SOUTHERN PAMIRS AND SOUTHEAST TAJIKISTAN, NEAR THE AFGHANISTAN BORDER

KHOROG

Khorog (along the Afghanistan border, 525 kilometers west-southwest from Dushanbe) is a small town with 30,000 people. Located at an elevation of 2000 meters, it is the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan region and has little arable land or industry but lots of unemployed people. Many Ismaili Muslims, followers of the Aga Khan, live in the Khorog region. The Aga Khan Foundation is the largest employer. There is a cross-border market at the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.

Khorog is situated on high narrow terraces near the confluence of the Ghunt and Shohdara rivers. The river valley here is narrow, so the town is actually two large streets lined with poplars. One of the two main campuses of the Central Asian University, financed by the Aga Khan Foundation, is being set up in Khorog. There is a reasonably good regional museum. The bazaar sells produce grown n nearby villages. Homes stay can sometimes be arranged here.

Khorog is the scientific, cultural, educational and economic center of the Gorno-Badakhshan oblast. The city hosts the Humanities Institute, the Pamiri Biological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, Khorog State University, a vocational school, a medical college, and a Music & Drama Theatre, as well as a hospital with modern medical equipment. The University of Central Asia is now being built. Opposite the stadium in the town center, the Museum of History and Regional Studies displays materials on the ancient and modern history of Pamirs, its natural resources, and scientific and cultural achievements.

The climate in Khorog is dry with great temperature variation between summer and winter and day and night. The precipitation fluctuates depending on meteorological conditions and altitude. The annual average temperature here is 8.7ºC. The average temperature in January is —7.9ºC, while in June it reaches 24ºC. There are at least 130 days each year without frost. Morning frosts in spring and fall are a normal phenomenon even on hot days.

The air route flight between Dushanbe and Khorog, through valleys with mountains and rock faces rising up from the sides, is one of the most technically difficult and one of the most spectacular in the world. There are regular flights between Dushanbe and Khorog on Yakovle V-40, Antono V-26 and Antono V-28 planes, and Mikoyan-8 helicopters. and, at the same time, the most scenic and impressive in the world.. Recently, a new bridge over the Panj River was opened in Khorog, connecting Tajikistan with Afghanistan (Badakhshan Province). At the same time, the Consulate of Afghanistan began functioning on left bank of Khorog in Shosh district.

History of Khorog

In 1895, when the state border between the Russian Empire and Afghanistan was finally decided, a Russian boundary fortification of three houses and a barrack emerged in the small mountain village of Khorog. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]

A road from Osh to Khorog was built, but it was only possible to go on horseback to deliver goods from camel caravans. There were no more than 90 households here in the early 20th century. The Russian authorities opened a school and a clinic for the local population. These features made Khorog stand out from the other villages of Shughnon (the name of the Ghunt and Shohdara river basin area).

From the mid-1920s, when Khorog was made the administrative center of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, it began to grow and develop. The first apartment buildings were built in 1926. In 1929, the first plane arrived in Khorog. The first car arrived two years later. The construction of the Khorog hydropower station, the first in the Pamirs, began in 1934.

Pamiri Botanical Gardens

Pamiri Botanical Gardens (two kilometers from Khorog) is located on the right bank of the Shohdara River (a tributary of the Ghunt River) one the highest botanical gardens in the world. Founded in 1940 by professor A. V. Gursky, the first director and head of the gardens for 26 years, the gardens feature a wide variety of plants growing the complicated microclimate of this mountainous area.

According to Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “The microclimate differs greatly from one area of the garden to another. All types of soil found in the West Pamirs are present in the Gardens: rocks, steep and sandy areas, pebbles, screes, hilltops, and mountainous slopes. The flora of the Gardens consists of approximately 4,000 species and varieties in the botanical collections and native vegetation of the protected territories. There are about 3,000 species of trees and herbaceous plants in the collection. The Pamiri Botanical Gardens are a unique natural laboratory for researching the vital functions of plants in alpine conditions. Seeds are exchanged with 170 partners in the former Soviet republics, and about 200 in 40 other countries. The Pamiri Botanical Gardens have tested more than 30,000 kinds of plants in their nurseries. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]

