Afghanistan’s Kyrgyz nomads survive in one of the world’s most remote, high-altitude, and captivating landscapes. According to National Geographic: “It’s a heavenly life—and a living hell.” In the winter water is collected by chopping a hole in the ice of. On the journey back to their settlement girls in bright-colored clothes slide water-filled plastic jugs on the frozen rivers. On cold nights lambs are kept warm in cloth bags in their herder’s huts. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 =]

About a thousand Kyrgyz live in the Wakhan, a long valley between the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush mountains, that extends like a finger in northeast Afghanistan between Tajikistan and Pakistan to China. The mortality rate among Kyrgyz women in Afghanistan during childbirth is 500 times greater than in the developed world Kyrgyz believe that evil spirits cause many problems. To get rid of headaches they sometimes shave their head and put the hair in a clean place such as a frozen river. =

Sheep are kept for their meat and milk. Heat in the largely barren landscape is supplied by dung fuel. Some nomads have smart phones even though communication is not possible because it is too remote and far away from transmission towers. The phones are mainly used to play music and take photos. Many nomads smoke opium. By some estimates 50 percent are addicts. =

The Wakhan corridor where the Kyrgyz nomads live was created in the 19th century to prevent British India from sharing a border with Russian Central Asia. Britain paid Afghanistan to annex the region. Today it is cut off from the outside world as most of its borders are strictly regulated. The Kyrgyz are cut off from their traditional grazing lands in present-day Tajikistan. Instead the Kyrgyz migrate across the valley to slightly warmer, south-facing camps. =

History of the Kyrgyz in Northern Afghanistan

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “ Never a large tribe, the Afghan Kyrgyz roamed Central Asia for centuries—they were infamous for raiding Silk Road caravans—and by the 1700s had begun using the valleys where they now live as summertime grazing grounds. They’d leave to warmer areas when winter descended, avoiding the long, cruel season they must now endure. But then came the great empires, and their Great Game, followed by the spread of communism. By 1950 all the borders were shut and, says Ted Callahan, the Kyrgyz “by default became Afghan citizens,” trapped year-round in the Wakhan corridor. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 =]

“In 1978 a military coup upended Kabul, and there was the looming threat of a Soviet invasion. The Kyrgyz feared that Afghanistan too would become communist. Nearly all the Kyrgyz, some 1,300 people, elected to follow the khan at the time—Rahman Kul—and escape across the Hindu Kush into Pakistan. Disease killed a hundred during their first summer as refugees. Though Rahman Kul urged his people to remain in Pakistan—the Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, he warned, would ban their religion and crush their freedoms—many Kyrgyz were disillusioned with his leadership. They missed their life on the roof of the world. =

“Soon there was a split. Abdul Rashid Khan, the current khan’s father, led about 300 Kyrgyz back into Afghanistan...This is when Abdul Rashid was designated as khan. The Soviet troops, when they arrived, treated the Kyrgyz kindly, and over the past three decades, the population has grown to the current level of more than a thousand, even with the high death rate. Those who remained in Pakistan with Rahman Kul eventually resettled in eastern Turkey, where they now live in a village of cookie-cutter row houses, with electricity and cable TV and paved roads and cars. They were assigned Turkish last names. They like their video games, their flush toilets. They have been tamed.” =

Poverty and Wealth of the Kyrgyz in Northern Afghanistan

The Kyrgyz in Afghanistan have short lifespans and high infabt mortality rates. Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “This intense isolation is the reason the Kyrgyz suffer from a catastrophic death rate. There’s no doctor, 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. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 =]

“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 a white shroud and buried in a shallow grave. “That cut me into pieces,” said Abdul. To numb the pain, Halcha and Abdul turned to opium. The drug’s easy availability has created an epidemic of addiction among the Kyrgyz. Only one of their children, a son, survived to age five. Then he too passed away. =

“The Kyrgyz are not poor. Though paper money is almost nonexistent, many camps’ herds contain hundreds of valuable animals, including the horses and donkeys used for transportation. The basic unit of Kyrgyz currency is a sheep. A cell phone costs one sheep. A yak costs about 10 sheep. A high-quality horse is 50. The going rate for a bride is 100. The wealthiest families own the ultimate Kyrgyz status symbol—a camel, the two-humped kind, called a Bactrian, that appears perpetually foul tempered.” =

Kyrgyz Nomad in Northern Afghanistan

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “Er Ali Bai has six camels. He’s 57 years old and walks with a pronounced limp, leaning on a metal hiking pole that was given to him by a visitor. When the mood strikes, he’s prone to whack somebody playfully—yet painfully—with his pole. He loves to chat on his walkie-talkie. These two-way radios, recently introduced by itinerant traders, have allowed news to be passed from camp to camp, though the resulting information is often as accurate as in the party game telephone. Er Ali Bai is the owner of the only chicken in Kyrgyz country. The chicken, a hen, has one leg. The other was lost to frostbite. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 =]

