Introduction to the Pamirs and
special status of the autonomous oblast of Gorno-Badakhshan is strongly
linked to the events of the "Great Game" between Russia
and Great Britain in the Pamirs. Superpowers in the region in the
final decades of the 19th century, these two countries formed a so-called
Pamir Boundary Commission in 1895 to define the Pamiri borders of
the Russian Empire, the buffer zone of Wakhan and the nearest region
where both partners and enemies would meet. The Pamirs, a remote and
economically not particularly valuable region, thus became a frontier
outpost of strategic importance and a target for arriving and departing
After the 1917 October Revolution the Pamir region was incorporated
into the Turkestan ASSR as the Vilajat Gorno-Badakhshan in 1923. Two
years later, the Western and Eastern Pamirs were combined to form
a special Pamir region and renamed during a congress in Khorog (Nov.
1925) as the Gorno-Badakhshanskaja Avtonomnaja Oblast' (GBAO). The
area of GBAO was then expanded, and by October 1932 five rajon had
been established: Ishkashim, Murghab, Roshan, Shughnan and Kala-i
Khum. A sixth rayon, Vanj, was included in 1938.
The ideology of autonomy attributed a special status to certain regions
under the Soviet system, mainly to those identified as being inhabited
by ethnic minorities or nationalities. Autonomy incorporated restrictions,
for example for travel and migration, etc., but it also conferred
a number of privileges. These were directed to autonomous regions
in order to support the improvement of literacy, nutrition, health
status, etc. Socio-economic development in "mountainous Badakhshan"
during the Soviet period helped GBAO to become an outstanding region
in comparison with its neighbours, such as Afghan Badakhshan. A higher
than average number of academics, intellectuals, professionals and
technicians originated from GBAO.
After independence and the end of the Cold War GBAO's special autonomous
status remained in force, although the majority of restrictions and
privileges were abolished. Having an area of 63 710 km2, present-day
GBAO covers 45% of the area of the Republic of Tajikistan, yet the
sparsely populated mountain oblast accommodates only 3 % of the country's
The oblast is roughly separated into two parts: the Western and Eastern
Pamirs. In the Western parts we find deeply incised valleys and the
villages of Pamiri mountain farmers who in the main belong to Eastern
Iranian language groups. Nearly every valley features its own language.
All rivers flow westwards to the Panj or Amu Darya.
The Eastern part, administratively named Murghab rayon, has a plateau-like
landscape. Predominantly Kirghiz livestock herders live here, speaking
a Turkic language. With an area of 38442 km² and a population
of about 16000, the Eastern Pamirs are particularly sparsely populated.
The language divide between East and West is enhanced by the division
of denominational groups between Ismaili and Sunni Muslims. In addition,
traditional economic practices are different in the two areas, with
mountain farming in the West and nomadism in the East.
The only urban centre is Khorog at the confluence of the Shakdara
and Gunt rivers, while most settlements are located in the narrow
and steep valleys. Murghab is the administrative and economic centre
of the Eastern Pamirs. Road connections exist through the Pamir Highway
(Osh-Murghab-Khorog), and from Khorog via Kala-i Khum towards Dushanbe
crossing the Saghirdasht Pass (only seasonally open), or on a new
all-weather route along the Amu Darya via Kulyab. The valleys are
accessible to motorized vehicles on secondary roads, and the same
applies for the grazing grounds in the Eastern Pamirs.
History of Murghab town
and the Pamir highway
Murghab's place in history originates from the actions of early Russian
military explorers who founded an outpost in the Pamirs named Shah
Jan in 1891. Two years later this was renamed Pamirski Post (3640m)
and became one of the hotspots from which the so-called "Great
Game" between Russia and Great Britain then operated.
The military and administrative headquarters of the Russian troops,
the town remained a stronghold for more than a century. Pamirski Post
also became known as a market for Russian goods and for traders from
Kashgar and Osh.
The 1917 October Revolution in Russia was felt with some delay in
the Pamirs. Murghab lost its function as an international trade centre
by 1930, when government regulations restricted trade with China and
introduced a separate supply system. All links with China and Afghanistan
were subsequently severed for six decades.
Murghab gained in importance in 1934, when the magistrale between
Osh and Khorog, one of the early major roads in the Inner Asian mountain
belt, was completed. The development of Murghab as a centre of the
Eastern Pamirs took off in the aftermath of the completion of the
Pamir Highway. Infrastructure development, including of agriculture,
services and supplies, schools and hospitals, etc., linked the Eastern
Pamirs with Soviet society and increased the development gap with
At independence, Murghab had grown to be the principal centre of the
Eastern Pamirs. The end of Soviet subsidies and the withdrawal of
the Russian military have led to a severe decline in living conditions
and an increase in unemployment and migration. On the other hand,
the reopening of a private bazaar and permission for individual trade
have allowed new opportunities for entrepreneurship within the state
and across borders.
Businessmen from Murghab now engage in annual trade fairs with their
Kirghiz neighbours in Afghanistan, regularly visit the bazaars of
Osh, and expect prosperity from the newly established road connection
with Tashkurghan in China across the Kulma Pass.