Pamirs adapt to life without Russia
By Ian MacWilliam
BBC News, Tajikistan
The Pamir mountains in the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan were once the remotest frontier of the Russian Empire.
But the last Russian forces left this region on the northern borders of Afghanistan in December, and the inhabitants have been facing their first winter without any Russian assistance for the first time in more than a century.
Tajikistan still retains strong Russian influences
The Pamirs have been busy building new ties with the outside world, but many people still regret the end of the Russian presence, and fear it could lead to an influx of illegal drugs from Afghanistan.
The Pamirs lie at the mountainous heart of Asia where four great ranges meet like the spokes of a wheel - the Himalayas, Karakorams, Hindu Kush and Tien Shan.
Three peaks top 7000 metres (23,000 feet) and much of the region is a high-altitude plateau at nearly 4000 metres (13,100 feet), where outsiders can find breathing difficult.
The narrow River Panj, or Oxus, flows through a precipitous gorge, forming the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Tajikistan has been independent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but Moscow had remained in charge of the border troops here. Moscow and other regional governments still fear the spread of narcotics, weapons and extremist Islam from chaotic Afghanistan just across the river.
Life in the frozen Pamirs
The inhabitants on both sides of the river are Tajiks, but the Russian presence in Tajikistan has ensured a very different history over the past century.
On the Tajikistan side there are roads and electricity. On the Afghan side there are donkey tracks, and few lights disturb the blackness of the long winter nights.
Drugs are a major concern here. Much of the Afghan heroin and opium which reaches Europe is now smuggled through Central Asia.
"The Afghans were afraid of the Russians," said Maram Azimmamadov, director of Volunteer, an organisation working with drug addicts in the Pamiri capital, Khorog.
"They're not afraid of the Tajik guards, and it's very easy to cross the river, especially in winter, so we're expecting an increase in the flow of drugs through here."
The Russian border guards themselves however were often accused of smuggling large quantities of drugs straight into Russia on military flights from Tajikistan.
Many local Tajiks worked as guards for the Russian-led force. They are now paid less than half of what they were paid under the Russians. Other people in Khorog say the border force will be less efficient now that it is run by the Tajiks only.
Two Tajik women selling cigarettes and snacks by the roadside outside the border force base in Khorog expressed a common view.
"The Russian officers would often help us - they'd give us some coal for heating when it was very cold, or they'd give us jobs on the base," said one woman.
"But the Tajiks don't do that. They don't employ so many local people and if they give us anything they want to be paid," she said.
Russian geographers, soldiers and spies first began exploring the Pamirs in the second half of the 19th century, travelling for weeks across the bleak mountain wilderness from the Ferghana valley in modern Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
In the 1890s, at the height of the Great Game, when Russia and British India were vying for influence in the region, Moscow established military garrisons at Murghab, Ishkashim and Khorog.
One of the most poignant reminders of that adventurous era still stands in the museum in Khorog.
The piano carried across the passes from Russia
"This was the only piano in the Pamir," said Alvo Karamshoyeva, the museum's senior guide.
"The commander of the Russian garrison had it brought here in 1914 so his daughter could play. Ten soldiers spent two months carrying it over the mountains from Osh."
A plate fixed to the Becker piano, made in Germany in 1875, says it was bought from MK Grubesh of Moscow, suppliers to the Imperial Moscow Conservatory.
For many years, songs played on this piano on the edge of Afghanistan would remind the Russians of their homes far away across many hundreds of miles of mountains, desert and steppe.
But while ties with Russia are weakening, the Pamir region is surprisingly well connected to the outside world because of another patron.
Most Pamiris are Ismaili Muslims, whose spiritual leader is the Aga Khan. From his European base, in France, Switzerland and Britain, the Aga Khan has been working through his network of aid organisations to improve the Pamir region's local economy, making it more self-sufficient.
Filling the gap
In the grim years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the abrupt end of subsidies from Moscow, many Pamiris faced starvation.
The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) arranged emergency food supplies then, particularly in the difficult winter months. "The Aga Khan saved our lives," many people will tell you in Khorog.
The AKDN has been working to make agricultural improvements since then, and the region now produces 80% of its own food requirements, said Shiraz Abdulayev, of the AKDN in Khorog.
Another long-term goal is to improve regional trade, rebuilding transport links with Afghanistan, China and Pakistan which were severed by seven decades of Soviet rule.
The AKDN has already built two new bridges across the Panj river to Afghanistan.
"A group of Afghan businessmen came across the new bridge at Khorog recently to study the market here," said Mr Abdulayev, "and last summer the first tourists used it to cross to and from Afghanistan."
A new road has also been opened to western China recently, by which local traders now bring Chinese goods into Tajikistan, and a road is planned to northern Pakistan across Afghanistan's narrow Wakhan corridor.
Many local people hope that tourism might eventually make an important contribution to the local economy.
With some of Asia's most remote and spectacular mountain scenery, the Pamir could attract adventurous Western tourists if transport ties were improved.
Locals are worried that the border will now become more porous
In Murghab, in the high-altitude plateau of the eastern Pamir, a network of ecotourism guesthouses has been set up by the French aid organisation ACTED (Agency for Technical Co-operation and Development).
Visitors can stay in houses with local families in houses, or in summer in yurts. The cost is reasonable for most foreigners, but the income is a big help to local residents.
"Thank goodness for the foreign tourists who come here," said Yrys, a mother of three who rents two rooms to visitors in Murghab.
"I had 70 guests last year. There are no other jobs here so that money makes all the difference."
As the Pamir region slowly adapts to the realities of the post-Soviet economy, the challenges of its harsh environment have brought many difficulties.
But there is now hope that closer integration with the world will ultimately make life easier on the Roof of the World.
The Pamir Highway – a Journey to the Roof of the World and Back
Marco Polo once said the following of the Pamirs:
“… The plain is called Pamier, and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but a desert without habitations or any green thing, so that travellers are obliged to carry with them whatever they have need of. The region is so lofty and cold that you can not even see any birds flying. And I must notice also that because of this great cold, fire does not burn so bright, nor give out so much heat as usual….”
The Pamirs is a mountainous area in the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast of Tajikistan - known as the Roof of the World (Krisha Mira). It’s composed of some of the most remote and untouched areas in the world, including some of the tallest peaks in Central Asia and the world.
As I was primarily based in Dushanbe for the last two months, when I got an opportunity to travel to the Pamirs for about 5 days before leaving the country, I knew I had to take it. It was going to be quite an adventure!
RECOMMENDATION: I highly recommend that you check out this 3-minute video below (in Full Screen if possible) first - it took so long to upload it! And then read the rest, if you like what you see.
