Letter from the Pamirs: dreaming of an impossible garden in Tajikistan’s mountainous hinterland

High in the Pamir mountains, little grows in the way of food. But among the slopes, one small village enjoys an unusual micro-climate that is seeing plant life take root in a dedicated greenhouse. One day, villagers dream of not just growing food to feed themselves — but for all of Tajikistan's isolated region of Badakhshan.

11 November 2019
Text and Images: Patrick Pittman

They told me nothing grows up here. All along the road to Roshorv, I’d been warned of this dearth: first in Rushan, at the entrance to the Bartang Valley, and then again halfway along in Siponj, the last village before the road turns treacherous. There, I negotiated to ride the rest of the way in a banged-up Chinese van, its oil intake hidden under the driver’s seat. Before we set out, the driver’s sister-in-law insisted I take a sack of nuts and fresh tomatoes, for fear I’d have little to eat once I arrived.

From Siponj, it took another half day of limping through river crossings where other vehicles lay abandoned, travelling up and down mountainsides, and navigating two blown-out tyres. I got to know the driver through his yellowing, Soviet-era, three-language phrasebook, both of us pointing our fingers at different words as we worked our way through marriage, and children, and how best to address a doorman at a Soviet department store.

The view that opened up past the crest of that climb seemed an exhaustion- and altitude-induced mirage.

The van could only carry me as far as Yapshorv, a hamlet 1,000 metres below my final destination of Roshorv. The villagers, preparing for a wedding, told me once again: nothing fresh grows at this height. A young boy called Nisor had been sent down from the town above to fetch a bagful of apples, and in return was tasked by the wedding party with guiding me over the final leg of my journey, an hours-long, frustrating scramble back up though the steep mountain pass.

The view that opened up past the crest of that climb seemed an exhaustion- and altitude-induced mirage. Where everything else in the valley, as in most of Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains, was cramped and largely lifeless, here an expanse of lush green field opened up in every direction. A kilometre or two further ahead, a brown river rushed wildly down from cragged glacier-capped peaks, carving the valley and the village in two.

The river flowing through the village of Roshorv

The next day, in a cramped mudbrick greenhouse, I sit with a salt-and-pepper-bearded man named Zakhar, who is batting at pieces of torn plastic which now hang where the roof once stood. The wind off the Fedchenko Glacier is whipping through the shreds, leaving tomato stalks exposed and withering at their ends. I’ve been brought here by Tohir, the owner of the home I slept in last night, and today my impromptu guide around town. Tohir introduces Zakhar as his former geography teacher. We’re here to talk about Tajikistan’s civil war. First though, we’re going to talk about fruit.

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Zakhar rummages through the overcrowded tangle of green life, breaking off a fresh cucumber and tomato for me. He works his way further through the thickets of vines, emerging proudly with two radishes, biting into one and tossing me the other. I’ve been drifting around the Pamirs for the better part of a month, and it’s been weeks since I’ve tasted anything so fresh or flavourful.

“This plastic is not very good,” he sighs. “The sun dried it out, and then we had a few days of wind, which breaks it all. We need good plastic, not cheap Chinese-made stuff!”

Through Tohir, Zakhar explains that the greenhouse is a one-off experiment built with the aid of German researchers as a pilot project for new methods of growing plants at altitude. He shows me the temperature charts he’s been meticulously keeping all year long. In January, when it was minus 6 outside, it was 29 degrees in here, thanks to a small stove in the corner.

Zakhar in his greenhouse

“It should be impossible, but the sun helps us,” he says, gesturing to the valley beyond and its odd microclimate. “In the summer, we have 14.5 hours of sun a day, and in winter the day is short, but we have seven hours of sun. If you compare that to down in Yapshorv, they have no sun in wintertime, only shadow and cold.”

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The reason the stalks are growing too high, he says, is that the student researchers left him with the wrong kind of seeds for the structure and climate. A French visitor also left behind some of his own seeds for testing, some of which have now grown into a small crop of spring onions.

“Maybe the government can help the people with more greenhouses like this in the future,” he says, outlining a vision for the village as an agricultural supply centre for the entire province of mountainous Badakhshan, where even at lower levels there’s almost no room to grow anything beyond subsistence wheat and potato crops. In Khorog, the region’s only city, poor quality produce is shipped in from other faraway corners of Tajikistan, as well as from China.

“If we had a hundred greenhouses like this up here,” he says, “we could bring our produce to town, to the bazaar during winter, and we could provide for Badakhshan.”

Carpets left to dry in the village of Roshorv

Earlier in the day, Tohir took me on a walking tour of the village, where his family has lived for five generations. In the wheat fields, villagers are busy gathering the harvest by hand. There’s no machinery up here, but many young people have returned from study and work in Khorog, Dushanbe, or further afield to help out. One hundred years ago, Tohir told me, most people lived at lower levels with better growing conditions, but floods and avalanches drove them further up the slopes to this clearing, where the ibex hunting was better.

Throughout the village, water runs through a series of hand-carved channels. Nothing much should grow up here, but over a century they’ve figured out how to hack it, channelling the seasonal flow from the glacier and rationing it accordingly in the winter to keep both life and subsistence crops like wheat and potatoes viable. He took me to the source spring that feeds these channels, at the top of the town by its sole mobile telephone mast.

