The M41, also known as the Pamir highway, runs in Central Asia from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Dushanbe in Tajikistan. As the second highest continious road in the world, it features spectacular scenery and has earned itself a top position in any adventure motorcyclist, 4×4 road-tripper or travel cyclist’s bucket list of destinations. But can it be attempted in a normal everyday vehicle?
Most people who cross the Pamir will do so by renting a 4×4 with other travelers or will come from Europe with their own vehicle, usually also of the rugged 4×4 type or utility truck modified into a camper. However, can it be done with a normal car? Not everyone can afford to travel in expansive gaz-guzzling all-terrain vehicles. I could not find any information confirming that it was both feasible and safe so after attempting it myself at the beginning of October in a 1999 Volkswagen Golf carrying only basic camping supplies, I figured I’d write an article about my experience to give budget road-trippers the confidence that they can also put that absolutely magnificent road-trip on their route.
From Osh to Khorog, the road is actually sort of ok given its remoteness. Of course you will hit potholes, gravel, wash boarding, name it, but some stretches are in surprisingly good condition. The Wakhan valley is pretty rough, but passable by car. The road from Khorog to Kalaikum is in a disastrous shape, but definitely drivable owing to it being the main link to the region. In any case, if the road gets rough, slow down.
In my opinion, the most serious obstacle you might face is fording rivers, but that is entirely dependable on the season and whether some bridges have been washed off or not. Once you hit Central Asia, you will for sure start meeting people coming from the Pamir so ask around. A general rule of thumb is that as long as the water level (which you should physically check before entering the water with your car) is below your engine’s air intake, you should be fine. For most cars, that’s about the height of your headlights.
There is fuel in Murghab, Khorog and Kalaikum. In smaller villages, ask around; the villagers will surely be willing to sell you some from their own supply. With a full tank, you can easily reach one large town from the next. However, you should load up when you get the chance. Beware too that the fuel might be of lesser quality than it is elsewhere. Refuel with caution, especially if you are driving diesel.
Breaking down in the Pamir is probably the worst that can happen to your journey there. Becoming stranded will probably require you to hitch hike to the next village, find someone capable of towing your vehicle to the nearest town, waiting (a long time) for the part and then fix the vehicle. All in all an expensive and lengthy ordeal.
Even though a Tadjik visa is valid for 45 days, your car can only remain in the country for 15 days (go figure) so by the time you get your problem sorted out, you will probably have outrunned this restriction.
In general, you can will not need preparation for you car besides having it fully inspected and in good working order. Modern engines will handle the altitude just fine albeit with slightly reduced power. If you want to explore secondary roads (such as the Wakhan valley), you might want to have your suspension swapped to one that will give your car a higher ground clearance. Given the state of the roads in Central Asia, I would say that’s actually something you should consider doing as soon as you enter the region. Parts and work are really cheap here. For our VW Golf, four springs, two shocks and installation on the car amounted to about 100 Euros. In France, having the same job done would have costed at least 10 times as much. A sump guard might also be a good idea, but it becomes much less a necessity if you have proper ground clearance.
Otherwise, here are some other important pieces of advice :
- Carry a spare jerrycan of fuel
- Having two spare tires is a very good idea
- Have a basic set of tools with you. Even if you don’t know how to use them, the locals might (and they are helpful)
- Although that’s not an absolute requirement, some knowledge in mechanics is a valuable asset
- Know you car and the noises that it makes so you can deal with small issues before they become real problems
- Drive a car make that is present in Central Asia. In general, anything German, Japanese and Russian is very common in the region. Avoid French and Italian makes, they are virtually non-existent. I can’t stress this one piece of advice enough.
- Have a car that runs on petrol. Since diesel cars are not found anywhere in Central Asia, so will the parts needed to fix their engines.
- Camping is easy in the Pamir but if sleeping under a tent is not your thing, there are very affordable guesthouses in pretty much every village.
- There only food items to be found are non-perishable products in small markets. Buy most of the things you will need before you leave civilization.
- It’s a cold and windy place. Expect any kind of weather at any time of the year.
- Have enough money (preferably Tajik Somonis, US$ are also useful) on you to cover the whole trip, ATMs are unreliable and virtually non-existent.
- You will feel the altitude. If you are going in the Osh to Dushanbe direction, give your body some time to acclimate itself as the climb is steep. The other way around is fine.