(CNN)A weathered sign indicated our altitude on Tajikistan’s Ak-Baital Pass — 4,655 meters above sea level.
Barren mountains stretched in every direction, casting shadows over the second-highest international road in the world.
China loomed over the eastern horizon. Kyrgyzstan was behind us.
To the south lay Afghanistan and the fabled Wakhan Corridor.
We were heading south, along the Pamir Highway, officially known as the M41.
Celebrated as one of the planet’s most intrepid road trips, this 2,038-kilometer-long road navigates through the sands of Central Asia into the heart of isolated ranges.
First stop: Sary Moghul
The appeal of staying in local homestays and immersing in the Muslim culture is what brought us to this semi-paved, high-altitude trail, home to about 120,000 Pamiri minority people.
Setting out from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, my fiance and I hired a 4×4 and a gregarious driver named Mohammed from the Osh Guesthouse.
Under the hotel owner’s guidance we drew up a rough, seven-day itinerary that would lead us along the Pamir Highway and into the Wakhan Valley, on the Afghan border.
We began our drive through the plateaus outside Osh on a bright Saturday morning, bound for the village of Sary Moghul.
Near the base of the 7,143-meter tall Peak Lenin, Sary Moghul is a charming town that attracts hikers and mountaineers from around the globe.
The town has just enough appeal to warrant a day’s exploration.
We spent the afternoon wandering the dirt roads and playing a game of football with a group of young boys.
A heated conversation
In Yamchun, the Bibi Fatima hot springs attract locals and travelers alike, seeking to improve their fertility by soaking in the mineral waters.
Men and women are separated, keeping with the modest customs of the Islamic faith.
Stripping completely, I stepped into the grotto-like bath and was greeted by three Tajik men.
They were talking in the local Pamiri language.
“As-Salaam-Alaikum,” they addressed me.
Peace be upon you.
“Wa-Alaikum-us-Salaam,” I replied.
And peace be upon you.
The men switched to broken English, asking me about my time in their country.
Many Pamiris are learning English to work in the growing tourism industry.
“You and your friends are always welcome in Tajikistan,” they said proudly, before leaving me in the hot springs.
“They can’t wait to meet you”
The twists and turns in the road continued as our final day led us to Khorog, and the end of our journey.
Mohammed bid farewell to us at the Pamir Lodge, hurriedly returning to Osh in the hope of picking up more customers before winter arrived.
A handful of eager travelers were waiting in the lodge to start their own adventure, reversing the route we had just taken.
We traded tips and stories beneath a crisp and clear autumn evening.
“What are the people like?” one young man asked me.
I smiled, and thought about the shepherds, hosts and kids we had encountered along the way.
“Very welcoming,” I answered. “They can’t wait to meet you.”
With no hotels outside of the larger towns of Murghab and Khorog, local homestays and camping are the only accommodation options on the Pamir Highway.
This lack of amenities ensures only dedicated travelers visit Tajikistan.
Today, the Pamir Highway has become a pilgrimage of sorts for cyclists, motorcyclists and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts, who frequent the region in the summer months.
Some visitors book expeditions through travel agencies and tour companies abroad.
But it’s easy to organize logistics on arrival — often for cheaper — with funds going directly to local operators.