Studies on some species of the international collection of potatoes were carried out here. The first fruit-tree nursery in Gorno-Badakhshan was established in the Gardens, where reproduction methods for fruit-trees in mountainous conditions were developed. More than 500 hectares of mountain slopes, shale, and hilltop mud were transferred to the Gardens in 1970. At an altitude of 2,700—3,000 meters, this area is a good place to carry out comparative studies of the lives and activities of plants in high-mountain conditions. Currently, the Pamiri Botanical Gardens cover 624 hectares, more than 100 hectares of which are irrigated. There is a large diversity of ecological conditions in the Gardens which provides a good basis for studying a wide variety of plants. Within the Gardens can vertical profile tests of plants be carried out at a range of altitudes from 2,100-3,500 meters. Inside the gardens, a “Pamiri Nature” museum was established. More than 800 exhibits displaying the natural conditions of GBAO and representing its flora and fauna are here. Materials about the geography, geology and soils of the region are exhibited in the museum. Typical landscapes of the Western and Eastern Pamirs are also on display. Becoming familiar with the botanical collection begins immediately at the entrance gates, where the Central Asian department is located. The collections in the unit are presented not as individual plants but as whole vegetational collections.

“The Tien Shan fir-tree, brought to the Gardens from its traditional habitat in the Nura Valley in the Alai valley, grows on the steep slope here. The Tien Shan mountain ash and various honeysuckles which accompany fir forests in Central Asia grow close to the fir-tree. The Pamiri birch, a large tree with red bark, also draws attention. It grows in the Pamirs in natural conditions along the mountainous rivers banks and close to water sources, forming birch groves at altitudes of up to 3,600 meters. The Pamiri birch also appears in other flora departments of the gardens reaching 14 meters in height.

“Various species of juniper are of great interest. The local Shughnon Juniper is remarkable for its drought-resistance, ornamentality, and variety of forms. Young juniper saplings successfully withstand replanting and therefore they are widely used for landscaping in GBAO. The East Asia department holds an important place in the Pamiri Botanical Gardens. Thirty-five percent of the total number of arboreal and dumetosous species are East Asian flora. More than 500 species of trees and bushes in the East Asia department were successfully acclimatized. Most of them originated in China, Japan, Manchuria, the Far East and Siberia. The flora department of Europe, Caucasus and the Crimea adjoins the East Asia flora department. In the northern part of Gardens there is a department for plants from North America, and on the southeast slope you will find the flora department of the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush.

“There is a fruit garden in the northern part of the main botanical collection. More than 60 percent of the species in it are local varieties developed by the population over the last thousand years. Some of these varieties were discovered in valleys where they were on the verge of extinction, with only a single known specimen remaining. The most promising varieties and forms of trees are planted. In the northwest part of the gardens there is a nursery for decorative flowers. It is a model for decorative flower nurseries in mountain conditions and developing mountain slopes for forest gardens. The collection of wild herbs, which includes more than 50 species, began in 1979. Research is carried out on rare and disappearing GBAO flora. To that end, a nursery was established in which about 30 species of rare and vanishing flora were planted, collected from different parts of the Pamirs.

The Botanical Gardens protected territory covers more than 50 hectares. It begins from the riverbeds of the Ghunt and Shohdara Rivers (2,200 meters) and stretches to the top of the Shughnon range (3,800 meters). This area is a research testing site. Here, the study of the dynamics of phytocenosis and zoocenosis, environmental protection, and rare and unusual plant species is carried out. The protected territory serves for the study of plants and specific environments: rocks, scree and other mountainous and rocky places. The plant pool of the Botanical Gardens protected territory includes more than 800 different species..

Sights Near Khorog

Around Khorog there are hot springs, Alpine lakes and ruins of ancient fortresses. One popular hiking and four-wheel-drive destination is Turuntai-kul, which offers good views of 6773-meter-high Pik Karla Marxa.

The Pir Shohnosir Chashma holy spring, situated 12 kilometers north of Khorog in the scenic area of Midenshor, was so named in commemoration Nosir Khusrav’s stay in the Pamirs. Khusrav was a celebrated scholar, theologian, and poet of the East. In addition to his monument being located here, a small museum named after him has been opened and a hotel is being built. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]

Nine kilometers northeast of Khorog, above Bogev village, it is possible to see the ruins of the ancient fortress Kafir Qal’a (Fortress of the Faithless). Below this can be seen the remains of two temples of fire — round buildings with sufa (raised seats), a dais for the priest, and a fireplace in the center. In Vozm village in Porshnev, 15 kilometers north of Khorog, there is a semi-precious stone- and gemprocessing factory. Here, one can buy goods and souvenirs made out of famous Pamiri gems — precious spinel, lapis lazuli, amethyst, amazonstone, and others.