“That summer, Er Ali Bai, one of the more respected Kyrgyz, invited the leading elders to his camp. A camp is the chief division of Kyrgyz life—three to ten families who migrate together and share the herding of yaks and fat-tailed sheep and long-haired goats. About 40 men arrived at Er Ali Bai’s camp to anoint the new khan. They sat outside on blankets, in a large circle. Sheep and goats were slaughtered, the traditional way to begin any Kyrgyz occasion. The hunk of fat around a sheep’s tail, boiled until gelatinous and pale yellow, is a great delicacy.=

“The khan and his family live in a gloomy, thick-walled mud hut in winter, and in a yurt the rest of the time...From a metal trunk in his yurt, the khan’s wife pulls out his finest clothes—a wool pin-striped suit, tall leather riding boots, a black-and-white scarf. His excitement is palpable. Maybe his people’s fortunes are about to change. “Everybody will be happy,” he says. His wife hands him a dark-blue bottle of cologne and a small brass container of naswar, the potent Afghan chewing tobacco. He climbs on his horse. There’s “a 100 percent chance,” he says, that the road will be built. He snaps his crop on the horse’s flank.” =

Leader of the Kyrgyz in Northern Afghanistan

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “It is a lot for a young leader to bear. The khan is only 32 and looks it—even his mustache, with its expressive little Fu Manchu tips, can’t mask his boyish appearance. He’s diminutive too, no more than five feet seven, and moves with a nervous, jackrabbity energy. He has light brown eyes and ruddy, wind-chapped skin and is partial to wearing a fur-lined cap with the earflaps tied overhead. He dresses, like most Kyrgyz men, in an all-black outfit, jacket to pants to shoes. He’s not above telling the occasional dirty joke. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 =]

“His name is Hajji Roshan Khan. He and his wife, Toiluk, have four daughters. The “Hajji” part of his name is an honorific, meaning he’s been to Mecca. The Kyrgyz are Sunni Muslims, and in 2008 his father, Abdul Rashid Khan, took him—him alone out of 14 children—to Saudi Arabia. That was the first time he’d left the Wakhan. The other time was last spring, when he traveled to Kabul and met with ministers in the Afghan government, as well as President Hamid Karzai, pleading for funding to build a medical clinic and a couple of schools and, of course, the road. =

“Though his father was the khan, the position of tribal leader is not hereditary. It must be agreed upon by the elders of the community. When Abdul Rashid Khan died in 2009, it was clear whom he wished to succeed him.” Later, tribe elders “met for more than eight hours. In the end everybody agreed that Hajji Roshan Khan would be the new leader. They agreed, but this doesn’t mean the khan is well liked. In fact, many people have deep misgivings about him...Some say the new khan is too young. Or too inexperienced. They say he’s an opium smoker. (He insists he’s quit.) They say he is not sangeen, which means “like a rock,” representing the strength and toughness the Kyrgyz look for in a leader. One faction argues that a rival who lives on the other end of the valley should have become khan. Others insist there is no need for a khan anymore; the time of the khans is finished.

“The new khan’s biggest supporter, though, is Er Ali Bai. Some critics complain that an aksakal—a “white beard”—should have been picked. “Yes,” Er Ali Bai replies. “There are people with long beards. Goats also have long beards. Should we have selected a goat?” There’s no need for concern, he adds. “He will become a great khan.” Still, the young khan worries. He’s striving to convince his people that he is the right person for this job. And he is working to resolve the tremendous problems the Kyrgyz face as they fight to survive in one of Earth’s most unforgiving environments...During his recent trip to Kabul, the khan’s appendix swelled. He went to a hospital and had it surgically removed. Not a big deal. But it rattled him deeply. “If that had happened here,” he says, “I would have died. Lots of people die here because of that.”

Kyrgyz Caravans Through the Pamirs

The Kyrgyz continue to operate a caravan that follows the same route that Marco Polo took through the Wakhan. The caravan is operated by Kyrgyz herdsmen who live in the high valleys. In the 1970s a winter caravan followed the frozen Wakhan River through the 220-kilometer-long Wakhan corridor from the Kyrgyz's home camp at MulkAli, about 20 miles from the Xinjiang (China) border, to Khanud to the west, where sheep are traded for salt, sugar, tea and other goods. Today, there is a shorter caravan from the Wakhan to the Afghanistan-Pakistan. Goods are carried on the backs of yaks. In the past they were carried on the backs of Bactrian camels. Men ride on horses. Some members of the caravan travel on foot. [Source: Sabrina and Roland Michaud, National Geographic, April 1972 ***]

