Note: This section has been mostly compiled from information written in the 2003 Wakhan Mission Report by the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) and The Kirghiz of Afghanistan by Iraj Bashiri.

The total population of the Wakhan/Pamir area is thought to be in the region of 1 335 households totaling 10 590 people, according to assessments made by the Aga Khan Rural Development Network (FOCUS) for their food assistance programmes. Of these, the majority are Wakhi farmers and herders inhabiting the main Wakhan strip between Eshkeshem and Qala-e-Panj and thereon up the Wakhan Valley as far as Sarhad-e-Boroghil. These include herding families who use the western valleys of the Big Pamir and the Little Pamir. The number also includes around 260 households of yurt- (domed felt tent) dwelling Kyrghyz herders, or an estimated total population of about 1 300 to 1 400. Of these, possibly as many as 120 +/- households live in the northeastern valleys of the Big Pamir, and approximately 140 +/- households live in the Little Pamir.


Along the river between Eshkeshem and Qala-e-Panj there are about 18 or 19 agricultural/herding settlements of various sizes, inhabited by people speaking the local Wakhi language. They adhere to the Ismaili branch of the Muslim faith and are followers of the Aga Khan. The district centre and seat of the woluswal or District Governor of Wakhan is in the village of Khandud, two-thirds of the way to Qala-e-Panj. Qala-e-Panja is the traditional seat of the family of influential hereditary Sayeds, whose head is the local Ismaili religious and social leader or 'Shah' of the Wakhan. The Wakhis are transhumance herders and farmers, owning cattle, sheep, and goats and (particularly toward the Pamir) also yaks and Bactrian camels. They cultivate crops of wheat, barley, and millet, which is cultivated in rotation with pulses such as broad beans baghala, field peas myshyng, grass pea patak and small garden plots of potatoes. All crops are spring sown. A few apricot and apple trees are found in some villages but the area is generally too high for fruit production.

The area is characterized by chronic poverty and food deficit as well as having a history of opium addiction and other multiple problems associated with poverty, poor diet, harsh climate, and isolation. At the eastern end of the valley, many Wakhi herding families use the southeastern part of the Big Pamir (south of Jilmasert Valley) as seasonal grazing for their livestock in the summer months. Agriculture and settlements lie along the line of the Panj River at altitudes between 2 600 and 3 000 m. The winters are characterized by intense cold and icy winds drawn down the funnel of the Panj Valley. On occasion there are heavy snowfalls, but generally the road is clear or swept clear by the wind.


The Kirghiz are a sunni muslim nomadic people of paleo-Siberian origin who speak the Kirghiz language, a branch of the eastern Turkish tongue. They were dislocated in medieval times from their original homeland west of Lake Baikal by the Uighurs and the Mongols. Traveling along the ancient Silk Road, they found permanent pastures in the Pamir lowlands. Before the 18th century Russian advances into Central Asia, and even for some time thereafter, the ancestors of the Kirghiz of Little Pamir, had used these same highlands as their summer quarters. When the Soviets took over Central Asia, and especially when they decided to settle the nomadic tribes of the region by force, this body of Kirghiz, nearly 30,000 in number, decided to stay in their summer quarters permanently. Here, although in a limited form, they could practice their nomadic ways and enjoy the freedom that their ancestors had cherished. The decision, of course, permanently separated them from their kinfolk in the lowlands who had chosen, by force or otherwise, to settle, build villages and towns and lead a sedentary existence.

The Wakhan Corridor became part of independent Afghanistan in the 1920's. Fortunately for the Kirghiz, the distance between their camping grounds and Kabul was considerable. Besides, Afghan rulers benefited from trade with the Kirghiz. This modus vivendi with the Afghan Amirs ushered in a period of tranquility into the lives of the Kirghiz of the Pamirs. They roamed freely in a region surrounded by high mountains and sealed borders, preventing them from moving into India, China, or Russia. On the bright side, they could practice their traditional nomadic ways without having to deal with governmental officials, tax collectors, and security agents. In a way, they traded the comfort of the lowlands for the harsh but unencumbered life in the highlands.

In the Central Asian republics, the Kirghiz mainly live in the Kirghiz Republic and there is a population of Kirghiz yak herders across the river from Afghanistan in the Tajikistan Pamir in the Autonomous Oblast of Gorno Badakhshan. There is a population of Kirghiz also in western China, in Xinjiang, who are reported still to be herders.

Today Kirghiz living in Afghanistan are still true yurt-dwelling herdsmen, and do not cultivate crops. Their homes are in the round felt yurts so traditional, in their various forms, to the Turkic and Mongol peoples of the Central Asiatic steppe and mountains-Turkmen, Kirghiz, Kazakhs, Mongols and others. In Afghanistan, they live in the eastern Big Pamir and in the Little Pamir with their herds of yaks and cattle and flocks of sheep and goats, horses, donkeys, and Bactrian camels.

Their yurts are covered with felt, which they manufacture themselves with sheep wool. Inside they are decorated with carpets, which are traded or bought from itinerant merchants. The yurt is heated by horse and yak-dung stoves ventilated by wonkey metal chimneys. In the summer, the top of the dome is open, but it winter and at night it is covered with felt. They live in scattered family herding groups and shift their camps according to the season, weather and grazing. Their food consists in fried rice, yak-milk yogurt (mast), the Kirghiz "twist", occasionally sheep meat and tea. Rice, oil, tea and sugar are traded or bought from itinerant merchants coming from Wakhan and the rest of Badakhshan.

The leader of the Big Pamir is Hajji Tordia Akhan from Saremokur. In the Small Pamir, the leader is Abdul Rachid Khan from the camp of Kara Jilga. According to their respective leaders, there are around 120 Kyrghyz households living in the Big Pamir (around 700 people) and as many as 140 families in the Small Pamir (500 to 600 people). In total there may be as many as 1 300 or 1 400 people altogether between the two groups.

There are a number of Kyrghyz clans (taifeh in Persian, urun/uruk in Kyrghyz), which also define their herding groups. They are as follows, as given by the UNEP report and confirmed by Islam-u-Din Nasri, leader of Bourguitiar in the Little Pamir: the Shahin ('falcon'), the Bogha ('the bull'), the Now Ruz ('New Year'), the Kopchak ('Kipchak'), the Ala Pa ('speckled feet'), the Otunchu ('block-heads' ?), the Tekran (singular, unique ?), Kezik 'wanderer, traveler' ?), Kochkor ('the ram'), Kyzylbash ('red head'), Durbul, meaning 'far sighted'), Khadar Shah ('the people of Gadar Shah'), Naima ('gentle'), Kyzyl Ayak, meaning 'red feet'), Kotan (plough) and Tchoorok.

For more information about the Kirghiz, see: