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In Soviet times, the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan was a far-flung province on the empire’s geopolitically sensitive southern fringe. Its economy largely subsidized by Moscow, the population benefited from the provision of public services, educational opportunities, secure food supplies, and other imports from the center. Tajik independence has increased the isolation of the 218,000, mostly Pamiri, residents of this large, sparse, mountainous province that contains 45 percent of Tajikistan’s territory but only 3 percent of its population.
Buttressed by the great Pamir and Hindu Kush ranges and bordered by China, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan, Gorno-Badakhshan is home to some of the world’s highest peaks. Isolation and adversity come with the harsh topography – the region is prone to natural disasters – but also with the currents of post-communist Tajik politics. The Pamiris, a distinct ethnic group, backed the opposition during the country’s 1992-1997 civil war and have been largely cast adrift by President Imomali Rahmon. Violent unrest returned to the region last year as the Tajik military clashed with forces loyal to Tolib Ayombekov, an opposition warlord during the 1990s fighting.
Gorno-Badakhshan has its own linguistic and cultural heritage and is linked to the rest of Tajikistan by only one easily navigable road. (It's a bumpy 18-hour ride from the regional hub of Khorog to the national capital, Dushanbe.) For many in the region there is a sense of having gone backward since 1991 – a return to a pre-modernity, almost. Living standards are among the lowest in the former Soviet Union. With infrastructure crumbling and spare parts for aging machinery hard to come by, something akin to demechanization has taken place. Donkeys are replacing tractors, and a new generation is learning the skills of subsistence agriculture practiced by their forebears.
Much of the population is dependent on assistance from a handful of international development agencies, primarily the Aga Khan Foundation led by the revered spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect to which Pamiris adhere. Greater job opportunities and higher wages lure many young men to Dushanbe or Russia. While remittances trickle back, life for those left behind, especially women and the elderly, has become more precarious.
The region’s economic future may not be entirely bleak. Adventure tourists are beginning to discover Gorno-Badakhshan’s spectacular natural beauty, hospitality, and age-old customs, as reflected by the creation of the Pamir Eco-Cultural Tourism Association in Khorog. In 2004 a border crossing with China opened at the Kulma Pass, bringing trucks loaded with goods, including machinery and electronics, into the area. There is also increasing cross-border trade with ethnic kin in Afghanistan, as well as shuttle trade with Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan.
New opportunities – or coping strategies – may offer some degree of hope for those able to seize them. Still, many in the region are being forced to look back to the future, with migration the only alternative to a daily struggle for survival.