National Geographic

Pictures Of A Place Where No One Should Live

When photographer Matthieu Paley hiked up into the Pamir plateau of Afghanistan in the winter of 2008, the place had not been visited by foreigners since 1972, he says. That's how remote and inhospitable the region is — at least to outsiders. This rugged stretch of land, way up in the Wakhan Corridor, wedged between Pakistan and Tajikistan in Afghanistan's panhandle, is home to a population of about 1,100 nomadic Afghan Kyrgyz.

I called Paley in Turkey, where he's based, to ask him about his story in National Geographic's February issue — but also as an excuse to talk more about what has been a labor of love. "It's absurd to be here where no one should live," he says.

  • High above the tree line, a winter caravan of traders relies on sure-footed yaks to traverse a treacherous path down to a lower valley. At altitudes above 14,000 feet, winters in the Little Pamir last eight months or more, and snow can fall even in summer.
    Hide caption
    High above the tree line, a winter caravan of traders relies on sure-footed yaks to traverse a treacherous path down to a lower valley. At altitudes above 14,000 feet, winters in the Little Pamir last eight months or more, and snow can fall even in summer.
    Matthieu Paley
  • A girl carries a pair of lambs to be reunited with their mothers for the night. On especially cold days the vulnerable young animals are kept warm in cloth bags hung in the herders' huts. The Kyrgyz complain that their winters are brutal. But would they want to call any other place home?
    Hide caption
    A girl carries a pair of lambs to be reunited with their mothers for the night. On especially cold days the vulnerable young animals are kept warm in cloth bags hung in the herders' huts. The Kyrgyz complain that their winters are brutal. But would they want to call any other place home?
    Matthieu Paley
  • Kyrgyz herders adore their cellphones, which they acquire by trading and keep charged with solar-powered car batteries. Though useless for communication — cellular service doesn't reach the isolated plateau — the gadgets are used to play music and take photos.
    Hide caption
    Kyrgyz herders adore their cellphones, which they acquire by trading and keep charged with solar-powered car batteries. Though useless for communication — cellular service doesn't reach the isolated plateau — the gadgets are used to play music and take photos.
    Matthieu Paley
  • Nomads by necessity, the Kyrgyz move their herds across the Wakhan, a panhandle of alpine valleys and high mountains in northeastern Afghanistan.
    Hide caption
    Nomads by necessity, the Kyrgyz move their herds across the Wakhan, a panhandle of alpine valleys and high mountains in northeastern Afghanistan.
    Matthieu Paley
  • Kyrgyz girls slide plastic jugs back to their family's camp after chopping a hole in a frozen spring to fetch water. Men handle herding and trading; much of the hard labor of daily life falls to the females.
    Hide caption
    Kyrgyz girls slide plastic jugs back to their family's camp after chopping a hole in a frozen spring to fetch water. Men handle herding and trading; much of the hard labor of daily life falls to the females.
    Matthieu Paley/National Geographic
  • Blanket-draped yaks hunker down outside a young couple's yurt on the eve of a summer trading journey. Made of interlaced poles covered with felt, these portable homes are packed up and reassembled for seasonal migration. Wooden doors are imported to the treeless plateau from lower altitudes.
    Hide caption
    Blanket-draped yaks hunker down outside a young couple's yurt on the eve of a summer trading journey. Made of interlaced poles covered with felt, these portable homes are packed up and reassembled for seasonal migration. Wooden doors are imported to the treeless plateau from lower altitudes.
    Matthieu Paley

1 of 6

View slideshow i

Paley has been documenting the region for more than a decade and just published a book, Pamir: Forgotten on the Roof of the World. The title refers to the Kyrgyz term for homeland, which he knows well: "I speak the language. I know the people's names; they give me nicknames," he says. "So that makes it very enjoyable for me up there: Even if it's harsh I feel like the witness of something very unusual and special."

The Geographic article answers all the questions you may have about where these people come from and where they're headed — both literally and metaphorically. And there are many more incredible photos where these came from on Paley's website.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.