VIDEO: The Pamir Highway - Journey to the Roof of the World and Back.
High adventure: crossing Tajikistan
By Tiffany Kary
When the ululating cries broke through the night, I was seized with fear. I'd been warned against coming to Tajikistan, with its fuel and food shortages, war-torn borders, terrorists and despotic leaders.
Three male voices played off one another like predators closing in on prey. A flashlight pierced my tent. I prepared to bolt from my sleeping bag — to where, in the remote mountain terrain a day's hike from the nearest road, I had no idea.
Then the smell of fresh sheep dung and the clomp of hoofs reached me. The men were nomadic shepherds, beginning their fall migration before dawn.
Tajikistan, the poorest of Central Asia's post-Soviet republics, is surprisingly safe, despite sharing a border with Afghanistan and suffering a 2007 bombing attributed to Islamic terrorists.
Still, this certainly isn't a luxury-travel destination. Outside the capital of Dushanbe, shelter is limited to tents and "homestays," or private residences. You need letters of invitation, visas and special permits for traveling in remote regions, and visas have to be vetted upon arrival in the country — we had a two-day wait. Few guidebooks give the country, bordered by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China, much space, and official tourism is minimal.
The trade-off is unspoiled valleys, soaring peaks — some more than 20,000 feet tall — and ruins from Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Islamic cultures unmarred by tourist traffic or signs. The country affords a traveler the rare experience of being dwarfed by both history and nature, exploring the mountainous land known in Victorian times as "the roof of the world."
The capital city of Dushanbe, dusty and oppressive, can be seen in a day. We were blocked from photographing the presidential palace via warning whistles by plainclothes police standing every 10 meters along the main street. A phrase book of Tajik or Russian is essential, with Dushanbe's mix of Uzbeks, Russians and native Tajiks having little knowledge of English.
A Russian guide, with a porter and driver, agreed to take us for a five-day, all-inclusive trek of the Fan Mountains near the Uzbek border for $700 each. Not a bad price, considering most travel agencies that visit Tajikistan do so as part of "Silk Road Tours" costing $7,000 and up that follow the ancient trade route between China and Europe. A guide and a Jeep-type vehicle are essential for negotiating the country's unpaved roads — and the official checkpoints on the roads The Fans, though hard to get to, are worth the effort. Ascending the 11,909-foot Laudon Pass gave us views of towering mountains, topped with glaciers. Valleys of turquoise lakes shimmered below.
In the remote mountains, we lazed under a cabana of sticks and rags by the banks of Lake Kulikalon, at an elevation of 9,186 feet, with an 82-year-old woman, her daughter and two grandchildren, eating tea, bread and fried marinka, a local lake fish. The hospitality of people who have almost nothing is one of the great beauties of Tajikistan.
Flying between peaks
To reach the Pamir region in eastern Tajikistan, we caught the Dushanbe-Khorog flight, infamous for a tight passage between peaks that prevents it from flying in anything but cloudless skies. Some of the world's tallest mountains are in the Pamir range, including the 24,590-foot Ismoil Somoni peak, in what's called the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region.
While the rest of Tajikistan is Sunni, in Pamir the Ismaili Shiites — many of whom are blue-eyed blonds who claim descent from Alexander the Great — revere the Aga Khan, spiritual leader to a branch of the Shia faith, hanging photos of him in every room. In Khorog, the region's capital, the luxurious Serena Inn, owned by an Aga Khan company, was hosting a music festival. Teenagers in jeans and trendy T-shirts danced and snapped photos of a Dushanbe rock group on their cellphones.
Our four-day Pamir tour, shared with two others, was $200 each, including home stays and meals in the Whakan Valley, a wide, high-altitude corridor. Mazars, or Islamic shrines, and Zoroastrian fire temples stacked with the weathered skulls of ibex and sheep edge the road.
It was here that Marco Polo and ancient traders traveled between China and Europe. And it's through here, across a loosely guarded border with only the narrow Panj River dividing it from Afghanistan, that much of the world's heroin passes.
The journey back to Dushanbe was an adventure. After our Khorog-Dushanbe flight had been canceled three days running, we caught a $30-a-person ride in a Chinese minivan for the 30-hour trip, only to find our driver drinking vodka an hour into the trip.
Thinking it wise to disembark when army officials from an unmarked car started to rough up the driver, we found another ride the rest of the way to Dushanbe just in time for our flight. What's an adventure without a good scare, anyway?
December 20, 2009
Pamir Mountains, the Crossroads of History
By ANDY ISAACSON
BY 9 in the morning, the bazaar on a rocky island in the Panj River was a frenetic scene of haggling and theatrics. Afghan traders in long tunics and vests hawked teas, toiletries and rubber slippers. Turbaned fortune tellers bent over ornate Persian texts, predicting futures for the price of a dollar. Tajik women bargained over resplendent bolts of fabric. All were mingling this bright Saturday at a weekly market held throughout the year and, in one form or another, for thousands of years here in the Wakhan Valley, which divides Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
“Mousetraps, mousetraps, mousetraps, oooowww!” crooned a white-bearded Afghan in the Iranian language spoken by locals from both sides of the border.
“They don’t buy!” complained a high-heeled shoe salesman from Kabul to me, in English.
“They always start the price too high,” a Tajik woman in a blue patterned dress and headscarf whispered as she stood before bright red carpets, appearing seductive against a monochrome mountain backdrop.
As the sun rose higher, I joined the crowds — young Tajik men in sporty shirts and jeans, uniformed border guards, families — seeking shade under rainbow umbrellas to eat rice palov, served from large cauldrons. Across the market grounds, I could see three lipsticked Korean women in straw hats dispensing balloon animals to a captivated group of men and boys.
East meeting West, North meeting South: since time immemorial, the Wakhan Valley, in the Pamir Mountains, has existed at the intersection of trails trodden by nomads, peddlers, pilgrims and, at times, the soldiers and emissaries of great powers. When I’d thought about traveling to see this rugged branch of the ancient Silk Road, it had seemed like an adventure to the far-flung periphery of the world. Now, as I looked around the market, taking the long view of history, it felt more like the center.
During the last century, this long-strategic nexus of Asia, earlier crossed by Scythians, Persians, Greeks, Kushans, Hephtalites, Gokturks, Huns, Arabs and Mongol hordes, became a cul-de-sac at the command of the Russians. In 1929 Stalin’s mapmakers created the Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan, a territory about the same size as New York State, 93 percent mountainous, given shape in the artificial (though politically expedient) manner in which all the Central Asian republics were drawn. A Soviet vision of a model Oriental capital was built around the market village of Dushanbe — pleasant and leafy, if dull, with a wide central avenue, pastel-colored buildings, the standard apartment blocks and some grand monuments meant to be honored from afar. (Make the innocent mistake of approaching one, as I did, and you give an underpaid policeman an excuse to seek a bribe to overlook the offense.)
