The Afghan-Kyrgyz nomads of the Wakhan Corridor: Retracing the legendary “Silk Route” of modern-day Pakistan
Welcome to the land of the Afghan- Kyrgyz nomads, some 1200 people living in one of the harshest regions, in the world.
Marred by the regional tensions dating as far back as 150 years, these people were part of the larger population which treaded the legendary silk route from Tajikistan through Afghanistan into modern day Pakistan and China. The sudden culmination of the First World War and the ensuing regional tensions between the Superpowers left an indelible impact on the lives of these poor nomads who were heavily dependent on the meagre volume of trade which existed between the different markets of these countries.
Crossing mountain passes as high as 5000m above sea level, higher than any of the mountain peaks in Alps, these herders primarily depended on their herds of Yak, often touted as the “ship of the Snow”. They have been wondering in the mountain passes of the Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan for thousands of years and were finally condemned to this 350km long Wakhan Corridor which is, at places, just 15kms wide.
The unforgiving winters here last for a gruesome nine months where the temperatures often drop to as low as -30 ° Celsius making it one of the toughest inhabited places in the world. In earlier times, these Kyrgyz people traveled to the greener pastures of the Wakhan Corridor, travelling through the rugged passes of the Pamirs in search of greener pastures for their cattle. The Russian Revolution in 1917 cut off part of that route and when the Chinese closed their borders after the revolution in 1949, some Kyrgyz were trapped in this desolate part of the Wakhan Corridor, with their estranged brethren on the other side.
Compromising with their merciless environment and surroundings, they molded to an intrinsically nomadic style of living, travelling through most times of the year. They are often seen residing in mud huts, stone caves, and even “Yurts” made of the Yak skin and stones. Trading their Yak Butter (considered more nutritious than the regular butter) and cheese, Yak and goat skins and their precious cattle, these nomads acquire the much needed essentials of life like the flour, tea, coffee, televisions, electronic gadgets, radio etc., from the bustling Pakistani markets across the Pamirs. Their journey back to their village across the Wakhan will take another 10 days of intermittent travelling, testing their nerves yet again.
Half of the children born never make it to their fifth birthday and most of the women die while giving birth. There are no doctors and no medical facilities which have forced these nomads to rely heavily on Opium. From toothaches to petulant cancers, these nomads have turned to addicts in hopes of curing their ailments.
The Corridor is such a far-flunged place that the decades old Afghan War barely had an impact over the lives of these nomads. Some of the handful foreigners who have been able to make it to these places have narrated their observations about this land regarding these people as rich and affluent with abundance of cattle and dairies.
“Though paper money is almost non-existent, many camps’ herds contain hundreds of valuable animals, including the horses and donkeys used for transportation. The basic unit of Kyrgyz currency is a sheep. A cell phone costs one sheep. A yak costs about ten sheep. A high quality horse is 50. A going rate for a bride is 100”. says Michael Finkel, the National Geographic Photographer who lived with these nomads for several months.