Pamir are unique U-shaped, high-elevation mountain valleys distinctive to Central Asia, where there are more than half a dozen named pamir. Renowned as summer grazing grounds for their abundant grass and water, these vast plateaus are covered by snow six months of the year.

The Afghan Pamir include two such grasslands at the eastern end of Wakhan – the Big Pamir and the Little Pamir, which are better known by their Persian names. The Big Pamir or Great Pamir is called Pamir Kalan and Pamir-e-Buzurg (kalan and buzurg both mean ‘great’ or ‘large’). The Little Pamir is called Pamir Khurd and Pamir-e-Kochak (khurd and kochak both mean ‘little’ or ‘small’).

The 60km long Big Pamir nestles between the Southern Alichur Range to the north and the Wakhan Range to the south. The Little Pamir, at 100km long and 10km wide, is actually larger in area than the Big Pamir, yet the more rugged Big Pamir has a higher elevation and so earns its name. The proper name ‘Pamirs’ typically refers to the Central Asian mountain range that extends from Tajikistan into Afghanistan and China.

Afghanistan’s Wakhan District is a narrow strip of land separating Tajikistan and Pakistan that juts eastward some 350km to meet the China border. Wakhan District has two distinct parts – the Wakhan Corridor and the Afghan Pamir. All of Wakhan lies at elevations higher than 2000m and the Afghan Pamir lies above 3500m.

The Wakhan Corridor is a deep valley formed by the Panj River that courses between the 7000m peaks of the Hindukush to
the south and the lofty mountains of Tajikistan to the north. Along the south bank of the Panj River and its upper tributary, the Wakhan River, are numerous Wakhi villages. The villages between Ishkashim and Qila-e Panja are termed Lower Wakhan. More than 5000m of vertical relief commands the southern horizon of Lower Wakhan, where the valley is as broad as 2km. The villages in Upper Wakhan between Qila-e Panja and Sarhad-e Broghil lie along the more narrow banks of the Wakhan River, which opens to a dramatic river basin 3km wide at Sarhad-e Broghil. Streams fed by precipitous Hindukush glaciers cut across the Wakhan Corridor and flow into the main river.

Three mountain ranges – the Hindukush, Karakoram and Pamir – converge in Wakhan to form what is called the Pamir Knot. The Hindukush Range, which forms the border with Pakistan, has 38 summits higher than 7000m, including Afghanistan’s highest peak Noshaq (7492m). Permanent snow blankets Wakhan’s highest peaks. The high, open valleys between these three mountain ranges form the Afghan Pamir, known in Persian as the Bam-e Dunya, or the “roof of the world,” which is home to Kyrgyz nomads.

High passes called kotal transect the mountain ranges and were used by armies and ancient trade caravans. In the Afghan Pamir, passes, although at high elevation, are relatively easy for people to cross. The passes across the more rugged Hindukush are more difficult. The key Hindukush passes are: Broghil Pass (3882m) and Darwaza Pass (4288m) to Chitral; Khodarg Werth (or Khora Bort Pass) to Ishkoman; and Irshad Uween (4979m) and Dilisang Pass (5290m) to Gojal.

All of Wakhan is a semi-arid zone. In the Wakhan Corridor, agriculture is only possible through irrigation, fed by meltwater in the streams descending from the mountains. Apart from occasional clusters of shrubs or willow, birch and other small trees, the landscape is largely barren of vegetation. Above 3500m, the valleys widen onto the expansive Afghan Pamir with its lush seasonal meadows, peaty soil, and vivid blue lakes.

