The Curse Of Geography


By Emma Kazaryan

From Silk Road to Heroin Highway:
a journey along the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan
to one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the world.

Khorog, Gorno-Badakhshan. March, 2017.

The waitress at the coffee shop looks perplexed. She has nothing to offer but a few stale cookies and a cup of cappuccino to her foreign guests visiting Khorog two months before tourist season in the Pamir Mountains.

The shop is dark and cold. The sunlight penetrating through the small windows illuminates the grey walls of the unembellished space, making exhalation visible. It was obvious she had not expected anyone that morning, especially tourists. Feeling ashamed, she offers to go and buy something from another pastry shop in the same building. The traditional pastries at the other store are no less stale. In the Pamir Mountains, a freshly baked pastry at the end of the winter is considered a luxury. There is a scarcity of products thanks to lack of accessibility (due to weather and road conditions), and a lack of supply (due to the near-absence of demand).

The Luni coffee shop is located on the Lenin Street, one of the sections of M41 going through Khorog and the busiest street in town. Hundreds of locals and foreigners use this road to pass through to the Central—and only—bazaar in Khorog. Across the street is the University of Central Asia Town Campus, built in 2006 as a partnership between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, under the sponsorship of the Aga Khan Development Network. To its left, the youth center and local television and radio station; in front, the State Committee for National Security office, better known as the KGB building.

Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, is situated in the west of the Pamir Mountains at the confluence of the Gunt and Panj rivers, on the border of Afghanistan. It is 325 miles away from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. The safest—and sometimes only—way to get to Khorog is via the M41, informally known as the Pamir Highway, which connects Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It takes approximately twelve hours to travel by car from Dushanbe to Khorog, following along the Panj River, which serves as a natural border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.


Leaving Dushanbe, a blood orange sunrise coats the empty streets on the outskirts of the city. Along the winding roads the scenery changes drastically from semi-industrialized city to endless hilly green fields, beautiful canyons, a sky blue river, and peaks of the Vakhsh Range hidden in the clouds.

As we approach the first checkpoint, Normat grabs his wallet. “The Tajiks—always ask for money,” he says, stepping out of the 1996 Toyota Land Cruiser. When he returns he looks upset and worried. “As soon as they recognize I am from the Pamir, they ask for money.” Normat, a Gorno-Badakhshan native in his mid forties, works as a private driver, taking tourists from Dushanbe to Gorno-Badakhshan. He travels frequently and knows the price of passage: “private tolls” that go to the pockets of the police, not the government.

We are stopped at every checkpoint on our way to Khorog, Normat stepping out of the car with cash in hand, bribes passed to the police while shaking their hands.

The roundtrip from Dushanbe to Khorog was 250USD, including the checkpoint “fees” or “bribes.” Weak governance, bureaucratic mismanagement, and corruption have left people to find alternative ways of making money, especially given the fact that Tajikistan is the second poorest country in Central Asia after Afghanistan, according to the 2016 United Nation Human Development Report.

An hour before the Afghan border we reach a “restaurant” with no sign. From the outside, it looks like a house under construction—large, grey brick walls, a rusted metal door with a rubber curtain hanging in front of it, and windows covered with plastic. An old and heavy looking man with a dark and thick mustache waits inside the empty and poorly-lit restaurant, walls painted white and blue, tables covered with pink plastic tablecloths. The wood-burning furnace is the only source of heat in the building. The old man looks agitated. He moves quickly from the dining room floor to the kitchen, visible through an open window in the wall. Steam rushes out of the pots and the sound of boiling water resonates from the jumping aluminum tops.

The menu: “Gulyash with rice, gulyash with macaroni, or gulyash with buckwheat,” he says in Russian, eyebrows raised as he waits to take an order.

Normat eats quickly and rushes outside. The final stretch to the Afghan border is an epic and silent landscape, the quiet broken only by the passing cargo trucks sporting Chinese license plates.

Normat’s phone rings every hour, and he has a short conversation in the Rushani dialect—one of the Pamiri Languages. He stays in contact with other drivers traveling to Gorno-Badakhshan. “I never travel alone,” Normat says. “We always make an arrangement to go together because you never know what is going to happen on the road. It is such a long trip.”

On the other side of the Panj River, in the foothills of the mountains, it is hard to differentiate one Afghan village from another. Each village is comprised of one-story, box-shaped mud houses with flat roofs, built using wooden poles and covered with a mixture of mud and straws, and patches of small croplands divided by stones along the perimeter, smoothly transitioning into the pasture for cattle.

The sound of the evening prayer floats across the river from Jamarj-e Bala, the largest Afghan village in the Maimay District of Badakhshan. Normat looks unnerved. He is making sure there is no border patrol nearby. The Tajik Army patrols the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, walking along the road in small groups to maintain security and catch drug smugglers entering from Afghanistan.

