RAJ Monograph 2 Eastern Tajikistan by Matt Traver

A Visual Exploration of Life in the Pamirs

A Visual Exploration of Life in the Pamirs


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Eastern Tajikistan

A Visual Exploration of Life in the Pamirs

Photography & Text by Matt Traver

Monograph 2

Eastern Tajikistan

A Visual Exploration of Life in the Pamirs

Photography & Text by Matt Traver

Monograph 2

Ripcord Adventure Journal

Monograph is an Imprint of

Ripcord Adventure Journal

Cover image © Matt Traver

The Plains of Eastern Tajikistan are a vast area of verdant grasslands, replete with

bogs fed by underground springs fed from the nearby mountains. The land here is so

expansive that the sun shines upon these plains from sunrise to sunset, often creating

astounding glowing, golden light.

Eastern Tajikistan

A Visual Exploration of Life in the Pamirs

Photography & Text by Matt Traver


Ripcord Adventure Journal

World Explorers Bureau, Alderwood House, Farnes, Castlemaine, Kerry, Ireland


Ripcord Adventure Journal Monograph is an imprint of Ripcord Adventure Journal

and is published by World Explorers Bureau

in association with Redpoint Resolutions

Photos & Text © Matt Traver, 2016 except where indicated

Ripcord Adventure Journal Monograph Series Editor: Tim Lavery

Photo opposite © M. Traver

A portrait of Orozbek

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a

retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,

mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission

of the copyright holder.



Eastern Tajikistan 7

Animal Husbandry 23

Marmot Hunting 47

Teresken Shrub 61

Exploring History 69

Bazar Dara 87


Matt Traver

Matt Traver is a filmmaker and photographer with an

interest in ethnography and adventure.

This particular project resulted in the film ‘A Portrait

of Orozbek’, which won an award for the Best

Environmental Documentary at the 2015 Mountain

Film Festival and also screened in the UK, Italy, USA

and Czech Republic.

For further information about visiting the region or

the work of the Murghab Ecotourism Association visit:




Image opposite: Orozbek and Matt © Jamie Maddison



Eastern Tajikistan


Ripcord Adventure Journal Monograph 2

Eastern Tajikistan by Matt Traver

Tajikistan, the smallest of all the Central Asian countries, is best known for its

rugged and beautiful mountainous terrain.

An opportunity to meet and live with a Tajik-Kyrgyz hunter and herder named Orozbek was the main

reason for Matt Traver and Jamie Maddison's journey to Tajikistan. Orozbek lives in the high and remote

Pamir region of eastern Tajikistan, just 15km north of the Wakhan region of Afghanistan.

Orozbek, like all of the inhabitants of the far eastern Pamirs is Kyrgyz, an ethnicity which comprises

only 2% of Tajikistan’s total population of 8 million. Following the Eastern Pamir region declaring its

independence from Tajikistan after the 1992 Civil War, various organisations such as the Murghab

Ecotourism Association were set up to develop and support community-based programmes which might

stimulate valuable inward tourism to this much overlooked and isolated corner of Central Asia.

During their month long visit with Orozbek, Matt and Jamie documented what daily life is like, for an

ordinary man and his family, living on the roof of the world.

Photo opposite © M. Traver

A Soviet-era artillery bunker sits beside a section of the Pamir Highway in the ‘no man’s land ’ zone between the Kyrgyzstan and

Tajikistan borders.

In the background is the 4282m Kyzyl-Art Pass. Just over the crest of the summit is the third and final checkpoint before entering

Eastern Tajikistan (also known as the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast). It’s a lonely outpost comprising a couple of antiquated

living pods for Tajik soldiers who are far from their regular homes in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and a handful of Russian

soldiers. Their main role in this region is searching for drug traffickers smuggling Afghan heroin northwards in to Russia and onward to

the Eastern European gateway.

This single road is also the only land route into this part of the country, either coming from Kyrgyzstan or Dushanbe.



