#1: It's gonna be tough...
But not so tough most moderately fit bicycle travelers can’t hack it. What counts most is commitment and a willingness to put up with some pain.
The Pamir Highway traverses harsh and unforgiving landscape. It’s both beautiful and bleak but rarely easy when you’re traveling on two wheels.
It’s one of the world’s highest roads, playing second fiddle only to the nearby Karakorum Highway linking Pakistan with China.
Majestic Ak-Baital Pass, topping out at 4,655 meters (15,272 ft) is the highest point of the lung-bursting route. If you’ve never cycled that high, don’t worry--it’s doable!
Most of the climbs are long with a fairly gentle gradient most of the way. It’s usually just the final four or five kilometers that will test your mettle.
The Pamirs are tough on the body and the bike. We busted a derailleur on the first pass and Eric had to limp all the way to Khorog with just two gears.
You will not find a single well-stocked bike shop in the Pamirs. We were able to buy a cheap Chinese made replacement derailleur at the market in Khorog (cost: $3) but let’s just say it wasn’t premium quality.
Lots of cyclists break derailleurs and racks in the Pamirs. Be sure your bike is in good condition before hitting the high mountains. Bishkek has some decent bike shops, including Gergert Sports on Gorky Street, where you can purchase quality Shimano parts and tires. Dushanbe is rather lacking in quality bike shops, but you can rustle up most spare parts at the bazaar. Check out Caravanistan for a full list of bike shops in Central Asia.
#2 It’s a lonely landscape, but you probably won’t be alone.
Over the past few years, cycling the Pamir Highway has become increasingly popular. July and August are particularly busy with European vacation cyclists. And of course, the Pamirs are a part of most multi-year touring cyclists’ itineraries.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not Eurovelo 6 or the TransAmerica Trail, but you’ll probably stumble across at least one group of bicycle travelers each day.
Even more common are leather-clad motorcyclists on monster machines and hearty overlanders in Land Cruisers blazing across the wide open terrain.
If you want to meet up with fellow cyclists, the most popular hangout is the Pamir Lodge in Khorog. Be warned, it’s a steep climb from the city center.
You don't need any special route finding skills in the Pamirs. It is helpful to download the Maps.me app if you're bike touring in the Pamirs. Shops, water points, guest houses and camping spots are marked throughout the region.
#3 The camping is unforgettable
You can pitch your tent pretty much anywhere in the Pamirs. With stupendous mountain views and starry skies, you’re almost guaranteed an unforgettable experience. Even in mid-summer, temps can plummet to freezing, so be sure to pack a suitable sleeping bag. The only real downside to camping in the Pamirs is the wind. Often you’ll be camping in wide open spaces with little protection, so cooking and even pitching your tent can be a challenge. Luckily, the winds seem to calm during the night before picking up mid-morning.
If camping's not your thing, don't worry beacause there are many homestays and guesthouses in the Pamirs. We met one German couple who did the entire route without sleeping in their tent a single night. That said, you should definitely pack a tent and carry extra food just to be safe.
#4 Head east and you'll be happier
No matter which direction you’re traveling, you’re bound to get hit with some wind. But the general consensus is that those heading east have it easier. The climbs are also a bit gentler in that direction and you’ll save the highest pass (Ak Baital Pass, 4,655 meters/15,272 ft) for near the end when you’ll be fitter and better acclimatized.
#5 Nobody comes for the cuisine (but you’re not going to starve)
If you’re keen to shed a few pounds, the Pamir Highway’s distinctive dearth of taste temptations will help you along.
Fortunately, the food situation seems to be improving as tourism in Central Asia develops.
If self-catering’s not your thing, it’s possible to take breakfast and dinner at a homestay. You’ll usually get some sort of meat concoction with perhaps some potatoes thrown in. Breakfast might be some porridge, bread, tea and perhaps a boiled egg. Fresh yogurt is a common snack.
Some cyclists complain that portions are too small. Hosts are fairly used to vegetarians guests and can usually whip up something meat-free if requested.
If you’re self-catering, the best spots to stock up are in Dushanbe, Khoorg, and Murghab (limited supplies, pricey).
You can also find a fair selection of foodstuffs in Kulab, Kala-i-Khumb, and Darvaz.
In a pinch, you can get limited supplies in Bulunkul, Alichur, Murghab, and Karakul. Those cycling the Wahkan Corridor can find limited supplies in Ishkashim, Vrang, and Langar.
The home functioning as the local shop made not be obvious, so you’ll have to ask locals to point you in the right direction The word to use is ‘Magazin.’
Village shops are not exactly bursting with food. At a minimum, count on finding cookies, Snickers bars, and some noodles. Bread is not always easy to get and oats for your porridge are really tough to find.
#6 The Wakhan isn’t exactly off the beaten track
Sticking to the official Pamir Highway used to be the default route for most bicycle travelers in the Pamirs. Recently that’s changed, and it seems more cyclists actually bike the Wakhan corridor than the official M41. Locals in Wakhan do a good job catering to cyclists and you’ll find plenty of guesthouses and a few scattered tea houses. At the tourist office in Khorog (conveniently located in the city park), you can pick up a list of all the guest houses in the Wakhan Valley.
#7 Safer than you might imagine
You may have noticed that a long section of the Pamir Highway runs along the Afghan border. With all the kidnappings, car bombs, and killings, Afghanistan hardly has a stellar reputation for security. Fortunately, those difficulties do not appear to have spilled over into neighboring Tajikistan.
Even the overly-cautious US State Department only advises normal precautions when traveling to Tajikistan. So rest easy, nobody’s likely to nab a scruffy cyclist on a beat-up bike in the mountains.
#8 Central Asia visas are no longer a nightmare!
Most travelers from Western countries can now apply for their Tajikistan visa online.
It’s a surprisingly simple and straightforward process. Just fill out the online visa application, pay for your visa online using a credit card, then wait for your visa acceptance email. Next, print out the visa and show this at the border crossing.
The cost of the Tajikistan e-visa is $50 and you will be allowed to stay for 45 days.
You will also need a GBAO permit to cycle in the Pamirs. The GBAO permit costs $20 and can also be applied for online using the same website
The Kyrgyzstan entry process is even easier. Most travelers will receive 60 days entry at the border, no paperwork to fill out in advance.
Border crossings were hassle-free for us, but we have heard of some less-than-honest officials at the Tajikistan border with Kyrgyzstan. Best not to leave your valuables unattended with soldiers lurking about.
#9 Hospitality reigns
The Pamirs are a very popular bike touring destinations. Many Europeans cycle Central Asia during their summer holidays and anyone on a long bike trip will surely squeeze it into their tour at some point. Given the steady stream of bike travelers, you might imagine locals would have grown tired of the small-scale tourist invasion. Not in the least. People are friendly and welcoming, just as though you’re the first cycle tourist they’ve ever encountered.
You’ll be invited for tea several times daily and kids will line the road for high-fives.
And if you’re stuck in a jam on a mountain pass, the local road maintenance guy will surely invite you into his home to spend the night.
Giving money in exchange for hospitality is not something I usually advocate (it can easily come off as insulting and offensive and may set a bad precedent for future travelers). But the people of the Pamirs really are very poor, and feeding a few cyclists during the summer can be a drain on the family budget. Slipping a few bills into the hand of your host as you say goodbye will surely be appreciated.