Wakhan & Footprints of Sir Aurel Stein || Bushan Parimoo || LIVE IMAGE

The Wakhan Corridor a  high mountain valley,  sparsely populate with about  12,000 inhabitants, in the shape of  a narrow  strip in Afghanistan  that extends to   China  shouldering with th a part of Gilgit baltistan belt of the Jammu  and Kashmir state, A trade route through the valley has been used by travellers going to and from EastSouth and Central Asia since antiquity.

‘Time never stops’ is often quoted but it does not hold good in the vicinity of Kashmir. Where time has remained stand still from the day one, it seems so. One of the most remote, high-altitude, bewitching landscapes on Earth. It’s a heavenly life—and a living hell. A visitor seen once in a fine moon here. Is greet with the words that you have watch we have time. It is perfect living well preserved specimen from which civilization has risen. Nothing changes here except season. 

It is called Wakhan a very mountainous and rugged part of the Pamir, Hindu Kush and Karakoram regions of Afghanistan. Located in the extreme north-east of Afghanistan, Wakhan is connected to Tashkurgan Tajik County, China, by a long narrow strip called the Wakhan Corridor, which separates the Gorno-Badakhshan region of Tajikistan from the Khyber Pakhtunkh Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan of Jammu and Kashmir State.

 The Wakhan River flows through the corridor from the east to Qila-e Panja where it joins the Pamir River to become the Panj River which then forms the border. In the south the corridor is bordered by the high mountains of the Hindu Kush, crossed by the Broghol pass, the Irshad Pass and the disused Dilisang Pass to Pakistan. It contains the headwaters of the Amu Darya (Oxus) River, and was an ancient corridor for travelers from the Tarim Basin to Badakshan. 

Historically, Wakhan has been an important region for thousands of years as it is where the Western and Eastern portions of Central Asia meet. The western part of the Wakhan, between Ishkashim and Qila-e Panja is known as Lower Wakhan which includes the valley of the Panj River. The valleys of the Wakhan River, the Pamir River and their tributaries, and the terrain between, are known as Upper Wakhan. 

The Western Wakhan was conquered in the early part of the 1st century CE by Kujula Kadphises, the first "Great Kushan," and was one of the five principalities that formed the nucleus of the original Kushan kingdom. Strange but true the area from inception till date has remained peaceful. Its remoteness together with its inaccessibility proves blessing in disguise and resulted to remain unaffected during the recent Afghan War and thus its innocent natives were spared from the miseries which other parts are reeling under.

Wakhan is sparsely populated; had 12000 souls in 2016 compromising of Wakhi, Kyrgyz and Khowar are the major ethnic groups speak the Vakhi or Wakhi language. The Nomadic Kyrgyz herders live at the higher altitudes. The only road into the Wakhan is a rough track from Ishkashim past Qila-e Panja to Sarhad-e Broghil. Paths lead from the end of the road to the Wakhjir Pass, a mountain pass leading to China which is closed to travellers. 

Until 1883 the Wakhan included the whole valley of the Panj River and the Pamir River, as well as the upper flow of the Panj River known as the Wakhan River. Wakhjir Pass is part of the Silk Road. It is believed that the famous Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang travelled via this pass on his return trip to China in approximately 649 AD.

Traditionally, the pass is inaccessible for at least five months out of the year and is accessible irregularly for the remainder of the year. The terrain is extremely difficult, although Aurel Stein reported that the immediate approaches to the pass were "remarkably easy". There are few records of successful crossings by foreigners. Historically the pass was a trading route between Badakhshan and Yarkand, used by merchants from Bajaor. 

It appears that Marco Polo came this way, although he did not mention the pass by name. The Jesuit priest Benedict Goëz crossed from the Wakhan to China between 1602 and 1606. The next oldest accounts are from the period of the Great Game in the late 19th century.

In 1868, a pundit known as the Mirza, working for the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, crossed the pass. There were further crossings in 1874 by Captain T.E. Gordon of the British Army, in 1891 by Francis Young husband, and in 1894 by Lord Curzon. In May 1906 Sir Aurel Stein crossed, and reported that at that time the pass was used by only 100 pony loads of goods each way annually. Since then the only Westerner to have crossed the pass seems to have been H.W. Tilman in 1947.

A 1873 agreement between UK and Russia split the Wakhan by delimiting spheres of influence for the two countries at the Panj and Pamir rivers, and an agreement between Britain and Afghanistan in 1893 confirmed the new border. Since then, the name Wakhan is now generally used to refer to the Afghan area south of the two rivers. 

The northern part of the historic Wakhan is now part of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province in Tajikistan. The only road into the Wakhan is a rough track from Ishkashim past Qila-e Panja to Sarhad-e Broghil.The eastern extremity of Upper Wakhan is known as the Pamir Knot, the area where the Himalayas,  Tian Shan,  Karakoram, Kunlun,  and Hindu Kush ranges meet. 

West of the Pamir Knot is the Little Pamir, a broad U-shaped grassy valley 100 km long and 10 km wide, which contains Chaqmaqtin Lake, the headwaters of the Aksu or Murghab River. At the eastern end of the Little Pamir is the Tegermansu Valley, from where the closed Tegermansu Pass (4,827 m) leads to China. The Great Pamir or Big Pamir, a 60 km long valley south of Zorkol Lake, drained by the Pamir River, lies to the northwest of the Little Pamir. 

