by Raffaello Pantucci
Lenin greets visitors to Murghab, Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan
Attention has been focused in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region this week, as a government operation in retaliation for the murder of a Major General Abdullo Nazarov, a senior intelligence official, has been launched in the region’s Pamir Mountains. While the regional capital Khorog has apparently now re-opened for business, it seems as though hostilities continue in the mountains.
Earlier this year, we made a trip to this part of Tajikistan, on our way through to the Kulma Pass, Tajikistan’s border post with China. Closed to anyone but Chinese or Tajik passport holders, we instead went right up to the border on either side, driving from Kashgar to Tashkurgan, pausing at Kara Suu to see the brand new border post that has been built on the Chinese side of the Kulma Pass and sat empty waiting for business. It was a crystal clear day, with the border post and army base next to it seemingly abandoned. From what we could see on the Tajik side, nothing was stirring.
Once we got over to the Tajik side a couple of weeks later, it was a largely similar experience but with worse roads. Having made a two-day trip from Dushanbe with an overnight in Khorog, we got to the village of Murghab and asked our baffled host to drive us straight out to the border. With a shrug he fired up his jeep, got his son moving and off we went. The bumpy road across the moonscape had seen better days. According to our driver, the road had been built by a Turkish firm with Aga Khan money years earlier, and while there are stories that the Chinese are meant to be rebuilding it, there was little evidence of this on display.
On the Tajik side, there were numerous other markers of Chinese presence. We found at least two Chinese-Tajik truck stops, and scattered amongst the rocks were smashed bottles of Wusu beer (a Xinjiang specialty). A place we stopped for lunch had 食堂 (canteen) written on the side of the building and an aid convoy apparently going deeper into the Pamirs was made up of half a dozen large white trucks with white Chinese writing emblazoned across them. Most impressive of all was a Chinese tomb that we found outside Bash Gumbaz – a small village in between Khorog and Murghab. According to all the guide books, this ‘marked the high tide of Chinese influence on the Pamir’ – and after much research I have been able to find very little much more information out about it than this. The Kyrgyz farmer who took the time the take us out to the site enjoyed himself on the way back telling us about how there were Kyrgyz all over the Wakhan and how they had bravely fought the Chinese off centuries before.
Back in Khorog we wandered around the region’s capital, staring across the river that separates the city from Afghanistan. The same river acts as a border for much of the Tajik-Afghan border and during the high summer months it is apparently largely dried up, making it easy to cross from one country to the other. When one pairs this with the rather limited security we saw – occasional teams of three young conscripts trudging along with AK-47s slung on their backs – it is easy to see why this is not considered a particularly tight border and how easy it would be to transit drugs from Afghanistan into Tajikistan in the area. This also helps provide a bit of explanation as to why Chinese investment in the roads in the area has been slow. For China, the unstable region is also not likely to provide a huge market for products (Gorno-Badakhshan has a population of about 200,000, the whole country about 7.5 million), and does not provide a road link to anywhere particularly useful. Instead, Chinese- built roads go to the north through Kyrgyzstan from Kashgar, bringing them right into a road network that goes to Russia, Uzbekistan and beyond that Europe.