The ‘Far’ East

The ‘Far’ East

Murghab is the adminstrative centre of the Eastern Pamirs and offers the ‘best’ services to tourists for over 500km in any direction. Whilst it may not be a pictureque location, it does serve as a good hub for excursions into the remote eastern destinations such as Rangkul, Madian and the Aksu valley to Shaymak. Murghab also offers a unique insight into a remote community that exists in the harshest of climatic conditions and locations.

Despite the long lasting Soviet presence, the Gorno-Badakhshan Kyrgyz communities living on the Pamir plateau have retained a traditional tribe culture and a strong half-nomadic culture which eventually allowed them to partly succeed in the transition from collectivism to a still precarious subsistence economy relying on yak breeding, without any possibility of diversification.Adaptation to extreme climatic conditions has implied very strict hospitality rules that are still strictly respected. These rules have not changed since the description of the first travellers at the beginning of the century. Rock drawings testify of the presence of Saka tribes so early as 7 centuries B.C. In the south of the district, (Culture and traditions).


Soviet scientists have put to light several archeological sites. Indeed, these leftovers from the past are not very spectacular and the identification of certain sites has not been completed. Research work in the field (GPS) as well as in the archives is needed. Yet, several sites are worth a visit:-Former mining cities of Bazar Dara (XI), Jyttap-Tabar and Sasyk.

POPULATION Mainly Kyrgyz and Pamiri Tajiks. Population densityis very low.As they came back to nomadism by necessity, villagers take up vast mountain pastures (Jailo) and put up yurts for the summer. Certain jailos are inhabited all year round when local climates allow it. Sheep and yaks are the main wealth of the country.

The Eastern Pamirs have been described as a lunar-like, high altitude desert, framed by snowy peaks. Vegetation is now sparse due to overgrazing and over-exploitation of shrubs for fuel.  However, the region may once have been lush with abundant plant and animal life as evidenced by petroglyphs from the Mesolithic period (approx. 8000BC) onwards.  Salt and freshwater lakes, which all freeze in winter, are fed by meadering rivers of snow-melt or thermal spring water.

The Aksu valley is unusual for the region in that it traverses south – north. The valley itself is relatively unspectacular, however, it enables relatively easy access to the far south-east of Tajikistan and the village of Shaymak. Shaymak sits under the magnificant granite boss called ‘Aktash Gord’ which, with its 1450m shear cliff is visible from 60km down the valley. From here you can admire the mountains of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan as all of those borders converge at the furthest eastern end of the Wakhan corridor.

 In the summer months these remote valleys are home to the nomadic herders of the region and yurts can be found in idyllic sites, offering basic rural homestay opportunities with a chance to try milk straight from the yak.


Legends of Chyrak Tash (The lamp stone):

In a cavern high up on a cliff, a dragon lived, gurding his vast treasures. The dragon had a large diamond set in its forehead  so that when the dragon looked out of the cavern to watch for approaching maurauders, the diamond would catch any light and shine both night and day.The location was therefore known as ‘lamp rock’ and it became a place that locals would never approach, certainly not to enter the cave.

In another version of the legend, a few centuries ago a caravan of rich merchants tried to get across the Plateau from China to
Samarkand in the middle of winter, and camped near to the location fo the cave. At night, local bandits sneaked into the camp, and cut the tendons of the camels’ legs. Without camels, the merchants knew they were doomed to freeze to death but they didn’t want the bandits to get the riches aftet their death. So, they started killing the camels, cutting them in pieces, and pressing chunks of meat to the rock surface. The meat froze to the rock, eventually forming a ladder and the merchants carried all their bags up to the cave, and built a wall to protect them from the wind. Next morning, the ladder was melted by the sun and fell apart.

This legend was well known all over the region and 1902, a Persian millionaire tried to get to the cave using the same method, but fell to his death in the attempt.

Later stories abound concerning a Ukrainian mountaineer who supposedly scaled the cliff in the 1930s and returned with treasures he had uncovered. Stories are also told that during the Soviet era some Russians climbed up to the cave and ‘took the lamp away’, referring to it as a ‘beacon of Alexander’. Later, in the 1960’s. a group of mountaineers reached the cave. They found no dragon, treasure or wall. Just a pile of rocks and a vulture nest with one egg. Unfortunately, the climbers didn’t realise that the nest was the first of a Himalayan vulture to be found in the former Soviet Union republics. Strong thermals around these rocks now make them a favorite spot for vultures!

Sources include:
‘Tajikistan and the High Pamirs’ by Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas, 2008; and ‘Hitchhiking in the Evil Empire’ by Vladimir Dinets, 2001.

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