Pamir – Life on the roof of the world


Syed Zafar Mehdi

Meeting point of three majestic mountain ranges and three rivers, Pamir is both beautiful and brutal

Dizzying heights, snow-capped peaks, shimmering rivulets and hanging glaciers. Known as Bam-e-Dunya (roof of the world), Pamir is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. It is the point of convergence between three majestic mountain ranges – Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Pamir – and home to isolated, high-altitude, bewitched and arid land of Wakhan Corridor, inhabited by Afghanistan’s Kyrgyz nomads. The place has remained virtually unscathed by years of war and violence, owing to its remote location and inaccessibility.

The strip of Wakhan corrdior consists of two picturesque valleys tucked away in the mountains of Central Asia. It is also the meeting point of rivers flowing towards east and west, including the Amu River, the largest river in Central Asia. Not many travelers and explorers have ventured here because the treacherous terrains can prove dangerous. The corridor was born out of 19th century ‘Great Game’, when the British and Russian empires took on each other for influence in the region.

According to historians, the legendary Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan led his Mongol troops here while setting out to invade parts of Europe. His successor Tamerlane, whom the great Arab historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun called ‘peerless ruler of the world’, also ruled here.

The corridor was born out of 19th century ‘Great Game’, when the British and Russian empires took on each other for influence in the region.

In 1866, the first Russian expedition landed in Pamir, spearheaded by veteran explorer Fedchenko, who explored the Zaalaiyskiy Mountains and the glacier that was till recently considered the biggest in the world. The Russian expedition was followed by English and Swedish expeditions. With the passage of time, the place became prominent on the map but there are still many unexplored and unchartered peaks and valleys in Pamir.

While melodic paeans can be written about the incredible beauty of the place, but not everything is hunky dory here. Inhabitants are trapped in the grinding web of poverty. They live in yurts; tend to flock of sheep, goats and yaks. They eat whatever is cultivated in their small fields perched at almost 14,000 feet above sea level.  The winds are fast and furious, temperature can be too cold for comfort, and there is little vegetation.

It takes three days to reach the nearest road through rugged mountains and one more day to reach the nearest town with shops and medical clinic. This isolation from outside world has alarmingly reduced the average life expectancy of people living here.

These Kyrgyz nomads are always on the move with their flock of animals. They are all illiterate. Money for them is a luxury they cannot afford.  Sheep is the basic unit of currency for all their basic requirements. Many of them are also into opium cultivation. The easy availability of drugs has made them addicts over a period of time. They also trade opium to dealers from Badakhshan province in exchange of sheep.

Though there is no insurgency, violence or fighting like in other parts of country, life for these nomads is a constant struggle. They live on a razor’s edge but they seem to have become used to this life now.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)



Freezeframing travel adventures



Syed Zafar Mehdi

Travelling around the world, exploring beautiful places, staying in luxurious hotels, shooting beautiful locations, understanding different cultures and getting paid for it

Who does not want to hop around the world, stay in luxurious hotels, shoot beautiful locations and amazing cultures, and get paid for it. Photography and travel are no more strange bedfellows. The compulsive travelers are fascinated by photography as much as the amateur photographers are fascinated by travelling. The travel photography as a profession has emerged as a seriously interesting and challenging career avenue.

Travel photographers mostly focus on people, festivals, wildlife, architecture, and anything that is eye-catching and intriguing. With firm grip on the finer nuances of camera work, they manage to freeze-frame the inherent beauty of people and places.

The avenues and opportunities for travel photography have grown immensely. While most of the travel photographers still opt for freelancing work, many others choose to work for their employers. “It doesn’t really matter who you work for, as long as you have got the hunger to immerse yourself into the art. You must enjoy what you do, and travel photography requires lot of patience and stamina,” says Ahsan Rasikh, Kabul-based photographer.