Garm Chashma (Hot Spring)

Garm Chashma (42 kilometers southeast of Khorog, 60 kilometers from Ishkashim) is a hot spring located 2,325 meters above sea level on the western slope of the Shohdara mountains and midway along the Garm Chashma River, a tributary of the Panj River. The spring is believed to be thousand years old based on the huge travertine sediment cascading down to the river, which could only have been formed by centuries of buildup. The showers of bright white, yellow and 92 brown mineral deposits stretch in the form of a curved hill 1.5 kilometers long, 35-45 meters wide and 7-35 meters high. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]

According to the Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “The mineral water comes to the surface at the crest in both large and small geysers, gushing forth fountains 10 centimeters — 1.5 meters high. About 5-7 litres of hot water per second come out of the geysers. The water brings with it lime-calcite balls 0.5 to four centimeters in diameter, mixed with a white powder of a lime-gypsum character. The travertine hill has natural pools 0.5 to 20 square meters in area and 0.5 meters deep. They are filled with hot turquoise water that contains iron, aluminium, magnesium, strontium, fluorine and other elements. The water also contains a large quantity of hydrogen sulphide (170 milligram/litre), silicic acid (135 milligram/litre) and carbonic acid (381 milligram/litre).

“The temperature of the water as it comes out of the geysers is around 62ºC. The temperature of the water in the pools fluctuates between 38-50ºC, depending on the distance from the spring. The outer walls of the reservoir look majestic, with white stalactites covered by algae of various colours. The bottom of the largest pool is covered with the soft residue of calcium carbonate and sulphur sediment. There are also carbonated mineral springs with a constant temperature 14ºC in the area, the water of which is used by local residents as drinking water. Hot springs are quite a rare natural phenomenon, attracting the attention of the local population who believe the waters can heal diseases, giving the spring sanctity.

“The valley, whose upper stretches reach to Mayakovsky Peak, cut into the monotonous grey of the Precambrian metamorphic and quartz rocks. These rocks are completely exposed with virtually no vegetation, only covered by mudslides and river deposits at the foot of the slopes. When spring comes, Garmchashma’s white, travertine terraces seem to appear directly out of these deposits. The 7-8 meters-high travertine hills cascade down into the riverbed. Marbled terraces follow behind at 50 centimeters — 1.5 meters interludes, separated by overhanging eaves of densely-packed stalactites. There are small holes in some of the terraces protected by low borders. As hot water pours through these holes, calcite is deposited forming ever larger terraces. The turquoise-blue water appears at a variety of temperatures, depending on the proximity to the spring’s gushing jets. The bottoms of the holes are filled with small (0.3-0.4 centimeters) calcite balls containing silica and magnesium and aluminium oxides. Each litre of the water contains about three grams of various salts, mostly calcium and sodium compounds. The high lime content is probably due to the presence of carbonate rocks (limestone and dolomite) deep below the surface. The carbonated springs also have a high concentration of carbon dioxide and emit small quantities of hydrogen sulphide too..

“According to the records of travellers who visited the region in the late 19th century, local residents constructed altars here — various holy items and oil lamps placed in small niches in the rocks, close to the places where the water came to the surface. The people’s worship traditions are rooted in antiquity. The history of the holy springs has not yet been deeply studied. The favourable climate where the springs are located is another valuable factor in spa treatment; in combination with hydrotherapy, the climate assists greatly in recovery from cardiac-vascular diseases, nervous and musculoskeletal disorders, as well as skin diseases and gynecological problems. The Garm Chashma hydropathic establishment was first constructed in 1957 in the place where the mineral water comes up, and it has been rebuilt several times. You can reach the springs by taxi from Khorog. The journey takes about one hour. The usual taxi price is US$ 20-30 for a car. You can stay in Garm Chashma in partially-furnished cottages for US$5-7 per person per day.” .

Getting There: Bus from Khorog, hitchhike, taxi. Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Ishkashim district. 42 kilometers southeast of Khorog, 60 kilometers from Ishkashim. Located on the western slope of the Shakhdarinsky Range of the Pamirs, in the middle reaches of the Garmchashma River.

Kuhi Lal: Ancient Source of Ruby-Like Spinels

Kuhi Lal (47 kilometers from Khorog along the road to Ishkashim) is a legendary mountain located on the left side of the valley of the same name, on the south slope of the Kuhi-La’l range and on the right side of the Panj River. According to Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “In ancient times, stones of a pink-red colour were mined “somewhere in the east” and called la’ls. The stones were well-known as balakhshi or balashi. But the stone has another name — precious spinel. This name is widely used today in modern mineralogy and the jewellery business. Spinel looks like ruby or sanguine garnet (carbuncle), and it always was the most respected of the red precious stones in Middle Eastern countries.Poets have compared it to sparkling red wine or the beautiful lips of the beloved. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]

“Numerous legends are connected with spinels from this area. One tale is of two brothers who came here from Afghanistan to try their fate in la’l mining. They were lucky, and after long and hard work they found many spinels. However, one of the brothers decided to keep all the spinels to himself, so he killed his brother, took all the stones, and fled. On his way home he decided to look at his wealth. When he untied his cherished packet, he was greatly disappointed — the precious stones had become ordinary black coals. He was so shocked that he went mad and died. The locals connect the legend with the saying that the La’l is such a pure stone that it cannot bear treachery, envy, or unworthy people. Anyone acquiring it by wrongdoing will die.