The caravan exists because the Kyrgyz herdsmen can rely on milk from their animals for sustenance in the summer but in the winter they survive on bread and tea and have to trade to obtain these goods. In the past the Kyrgyz traded with caravans that came up from Kashgar in China. But that route was closed down in the 1950s by the Chinese. After that the Kyrgyz started heading westward and later eastward to Pakistan. ***

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “ Moving is what nomads do. For the Kyrgyz of Afghanistan, it’s from two to four times a year, depending on the weather and the availability of grass for the animals. They call their homeland Bam-e Dunya, which means “roof of the world.” This might sound poetic and beautiful—it is undeniably beautiful—but it’s also an environment 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. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 =]

Wakhan Corridor

The Wakhan Corridor 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.” =

Traveling on the Kyrgyz Winter Caravan in the Pamirs in the 1970s

In 1971, the French explorers Sabrina and Roland Michaud accompanied a winter camel caravan through the Wakhan. The round trip of 390 kilometers took about a month and took place in the middle of winter. When the caravan was ready to go the ropes and felt padding of the camels were checked. A supply of bread was taken to supply food for the entire journey. The Kyrgyz caravaneers traded one sheep for 160 pounds of wheat with the Wakhis at their destination. The Kyrgyz need the Walkis for food supplies. The Walkis need the Kyrgyz for sheep, tallow, milk products, wool, felt and meat. Sheep are not brought with the caravan, They are delivered later. [Source: Sabrina and Roland Michaud, National Geographic, April 1972 ***]

Temperatures in the Pamirs often drop below -12 degrees F. The cameelers wore hats with floppy earflaps and protected their hands with extra-long sleeves. On icy trails sand was often placed on the ice to help the animals get a better grip. At night the camels and cameleers slept in stone shelters, often infested with rats and full of smoke. When the caravan stoped the camels were prevented from lying down for two hours so they wouldn't get cold from snow melted by their hot bodies. ***

On frozen rivers it was possible to hear water rushing underneath ice that was three feet thick. Sometimes the caravans leaders placed their ears to the ice to listen for weak spots. If they could hear the loud sound of rushing water then they knew the ice was too thin. Sometimes animals broke through and drowned or froze to death. Special care was taken with the heavily loaded camels. When the ice was slippery they walked in mincing steps. ***

The Kyrgyz caravan traversed one high mountain pass. Describing a particularly treacherous stretch on the trail, Sabrina Michaud wrote, "On a narrow ledge over a dizzying precipice, my horse slipped and fell on its forelegs. I pull on the reins and the animals struggles to its feet. Fear dampens my body as we climb onwards.,.Ahead a camel slips and collapse on the path; it kneels and tries to crawl...Risking their own lives, men unload the animal so that it can stand up, then load it again, and move on." ***

Kyrgyz Summer Migration in the 2010s

In the 2010s, the Kyrgyz in the Wakhan traveled in a five day caravan to Pakistan to batter livestock, wool, dairy products for everything from teat to television sets One lamb buys 110 pounds of flour. Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “ On moving day the khan must focus on making sure the loaded yaks arrive at his summer camp. Though it’s late June, snow falls, swirling beneath cottage cheese clouds. But the khan can’t wait. The grass at his winter camp requires every day of the brief growing season to renew. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 =]

“With no car and no road, the reality is a yak. The khan is holding one by a rope strung through its nose. Other yaks are standing by. It’s moving day; everything the khan owns needs to be tied to the back of a yak. This includes a dozen teapots, a cast-iron stove, a car battery, two solar panels, a yurt, and 43 blankets. His younger brother and a few others are helping. The yaks buck and kick and snort; loading them is as much wrestling as packing. =

“Each Kyrgyz camp follows a relatively simple migration pattern, living on the warmer, south-facing side of the valley in winter, then trekking the five or so miles to the other side in summer. I catch a ride on one of the khan’s tamer yaks and join the procession. The horizon, everywhere you look, is halted by towering chiseled peaks...We reach the banks of the Aksu River. This time of year, with snowmelt accelerating, it’s deep and rapid. The khan’s loaded yaks plunge in. Two of them lose their footing and begin drifting downstream, carried by the current, noses held above water, eyes wild, the stacks of supplies on their backs getting soaked. =

