Tobias Marschall explores migration in the Afghan Pamir mountains

Interviewer: Courtney Boag
Images: Tobias Marschall

15 July, 2021

“I think research should answer practical problems and then also give way to other possibilities. I think my research can tell us a lot about our own endangerment sensibilities, of power structures and the ways that images can reinforce or challenge stereotypes, how we conceive of places and the ways that people move between places.”

Tobias Marschall

Tobias Marschall is an anthropologist and photographer currently based in Geneva, Switzerland. His PhD (The Graduate Institute, Geneva)  considers the image of remoteness along Afghan Kyrgyz migration paths in north-eastern Afghanistan. Between 2015 and 2019, he grounded his visual ethnography in walking the rugged terrain of the Afghan Pamirs, in attending migrants’ Central Asian nodes and in participating to their online extension.

I caught up with Tobias over Zoom to discuss his research and to dive into conceptual discussions about remoteness, authenticity and cultural change in north-eastern Afghanistan and the role of anthropology in offering important social critique in today’s society.

Tobias, you’re currently undertaking a PhD in visual ethnography, looking at movement and space amongst the Kyrgyz of the Afghan Pamir mountains at the Graduate Institute Geneva, can you tell us about this project?

I started my PhD in 2015. My research is based in the Afghan Pamir mountains, at the North-eastern tip of Afghanistan. It’s a corridor located between Tajikistan and China on the east and Pakistan on the south, so it’s an old buffer zone. We call it the Afghan Pamirs in plural because you have two main valleys; the Great and the Little Pamir that are both located 4200−4500 meters above sea level. So, it’s quite a high setting, it’s quite remote. It usually takes me at least 10 days to get there from Geneva, but I’ll tell you a bit about the journey later on. Both valleys are topographically open to Tajikistan, Pakistan and China. So basically, it is an old trade corridor turned into a borderland during the colonial and imperial era around the end of the 19th century.

A few pastoralists were roaming this area and they considered those valleys as very good summer pastures. Chinese explorers and traders in the region − Marco Polo too − at the time described how grassy and rich the valleys were and there are so many other traces from different explorers, also. But it wasn’t considered a place to dwell in for a whole year and spend a winter in because it is a harsh environment. The temperatures can reach easily minus 40 degrees Celsius. There’s nothing much that grows there except grass, so the place is quite forbidding for permanent dwelling. After international borders were delineated and progressively enforced, a group of about 2000 people remained in the Pamirs and they called themselves Kyrgyz, Afghan Kyrgyz now, since they belong to Afghanistan. So, basically, the Afghan Kyrgyz remained there until 1978−1979, when the Soviets had just entered Afghanistan. Half of the group moved to Pakistan and they were led by the customary leader at the time, Hajji Rakhman Kul Khan, and they pushed towards a migration in Pakistan.

There was another anthropologist, Nazif Shahrani, during this time who introduced them to the Turkish embassy and, as a result of this, an old decree (firman) of the Ottoman Empire enabled them to move half of the group, about 1200 people, to eastern Turkey where they are now settled. With the 2001 NATO intervention, a number of papers came out from humanitarian organisations that were reasserting the question of whether the Afghan Kyrgyz will do a “last migration” out of the Pamirs – misleadingly implying that the group would dissolve if brought elsewhere.

So, my thesis is concerned with this puzzle. Migration is always looming on the horizon and is always considered by people as a viable option. Powerful images of endangered ethnic groups living on the “Roof of the World” are frequently making global magazine headlines, such as National Geographic. Shared images and tropes tend to foster a sense of cultural and existential endangerment, so how do we deal with this? How to imagine a place and society beyond conventional tropes? That’s where I, as a visual anthropologist, can raise interesting questions. Namely, I can critique the feelings of exoticism we have towards those remote foreign places. I think it’s important to challenge tropes and labels around the Kyrgyz by showing that they aren’t always timeless, traditionalist, that they are not eternal, but to show how they still move and are contemporary.

Before we dive deeper into some of these matters that you’ve just raised, I’m really interested to know what inspired you to look into these topics? What inspired you to head into the Pamir mountains?

I studied Ethnology in Switzerland and I did my BA on the watchmaking industry in Geneva, something completely different than the UNESCO project I’m doing now. But perhaps there is a link there with regards to my interests in the cultural heritage. After this I moved to Kyrgyzstan, wanting to do something with the old fashioned, if you want, way of learning − learning a new language and going to place you don’t know. I really had no clue about Kyrgyzstan from the outset. So, I started writing about the construction of the Kyrgyz Republic following the downfall of the Soviet Union, and at the time, I was moving to the mountains, also to the Pamirs.

