Gorno-Badakhshan (eastern Tajikistan) is almost a different country and indeed it has its own special entry requirements. Officially called Kohistani Badakhshan, though commonly abbreviated to GBAO for its Soviet-era name (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast), the region accounts for 45% of Tajikistan’s territory but only 3% of its population.
Northern Tajikistan's main city, Khojand, sits on a cartographic periscope that pokes up between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to peer into the mouth of the Fergana Valley. The M34 road that heads there from Dushanbe, dramatically traverses the Hissar, Zerafshan/Fan and Turkestan mountain ranges.
Cowering beneath arid, bare-rock peaks, likeable little Khorog is the GBAO's administrative centre and the Pamirs' one real town. It's a fine place to meet fellow travellers and organise exploration into the region's remote mountainscapes and fabulous valleys including the fabled Wakhan.
Famous for its millenium-old archaeological site and as a springboard for Haft-Kul, Penjikent is crossing its fingers that a big new border road and customs post, due for completion by 2015, will encourage Uzbekistan to re-open the frontier and allow a revival in visitor numbers from Samarkand.
The Pamir Highway
The Pamir Highway (M41) is the remote high-altitude road from Khorog to Osh whose classic central section crosses Tibetan-style high plateau scenery, occasionally populated by yurts and yaks. It was built by Soviet military engineers between 1931 and 1934 to facilitate troop transport and provisioning. Blue kilometre posts use two systems.
Khojand (or Khojent/Khujand, formerly Leninabad) is Tajikistan's second-largest city. Although it’s a massive sprawl, most hotels and sights are close to Lenin, which snakes north–south-southeast for almost 10km, crossing the Syr-Darya River near the point where Alexander the Great once founded his northernmost Central Asian outpost, Alexandria-Eskhate.
The Wakhan offers up a seemingly endless parade of scenic superlatives. Vivid green villages counterpoint towering valley walls, which open regularly for glimpses of the dazzling white Hindu Kush ('killer of hindus') mountains marking the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. A sprinkling of castle ruins and ibex-horn shrine-walls, even a Buddhist mini ziggurat-stupa, add zest.
Called Kir by the Parthians, Cyropol by Alexander the Great and Ura-Tyube by the Russians and Soviets, Istaravshan has a small historical core that is a little better preserved than most in Tajikistan. That isn't saying a great deal, and Bukhara it’s certainly not. But then, there aren’t any tourists either.
Dushanbe to Khorog
The spectacular Dushanbe–Khorog flight is worth considering if you can somehow get a seat. Otherwise there's a choice from Dushanbe of two main road routes converging at Kalai-Khum, both part asphalt, part bone-cruncher. Most traffic (100% in winter) uses the southern route through harsh heat-baked hills to Kulob (Kulyab), then along a fascinating Afghanistan borderside road.
Ishkashim to Langar
The Tajik Wakhan's greatest appeal lies east of Ishkashim. Poplars, vegetable fields and numerous photogenic oasis villages nestle between soaring arid valley-peaks. Higher snow-whitened pinnacles and glaciers make regular theatrical appearances framed in narrow side valleys across the river on the Afghanistan side.
A glorious knot of spiky peaks rise above likeable Langar where the Pamir and Wakhan Rivers join forces to form the Pyanj. The diffuse, green village stretches several kilometres and makes a pleasant exploration base. By the small main bridge, Langar's jamoat khana (prayer house) is easily recognisable by its colourful window frames.
Khorog to Ishkashim
The 100km between Khorog and Ishkashim is scenically varied. For the northerly section the border river rages through a narrow valley across which Afghanistan's donkey traffic seems sometimes close enough to touch. Nearer to Ishkashim the river widens, with pretty green meadows that look almost like golf fairways, notably around Sumjin Km92.