07/23/2014 03:30 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2014

The Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan

Most everyone of a western upbringing cringes at countries called Stan. I was no different as I boarded my flight from Russia to Tajikistan, hearing only warnings like "Central Asia is a place where you have the crap kicked out of you and robbed," as one longtime expatriate in Russia told me.

I would be spending two weeks in the Pamir Mountains, in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region. Only a year before fighting had broken out there between government forces and local warlords, and the region was said to be a center for Afghan heroin smuggling.

Leaving in off-road vehicles from the regional capital of Khorog, we follow the Afghan border through magnificent valleys and gorges. Everything is on an otherworldly scale and treasures from antiquity dot the landscape. A fortress from the 3rd Century B.C. is perched on a high ridge, no guardrails or gift-shops anywhere. Down the road there are two thousand year old Buddhist caves carved into the mountains and, a bit further, petroglyphs dating from the Bronze Age.

"Alexander the Great built a prison here on the way to India," my guide, Kamal Isoev says. "He got married in Khorog to a Pamiri girl." The Tajiks are eager to promote their country and often refer to the region's ancient past rather than its tottering present.

In one small village, a man named Surov lays cow manure to dry in the bleaching sun. He says the electricity lines went dead after the Soviet Union collapsed and the villagers have been burning manure bricks for heat and fuel since then.

"There's no work here anymore and everyone gets by raising sheep and cows," he says. "What a life we have."

Most say life in this part of the Pamir Mountains got worse after the Soviet Union collapsed. Infrastructure crumbled, social programs and food subsidies disappeared, and a brutal civil war in the 1990's sent waves of refugees careening into the region. It also did not help that during the war Pamiri warlords opposed the faction of current president and dictatorial strongman, Emomalii Rakhmon. As a result, virtually no financial support comes from Dushanbe.

Filming and interviewing people was a delicate task, as no one would openly speak about politics in the country. At one point, someone let slip a critical remark about the president and asked to delete the whole interview.

Outside of Khorog, the sole city in the region, government control evaporates. Life is exclusively local in the villages and foreigners are a rare and welcome treat.

"The only crime here against a foreigner I ever heard of was when someone stole a Spanish guy's bicycle," Isoev said. "The village elders were so ashamed, they sent out a search party and found the bike."

The Pamiri people are mostly Ismaili Muslims and they recognize the Aga Khan, a British billionaire and distant relative of Muhammad, as their spiritual leader. His charitable foundation is the only thing keeping hospitals and schools afloat in the region, and he promotes a liberal western ideology.

Girls do not cover their faces or hair as they do in Afghanistan, and there did not appear to be a big religious presence. The older Pamiris all speak Russian -- a product of Soviet education -- and are more sophisticated than their isolation would suggest. They talk about the war in Syria and debate which American cars are best.

The road climbs into the High Pamirs on the western tip of the Tibetan plateau and then ends abruptly. The landscape changes from lush valleys to a barren wasteland, which the Tajiks call Mars. We traverse a valley of black stone and come to an enormous crater, the site of an ancient meteor collision. The Chinese border is not far.

The village of Murghab is final outpost of the old Soviet empire. A brilliant white statue of Lenin stands in the town center. Whatever good Lenin and his predecessors brought to this remote place is gone now, the crazy borders and a few rusty cars their only legacy.

Except for the occasional mudslide or bout of diarrhea, Tajikistan is safe for tourists. However, it is still a Stan, and the threat of political repression is real. This was most recently illustrated in June when a Tajik-Canadian researcher, Alexander Sadiqov, was arrested in Khorog interviewing a warlord. He is currently being held incommunicado and is charged with treason.

Tajikistan's Autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan Region