I came to realise that the Pamirs were quite a renowned place in Central Asia. People thought that it was kind of a mystery, and that the Kyrgyz were people from an old time and that they are untouched by modernity. All those kinds of stereotypes surrounding the place were very common. So, in 2015, I was quite curious, and I had the opportunity to cross the border with a German tourist. I learnt a bit about some of the conflicts that were occurring in the lowlands and I was able to meet some people who hosted me for the trip. Then I returned every year for two or three months. I’ve now spent a total of 11 months up there in Afghanistan, and maybe two or three years now in Central Asia.

You previously mentioned that it is difficult to travel to the Pamir mountains, both physically, and because you have to navigate the political conflicts as well. Can you run me through the journey of actually getting to the field?

From Geneva I take a plane to Istanbul then I either go to Osh in Kyrgyzstan or Dushanbe in Tajikistan; these are the main airports. Then I take a car and drive through the mountains, and I go to the town of Khorog to visit the Afghan consulate and make my visa there. Then it’s a two-day ride across quite rough roads. Then I go to Ishkoshim to clear authorisations, and to make contact also with local NGOs and other institutions, like the Afghan border police and the Tourism Association. Then I usually will meet with one of the local religious leaders of the Wakhan to explain my research with them.  If I’m going to the Great or Little Pamir, I will leave the car and then take a horse or yak, or maybe a donkey and I’ll hire somebody to take me up the mountain. The valley lies about 3,200 meters above sea level, so you climb up, down, up, down, up down for three to four days in summer or five to six in winter when there’s a lot of snow. Then after this, I arrive in the Little Pamir.

So, what does a typical day in the field look like for you?

So usually, children are crying when I arrive, so I’ll hear “hurry, hurry a foreigner is coming”. Then they will invite me to the guesthouse and usually the guest is a little bit far away from the camp and I will remain there with the traders and other people when it’s summer.  It can be difficult to find people who share the same interests as you, so the first few times I would travel up there, I would ask leaders to write me a letter, something that would help to describe me and my research and to ask whether people could host me during my stay.

Importantly, when we speak about the Afghan Kyrgyz we need to remember that they are not a homogeneous group but rather there are a number of different little camps that are spread out over the landscape and they are often in quite harsh competition against each other. The Kyrgyz are all also in touch with different factions of the conflict, not really knowing when the next coup will be. The setting, affected by war and conflicts, remains tense. Situations can shift quite rapidly. But you try to do your best to avoid conflict and speak to people when you can about your research. I think I was able to create good relationships with the Kyrgyz people mainly because of my progressive involvement in a migration program. Certain persons began to trust me with sending quite a lot of their money to Kyrgyzstan and I still keep in touch with many people over social media and so on.

Would that be the average time it takes to travel from one camp to another? Or are some camps a little closer?

No, that’s depending. Some are quite close. But yes, six to eight hours is the distance between some of the camps. Some days we walked even 40 kilometers to reach one camp.

Pastoralism II

One of the very first sunset from summer 2015. Men call and bring the yaks back, women milk silently, their hands battling to get their share. Üch Jylga, Little Pamir. [words by Tobias]

The Hawk to the nightingale in its back:

“You fool, why do you scream? Someone much your better has you. You go wherever I conduct you, songstress though you may be. I shall make you my dinner, if I wish, or let you go. Senseless is he who wishes to set himself against his betters: he lacks victory and suffers grief upon grief.”

Hesiod, Works and Days 1810, 207-11


I wanted to discuss your photography a bit more because your imagery is quite assiduous in illustrating the realities of the Kyrgyz and their lived experiences. There’s a real honestly to your photos, which I really like. I wanted to ask you, do you try to challenge quintessential ideals of how ethnic groups are perceived and have been portrayed in mainstream media?

In my thesis I have structured every chapter with an image series that may or may not be accompanied with text. The images series are chapters in themselves. So, there are four chapters that cover different topics and four image series as well. I’ve been publishing photos on Instagram and thinking about ways that I could articulate the images with some text and a title. So, I established this routine every morning to wake up early and start working on an image by giving myself 30−40 minutes only to write a little text explaining what the image provoked in me. It could be something quite personal, or it could be just something related to the fieldwork. But slowly, I have built up my archive. I came back with more than 16,000 images. I have edited about 300 or 400 now.

