The road to Tajikistan
Just outside Sary-Tash village is a lonely police checkpoint next to a collection of radar domes. From here, the road makes a beeline south towards what appears to be the impenetrable barrier of the magnificent Pamir Alay. The road climbs gently at first and then steeply along a very rough, rocky road up to the 4,280m Kyzyl-Art Pass and the Kyrgyz customs post. The air is gaspingly thin here: a reminder that this is the highest road in Kyrgyzstan, and this is not far off its highest point.
The Tajik post is reached shortly after: a couple of chilly metal caravans where passport details are laboriously written into ledgers by the dim light of a paraffin lamp. Even in summer, it is freezing cold at night here and it feels rather like the edge of the charted world - it almost is. Few travellers visit Tajikistan and even fewer have the necessary paperwork that allows them to enter the Gorno-Badakshan autonomous region and take the Pamir Highway south. To do so is neither cheap nor easy to organise, but it is undeniably one of the last truly adventurous road trips that can be made in the 21st century. It feels like a privilege, and it is. Entering Gorno-Badakshan along the Pamir Highway from the Kyzyl-Art Pass, even southern Kyrgyzstan can start to seem a little touristy.
For a number of reasons, mostly to do with the high altitude terrain and a very sparse population, there is virtually no public transport along this route, and to enter Tajikistan requires both a Tajik visa and a GBAO permit, which both need to be pre-arranged well in advance. The best option is to arrange transport in Osh to go at least as far as Murgab, from where ACTED, a sort of CBT equivalent for Tajikistan, can help organise onward travel to Khorog, either by way of the direct route through the Pamirs or by the spectacular Wakhan corridor along the northern border with Afghanistan.
Interestingly, despite a change of country, virtually all of the population between the Kyrgyz border and Murgab are ethnic Kyrgyz rather than Tajik.
Getting to Tajikistan Transport for the 2-day trip to Murgab can be organised in Osh, providing that a Tajik visa and a GBAO permit have been obtained in advance. A robust vehicle is required for the journey - a 4x4 Niva or an ex-army UAZ - and sufficient fuel must be carried, as there will be virtually nothing available until Murgab. Transport can be arranged by asking around at the jeep park, although most drivers tend to quote wholly unrealistic prices for the journey and many of them do not have experience of the route.