The Soviets brought universal education and health care, but banned the Persian alphabet, erasing Tajiks’ literary history, and outlawed the practice of Islam. At independence in 1991, Moscow left behind an impoverished and fractured country that soon plunged into a bloody civil war. Tajikistan emerged in 1997 corrupt but safe, ailing but reasonably stable. Before long, foreign tourists began to trickle in.
After the three legs of my flight from New York, armed with a visa and special permit to visit the Pamir region, I arrived in Dushanbe during a stifling week last July. The Russians gave the city a rail link west to Uzbekistan, and they paved a road east, toward Kyrgyzstan, that is known today as the Pamir Highway and increasingly draws foreign mountain bikers and motorcyclists.
“Highway” is a generous classification for it. It took me 20 hours to travel the dusty 325-mile stretch from Dushanbe to the provincial center of Khorog in a shared taxi, flat-tire breaks included. The road climbs over craggy, treeless mountains and falls into tidy villages with apricot trees. It is interrupted by several checkpoints, including one in a valley through which heroin and opium are trafficked — and to which, news reports say, militants have begun returning — north from Afghanistan.
At this checkpoint, a burly man wearing fatigues and a Harley-Davidson hat introduced himself as Muhammad Ali, asked for my bag, and called for the dog. Out came a small, floppy-eared lapdog that agents practically had to drag over to sniff my backpack. “He must be starving,” Muhammad Ali joked. “Just open the bag.” I was sent on my way, wondering if those were my tax dollars at work. Last year the United States spent $1.7 million to counter narcotics in Tajikistan.
KHOROG, a relaxed town of 28,000 in the heart of the western Pamirs, sits across the Panj River from Afghanistan. Its isolation largely spared it from the civil war of the 1990s, but a humanitarian crisis crippled the area after Soviet handouts came to an end. A savior came in the form of a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad himself, the Aga Khan, a Swiss-born businessman who owns racehorses and a yacht club on Sardinia and is the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslim sect to which most Pamiri people have belonged for a thousand years. The community-supported charitable organization over which he presides, the Aga Khan Development Network, resuscitated Khorog, which now has two universities, new construction and a young, optimistic population.
Winters can be long and raw, but in summer the balmy air, rustling fruit trees and pedestrian bridges spanning a jade river make Khorog a nice base for exploring the Pamirs. Through an agency, I had arranged to meet a driver and translator there to guide me for a week, first south to the Wakhan Valley and then through it to Murghab, a town in the eastern Pamirs. We would sleep at a network of homestays.
The next morning we set out in a former Russian Army jeep, leaving the Pamir Highway to head south on a paved road along the Panj River, which defines much of Tajikistan’s 830-mile border with Afghanistan. Brown, gravelly slopes rise steeply from the river toward snow-capped peaks beyond view. The rustic adobe homes and donkey trails that I could see on the opposite, Afghan bank seemed suspended in a different time.
The Pamir region was renowned in antiquity for its rubies (technically, spinel) and lapis lazuli. The most famous mine, Kuh-i-Lal — though closed to the public — came into view above the road. It was the source, I later learned, of the 170-carat Black Prince’s Ruby now in the Imperial State Crown of Britain.
At a turn, the white crowns of the Hindu Kush appeared, and we entered the 85-mile-long Wakhan Valley, a fertile quilt of wheat fields along the Panj River, “situated among the snowy mountains,” as the seventh-century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang described it.
I arrived at the Saturday bazaar, with its mousetraps and fortune-telling, by 9 a.m. and stayed until the island began to empty, in early afternoon. I talked with a blue-eyed Afghan policeman sporting Bushnell binoculars and a Leatherman toolkit and later passed a Tajik boy wearing a cap that read “Berkeley, Califopnia.” He reacted indifferently after I explained that I actually came from there. I realized that such sights are probably no more remarkable today than, say, a Chinese visitor here in the sixth century encountering Italians in silk shirts, or a Sogdian seen with the latest gadgets from the army of Alexander the Great, who crossed the Panj River in 329 B.C. At this ancient intersection, surreal juxtapositions of globalization date back for millenniums.
In the town of Ishkashim, adjacent to the market, we visited the crumbling remains of a sixth-century caravansary — an ancient motel for Silk Road travelers. Then we drove on eastward in the Wakhan Valley, passing roadside shelters decorated in pebbled mosaics conveying messages of Soviet propaganda, until we reached the remnants of a sprawling stone fortress occupying a prominent rock above the Panj. A plaque in Tajik and English explained that this was the King’s Castle, constructed in the third century B.C. by the Siah-Posh, a tribe of black-robed fire-worshipers (probably Zoroastrian), to defend the Wakhan from intruders.
I followed the small footpaths meandering among the ruins and thought of Samarkand, the fabled Silk Road oasis in Uzbekistan whose restoration has stripped much of its character, and Kashgar, China, overrun by modern Han society. The contrasting authenticity — and fragility — around me here was reflected on a plaque: “Your responsible treatment of the sites during your visiting them is appreciated as your contribution to the preservation of historical monuments.”
I spent two days exploring the detritus of history littered across the Wakhan Valley: rocks with Arabic inscriptions, petroglyphs, imposing fortresses, stones that were once arranged to determine the spring solstice and hot springs rumored to boost female fertility (I was the only man visiting these).
Small shrines to Ismaili holy men line the roadside. Each has its own legend, and is ornamented with special stones and curled ibex and sheep horns, symbols of purity under Aryan and Zoroastrian religious traditions, which predate Islam in the region.
Men, women and children strolled up and down the road between their villages and wheat fields. I offered lifts to old ladies in colorful embroidered skullcaps who showed gratitude by touching my chin and kissing their hands.
In a village called Yamg, we turned in where a sign announced a museum, and a teenager named Nasim opened the building with a key. The museum is in the home of his distant ancestor Muboraki Wakhani, Nasim explained, a little-known mystic poet, musician, astronomer and prolific Ismaili scholar of the late 19th century. Inside, artifacts from the ages were displayed, none behind glass: a tattered gold-and-blue imam’s robe, purportedly from the 12th century; 15th-century Chinese copper kettles; clay jugs from the storied Uzbek city of Bukhara; pipes, knives and yak horn cups; Stone Age beads; wooden stringed instruments carved into crude human figures.
