Situated in Badakhshan in the heart of Asia, Pamir is an area of sky-scraping, snow-capped, majestic mountains, transparent clear blue waters of lakes and rivers, wide valleys and bone-dry deserts. For hundreds of years, people have called these highest mountains of the world “Poy-e Mehr”, the literal translation being, “the foot of the sun” or “the Roof of the World”. Since Soviet times, the highlands of Pamir has become known as Gorno-Badakhshan.
Geographically, Pamir represents a huge mountain chain, located almost in the center of the Asian continent. It links the greatest mountain ranges of the world: Tian Shan, Hindukush, Kun-Lun and Karakoram. The proper territory of Pamir is divided between Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China and Pakistan along the demarcation lines drawn to designate political boundaries. The major part of these mountains is nonetheless, situated in the territory of the Republic of Tajikistan.
Second only to the section of the Himalayas in Tibet, Pamir is the highest mountain chains in the world with human habitation. The area is isolated and land-locked. The highlands of Pamir form a variety of landscapes, ranging from sub-tropical to alpine. Here, flat plains and sharp mountain peaks alternate in relatively short distances. The vast highland desert of the Eastern Pamir is located at elevations ranging from 3,500 - 4,200 meters above sea level.
Gorno-Badakhshan is known for its wealth of mineral rock deposits; the most important includes molybdenum, gold, silver, wolfram, granite, marble and lapis lazuli. Another inexhaustible source of Pamir is water, flowing to the flatlands of Central Asia from the main tributaries that feed the Amu-Darya River.
The region is associated with ancient Aryan tribes—nomadic herders and traders, wandering this wide landmass for millennia. Through these mountains passed the famed Silk Road, in its time, the principal route for inter-continental trade. As a hub for ancient commerce, Badakhshan has also served as a place where peoples would come into contact from as far away as the Middle East, Europe, Iran, India and China.
In ancient times, the most important routes via the Hindukush led through the Wakhan valley, Ishkashim, Zebak, Faizabad and Balkh to Yarkand and Tash-Kurghan, the latter two regions now in China. These were also the main communication roads for inhabitants of the mountainous areas of Central Asia on their way to India.
Pamir is linked with communication roads to Faizabad in Afghanistan, India, the Ferghana valley and Tashqurghan. These roads helped the population engage in regional commercial transactions, despite the difficulties of the terrain and less efficient transportation, until the pre-modern era. The first motor-road, constructed by Tzarist Russia, appeared around the beginning of the twentieth century, leading from Osh to Khorog via Murghab, and was used primarily for military purposes.
Up to 1936, the population of Soviet Gorno-Badakhshan enjoyed relatively unrestricted commercial ties with Afghanistan and China, at which point the Pamir borders were closed at the orders of Stalin. It was not until the disintegration of the Soviet Union, that serious trade re-commenced with the outside world. To this day, Pamir is still isolated within Tajikistan. The zone continues to be restricted and a permit is still needed to enter the area. However, plans are underway to do away with this entry requirement.
The region known as Gorno-Badakhshan is autonomous, and comprises seven districts.
The population in GBAO is over 200,000. The administrative and economic center of the region is Khorog with a population of approximately 28,000. The majority are Ismaeli Muslims (a denomination of Shi’ia Islam). While the inhabitants of Shugnan, Rushan, Ishkashim and Rosht-Quala districts, including the residents of Yaged, a sub-district in Darwaz, are Ismaelis, most of the indigenous population in Vanj, Darwaz and Murghab are Sunnis.
Mountain roads, constructed during the Soviet Era connect the various districts to Khorog and beyond.
Pamir has a Continental climate; summer temperatures range between 25-38 degrees Celsius in the daytime, with very low humidity. Winters are very cold, with temperatures ranging between -2 to -30 degrees Celsius.
Over the centuries, Pamir has inspired the world’s greatest explorers - Marco Polo, Hsuan Tsang, Mirza Muhammad Haidar were amongst them. They were among the first to report on the richness of the region: precious gems, mineral springs, awe-inspiring peaks, ancient glaciers, wide green pastures and of course, the peoples of Pamir.
Locals refer to Pamir as the Bam-i-Dunya (Roof of the World), and once you’re up in the high Pamirs it’s not hard to see why. For centuries a knot of tiny valley emirates lost in the blank of imperial maps, Pamir feel like a land a little bit closer to heaven. The word Pamir means ‘rolling pastureland’ in ancient Persian, in reference to the eastern Pamir, but there is not one obvious Pamir range, rather a complex series of interconnected ranges separated by high-altitude valleys. The Chinese called the mountains the Congling Shan, or ‘Onion Mountains’. The western half of the region, Badakhshan, is characterised by deep irrigated valleys and sheer peaks reminiscent of the Wakhi areas of far northern Pakistan (which are also ethnically Tajik). The eastern half of the region is the high, arid and sparsely inhabited Pamir plateau, home largely to Kyrgyz herders and their yurts. For the most part, Pamir is too high for human settlement.
Pamir contains three of the four highest mountains in the former Soviet Union, the apex of which is Koh-i Somoni (former Pik Kommunizma) at 7495m. Less than an Empire State Building shorter is Pik Lenin (sometimes known as Koh-i-Istiqlal, or Independence Peak) at 7134m. Pamir is drained by the numerous tributaries of the Vakhsh and Pyanj Rivers, which themselves feed into the Amu-Darya, Central Asia’s greatest river. Kohistani Badakhshan (still most commonly
known by its Soviet-era name the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, or GBAO) accounts for 45% of Tajikistan’s territory but only 3% of its population. The 212,000 souls who do live here are divided between Pamiris in the west and Kyrgyz in the east. Culturally speaking, Badakhshan extends over the Pyanj River well into Afghan Badakhshan. The slopes and high valleys are inhabited by even hardier creatures, near-mythical animals such as the giant Marco Polo sheep.