“When valuing red gemstones, there has often been confusion due to the similarity between spinel and ruby. History has many stories of famous and rare stones being taken for rubies for a long time, when in reality it was actually spinel. About 10,000 cubic meters of rock were extracted here. Traces of work done with hacks, wedges, chisels and awls are preserved on the walls. In the late 1950s, geological work began in the deposit, extracting precious stones, boring galleries, and using a variety of means to remove rocks containing the crystals. In July 1985, a 5,880 gram spinel crystal was discovered in Kuhi La’l. In the Pamirs today, precious raw materials are not only extracted but also processed. In Porshnev village near Khorog, there is a stone-processing plant which produces jewellery and industrial goods for sale.

The most intensive work in the Kuhi La’l mine was done in the 9th-15th centuries. At that time mining of minerals, including spinel, was professional, and miners knew how to prospecting for new deposits. In the 19th century, some primitive-looking extraction took place, with many interruptions. The “fire” method was used for the process. Very often, rock containing precious stones was broken into small pieces, and then the precious crystals were beat out of the shards, resulting in the stones being damaged and relatively small. However, some larger and better-quality samples were produced as well.

“The level of ancient mining is surprising. About 500 old mines, located in 5-6 rich zones, were recorded in the deposit. The horizontal and vertical workings join 50 halls, the biggest of which was about 12 meters wide, 22 meters long and eight meters high. The total depth of the mined space is 40-50 meters. The works were carried out on three levels. The total stretch of the visible workings is about 500 meters..

Getting There: Kuhi Lal is located Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Ishkashim district. 47 kilometers from Khorog along the road to Ishkashim, Kuhi La’l Valley. To see the legendary mountain it is necessary to drive to Ishkashim from Khorog. You can hitchhike or take taxi from Khorog towards Ishkashim. After a Y-intersection near Andarob village, from where a road goes to the famous Garm Chashma hot spring, you need to continue on the main highway and turn to Kuhi La’l after approximately 5-6 kilometers. After the Y-intersection to Garm Chashma the turn to Kuhi La’l is the second one. (The first one leads to Dasht village — it is important not to take the wrong one!) You turn left off the main road and climb the slope of the mountain towards Kuhi-La’l village, which is located 200 meters higher than the Panj River. About eight kilometers from the village, after several bends in the road, you reach the mountain. It is easily visible from the highway: if you you look closely, you can see the tracks of mining galleries: stripes from old roads and dump areas.

Ishkashim

Ishkashim (175 kilometers south of Khorog) was the southernmost point of entire Soviet Union. Known as Ishkoshim in Tajik and Ishkashim in Russian, it is the capital of Ishkoshim District in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region in south-east Tajikistan. Situated on the Panj River, at a place where its direction turns sharply from westward to northward, Ishkashim lies opposite a town of the same name in Afghanistan, although the name of the Afghan town is normally transliterated Ishkashim. A bridge opened in 2006 links the two towns. There are plans to reconstruct the 100-kilometer road highway between Ishkoshim and Khorog, which has been badly damaged by snow avalanches.

Ishkashim is located near the beginning of the Wakhan Corridor There is an interesting market in the no-man’s land between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Silvia and Danielle wrote in their blog Roaming Coconuts: “We timed our drive down from Khorog with the Ishkashim market, held on Saturdays between the two borders on the Afghan side of the Panj River. I mean, if we were going to be staring out the car window into Afghanistan for hours on end (not to mention the trip along the Panj from Khorog to Dushanbe), we figured we should at least get a chance to hang with some Afghanis for an afternoon.

“After spending the night with a host family in Ishkashim, we caught a ride to the border crossing three kilometers (two miles) out of town. The border market is held on most Saturdays as a chance for people from Tajikistan and Afghanistan to come together to buy and sell their goods, most of which consist of cheap clothing and household items from China.

