Wakhan or "the Wakhan" (also spelt Vakhan; Persian, and Pashto: واخان, Tajik: Вахон) is a very mountainous and rugged part of the Pamir and Karakoram regions of Afghanistan. Wakhan District is a district in Badakshan Province.
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. An 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. Paths lead from the end of the road to the Wakhjir Pass, a mountain pass leading to China which is closed to travellers.
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 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 valley 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 Hindu and Zorastrian faiths, once present in the region before the arrival of Islam.
The 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 Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan of Pakistan.
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.
Historically the Wakhan has been an important region for thousands of years as it is where the Western and Eastern portions of Central Asia meet.
Western Wakhan (休密 Xiumi) was conquered in the early part of the 1st century CE by Kujula Kadphises, the first "Great Kushan," and was one of the five xihou or principalities that formed the nucleus of the original Kushan kingdom.
Until 1883 Wakhan was a principality on both sides of the Panj and Pamir Rivers, ruled by a hereditary ruler (mir) with his capital at Qila-e Panja. In the 1880s, under pressure from Britain, Abdur Rahman Khan the Emir of Afghanistan imposed Afghan rule on the Wakhan.
Agreements between Britain and Russia in 1873 and between Britain and Afghanistan in 1893 effectively split the historic area of Wakhan by making the Panj and Pamir Rivers the border between Afghanistan and the Russian Empire. On its south side, the Durand Line agreement of 1893 marked the boundary between British India and Afghanistan. This left a narrow strip of land as a buffer between the two empires.
In 1949, when Mao Zedong completed the Communist takeover of China, the borders were permanently closed, sealing off the 2,000-year-old caravan route and turning the corridor into a cul-de-sac. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, they occupied the Wakhan and built strong military posts at Sarhad-e Broghil and elsewhere. To facilitate access they built a bridge across the Pamir River at Prip, near Gaz Khan. However, the area did not see fighting.
Wakhan is sparsely populated. The total population is estimated at about 10,600. Most of its inhabitants speak the Vakhi or Wakhi language (x̌ik zik), and belong to an ethnic group known as Vakhi or Wakhi. Nomadic Kyrgyz herders live at the higher altitudes.
According to a 2003 report by the United Nations Environment Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization, the population of Wakhan suffers from lack of education, poverty, ill health, food insecurity and opium addiction.
The Wakhi population of Wakhan was 9,444 in 2003. Almost all of them adhere to the Shia Ismaili faith. Wakhi people also inhabit several areas adjacent to the Wakhan in Tajikistan, Pakistan and China.
The Wakhi practise agriculture in the river valleys, and herd animals in the summer pastures at higher elevations.
The dominant sect of Islam in the region is Ismailism, much milder than the strict form of Islam generally practiced in the country. However in Ishkashim, the city at the western mouth of the Wakhan, stricter observance is demanded. The area has been long neglected by the central government of Afghanistan and the people are poor, many being traditional pastoralists living in yurts and lacking basic services. However non-governmental organizations such as the Aga Khan Development Network have taken an interest in the area. The Central Asia Institute, founded by Greg Mortenson, has built 11 schools in the region.
Alastair Leithead on BBC News 24 on 26 December 2007, presented a half-hour feature about Wakhan, focusing particularly on the work of expatriate British Doctor Alexander Duncan, which provided a significant piece of extended media reporting from this inaccessible area. He has also covered the Pamir Festival in the area.
The suppression of the 1916 rebellion against Russian rule in Central Asia caused many Kyrgyz later to migrate to China and Afghanistan. Most of Kyrgyz refugees settled in Wakhan region of Afghanistan.
Until 1978 the northeastern portion of Wakhan (the Great Pamir and the Little Pamir) was home to about 3–5 thousand ethnic Kyrgyz. In 1978 almost all the Kyrgyz inhabitants fled to Pakistan in the aftermath of the Saur Revolution. They requested 5,000 visas from the United States Consulate in Peshawar for resettlement in Alaska (a region that shares a similar climate and temperature with the Wakhan Corridor). Their request was denied. In the meantime, the heat and the unsanitary conditions of the refugee camp were killing off the Kyrgyz refugees at an alarming rate. Turkey which was under the military coup rule of General Kenan Evren, stepped in, and resettled the entire group in the Lake Van region of Turkey in 1982. The village of Ulupamir (or “Great Pamir” in Kyrgyz) in Erciş on Lake Van was given to these, where more than 5,000 of them still reside today. The documentary film "37 Uses for a Dead Sheep – the story of the Pamir Kirghiz" was based on the life of these Kyrgyz/Kirgiz in their new home.
Kyrgyz from Wakhan region of Afghanistan moved to Pakistan in the 1970s. Nearly 1,100 of these were accepted by Turkey to settle in Ulupamir (or “Great Pamir” in Kyrgyz), their resettlement village in Van Province.
In recent years the Wakhan has become a destination for adventurous trekkers, and several tour companies are offering trips to the area. BBC correspondent John Simpson has recommended the area as a place to take a wonderful, and relatively safe, holiday. Kate Humble, a BBC television presenter, reports that the area is beautiful and the people friendly.
The Wakhan plays a large role in Greg Mortenson's book, Stones into Schools. This book tells the story of the building of a school in the Kyrgyz village of Bozai Gumbaz. However, the factual accuracy of this account is strongly disputed in Jon Krakauer's ebook Three Cups of Deceit.
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