Our visit to the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan introduced us to some the most spectacular scenery we’ve taken in on our journey thus far. Other mountainous areas, hyped in guidebooks and on travel websites, have only paled in comparison. The Pamir region not only stands out for the severity and beauty of its landscape, but it shines most of all for the colorful, hospitable and fascinating Pamiri people who live there.
The extremity of the landscape comes at a price, however. After wearing all of our heavier clothes to stay warm, eating nothing but potatoes, bread and tea, and being without bathing water for five days, we were ready for some features of civilization. Our journey in the Pamirs fortunately knew an end.
For the local Pamiri people, however, the austerity and scarcity of their homeland are not components of an adventure holiday. For them, this is real life, day in and day out.
People and cultures are influenced by their environment. However, the way in which the various people encased in this relatively tiny sub-region of Central Asia closely matched the diversity of their landscape – from its desolate high mountain deserts to its fertile river valleys – was especially fascinating.
Skip ahead to what interests you most about Tajikistan:
Pamir Highway: People and Landscape: Desert Markets and Tracing Afghanistan along the Wakhan Valley plus photo slide show
Highlights from the Pamir Mountains: Red Cheeks, Border Guards, Hot Springs and the Hindu Kush
A Kyrgyz Outpost in the High Desert
Our first evening in Tajikistan featured a stop in Murghab (3,576 meters), the first town after the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Its mud-covered houses and converted train wagons conveyed a Wild West look to the town, but abandonment and foreclosure hung heavy in the air. Murghab seemed like a place that should never been inhabited at all, but somehow its ethnic Kyrgyz population has continued to survive.
The combination of elevation and dry climate ensures that almost nothing grows, not even potatoes. Residents here must import all of their food from Kyrgyzstan or China – or bring it in from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. The prices of basic goods like flour and petrol were high. We were told that cows could not take the freezing temperatures and horses were doomed to heart attacks because of the high elevation (3,800-4,000 meters). So, instead of cows, yaks served as the primary source of meat and the more resilient donkey as the beast of burden.
While we enjoyed our dinner of yak meat and yak yogurt – both of which were surprisingly good – we abided the potatoes and hard bread as we imagined a local life of scarcity. Consider also that we stayed with a relatively wealthy family, whose livelihoods were funded by the annual tourist flow. The abundant fruits, vegetables and herbs of Osh, Kyrgyzstan just two days before seemed almost otherworldly here.
Weathered faces and tired smiles began to make sense in this harsh environment. As we walked around the town market the next morning, people were curious as to where we were from; they invited us to chat. A palpable sense of fatigue and hopelessness matched the surroundings, however.
The next day we left the high desert behind for the Wakhan Valley, a comparatively lush river valley that traces the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. No more than 100 miles separates Murghab and the Wakhan Valley, but the distance and the landscape were enough to form a cultural chasm between these vastly different areas.
Skirting Afghanistan through the Wakhan Valley
Life in the Wakhan Valley is not easy by any stretch – locals collect water at mountain springs, agriculture is still limited, public transport is almost non-existent and roads are often barely passable, and services and supplies are limited, but the natural environment was noticeably more hospitable than the high desert we had just traveled through. Trees, mountains and fields compose the visual space in the Wakhan Valley and make autumn a truly spectacular time to take it all in. For us, early October featured rich autumn colors in the foreground and snow-dusted sepia-toned mountains in the background.
Although life is also difficult in the Wakhan Valley, locals are able to grow enough food. According to some estimates, they’ve reached 70% agricultural sustainability. This relative abundance is reflected in their simple and sincere hospitality. Even though the Wakhan Valley is secluded and its people know limited interaction with the outside world, Pamiri people are exceptionally welcoming. As we walked through villages, we were regularly invited for tea or offered fresh milk and bread. People were happy to show us their Pamiri homes and have a chat, whether or not we shared a common language. While we appreciated every invitation, we had to respectfully decline some due to time constraints and full stomachs.
Sleeping with Strangers
For our second night in the Wakhan Valley, we decided to stay in a small village. The Wakhan Valley does not have a network of hotels or hostels, but the hospitality of its people fills the void. We asked our driver to stop at the only store in the village of Namadguti, more or less in the middle of nowhere. We figured this would yield a genuine Pamiri experience.
The driver talked to a local man standing outside a local shop, but he didn’t have any ideas. Dan suggested we ask the local shopkeeper. Sure enough, this woman lived behind the shop and invited us to stay with her family. Our travel experience shows that women almost always seem to have a solution.
Our host was a thin, weathered woman with a kind, tired smile. After our inquiry, she closed her shop and showed us to her family home, a beautiful Pamiri-style house with carved pillars. Four girls, ranging from six to twenty years old, flitted around us excitedly and brought us endless bowls of apples and tea as we began to settle in. The floors were decorated in colorful carpets and mattresses, making for a warm and homey environment in spite of the setting sun and growing cold outside.
After dinner, several of our travel companions began making balloon animals – dogs, swans, bears and other unidentifiables. The youngest child, a three-year old boy, didn’t know what to make of these new gifts. Before long, the elevated floor of our hostess’ common room was covered with a balloon animal menagerie. Throughout the evening, we exchanged English lessons for lessons of Tajik and Pamiri with the sisters. Although there was a little mutual understanding in English and Russian, most of the communication was through smiles and body language. The mother sat watching the whole scene, smiling peacefully as she knitted thick leg warmers in preparation for winter.
The next morning, as we departed, we asked our hostess what we owed her for our night’s accommodation and food. She asked for less than $1.50 per person. We insisted on leaving some more money, using the children as an excuse so as not to offend her; we received a bushel of apples in return.
The family’s generous spirit was moving; we almost didn’t want to leave. Warm water, vegetables and heat awaited us in Khorog. Spending a few days in the high and remote Pamir Mountains reminded us how closely we human beings are linked to our environments. Even though basic necessities like food and clean water were sometimes a struggle, Pamiri people shared what they could and welcomed us to their homes.