Lovin’ the Pamirs: Tajikistan’s Other Half

Lovin’ the Pamirs: Tajikistan’s Other Half

Jake Smith joined MIR’s Seattle staff after several years of living and working in Tajikistan, as well as traveling to the far corners of Central Asia. The Pamir Mountains were Jake’s backyard playground for hiking, exploring, and enjoying this “high-altitude heaven.”

The Pamir Highway is a road well traveled by MIR's Jake Smith, who once called Tajikistan home <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

The Pamir Highway is a road well traveled by MIR’s Jake Smith, who once called Tajikistan home
Photo credit: Jake Smith

I love the Pamir Mountains and the region they lie in, Badakhshan. With mountains soaring beyond 24,000 feet, the area is nicknamed “the roof of the world.” What’s most exciting about traveling in this area? Its uniqueness. Although Badakhshan is located in Tajikistan, it feels like a separate country.

More than 2,000 years old, Yamchun Fort guards the major caravan route between China and Afghanistan <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

More than 2,000 years old, Yamchun Fort guards the major caravan route between China and Afghanistan
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Viillagers in Murgab, Tajikistan sell yak milk in recycled soda bottles <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Viillagers in Murghab, Tajikistan sell yak milk in recycled soda bottles
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Natural Beauty of the PamirsThe sheer beauty of the region’s geography is perhaps the biggest draw. Mountains rise well over 20,000 feet, capped by snow and glaciers year-round. The Panj River cuts steep gorges into these mountains; the fast-moving waters often are just a few yards from the edge of the road. As you move up the Panj River toward its source high in the Pamir Mountains, the gorges smooth out into broad alluvial plains with patchwork wheat fields and poplar groves.

Mountain gorges give way to plains, poplars and grains here in Ishkashim, Tajikistan <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Mountain gorges give way to plains, poplars and grains here in Ishkashim, Tajikistan
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Afghanistan, in Plain SightAt all points along the Panj River you can look across to Afghanistan. In some parts along the opposite bank, you can watch Afghan villagers going about their daily lives. At other times, you may see trade caravans carrying dairy products from the high pastures down to the lowland towns. Their shaggy Bactrian camels often stray across the river border to graze on the Tajik side.

Looking from Tajikistan into Afghanistan: a working caravanserai in the Wakhan Corridor <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Looking from Tajikistan into Afghanistan: a working caravanserai in the Wakhan Corridor
Photo credit: Jake Smith

These Bactrian camels wandered into Tajikstan from across the river, in Afghanistan Photo credit: Jake Smith

These Bactrian camels wandered into Tajikstan from across the river, in Afghanistan
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Wakhi mother and daughter in Badakhshan, Tajikistan <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Wakhi mother and daughter in Badakhshan, Tajikistan
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Once a week the Tajik government allows Afghans - like this man - to sell their goods in the Horog market <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Once a week the Tajik government allows Afghans – like this man – to sell their goods in the Horog market
Photo credit: Jake Smith

The Pamirs in Tajikistan are one of the last places left where oxen are still yoked to all-wooden ploughs<br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

The Pamirs in Tajikistan are one of the last places left where oxen are still yoked to all-wooden ploughs
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Beyond BordersTravel a bit beyond the Panj River to the highest reaches of the Pamir River valley, demarcated by the Russians and British in the 19th century and now known as the Wakhan Corridor. Here you can actually see towering Pakistani peaks like Tirich Mir, letting you take in three of the ’Stans in one gaze: Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Foreground is Tajikstan, then Afghanistan, and finally the snow-capped mountain crests in Pakistan <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Foreground is Tajikstan, then Afghanistan, and finally the snow-capped mountains crests in Pakistan
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Differences, From WithinThese are a few things that strike me as so different between the Pamirs and the rest of Tajikistan. They stem, in part, from the area’s historical (and current) isolation from the rest of Tajikistan:

  • Religion: Most Pamiris follow Shi’a Islam, while Sunni Islam is more prevalent in the lowlands.
Revered horns of ibex and Marco Polo sheep, an Ismaili Shi'a religious shrine along the Pamir Highway <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Revered horns of ibex and Marco Polo sheep, an Ismaili Shi’a religious shrine along the Pamir Highway
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Inside a typical Pamiri house, its pillars symbolizing the first five imams in Shi'ite Islam Photo credit: Jake Smith

Inside a typical Pamiri house, its pillars symbolizing the first five imams in Shi’ite Islam
Photo credit: Jake Smith

  • Food: A staple of the Pamiri diet is shirchoy, a mixture of tea, milk, butter, and salt or sugar. That’s in sharp contrast to the rice, meat, and bread dishes prevalent in the rest of Tajikistan.
  • Language: In many Pamiri valleys the inhabitants speak very little – if any – of Tajikistan’s two main languages: Tajiki and Russian. Instead you’ll hear a complicated mixture of under-studied and obscure dialects like Wakhi, Shughni, Rushani, and more. Often villagers in one valley can’t understand the language spoken by their neighbors just a few miles up or down stream.
This aerial view of Tajikistan's topography shows how isolated villages can be, even just miles apart <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

This aerial view of Tajikistan’s topography shows how isolated villages can be, even just miles apart
Photo credit: Jake Smith 

  • Clothing: Pamiri men wear red, green, or tan hats with colorful fringing on the bottom instead of the traditional Tajik black-and-white square skullcaps.
  • Citizenship: Yes, technically Pamiris are citizens of Tajikistan, but they consider themselves first and foremost to be Pamiri.
  • Appearance: High-altitude Pamiris are often fairer-skinned than their lowland Tajik counterparts, and commonly claim ancestry dating back to Alexander the Great’s occupation of the region.
Schoolchildren in Murgab, Tajikistan sport traditional scarves and baseball caps <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Schoolchildren in Murghab, Tajikistan sport traditional scarves and baseball caps
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Not a tea warmer, this man in Murgab, Tajikistan wears a Kyrgyz "akkalpak," or white hat <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

This man in Murghab, Tajikistan wears a Kyrgyz “akkalpak,” or white hat 
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Final ThoughtsWhen I think back on all my years living and traveling in Tajikistan, I’ll almost inevitably end up with an image of these spectacular mountains in my mind. The sense of adventure, remoteness, and sheer beauty that I associate with them arrests my thoughts and causes me to dwell nostalgically. I think the desire to return will always be there.

Shifting of seasons near Shughnon, Tajikistan on the Ghunt River  <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Shifting of seasons near Shughnon, Tajikistan on the Ghunt River
Photo credit: Jake Smith

To me, and I think to most travelers who have made the journey, the Pamirs truly stand out as an exceptional destination. The mountains, the history, and the people are simply unbeatable.

Jake Smith, perched high on a hill in his former home, Tajikistan <br>Photo credit: Jake Smith

Jake Smith, perched high on a hill in his former home, Tajikistan
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Travel to Tajikistan with MIRLearn more about Jake’s favorite places on MIR tours to Tajikistan, including The Pamir Highway & Across Fabled Frontiers – with the soaring Pamir Mountains as your backdrop. You can also book a custom private journey.

(Top photo credit: Jake Smith)

 

PUBLISHED: June 26, 2014

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3 thoughts on “Lovin’ the Pamirs: Tajikistan’s Other Half

  • Jace

    Awesome Jake!

    • Sharon Lundahl

      What a wonderful article, Jake! The photos so much remind us of the Pamir journeys we took in the late 1990’s when we worked in Tajikistan. It was the most remote area we have ever seen in 30 years of traveling in the Third World. Thanks for reviving our memories!

  • lois woods

    enjoyed the info on the pamirs;tajikistan. .really great photo’s