For the past three decades, the M41 has served as the primary trafficking route for opiates and heroin, smuggled from Afghanistan through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and into Russia and Europe. It is sometimes referred to as the “Heroin Highway”—the bloodline of a multi-billion dollar drug smuggling network that remains the most lucrative source of income in Tajikistan.

Current United Nations’s estimates show that about 15% of all Afghan opiates and 20% of its heroin are trafficked through Tajikistan, mainly Khorog.

Normat relaxes as we enter the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, but the ride becomes rough. Though driving on a narrow, unpaved road with no side and signs, Normat seems confident, as if familiar with every pothole and stone on the road. After dark, there is near zero visibility—only the traces of mountains buried under snow. We feel as if we are in the Arctic, endlessly driving into nowhere.

“Hardly anyone travels this time of the year,” explains Normat, “Nobody knows what to expect. There are a lot of avalanches and big rocks falling from the mountains.”

Before starting his job as a private driver, Normat lived in Russia for 11 years working as a bus driver. Five years ago, he had no choice but to return to Tajikistan to take care of his elderly parents. He now transports people and goods back and forth. “We don’t have a postal system in Badakhshan,” he said. “Every time I plan a trip, people ask me to pass some money or goods to their relatives either in Dushanbe or Badakhshan.”

The Pamiris are rushing to give their packages to Normat on his way to Dushanbe. Rushan, Gorno-Badakhshan. March, 2017.

After reaching Normat’s hometown of Rushan, 40 miles north of Khorog, he calls his clients, people expecting a delivery from Dushanbe—a pack of diapers, a bag of special goods for Nowruz (the Persian New Year), an envelope with cash—hand delivered to each addressee. The car’s headlights are the only source of light on the dark street. Only the silhouettes of people can be seen as they walk towards Normat, looking for packages in the trunk with a flashlight.

Normat, feeling bad for us and looking tired himself, kindly suggests we stay at his place in Rushan for the night and that we continue on to Khorog in the morning. Though grateful for Normat’s hospitality, we decide to continue our journey. Two hours later, we finally reached our destination.

Zakir, the manager of a newly built hotel in Khorog, awaits his first guests of the season two months before its official opening. With a population of approximately 29,000 people, Khorog is considered one of the poorest regions in Tajikistan. Besides being the administrative center of the region, it is also a strategic center for international trade and tourism. Most locals only make money during the tourist season, which lasts for a few months during summer and early fall, when the weather allows for easy mobility.

The largest source of financial support comes through the project investments from the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), a private not-for-profit developmental agency founded in 1967. AKF funded several projects, including the construction of the PamirEnergy electric station and a number of hospitals, educational facilities, and social support organizations. It is directed by Aga Khan IV, the current Imam of Isma’ilism within Shia Islam—the main religion of the Gorno-Badakhshan. Residents have just enough money for bare necessities, the majority surviving off cash sent to them by relatives working construction or menial jobs abroad, mainly in Russia.

Almost half of the nation’s GDP is earned by more than one million Tajik migrants working abroad. Since 2016, Russia has changed its Immigrant Labor Laws, making it even harder for Tajiks and other workers from Central Asia to earn money there. The new law requires knowledge of the Russian language as well as Russian history in order to work. And, since 2015, every foreign worker must pay a monthly fee of up to 4,500 Rubles to hold a work permit (patent) in Russia. The typical monthly salary ranges from 12,000 to 27,000 Rubles. In the best case scenario, workers spend half of their salary on rent, health insurance, and the patent fee; many workers spend more. According to the Academy of Labor and Social Relations in Russia, these amendments and the struggling Russian economy have forced many people from Central Asian countries to return home.

The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Republic—better known among locals as the Pamir—was a disputed area between Bukhara, Afghanistan, Russia, and Britain until the late nineteenth century. The Russian Empire managed to take over the territory and later integrated it into the Soviet Union as an autonomous region within the Tajik U.S.S.R., because of the geographic proximity—a political and administrative convenience.

Before being conquered by the Russian Empire in the late 1860s, Tajikistan, together with other Central Asian countries, was under the dominance of several empires: first, Arabs invaded and brought Islam, then the Persian Empire came and influenced the culture and language. Next came the Mongol Empire under the rule of Genghis Khan, followed last by Tamerlane, the founder of the Timurid Empire. As a result of many wars and the loss of the regional power of the ruling empires, the indigenous population—inhabiting those territories for generations that spoke the same languages and shared similar cultural norms and beliefs—have since been divided between four countries and imposed upon by the dominant languages and social, political, and cultural structures.