Ripcord Adventure Journal Monograph 2

Eastern Tajikistan by Matt Traver

Photo © M. Traver

Close up shot of the 4282m Kyzyl-Art Pass sign.


Photo © M. Traver

Mountains cover 93% of Tajikistan’s landscape and 50% are above 3000m. However, in the eastern region most settlements are

located from 3600m to over 4000m. This picture shows the very arid terrain and the looming shadow of a weather-front casting its

mood over the Wakhan Corridor.

To the left and around the corner, pathways lead into Western China and to the right, one can enter into Afghanistan’s fabled

Wakhan region, not far from the shores of Lake Zorkul.


Photo © M. Traver

Eastern Tajikistan, similarly to much of Central Asia, had branches of the Silk Road running through it. Remnants of this distant

past can still be seen today, such as this Chinese tomb just across the Alichur Plains next to Bash-Gumbez where Orozbek’s home is



On the inside, the walls are still charred black from either cremating bodies or the ancient fires left behind from travellers. Just

beside it and out of image is a ‘caravanserai’ where animals and their owners would have stopped to rest and recuperate during

their journey along the Silk Road.

Photo © M. Traver

Early morning light bathes the Alichur Plains, which run alongside the Pamir Highway. Pictured here is a section of Orozbek’s

farmstead, smoke billowing out from the morning tea being cooked over a wood fire. This is where we would call home for a month

while we would attempt to document everyday life in the region.


Photo © M. Traver

Orozbek (second from left, top row) along with his wife, grandparents, cousins, three children and Jamie.


Photo © M. Traver

Whilst Orozbek’s location on the Alichur Plains is fixed, there are numerous nomadic families living in the area rearing yak, most

will also have a solid winter base to call home in a nearby village.



Photo © M. Traver

The region is endowed with unrivalled

scenic beauty. Pictured here is a valley of

untouched 5000m peaks, inhabited by one

single family. Just behind the ridgeline is

Lake Zorkul through which the Afghan-

Tajik border runs straight through the

middle. It’s a remote and sparsely

populated area, watched over by a single

guard post, making it relatively easy to

‘accidently’ walk in to Afghanistan.

Zorkul is also the source of the Amu Darya

(Oxus River) which flows for 2400km into

the Aral Sea of Uzbekistan. It’s an area

which has been at the heart of a shifting

geopolitical agenda through the centuries

between the Russians, Afghans and British.

The explorers Marco Polo and John Wood

came through here on their respective

historic travels.


Photo © M. Traver

When Orozbek is not tending to his livestock, he makes an additional living maintaining a 5km stretch of the Pamir Highway running

outside his house.

He is a local fixture and friend to all the Tajik, Kyrgyz and Chinese truck drivers who commute along this 2000km stretch of road,

serving them tea and food. Some of these truck drivers have ventured as far away as Western China, delivering goods to Dushanbe

and beyond.


Photo © M. Traver

Orozbek’s wife and two of his daughters preparing a big batch of ‘kurt’, a common delicacy found throughout Central Asia and

which is made by pressing thick soured cream that is then dried and hardened in the sun.


Photo © M. Traver

One of Orozbek’s daughter’s peering curiously down the highway.


Photo © M. Traver

An old Soviet listening post or observatory from the Cold War on the outskirts of Bash Gumbez. Many of these structures can still be

found throughout Central Asia. Whilst they are no longer in use they make excellent hang-out spots for the local kids to race their

bicycles around.



Animal Husbandry


Ripcord Adventure Journal Monograph 2

Eastern Tajikistan by Matt Traver

Animal husbandry is a primary source of income for many people in Eastern

Tajikistan; mainly rearing sheep and yak in addition to the collection of fodder

from the Alichur Plains.

One day we were fortunate to able to join Orozbek and his friends in herding yak from the Alichur

Plains towards a small nomadic settlement in the nearby mountains overlooking Bash-Gumbez.