Nasim invited me to his family’s house for lunch, and we followed him down a dirt pathway. Wheat, apricots, mulberries and dung lay on the flat roof to dry. The stone-and-plaster architecture was typical of traditional homes throughout the Pamirs, rich in symbolism that includes elements of ancient Aryan and Buddhist philosophy. For Ismailis living here, the home is itself a symbol of the universe and serves instead of a mosque as a place for prayer.
Nasim’s father, Aydar, mustached and wearing a track suit, led me into a main room divided, according to tradition, into three areas signifying the kingdoms of nature: animal, vegetable and mineral. Five supporting pillars represented the five members of the family of the prophet Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali: the one for Muhammad, left of the entrance, is traditionally where a newborn’s cradle is placed and where newly married couples sleep.
Light beamed in through a skylight framed by four concentric square wood layers, representing earth, water, air and fire. Under it Aydar’s daughter laid a spread of raisins, peanuts and berries, potato and corn soup, fresh round flatbread and salty milk tea, which is passed and received with one hand to the heart. As Marco Polo noted, the language in the Wakhan Valley is different even from the Iranian dialects spoken in other Pamir valleys. But Aydar spoke some English and Russian, which was translated for me. I asked him how long his family had lived here.
Aydar told of a legend about a hotheaded emir in the 15th century who killed an entire family save one boy, who fled north, married and had three sons. One son returned to the valley years later, and eventually the two others followed with their families; these were Aydar’s ancestors. The dates were vague, but I was awed by a family story that began 600 years ago.
After lunch, we continued on to the nearby village of Vrang, where children were tending sheep below a tiered stone stupa built on a rocky perch by sixth-century Buddhists. “Buddha, Buddha,” Somon, a local boy, said, cupping his hands in a pantomime of meditation. He volunteered to guide me up to the stupa’s ancient rocks. I sat there looking at sunset over the Pamir crest, coloring the valley from on high like light slanting through clerestory windows, at moonrise above the Hindu Kush — and at Somon, who was eager to climb down. “Homestay?” he asked sweetly, pointing to a faintly lighted house in the birches below. I followed him there.
“Having left this place, and traveled three days, always among mountains,” a man “ascends to a district which is said to be the highest in the world,” Marco Polo reported 700 years ago, describing the climb north from the Wakhan Valley to the 13,000-foot-high desert plateau in the eastern Pamir from which several major ranges — the Himalaya, Karakorum, Hindu Kush, Kunlun and Tien Shan — fan out across Asia. The same journey took us three hours in our temperamental jeep, passing Stone Age petroglyphs, a lone Soviet watchtower, two Swiss mountain bikers and (across a tributary of the Panj, demarcating the border) Afghan traders leading a caravan of double-humped Bactrian camels.
“Along this high plain, which is called Pamier, he sees neither habitation nor verdure,” Polo went on, and until late in the Soviet period, the majority Kyrgyz population that endures this extreme realm known to early Persians as the Roof of the World remained mostly nomadic. The few permanent settlements today have a weathered, frontier character: tin roofs, rusty vehicle parts, satellite dishes.
We rejoined the Pamir Highway in the Alichur Valley, a 40-mile-long thin grass steppe ringed by low, rounded mountains, where Kyrgyz families come to graze their animals, setting up summer yurt camps. “Authentic” would only lamely describe the timeless, pastoral serenity of this place, or suggest the bliss I felt on my first star-filled night there reclining on hand-woven carpets by a warm iron stove inside a yurt, dipping bread into freshly churned yak butter, listening to Kyrgyz spoken in hushed tones.
Farther east, at Besh Gumbez, we visited the domed ruins of a caravansary and later passed a caravan of Chinese trucks laden with inexpensive household goods, parked beside the road. The drivers, Uighurs from Kashgar bound for Dushanbe, crouched in the shade beside the tires with a propane tank and a box of peppers, preparing lunch. In antiquity the caravans carried exotic luxuries like silk, jade, porcelain, furs, dyes, tea and spices; what a different sense the phrase “made in China” evokes today.
We split off the Pamir Highway and spent the next four days bouncing across a stark moonscape on jeep tracks that connect remote shepherd camps. One morning we saw a family out in the open air near their adobe home, rolling damp, matted wool into felt for the walls of a yurt. Curd balls lay drying on the roof. The grandfather, Mamajan, wearing a cardigan sweater and knitted skullcap, invited me for steamed meat dumplings and tea.
“Are there places like this in America?” he asked in Russian, waving around at the craggy, mineral-stained earth.
“Yes, a place called Nevada,” I replied.
Mamajan filled and refilled cups of green tea as we dabbed warm flatbread into bowls of butter and fresh yogurt. His grandparents were from present-day Kyrgyzstan. They were rich, he said, before the Soviets took their sheep. Mamajan was a bookkeeper during the Soviet period. He switched back to farming after independence and sells wool and meat, and dung for winter fuel.
By the age of 19, Mamajan claimed, he already had nine children. “You’re 32?” he asked me. “Why aren’t you married?” No explanation I could offer would suffice.
“ALL kinds of animals abound,” Marco Polo noted here, “in particular, a species of sheep with horns of three, four, and even six palms long. The horns are heaped up in large quantities along the road, for the purpose of guiding travelers during winter.” They still are, but the world’s largest sheep — named after Polo — is now endangered. I encounter only traces: their footpaths and magnificent skulls, strewn eerily across the barren landscape. Foreign hunters, mostly American, pay $25,000 to bag one. We passed a hunting camp that is temporarily closed so that sheep numbers can rebound.
My last homestay, on the far side of Tajikistan, was at an isolated yurt pitched on the edge of an expansive valley facing a spectacular panorama of the serrated Wakhan Range, in Afghanistan. Beyond lay Pakistan and just east of me, over a lofty pass, China. There, six years earlier, on a trip across that country, I had stayed in a similar yurt with Kyrgyz hosts and was left to imagine what existed across the border. I now stitched the two experiences, years apart, into a single panoramic image.
It was here in the Pamirs where Russia’s territorial expansion confronted Britain’s defense of India during the 19th-century geopolitical rivalry known as the Great Game. Both sides dispatched players — maverick officers and ambitious explorers, often in disguise — to chart Central Asia’s wild terrain and win influence. A final flashpoint occurred over the mountain in front of me, where in August 1891 a British agent crossed paths with his Russian counterpart, who claimed it as the czar’s and threatened arrest. Four years later the powers agreed to make that narrow valley between their empires — the Wakhan Corridor — a buffer belonging to neither, and it is still part of Afghanistan, a panhandlelike eastward salient of little importance.
The Great Game came and went, part of the historical tides weathered forever here, in the romantic heart of Asia. I could hear the enduring pulse of that heart around me in the whistling wind and the calls of children corralling the sheep for the evening.
“Andy, come,” my host hollered from the yurt. “Dinner is ready.”