My photos show what it is like there, whether that challenges stereotypes or whether it reinforces them I’m not sure. There is this kind of cliché construction saying, “oh, they have also TV up there, or they have satellite dishes there, so they are connected to internet” and these are common assertions, and we need to recognise that remoteness and marginalisation also persist there too. I try with very personal notes and reflections just to contrast a little bit all of these ideas.

Yeah, ok, so to be a bit more organic and allow the photos to speak for themselves maybe?

I still don’t know exactly what I’ll publish on the next day. I have a set of images and then depending perhaps on my mood, or what happens, I will write a short text to accompany the photos. Then media outlets like this really enable me to tell the story in more nuanced ways.

So, tell us Tobias, what is a visual ethnography? What goes into it?

It can be everything. I went up there with a camera, so, I started shooting everything. There was no clear intent on what I do with those images originally. Then this research project became involved in the migration program, so I had to frame some images in that context, so that was something that framed my practice early on as well. Visual ethnography could be many things, some people mainly work with the images they create themselves. I work with my images, but I also work with some of the images I have provided certain people with. I gave some of my images to people who had migrated to Kyrgyzstan, and they made some very interesting adaptions in some photos, there are lots of tulips and very vivid colorful boarders have been added. So, I reuse that material in my thesis as well as a part of this broader claim on multimodal ethnography to multiply modes of representation. There are some things that an image can describe that text alone couldn’t.

There is this larger claim that science or anthropology should not be confined to text alone, or that images shouldn’t just be an illustration of the text itself. So, there’s also a big question I’m facing now about how I embed text with the images without taking away from the story I’m trying to communicate. There’s always a struggle between the words and the images. I do like this idea that images move in terms of affects and circulations. The image can circulate in different spheres and can catch the attention of different people, and, at the same time, they move emotionally, or they can mobilise and act themselves towards, for example, the migration of the Afghan Kyrgyz. It might be pretentious to say that my images are events now, but I still try to figure out what they could mean to people later on down the track. So, we will see what stories they will become in time.

You’ve mentioned previously in one of your articles that “while Afghan Kyrgyz face extreme political and environmental pressure on their livelihoods, a focus on endangerment through growing global integration poorly exhausts the realm of opportunities brought by new kinds of exchanges.” Can you expand on this? Do you think the Kyrgyz resist globalisation? Do they embrace it, or is it more nuanced than this?

Yeah, that’s one of the big questions really, isn’t it?. So, there’s a strong positioning, if you want, that the Kyrgyz as such prevails whilst it remains an abstraction, there is no Kyrgyz as such.

This is related to an old argument from the 90s about nomads, which argued that they do not simply live outside of the world but that they are, in fact, extremely dependent on exchanges because they can only produce milk and some meat and they need everything else from the markets. So, their relationships with the outside world have always been extremely important to their strategies for living. But in that relationship, claiming autonomy, claiming remoteness, claiming difference is an argument, claiming authority, staging authority, being the Kyrgyz, being the nomads who can always leave and can move in unpredictable ways and so on, this shapes their power relationships with people in the lowlands. They can endorse this image, this trope, and they can mobilise it. It’s a very powerful trope in terms of how they navigate their migration, negotiate with their neighbours, and how they engage with tourists.

So, when I said that this image poorly exhausts the range of exchanges and connectivity it is just to say that the world is already there. There’s no one definition of being Afghan Kyrgyz. Yes, they have motorcycles, they have cars, so yeah, the world is moving there. They have about a hundred tourists going there each year, so I mean, they’re not that remote, and they are dealing with change now.

Yes, that’s really interesting Tobias and I’m just thinking now about the ways that authenticity can be used very strategically to be one thing, and then to be another thing depending on what is more favorable at the time and the particular circumstance.

There is this trope, you know, about this bigger image of Afghanistan lying in the past, and that Afghan people are unchanged, and so on, but actually there’s a long history in Afghanistan of trying to create a state, trying to modernise the country and while there has been some resistance to this, there have also been many people who have embraced change, so it’s a difficult game. Some even say that ethnic groups use this image of being timeless also, as a political strategy and position. So, it’s never black and white.

Yeah, ok, that’s interesting for sure. You’ve described in your research that there are remnants of materials that are often left to the people who you work with due to humanitarian and development interventions, tourism and, I suppose, artefacts that naturally make their way to the remote mountains from the more globalised neighbouring cities. I find this fascinating as your work deals with notions of space and movement and this, for me, is an interesting illustration of how spaces are constantly influenced by external movements. Can you describe how these resources are adopted and in turn, how they shape the lives of the Kyrgyz people that you work with?

