Afghanistan's Kyrgyz nomads live in the Wakhan corridor, a 200-miles-long stretch of land bordered by Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south and China to the east. Most of the strip is situated 14,000 feet above sea level, harrowed by furious winds, barren lands and freezing temperatures. The Kyrgyz call their lands Bam-e Dunya, which translates as "roof of the world."
Reporter Michael Finkel and photographer Matthieu Paley traveled to the remote region for the February issue of National Geographic, discovering there a proud people living in extremely difficult conditions.
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The intense isolation is the reason the Kyrgyz suffer from a catastrophic death rate. There’s no doctor, no health clinic, few medicines. In the harsh environment, even a minor ailment—a sniffle, a headache—can swiftly turn virulent. The death rate for children among Afghan Kyrgyz may be the highest in the world. Less than half live to their fifth birthday. It is not unusual for parents to lose five children, or six, or seven. Women die at an alarming rate while giving birth.
I met one couple, Halcha Khan and Abdul Metalib, who had 11 children. “Every year,” said Abdul, “one would die.” They died as infants, as toddlers, as little kids. Many likely died from easily treatable diseases. Each was wrapped in a white shroud and buried in a shallow grave. “That cut me into pieces,” said Abdul. To numb the pain, Halcha and Abdul turned to opium. The drug’s easy availability has created an epidemic of addiction among the Kyrgyz. Only one of their children, a son, survived to age five. Then he too passed away.
Take a look at some of Paley's incredible photos out of Wakhan in the slideshow below and check out National Geographic for more photos and the full story.
Nomads by necessity, the Kyrgyz move their herds across the Wakhan—a panhandle of alpine valleys and high mountains in northeastern Afghanistan. (Matthieu Paley/National Geographic)
A nephew of the khan wears a makeshift face mask to protect himself from the biting winds that can whip through the high-altitude pamir. (Matthieu Paley/National Geographic)
Kyrgyz girls slide plastic jugs back to their family’s camp after chopping a hole in a frozen spring to fetch water. Men handle herding and trading; much of the hard labor of daily life falls to the females. (Matthieu Paley/National Geographic)
Blanket-draped yaks hunker down outside a young couple’s yurt on the eve of a summer trading journey. Made of interlaced poles covered with felt, these portable homes are packed up and reassembled for seasonal migration. Wooden doors are imported to the treeless plateau from lower altitudes. (Matthieu Paley/National Geographic)
A girl carries a pair of lambs to be reunited with their mothers for the night. On especially cold days the vulnerable young animals are kept warm in cloth bags hung in the herders’ huts. The Kyrgyz complain that their winters are brutal. But would they want to call any other place home? (Matthieu Paley/National Geographic)