SHRINES AND FORTS
July and August are prime months for travel in the Pamir Mountains, although some companies will begin giving tours next year by May. A search last month for flights from John F. Kennedy Airport to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, next June found one on AirBaltic (www.airbaltic.com) through Copenhagen and Riga for 1,121 euros (about $1,620 at $1.45 to the euro) and one on Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) through Istanbul for $1,870.
The United States Embassy in Dushanbe provides information for travelers to Tajikistan on its Web site: dushanbe.usembassy.gov/travel_routes2.html.
A visa is required for United States citizens traveling to Tajikistan, and once inside the country, it is practical to travel with a guide and translator. Tours vary in price, depending on the number of travelers and the itinerary (most can be customized). Tourism is still in its infancy in Tajikistan; visitors should not expect services at Western standards, especially at homestays in the Pamir region.
Here are some companies that provide English-speaking guides and can assist travelers with letters of introduction for visa applications and special permits, including that required for the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, the region that encompasses the Pamirs. All prices are per person, based on double occupancy, and exclude airfare.
Mountain Adventure Travel (992-372-21-1812; www.matt.tj) is offering a 10-day, 1,242-mile trip into the Pamirs next June for $2,000.
Hamsafar Travel (992-372 28-0093; www.hamsafartravel.com) has a 10-day round trip from Dushanbe to Murghab and through the Wakhan Valley for $3,500.
Dmitry Melnichkov (992-372-27-4725; firstname.lastname@example.org; tajikaviatour.tj/en/) leads a 12-day round trip from Dushanbe to Murghab and through the Wakhan Valley costing 2,450 euros.
Pamir Silk Tour Company (992-3522-22277 or -22299; email@example.com) has a 14-day round trip from Dushanbe to Murghab through the Wakhan Valley for $3,150.
Geographic Expeditions (800-777-8183; www.geoex.com), a United States-based operator, is leading a 22-day excursion in July through the Wakhan Corridor, from $11,875.
“Central Asia Travel Guide,” by Greg Bloom, John Noble and Bradley Mayhew, published by Lonely Planet.
“Tajikistan and the High Pamirs,” by Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas, published by Odyssey Books & Guides.
Pamirs provide an enchanting backdrop to learn about the Jamat in Tajikistan
Imamat Day celebrations on 11 July 2009 included a concert featuring traditional Pamiri music. Photo: Janet Southern
Last summer, I worked as one of four interns in the offices of Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS) in Khorog, the capital of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO). As an Ismaili of East African background, I had little knowledge of Central Asian culture or the Nasir Khusraw tradition of the Jamat. I saw my visit as an opportunity to experience the country and to open my eyes to an ancient culture that characterises the Ismaili community in the region.
Dominated by the Pamir mountain range, GBAO is stunningly beautiful. Majestic peaks are outlined against a sky that alternates between bright blue in the day and a star-studded pitch black at night. The Pamiri family that hosted me and my fellow interns provided more than a house to live in — they made us feel at home. They spent time teaching us their local language of Shughni, invited us along when they ran errands and took us to Imamat Day celebrations. They truly integrated us into their lives and community.
FOCUS interns Nazia Gahdia and Safiyya Devraj with the interns’ host family, the Mavjudalievs. Photo: Janet Southern
Family outings were common on the weekends, allowing us to practice our Shughni, learn more about the local culture, and explore the town and surrounding areas. We took day trips to neighbouring villages and local sights such as the high altitude botanical gardens — the second highest of their kind in the world. We would wander through the gardens and take in the breathtaking view of Khorog, noting the greens and browns scattered below — a patchwork of fields, crops, and buildings, with the Gunt and Panj rivers merging together. At lunch, we would sit in the shade and feast on delicious tarbouz (watermelon), guurda (round bread), and sok (juice). The hospitality of our hosts was unwavering — they made sure that we really got to experience life in GBAO.
Such kindness was not exclusive to our host family — it was demonstrated by everyone I met, including my co-workers at FOCUS. One of my supervisors took me and the other interns mountain climbing; others treated us to traditional local meals at their homes. Another invited me to her wedding festivities, even though we had only just met.
The four 2009 FOCUS Global Interns for Tajikistan pause for a photograph as they travel from Dushanbe to Khorog. (L to R: Nazia Gadhia, Safiyya Devraj, Janet Southern, and Samir Panjwani). Photo: Courtesy of Nazia Gadhia
The FOCUS interns came from different parts of the world. We each brought unique perspectives on culture and development, and pushed and challenged one another to think outside the box. As interns we often collaborated, but we also separated out to work within our respective teams.
I worked on a disaster preparedness programme that concentrated on increasing local capacity to prepare for and cope with the effects of natural disasters. Funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), the programme incorporates media, education, institutional capacity building, and structural mitigation initiatives. My role was in monitoring and evaluating; I observed each component of the disaster preparedness programme to assess its successes, challenges, and overall effectiveness, and made suggestions for future improvement.
This role also permitted me to go into the field to observe a project’s impact upon the local community. What I found most interesting was that entire projects were operated by the Tajiks themselves. Local professionals with backgrounds in engineering, computer science, linguistics, and law worked together to achieve the goals laid out by ECHO.
Drawing on a traditional Pamiri custom of public voluntary work known as “kiryar”, members of the community participate in the construction of a reveted wall in Khorog. Photo: Janet Southern
The wider community also took part in its implementation, connecting their participation to a traditional Pamiri custom of public voluntary work known as kiryar or hashar. The custom originally involved the building of houses for individual families by the community. Now it is being applied in different, but relevant contexts: huge groups come together to work voluntarily on structural mitigation projects — such as the reconstruction of bridges — to ensure their completion within the required timeframe.
The community’s strong commitment demonstrates self-sustainability, while also spelling the achievement of development goals for the region. During one particular site visit, a riveted wall — built to slow the impact of falling debris and snow — was in its beginning stages of construction. On my return only a few days later, I was amazed to see over half the wall completed! A co-worker explained to me that kiryar played a huge part in this progress. He connected its success to the values of the Jamat, which place importance on community responsibility and achievement.
I embarked on my journey to Tajikistan expecting to see a new place and to further my professional experience. After spending almost two months living with a traditional Pamiri family, working with the local community, and catching a glimpse of the beauty and spirituality that characterises the people and landscape of this part of the world, I came away with new friends, treasured memories, a better understanding of the traditions of the Ismaili community in that part of the world, and how tradition is woven into the wider story of our culture and history.
