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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 February 2005, 15:13 GMT
Pamirs adapt to life without Russia
By Ian MacWilliam
BBC News, Tajikistan

The Pamir mountains in the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan were once the remotest frontier of the Russian Empire.

But the last Russian forces left this region on the northern borders of Afghanistan in December, and the inhabitants have been facing their first winter without any Russian assistance for the first time in more than a century.
Lenin statue, Kalaikum town
Tajikistan still retains strong Russian influences

The Pamirs have been busy building new ties with the outside world, but many people still regret the end of the Russian presence, and fear it could lead to an influx of illegal drugs from Afghanistan.

The Pamirs lie at the mountainous heart of Asia where four great ranges meet like the spokes of a wheel - the Himalayas, Karakorams, Hindu Kush and Tien Shan.

Three peaks top 7000 metres (23,000 feet) and much of the region is a high-altitude plateau at nearly 4000 metres (13,100 feet), where outsiders can find breathing difficult.

The narrow River Panj, or Oxus, flows through a precipitous gorge, forming the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Tajikistan has been independent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but Moscow had remained in charge of the border troops here. Moscow and other regional governments still fear the spread of narcotics, weapons and extremist Islam from chaotic Afghanistan just across the river.
Life in the frozen Pamirs

The inhabitants on both sides of the river are Tajiks, but the Russian presence in Tajikistan has ensured a very different history over the past century.

On the Tajikistan side there are roads and electricity. On the Afghan side there are donkey tracks, and few lights disturb the blackness of the long winter nights.

Drugs are a major concern here. Much of the Afghan heroin and opium which reaches Europe is now smuggled through Central Asia.

"The Afghans were afraid of the Russians," said Maram Azimmamadov, director of Volunteer, an organisation working with drug addicts in the Pamiri capital, Khorog.

"They're not afraid of the Tajik guards, and it's very easy to cross the river, especially in winter, so we're expecting an increase in the flow of drugs through here."

The Russian border guards themselves however were often accused of smuggling large quantities of drugs straight into Russia on military flights from Tajikistan.

Many local Tajiks worked as guards for the Russian-led force. They are now paid less than half of what they were paid under the Russians. Other people in Khorog say the border force will be less efficient now that it is run by the Tajiks only.

Two Tajik women selling cigarettes and snacks by the roadside outside the border force base in Khorog expressed a common view.

"The Russian officers would often help us - they'd give us some coal for heating when it was very cold, or they'd give us jobs on the base," said one woman.

"But the Tajiks don't do that. They don't employ so many local people and if they give us anything they want to be paid," she said.

Strategic position

Russian geographers, soldiers and spies first began exploring the Pamirs in the second half of the 19th century, travelling for weeks across the bleak mountain wilderness from the Ferghana valley in modern Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

In the 1890s, at the height of the Great Game, when Russia and British India were vying for influence in the region, Moscow established military garrisons at Murghab, Ishkashim and Khorog.

One of the most poignant reminders of that adventurous era still stands in the museum in Khorog.
Piano in Khorog museum, with museum guide, Alvo Karamshoyeva
The piano carried across the passes from Russia

"This was the only piano in the Pamir," said Alvo Karamshoyeva, the museum's senior guide.

"The commander of the Russian garrison had it brought here in 1914 so his daughter could play. Ten soldiers spent two months carrying it over the mountains from Osh."

A plate fixed to the Becker piano, made in Germany in 1875, says it was bought from MK Grubesh of Moscow, suppliers to the Imperial Moscow Conservatory.

For many years, songs played on this piano on the edge of Afghanistan would remind the Russians of their homes far away across many hundreds of miles of mountains, desert and steppe.

But while ties with Russia are weakening, the Pamir region is surprisingly well connected to the outside world because of another patron.

Most Pamiris are Ismaili Muslims, whose spiritual leader is the Aga Khan. From his European base, in France, Switzerland and Britain, the Aga Khan has been working through his network of aid organisations to improve the Pamir region's local economy, making it more self-sufficient.

Filling the gap

In the grim years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the abrupt end of subsidies from Moscow, many Pamiris faced starvation.

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) arranged emergency food supplies then, particularly in the difficult winter months. "The Aga Khan saved our lives," many people will tell you in Khorog.

The AKDN has been working to make agricultural improvements since then, and the region now produces 80% of its own food requirements, said Shiraz Abdulayev, of the AKDN in Khorog.

Another long-term goal is to improve regional trade, rebuilding transport links with Afghanistan, China and Pakistan which were severed by seven decades of Soviet rule.

The AKDN has already built two new bridges across the Panj river to Afghanistan.

"A group of Afghan businessmen came across the new bridge at Khorog recently to study the market here," said Mr Abdulayev, "and last summer the first tourists used it to cross to and from Afghanistan."

A new road has also been opened to western China recently, by which local traders now bring Chinese goods into Tajikistan, and a road is planned to northern Pakistan across Afghanistan's narrow Wakhan corridor.

Many local people hope that tourism might eventually make an important contribution to the local economy.

With some of Asia's most remote and spectacular mountain scenery, the Pamir could attract adventurous Western tourists if transport ties were improved.
Checkpost on road into Ishkashim
Locals are worried that the border will now become more porous

In Murghab, in the high-altitude plateau of the eastern Pamir, a network of ecotourism guesthouses has been set up by the French aid organisation ACTED (Agency for Technical Co-operation and Development).

Visitors can stay in houses with local families in houses, or in summer in yurts. The cost is reasonable for most foreigners, but the income is a big help to local residents.

"Thank goodness for the foreign tourists who come here," said Yrys, a mother of three who rents two rooms to visitors in Murghab.

"I had 70 guests last year. There are no other jobs here so that money makes all the difference."

As the Pamir region slowly adapts to the realities of the post-Soviet economy, the challenges of its harsh environment have brought many difficulties.

But there is now hope that closer integration with the world will ultimately make life easier on the Roof of the World.

Russia stresses Tajik presence
18 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Tajikistan
24 Oct 04 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Tajikistan
24 Oct 04 |  Country profiles

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