Living on the Roof of the World: The Last Krygyz Nomads of the Afghan Pamirs

In a far corner of northeast Afghanistan, close to the border of China and Tajikistan, lives what could be the last nomads of the Pamirs. Roaming at an altitude of over 4,000m, they eke out a living raising yaks and sheep for food, wool and as currency to exchange for other essentials such as rice, floor and oil. This terrain is as beautiful as it is harsh (winter temperatures can dip to -25⁰C and summer can be scorching hot). These are the Afghan Kyrgyz, descendants of a mixed bag of ancient tribes like the Scythians, Issedones, Dingling, Mongols and Huns.

The remote strip of highlands in north-eastern Afghanistan close to the border with Tajikistan and China (in red) is home to the last Afghan Krygyz nomads.

Against all odds, these Afghan Krygyzs have managed to survive and maintain their ancestral way of life, with none of the amenities that define even the most rudimentary urban life. There are no paved roads, no schools, no hospitals, no concrete housing. Not even a single tree.  But their numbers are fast diminishing. Today there are only about a thousand Kyrgyzs left in this area. In time to come, there may be none. Watch the video documentary at the end of this blog for a glimpse of what life is like for these resilient people existing on the “roof of the world.”

Photo Gallery

Aerial view of the formidable Paimir mountain range in northeastern Afghanistan
Krygyz father and son on the grassland of the Pamir valley in summer. The landscape is breathtaking, but life hard.
Krygyz boy catching fish. The Afghan Krygyzs are nomads who depend mainly on sheep, goats and yaks for food and wool to keep warm. Fish is a rare delicacy that is available only within a short window of time during late spring and summer.
The domesticated yak is a highly resilient animal useful for transporting personal effects and goods It is also an important source of food, and provider of milk, leather and wool..
Krygyz girl in traditional dress. Married women wear white instead of red headdresses.
Milking a yak.
Women making cheese from drained sour milk or yogurt.
A woman cooking. Women work from early morning till late at night. In addition to cooking and childcare, they milk the yaks or sheep and dig tersken, a shrub used for heating and cooking.
A woman working in the open fields
Women doing some washing in streams fed by snow melts.
An old man walking to greet visiting friends. Behind him is a yurt.
Making home as comfortable as possible.
Little girl riding a yak.
Preparing yaks for a long journey down the valley in winter.
Donkeys and horses are valuable animals to move people and belongings over rough terrains.
So are camels, whose thick fur can withstand frigid wintry conditions.
A group of Krygyz men negotiates a winding and slippering mountain pass during winter. They are heading to another Krygyz community down the valley to barter yaks for rice, flour and oil.
You can almost feel the extreme cold.
A girl waiting in a yurt for her groom on her wedding day.
Parents of the bride and groom greeting each other on the happy day.
The wedding feast.
Men from both clans playing a game of Buzkashi. This is a Central Asian sport in which horse-mounted players attempt to place a goat or calf carcass in a goal.
May the best clan win.

WATCH: Prisoners of the Afghan Pamirs (a SLICE Documentary)

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