Thursday, August 15, 2013

Window on Eurasia: The Kyrgyz Remain on Afghanistan’s ‘Roof of the World’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 15 – The Wakhan Corridor, the isolated segment of Afghanistan linking that country to China but separating Tajikistan from Pakistan, is currently home to one of the last truly nomadic groups in Eurasia, 1100 ethnic Kyrgyz who returned to what they call “the roof of the world” when many of their co-ethnics moved from Pakistan to eastern Turkey.

            The history of the latter group is relatively well-known as is the history of the Wakhan Corridor, but the Kyrgyz community which lives in the Wakhan Corridor now is almost unknown. A remarkable and richly illustrated picture of this group has been provided this week by the Russian blog Tolkovatel (

            No state controls this community, and it retains its medieval style of life and barter economy. Indeed, its only connection with the outside world is the sale of opium, a drug that the Kyrgyz themselves not only do not use but expel from their community anyone who is found to have violated that prohibition.

            A millennium ago, the Wakhan was part of the Great Silk Road, and Marco Polo claimed to have passed through there.  Its current shape was the result of the great game between tsarist Russian and the United Kingdom in the 19th century, and its precise borders were defined after the Russian and Chinese revolutions.

            Until 1949, the Kyrgyz could and did ignore all these external borders, regularly passing from Soviet Central Asia into Xinjiang. Indeed, that is the path that Rakhman-Kul followed in bringing the Kyrgyz to the Wakhan in the 1950s before leading them out again to Pakistan following the 1979 Soviet invasion.

            At that time, his Kyrgyz community numbered 1300 people, but after arriving in Pakistan, the group split into two parts, one numbering about a 1,000 under Rakhman-Kul who hoped to go to Alaska but ended up in eastern Turkey and a second of about 300, under Abdul Rashid Khan, the father of the current khan Ali Bey who returned to the Wakhan.

            Those who went to Turkey gave up their nomadic style of life, but those who returned to a land whose average height above sea level exceeds 2500 meters have maintained their nomadism. And they have remained unaffected by Soviets, Taliban or the Americans in turn ever since. Indeed, the self-designation of the Kyrgyz is “free men” like the basmachis of the 1920s.

            Infant and child mortality among the Kyrgyz is extremely high: half of all children die before their fifth birthday, but the community has grown rapidly because the average family has seven children who live beyond that age. Over the last 30 years, the group has increased 3.5 times.

            A khan has formal authority over the Kyrgyz but his powers are nominal. Indeed, his chief function seems to be as a contact between the Kyrgyz and Kabul.  There is now formal religious organization, and most Kyrgyz in the Wakhan now practice a mixture of shamanism and Islam.

            The group has a barter economy based on the sheep. A yak costs ten sheep; a good horse, 50; a camel, 100 – which is equal to the bride price there.  There are some modern innovations: Despite lacking a network, the Wakhan Kyrgyz buy cellphones for a sheep each, using the phones to take pictures rather than to contact others.

            Two or three times a year, the Kyrgyz travel to settlements in Afghanistan proper and trade opium for what they need but cannot produce.  According to the Tolkovatel article, every Kyrgyz must sell approximately 100 grams of opium to raise enough money for such products. Mostly they rely on what they can produce themselves: yak milk and wild vegetables.

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