Welcome to the roof of the world. You’re in the second-highest botanical garden on Earth. Droopy apple, pear, and mulberry trees are trying to shake off the last of their fruit. Vines’ once-green leaves are now orange and crinkled. Wild olive and birch trees stand guard in the background. Bare rocky mountains and puffy clouds are above you. While a steep river valley, a glacial-fed river, and the small city of Khorog are below you. It doesn’t get more remote than this.
You’re in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, a remote section of Tajikistan. The small, landlocked Central Asian country is, as a whole, considered secluded, since 90 percent of it is covered with treacherous mountains. The eastern half of the country is even more so. Though it accounts for 45 percent of Tajikistan’s land, only three percent of the population lives here. The terms remote and secluded might be too generous.
You arrived in Khorog, the region’s capital, to find the Pamir Mountains, the confluence of the Ghund and Panj Rivers, and beautiful poplar trees. The ancient city was peaceful and quiet for thousands of years. Then everyone—from the Emir of Bukhara and the Shah of Afghanistan to the British and the Russians—vied for control at the end of the 19th century. The Russians won the dispute. They determined borders, established the Russian Pamir, and built a fort in south central Tajikistan. It took a while, but the mountains were the ultimate victors.
Today, Khorog is considered one of the most beautiful spots in the country. The Pamir Highway, one of the world’s highest altitude roads, connects Dushanbe, the capital, to neighboring Kyrgyzstan. You passed narrow corridors, herds of yaks, and women in blue burkas as you approached the city. The elegant Central Park sits in the center of Khorog. The Soviet-style Regional Museum is musty, though it features interesting exhibits, including the area’s first piano, which men carried over the mountains in 1913. On Saturday mornings, an enclosed market opens trade with Afghanistan along the river. While the Pamir Botanical Gardens, where you’re now standing, is five kilometers east of Khorog and offers one of the most stunning views you’ve ever seen.
Your biggest worry about this trip wasn’t the long travel time or the narrow mountain passages, though. At first, you weren’t quite sure where you’d sleep. Almost unbelievably, there’s an inn that looks traditional outside, but includes modern amenities inside. The Khorog Serena Inn stands guard over a bridge that connects Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The inn looks like an ancient Shughni house. It has stone pillars, wooden ceilings, and delicate linens, as expected. But it also has Western-style bathrooms, king-sized beds, and views of the Panj River. You plan to hike into the mountains and ride a horse, maybe even a camel, during your stay. But first, all you want to do is relax in the garden.
You walk down to the riverside terrace. It’s surrounded by vast lawns, sagging willow trees, and lots of roses. The rushing river is in front of you. Afghanistan is beyond that. You sip a cup of strong tea and breathe in the fresh mountain air. Few people will ever get to experience this gorgeous and, yes, remote corner of the world. Enjoy every single moment you have here.