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Introducing The Pamirs

The plain is called Pamier, and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but a desert without habitations or any green thing, so that travellers are obliged to carry with them whatever they have need of. The region is so lofty and cold that you can not even see any birds flying. And I must notice also that because of this great cold, fire does not burn so bright, nor give out so much heat as usual.

Marco Polo, Description of the World

They’re known locally as Bam-i-Dunya (Roof of the World), and once you’re up in the Pamirs it’s not hard to see why. For centuries a knot of tiny valley emirates, the Pamirs feel like a land a little bit closer to heaven.

The word pamir means ‘rolling pastureland’ in ancient Persian, which is apt indeed, though some sources say the derivation is Paw-i-Mur or ‘Legs of the Sun’. The Chinese called the mountains the Congling Shan, or ‘Onion Mountains’. There is not one obvious Pamir range, rather a complex series of ranges separated by high-altitude valleys.

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 ethnicallyTajik). 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, the Pamirs are too high for human settlement.

The Pamirs contain three of the four highest mountains in the former Soviet Union, the apex of which is Koh-i-Samani (former Pik Kommunizm) at 7495m. Less than an Empire State Building shorter is Pik Lenin at 7134m. (There is much confusion over this peak’s new name, which is either Koh-i-Istiqlal/Independence Peak or Abu Ali ibni Sino/Avicenna in Tajikistan, or Peak Sary Tash or even Achik Tash in Kyrgyzstan!). The 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 as the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous oblast, or GBAO) accounts for 45% of Tajikistan’s territory but only 3% of its population. The 212, 000 souls that do live here are divided between Pamiris and Kyrgyz. Culturally speaking, Badakhshan extends over the Pyanj River into Afghan Badakhshan, centred around Faizabad.

The slopes and high valleys are inhabited by hardier creatures, near-mythical animals such as the giant Marco Polo sheep, which sports curled horns that would measure almost 2m were they somehow unfurled, and the rarely seen snow leopard. During the Soviet era several scientific teams tried to track down the similarly elusive ‘giant snowman’, but in vain.

Chance encounters with yetis aside, the Pamirs region is generally safe to travel in, despite a healthy penchant for red tape. Tajik border guards assumed the unenviable task of keeping a lid on smuggling after the Russian troops departed the region in 2005.