01/23/2013 09:30 am ET

Afghanistan's Kyrgyz Nomads: Stranded On Top Of The World (PHOTOS)

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.


Finkel writes:

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.

Roof Of The World