Visiting the Afghanistan Wakhan Valley and Pamir Mountains could be one of the best adventures you ever have.
I had stared across 3 times from Tajikistan to Afghanistan at the Wakhan Valley. It was so close yet so far. The first time was in 2012, the second in 2014, and the third in 2016.
Like many travellers along that route the temptation to cross into Afghanistan is very strong. In 2016 I finally did with a very cool Brazil couple Roy and Michelle and their motorhome.
Now I will share with you curious travellers on how you can do this awesome adventure yourself!
I will run through all the points. It was only over a week ago at the time of writing this that I left the Afghanistan Wakhan Valley and Little and Big Pamir Mountains so all the information is fresh in my head (October 2016).
Listen up –
There is no reason to plan way ahead!
It’s easy as hell to just do this last minute in Khorog – Ishkashim. I did the whole thing within 24 hours from getting the visa in Khorog and permits in Ishkashim.
Stunning scenery and remoteness.
The adventure of being in Afghanistan.
Thats all you need to know.
The visa is easy to get. Visit the Afghanistan embassy in Khorog in Tajikistan – it took me 45 minutes to apply and receive it. As a British citizen I paid $150 for the visa, USA pays $200. Sound a lot but it is a very unique adventure to have and worth it. Check online as the prices may change.
Some nationalities are not even on the visa price list. The Brazil couple I travelled to Afghanistan with were not on the list and told therefore they couldn’t go, but after pleading with the embassy person that it was their dream to visit they decided to charge them the same as me. So if you have that problem try the same.
You might be able to get the visa cheaper if applying in your home country but I’m not sure about that, plus travellers thinking of going would most likely be travelling in Central Asia anyway and decide last minute to go, in which case get the visa in Khorog.
IMPORTANT! – Make sure you get a double entry Tajikistan visa as you will need to come back into Tajikistan after Afghanistan. If you don’t you will need to go overland through dangerous Taliban territory to Kabul to fly out of the country. The Tajik embassy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) gives double entry. Make sure you get the GBAO permit for Tajikistan as well. You can get a Tajik e-visa these days but its only single entry so don’t use that.
In Eshkashim in Afghanistan you will need to get some permits to go up the Wakhan Valley and into the Pamirs. Do NOT FORGET to do this! You will need these permits otherwise you will not be allowed to pass through the various checkpoints en-route.
At these checkpoints going down the Wakhan Valley (the first is in Khundud village) you will show these permits to the police and they will let you through and sometimes you will need to get another permit. In Khundud you will need to visit an office there in order to get an extra permit for example. Ask the police there where to go.
Have at least 5 passport photos with you for all this permit stuff. You can easily get them done in Eshkashim at photo shops there for cheap. You will also need 5 photocopies of your passport page details. Again that can be easily done in Eshkashim.
You will most likely be approached by a “guide” in Eshkashim (they will find you as there are fuck all tourists there) and offer to help you with this.
We payed a man who spoke good English $25 to help us and it was worth it as we had to go to 3 different places to get the permits and wouldn’t have a clue otherwise how to do it as it was all over the place!
The man in the picture below is a money changer on the “main street” and speaks a little English so if no-one approaches you try and find him and ask for how to do the permits, if he’s still around. You could do the permits yourself but it would be so much easier with the help of a local.
Eshkashim is a small place and businesses generally close for lunch just so you know.
At the last village you reach in the Wakhan called Sarhad you will meet the local police commander and he will ask to see the final permit.
The dickhead commander we met in Sarhad was an illiterate ex Taliban twat (nobody likes him there) and kept the permit saying it was ok. It’s not! Keep the final permit with you for the walk into the Pamirs as there is a military checkpoint at the start of the Little Pamirs after hiking for 4 days to get there. Also take your passports as they will ask to see those at this checkpoint as well.
We had a fun adventure hanging with Afghan commanders, Chinese military and Tajik soldiers talking through all this shit at the military checkpoint in the Little Pamir as we didn’t have the permit because of twat-head ex Taliban commander keeping it. We managed a way around it though! All part of the fun 😛
If you take your own vehicle across then you will need extra permits which you can organise at the Afghanistan embassy in Khorog. The Brazil couple I travelled with had a motorhome and we went into Afghanistan with it to drive around and camp out.
