rooms start at $10, and a canteen serves traditional Tajik fare. Brave it as far as Alichur, on a sparse plateau 4,000m above sea level, to relax in one of the family-run homestays with a sauna, also available for around $10 per night.
2. Roadside art
The technicolour Socialist murals that still adorn walls in Dushanbe and Osh are worth seeking out. But art pops up in the strangest places along the M41: watch out for the curly-horned sheep sculpture that marks the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and the numerous, brightly-coloured monuments that mark the regional borders.
3. Travel back in time
Along the Panj River the Pamir Highway runs mere metres from Afghanistan. Its tiny villages, cut off completely from the outside world, seem to be preserved in time: donkeys stacked with hay and death-defying scooter riders are the only people travelling between them. The Tajik military patrol the road and don’t like foreigners camping along the border, so it’s best to spend the night in the villages.
4. Once-in-a-lifetime cycling
With long gravel stretches you could only charitably call roads and mountain passes so high you struggle to catch your breath in a car, the Pamir Highway sounds like the last place you’d want to explore on two wheels. But every year a hardcore handful of cycle tourers brave the road: catch them in summer and late autumn at the Green House hostel in Dushanbe and TES Guesthouse in Osh.
5. Bizarre bazaars
While every major town in Central Asia has its own cacophonous bazaar, the one at Murgab, at a desolate 3,600m above sea level, spills out of old metal shipping containers. Pamir bazaars are great places to pick up cut-price outdoors clothes for the road ahead.
6. Really wild life
Wolves, yaks, bears and snow leopards all roam the Pamir Mountains. Rarest of all is the enormous, spiral horned “Marco Polo sheep”; their population has declined because of hunting, so unless you’re very lucky the closest you’ll get are the horned skulls that adorn the border crossing post with Kyrgyzstan.
7. Craft coffee and beer
As unlikely as it seems, Osh’s Brio Coffee brews with aeropress, V60, and every other hipster device you could think of. Further along the M41, in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, Save the Ales is an all-women run craft brewery and taproom with a core range that includes thick stout and hoppy IPA - a welcome change to the Pamir tipple of choice: neat vodka.