A statue of Nasir Khusraw with the Pamir Mountains rising behind him. Photo: Janet Southern
PORTRAITS OF THE ISMAILIS
“Far, in a remote land, after days of travels, you get dropped off and then you start walking. You isolate yourself to find loneliness, to give a stronger meaning to human relations. You roam at the edges of a world you can only pass by but not live in. Yet, it lures you again and again, giving you the strength only freedom can deliver.”
Matthieu Paley is an award winning photographer. His most recent exhibition was "An Ethereal World - Journeys to the edges of Asia."
Matthieu Paley is an intrepid explorer and an award winning photographer. He says he has been working along side Ismailis in Northern Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan for several years now. He says these regions are his favorite places in the world. Simerg is deeply indebted to him for sending us a collection of his photos for publication on this Web site.
Once you have viewed the photos on this page, please visit his Web site Paley Photo, where he says many of the portraits in the stories Pamiristan I, The End of the Corridor, and Hunza – A World Away are those of the Ismailis. For the last 10 years, Matthieu’s assignments have taken him all over Asia, resulting in worldwide publications in magazines such as National Geographic Adventure, Geo, Geographical, Discovery etc. He has published book on Siberia and Mongolia. He is a regular lecturer for the Asia Society and the Royal Geographical Society.
Recently, he expanded into the world of fine art, finding the elements that unify his work. To inquire about purchasing limited editions, archival prints on paper or canvas, please contact info(at)paleyphoto.com. Photos of his most recent exhibition, An Ethereal World – Journeys to the edges of Asia can be viewed at Ethereal World as well as on his Website, click on the “Fine art Print” link. Additionally, to find out more about his guiding services in this remote parts of Asia, please visit www.pamirknot.com
Map of Tajikistan. Credit: Lonelyplanet.com
IMPORTANT NOTE: Please click photos for enlargement.
“HAPPY ISMAILI PEOPLE”
The first photo shown below by Matthieu Paley was taken in Alichur (shown on map, above), a village at an altitude of 4000 metres which is comprised mainly of Ismailis. It is located on the Pamir Highway south of Murghab in the Gorno Badakshan Autonomous Region of Southeastern Tajikistan. The photo was taken during Didar (Invitation) – a celebration that takes place on 28th of May every year to commemorate the anniversary of the Aga Khan’s visit to the village in the 1990s. During the celebrations the villagers dress up, dance outdoors to the accordion and drums and sing ginane (religious songs), which tell of him being their Noor (light). The photograph was taken as these girls, dressed in bright atlas silk fabric with crowns on their heads, were going out to dance. In this region, as in other parts of the world, Ismailis hold a deep reverence for their Imam, the direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS). Pictures of the 49th Imam adorn most Ismaili homes. The Aga Khan and his Imamat Institutions and Agencies play a key role in the community’s survival and development throughout the world.
Ismaili girls proudly display a decorated frame holding a photo of their beloved 49th Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan. See story above. Click for enlargement. Photo: Matthieu Paley. Copyright.
Ismaili women in the Pamirs. Note the Golden Jubilee head band on the woman on the right. Click for enlargement. Photo: Matthieu Paley. Copyright.
Pamiri Ismaili youth enjoying their time outdoors at the Roof of the World music festival, taking place in Khorog, Tajikistan.Photo: Matthieu Paley. Copyright.
A sad reality - an opium aaddict in a rehabilitation clinic in the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan (shown on map above). Opium is a big issue that the Aga Khan Foundation is trying to solve . Photo: Matthieu Paley. Copyright.
Portrait of an Ismaili girl in Wakhan. Click for enlargement. Photo: Matthieu Paley. Copyright
Map of Hunza and Neighbouring regions. Credit: logcluster.org
An Ismaili woman crossing a rope bridge in the Hunza valley. Photo: Matthieu Paley. Copyright.
Powerful portraits of Ismaili women in Hunza. Please click for enlargement. Photo: Matthieu Paley. Copyright
Baltit Fort in Hunza. Photo: Matthieu Paley. Copyright.
Article publication date: August 15, 2010
Matthieu Paley’s Web site: Click Paley Photo.
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"A beautiful day in downtown Khorog. the botanicla gardens were restored and expanded with funds form the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Ismaili muslims and most people in the Pamir. Khorog is on the Panj River, across the border form Tajikistan. there is a market on the bridge every week with traders from both sides."
"View over 6000m and 7000m peaks of the Pakistani and Afghan Hindu Kush, seen from summit of Pik Leningrad University (6222m, SW Pamir, Tajkistan). The peaks close-by at the end are Pik Tajikistan (6565m), Pik Karl Marx (6726m)and Pik Engels (6510m), all located in the Tajik SW Pamirs."
"Murghab is a far flung outpost in Tajikistan in the easter Pamirs, 'THe roof of the world'. I travelled there with Peregrine Adventures. of all the places we visited this was the most far out, though very close to the chinese border."
Social and Economic Change in the Pamirs (Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan): Translated from German by Nicola Pacult and Sonia Guss with support of Tim Sharp [Hardcover]
Since Olufsen and Schulz published their monographs on the Pamirs in 1904 and 1914, respectively, this is the first book to deal with the history, anthropology and recent social and economic development of the Pamiri people in Gorno-Badakhshan, Eastern Tajikistan. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, such high mountain areas were more or less forgotten and people would have suffered severely from their isolation if an Aga Khan Foundation project in 1993 to 1994 had not afforded broader support. The reader will be confronted by an almost surrealistic world: Pamiri income and living conditions after 1991 dropped to the level of a poor Sahelian country. Former scientists, university professors and engineers found themselves using ox-ploughs to plant potatoes and wheat for survival. On the other hand, 100% literacy and excellent skills proved to be an enormous human capital resource for economic recovery. The first sign of this was an increase in agricultural production, something that had never occurred during Soviet times.
About the Author
Frank Bliss is Profesor for Development Anthropology at Hamburg University and partner of Bliss & Gaesing - Associated Consultants, planning and evaluating participatory development programs.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Ismailis and the Pamiri Home
In earlier posts, we made mention of the Ismailis and their Pamiri houses, to which we are so frequently invited for a modest cup of tea (which is short for a very extensive luncheon with never ending spreads of local foods, always accompanied by hot tea).
The traditional Pamiri home (huneuni chid) consists of a large, five pillared room with raised areas around four sides of what can only be described as a central “pit”. In the winter, this pit contains a wooden stove which is warming the room and keeps the tea- and soup pots boiling. Apart from the main room, there is an entrance area (leave your shoes here, you always enter on your socks) and ,often, a private, smaller living space and hallway; the main room is where all the activities take place. This is where the extended family (and their honored guests) sleeps, eats, studies, watches television and entertains.
There are few, if any, windows. Illumination comes through an artfully designed skylight in the roof (the chimney of the wooden stove also leads through this roof-window) and consists of four concentric squares, representing the elements of fire, earth, air and water.
