Tajikistan: From the Pamirs to the Wakhan

Among travelers, the Pamirs Mountains are mythologized more than any other region of Central Asia. They are characterized by austere landscapes, headache-inducing altitudes, and nonexistent transportation. And this is mostly accurate. In the Pamirs you certainly see more foreigners on bicycles than Pamiris in cars. And most are on their way to or from the Wakhan Corridor, frequently described as the most captivating part of Tajikistan. I spent a couple weeks following this path myself, and while my camera was most often focused on the natural landscape, it was the human landscape that I found most fascinating.

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Few words better describe the natural landscape of the Pamirs than “austere.” Perhaps “inhospitable.” Annual rainfall is comparable to Nevada (the driest state in the United States), and much of the region sits above 3000m (10,000ft) earning it the moniker “Roof of the World.” All this makes it incredible hard to grow anything, and I rarely saw more than the smallest shrubs taking root. In this photo, sheep search for blades of grass in a landscape of stoney debris.

IMG_8498Although it’s arid for the most part, deep in the northern Pamirs is Kara-kul Lake, which I passed early in my trip south from Kyrgyzstan. At nearly 4,000m, the crystal-blue lake is actually higher than the “highest lake in the world” (eat it, Titicaca). But the remoteness of the place renders it far from any population of significant size. This administrative unit of Tajikistan (known as “Gorno-Badakhshan”) is nearly twice the size of Switzerland but has 1/40th of the population at just 200,000 people (think Geneva).

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The people of the Parmirs–both Pamiris and Kyrgyz–are extraordinarily poor, and their ability to eek out an existence in such a place is nearly beyond comprehension. In Murghab, Kyrgyz women like those pictured here, are usually swaddled in scarves and long-sleeves to protect from the high-altitude sun and dust. They walk around town like colorful mummies or hang out near the bazaar, a striking construction of abandoned Chinese freight containers that resembles a shipping graveyard. Food and gas is brought to Murghab, where it is re-sold at a premium. Resources are scarce here.

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V.I. Lennon, an architect of the 1917 Russian Revolution and first figurehead of resulting the Soviet Union, still stands over Murghab. The grand sweep of his arm over the crumbling and inhospitable landscape ironically–or perhaps appropriately–encompasses what ultimately became one of the very poorest corners of the Soviet Union. Today, the people of the Pamirs are sustained not by effective government policy but by the charity of the Aga Khan Foundation. Most Pamiris are adherents of Nizari Ismailism, the second largest sect of Shia Islam, which recognizes Prince Karim al-Hussaini Aga Khan (British millionaire-businessman and resident of Switzerland) as Imam and descendant of Mohammad. Whatever your religious views, there is little question that the charity of the Aga Khan Foundation has helped mitigate suffering in this region.

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At the southern boundary of the Pamirs–where Tajikistan meets Afghanistan–the human and topographical picture changes. At lower altitudes, peaky-mountains rip through the landscape and trees sprout up. It’s still a very destitute region, but it becomes more populous and the natural wealth increases.

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On left is Tajikistan, and on the right Afghanistan. The Wakhan Valley straddles the Afghan-Tajik border, where the austerity of the Pamirs is punctuated by pockets of lush green trees. The valley is a popular side-trip for travelers in the southern Pamir mountains, and despite the open border with Afghanistan just meters away (and the greater region’s notoriety for drug trafficking) these villages are best described as quiet and peaceful. I spent several days traveling up and down the valley, balanced on the edge of the two poorest countries in the region.

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These are the Hindu Kush. Every now and then Wakhan Valley opens its mouth and lets you stare straight into Afghanistan’s famed mountains. Their name is said to translate to “Hindu Killers,” possibly because their immense size stopped the northern expansion of South Asia’s Hindu empires. (But I just want to hug them.)
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At dusk it had a feel reminiscent of Hampi or even parts of Bali. I took the Wakhan Valley as far as Langar, where the Tajik road bends toward the Pamir Hwy and the Afghan road forks into the Wahil river valley. This is where it gets interesting if you’re on the Afghan side (not tricky, but often expensive). On the Tajik side, our whitewashed guesthouse was divinely chill, plopped in a bright green field beneath sloping cliffs where you could watch the sun set on two separate vallies.

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Probably my favorite thing about the Wakhan Valley–and my entire trip through the Pamirs–was just walking. I went two days up by car and hitchhiked back, alternately hoofing it and paying a bit for rides. It can be tough as there’s few cars. But enjoy it quietly, slowly, and without machine (as locals do), because how better to appreciate the long June days than waiting under a row of shady Poplars or crossing a field of yellow flowers.