Lifted just in time for the short-lived summer trekking season (late May to early October), this remote eastern part of the country, bordered by Kyrgyzstan, China and Afghanistan, is known locally as the ‘roof of the world’ (‘bam-i-dunya’). Making up almost half of the landmass of Tajikistan, but home to less than five per cent of the population, here you’ll find virtually no outside influence or modern-day convenience. This is a trekking destination for open minded and well-equipped walkers who are willing to trade in the comforts of tea huts, lodges and paths for an untouched paradise of high-altitude, physically challenging valleys.
Rarely visited by foreigners, adventure opportunities abound in the Pamirs. In the morning, you could be walking from one sparkling turquoise lake to the next then in the afternoon, mountain biking along a section of the Pamir Highway, one of the world’s most audacious mountain roads. Or, if you’re a serious mountaineer, you’ll find some of the world’s highest peaks here, including Peak Ismoil Somoni (7,495m), Peak Lenin on the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (7,134m) and Peak Karl Marx (6,723m) as well as the world’s longest mountain glacier, Fedchenko (77km).
It’s not just crags and peaks though, the southern arm of the Silk Road once passed through here and you’ll find ancient shrines to Muslim saints, fortresses, rock paintings and curious markets selling everything from CDs to mysterious mountain herbs.
Village homestays offer plenty of opportunities to interact with the hospitable Pamiris. They are fabulous hosts and most families are brilliantly musical, often playing the tavlak (drum) or Afghan rubob (stringed lute) late into the night. Also known for their dancing (men and women will all dance together but without contact), ample praise awaits the foreigner who’s prepared to join in. Dinners will consist of tandoor-fresh bread, meat-rich soups (usually mutton), piles of spongy apricots and revitalising green tea or dog-rose juice. In the Pamirs, the majority follows the Ismaili faith, rather than Sunni Islam that dominates the rest of Tajikistan but you’ll find the odd tumbler of vodka to toast your adventures, a habit left over from the Soviet days.
Getting here is a challenge in itself. Tough drivers steer their jeeps along the white-knuckle, stomach-churning Pamir Highway – part of which connects Khorog and the capital Dushanbe - for anything between 16 to 20-plus hours depending on breakdowns and mudslides. For this reason the hair-raising Tajik Air Dushanbe to Khorog flight that covers the same distance in less than an hour, almost skirting the top of the mountains, is extremely popular and always sells-out. It only ever takes off if the weather is absolutely perfect.
If you want to go, don’t hesitate and book while the weather is good, the ban has been lifted and the region is stable. And, best of all, you’ll also have one of the world’s wildest - and most beautiful - corners all to yourself.
Five more reasons to visit Tajikistan
The relaxed capital, is laid out in Soviet-block fashion with the principal street Rudaki Avenue running through its centre north to south for around two-miles. Parks, museums and an abundance of pastel-coloured neo-classical buildings make this an easy introduction to Tajikistan. This is the place to make the most of the international cuisine, coffee, beer and wine in the numerous cafes while you can.
2. Wakhan Corridor
Shared with Afghanistan, the Tajik half of the Wakhan Corridor offers sublime views of the Hindu Kush, welcoming Afghan markets and bubbling hot springs (Garam Chashma) – a photographer’s dream.
Once an ancient Sogdian town, and today known as the ‘Pompeii of Central Asia’, Penjikent lies in the north-west of the country and is home to a couple of excellent small museums highlighting excavations local frescoes and ancient ruins.
4. Fann Mountains
Alpine-like mountain scenery, glittering lakes and no need for a permit, these accessible mountains lie in the northwest between the Uzbek city of Samarkand and the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. Easily accessible as a day trip from Penjikent.
A gritty but fascinating frontier-vibe town with a container-truck market, friendly but basic homestays and sizeable Kyrgyz population. The high plateau surrounding is dotted with pristine lakes, yurts and nomadic Kyrgyz herding their flocks.
Turkish Airlines flies from London to Dushanbe from £507 return.
Central Asia experts Wild Frontiers has a 16-day tour, Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan: High Pamir Explorer, which costs from £3,150, excluding flights. Departs July 8 2016.
Where to stay
My favourite hotel, not just in Tajikistan but in Central Asia, is the Serena Inn, Khorog. It has six bedrooms and is designed in the style of a Pamiri house, with a rose garden on the Panj River and views to Afghanistan. Doubles from £107, including breakfast.
The newish Serena Hotel Dushanbe (completed in 2011) has smart doubles from £140, including breakfast.
Homestays in the Pamirs normally ask for around $15-$20 a day per person, including meals. Due to their natural hospitality some will refuse money but please always insist as poverty here is real and debilitating and some families will not eat themselves in order to serve guests.
Need to know
Note: travellers need a visa for Tajikistan (£20 for up to 45 days) and a GBAO permit (£50) to visit the Pamirs. You can get your GBAO permit when you apply for your visa at most embassies.