Like the Middle East, Central Asia has been cursed by Imperial Powers drawing boundary lines that cut across ethnic divisions.
In the 19th century there was a rivalry known as the Great Game between the Russian and British empires. In 1873 Britain and Russia agreed that the Oxus River should be the dividing line between their empires in Central Asia. The only snag was that no one was quite sure where the Oxus was. This was settled in 1895 when the Russians and British met on the shores of Lake Zorkul (renamed Lake Victoria) and agreed that Lake Victoria was the headwaters of the Oxus and therefore the dividing line.
The downside was that the people of the Pamirs were now divided with the northern part of the valley lumped in with the Tajiks in the Russian sphere of influence, while the people in the south of the valley were added to the buffer zone that Britain created in Afghanistan.
Similarly, in 1929 when Stalin created the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, he placed over a million Uzbeks in it, along with a significant number of Sufi Muslims in the Western Pamirs. At the same time, he placed the predominantly Tajik city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan.
Dilovar, the Tajik person who mended our car, was still lamenting the loss of Samarkand today. The Eastern Pamirs, although located in Tajikistan, are largely inhabited by Kyrgyzs, who don’t just speak Kyrgyz, but get their eggs from Kyrgyzstan and set their clocks to Kyrgyz time.
It was hardly surprising that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, ethnic tensions simmered over throughout Central Asia.
During the six year civil war in Tajikistan, out of a population of 9 million, about 50,000 people were killed, about 250,000 fled to other countries (mainly Afghanistan) and about 500,000 were made homeless.
Things are more peaceful now, partly because the deeply respected Aga Khan has urged his Sufi Muslim followers in the Western Pamirs not to resort to violence. The last violence in the Pamirs were some raids from Afghanistan into Tajikistan over a year ago. But soldiers and villagers still insist that tourists only park their cars overnight in villages (and every village has a small garrison), not on uninhabited areas visible across the Oxus from Afghanistan.
The Pamirs are a special and remote place. The mountains rise to 7,000 metres and the highest pass on the Pamir Highway is 4,655 metres.
The Pamirs are part of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (or province), which has 45% of Tajikistan’s land mass, but only 2.5% of its population (215,000 people). Traditional houses in the Western Pamirs have five pillars in their main room, representing the five prophets of Ismaili Sufism. The skylights have four concentric squares representing the four elements of Zoroastrianism: fire, water, air and earth. The Pamir Highway passes ancient castles, Buddhist stupas and many shrines with Marco Polo goat horns (named because Marco Polo first described these goats when he visited the Pamirs about 1270).
Each of the five valleys in the Western Pamirs has its own language.
The inhabitants of the Western Pamirs revere the Aga Khan, whose Aga Khan Foundation has developed an extensive network of homestays. The Aga Khan Foundation employs 15,000 people. It is almost a second government.