“This one runs night and day,” he explained, outlining the rationing system. “We choose a man from the village who is paid to control the water. He says, tonight from two o’clock to four o’clock, the water is for you, you can use it for the land.”

The forest is becoming bare, and the journeys each family must take to find reliable wood supply has become longer and more arduous

By late May or the beginning of June, water flows freely enough that rationing isn’t necessary, though the demands of the town’s growing population are too great for a single spring. Up in the mountains behind the village, the Aga Khan Development Network — an NGO led by the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the dominant Ismaili faith in the Pamirs — are in the middle of a years-long process to build a new channel that will send abundant water through the town and into the fields beyond. Last time they tried constructing such a channel, an avalanche knocked out their efforts almost straight away. Now they’re taking more time to produce their latest effort, with the construction providing much of the town’s limited employment.

Once, there were abundant trees nearby. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the loss of fuel provided by the state, the people of Roshorv were left with no simple means of heating or powering their houses. Their traditional means of survival were insufficient for the modern lives they’d come to know. A few haphazard projects to generate hydroelectricity in the town’s river have been tried and quickly failed, and for the most part, locals have relied on burning wood for heat. Now, the surrounding region is almost entirely deforested. The town’s newly-built school, I’m told, demands more energy for heating and electricity alone that can be provided locally. Every autumn, families truck to a forest 90km away and pay 2000 Somoni ($200 USD) for enough wood to survive the winter. But that forest is now becoming bare, too, and the journeys each family must take to find a reliable wood supply become longer and more arduous each year.

Children pose for their portrait in the village of Roshorv

The three of us leave the greenhouse and walk to Zakhar’s home, where we take tea on a blanket in the shade of an apricot tree. One of his sons scrambles up the tree and out to the edge of a thick branch, shaking it vigorously. All around us, apricots rain down and the thin mountain air seems to thicken and sweeten as they thump and bruise on the ground. Zakhar points to the peaks beyond the town, the towering 6,000 metre Lapnazar obscuring the view of the 6,940 metre Istiqlol (formerly Peak Revolution) behind. During Soviet times, he says, alpinists would run a competition up here to climb these twelve peaks.

Then Zakhar tells me about his dream. “In Khorog, the botanical gardens are 2,300 metres from sea level. It’s the second highest garden in the world. According to scientific knowledge, it should be impossible to grow plants from 3,000 metres up. We are going to build a garden here, with trees growing across from the other side of the valley. Everywhere in the world, people will know that at 3,000 metres, it’s possible to grow everything.”

During the Tajik Civil War, both ethnic Pamiris and Garmis were targeted in what Human Rights Watch describes as an ethnic cleansing campaign

I wipe apricot juice on my trousers. “So you want to grow an impossible garden,” I ask. He laughs and says that yes, an impossible garden is exactly what he’s talking about.

Zakhar, who is now in his mid 40s, tells me he has lived “everywhere and then come back again”. His studies and mandatory service in the Russian military took him to Dushanbe, Tajikstan’s capital, as well as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Moscow. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Zakhar returned to Dushanbe, just as the newly independent Tajikistan disintegrated into a many-factioned civil war that would last five years. During the war, both ethnic Pamiris and Garmis were targeted in what Human Rights Watch describes as an ethnic cleansing campaign.

“There were very few Pamiri people in Dushanbe,” Zakhar says. “Really, the Tajik people didn’t like us, and it was a hard time for us all. If we didn’t move from Dushanbe, perhaps we would have died there.”

Men gather around a truck. Many vehicles fail to make the arduous journey through the Pamirs

During this time, the roads from Dushanbe to Badakhshan were cut off by the fighting, depriving the villages of access and supplies. For many Pamiris, the only options available if they wanted to return were to bribe whichever military leaders were in control of the towns along the way, or to cross over into Afghanistan and undertake a fraught journey to cross back over the Panj river at Khorog. Though the fighting largely occurred far away from Badakhshan, starvation was a real risk. To avert a crisis, the Aga Khan helped establish a lifeline by lobbying the government in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan to deliver supplies via the Osh region, thereby circumventing government-controlled roads in the rest of the country. Aid eventually arrived on these roads from Canada and America, and in turn, he says, that’s why many refugees fled to those countries.

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An old Soviet truck, held together with spit and rust and glue, sputters past us. Earlier in the day I’d watched a group of old men tinkering with it by the riverside, knocking at its engine with tools until it coughed, quietly and apologetically. As a donkey brays at a disinterested goat behind us, we talk about what it would take for teenagers in Roshorv to have some meaningful reason to stay, beyond the family that obligates them to return each year. Roads, of course. Always roads. Ways in and out and work to do. The lone road that currently serves the valley has only been in use since 1974, and the track up to Roshorv, which would have saved me some trekking if I’d come in a better car, was blazed by hand during the civil war. Electricity, of course, would also help.

I ask about some of the other projects I’ve seen further back on the road – well-funded hydro plants paid for by NGOs and the Aga Khan Development Network. Soon enough, he says. It’s the water first. Now, they’re helping us with a tractor and a machine for cleaning and digging channels. In the future, maybe they’ll bring more.

“We are very happy here,” Zakhar says. “We are one community, we are the Ismaili community, all over Badakhshan. In other parts of the country, in Europe and elsewhere the in the world, the Ismaili community live as immigrants. Here, we are home”

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