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Our Members: Bo White Travels to Tajikistan

Posted on: May 24th, 2012 by Abbey Smith

American Alpine Club member Bo White travels to TajkistanTelling the stories of our members is important to us because it helps the community understand who makes up that community.  Member Bo White traveled to Tajikistan once for research and was lured back by the peaks…

My first trip to Tajikistan was in the winter of 2008/09 to collect data for my Master’s research. Though fruitful from an academic standpoint, the trip was torturous as a climber: surrounded by a massive landscape of peaks, valleys, glaciers and desert, yet without gear, partners, or time for adventure. I decided that I needed to return to this place. Fortunately, a Fulbright Research Grant afforded me the opportunity to return to the country for a full year. I moved to Tajikistan in September of 2010, settling in the small town of Khorog, which is located in southeastern Tajikistan on the border with Afghanistan. Though home to only 30,000 inhabitants, Khorog is by far the most populous town in Tajikistan’s sparsely populated Gorno-Badakshan region, and any climber venturing to the Pamirs will likely travel through it. I like to think of Khorog as the Chamonix of Central Asia (but take that with a rather large grain of salt).

Despite being on the backside of the Himalayas and being home to a good number of 6000 and 7000m peaks, the extent of tourism in the Pamirs is almost insignificant compared to that in Nepal, China, India or even Kyrgyzstan. In a typical year the Pamirs might see just 1,000 tourists (with only a fraction being climbers). This was not always the case though. While the Soviet Union was in power Russian mountaineers were very active in Tajikistan and accomplished many groundbreaking ascents on the country’s 6000-7500m peaks. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union and subsequent civil war in Tajikistan, however, climbing activity dropped off markedly. Thus, those looking for a Himalayan climbing experience that is well off the beaten path should seriously consider making a trip to the Pamirs. Other advantages to this region as a climbing destination include incredibly stable weather, many unclimbed 4000-6000m peaks, and significant new route potential on peaks in the 6000-7500m range. This pristine mountain range also has its disadvantages for climbers: the transportation infrastructure is dismal, route information ranges from non-existent to sparse, and there are only a handful of locals with technical mountaineering or climbing experience.

The people of Khorog, and the majority of people in the Pamirs, are Ismaili Muslim. From a theological perspective Ismailis are unique from Muslims of other sects in that they follow an individual known as the Aga Khan, who they believe to be the direct descendent of the prophet Mohammad. The current Aga Khan is Prince Karim—who is also a Harvard-educated ex-professional ski racer and Olympian. Pamiris’ religious devotion sharply contrasts with western stereotypes of Islamic practice. Young unmarried Ismaili women and men walk freely with one another in the street, the women never wear hijab, marriages are always at will and unarranged, education is offered equally to girls and boys and takes place in co-ed classrooms, and Pamiris are typically extremely fond of America(ns).

One of the most rewarding things that I did while living in Tajikistan was to conduct a series of rock climbing and wilderness workshops for young aspiring mountain guides who were studying tourism at the University of Central Asia (UCA). UCA is initiative of the Aga Khan Development Network, which has the aim of establishing a series of world-class universities to serve the greater Central Asia region. Currently, UCA offers training on ‘practical skills’ such as foreign languages, computer literacy and basic programming, business management/entrepreneurism, resource management, architecture/building, and tourism. The university is in the process of building three residential campuses in remote mountain communities in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan; Khorog is the location of the Tajikistan campus. UCA will eventually offer undergraduate and Masters-level courses similar to those found at a liberal arts college in the United States, but focused on the particular characteristics of the Central Asia region. This mission is truly remarkable given the geopolitical characteristics of the region. The university is also one of the best run and most effective ‘development’ organizations I have encountered.

The mountaineering/climbing workshops just covered the basics, but many of these were entirely new ideas for the local students: an introduction to the ecology of the alpine environment, an orientation to the equipment used in wilderness travel and climbing, and the leave-no-trace ethic. The workshops progressed to field trips where the students had the opportunity to use camping and climbing equipment on multiple day and overnight trips. We practiced appropriate emergency procedures during mock emergency scenarios. We took several trips to local “crags” to practice setting up a top rope and to practice climbing and belay technique. The students responded to climbing with incredible enthusiasm and focus. Like the culture of climbing, the Pamiri culture partly stems from an intimate relationship between a group of people and a mountainous landscape. These students were thirsty for the knowledge and tools that would allow them to more fully appreciate their landscape and protect its delicate ecosystems for future generations. It was an honor and a great inspiration to help foster the spirit of climbing in this remarkable place. 

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