The Afghan Pamir
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.