“The border guard adjusted the gun slung across his back and reached out to take our passports. “Do you speak Russian?” he asked. — “Yes, some.” — “We’ll keep your passports with us here, and you can pick them up when you return to Tajikistan.” We handed over our passports and crossed a bridge into a strip of no-man’s-land between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

“Having grown up immersed in American media, Afghanistan doesn’t exactly ring pleasant bells in our minds. I guess our prejudices were clear as Sasha nervously pointed out a rope tied around a man’s waist and, without really thinking, we all blurted out “Canada” when asked where we were from. But after an hour or so of wandering through the stalls and chatting with merchants we began to realize that actually, these people were incredibly kind and found no problems with our being American. They happily posed for our photos (snapping pics of us on their phones in return) and crowded around to help us haggle for some Afghan trinkets (top secret Christmas presents)....All in all, the Afghan border market in Ishkashim was a great experience. We left with heavier bags and deeper sunburns (at least I did), wishing that the visa to Afghanistan didn’t cost a hefty $200 for US citizens. Afghanistan is definitely on our travel bucket list for the future!

Getting There: We took a public minivan from Khorog to Ishkashim for US$8, and then found a shared taxi leaving from the Ishkashim market back to Khorog for the same price. We stayed with a host family in Ishkashim for $10 per person, including breakfast and dinner, which we found by simply asking around when we arrived in town. The Afghan Border Market in Ishkashim is held on Saturdays from 9:00am to 3:00pm, though they were still setting up when we arrived at 10:00am. The Ishkashim market has been closed a lot in the past due to conflicts and illness outbreaks, so be sure to check if it’s running before going. There is also a cross-border market in Khorog and in Kalai-Khumb.

Kaahka Fortress

Kaahka Fortress (on the Afghanistan border, 17 kilometers from Ishkashim) is named after Kaahka (or Kahkaha), a legendary epic hero and a king of darkskinned fire-worshippers. Remains of this A.D. 4th century clay fortress are located on its rocky peak on the bank of the Panj River where it is joined by a group of tributaries from Afghanistan.

According to the Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “The peak consists of two crests stretching from east to west. The biggest crest is about half a kilometer long, rising on the east to 125 meters above the level of the river, then sloping gradually down to the west. A wall of unbaked bricks erected on a stone foundation surrounds the edge of the crest. There are also the clay remains of a thick second inner wall. Erosion has badly damaged the walls on the inside of the fortress, but from the outside it still looks intimidating with its numerous towers.” [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]

The fortress overlooks the Panj on the route between Ishkashim and the Hindu Kush. “The scenic Afghan village of Ishtarg is located on the path to the pass from the tributary’s estuary. The the fortress consists of three parts (the citadel and two grounds), and each element is responsible for a line of defence, sometimes linked with the others and sometimes completely independent. The fortress area is fairly large; the length of the ramparts is 750 meters and their maximum width is 280 meters. However, it is difficult to know the precise usage of the inner area. The buildings were probably constructed in the citadel only, which might indicate the exact significance of the fortification — a garrison for troops defending the border or the Vakhan part of the Silk Road.”

Why was the Kaahka Fortress there? “It is most probable that during Greco-Bactrian and Kushan times, the Vakhan fortresses (near villages of Langar, Yamchun, and Darshay) and the Kaahka Fortress blocked the access of foreign invaders to the fertile flat oases when approaching from the Panj, Shohdara and Ghunt valleys. It might also be supposed that, besides being a defence for the region, the Kaahka Fortress also served local needs such as protecting the important bridge over the river, which, according to travellers’ descriptions, existed in the area as late as the early 20th century.

Today, the remains of the fortress walls can be seen directly from the road that runs 15-20 meters from the fortress. Since the fortress is located on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, you need special permission from the local border guards to visit the area. One hundred meters from the fortress on the left side of the road (coming from Ishkashim), there is the Shohi Mardon mazor (pilgrimage graveyard). It has a balcony and a ceiling built like Pamiri national houses (chorkhona). Inside the mazor there are oiled stones and the horns of a mountain goat that indicate the sacredness of this site to local residents. The sacred elements are an echo of ancient, pre-Muslim cults and beliefs that never really disappeared, but simply acquired new meaning with time..

Getting There: Kaahka Fortress is located in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Ishkashim District. 17 kilometers of Ishkashim settlement, one kilometer to the east of Namanguti Poyon village. There is regular bus service between Khorog and Ishkashim. From Ishkashim you have to hitchhike or take a shared taxi.

Yamchun Castle

Yamchun Castle (178 kilometers from Khorog, 72 kilometers from Ishkashim, near the Afghanistan border) stands on a cliff near the Yamchun and Vikhut Rivers — tributaries of the Panj Rivers. The steep banks rising up from the rivers provide the fortress with a difficult-to- reach, easy-to-defend position. Originally used in the 2nd-1st centuries B.C.. and used again in A.D. 5th-7th centuries and 10th-11th centuries, the castle is part of the Silk Roads Sites in Tajikistan that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013.