With firm grip on the finer nuances of camera work, photographers manage to freeze-frame the inherent beauty of people and places

For Mikel Dunham, Nepal-born, globe-trotting photographer and blogger, the creative high of clicking the extraordinary shots in an ordinary setting is a greatest reward for any photographer. “The fun of travelling around the world, exploring beautiful places, and clicking photographs is unparalleled,” he says. However many of them stress that this field is extremely demanding and rigorous, especially for starters. “It is easier said than done,” says noted travel photographer and journalist Ajay Jain.

The opportunities for travel photographers are galore. But according to the legendary photographer, Olivier Follmi, patience is the key. He says it may take years for aspiring travel photographers to reach a point when they start reaping the rewards of their work. Photography, according to him, is not as much a struggle as selling the photographs.

The opportunities for travel photographers are galore. But according to the legendary photographer, Olivier Follmi, patience is the key

The avenues are umpteen and it depends on the person how he capitalizes on the opportunities, says Naimat Rawan, a photographer based in Kabul. According to him, the attitude, hunger and passion are three important characteristics that make a successful travel photographer.

Selling the travel photos is the most viable option, as there are publications willing to splurge heavily on acquiring the copyrights of pictures. Putting the pictures on stock photography sites is another option, as you get remuneration every time someone buys your picture. “It also helps you get noticed, as people keep coming back to those sites in search of quality pictures,” says Dunham.

Nowadays, aspiring travel photographers go for professional training and degree courses to hone their skills and survive the cut-throat competition. Photographers take writing seriously now, as it comes handy while writing detailed captions or small articles, describing the scene and setting. That way, photographers also pocket more money. The most happening places for travel photography today are Paris, Venice, New York, Switzerland, and African nations. Back in Afghanistan, Bamyan, Takhar, Nooristan and areas in Northern Provinces are top destinations for travel photographers.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

“Afghanistan’s natural resources have to be viewed as national strategic assets”


Syed Zafar Mehdi

Omar Samad is a Senior Central Asia fellow at New America Foundation and Founder-President of Silkroad Consulting L.L.C. He was Afghanistan’s Ambassador to France (2009-2011) and Canada (2004-2009), and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004). He is currently Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah’s senior advisor.

Q. How do you see Afghan economy shaping up in the future?
A. There is no doubt that high dependence on foreign funding can have disadvantages as well. With reduced aid, Afghanistan might face serious short-term challenges in managing its fiscal and monetary affairs during this historic security and political transition period. All sectors of the economy have to adjust to a new reality, and I am not confident that the current out-going government has done enough to prepare the population for belt-tightening measures or pro-actively strategized for change that is already underway.

The donor community also bears responsibility to makes sure that aid reduction is neither blunt nor crippling as agreed to in various donor conferences.

Recessionary signs are already seen in some sectors, but if the country can experience a successful political transition and security can be maintained at current levels, then the transition will be much smoother and a positive Afghan public and international mood can avert a deeper recessionary scenario.

Q. Afghanistan boasts of astonishing resources endowment worth nearly $1 trillion USD, which includes coal, copper, lithium, gold, gemstones, natural gas and oil fields. Do you think the country has the potential to stand on its own?
A. Afghanistan’s natural resources, whether mineral or otherwise, are to be viewed as national strategic assets that require thoughtful and professional planning and management skills. But first, the country’s leadership needs to make use of its best minds to strategize as part of a long-term vision. The prioritization and sequencing of all related matters, infrastructure, capacity building and rule of law, are necessary for the proper exploitation of resources.

Furthermore, these resources cannot be efficiently exploited without the proper investment and business framework that includes the transfer of new technologies and skills to the country, and aims to generate revenues and create jobs.

Afghanistan should at all cost avoid the errors of some countries where their mineral wealth became a curse.

Q. Afghanistan has two manufacturing giants as its neighbors – China and India – and both are captivated by its enormous natural resources. How should the new Afghanistan government engage with regional countries in general and these two countries in particular?
A. Both China and India already are productively engaged in Afghanistan. These relationships, and others within our region, can further expand as Afghanistan’s new elected government (once election results are finalized) outlines its policy priorities and desire to work with our friends near and afar on the basis of shared interests. Each side will be looking after its comparative advantage and seeking new opportunities in economic sectors that bind them. It is essential that we offer our populations new avenues for income generation and steer some away from radicalization, and illegal and criminal activities.