“I still have cousins who live in Afghanistan,” said Davlatgul, the waitress at the coffee shop. She was not able to see her relatives for many years during the Russian-Afghan war in the 1980s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and a short civil war in 1992, the Tajik government reopened the border in 2002. “Afghans cannot come here, unlike us,” she said.

The border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan runs for about 810 miles. The Panj River separates the section that runs along the Pamir Highway. Four narrow bridges connect Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The first one, the Tajik-Afghan Bridge at Tem-Demogan, was built in Khorog in 2002 and serves as a link between two Badakhshans—Afghan and Tajik. The Vanj Bridge is the fourth in the series of bridges and was completed in 2011 with an initiative to enhance socio-economic and trade relationships between the two countries. Once a week, people from both countries walk the bridge to trade goods. Little more than a century ago, people from both sides of the shore used to be citizens of the same country. Now they are foreigners.

“The Pamir Mountains are divided into several parts—one part of Badakhshan is located on the territory of Tajikistan, [while] most of the ethnic groups remain on the territory of Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, and Tashkurgan region of China,” according to Shodikhon Yusufbekov, a Professor of Philology and the Director of the Research Institute of the Tajik Academy of Science. “It is very hard to create and preserve the language because in each country the national language is different. In China, people speak the Uyghur-Arabic and Chinese languages, in Afghanistan and Pakistan they use the Arabic script, and in Tajikistan we use Cyrillic.”

Professor Shodikhon Yusufbekov. Khorog, Gorno-Badakhshan. March, 2017

Today, the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Republic remains one of the most remote places in Central Asia and one of the most dangerous passages of the ancient Silk Road. The weather conditions and frequent landslides and avalanches during winter and spring make it almost impossible to build roads that last for a substantial amount of time. Nevertheless, it remains the most important link between China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.

Since 2016, China has been developing its economic and military ties with Tajikistan more actively as a part of the Central Asian expansion. In the early 2000s, the links between the two countries were limited due to the lack of transport networks. However, the Chinese government has invested about 240 million USD to restore—and in some areas build—the Pamir Highway as a section of their grand project, One Belt, One Road, which is said to be one of the largest infrastructural development projects in history, connecting 65 countries that make up 62% of the world’s population and comprise about 35% of the world’s trade.

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, China is currently responsible for 51% of imports into Tajikistan. Beijing doesn’t view Tajikistan as an economic partner per se, but rather a strategic collaborator to open larger trade possibilities. Tajikistan is the key trade link between China, other Central Asian countries, and Europe, as well as a means to strengthen regional military dominance.

“After the road was built we started seeing a lot of people from China,” says Davlatgul. “They come for business, more than tourism.” She seems very optimistic about the coming season, hoping to get even more customers, not only from China, but from Europe and the United States. Tourism has been booming in the Pamir Mountains in recent years. Newly built hotels along the main road in Khorog attest to that development. The city serves as the starting point for adventure seekers who come to visit the Wakhan Corridor and other hidden gems of the Gorno-Badakhshan.

At the end of nineteenth century, the Russian Empire, Britain, and Afghanistan split Wakhan into four parts and created a narrow corridor that connected China, Afghanistan, and a buffer zone between Russia (modern Tajikistan) and Britain-controlled India (modern Pakistan). In 1949, when Mao Zedong established communism in China, he ordered the closing of the border with Afghanistan, cutting off the 2000-year-old caravan route. Later, during the Afghan-Russian war, the Soviets established a strong military base in Wakhan to protect the borders. However, the region has never seen a war and has remained peaceful, unlike the rest of Afghanistan. In 2010, China re-opened the border after a number of requests from the Afghan government to develop a trade partnership.

Despite some minor trade and infrastructure developments in the region that feed the pockets of the Tajik elite, the Pamiri people’s lives remain static, dependent on the money earned by relatives abroad and the influx of tourists from neighboring countries.

New development projects and improved educational facilities create opportunities for the younger generation of Pamiris to move to the capital or other countries. This tendency has negatively impacted the kishlaks (mountain villages), which are on the brink of desolation. According to Professor Yusufbekov, fewer and fewer people continue to live in the areas with no electricity and running water.

Many Badakhshanis who receive education and training abroad, however, either return or try to support people back home by opening businesses and creating jobs. Munira Mirmamadova, the owner of the Luni coffee shop, returned to Khorog after completing a fellowship at Lehigh University in the United States. She opened the shop in 2015 to cater to locals and tourists, maintaining “western standards” with a touch of Pamiri hospitality.

As we finished our coffees, Davlatgul was still praising the marvel and adventure of the Pamir Mountains. “You should come back in the summer, I will take you around myself,” she says, as her smile deepens the wrinkles on her face, her blue eyes watering up.