VERY IMPORTANT – Ask in the Afghanistan embassy in Khorog exactly what you will need to do with the permits etc as it may have changed by the time you go there.
Getting To The Afghanistan Wakhan Valley
This is the easy part if you are travelling around Central Asia already and have time 0n your hands. However if you are short on time and want to come in just for this Afghan adventure then it can get more expensive.
The main thing is to get to Khorog on the Tajik side to get the visa and then head to Ishkashim. It’s called Ishkashim on the Tajik side and Eshkashim on the Afghan side.
You will cross into Afghanistan at Ishkashim. This is the only safe place to cross into Afghanistan to get to the Wakhan Valley so this will be your only option to enter. Ishkashim on the Tajik side is reached by shared taxi from Khorog that is cheap and takes around 3-4 hours.
Crossing the border is best to do in the morning to leave you time to get the permits sorted in the Afghan Ishkashim so plan to stay a night in Ishkashim on the Tajik side the get up early to cross.
You can walk from Ishkashim to the border crossing in around 30 minutes. It took us in the car around 15 minutes on the Tajik side and 30 minutes on the Afghanistan side to get all the paperwork done. But we were in a car so it took a little longer because of that I think.
On the Afghan side it’s around 5km from the border to Ishkashim and taxis are not so cheap (transport in Afghanistan in general is not cheap). So you could walk that 5km in around an hour or so. It’s safe at the time of writing.
The best bet if you are in Kyrgyzstan is to go from the city of Osh in the south across the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan to Khorog. You could do this as part of a tour if you can get enough travellers together or just take a shared taxi.
Take the shared taxi from Osh to Murghab for around $20 and then Murghab to Khorog for around $15 – 20. It will take roughly 20 hours total but is cheap and a beautiful drive.
Or you could fly from Bishkek to Dushanbe (capital of Tajikistan) but that is an expensive option. If you have the time travel overland.
Head to Dushanbe overland by shared taxi it’s the best option.
I’ve covered coming over the Pamir Highway to Khorog, and coming in the other direction from Dushanbe is easy as well as you just take a shared taxi from Dushanbe to Khorog that takes around 15-20 hours and costs roughly $35. It’s a nice drive with half of it alongside the river bordering Afghanistan.
Flying In To The Region.
Dushanbe is not the cheapest place to fly into Central Asia so check flights to Almaty in Kazakhstan and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. From Bishkek you can fly to Osh for around $30 or fly from Almaty to Dushanbe for roughly $130. Just use the flight search engines to find the cheapest way in. If short on time and don’t care then just fly straight to Dushanbe then take the shared taxi down.
There is a flight from Dushanbe to Khorog but it’s constantly getting cancelled so do not rely on that option.
Flights inside Afghanistan itself are extremely expensive so unless you’re loaded don’t even think of it as an option to fly to Eshkashim.
Getting Around In The Afghanistan Wakhan Valley
Ok this is the bad part! Transport is not cheap!
I was lucky being with the Brazil couple in that we had our own transport which made things way easier and much, much, cheaper.
The Afghanistan visa is valid for a month and if I went back again and had the time I would honestly just say fuck it and hike the road up to Sarhad village where the start of the hike into the Little Pamir is. It’s roughly 200km from the border to Sarhad so would take around 8 days walking to do it. The “road” is mostly flat and very steadily goes upwards so you wouldn’t feel a hard uphill hike. There is no tarmac whatsoever on the road – it is all stones and dust. Not an easy drive.
That would give you around 15 days walk there and back plus 10 days to do the hike into Little Pamir. I know a German girl who spent a month hiking around there.
Otherwise you will have to use the shared taxis which cost roughly $400 one way! You can try and bargain down to $350 but they will try and charge you $450 and the prices are generally controlled. If you are by yourself this is very pricey, but if with 4 people it’s not so bad.
The problem is not many people do this trip so unless you go with people already planning to do this or wait around Khorog long enough to meet others wanting to do it, you will have to splash out, because apart from hiking the several days to get to Sarhad, there is no other option. The taxis will generally stop for a night at Panja village to break up the journey as its a hard drive.
According to the Afghan embassy in Khorog there was only several people a week asking about the Afghan visa.