Along the raised sides, carpets and mattresses take the place of our furniture (good luck sitting cross legged through a three hour dinner with your stiff western limbs); carpets are colorful and plenty and also serve as decoration along with panels of photographs, the most prominent of which is almost always a portrait of the Aga Khan.
We have been told on numerous occasions, that the vertical pillars (5) symbolize the five members of Ali’s family (Fatima, Ali, Mohammed, Hassan and Hussein for who is interested) as well as the Five Pillars of Islam.
Some say, that these pillars also go back to the five deities of the Zoroastrianism religion (the structure of the Pamiri house goes back over 2500 years). In a further act of symbolism, the number of often beautifully decorated roof beams relates to the seven imams and six prophets of Ismailism. The most prominent place of the house is next to the Hassan pillar where the guest of honor will be seated (this can be the religious village leader for instance) so you have to be pretty careful where to put down your behind.
We have found the corners of the houses pretty comfortable (this is where you can stretch your legs the easiest) but you have to be careful around the "dastarkhon" (the table cloth spread on the floor which serves as the table). There are many forms of etiquette that we had to learn quickly. A lot of nevers. Never blow your nose (extremely rude), never place bread upside down or give food to animals, never step on or over the table cloth, this is especially a deadly sin (if you don’t have enough room, tuck your feet under the cloth).
The Ismailis are the second largest branch of the Shiites; they consider the family of Mohammed as divinely chosen, infallible and guided by God to lead the Islamic community, a belief that distinguishes them from the majority Sunni branch of Islam.
The Ismailis get their name from their acceptance of Ismail (ibn Jafar) as the appointed spiritual successor (Imam) to Jafar as Sadiq (this with thanks to Google, the BBC and Lonely Planet, I couldn’t remember these early theology lessons).
We find the Ismailis extremely pleasant; they don’t carry their religion on their sleeves, pray at home (no mosques) or in their community centers, drink modestly if they want to (the Russians left a legacy of vodka here of course). Most of the women wouldn’t look out of place in Paris, Rome or London and we wonder how they walk so elegantly through the snow with their high heels and stiletto boots. It’s easy to engage in discussions about religion if you want to, although the concept of atheism is not really understood.
The current Aga Khan is the 49th Imam (successor) and it is his job to interpret the Ismaili religion to its current day and times. Thus, the Koran is not followed literally but explained in the context of the 21st century.
According to our Canadian friend and co-volunteer Rod (a firm sceptic) anybody with a grain of sense would wish the Aga Khan (he refers to Him as one Cool Dude) as the chief of his or her religion. He lives in Switzerland, married several times, is a good skier and enjoys life to the fullest it seems. He is interested in the elimination of the world’s poverty, the advancement of women and gives most of his (considerable stacks of) money to good causes of which we are indirect beneficiaries (we work for one of his many foundations) so what’s not to like about him …..
Tajikistan Tourism Is An Adventure
The Tajik people shine
By Scott Weller
Tajikistan Tourism Is An Adventure
Photos by Scott Weller
The rain began as a cordial drizzle, but steadily thickened, soaking us through the rotten soft shell of the Russian jeep as we bounced along in second gear. Across the river border, Afghan mule trains animated an otherwise stark mountainside, clinging to ancient trails along the Panj River, and drawing contrast with Tajikistan’s Soviet legacies, including the Pamir Highway itself. Leaving its dilapidated asphalt behind, we took to dirt and veered into the sweeping Bartang Valley beneath a corridor of 17,000-foot peaks. Here in this sparsely populated corner of southeastern Tajikistan, I was beginning to discover a fascinating confluence of landscape, culture and history.
Tucked between Afghanistan and the western reaches of China, Tajikistan is a little-known Central Asian gem. Convening at the doorstep of its legendary Pamir Range is a who’s who of the world’s greatest mountain ranges: Himalaya, Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Kunlun, and Tien Shan. While the eastern Pamir Range contains a vast high-altitude plateau reminiscent of the nearby Tibetan plateau, the Bartang Valley is a classic specimen of the western Pamir: a contortion of steep river gorges sculpted by glacial whitewater. Tajikistan’s rugged terrain provided a measure of insulation from the major political and military events throughout Central Asia’s early history, allowing the Tajiks to retain their Persian heritage in a region dominated by Turkic influence.
Entering the Bartang Valley, we were now several hours north of Khorog, the provincial hub that serves as a sort of gateway between the eastern and western Pamir. From Khorog, about a two-day drive from Tajikistan’s capital city of Dushanbe, the Pamir Highway separates from the river border with Afghanistan and tracks east onto the desolate plateau inhabited by yurt-dwelling Kyrgyz. The plateau eventually leads to China’s western Xinjiang province. But before continuing east, I was intent on exploring one last feature of the western Pamir: the Bartang Valley.
Tajikistan TourismMy driver spoke the Indo-Iranian languages of Pamiri and Tajik, then Russian, and fragments of English. His anxiety was unspoken but palpable, being well acquainted with the effect that rain has on the scree slopes of the Bartang Valley. Soon we encountered our first major landslide, a sluggish effluence of mud and rocks several feet deep. A Russian minibus full of local families joined us at the bottleneck, and soon men from a nearby village appeared to help clear the path, shovel by shovel. Well accustomed to arduous overland travel, the Pamiris approach such adventures with a lively spirit of camaraderie.
Darkness descended as we progressed up-canyon on desperate allowances of road flanking the swift and icy Bartang River. We stopped briefly in a small village to visit with the driver’s extended family, who rushed in from nearby fields to stoke their woodstove and prepare hot tea. The hosts being wet and muddy from their daily chores tending goats, ourselves wet and muddy from clearing landslides, we took mutual pleasure in the comfort of a dry home. After warming up with tea and conversation, we resumed our journey having acquired several goats, which joined me in the front seat with tethered hooves. Beyond the last remnants of twilight, we arrived in the village of Basid, where my driver graciously arranged for me to stay with his brother’s family, and I began to experience the remarkable hospitality of the Pamiri people.
At first light, I awoke on a bed of richly decorated carpets. The Pamiri home is simple and cozy, with each element steeped in Aryan, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, or Islamic symbolism. The skylight and its concentric squares represent earth, water, air and fire, known locally as the “four houses.” Surrounding the skylight, five supporting pillars stand for Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn, as well as the Five Pillars of Islam.
