Pure Adventure: Tajikistan & Uzbekistan

Pamir Highway--Dushanbe--Tashkent--Uzbekistan Loop

21 days

This is an itinerary of the exotic, a route for those ready to take the road less known, who want to discover a wild and beautiful landscape, meet warm and wonderfully hospitable people, and walk in the steps of the giants of history, from Alexander the Great to Marco Polo. Travel conditions are not up to Western standards, but what you forego in comfort, you get back in lifelong memories.

Travel back in time as you move up the Pamir Highway to find people living much the same as centuries ago. To finish off, visit Uzbekistan’s great culture cities, and find out you can still understand the language. Turns out Samarkand and Bukhara are Tajik too.

The itinerary below is just one of many ways to combine Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The continued closure of the most convenient border crossing between the two countries forces tour operators into a detour. By the time you read this, flights between Dushanbe and Tashkent may have been reinstated as part of a recent thaw. Ask your travel specialist for advice.  

Pamir Highway

Starting in air hub Bishkek, make your way down to Osh; either with a short, spectacular flight, or by car (a 12-hour drive). From Osh, jump into the car for the Pamir Highway. Tour operators generally budget between six and ten days for this mother of all road trips.

From Osh, the road starts to rise immediately, to climax at the Kyzyl-Art pass at a breath-taking 4,280m (14,000 ft). Get an early night’s sleep at Karakul Lake, which was formed by a meteor impact 25 million years ago. It is now a peaceful bird sanctuary, except for the summer weekend when kite-surfers descend to test their gear and skills in the highest (and coldest) sailing regatta in the world.   

Over the next days, you glide from amongst the Kyrgyz semi-nomads tending their flocks, into the life of the pastoral farmers of the valleys, still using oxen to thresh their wheat.

Accompanying you for the ride is a scenery that truly deserves the epitheton ‘majestic’. Aloof and regally straight, the mountains of the Pamir resist any easy capture, be it in words, photographs or by 4WD. These mountain demand amazement and admiration--they don’t want cuddles.

The Wakhan Valley is the cultural highlight of the trip. It marks the border with Afghanistan, where you can wave and shout to the locals on the other side, still living 50 years further in the past. The Wakhan also holds most of the historical treasures. Persian-style boundless hospitality and invitations for tea are freely dispersed along the way.

On finally reaching Khorog, check into the stylish Serena Lodge to unwind from the bumpy ride. Here, car-sick passengers can take a flight to Dushanbe, while the rest will continue over land, with a stop at the hot springs of Bibi Fatimah.

Dushanbe

Dushanbe is an NGO capital, and a number of excellent hotels have cropped up to support the consultant industry. Hyatt Regency and Serena are both stand-out options. Coffee and internet addicts showing withdrawal symptoms will need to be removed by crowbar from expat-haunt Segafredo.

From Dushanbe there are several connections to Uzbekistan. The easiest and most convenient option connects directly to Samarkand via ancient Penjikent, former capital of the Samanid dynasty. At the time of writing, this border is sadly still closed.

The most popular alternative goes up to Khujand, a more prosperous town that feels decidedly un-Tajik, where the pace and determined stride of locals presages Uzbekistan.

On the way, Iskanderkul is a lake whose beauty calls for hyperbole unfit for a travel guide. The Fann mountains that lay in waiting behind hold more such pearls, but visiting usually falls outside of the itineraries of tour operators--visiting the Pamirs makes for an already long trip.

Khujand is an interesting destination in its own right, with a marvellous bazaar, an exceptionally greasy type of plov, and the Palace of Arbob as its main attractions. The city was founded by Alexander the Great as Alexandria Eschate (the furthest Alexandria) and was called Leninobod until recently. A very large leftover Lenin still remembers that time.

Uzbekistan Loop

From Tashkent, you can follow the Uzbekistan Loop. As Bukhara and Samarkand are traditionally Tajik cities with a Persian heritage and to this day a Tajik-speaking majority, you now have a leg up compared to other visitors. You actually understand where it all comes from.

On this page