The mountain range that divides the two Pamirs is known as the Nicholas Range west of the Nicholas Range, between the Great Pamir and the Lower valley of the Wakhan River, is the Wakhan Range, which culminates in the Koh-e Pamir (6,320 m).The roads in the region have small shrines to Ismaili Muslim pirs and are adorned with "special stones and curled ibex and sheep horns", which are symbols of purity in the Zorastrian faiths, once present in the region before the arrival of Islam.

Last October Rebecca Taylor, a British journalist carried a write up about the "The Wakhan corridor, home to about 12,000 villagers" , who live a simple, relaxed life, at an altitude of 4,500 meters, in the harsh, desolate terrain with their livestock and few luxuries. No idea about the Taliban or the subsequent US invasion and war that raged across. Just imagine a large area and with thousands of Humans and wildlife sustaining where clock of development hardly clicked and stands still for centuries till date. 

Despite it has been one of the quite essential Silk routes Wakhan Valley, a place where cultures and trade have intersected for centuries. It is as before Hsuan Tsang traversed the area during 640 AD followed by Marco Polo, through Ishkashim in c. 1271. Alexendra the Great too marched through.

In January 1842, Lieutenant Wood of the British India Navy having crossed the Afghan Hindu Kush from Kabul, arrived at the Pyanj River at Ishkashim and followed it up to Langar  , where he proclaimed the Pamir River to be the main feeder, and thus Lake Zorkul (at that time named Lake Victoria) the source of the Oxus / Amu Darya, and, subsequently, the southern extent of Russian Turkestan. 

In 1885 came Ney Elias on behalf of the British Government (armed with a personal letter of introduction from the Aga Khan - how we would wish for one of those now…. he travelled east across the Murghab plateau and surveyed several passes between the Bartang and Yazgulom valleys (where he is still remembered).

In 1890 (the year after his Russian counterpart and rival Gromchevsky), Captain Young husband entered the Murghab plateau from the east, visited Alichur and Rangkul, before returning to what is now the upper Wakhan Corridor (Little Pamir) in 1891, from where he was unceremoniously ejected to British India by the Russian Colonel Yonov. 

The Dane Olufsen visited the Pamirs (he referred to it as Mountain Boukhara) during his 1911 expedition and wrote extensively of Pamiri culture. Imperial Russian and Soviet expeditions took place but are recorded in Cyrillic. Gustav Krist, an Austrian fleeing east up the Alai Valley with the Kyrgyz ahead of the Soviet advance in 1923 wintered with his Kyrgyz hosts at Karakul Lake on the Murgab plateau at 4,000m. 

In 1947, Bill Tilman, having failed on his Mustagh Ata attempt with Eric Shipton, walked out down the entire length of the Wakhan Corridor on the Afghan side, wryly noting the convoys of Soviet trucks on the Tajik side.

Wakhan has always been an important cultural link between ancient Bactria and China and its conditions hardly ever changed from the times of Hsuan Tsang and Marco Polo. Evidently it held lot of interest for Stein's exploratory inquisitiveness. Returning from his 3rd Central Asian Expedition on homeward journey Stein reached Kashgar on 31 May 1915. There he received his Russian visa and permission to cross Pamir through the valleys of Wakhan, Shignan, Roshan, Darwaz and Karategin. At the time, he also received letter from John Marshall, DG, ASI that his collections from the 2nd Expedition and that of the 3rd as well will be housed in a museum to be built in Delhi. 

Stein's collection from the 3rd Expedition comprised 182 boxes and 8 large trunks; all made of tin to prevent water and moisture. Finally, Stein began his return journey on August 1, from Yarkand accompanied by his surveyors Lal Singh and Afrazgul. To enter Wakhan Stein started across Ulguhart Pass where he met Russian military commander Col. Jagello of the Pamirs.

Next Stein crossed the Alai Valley to reach Daraut Kurghan where he used Russian, Persian and Turki to speak with the locals . On August 23, 1915 Stein arrived at Bashgumbaz, Alichur in Pamirs followed by Tash Kurghan and Yerkh. On September 1, 1915, Stein reached the edge of Russian Wakhan at Zang. From there trevking the edge of Tange Glacier he arrived at Lashar Kisht. He found this place green and balmy like Kashmir.

At Langat Kisht, Stein explored Buddhist ruins dating Indo- Scythian period. In the high snowy ranges of Ishkashim he also examined many old ruins. Ishkashim served as buffer between Wakhan and Badakashan. Here Stein took the opportunity to collect the local language specimens. 

The place was inhabited by about 150 families. Accordingly Stein collected vocabularies and text of the local language for Grierson's Linguistic Survey and thus felt rewarded to have contributed to his magnum opus survey of 384 languages.

 At Ishkashim, Stein stayed with Captain Tumanovich and his wife and young daughter, providing him a family feel of a comfortable living arrangements.Next Stein crossed Dozakh Darra to enter Shughnan Valley where his coolies waited for him at the snout of a glacier that led to Bartang Valley.

Two days extraneous clamber negotiating Bartang River Stein reached Hunza where he rested in the fort owned by Mir of Roshan. It was a chance that Stein here found Buddhist ruins on the way. But the real work which he did with scholarly application was collecting language samples for Grierson's Linguistic Survey, a fact seldom acknowledged and barely known.

Bushan Parimoo

(The writer is a Jammu based environmentalist and a regular contributor to this Website .)
(Feedback at: blparimoo@gmail.com)



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