The Pamiris are predominantly Ismaili Muslims, whose geographic nexus occurs in this historic region of Badakhshan, extending from southeastern Tajikistan into northern Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the core of Ismailism is Prince Aga Khan IV, the imam whose religious leadership provides a living interpretation of the Koran. The Aga Khan’s embrace of women’s rights and education has fostered a uniquely progressive orientation among the Ismailis, whose peaceful communities constitute a foundation of stability in one of the world’s most polarized regions.
My hosts greeted me with a pot of black tea, a warm loaf of bread, and a heaping plate of potatoes. A sunny morning was not to be taken for granted, so after breakfast I hurried out to explore the village with my camera. Clusters of mud-walled homes were interspersed within fields of wheat and apricot orchards. Women in colorful full-length dresses and headscarves led their sheep and goats to pastures on the opposite side of the Bartang River, navigating a precarious “bridge” of two cables overlaid with brittle sticks, and a conspicuous lack of anything else to prevent a plunge into the swirling rapids below. For the moment, I was content not to attempt it myself, as the scenery alone captivated my attention, and I quickly developed an admiration for life in this mountain paradise.
Tajikistan TourismAfter a few days in Basid, I recruited my jeep driver to take me deeper into the Bartang Valley, to a hamlet known as Bardara. Similar to its neighboring villages, Bardara is perched atop a giant alluvial fan spilling down from precipitous peaks and spanning the width of the river canyon. As we puttered up to the edge of the alluvium on switchbacks, over 40 villagers amassed to usher me through their maze of turf pathways, gurgling water canals, and bursting apple blossoms. It was simply the loveliest place I had ever visited. But it was soon apparent that the warm nature of Bardara’s residents easily surpassed the appeal of its physical beauty. To accept each household’s invitation for tea would have consumed weeks; at last, I embraced their hospitality, staying five days with one family, and having tea with many others.
My first morning in Bardara, the children eagerly gathered to show me the village sights. Bardara is an unlikely place for thousand-year-old juniper trees, although it claims three of them, in linear alignment and perfectly equidistant. Legend has it that Nasir Khusraw, the Persian poet and missionary who established Ismailism in greater Badakhshan, planted the trees. The middle tree contains the village shrine, Farmon, memorializing a religious communication to Bardara from Aga Khan III, the late grandfather of the current imam. Farmon also boasts an impressive collection of spiraling Marco Polo sheep horns, whose significance in Pamiri tradition as symbols of purity concern Aryan and Zoroastrian philosophy, pre-dating Islam in the region.
Later, we set out on foot for Bardara’s alpine summer pasture, which provides seasonal grazing for livestock, although it’s too lofty and temperamental a place to support fruit trees. A half dozen families reside in this final node of civilization, nestled at the foot of a series of peaks reaching nearly 20,000 feet. Life here occurs on the margin, and they utilize nature’s resources to the brink, including a hydro-powered wheat mill and small hydroelectric generator to power a few light bulbs. The Pamiris have finely tuned their self-reliance, particularly since the abrupt cessation of communist sponsorship in 1991. Many here recollect the Soviet era with a sense of yearning. Visiting in the summer, it’s easy to overlook the rigors of a long winter in the heart of the Pamir Range.
My last night in Bardara, we slaughtered a goat to celebrate newfound friendship. Sleep escaped me that night as I reflected on my growing affection for the people of the Bartang Valley. The initial perception I recalled having of this inhospitable backwater of Central Asia only weeks before now seemed foreign. Here I acquainted a people, a religion, a story completely unknown to me. Here I experienced a way of life remarkably unaffected by the world from which I had come. Here I found a landscape so serene, it was to imprint my memory forever.
I have just finished reading The Great Game, Peter Hopkirk's gripping account of the 19th century skirmishes between Tsarist Russia and Victorian England for supremacy in Central Asia. Now I have a burning desire to go there but, as the book demonstrates, it has never been the most stable part of the world. What do you recommend?
It is true that Central Asia is not for the fainthearted but there are options for intrepid travellers, who'll find the effort to get there is more than rewarded.
Afghanistan is clearly not a good place to go to at present, even though the north is much safer than the Pashtun areas along the Pakistani border. The disputed Kashmir region split between Pakistan and India is also given do-not-travel status by almost every government.
But the Karakorum Highway is still open, linking northern Pakistan to Kashgar, the famous trading post in what is now far western China. The highway itself is often closed by rockfalls as it winds up a series of gorges on the Pakistani side, while on the Chinese side, a series of restrictions means you can't get very close to the border with Tajikistan.
For that reason, the Pamirs region of Tajikistan is possibly the best way to get up close to the area where the old empires of India, Russia and China used to meet. That's not because the Pamirs are deliberately open to tourists: more that it's too disorganised to do much to stop them.
Access is not simple. From the UAE, the best option is to fly to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital. Tajik Air (Tajikair.tj) flies every Wednesday from Sharjah for €200 (Dh1,017). In Dushanbe, you'll need to get a permit to visit the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, which covers the Pamirs. You'll need a letter of invitation to get the permit. Stantours (www.stantours.com) can arrange everything for a USD$40 (Dh147) fee.
You can then hire a 4x4 for the journey to Khorog, which can probably be done in one very long day. There's a daily flight but it's cancelled more often than it flies.
If that sounds like more trouble that it's worth, the rewards justify it. The road beside the Panj River separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan is spectacular and the people are absurdly friendly.
One of the nicest parts of the experience is the network of Community Based Tourism homestays in the Pamirs. Local Ismaili families host travellers in traditional Pamiri homes, which feature five pillars in the reception room, representing both the five main prophets and the five tenets of the faith, below a ceiling featuring four layers to represent earth, water, fire and air.
The Pamir Military Highway was built in the 1930s to allow quick access if the country was invaded. While it hasn't been maintained, it gets you close enough to what was an important Cold War boundary to see the observation towers, many some of which are still staffed by soldiers. The road reaches 4,600m high, and features stark but stunningly beautiful scenery.
And if you have a hankering to visit Afghanistan, there is a safe option to do so by attending the Ishkashim market, held at a village about three hours from Khorog. Every second Saturday, villagers from the Tajik side can meet their Afghan counterparts at an open-air market just on the Afghan side of the Panj. You can't go further into Afghanistan without a visa and there are heavily-armed soldiers to make sure everything stays peaceful.
Olivier Galibert: Ismaili Portraits from Tajikistan
Olivier Galibert of France spent three weeks in Tajikistan in July 2010 to participate in a caving expedition in the Pamir and visited Rangkul Skaja, the 5th highest cave in the world at 4600 m. He met many people along the way in the Wakhan corridor, the Panj valley and Murghab, and took their portrait photos with his D700 nikon + 28-70 F2,8 – “no models, just people I met on the street.” Simerg, with his kind permission, is pleased to publish a selection of his portraits that are specifically of Ismailis.
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