According to the Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “At the end of the first millennium B.C. construction of strong fortresses began in the West Pamirs due to the threat of military attacks by neighbours. The first was the Yamchun fortress (near the present-day village of the same name, also known as Zamr-i-atashparast or Kafir-qala) built in the 3rd century B.C. on the right bank of the Panj River in the foothills of the Vakhan range. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]

“It was built in a triangle shape with its base pointing into the valley, and consisted of three parts — a citadel, a bastion and the barracks surrounded with walls and strengthened by rectangular towers and two squares, each of which was also surrounded by high walls, fortified with 36 rectangular and oval towers with embrasures (portholes). In case of attack a huge number of people could hide inside the fortress. The walls have no foundations and they are made of machine-tiled stones on a solid clay base.

“The size of the fortress is striking. This powerful structure was of the greatest importance for the area. Defending against approaches from every side, it was a strategically placed and well-built complex that allowed the supervision of people and shipment flows from the Pamirs to ancient Bactria (Tahoriston), India and Iran and back. However, some aspects of the fortress are puzzling: the Panj valley, with a 2.5-3 kilometers wide river floodplain next to the fortress, is absolutely flat, and the Panj flows down not against the northern but the southern slope of the mountain. How could ancient people shoot into the valley with arrows — which were most likely the main weaponry at that time — during enemy attacks? An arrow’s range is not very long. Perhaps the Panj River at one time ran closer to the right-bank slope, even propping it up. This question remains unanswered.

Getting There: Yamchun Castle is locatedin Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Ishkashim district.178 kilometers from Khorog, 72 kilometers from Ishkashim, next to Yamchun village. There is regular bus service between Khorog and Ishkashim. From Ishkashim you have to hitchhike or take a shared taxi. From the main road, coming from Ishkashim, you need to turn left towards Tuggoz village, and then continue 5-6 kilometers up along a rather steep village road to Yamchun village, which is located beside the main road on the mountain slope. (www.tdc.tj)

Layout and Construction of Yamchun Castle

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Yamchun Castle is a form of a triangle in plan. The length of the lower base is 470 meters, the longest side is the northeast part with 775 meters of length. The citadel is also in the triangle form by its plan. The wall surrounding the citadel is fortified with nine round towers by plan with slotted loopholes. The rooms are located inside by the perimeters of walls; they are mostly rectangular and subsquare in the plan. The fortress platform number one is (trapezoidal in plan and the distance north-south is 450 meters is located below the ark. Its walls strengthened by 22 round towers by plan with slotted loopholes. The platform number two (subrectangular in forms) is adjacent to the platform number one in the southeast. It is surrounded by wall with towers and there is a structure, consisting of two circular towers placed at a distance of 15 meters from each other, in its southwestern section. The building materials consist of stone with clay mortar for the base of walls and towers, in some places laying of mud bricks (40-45 x 25-20 x 10-13 centimeters, 35-39 x 25-39 x 10 centimeters), the result of repairing. [Source: National Commission for UNESCO Republic of Tajikistan]

According to the Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “The total height of the walls is about three meters and the width about 1.5 meters. There are portholes in the walls at various heights: the height and width of them ranges from 30—55 centimeters, and the distance between them is 1.5-2.5 meters. The portholes get wider from the outside. There are two sets of fortress walls, one inside the other. The outer wall, up to two meters thick, is either made entirely of stones, or of stones in the lower part and unbaked bricks in the upper part. The inner wall is similar to outside one, but is only 50—60 centimeters thick. It also has crack portholes directed inside the fortress. The distance between the outer and inner walls is about two meters. When constructing the walls the builders interlayered the stones with thin beams to make the walls firmer in places, and today one cannot help but admire the skills of the ancients who made the walls and towers earthquake-proof. All the walls are connected by a chain of towers equipped with thin portholes about one meter high and approximately 30 centimeters wide, arranged like a chessboard in a staggered order with a few layers covered with slightly-angled tiles to allow marksmen in the fortress to defend the Panj valley from several sides. The towers are about 3.5—4 meters in diameter, the walls are 1-1.5 meters thick, and the distance between the portholes is 2-5 meters. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]

“The towers were constructed with stones with occasional clay grout and in some places covered by clay plaster. The upper side of some of the towers is made of baked bricks. Most of the towers are equipped with portholes pointing outwards as well as inwards, and even inside the inter-wall corridors and compartments, which considerably increases the defensive capability of the towers and, hence, the fortress. Thus, defenders of the fortress were always able to attack enemies from the rear if the outer line of defence was broken through. Stones for constructing the fortress (there are hundreds of thousands of them) must have been brought from various remote areas, since there were metamorphic rock, granite and slate rocks, biotite pieces and other forms of mica.”