I came to that in the beginning of my research when I started thinking about the place. I was trying to look at the complementarity in modes of emplacement or displacement, but also to look at the meeting of both mobility and space and how the specific rhythm of circulations shapes the place, that you have different layers of, if you want, interventions or movement, that slowly create routes along the terrain which are reflective also of the social forces that are at play. Migration is such a big phenomenon that I really need to be precise in the terms I use, because there’s so many different types of circulation. See, the migration that happened in 1979 could be called an “out migration” for about half of the people that moved to Turkey, but leaders would call it a definitive exodus (ürkün in Kyrgyz), so this was seen as a very dramatic event where you could not return back. But there are different forms of migration, different movements, so you have the seasonal migration routes, so moving from a winter camp to a summer camp, and some people will rotate in three or four rows between camps and settlements. Some move seasonally down the mountains to get things for the markets or for political and trade purposes, up to Kabul, some try now to move to Kyrgyzstan as part of a program that claims their eventual ‘repatriation’.

My research is interested in how space is shaped through these various migration routes, whether they are seasonal routes, trade or political movements, pathways created by animals, like animal tracks which, over time, become pathways that people use. And then also the differences in gender, women don’t move in the same way that men move, you know, they can’t always go to the same places as men, or if you’re rich you move with a horse and if you are poor you will walk on foot. These kinds of distinctions matter. So that’s why I center my research around migration routes because it is the broadest possible way to understand all this complexity. There’s not one single or given route for the Afghan Kyrgyz.

That’s really fascinating. Also, your work has explored the ways that climate change is affecting the Afghan Kyrgyz migration route, can you describe how this is occurring and what impacts these environmental changes are having on the local people and their landscapes?

It’s a tricky issue because many expressed a feeling that the winters are getting worse. They have, what they call, “jut” episodes, a short freeze after the winter when the resources are depleted and this can have very negative effects on livestock, sometimes accounting to losses up to 50 or 70% of a camp’s population. So basically, as the temperature begins to warm a little, the threat is that there may be a short cold breeze that just freezes the ground which means the animals cannot dig under the ice to get the food, plus disease becomes more prominent and so on. And this is apparently happening more often now because of climate change.

Yeah, this is interesting. I can see how it would be difficult to discuss these topics given they are highly political at the moment.

Yes, but that’s where the stakes are and that’s what makes it interesting. I mean the Pamir mountains have always been a very harsh place but apparently the effects of climate change render things even more unpredictable. So, during a bad year, you need to separate your stock to different areas and the ones who are better equipped to do that are going to be more secure and flexible towards change. This could be a product of politics as well, you know, the more contacts you have with different people, the better you’re going to handle such change.



Countless cups of tea are offered upon our arrival. As a matter of course, tea, bread and a mattress are offered to any passers’ by who in turn always hides in his pockets a little something in return. Those small acts of care, words uttered and the promise of a return, later, shape and maintain relationships across distance and difference. [words by Tobias]


The surprise in events lends to feel that their urgency dominates the situation. At a moment the unexpected shakes normalcy up, upsets routine projections. And then life unfolds, comes to terms with its novelty, engages with along worn paths where the forces were already present. A disturbance pertaining the greater forces animating everyday life. Comments and judgments will continue for a while, anxieties grow along, but the expressed affects have little power over the enduring care of a sense of autonomy against any foreign intervention. Indeed, the world is already there, people know.
[words by Tobias]

You were saying earlier that conflict between the different camps is natural and I’m interested to know whether you think that will drive a wedge between those that can adapt to climate change because of their access to resources, their financial position, geological position etc. and those that cannot adapt well?

I think it will change quite a lot. I don’t know if you have heard in the news, but the Taliban just overtook the Wakhan district where the Kyrgyz live, and this is the first time they have occupied this area. I mean, everybody is saying that this is a surprise, but really, it’s been over 15 years that people in the north and northeast area of Afghanistan have been progressively disappointed by the government. They recently have felt very abandoned by government policies. I’ve heard about a lot of people who have actually shifted into the Taliban movement, so it’s not such a surprise in effect, only perhaps that this happened so rapidity. It’s also due to the fact that the US and NATO troops left the area rapidly, too. But for some experts, and I would agree with them, they say it’s actually formalising existing relationships between the different factions and a certain rejection of state neglect now.

