Lost on the Roof of the World

During the late 1990s, while reading Eric Newbies’ A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, my interest in this harsh and remote mountain range in Afghanistan was piqued. I became obsessed with getting to know the rugged landscapes and the people from that part of the world.

As the country relapsed once again into war after 9/11, Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding in that part of Afghanistan, creating a very uncertain environment to venture in. A decade later, in the winter of 2012 as the region stabilised, I finally set off on my long postponed expedition.

Although unsuitable for cultivation, the high grasslands of Afghanistan can sustain herds of cattle, sheep, yak, and goats.

Although unsuitable for cultivation, the high grasslands of Afghanistan can sustain herds of cattle, sheep, yak, and goats.

Home to both the Wakhi and Kyrgyz ethnic minorities, each of whom live on a different side of this rugged arm of land, the Wakhan Corridor is a vast stretch of land, around 200 miles long, in the northeastern part of Afghanistan—an utterly remote stretch of rugged terrain squeezed between Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.

A young Kyrgyz girl milking her family’s yak. Chalab, Lake Chaqmaqtin, Little Pamir.

A young Kyrgyz girl milking her family’s yak. Chalab, Lake Chaqmaqtin, Little Pamir.

At an average altitude of 12,000 feet the corridor is battered by strong winds and remains cold and icy throughout the year. The extreme conditions, isolation and rugged terrain make the Wakhan one of the most difficult places on the planet to access and navigate.

Before starting out, I hired four porters and donkeys to carry our team’s provisions, camping gear, and photography equipment. The leader of our expedition, Burch Mirzo, whom you see in the portrait below, was a local farmer with a deep knowledge of the area, a soft spoken, kind man, with an incredible resistance to cold and pain.

Traversing the frozen landscapes of the Wakhan // Burch Mirzo, a local farmer and the leader of our expedition.

Traversing the frozen landscapes of the Wakhan // Burch Mirzo, a local farmer and the leader of our expedition.

The only way into the Wakhan is a rough dusty track built by the Soviet Army during the Soviet War in the early 1980s. The road was originally intended as a communication and supply line, but because of the extremely difficult and mountainous terrain, construction was halted partway through, and the far end of the corridor was never connected.  

Therefore, to reach Lake Chaqmaqtin and the ethnic Kyrgyz settlements of Little Pamir, an arduous five-day trek is required at an altitude often reaching 14,000 feet, along narrow paths and with steep climbs.

The members of our small caravan follow a narrow path up into the mountains.

The members of our small caravan follow a narrow path up into the mountains.

I’ve always been drawn to the rugged landscape of Central Asia and its incredible rough beauty. Throughout the entire expedition, I constantly had to keep an eye on interesting vantage points, walking ahead of the group or staying behind. The image above is a very good representation of the terrain and conditions through which we trekked for two weeks.

Carrying an additional 50 pounds of supplies at such an altitude I constantly felt my heart palpitating for lack of oxygen. Yet it is here, climbing for days surrounded by vast and mesmerising landscapes, that untold stories from this wild part of the world are finally being voiced.

A veiled Sunni women makes her way back towards mainland Afghanistan from the Wakhan Corridor.

A veiled Sunni women makes her way back towards mainland Afghanistan from the Wakhan Corridor.

Due to the leadership of General Massoud and the Northern Alliance until 2001, its extreme location and harsh conditions, the Wakhan Corridor had not yet seen any Taliban presence, nor has it experienced significant conflict in recent years. Below you see an Afghan solider at his post in the village of Sarad-e Wakhan, marking the last military checkpoint that we passed, as we headed deeper into the corridor.

An Afghan solider greets us at the last military checkpoint.

An Afghan solider greets us at the last military checkpoint.

Compared with the rest of the country, this area of Afghanistan has experienced relative peace during recent decades. Once you reach the Wakhan Corridor, the tense atmosphere relaxes?—?children play, the people are more-lighthearted, and the women unveil.

A Wakhi woman living in the village of Tshehel Kand, Wakhan.

A Wakhi woman living in the village of Tshehel Kand, Wakhan.

These peaceful, but environmentally challenging surroundings are home to around 12,000 people living in small settlements and encampments, isolated from the rest of the country by the Hindu Kush. The Wakhi people live through the culture of the soil, on the lower slopes of the plateau. Higher up, at an average altitude of 14,000 feet, it is impossible to cultivate the land, and the Kyrgyz people are only able to survive in the Pamir thanks to their cattle.

Kyrgyz women tending their cattle and flocks of sheep, as snow falls at sunset.

Kyrgyz women tending their cattle and flocks of sheep, as snow falls at sunset.

There are so many similarities between the way nomads live in Central Asia. Be it in Kazakstan, Kyrgyztan, or Mongolia, their yurts—mainly constructed using a light wooden frame and with felt for the walls—offer a practical way for families to move according to the seasons, and can be taken down and re-built within only a few hours.