Lapis Lazuli Mines of Southeast Tajikistan

Lapis Lazuli Mines at Lojvar Field (off the road between Khorog and Ishkashim) is one of the rare source of lapis lazuli, a mineral much prized since the most ancient times. Known by other names such as lazurite and lazulik, it is known for its bright blue color and has long been used in jewelry and valuable treasures that go as far back as ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Lapis lazuli comes in various shades of indigo, violet, cornflower blue and green-blue. The only known sources are in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Russia and Chile.

According to Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “Despite its widespread reputation, the exact location of lazuli mines remained unknown for a long time. Usually people said it was from Bukhara, Turkestan, Afghanistan, India, Persia, and Tibet, but those were only places where it was sold. Expeditions in the early 19th century began to uncover the secret. It became known that Sari-Sang lazuli deposits were located in Afghanistan approximately 70 kilometers south from Fayzobod, three kilometers south of the village of Goran, on the steep of the western slope of the Kokcha River (or Jirm River). [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]

The precious and beautiful indigo lazuli was mined there, and in the Afghan dialect it was called niili. A light-blue lazuli of slightly lower quality was called asmani, and the poorest, of greenish colour — sufsi. Lazuli mining started in the late Stone Age period (4th century B.C.). The road used for transportation of the mineral to other countries was called “The Great Lazuli Road”. The Sari-Sang deposit was described by Al-Biruni (11th century), and the stone was called the “Badakhshan lazuli”. Only in the 1930s was more discovered in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast of Tajikistan, 4,500 meters above sea level. It was in the valley of the small Lojvar Dara River, a tributary of the larger Bodom Dara River (which is itself a tributary of the Shohdara River).

Getting There: Lojvar Field is located off the road between Khorog and Ishkashim in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Roshtqala district. Shohdara River basin, opposite Mayakovsky peak. You can hitchhike or take taxi to the closest place and then walk. There is not much to see.

Lapis Lazuli

According to Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “The best indigo minerals are mined only in the West Pamirs and Afghanistan, and they are very rare. Samples of lapis lazuli are usually spotted or striped because of minor calcite, dolomite or diopcite contamination. Small crystals of golden pyrites (sulphuric pyrites) make it particularly beautiful. Lazuli is unbreakable even when heated. These qualities were known in antiquity and used to confirm the authenticity of the material. [Source:Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]

In Armenian manuscripts of the 17th century it is written: “A real, precious lazuli is that which can be kept in the fire for 10 days without losing its colour”. The fact that people knew the stone long ago is supported by the finding of a beetle-scarab figure in the tomb of an Egyptian Pharaoh, and beads made out of the Badakhshan lazuli in Scythian burials. Lazuli once served as a trimming on royal thrones and temple columns. An ultramarine pigment, used by the greatest painters for vibrant paintings of skies, was made from lazuli. Due to its rarity and high price, lazuli sometimes was sold along with silver and gold in China.

Lazuli was used for making balls on the headgear of Chinese mandarins, as a symbol of their power. Lazuli powder was used in ceramic production for making enamels, glaze, Chinese porcelain and Venetian glass. The blue domes of mosques and clay tiles of minarets and madrassahs in many Central Asia cities also contain some of this wonderful stone.

Up to the early 20th century this mineral was considered medicinal in Central Asia. It is known that it was used for treating eye diseases and improving blood coagulation.

Lapis Lazuli Mining and Legends

According to Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “Lazuli mining was done using the primitive “fire” method — heating a pit-face with fire and then cooling it with water. Gunpowder was later used for this purpose. The mines were thoroughly hidden, and all the deposits were the property of the Afghan ruler. Whether it was the only lazuli deposit or not was a secret for a long time. [Source:Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]

“As the locals recall, the existence of lazuli deposits in the Pamirs (besides Badakhshan) was known long ago, but they were inaccessible, holy, and even fatal. They had such fame because, according to legend, in ancient times syahpush (men dressed in black) came from India to the Pamirs in search of lazuli but could not overcome the high rocks that stood in the way of the lazuli deposit.

They demanded an innocent boy, girl, and dogrose bush brushwood from the local people. They made a sacrificial bonfire with these, and prayed to their god. Then they cut up cattle and put the meat on the rock. Since the deposit was located very high up where it was always cold, the blood of the animals froze and the meat froze to the rock. The invaders climbed up using these meat “steps”. But there were not enough animals, and it was still too far to reach the mountain peak. So then the syahpush started killing the locals to make a staircase from the bodies. The Pamiris could not stand the violence any longer, so they killed their uninvited guests. After that, no one tried to mine lazuli there.