Yak keeping is unique to the high mountainous regions of Western Asia. The Eastern Pamirs are home

to the world’s highest population of yak, which total in the region of 14,000. Pastoralists and

nomads, be it the Kyrgyz in Tajikistan or Xinjiang, the Wakhis of Afghanistan or the Baltis and Astoris

of Pakistan’s Karakoram and the Himalaya, all use the yak for the same purposes; for meat, to

produce butter and cream, to carry loads during seasonal migrations and utilising their long and

tough hair to produce rope, clothing, warm bedding and insulation for traditional yurts.

Most yak herds in the Pamirs are managed by state-run enterprises or farmer associations, of which

the herders like Orozbek, keep 70% of the production profits. However, economic conditions are still

tough as income is low, food is sparse and with market alternatives being non-affordable, much of

the region is still reliant on aid at times.

Photo opposite © M. Traver

Although it was only August, twenty yak, one hundred sheep and three donkeys to look after means constant cultivation and

preparation is required to see Orozbek’s family and their livestock safely through winter, which can often come unpredictably

early when living at 4000m.

Pictured here is Essen, Orozbek's brother, who lives in nearby Bash-Gumbez scything grass from the plains for fodder.



Photo © M. Traver


Once the grass is cut from the boggy plains it is then towed on a plastic sled to a dry patch of ground where it is dried in the sun.

Photo © M. Traver

Orozbek, Essen and Jamie preparing the fodder for storage in Bash-Gumbez.



Photo © M. Traver

With a 500kg truck load of winter fodder saved, we rode towards Bash-Gumbez pictured in the lower left. This settlement is home

to 128 Kyrgyz families, living on the foothills of the Southern Alichur Mountain range, just across from Lake Zorkul. This is where we

would offload one of the many winter stock piles intended to see them through the harshest months between December to



Photo © M. Traver

Tired and satisfied after a long day’s work.


Photo © M. Traver

A nomad’s settlement high in the hills above Bash Gumbez.


Photo © M. Traver


A local Kyrgyz prepares to round up a large herd of yak and take a few down the hill by vehicle to another pastureland.

Photo © M. Traver

A young Kyrgyz man rounding up his herd of cattle.



Photo © M. Traver

Photo © M. Traver

Yak do not go down without a hard fight.



Photo © M. Traver

Photo © M. Traver



Photo © M. Traver

Once we loaded this one up in to the

truck, it was so enraged that it smashed

the thick wooden panelling apart with its

horns, nearly shattering through the glass

in the driver’s carriage and piercing our



Photo © M. Traver

The Plains are a vast area of verdant grasslands, replete with bogs fed by underground springs fed from the nearby mountains. The

land here is so expansive that the sun shines upon these plains from sunrise to sunset, often creating astounding glowing, golden



Photo © M. Traver

The lakes, rivers and even little rivulets on the plains abound with fish.

Pictured here is Orozbek (centre), his friend (left) and Jamie (right) holding the only tools necessary to fish in the region; a

handmade seine net and circular net made with scraps of wood and wire. Fish is an excellent supplement to the typical diet of

mutton, kurt and soup.


Photo © M. Traver

Jamie wandering on the shores of a lake located at 4400m searching out a good fishing spot.


Photo © M. Traver

Orozbek’s primary method for fishing is to wander long the banks, stamping his feet and beating the ground with a stick to rile up a

school of fish. Once a group is agitated they’re easily spotted and corralled to a deeper section by continual foot stomping and a

long basket-net is plunged into the water to scoop them up.

Fishing with two people proved most effective, as one can blockade a tight section of the creek with the net, whilst the other

chases the fish along the bank.


Photo © M. Traver


Orozbek and Jamie pleased with their large catch. It was not uncommon to gather two 40 litre bags of fish in a couple hours.

Photo © M. Traver

Happy days for Orozbek.



