The Wakhan is a thin strip of land wedged between Pakistan and Tadjikistan. It stretches 350 km until China. Three mountain ranges converge there, to form what is known as the Pamir knot : The Hindu Kush, the Karakoram, and the Pamir. The Wakhan is divided into two parts : the Wakhan corridor, and the Afghan Pamir the source of the Oxus. A unique wildlife thrives there and travellers may catch a glimpse of the infamous Marco Polo sheep, an ibex, a bear, or the grey wolf. Snow leopards and other wildcats also live in the region.
The Wakhis live in the Wakhan corridor, between 2 000 and 3 000 meters, whereas the Kirghiz live higher, and further out, above 4 000 meters in the Afghan Pamir. It is what they call «Bam-e-Dunya», the roof of the world.
There are about 10 000 Wakhis living in Afghanistan (there are probably 40 000 living in the surrounding valleys of Tajikistan, Pakistan, and China). Mostly farmers, who live sedentary lives in their villages. They essentially grow wheat, barley, potatoes. Every summer, they take their livestock to graze on the highlands.
The Kirghiz, on the other hand, are nomads. They live in yurts, and can move up to four times each year, depending on the pastures, the sun, or the wind. Their camps are set up between 4 000 and 4 500 meters. There are roughly 1.200 Kirghiz in Afghanistan. They don’t cultivate the land, and survive entirely on their livestock. To add to their food source, they resort to barter with travelling merchants, and their neighbors, the Wakhis. In the wintertime, they regularly get together to organise a caravan to stock up on food and supplies.
To travel in the Wakhan is like travelling in time. Villagers live as they did centuries ago. Right next to them, Afghanistan, even without electricity, seems incredibly modern. The region is one of the country’s poorest. Cultivating the earth above 4000 meters is impossible, and the most basic staples must be brought in from the outside world : sugar, salt, medication... and (lets not forget that this is Afghanistan) opium. The winters are harsh, and the temperatures can drop below 40 degrees celsius. In these conditions, living is surviving. One out of every two babies die at birth, and the life expectancy doesn’t reach 40 years. A large portion of men in the Wakhan are addicted to opium.
The Wakhan is an isolated place, and relatively spared from the conflicts. For centuries, this region has been set aside from the troubles of war. Protected by its high mountains. Its inhabitants have never been confronted with the taleban or terrorism. They are ismaili, and their interpretation of islam is moderate. Women are free, and equal to men.
The government doesn’t really have any authority on the Wakhan. The only organisation determined to durably develop the region is the AKDN (Aga Khan Development Network). But travel agencies are already taking groups of tourists to the area...
- Two incredible photo stories among the Wakhis and the Kirghiz, from the photographer Matthieu Paley. To be found on www.paleyphoto.com, and by clicking on «stories», and then «the end of the corridor» to see the Wakhis or «Forgotten on the Pamir» for the Kirghiz.
- A 2002 UN document explores the way of life in the Wakhan corridor. It is 100 pages long and has many illustrations. You can download a pdf version. PDF File
-The Aga Khan Foundation is preparing an information website about the Wakhan. The address iswww.wakhan.org