Life on the roof of the world

Meeting point of three majestic mountain ranges and three rivers, Pamir is both beautiful and brutal

Dizzying heights, snow-capped peaks, shimmering rivulets and hanging glaciers. Known as Bam-e-Dunya (roof of the world), Pamir is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. It is the point of convergence between three majestic mountain ranges – Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Pamir – and home to isolated, high-altitude, bewitched and arid land of Wakhan Corridor, inhabited by Afghanistan’s Kyrgyz nomads. The place has remained virtually unscathed by years of war and violence, owing to its remote location and inaccessibility.  

The strip of Wakhan corrdior consists of two picturesque valleys tucked away in the mountains of Central Asia. It is also the meeting point of rivers flowing towards east and west, including the Amu River, the largest river in Central Asia. Not many travelers and explorers have ventured here because the treacherous terrains can prove dangerous. The corridor was born out of 19th century ‘Great Game’, when the British and Russian empires took on each other for influence in the region.

According to historians, the legendary Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan led his Mongol troops here while setting out to invade parts of Europe. His successor Tamerlane, whom the great Arab historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun called peerless ruler of the world, also ruled here. 

In 1866, the first Russian expedition landed in Pamir, spearheaded by veteran explorer Fedchenko, who explored the Zaalaiyskiy Mountains and the glacier that was till recently considered the biggest in the world. The Russian expedition was followed by English and Swedish expeditions. With the passage of time, the place became prominent on the map but there are still many unexplored and unchartered peaks and valleys in Pamir.

While melodic paeans can be written about the incredible beauty of the place, but not everything is hunky dory here. Inhabitants are trapped in the grinding web of poverty. They live in yurts; tend to flock of sheep, goats and yaks. They eat whatever is cultivated in their small fields perched at almost 14,000 feet above sea level.  The winds are fast and furious, temperature can be too cold for comfort, and there is little vegetation.

It takes three days to reach the nearest road through rugged mountains and one more day to reach the nearest town with shops and medical clinic. This isolation from outside world has alarmingly reduced the average life expectancy of people living here.

These Kyrgyz nomads are always on the move with their flock of animals. They are all illiterate. Money for them is a luxury they cannot afford.  Sheep is the basic unit of currency for all their basic requirements. Many of them are also into opium cultivation. The easy availability of drugs has made them addicts over a period of time. They also trade opium to dealers from Badakhshan province in exchange of sheep.

Though there is no insurgency, violence or fighting like in other parts of country, life for these nomads is a constant struggle. They live on a razor’s edge but they seem to have become used to this life now.

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