The place itself became prohibited and holy, such that no one was to know about it, under threat of death. Another legendary deposit of the mineral has kept its local Pamiri name — Lojvar. A small river in the deep valley on which the deposit is located has the same name. The first geological description of the deposit was made in 1934 by a Tajik-Pamir expedition. It was preliminary data, but that information gave the clear idea that the deposit was large. Later studies traced the Lojvar Dara lazuli along a huge lazuli zone containing marble and stretching for about 400 meters. The mineral was not only on the surface, but was found to depths of at least 60 meters. During the Soviet period, lazuli was mined industrially.”

Wakhan Corridor

The Wakhan Corridor (beginning around Ishkashim) is a long finger of Afghanistan that reaches across to China where the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs meet. Bordered by Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south, it is home to glaciers, very high glacier-shrouded mountains, permanent snow, highland pastures used by herders, forested valleys and clear swift streams that feed Afghanistan’s vital rivers .

Most of the people that live here spend their winters in small villages in the valley that follows the the Wakhan (Oxus) River and spend their summers in the narrow, 9,000-foot-high valleys with their animals. The people that live here are mostly Wakhi. The are farmers who have traditionally grown wheat, barely, raised animals and chick peas and smoked opium and lived stone houses perched above the rivers . Some Kyrgyz live in the area. They are mainly herders and caravaneers. Marco Polo followed the Silk Road caravan route through this region. Caravans used to traverse the route, carrying silk and dishes from China, and dried fruit and animal skins from Central Asia. The Chinese closed the route.

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “Here, on the roof of the world, several of Asia’s highest ranges meet—the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram, the Kunlun—a spot so tangled with mountains it’s known as the Pamir Knot. The Wakhan corridor is also the birthplace of rivers flowing both east and west, including the Amu Darya, or “mother river,” one of the main waterways of Central Asia.” [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 <=>]

“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 result 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 geographical shock absorber—preventing tsarist Russia from touching British India. In previous 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.” <=>

Zorkul State Reserve

Zorkul State Reserve (north of the Wakhan Corridor, south of the road between Khorog and Murghab) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Territory of the reserve referred to the Central Asian natural climatic range with highland Zorkul Lake of glacial origin. This lake situated on the altitude of 4100-4200 meters. Within the territory of the reserve there are three more average lakes with the common name Chakankuli, which reached out along one of the gorge of Vakhan mountain ridge. Upper reaches of this ridge are referred to the territory of reserve up to the Soglasia Peak (6000 meters). To the South of the lake there is the territory of Afghanistan Islamic Republic so called Afghan Badakhshan. [Source: State Committee on environment conservation and forestry of the Republic of Tajikistan, UNESCO]

“Climate of the reserve is high deserted, ultracontinental with extremely sharp and big daily and annual temperature fluctuation. Winter in this region is very inclement and long. Average annual temperatures is — 1.5 degrees. Absolute minimum is -47degrees. Summer is short and cool and the average temperature in July makes +13-14 degrees.

The vegetation cover of reserve is very poor. Wood vegetation is completely absent. Mountains of the reserve represented mainly by cushion-like vegetation, representing high mountain type of vegetation. Edificators of these communities related to the representatives of different life forms. Cushion-like vegetation usually represented by akantolimons and Oxytropis, which are always combined with other diverse forms of high mountain plants such as wormwood, feather grasses and others. On the humid territories cushion-like vegetation combined with cold-resistant sedges, fowl-grasses and other plants. Along streams and rivers, near to riverside of lakes and snowfields there are sedges, and cereal meadows socalled pamir sazy (waterlogged low grassed alpine meadows widespread only in the high mountain of Pamirs). Some species of sedge is habitual here (rounded, black head and others).

“Zorkul Lake is inhabited by pseudoosman and Tibetian loach, and also by some species of invertebrate animals. Except the mountain Indian goose Zorkul nested by red duck, Himalayan merganser, red headed gull, Tibetan tern and other species of birds. Rodent represented by Pamir and silver field-voles, big eared pika, grey hamster, talai hare and red marmots which are very numerous here. Adjacent to Zorkul Lake mountain territory of South Amur mountain ridge inhabited by Pamir argali Marco Polo, Siberian ibexes, snow leopards, wolves and other species of fauna. Among the smaller mammals for reserve are habitual: ermine, weasel, red fox, turkestan lynx and Tian Shan brown bear. Birds of prey typical for the reserve are: bearded eagle, golden eagle and kumai.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan traveltajikistan.tj, Tajikistan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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