Naturally you don’t have to go all the way to Sarhad (although hiking into the Pamirs is a highlight of the region) and you could just go as far as Panja at the end of the Wakhan corridor. Seeing the Afghans on the Afghan side of the Wakhan Valley is awesome in itself.
Places To Stay
There are villages all along the Wakhan Valley up to Sarhad and you will find a homestay/guesthouse in most of them. They have set prices throughout the valley for $25 a night including breakfast/lunch/dinner. However as we visited at the end of the season we paid $15 a night after bargaining when we stayed at Sarhad. See what you can get.
Otherwise go camping for free between the villages (if you have camping gear). We camped out between villages until we got to Sarhad and the same going back to Eshkashim. It was great!
I’ll talk about where to stay when hiking in the Pamirs under that section.
Hiking The Big And Little Pamirs
If you made the effort to get into the Afghanistan Wakhan then you need to get to, and go hiking in, the Big and Little Pamir Mountains. It was the best hike I’ve ever done.
Along with meeting the people of the Wakhan Valley it is the big highlight of the trip.
There are 2 options for hiking into the Little Pamir, where you will find a remote community of Kyrgyz living in Afghanistan. One is to do the low pass (4200 metres highest point) for 4 days and the other is the high pass of 4600 metres. You can do a loop, which was our plan, but due to the snow we got in the Little Pamir, and conditions getting colder, we came back on the low pass which is what we hiked in on.
Part of the hike in is through the Big Pamir. But the Big Pamir is huge and we didn’t get nowhere near what it has to offer. There is a large wildlife conservation area and many hiking options. It’s a good reason for me to go back again when slightly warmer in the summer months for the hiking. It’s easy to find out when in Sarhad the possible routes to do in the Big Pamir. Having said that, the Kyrgyz community are generally in the Little Pair and that’s one place you must go to.
Naturally you can carry your own backpacks but for only $15 a day you can hire a man with either 2 donkeys, or a horse, capable of carrying roughly 50 kilograms. This is an excellent option as it will save you lugging around heavy packs and allow you to enjoy the hike and view more. Plus the man acts as the guide on the trail and he can help break the ice with the people you come across.
You can also hire a guide to go along with you which will cost an extra $20 a day who can translate with the locals, however we didn’t take a guide and we got by fine. Very few people speak English there but smiles and sign language were ok, plus it was fun learning some of their languages to communicate.
As for places to stay you can camp everywhere if you want, or there are simple shelters scattered along the 4 day hike from Sarhad to the Little Pamir. Technically you wouldn’t need a tent to do this whole thing as you can crash in those simple shelters that are used by Kyrgyz and Wakhan people going along the route. For example at the end of September and into October Kyrgyz yak caravans ply the trail bringing in winter supplies and sleep in the shelters. It’s a good idea to have a tent though as if a shelter gets full the local people have first dibs!
Otherwise you will simply run into the occasional horsemen riding through. We never had a problem space wise in the shelters and enjoyed eating and meeting with the Kyrgyz and Wakhan men taking in the supplies.
It’s also great hiking along with these caravans for a while as it gives a real unique feeling to the trek.
The shelters are very simple with just the walls and sometimes a metal stove for cooking on. You don’t need to bring a camp stove as you can have campfires everywhere to cook on. You may want to bring one as a backup though If its bad weather outside then the man with the donkeys/horse will get a fire going inside.
You will need a sleeping mat and sleeping bag for sure though.
As for food you will need to be able to supply yourself for the first 3-4 days and then after that you will come across the first Kyrgyz settlements where you can stay with them and they will make you some food. I had some of the best mutton on this hike. If you are a vegetarian then make sure to bring plenty of fruit and vegetables with you (buy in Khorog) as your options are limited in the guesthouses.
The hike in is stunning with some village ruins en-route. Once on the trail it will be the only one you have for the entire 4 days hike into the Little Pamir. Sometimes it is little more than a metre wide clinging to the side of hundreds of metres drops. I am a little scared of heights and was a little worried at first but it was fine.
If caravans of heavy yaks can get across these narrow paths then it was all good. The average height of the low pass hike was around 3700 metres.The first 2 days were the hardest with the most up and downs, but you can take it slow and your donkey man/guide will stop for chai(tea) now and then, making a campfire every-time he does so.
