“Badakhshan, oh Badakhshan”… the USB keys plugged into the radios of the 4×4 drivers are brimming with songs about the grandeur of their birthplace. Often referred to as Pamir by Westerners, Gorno-Badakhshan covers almost half the area of the Republic of Tajikistan, a former republic of the USSR, and lies between Afghanistan, China, and Kyrgyzstan. A genuine crossroads of civilisations whose first western echoes bring us back to the writings of Marco Polo. And yet, despite the regular passage of traders and soldiers over the last six centuries, the way of life of the Pamiri has barely changed, except maybe for the tracks built by the Russians — including the infamous Pamir Highway — and the rare vehicles daring to brave them.
With a harsh climate and arid landscapes Gorno-Badakhshan is a high-altitude mountainous region, home to a population of Ismaili Muslims — a branch of Shia Islam. Grouped for the most part in small villages, the Pamiri are two ethnic groups with distinct but interconnected ways of life. Nestled in the valleys stand the sedentary Tajiks who live in small flat-roofed houses built in remarkably irrigated oases, from their fields, fruit trees, and small herds. The Kyrgyz, on the other side, have adapted to the harsh climate of the highlands thanks to their nomadic lifestyle. Living from their herds — yaks, sheeps, goats — who provide them with hides, meat, and cheese, they settle during summer time in cosy and beautifully laid out yurts made of animal skins. Once winter comes, they will then gather in the lower valleys into towns or villages.
But little by little the Chinese neighbour extends its influence over Tajikistan using its shared border with Gorno-Badakhshan. By renovating roads and providing cheap goods to the entire population, is China slowly annihilating the traditional close-to-nature lifestyle of the Pamiri ?