Wakhan activities
A JOURNEY THROUGH WAKHAN IS THE VERY ESSENCE OF ADVENTURE TRAVEL. AROUND EVERY TURN IN THE ROAD
OR TRAIL ARE TANTALIZING MOUNTAINS, UNKNOWN WILDERNESS, AND FASCINATING VILLAGES AND NOMAD
CAMPS. WITH EVERY STEP DEEPER INTO THE MOUNTAINS, YOU DISCOVER A WHOLE NEW WORLD OF ADVENTURE.
WALK ALONG THE ROAD, WANDER THROUGH VILLAGES, EXPLORE THE INVITING MOUNTAIN PASSES. TRAVEL WITH
THE GRACIOUS AND HOSPITABLE PEOPLE WHO LIVE HERE, SHARING THEIR HARDIHOOD. EXPERIENCING THESE
MOUNTAINS FIRST-HAND IS INCOMPARABLE AND UNFORGETTABLE..

Trekking, by far the most popular activity in Wakhan, is traditionally a multi-day overland journey on foot involving the support of a trek crew who transport your personal belongings and gear such as tents, food and cooking equipment. Today’s trekking styles vary from backpacking where you carry everything yourself, trekking with porters who transport your gear using pack animals (yak, donkey, camel or horse), buying an animal and leading it yourself (usually a donkey, hence the name donkey trekking), or hiring a tour operator who organises your trek.

Distances in the Afghan Pamir are so great that you may want to hop a ride during part of your trek. Yaks, strong shaggy beasts, are regularly used by local people to transport gear, but are also fun to ride and useful for crossing rivers rather than fording them. In winter when rivers are frozen solid, it’s possible for intrepid travelers to move on these icy pathways in traditional caravans of double-humped Bactrian camels.

It’s more common, especially with Kyrgyz, to travel on horseback. Horse trekking, where your horse is your transportation vehicle and your travelling companion, allows you to move faster than on foot, relieves you of having to transport gear separately, and also facilitates navigating river crossings and steep slopes. You can go horse trekking even if you have little experience with horses by hiring a horse trekking tour operator.

The unique attractions for mountaineering in Wakhan are several easily accessible 7000m peaks of the Hindukush, including Afghanistan’s highest peak Noshaq (7492m), and numerous peaks higher than 6000m awaiting first ascents. The glaciated side valleys in the Big Pamir offer a host of virgin peaks. Extreme adventurers will find a playground for climbing and ski mountaineering.

The isolation and remoteness of Wakhan, its natural beauty, and its cultural diversity are ideal for cultural touring in 4WD vehicles. Exploring the cultural heritage, meeting people on village walks, day hiking and untrammeled camping each night combine to please the most venturesome visitors.

Unlimited opportunities for photography and discovering the rich natural history abound. Birdwatching, easily combined with other activities in Wakhan, is superb. Some of the best is along the Panj River and Wakhan River as you drive between Ishkashim and Sarhad-e Broghil. The upland rivers and lakes are nesting grounds for geese, ducks and ibises, as well as spring and fall stopovers for migratory waterfowl and raptors. Marshy flats and oxbow lakes provide year-round habitat for many wading birds.

The pristine natural environment boasts ideal wildlife viewing where charismatic species such as Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon polii), snow leopard (Uncia uncia), and brown bear (Ursus arctos) make their home, particularly in
the Wakhjir Valley and in the numerous side valleys of the Big Pamir. The whistling alarm call of ubiquitous long-tailed
marmots (Marmota caudata) alerts you to their presence before they dive into their burrows. (Inadvertently stepping into a marmot burrow may be the greatest physical danger for anyone trekking in the Afghan Pamir!) Grey wolf, red fox, Afghan urial (Ovis orientalis), ibex (Capra ibex), and other wild cats also thrive in this high and wild terrain. Ethereal and wonderfully unique butterflies grace summer wildflowers.

A few ambitious cyclists have already made their way to Wakhan. The road through the Wakhan Corridor is there for mountain biking, but you’d better be a good bike mechanic and have an ample supply of spare parts and tires.

Wakhan is an undiscovered, uncrowded gem not yet on the tourist map of the world. Cultivate a spirit of adventure and open heartedness, and add to it self reliance, sound judgment and good planning and you have the recipe for an unforgettable trip to one of the earth’s most exotic landscapes.