I drank from the steams flowing down from the mountains the whole trip without purifying the water and didn’t get sick. It’s fast flowing water.
You will meet one of the most remote communities in the world when you get to the Kyrgyz settlements in the Little Pamir.
The hike is one of the most beautiful things I have ever done.
When To Go
The best time weather wise for hiking is July through to September/Early October. This is technically when you should get the warmest weather and best hiking conditions. The rest of the year will get very snowy and very cold making travel difficult at best. Forget about hiking outside then.
I visited in early October and had great weather, although it was definitely getting colder at night. In 9 days of hiking we had one snowy day in the Little Pamirs and the rest was sunny.
One of the great things about being there in early October is that the Kyrgyz start bringing in their winter supplies on yak caravans on the same track that you hike on to get to the Little Pamir. You will meet them and get to hang out in the shelters while hiking the 4 days in, and hike alongside them in parts. Hiking into the Pamirs as part of a Kyrgyz yak caravan is awesome!
It really added to the atmosphere of the journey.
Another great thing about being there in October was all the Autumn colours everywhere. It was like entering a fairytale land. There will be more chance of a bit of snow as well adding more beauty to the region, although some hiking paths will get muddy and slippery as a result.
The Wakhan Valley is easier than the Pamir as it is at a lower altitude (average 2900 metres) although will still be cold outside of summer.
When you stay at a guesthouse it will obviously be way warmer than camping outside.
If coming down from Dushanbe it is a good idea to get some food supplies there and the same if coming from Osh. You can find easily enough in Khorog as well, but Dushanbe and Osh will offer much more choice, such as sauces to go in meals etc.
Khorog for example you can load up on snicker bars for hiking, no chocolate bars like that will be found in Afghanistan. Khorog market also has a much better fruit and vegetable selection.
Once on the Afghanistan side your food supply options drastically go down, and outside Eshkashim you are pretty much stuck with getting rice and bread only, with maybe a bit of luck you can find some sweets at a guesthouse.
Long story short – get all the food supplies you think you will need before going into Afghanistan.
However all guesthouses in the villages in the Wakhan can cook breakfast/lunch/dinner for you even if you’re not staying there and once you’ve done the 4 day hike into the Pamir you can eat with the communities there.
Be prepared to eat a lot of bread and rice and drink a lot of tea!
Along the way you may get the chance to eat with the Wakhan and Kyrgyz traders.
Is The Afghanistan Wakhan And Pamir Safe?
Yes – as of now.
Well this post is obviously about visiting the Afghanistan Wakhan Valley and hiking into the Little and Big Pamir Mountains, and at the time of writing these are perfectly safe to visit, and have been for a long time. The Taliban have not entered this remote part of Afghanistan and there is a large police garrison at Eshkashim which is the only way to get into the Wakhan Valley when travelling in Afghanistan. Plus there are security checkpoints all along the area.
Although admittedly on the first night of camping it was slightly unnerving knowing that I was camping in the wild only 35km from the nearest Taliban position!
But all the people I met in Eshkashim, the Wakhan, and Pamir, were very friendly and welcoming. Having a British passport I was a little nervous but it was no problem at all, they were happy to hear when I said I was from the U.K.
IMPORTANT! – When at the Afghanistan embassy in Khorog ask about the current security situation as they will have all the best and latest on the situation. As of October 2016 it was safe to go to Eshkashim, Wakhan, and Pamirs.
I hope You Get To Afghanistan If That’s Your Dream
This whole trip cost me for all 16 days including everything – visa, transport (my share of permit cost and fuel), permits, food, accommodation, donkeys etc, a total of around $600 for an awesome adventure.
I really wish for you adventurous travellers who may have read this post and have a huge passion for getting to less visited destinations like myself, that you will someday get to Afghanistan.
And for those readers not planning on going I hope this shows another side to Afghanistan than the mostly negative things about the country that you see in the news.
Safe travels to all 🙂
Enjoy The Afghanistan Wakhan and Pamir if you make it there!
My blogging friends from LostWithPurpose were in other parts of Afghanistan and did a great guide to it. Read it here
If you’re interested in this part of the world TheBrokeBackpacker is a specialist in travel in Pakistan, particularly the northern area where you can go hiking in the Hunza Valley. You can read an excellent post he did about backpacking in Pakistan.