Marmot Hunting


Ripcord Adventure Journal Monograph 2

Eastern Tajikistan by Matt Traver

Any spare moment Orozbek could find away from his agricultural and road

maintenance work would be spent laying snare traps over marmot holes.

Handmade classic foothold traps or snares made from salvaged wire attached to bicycle wheels, bits

of animal bone and sheep horn would be strung up to act as a stopper over the animal's entrance.

It is speculated that it was the marmots from Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk Kul that started the Black

Death in the 14th Century, with the illness having been carried along the Silk Road by traders and

merchants. Even though the risk still exists today, marmot hunting for the consumption of its meat is

common practice in the mountainous regions of Central Asia.

After nearly ten days of setting traps we had finally caught ourselves a marmot. We at first assumed

he was simply trapping the animal for its meat and skin, but were told that it was the oil he was

after, which is locked up in the marmot’s fatty tissue throughout its body. By allowing it to leach out

over 24 hours in the sun, he could fill half an empty vodka bottle and sell it for upwards of 10 US

dollars to the numerous Tajik and Chinese truck drivers that pass by on the Pamir Highway, just

beside his home.

It’s believed that marmot oil is good for the immune system and has curative properties. With the

average annual wage being 200 US dollars per household, every bottle sold amounts to a significant

income boost for Orozbek and his family.

Photo opposite © M. Traver

Orozbek demonstrates to Jamie how to prepare a wire snare trap to snag marmots.



Photo © M. Traver

Preparing a spring loaded foot hold trap. Setting it requires great care as a small homemade wooden peg must be inserted to

engage the trap, so it’s easy to get your fingers caught. A piece of animal fur is placed within the centre of the trap to help disguise

it from the sharp-witted marmot.


Photo © M. Traver

Orozbek gives a solid tug of the spring to engage the trap.


Photo © M. Traver

Orozbek gingerly places the trap inside the marmot hole. Although these rodents are no larger than the size of a large house cat,

they work and burrow furiously through hard packed earth. Around him is the extensive debris piles created by them, one of

dozens, most likely interconnected over an area of 500 hectares.


Photo © M. Traver

Orozbek and Jamie prepare to pull out a marmot which has been snared (an old bicycle rim has been used as a jammer for the

snare). It took nearly 4 days of work over 3 hour stints to catch one marmot.


Photo © M. Traver


A successful marmot catch, hung over Argali sheep horns which were used as a snare wire blocker over the hole.

Photo © M. Traver

Skinning the marmot and collecting the fat.


Photo © M. Traver

Matt looks on curiously, holding the snare wire still bound around the marmot’s hind leg. Laid out on a plastic sheet, the first

incision is made lengthways on the abdomen and vertical slits are made on the legs. Afterwards the fur is pulled off revealing

globules of fat.


Photo © M. Traver

The marmot fat is the most precious and profitable part, so it is extracted from the flesh and squeezed and poked in to an empty

glass bottle. Afterwards, it is left to hang in the sun, to allow the oil to leach out from the fat.


Photo © M. Traver


Orozbek’s dog dutifully watches over the marmot carcass.



Teresken Shrub


Ripcord Adventure Journal Monograph 2

Eastern Tajikistan by Matt Traver

One of the biggest problems faced by remote communities in the Pamirs is the

intensive use of the teresken shrub which is required as fuel to cook and heat


During the Soviet era Tajikistan was dependent on subsidised fuel from other regions of the Soviet

Union, such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. However, with the Soviet collapse and Tajikistan's

resulting independence, this led to no alternative fuel sources for the local population.

With long winters on the plateau, primarily desert soils and an annual average precipitation of less

than 100mm, many people are forced to lead semi-nomadic lives, seeking out adequate grazing for

their livestock on lands that are suffering from desertification because of the excessive harvesting

of Teresken.

