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A rock-strewn landscape gives way to a river running through a dry mountain valley
© Jonny Duncan / Lonely Planet

Afghanistan is going through a tumultuous period in its history right now This beautiful land has been the centre of great culture and glorious cities like Herat, Balkh and the Greek city of Ai-Khanoum. Balkh was in fact called the “Mother of all Cities.” Given its geographical positioning, it has seen its share of conquerors from the West. From the Greek forces of Alexander, to the Arabs and the British Empire of the 19th century, Afghanistan has proved to be nearly impossible to permanently conquer, earning it the nickname “Graveyard of Empires”.

About 600km to the east of the city of Mazar-e Sharif is the Wakhan Corridor. This 350km-long narrow strip of land in the region of Badakhshan, sits at the convergence of three of the world’s major mountain ranges: the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Pamirs – known as the Pamir Knot. It also borders Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. This region is culturally and geographically distinct from rest of the country. It is a remote land of small scattered rural settlements. Untouched by tourism, this region is a land of breath-taking views and as close to nature as one can get.

Source : https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/corridor-power

The Wakhi people

For more than 2,500 years, the Wakhan Corridor has been the homeland of the Wakhi people, who belong to an ancient Iranian stock. While the majority of Afghans are Sunni Muslims, the Wakhi are Ismaili Shias whose head is Aga Khan known for the Aga Khan Foundation. Instead of mosques, they have Jamat Khanas (houses of prayer that also serve as community halls for conducting village business).

The Wakhis are also found in the Xinjiang province of China, southeast Tajikistan, and Pakistan where they predominate in northern Chitral, Ishkoman Valley and Gojal, Hunza. They speak the Wakhi language, which appears to be a distant dialect of Persian.

https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/wakhan-corridor-afghanistan-forgotten-corner CBS/MALGORZATA SKOWRONSKA

They are a friendly, nature-loving community and very fond of music; the RubabDadangQufuzDuf and Surnai are used to strike melodious tunes. They also play the game of Buzkashi, a sport in which horse-mounted players attempt to mount a goat carcass in a goal. This is a popular Central Asian game. Indian readers would remember seeing it in the popular Hindi movie of the 90’s, ‘Khuda Gawah’ where Amitabh Bacchhan and Sri Devi played this game !

Integral Part of the Silk Road

For hundreds of years, the Wakhan Corridor was an important route for merchants travelling along the Silk Road, the trade route that emerged in the 1st and 2nd Centuries BC linking China with the Mediterranean. Those merchants carried Chinese silk, Persian silver, Roman gold and Afghan lapis lazuli, mined in the Badakhshan region. Travellers and pilgrims also followed in the merchants’ footsteps.

The Pamir region was renowned for its rubies and lapis lazuli. The most famous mine, Kuh-i-Lal was the source of the 170-carat Black Prince’s Ruby now in the Imperial State Crown of Britain.

The gemstone at the front of the Imperial State Crown

The ancient royal Sumerian tombs of Ur, located near the Euphrates River in lower Iraq, contained more than 6000 beautifully executed lapis lazuli statuettes of birds, deer, and rodents as well as dishes, beads, and cylinder seals. These carved artifacts undoubtedly came from material mined in northern Afghanistan.

King Tutankhamun funeral mask
King Tutankhamun’s two coffins were made of wood and covered in gold and semiprecious stones, including the royal blue stone lapis lazuli, which you can clearly see here on the funeral mask.

This is also the land through which Marco Polo passed in 1273 and before him, the Tang dynasty monk Xuanzang in the 7th century, who has described the Buddhist monasteries of this region. In the town of Ishkashim and Besh Gumbez, there are remains of a sixth-century caravanserai, an ancient motel for Silk Road travelers. It was a strategic valley to the Bactrian Greeks, who built a castle-fortress overlooking it over two thousand years ago. The Yamchun fortress, set in a virtually inaccessible rocky slope, protected by two river canyons, with 40 towers and a citadel. The fortress is locally known as the “Castle of the Fire Worshippers”, no doubt referring to a Zoroastrian temple.


This is hardly surprising as Pre-Islamic Badakhshan was Zoroastrian, worshipping fire, the sun and spirits of ancestors and at the same time practicing a distinct Badakhshani version of Buddhism. The remains of 7th-8th century Buddhist man-made caves that could have also been a Zoroastrian site in the past are also found here.

