National Geographic : 2013 Feb
Wakhan Corridor 93 Michael Finkel last reported on Nepal’s Sky Caves for the magazine. French photographer Matthieu Paley has documented Wakhan’s Kyrgyz nomads over eight expeditions—three in winter. His book Pamir is just out in France and Germany. undeniably beautiful—but it’s also an environ- ment at the very cusp of human survivability. Their land consists of two long, glacier-carved valleys, called pamirs, stashed deep within the great mountains of Central Asia. Much of it is above 14,000 feet. The wind is furious; crops are impossible to grow. The temperature can drop below freezing 340 days a year. Many Kyrgyz have never seen a tree. The valleys are located in a strange, pincer- shaped appendage of land jutting from the northeast corner of Afghanistan. This strip, often referred to as the Wakhan corridor, was a re- sult of the 19th century’s so-called Great Game, when the British and Russian Empires fought for influence in Central Asia. The two powers created it, through a series of treaties between 1873 and 1895, as a buffer zone—a sort of geo- graphical shock absorber—preventing tsarist Russia from touching British India. In previ- ous centuries the area was part of the Silk Road connecting China and points west, the route of armies and explorers and missionaries. Marco Polo passed through in the late 1200s. But communist revolutions—Russia in 1917, China in 1949—eventually sealed the borders. What was once a conduit became a cul-de-sac. Now, in the postcolonial age, the corridor is bordered by Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and China to the east. Mainland Afghanistan, to the west, can seem so far away— the corridor is about 200 miles long—that some Kyrgyz refer to it as a foreign country. They feel locked in a distant outpost, encaged by a spiked fence of snowy peaks, lost in the swirl of history and politics and conflict. To reach the nearest existing road—the road the khan wants extended into Kyrgyz territory— requires at least a three-day journey through the mountains, on a trail where a fall could be deadly. The closest significant town, one with shops and a basic hospital, is an additional day’s travel. This intense isolation is the reason the Kyrgyz suffer from a catastrophic death rate. There’s no doc- tor, no health clinic, few medicines. In the harsh environment, even a minor ailment—a sniffle, a headache—can swiftly turn virulent. The death rate for children among Afghan Kyrgyz may be the highest in the world. Less than half live to their fifth birthday. It is not unusual for parents to lose five children, or six, or seven. Women die at an alarming rate while giving birth. I met one couple, Halcha Khan and Abdul Metalib, who had 11 children. “Every year,” said Abdul, “one would die.” They died as infants, as toddlers, as little kids. Many likely died from easily treatable diseases. Each was wrapped in Kyrgyz men seek shelter in a shepherd’s cave during their annual journey from their mountainous homeland to the nearest trading village in Pakistan, an icy, five-day trek. They will barter livestock, wool, and dairy products for everything from tea to television sets.