Photo opposite © M. Traver

The humble energy supplying teresken shrub (Krascheninnikovia ceratoides, a.k.a. Pamirian Winterfat) ekes out a life in the dry

and rocky soils. The plant itself is slightly spikey to touch, possesses a small amount of red and yellow flowers and grows in a




Photo © M. Traver

Extracting the tightly rooted shrub from the ground requires using a waist high rod which is plunged at a 45° angle on one side at

multiple points to break the earth. Once the ground and root system is sufficiently broken the shrub is the leveraged out with the

rod. It might sound fair easily, but it requires skill and stamina.


Photo © M. Traver

Orozbek shakes the dirt off the roots.


Photo © M. Traver


Sorting the teresken shrub in order of size.

Photo © M. Traver

Once the teresken shrub is collected it is bundled in to a tight pile and yak hair rope is secured around it to form a makeshift

carry system.



Exploring History


Ripcord Adventure Journal Monograph 2

Eastern Tajikistan by Matt Traver

While documenting and learning about the various aspects of daily life in this

region was engrossing, exploring the massif and neighbouring peaks of Orozbek’s

landscape also enabled us to make some intriguing discoveries.

Photo opposite © M. Traver

Overlooking Orozbek’s home is a large 4800m high limestone range which we nicknamed the Orozbek Massif. This massif is an

unexplored realm, even for Orozbek who has lived beside these cliffs all his life yet has rarely visited any of these caves or gone

deep in to the rubble-strewn gullys which run beneath the 500m high cliffs.



Photo © M. Traver

Pictured here is a breakdown chamber with Jamie pictured beneath a shallow entry rift, for scale. We tried to crawl and tunnel our

way in to the main chamber from below, but were unsuccessful – we were hoping to find a continuation of the cave system from

within or evidence of animal remains on the ledge.


Photo © M. Traver

Another breakdown chamber with Jamie, Orozbek and his dog pictured beneath it.


Photo © M. Traver

A view looking out from the entrance of the breakdown chamber.


Photo © M. Traver

Jamie high-up inside a chamber with the pin straight Pamir Highway cutting a line through the plateau. Although the road looks

close, the vastness of the landscape skews perspective and it is in fact about one hours walk distant.


Photo © M. Traver

In one particular cave we scrambled up the side of a cliff and in to a cleft.


Photo © M. Traver

In the far side of the cave we came across a blackened wall which we presumed to be an old fire pit. Together with Orozbek, we

dug 50cm deep in to the soil and dirt and began to uncover the fragments of animals; ribs, jaw bones, possibly dried skin as well as

petrified faeces, wood and fur.

Whilst we are unsure of how old this could be, Orozbek said he’s never known of anyone in his family history to have been up in this

area and given the aridity of the environment and the depth in which these were buried it’s quite possible some of these remains

could be hundreds of years old.


Photo © M. Traver

Notice the old charcoal smearing Jamie’s hand, as well as the tooth of a large mammal. Orozbek speculated that over the

centuries this cave may have been used by ancient hunters seeking out Argali sheep and also by snow leopards using it as a den.

Uncovering these instilled a sense of wonder in all of us at the possibility of what else might remain to be discovered in the caves

and mountains throughout the high regions of Central Asia.


Photo © M. Traver

The only reliable way to get around in this part of the country is on foot or by bicycle. On this particular occasion we ventured

in to a valley seeking out an obscure hole in the side of a cliff.

The sign warns of a radioactive truck which crashed 1.5km to our right. Orozbek told us very clearly to stay away from it as it

may have once been carrying uranium from the mine which existed deeper in the valley.


Photo © M. Traver

Once in the valley we spotted a hole on the mountainside and headed towards it. In this case we came across a 19th Century

Russian tin mine, approximately 15m deep.


Photo © M. Traver

Looking out from the entrance of the 19th Century Russian tin mine which is located at 4500m.


