Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO)
The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (oblast means "province" in Russian) is the official name of the Tajik half of the region of Badakhshan, the other half being in Afghanistan to the south. It is separated from Afghanistan by the Pyanj River in the south, and borders China in the East and Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the North and West. The province is almost entirely mountainous, having virtually no level or arable land. The largest mountains in the Pamir and Tien Shan ranges are located in this region, up to 7,500m (26,000ft). The only developed route into and out of most of the territory is the so-called "Pamir Highway", running from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Dushanbe; even this route is mostly unpaved and difficult to travel. Many passes of 3,000-5,000m, located along this and other connecting routes, need to be crossed to enter or leave GBAO. The largest ethic group is known as Pamiri, who are closely ethnically and culturally related to the Tajik people and speak many different dialects of Persian language. Although the province makes up 45% of the land area of Tajikistan, it represents only 3% of the population (approximately 200,000). The population density is also staggeringly low at one person per 2.5sq km! Economic activity is mostly related to livestock herding and mining, and many Pamiris and Kyrgyz here live a subsistence lifestyle. It is almost completely autonomous from the central Tajikistan government, having its own police, military and tax systems. Its capital is Khorog.
The physical environment of GBAO is among the most extremely alpine in the world. Most areas are very high altitude, with few areas below 3,000m (10,000ft). Spectacular mountain peaks and ranges tower over barren valleys and plateaus. The incredible elevation of the region led British explorers to dub the region the "rooftop of the world". Immense and imposing glaciers grind down steep slopes, producing wild rivers which roar through narrow canyons and cascade down great waterfalls of uncountable number in this vast wilderness. Forests are noticeably absent here, as most of the province is above the tree line; only grasses and small shrubs survive in the highlands. This lack of vegetation results in the exposure of Gorno-Badakhshan's geologic past, and infinite varieties of amazing, unusual, and plain bizarre shapes and patterns are visible in the multi-colored rock. The largest peaks include Ismoil Somoni (formerly Communism; 7,495m), Ibn Sina (formerly Lenin; 7,135m), Korzhenev (7,105m), Independence (formerly Revolution; 6974m), and Karl Marx (6,726). The most impressive river is the powerful Pyanj, which runs through a deep canyon from the Chinese border all the way to the Aral Sea, and forms the entire Tajik border with Afghanistan. Lakes in the region are often salty, such as gigantic Karakol (black lake); or stunningly beautiful, like Sarezkol (purple lake). Many mineral hot springs dot the countryside, some with developed infrastructure.
Although Persian people have inhabited the area for millennia, and many invading empires have claimed it, GBAO had not received any distinct administrative status by the 20th century. The ancient inhabitants of the region belonged to Proto-Iranian cultures, and were for a time ruled by the Scythians. The armies of Alexander the Great attempted conquest of Badakhshan around 250 B.C., and though their reign was short-lived, they built many forts and towns, which can still be visited. Descendents of his soldiers settled in the area, and citizens of the Wakhan and Pyanj valleys proudly claim Greek lineage to this day. GBAO was later a member of many empires, including the Arab caliphate (which introduced Islam) and the Samanids Empire, which forms the historical basis of the modern Tajik State. The area was one of the last to be conquered by the Russian Empire during the Great Game period, in 1895, and was a vassal of Russia until invaded by Soviet troops in 1920. In 1925, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast was officially created, and in 1929 fused with the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. Little changed in the high mountain areas throughout Soviet rule, though many ethnic Pamiris were forcibly relocated to southwest Tajikistan. The province was heavily involved in the Tajik civil war of 1992-1997, during which it declared independence, suffering terrible losses. Signs of the conflict are still visible, such as destroyed tanks along the Pamir Highway. As a result, the province was given nearly absolute autonomy, in order to end the war and prevent the breakup of Tajikistan. However, the area is completely peaceful today and there is no conflict between GBAO and Dushanbe.
The people of Gorno-Badakhsan, the Pamiris, are a Persian ethnic group related to the Tajiks, from whom they consider themselves separate; partly this is due to their mountainous lifestyle, though more importantly, Pamiris are primarily Sunni Muslims, whereas most Tajiks are Shi'a. Their language is Tajik, which is itself a dialect of Persian, relating them to their neighbors in Afghanistan and Iran. Their culture is likewise very similar to that of Tajiks, sharing the same basic cuisine and domestic life. One interesting difference is the Pamiri home, which consists of one enormous square room, with a lower area in the center for eating and entertaining, and a raised "platform" around the sides for sleeping. Though Pamiri people are as a rule very traditional like their Tajik neighbors, their society is much less strict with regard to religious and social norms. Ironically, though they are some of the most geographically isolated people in the region, their levels of education and sophistication are widely considered to be higher than that of more urban Tajiks, most likely due to the effects of Soviet rule.
Due to geographic isolation, undeveloped infrastructure and traditional culture, every type of tourism here must be classified "adventure tourism", even if one only crosses the province by jeep! Currently, the country is visited by few travelers, and then only during the warmest days in July and August. Venturing even a few kilometers off the road guarantees you solitude and a unique and authentic experience. It may be obvious that the region is a paradise for all types of outdoor sports such as mountaineering, climbing, rafting, kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, extreme skiing, and any other activity imaginable. Pamir peaks are some of the most sought after by world-class alpinists, and the Pamir Highway is fast becoming a classic route for cyclists. However, equally worth the trip is the cultural experience of Badakhshan. Visit Kyrgyz yurts and shepherds in the eastern alpine valleys around Murghab, millennia-old ruins of forts of Alexander the Great in the Wakhan Valley, or stay in quaint villages built around precious springs, unchanged for centuries.