At the time of our visit, although fresh snowfall was often on the ground, the end of winter was approaching, and the Kyrgyz family with whom I was staying were already discussing when they would move to their summer settlement, on the other side of the Lake Chaqmaqtin.

A young Kyrgyz boy stands in front of his family’s yurt.

A young Kyrgyz boy stands in front of his family’s yurt.

Speaking of daily life in the region with Haji Buti, head of the Shura Council in the Kyrgyz settlement at Lake Chaqmaqtin, he told us,

“Life is not easy in the Pamir, there are many difficulties. You have already seen how hard it is to travel this road. In the fall, we have only two months to bring and stock up supplies. We must hope that the food will last through the winter. And God forbid that the Taliban comes here, through Pakistan. Of course our people will be worried like the rest of Afghanistan. We have fears. Imagine how hard it is for people to settle somewhere else. I don’t recall the exact number, but I think there are more than 200 families living in the Pamir region. It can be really hard at times, but when it is a little dry and temperate people can do a little better. Cattle can survive and that makes people very happy. But if it is like this year, when we had a lot of snow and lost many cattle and animals, then our lives turn to misery. We cannot grow anything, and so we depend on our cattle and animals for survival. You can imagine how hard it is when people lose their cattle to harsh weather.”  “One day we really hope to have a road here. It has been six years now since we have had a school. God-willing, there will be a clinic here. God-willing, there will be a paved road for cars to come. Year by year, day by day, things are moving ahead. That is my hope.”

Early morning in Aqsai, by Lake Chaqmaqtin. The yaks were still sleeping in the same spot where they had been the night before.

Early morning in Aqsai, by Lake Chaqmaqtin. The yaks were still sleeping in the same spot where they had been the night before.

Although far fewer in number—mainly due to the aftermath of the Saur Revolution in 1978 when almost all Kyrgyz inhabitants fled the region for Pakistan and were later resettled in Turkey—overall, the Kyrgyz living in the Wakhan Corridor tend to be wealthier than the Wakhi people, often owning hundreds of heads of cattle or sheep. It is common for the Wakhi men to work for the Kyrgyz communities for a few months each year, and at the end of the season, they are compensated for their work, going back home down the valley, with perhaps 10 or 15 sheep.

Abdullah,a Wakhi herder working for the Kyrgyz living around Lake Chaqmaqtin.

Abdullah,a Wakhi herder working for the Kyrgyz living around Lake Chaqmaqtin.

I met Abdullah, a Wakhi herder, who had spent his winter working around Lake Chaqmaqtin for a Kyrgyz family. He could not remember his age, but thought he was around 40. His life had previously been troubled with an addiction to opium, and half of his family, including his wife and father, had been killed in an earthquake a few years ago. His house was still partly in ruins, devastated by the earthquake. Yet Abdullah was very friendly, and had an incredible spirit and aura about him. 

A view of the Panj river and the Wakhan Corridor, looking back the direction we had come.

A view of the Panj river and the Wakhan Corridor, looking back the direction we had come.

For lack of adequate facilities, even during the coldest months of the year when temperatures drop to minus 20 degrees in the Pamir, all basic human maintenance takes place outdoors. After spending many weeks trekking and living with the bare minimum, I remember how grateful I was for the magical feeling of turning on a tap and seeing pure water rushing out that did not need to be boiled or purified. It felt like an incredible luxury.

Wakhi herder from Chalab, Lake Chaqmaqtin, Little Pamir.

Wakhi herder from Chalab, Lake Chaqmaqtin, Little Pamir.

Yet despite having little, the Wakhi people were some of the most gracious and welcoming hosts I have ever met, and were always offering as much as they could to make their guests feel comfortable.

Wakhi women prepare a drink to share with their visitors.

Wakhi women prepare a drink to share with their visitors.

It was a great privilege to finally spend time in the remote and rugged Wakhan Corridor, capturing a portrait of its breathtaking landscapes, and of these hospitable communities who live on ‘the Roof of the World’.

A Kyrgyz father and his daughter in their home. Chalab, Lake Chaqmaqtin.

A Kyrgyz father and his daughter in their home. Chalab, Lake Chaqmaqtin.

Today, despite the powerful forces at play, those living in the Wakhan Corridor are able to exist in relative peace without much violence or threat from the Taliban. Yet the region remains vulnerable, and locals still fear a possible advance of the Taliban through the border with Pakistan.

That possibility worries me as well, and it is my great hope that as well as experiencing much-needed and positive progress, such as a proper road, schools, hospitals, and doctors, this mountainous corner of Afghanistan can remain just as beautiful and peaceful as it is today, and as it was when Eric Newby hiked through the Hindu Kush more than 50 years ago.

Kyrgyz women gather in their winter settlement. Chalab, Lake Chaqmaqtin.

Kyrgyz women gather in their winter settlement. Chalab, Lake Chaqmaqtin.

 

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.

Frédéric Lagrange is a Brooklyn based photographer and director. He has been documenting the world with his photography for over fifteen years. You can check out his work and discover more of his travels on his website.