Photo © M. Traver

In the far end of this mine we came across a remarkable discovery, piles of hardened balls, the size of pepper corns. They littered

the floor, growing in hardened clusters from the wall and in separate loose piles. Initially we thought maybe they were rodent

faeces, but when crushed in your fingertips they turned in to a granular rocky powder.


Photo © M. Traver

We took a few samples back to show Orozbek who was at home and immediately he said with surprise “it’s mumya!” We had no

idea what this was, but over time we could figure out that this is a naturally occurring substance with medicinal properties.


Photo © M. Traver

After the mumya find, we continued to search the neighbouring mountains with Orozbek in search of more. Mumya it seems, comes

not only in ball form, as shown previously, but also as a thick, sticky tar-like substance secreted on the rocks practically leaching

out from the walls.

Also known as Shilajit, this little-known substance in the West has been used within traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine and

throughout Central Asia. It is supposedly a natural painkiller containing 85 different minerals. Orozbek told us that locals have used

this for centuries to treat all types of ailments. Ingesting the substance can be done by chewing/swallowing, as well as licking the

rocks directly.


Photo © M. Traver

Searching for more mumya in the hills. Orozbek’s friend can be seen with a pair of binoculars searching out the endangered Argali

sheep roaming high on a ridgeline which along with Ibex also seek out the substance to heal themselves when they are sick or

injured. This could also explain why these animals roam at such high altitudes, in addition to predator avoidance.



Bazar Dara


Ripcord Adventure Journal Monograph 2

Eastern Tajikistan by Matt Traver

Bazar Dara (Cliff Market) is a rarely visited 11th Century caravanserai, which at

one point was home to over three hundred workers and their animals who worked

in the silver mines high on the mountainside.

Whilst it has been over a century since anyone last lived here, remnants of a once busy past can still

be seen, including a purpose cut track for accessing the mines, crumbling alleyways leading between

various homes and old fire pits in the centre of communal living spaces.

Photo opposite © M. Traver

The UAZ vehicle descends through the Northern Alichursky range towards Bazar Dara. The UAZ is one of Russia’s most iconic allterrain

vehicles, produced in various forms since 1941 and fondly nicknamed the ‘breadloaf’, it is found throughout Russia and the

former Soviet Union.



Photo © M. Traver

Orozbek, his friend and Jamie peer deep in to a tributary valley which runs in to the Murghab River. We were told that this

uninhabited valley and many others in this area have bears and wolves. This journey to Bazar Dara was as much of an adventure for

Orozbek and his friend as it was for us.


Photo © M. Traver

Another shot of the tributary valley and river feeding in to the Murghab River which flows in to Sarez Lake to the west. The lake is

in fact a natural landslide dam which formed in 1911 after an earthquake, creating a 567m high barrier - the highest dam in the

world. Although it’s an intriguing and isolated oddity on the landscape, there’s great concern from geologists and seismologists

about the integrity of this natural structure.

Given the seismic activity of the area, some say that all it would take to break this dam would be another high magnitude

earthquake. If that were to happen 16 cubic kilometres of water would flood down the valleys, estimated to create a wall of water

800ft high and enveloping four Central Asian nations – an event researchers have named ‘The Sword of Damocles’ should it ever



Photo © M. Traver


After 3 hours of rough-riding over the Northern Alichursky range we arrived at the ancient ruins of Bazar Dara.

Photo © M. Traver

A look at one of the remains of the homes within the ancient settlement. In the centre of the image, on the raised platform, an

old fire pit can be seen.


Photo © M. Traver

Uniquely, lying below the escarpment of the ancient settlement, the Ak-Jylga petroglyphs can be found etched in to a giant lump of

graphite rock and reputed to be some of the highest in the world at 3800m. On it are depictions of ibex, chariots and archers on

horseback left behind by visitors to the region more than one thousand years ago.


Photo © M. Traver

This particular petroglyph shows a small dog barking at an Ibex.



Monograph 2

Published by World Explorers Bureau & Redpoint Resolutions

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