The Murghab Eco-Tourism Association

Written by Guy Delaunay and translated to English by etc4CA.

The Marco Polo (giant sheep) in the winter in the Eastern Pamirs

Ubaidulla, our guide into the yurt is a ‘devil’. With a huge smile, he shakes our sleeping bags, waking us up by dropping small packages of fresh snow from his mitts. He whispers energetically, “Marco Polo, thousands of Marco Polo! In the next  valley … twenty minutes walking!” Ubaidulla feverishly prepared some tea, repeating “Marco Polo! Big, big sheep. Hurry up! Big, big sheep. Hurry up!”

We climb slowly out of the sleeping bags. The bitter cold penetrates through the airlock of the yurt. Pants, down-jacket, hat, mittens, moonboots all go on swiftly. The sun is still low on a horizon of snowy mountains. The universe shines bright in the sky… it’s less than minus thirty degrees centigrade!

Within minutes, we reached the edge of the hill. Ubaidulla plunged into the snow, pointing at the valley and breathed “Look! Look! Look! Marco Polo! Marco Polo!” We gasped. Just 400 meters from us is a unique, unforgettable sight. One hundred, maybe two hundred, Marco Polo sheep are slowly moving in files of twenty to thirty heads in the valley, which still lies in shadow. Even with the naked eye, there are the huge trophy horns of the largest males. Suddenly, out from a small hill and in full light, a new herd moves over the sparkling snow. Our adventure has reached its high-point. An amazing journey into an unknown world where every person we met gave his heart, his home, his bread. 

The Pamir in winter, what a wonderful folly!

Extract from a travel book, written during the first photo safari tourism experience in the winter of 2004.

History of Tourist Development

In 1999, with funding from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the French NGO ACTED embarked upon a unique development project. The region of Murghab might easily have been considered a ‘lost cause’ by the Government of Tajikistan and other development agencies because of its remoteness, its lack of resources and the lack of motivation of the authorities. Indeed, the outlook for the region’s population was that it would have exceeded its sustainable economic equilibrium. However, for economic diversification and strengthening of community structures, the project was initiated and has now achieved a number of successful outcomes that make this a case study that can be replicated in similar mountain areas.

Among these outcomes, a community tourism project supported by UNESCO has been put in place. Since 2002,  the project ‘Development of ecological tourism in the mountain regions of South and Central Asia’ focused upon the host communities, the development of services (home stay in the yurt village or summer pastures, guides, transportation, camel trek) and the international marketing of tourism products, to be managed by the diverse community in a participatory manner. The model proposed ecotourism, contributing to the preservation and enhancement of natural sites and cultural treasures, the economy and the traditional lifestyles of this remote region.

In three years of preparation and training, the Murghab EcoTourism Association (META) was established in 2003. The association participants, chosen from among the most economically vulnerable families, received basic training and a code of ethics was adopted by all stakeholders. The association has subsequently become a revenue generating activity due to collaboration with other local development agencies. In particular, an association of women artisans have produced local craft goods that are now exported to various outlets in Central Asia and Europe.

Location

Access to the area of the Eastern Pamirs and Murghab is:

  • From Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, via Khorog (small aircraft flight is a remote possibility), the ‘Pamir Highway’ follows the Tajik-Afghan border for most of the journey. This route requires a minimum of two long days of driving and a stopover in Khorog is recommended.
  • From Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, you can fly to the border city of Osh. The ‘Pamir Highway’ then traverses the mountain chain of the Grand Alai. This road approach only requires one day, however, it is recommended to take at least two days to acclimatise the body to the altitude (>3500m).

For each route, the ‘Pamir highway’ traverses through unforgettable landscapes. In winter, both routes may be closed for a few days. However, there are no major risks for vehicles that are properly equipped. META can arrange suitable 4×4 vehicles for these
journeys.

Cultural information

The region of Murghab covers most of the mountains and highlands of the Eastern Pamirs. This is a high plateau at low population density as large as Switzerland, at an altitude between 3500 and 7500 m. The Pamirs have been the scene of the “Great Game” between the Russians and British in the 18th century. It remains a politically sensitive region, with the borders between five countries (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan).