“The khan’s brother-in-law, Darya Bai, charges into the water on his horse. Gripping the reins in one hand, leaning sideways in his saddle, he grabs a yak’s neck and tries to haul it across. For a moment it seems that the yaks, the supplies, and the brother-in-law might all be swept downriver. But they’re carried into an oxbow where the water flattens, and the yaks, followed by Darya Bai, soon emerge on the far bank, dripping and shaking...Then the khan crosses on his horse with his five-year-old daughter, Rabia, her hands clamped around his waist, feet raised to avoid getting wet. His two-year-old, Arizo, rides behind his wife, while his other children, six-year-old Kumush Ai (Silver Moon) and three-year-old Jolshek, share a horse with their uncle. =

“They reach a grassy area at the mouth of a narrow, glacier-packed side canyon. Goats stare from atop a pointy boulder. The wind—the brutal, unrelenting bad-e Wakhan—picks up. Snowflakes hurtle sideways, stinging faces. Loads are dumped from the yaks into a large pile. The khan’s wife and children huddle while the men begin building the yurt, listening to Kyrgyz music on a cell phone—a chanty tune featuring a three-stringed lute called a komuz. Constructing a yurt is a jigsaw puzzle feat requiring several hours. When finished, a yurt from the outside seems unimpressive, a sort of lumpy boiled potato, the whole thing covered in dirty white felt that the Kyrgyz make themselves.” =

Modern World Comes the Kyrgyz in Northern Afghanistan

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “Sometimes, among the Kyrgyz of Afghanistan—often at night, sipping tea in the warmth of a yurt—the question is asked: Would they be better off someplace else? Though the Kyrgyz valleys are free from the fighting that afflicts the rest of Afghanistan, living here can feel like a constant roll of the dice. The idea of leaving again, this time for good, seems always in the back of their minds. Some mention relocating to the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, where the same language is spoken and they have ethnic ties. But it is unclear whether this idea is really an option. Even the young khan is not immune to such thoughts. He admits, in moments of candor, that he’s imagined moving with his family, settling in a town somewhere in mainland Afghanistan. Living a more normal life. Perhaps, the khan thinks, there comes a time to give up on your homeland. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 =]

“The khan dreams of a car. Never mind that there isn’t a road. His father, the previous khan, spent his life lobbying for a road. The new khan does the same. A road, he argues, would permit doctors, and their medicines, to easily reach them. Then maybe all the dying would stop. Teachers too could get to them. Also traders. There could be vegetables. And then his people—the Kyrgyz nomads of remote Afghanistan—might have a legitimate chance to thrive. A road is the khan’s work. A car is his dream. =

“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. The khan knows about the outside world. He has twice traveled beyond the Wakhan region, and he exchanges news with merchants who venture into Kyrgyz land, trading his animals for goods like cloth, jewelry, opium, sunglasses, saddles, carpets, and lately, cell phones—not for calls (there’s no reception) but for playing music and taking pictures. =

The khan realizes that the rest of the planet, day by day, is leaving his people behind. The Kyrgyz nomads, with a total population of about 1,100, have only just begun a rudimentary educational system. The khan himself has never learned to read or write. He knows that almost everyone else has access to medical help, that the world is connected by cars and computers. He knows that children aren’t supposed to die like this.

Will a New Road Help the Kyrgyz in Northern Afghanistan

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “On the khan’s second day at his summer camp, important news arrives. Two government-employed engineers from Kabul have arrived at the end of the present road to survey routes that would extend the road through the mountains into Kyrgyz territory. The khan must greet them, a trip that will require three days of dawn-to-dark horse riding. He climbs on his horse. There’s “a 100 percent chance,” he says, that the road will be built. He snaps his crop on the horse’s flank. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013 =]

“I watch him gallop down the valley. His confidence seems at odds with reality...A road, Er Ali Bai points out, would bring its own problems. Yes, it would provide easy access for doctors and teachers. But also for tourists. And armies. The outside world would stream in—and that, Er Ali Bai says, might cause the younger generation to crave a less challenging life. To want to leave even more. “There are people who think riding in cars will make them happy,” says Er Ali Bai. “But this place is very beautiful. We live with love and family. This is the most peaceful place in the world.” =

“The views here are sweeping, and for a long time I see the khan riding away, his horse kicking up reddish brown dust. It’s a gorgeous day, warm and as close to windless as it gets. I envision the khan at the wheel of a car, windows down, hair tousled, driving past the mountain spires gleaming white in the sun. But I also understand that if the khan is able to do this, if his work is rewarded, the road built, his dream fulfilled, then the time of the traditional Kyrgyz nomad—the tribe of rugged and proud people who have survived for almost 2,000 years—will have come to an end. =

“In a poverty-stricken country with widespread disorder, constructing a road that would cost millions of dollars—possibly hundreds of millions—to help a thousand or so people makes little sense. “Nobody is building a road,” agrees Er Ali Bai. In the time of the khan’s father, Er Ali Bai recalls, engineers also came by, also said they were surveying for a road. Nothing ever happened.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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