Hitchhiking the Pamir Highway: is it Possible?
Yes! I hitchhiked big chunks of the Pamir Highway and it was one of the greatest adventures of my life. It is definitely possible, but after my experience I wanted to present some information about the realities of hitchhiking the Pamir Highway so you won’t find yourself stranded.
Obviously hitchhiking isn’t for everybody, but I’m not going to address safety concerns related to hitchhiking itself in this post. I’m not endorsing hitchhiking as the only way to visit this beautiful region of the world!
I started hitchhiking outside of Osh, Kyrgyzstan and arrived in Murghab, Tajikistan (in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region) after several bizarre adventures. Yes, I previously posted about solo female travel in Central Asia, but I did this hitchhiking leg with another traveler I had met along the way. I figured it would be best since most of the men over there kept mistaking me for a prostitute. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
So I will start this post with general observations about hitchhiking the Pamir Highway based on my own experience. Then I will detail each leg of the way. Finally, I will address why I did not hitchhike most of the way from Murghab to Khorog and write about the people I met who were trying to hitchhike that route.
General observations related to hitchhiking the Pamir Highway
I couldn’t help thinking WOW this place should be called the Wild Wild East. Open spaces, magnificent mountains, friendly locals, and interesting cultural customs. You feel so wild and free. I can’t really describe it in writing without sounding cliché so I won’t try. It doesn’t matter if you are hitchhiking the Pamir Highway or cycling or walking or whatever. You are going to love it. My only main tip is to start practicing your Russian language skills.
The rides you will get:
The small cars generally go from village to village, and they expect a little payment for the ride. The minibuses (marshrutkas), if there are any, will usually be really full of passengers since they don’t leave until they are full.
In Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese truck drivers are your gold mine. They don’t have to pay for their own gas so they don’t expect you to pay them. Their trucks are impeccably clean, and since you are high up in the truck the views are spectacular.
The problem with the trucks is that pretty much all of them are going to China. There’s a fork in the road at the village Sary Tash, the last town before the Tajikistan border. One road goes to China and the other goes to Tajikistan. Unless you are crossing to China your luck with the trucks will only take you to Sary Tash. I got stranded in there. When I traveled there, there were no marshrutkas to Tajikistan, and the ones passing by were full.
Tajik Rally cars
Every year there is the crazy Tajik Rally where a bunch of primarily German people race from Europe to Tajikistan in little, colorful rally cars. They give rides but people are usually in a rush since, well, they are racing. Also, the tiny cars are usually crammed full of stuff and so there isn’t a lot of room for hitchhikers.
Not everybody in the rally took the Pamir Highway, either, since it isn’t the fastest route for them. If you flag one down in Sary Tash then be sure they are going on the route you want!
I got stuck in the no man’s land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for nearly the entire day waiting for a ride. Finally a 4×4 rolled up and saved my butt, and it was full of American tourists who were from a town not too far from where I was born! Small world.
While hitchhiking the Pamir Highway, the tourist cars are the rides that will most likely take you to where you want to go. There are some problems, though, when it comes to hitchhiking with these cars…
PS, there are actually two families who live in the no man’s land so if you get stranded maybe they can help you. The no man’s land is very rugged and several kilometers long.
Conflicts with other tourists and drivers
So the tourist 4×4’s are great. They’re in good shape, won’t break down so easily, and the air conditioning is a bonus. BUT, since I spent time both hitchhiking and paying for a jeep, I witnessed every type of conflict!
Thanks to some shady business practices at the Osh Guesthouse that I explain in this post, a lot of these jeeps have plenty of empty seats in them. This also means that the person or people traveling in them are paying a ridiculous amount of money for their tour. Thankfully the tourists who gave us rides were nice and didn’t ask for money, but I had some moments where I felt worried.
The big problem with hitching rides from these 4×4’s is with the local drivers. They are driving the route to make money, and they seem to really hate the freeloading hitchhikers. Part of it is due to the fact that they want to keep their cars in good shape, and cramming 7 people into one isn’t a good idea. Maybe they are paid per person if it is organized by an agency.
Regardless, one particular driver was upset that we weren’t paying and he confronted the paying tourists about it. The tourists were going to spend several days with this driver, and so they obviously wanted to have a positive relationship with him. I felt bad for putting them in an uncomfortable position.
Getting stranded while hitchhiking the Pamir Highway
This is an extremely isolated part of the world. Depending on the season you may get stranded somewhere for days on end. My hitching partner got attacked by a starving donkey when he went off alone! But you won’t just get stranded because there aren’t any cars, like this one guy found out…
You also will get stranded hitchhiking the Pamir Highway because the tourist cars won’t pick up hitchhikers!
My time was limited so I threw in the towel and booked a jeep with two other travelers I met in Murghab. Our driver was awesome but he felt really uncomfortable with picking people up. Between Murghab and Khorog, most local traffic will be going between the small villages, and the locals know that hitchhikers are desperate!
One group of hitchhikers (who hitchhikes in a group of 4???) was stranded at the Bibi Fatima hot springs. Our driver said “no way” to over-stuffing his car. They told us that the local taxi driver was demanding something like $20 per PERSON to just take them down to the local village from the hot springs. Other tourists searching for rides told us that the local people had been offering rides for outrageous prices just to go between villages.
The “can you give me a ride?” dance
Every time we stopped for the night, we would get mobbed by desperate travelers. There was a dance: friendly hello’s, a meal shared together, travel stories. All very nice things, but then the moment would come when one of the travelers would pull one of us aside and privately ask for a ride. Then things got awkward. I mean, I would have done the same if I were in their position. This works perfectly well in places all over the world (particularly in Southern Africa), but I experienced a lot more tension on the Pamir Highway. Our driver would become upset and angry and it was just all very weird.
Maybe these things will change as this region of the world becomes more popular.
What I recommend:
Instead hitchhiking the Pamir highway, I recommend just assuming that you will walk the Pamir Highway! If you get a ride, great, but if not at least you will be prepared. Bring enough food and water!
I mean, there are worse places in the world to go on walks…
If you’re looking for places to stay, here is what I did when I wasn’t camping or at someone’s home:
Osh= Osh Guesthouse= very bad but a good place to meet other travelers.
Murghab= Pamir Hotel= Wonderfully kitsch like a Wes Anderson movie.
Khorog= Pamir Lodge= really great and full of other travelers on cool adventures.