Nazif Shahrani, in his book ‘The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and
War’ , maintains that until the collapse of Mughal Empire in India, Wakhan was one of the
main routes for traders and merchants between India, China and major cities like Bactria
and Bukhara in modern-day Afghanistan and Central Asia. It was only after the development of the sea routes in the 15th century that this route went into a decline.

More Recent Events

In the late 19th Century, the Wakhan Corridor played a key role in the so-called “Great Game” between Great Britain and Russia. The Wakhan’s current boundaries were formed in 1893 to create a buffer zone to prevent both parties’ territories from touching each other – in this case, the British Raj and the Tsarist Russian empire.

In recent times, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has potential to turn it into an important trade route once again. The tip of the Wakhan Corridor in the Little Pamirs will become a crossing point for its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the port of Gwadar in Pakistan marks the beginning. China’ presence in this region is part of its larger ambition to gain a foothold in this region as well as control over the regional economy and security through building military installations and funding infrastructure projects.

The people of Wakhan have mixed emotions about the road that Chinese are building here. They recognize the economic benefits and the access to more modern amenities yet fear that their unique Wakhi culture may get eroded. Time will tell what the future has in store for this region.













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The Tarim Basin was one of the most uninhabitable places in Asia. Its Northern boundary is the Tian Shan mountains and Southern boundary is the Kunlun mountains. The Taklamakan desert dominates most of the basin. All along the Taklamakan desert sprang up oasis towns. Two branches of the Silk Road criss-crossed it as travellers wanted to avoid this arid wasteland.

Discovery of mummies in the Tarim basin regions have thrown up a series of striking discoveries. The people had Caucasian features. Owing to the dry weather, the mummies are in extremely good condition. Many have physically intact hair which is blond or deep red in colour.The earliest mummy dated 1800 BC was found at Qawrighul. Other locations were Loulan and Xiaohe Tomb Complex.

The genetic testing has yielded interesting results. As per an article published on NYTimes by Nicholas Wade in 2010 : “All the men who were analyzed had a Y chromosome that is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China. The mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consisted of a lineage from Siberia and two that are common in Europe. Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, researchers concluded the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.” Successive migration and inter-marriages could have resulted in this unique mix, which have either rare or no parallel in humans today. The above picture is of a mummy discovered in 1980. She was possibly in her 40s when she died, from damaged lungs. The Loulan beauty as she is known had high cheekbones, a sharp nose and blonde hair.

They lived in harsh weather conditions with possibly high infant mortality. Hence, procreation and fertility was of prime importance. Several of the graves had phallic symbols or items which had a sexual symbolism. They wore felt hats with feathers in them, large woollen capes and leather boots. There were clumps of an unknown material found along the neck of some of the mummies. On being analysed at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, it was determined that the material was actually cheese. This is the World’s oldest cheese dating back to an incredible 3600 years !

The earliest settlers probably survived on agriculture and there may have been some limited contact with other oasis towns. In the later years, long after these people became extinct, some cities like Loulan continued to thrive as an important post on the Silk Road.

As far back as the second century B.C., Chinese texts refer to alien peoples called the Yuezhi and the Wusun, who lived on China’s far western borders.  Interestingly, a number of items excavated from the burial sites like a horse whip and leather rein provide evidence for early horse-riding. There was also evidence of a wagon wheel, a style which is identical to discovery in the plains of Ukraine dating back to 3000 BC.

Researchers also state that the extent of inter-mingling and association that people had in that era may have still not been fully un-earthed or understood by us. Advances in Genetic Science and Archaeological excavation methods will aid in the discoveries as we unravel the mysteries of the past.


  1. http://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/2010/03/16/science/16archeo.html (Articles by Nicholas Wade)
  2. https://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-asia/beauty-loulan-and-tattooed-mummies-tarim-basin-001227 (Article by Margaret Moose)
  3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/07/18/these-red-haired-chinese-mummies-come-from-all-over-eurasia-dna-reveals/#6519d7193e2c (Article by Kristina Killgrove)
  4. http://discovermagazine.com/1994/apr/themummiesofxinj359 (Article by Evan Hadingham)

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