Driving to and from Khorog is an amazing experience! There are two routes to travel. On our way there we took the Southern route through the Kulab region. The president of Tajikistan is from Kulab, which has resulted in a lot of money being funnelled to this region: the road was very nice, the fields were well irrigated and bountiful, the homes were well built...the list of niceties is numerous.
From the Kulab region we transited to the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO). GBAO makes up 50% of Tajikistan's land and is home to 4% of the population. The reason for the small population is that there are more mountains than people... these mountains are big and beautiful! Where GBAO begins the road meets meets the Panj River and the border with Afghanistan also starts.
Until this region it wasn't clear why we had woken up early and gone to the bus depot to reserve our seats 2.5 hours before our land cruiser left for Khorog. Mikey and I had passenger side window seats (the coveted seats) in our land cruiser that was packed liked sardines with 9 full grown adults inside. With window seats we had a clear view of the Panj and the mountains in Afghanistan.
This region of Afghanistan is also called Badakshan. The Tajik and Afghan regions have similar names and are inhabited by the same Pamiri people. The language spoken in the two regions is the same, Shughni (an Eastern Iranian language unrelated to Tajik). The type of Islam practiced is the same, Ismali (the second largest branch in Shia Islamic faith, the Aga Khan is the Ismali Imam). It's funny to refer to it as two regions, because it's really just one region, with a border bisecting it into two. We were told by our host and local resident that before the Soviet Union "We were one, we are the same people. Before the Soviets a brother might live on one side and a sister on the other, there was no difference between us and them." When asked if he had family on the other side, he remarked "No, perhaps, but no, we have forgotten over time."
Visiting this region, it's hard not to contemplate the ridiculousness of borders. It's also hard not to be amazed at some of the things the Soviet Union accomplished. Looking at Afghanistan out the window of a land cruiser I saw villages connected by walking paths. The topography on either side of the Panj is similar. Contemplating what it would take to build roads where the foot paths are in Afghanistan I concluded that it would be a nearly impossible feat. The Soviets executed the impossible on the Tajik side of the Panj, they built roads that makeGlacier National Parks Going to the Sun Road look like an easy construction project. The Soviet Union didn't get everything right, but they did some astounding things.
With roads come resources. This was clear looking at the types of houses on either side of the river. In Afghanistan the houses are built with flat roofs that likely have to be reinforced annually. In Tajikistan where large sheets of corrugated metal are available the houses are built with peaked roofs. Tajikistan is not a rich country, but from what I saw, it's sitting pretty in comparison to its neighbor.
Included below is a video from the Barcheed village where we stayed. You will be able to see the valley that I have been discussing. It should be self evident why thoughts of borders were so prevalent to us while we were in Gorno-Badakshan.