In Soviet time, Tajikistan, and particularly this region, was critically dependent upon the Soviet Union as a strategic buffer zone for the ill-defined border between China and Afghanistan. The Soviet Union supported the ancient nomadic peoples of the region in small towns and villages and this policy ensured their economic survival to a level well above what the resources of the region were capable of producing without such support.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, economic conditions have collapsed. 80% of the population survived upon international humanitarian assistance until early 2004. The 14,000 inhabitants, speaking mainly Kyrgyz, have a semi-nomadic activity related to raising yak, sheep and some Bactrian camels. However, an important part of the urban population, some of which is composed of refugees from the last civil war Tajikistan have few or no cattle, and this part of the community depends on local support and relationships. The community is composed of a mix of ethnic Kyrgyz from the north and Pamiri from the Western Pamirs. The two communities live in harmony, without major conflict.

Reducing tensions, mutual trust and progress of regional cooperation offer growing opportunities for exchange and trade between Tajikistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Kumar pass has now opened for Tajik:Chinese trade (not open to
western tourists, as yet).

Tourist Information

The Eastern Pamirs high plateau is known for its landscapes, and lunar-like, desert mountains with vast snow and ice fields. The Fedchenko Glacier, at 77 km long, is the longest glacier in the world, outside of the polar regions. Very few Western climbers have traversed the peaks of this region, of which a number are above 7000m.

The Eastern Pamirs is a habitat for the rare and endangered Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon polii). Wealthy hunters have in the past sought them as trophies. The Tajikistan Government now seeks to protect the remaining herds that wander increasingly remote valleys.

A national park designed to preserve the wealth of fauna and flora of the Pamirs is mostly on paper due to a lack the resources for effective management of this immense territory. The local population is aware of the importance of these resources. However, the
necessities of survival sometimes drive some poaching and promote the collection of “teresken” for firewood. Teresken is a shrub adapted to extreme climatic conditions and has now become scarce around the villages. This ecosystem is fragile. the pressure of the population looking for alternatives to the loss of its energy resources imported from the Soviet Union has led to a rapid desertification, which has subsequently caused worsening of landslides, dust storms, and famines.

In Spring, the high pastures once again become green. Yurts are set up in every valley, forming the basis of the local economy. This is the time for festivals, parties and weddings. Some families have equipped their yurt camps to welcome visitors.

In Winter, it is not uncommon for the thermometer falls below minus forty degrees Centigrade.  At this time of year, most people come together in villages and the town of Murghab. In the valleys where snow is rare, there are a few permanent settlements that face the winter with natural comfort felt yurts. These difficult living conditions and the fragile natural environment can support only a very small population.

A number of tourist excursion options exist, including:

  • Camel treks with Bactrian camels.
  • Driving on the Roof of the World and the high passes of the Silk Road.
  • Sharing the lives of semi-nomadic Kyrgyz “jailoo” (yurt camps in the summer pastures).
  • Trekking in a world of high mountains untouched or unexplored, including the Fedchenko glacier.
  • In search of the Marco Polo sheep and other wildlife including ibex, brown bear, wolf, Indian wild goose, and if one is lucky, the beautiful snow leopard.
  • Horseback riding through the highlands.
  • Visiting archaeological sites, the oldest dating back to 8000BC.
  • Climbing the 6000-7000m peaks of the region, including the Lenin Peak and Peak Communism, should only considered through established mountaineering operators.

Accommodation

META can advise on different types of accommodation including home-stays, guest houses and yurts.

A reception centre, ‘Murghab House’ is managed by ACTED and serves as both a tourist office, responsive local agency, a meeting venue for both visitors and the local community, an exhibition hall and a craft production eco-museum.

General

Please note that the physical conditions of this region are basic and sometimes arduous. Groups and individuals can suffer at high altitude (in case of problems, Murghab House is equipped with a hyperbaric chamber). Home-stays, guest houses and yurts only
offer basic washing (usually cold water) and toilet (‘long drop’) facilities.