Amid war-torn Afghanistan, the glaciers that isolated the locals for centuries are now attracting tourists. Earlier this year, officials designated the Wakhan District in the Pamir Mountains as the country’s second national park, bringing more outsiders to the remote region.
National parks were first proposed in Afghanistan in the 1960s. However, due to decades of war and political crises, the idea of the parks never came into fruition until 2009, when Band-e Amir was recognized as the first national park. Nearby Tajikistan established a national park in the Pamir Mountains in 1992.
The Wakhan District is home to about 15,000 people, most of them ethnic Wakhi or Kyrgyz. It is a 350-kilometrerstrip of land jutting out from north-eastern Afghanistan towards China, bordered by Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south, and surrounded by the Pamir range on all sides. The Wakhi live in the lower highlands, while the Kyrgyz are completely isolated in the high pastures. Due to its towering glaciers, remoteness and inaccessibility by vehicular transportation, this region has had little to no impact from the Taliban insurgency. The Kyrgyz people in Wakhan practice Ismaili Islam; the women do not wear burqas and are treated as equal to men.
The new national park, one quarter larger than Yellowstone, aims to open Wakhan to tourists and regional development, while supporting the locals’ traditional subsistence lifestyle and herding of livestock such as domesticated yaks, sheep, and goats. The locals will co-manage it with the federal government and many will get jobs as rangers, managers and other park personnel.
Wakhan has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world and life expectancy is a grim 35 years. Poverty is widespread, so tourism has been encouraged to bring much-needed money into the local economy. The area’s tourism industry is in its infancy, but there is much to attract visitors to this part of the world, where cultural traditions and lifestyles have changed little over centuries.
Though the introduction of tourism and the end of the region’s isolation may have unanticipated consequence. In nearby Nepal, these changes led to outmigration, particularly among the young. Whether they will have this effect in Wakhan remains to be seen.