Yak's milk hospitality in the remote Pamir mountains

By John Pilkington
Pamir mountains, Afghanistan


The conflict in Afghanistan has reduced the flow of tourists to the country almost to zero. But one remote, northern corner of the country has remained at peace, and is keen to welcome more visitors.

High in the Pamir mountains, Afghanistan meets its northern neighbour Tajikistan on the banks of the thundering Panj River.

For most of the last century, this marked the southern limit of Soviet Central Asia, and there is still an outpost in the form of a Russian-speaking village with a single narrow bridge across the river.

I crossed the bridge and stepped back 100 years.

On the Tajik side were cars, electric lights, piped water and central heating and on the Afghan side donkeys, candles, water buckets and smoky yak-dung fires.

From here a finger of Afghanistan goes east for 350km (200 miles), separating Tajikistan from Pakistan.

This is the so-called Wakhan Corridor, a relic of the 19th Century "Great Game" between Britain and Russia. It leads to the High Pamir, where four separate mountain ranges come together in a tangle of peaks and glaciers.

These are the lands of the Wakhi and the Kyrgyz.

The Wakhi live in rough stone houses, the Kyrgyz are semi-nomadic and prefer big round tents which they call "yurts".

In the lower valleys I found the Wakhi busy harvesting the all-important barley crop. Higher up, the Kyrgyz were leading sheep and yaks across endless mountainsides, making the most of the summer pasture.

Apart from these shepherds with their animals, the only creatures you see in the high valleys are marmots, vultures, and - if you are really lucky - a faraway glimpse of a snow leopard.

I cannot speak Wakhi or Kyrgyz, so I found myself an interpreter called Yar Mohammad and he in turn came up with two splendid horsemen, Shogun and Amin Bek.

I had brought a tent and was intending to be self-sufficient, but in all the villages people instantly came out to greet us with rounds of bread, and bowl after bowl of freshly made yak's-milk yogurt.

If you haven't experienced yak's-milk yogurt - well, it's tangy, it tingles on the tongue, it's rich in Vitamin C and it's very addictive. We were also offered cups of salty and slightly rancid yak-butter tea - but somehow I never found this quite so tempting.

I was aiming for a place called Bozai Gumbaz, and an appointment with a famous British character from the days of the Raj.

Victorian courtesy

In 1891 Captain Francis Younghusband was arrested by Cossacks here, and frogmarched out of what they said was now part of Russia.

In London this seemed horribly like the prelude to an invasion of British India. In the end there was no invasion and no war - but this so-called "Pamir Incident" led directly to the peculiar boundaries that we see today, with the Wakhan Corridor made part of Afghanistan to prevent British and Russian forces from ever again having to meet.

Image caption,
Yak's milk can can be turned to yogurt, butter or cheese

I wanted to mark the 120th anniversary of the incident by giving a nod and a wink to the officers involved, who actually behaved with impeccable Victorian courtesy all round. The Cossacks even gave Younghusband a haunch of venison.

But crossing the river to Bozai Gumbaz I somehow managed to fall off my horse.

One moment it was wading happily across, the next it was on its knees and I was tumbling over its head. Luckily my foot caught in one of the stirrups, so instead of being swept away I was dragged foot-first through the freezing water and dumped on the far bank.

Back in Ishkashim, the tiny town at the Corridor's entrance, I recovered in a little guesthouse with the razzmatazz of the bazaar nearby.

Ishkashim is not Kathmandu, but its people are working hard to make things easier for visitors, and they would like to welcome more of us.

Adab Shah, who has just started up a travel company, tells me, "The main problem is getting people up into the Corridor. It's expensive and very uncomfortable, because the road is so bad."

Well I had bounced and jolted up that road myself, and I would say his assessment is spot-on. But roadworks apart, what are the chances that this unlikely experiment will succeed against all the odds?

It will depend, of course - like so much in Afghanistan - on what happens after most of the Nato forces depart, probably in 2014.

So if you enjoy mountains, and if you have got a taste for yak's-milk yogurt, I would say, "Go while you can."

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