Q. Notwithstanding the massive inflow of funds, the Afghan government, backed by the international community, has not only failed in building a robust economy but also failed to address the problems of unemployment and poverty. What reasons do you attribute to it?
A. Since 2002, the Afghans and their international friends have had to fight a war, rebuild a state and institutions destroyed over three decades of conflict, revitalize the economy, rebuild human capacity and deal with numerous challenges. We are grateful for the foreign assistance, the sacrifices and the generosity. Indeed, more could have been done despite a four-fold increase in GDP, domestic revenues and job creation. The main culprits are: lack of vision and political will, weak governance, inability to stem high-level corruption, inability to effectively fight the narcotics business, an ineffective judicial and prosecutorial system, shoddy contracting methods, and to some extent, weak coordination with and within the donor community.

Q. Despite massive water resources, most of the country has no electricity and diesel-operated generators are extremely expensive. Do you think the Afghan government has not been able to conserve and manage water properly?
A. The Afghan government and donors failed to prioritize this sector until 2008. After 13 years, Afghans should not be relying so heavily on imported power. Granted, this is a high investment sector that requires large-scale infrastructure work, but alternative power generation techniques should have also been studied besides hydro – an abundant source of power in Afghanistan. Since hydro power and agriculture both benefit from efficient water management, there has been little work done in this sector. This is an area that requires special attention by a new government.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about the U.S. State Department project of ‘The New Silk Road’, which is aimed at facilitating Central Asia’s efforts to return to its historic role as the gateway between East and West?
A. It is a concept that was first introduced by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 at the UN in the presence of Afghan leaders. Clinton said “building a web of economic and transit connections across South and Central Asia with a central hub in Afghanistan would help the transitioning country to build a sustainable economy, in turn ensuring a more prosperous future for the region as a whole.”

The idea revolved around increasing regional trade to “open up new sources of raw material, energy and agriculture products for every nation in the region.” However, this concept has experienced some resistance from China. Our hope is that both ideas can find common ground and not be seen as part of a zero-sum game.

Q. Afghanistan is primarily an agricultural economy but agriculture gains in rural areas continue to face the wrath of illicit opium trade, which is illustrated by the rise of opium production in recent years. What is the way out?
A. It is unfortunate to see the fight against opiates in Afghanistan, estimated to have cost more than $7 billion, not produce desired results yet. Not only has criminality increased, but society and the economy have been impacted by this scourge. Afghanistan’s addict population has seen a dramatic increase over the years and even some political sectors are infested by the drug proceeds. We also know that without an external demand market, our supply capacity would be diminished. Also, the profit margins from this illicit business are to a large extent in non-Afghan hands as the trade beyond our borders is in mafia hands.

There is no quick and easy fix for this problem. It starts with political will and ends with poverty-alleviation, rural development, farmer support, educational programs and addiction combat measures.

Q. How would you rate President Karzai’s performance in economic development and what is the biggest challenge in front of the new government?
A. In my book, the Afghan government since 2002 gets a “C” grade for handling economic and development activities. On the other side of the coin, the international community receives the same grade for the manner in which they provided, oversaw and disbursed their funds. While Afghans are grateful and experienced relative increases in their living standards, poverty is still endemic, and they also realize that so much more could have been done with the extraordinary sums that were pledged, processed and finally spent on the ground. They realize that between 10-20% of all funds were actually disbursed inside the country, while large amounts were repatriated or paid as part of sub-contracting methods.

While some infrastructural work has been completed, it has not as part of a strategy that prioritized all aspects of development. While the private sector has grown, it remains fragile and uncertain. The trade balance is off as the country relies heavily on cheap imports.

A new government will face much harder conditions as it will inherit a sub-standard, corrupt establishment, will face foreign aid shrinkage and will need time to find its bearings. It will be critical to appoint effective and competent leadership at the helm of critical institutions and focus on priorities.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)