PAMIR HIGHWAY/WAKHAN VALLEY ROUTE PART 7: LANGAR, TAJIKISTAN – PETROGLYPHS & PAMIRI SPIRIT SHRINES
A dried-out ram’s skull regards me with its hollow husk of an eyeball. The desiccated, high-alpine air has partially mummified the animal. Remnant fur clings to the skull like lichen tendrils clinging to the trunk of an ancient tree.
It’s an ibex skull; its long, curved, ribbed horns are interlocked with scores of others, including those of a few Marco Polo Sheep. Both the Siberian Ibex and the Marco Polo Sheep are highly sought after by hunters, local and foreign alike (as I discuss in more detail in my post Kyzyl-Art to Karakul).
These particular skulls aren’t trophies though. The goat herders who collected the skulls – who quite possibly killed the animals for their meat – brought them here to adorn their spirit shrine.
Adorning a holy place with partially decomposed animal heads might seem an odd thing on its own, but what I find most odd about this place, is that the people of Langar, an ethnic group known as Pamiris, are Muslims.
The very existence of the spirit shrine seems to conflict with my understanding of the practice of Islam.
But like each of the major religions, Islam has splintered and fractured and divided over and over again. There are now countless branches, each of which has its own unique practices.
The Pamiris are Nizari Shi’a, also called Ismailis. The Nizari split from the main branch of Shi’a Muslims in the 8th Century, following a dispute over succession. Their current Imām-i-Zaman (Imam of the Time) is British businessman and racing horse owner, Shah Karim Al Hussaini, who is given the title Aga Khan IV.
But the Pamiri spirit shrines have nothing to do with Islam; they are a remnant of Zoroastrianism, a religion that existed throughout these mountains long before the arrival of Islam. Pamiris are indeed Muslim, but they practice a syncretic version of the religion, one that manages to include fire rituals and spirit shrines.
Shoh Kambari Oftab Mazar
Pamiri spirit shrines are common throughout the Wakhan Valley. Typically they are built in places considered sacred, such as at the graves of holy men, or places where revered persons are thought to have visited, but they also appear beside hot springs and waterfalls.
Many are built around the trunks of juniper trees, which is the case for Shoh Kambari Oftab Mazar, in Langar.
We leave the spirit shrine and head into the town. The verdant fields and fecund orchards – filled with blooming apricot trees – that line the roads of Langar are a pleasant change after our last two days in the dry, inhospitable, high plateau.
Langar is a lovely little town. It’s green and cool. The people friendly, and utterly unpretentious.
Our route leads us to the local cemetery, set on the dry, hard-baked slopes above town.
It’s such a stark contrast. One or two steps outside the green belt, the oasis, that is the Wakhan Valley, and you are re-immersed in the arid, hostile, high plateau. The mountains suddenly loom up all around us.
A goat track at the rear of the cemetery leads to a petroglyph (rock-carving) site.
There are as many as 6,000 petroglyphs at this site above Langar, some potentially dating back to the Stone Age. The oldest carvings are of ibex, and of human figures, and yaks. More recent carvings, perhaps from the Bronze Age, show archers, and human figures on horse back. More recent again, probably from around the 8th Century CE, are Islamic motifs and texts, announcing the arrival of Islam in the region.
The site is un-signposted, unfenced, and, as you can see in the photo above, vandalised. Millennia-old engravings lie side-by-side with modern graffiti. In some cases the vandals have traced over the original carvings, perhaps attempting to save the faded scratchings from oblivion.
Thankfully there are many more petroglyph sites in the GBAO region of Tajikistan, and they are located far from modern day human settlements, where they should be safe from meddling hands – well meaning or otherwise.
Practical information and how to reach Langar:
The Pamir Highway / Wakhan Valley is becoming increasingly popular with travellers, in particular cyclists, and deservedly so. Tourism in the region is still in its most nascent of stages though, so don’t arrive ill-prepared.
A basic level of Russian is highly recommended (it isn’t the local tongue but it is a handy second language spoken by a reasonable proportion of the population). There is no public transport option, although you may be lucky and find a share taxi going in the direction you’re headed. Otherwise you’ll have to arrange your own transportation.
More transport info here.