Has there been much military presence in the Pamir mountains before or is this pretty new for the area?

So, when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, there was a garrison with apparently more than 100 troops in the Little Pamir and they invested a lot into building infrastructure in the area, like bridges and roads which people continue to use today. Then NATO built a military camp in the middle of the Wakhan, which didn’t get used because of geopolitical tension being located between China and Russia and there wasn’t really a lot of interest to have it located there. It was really just left by the soldiers when the Taliban arrived. Over the past few years, we’ve seen more patrols and soldiers moving in and out of the place and surveilling the borders.

It just goes to show the sorts of environments that anthropologists can find themselves in really when they’re doing ethnography! You touched on the road that is being built in the Wakhan Corridor which will, when built, connect the north-eastern corner of Afghanistan to the Chinese border. Can you tell me a little bit about this?

China is quite reluctant to tell a lot so we couldn’t do more than just guessing at this point but it’s difficult to know whether there’s a real incentive for China to invest either in the conflict, or economically in Afghanistan. You have two main highways that bypass Afghanistan. So, you have the Pamir highway and the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan. Now the Afghan government have built a road to the Little Pamir, so there would ideally be a way to reach China, and to see whether China will build a road on the other side, but, I mean, Afghanistan is too risky at the moment. In response to Kyrgyz demands to have a road to proper connections, the Afghanistan government is working on building this at the moment, but everything is changing and maybe there will be a shift in the balance again soon. But it’s too early to pronounce that.

You’ve highlighted how perceptions around this development vary with some praising this as an opportunity to capitalise on growth arising from China’s Belt and Road trade initiative while other Kyrgyz locals are pessimistic as they feel they have been disappointed with false promises of growth before, and this is likely to be another empty agreement. From your long-term involvement working in these areas and with the local people, what have you come to learn about this project? In what ways would this road present opportunities and in what ways could it bring challenges to the Kyrgyz people?

Reactions are quite mixed. As I said, with the road construction, some said it would bring destruction of their traditional livelihoods, while others are hoping it will provide them with access to hospitals and schools. There are two clinics that have been built there already and I don’t know of many other ethnic groups in Afghanistan who have received so much in the last 20 years than the Afghan Kyrgyz.

What impact do you think your research has had on the communities that you have worked with and what do you think people can learn from your research findings?

So, it’s still difficult to assess, but the interviews I have conducted with Afghan Kyrgyz have been really important in order to better understand migration patterns. As an aspiring anthropologist, I also met a lot of failures. I tried to do collaboration with some NGOs that just didn’t happen, but in retrospect was bound with the important reductions following the 2014 announcement of NATO’s troops withdrawal.

I think it is important that we as researchers actually speak about our own vulnerabilities, as I said before, sometimes you cannot really move to this and that place freely, you have to take care of the relations and the conflicts that are existing and try to mitigate the threats that exist towards yourself and your research. Perhaps the images I take will have some impact on the ways that Afghan Kyrgyz migration routes are perceived, but I don’t know exactly what that impact will be right now. I gave an interview to a journal and some humanitarians, who were catastrophising about a new refugee surge in Tajikistan, read this interview and told me that it helped their understanding of what was really going on. So, I think that it is important to show that these migrations are not actually new events but that they have a deeper history, they move along pathways that have been carved out before and these movements don’t always just happen out of the blue. So, it’s important to provide context to these migrations so that people can understand them in deeper ways and then hopefully these deeper understandings will help governments shape better policies.

But at the same time, I think you should not only look for obvious impacts but be open to creating something original. I think research should answer practical problems and then also give way to other possibilities. I think my research can tell us a lot about our own endangerment sensibilities, of power structures and the ways that images can reinforce or challenge stereotypes, how we conceive of places and the ways that people move between places.

That’s really interesting. There is a debate within anthropology about whether we should be activists and whether our research should inspire social change or whether we should simply observe and offer the best descriptive work but not necessarily have any specific intentions for impact. It sounds like you’re quite determined and passionate about making change, would you say this is important for anthropology?

Research never happened like, just say “okay guys, I will just wander around, and I would like to sit with you to do this and do that” that wasn’t possible. People openly criticise my presence.

A question I like to ask fellow anthropologists is, what do you think anthropology has to offer the future of humanity?

That’s a big question. I struggle a lot with that question especially in the writing of the thesis because you have to detach yourself somehow from everyday concerns at a moment of great turmoil. I had a conversation with someone who told me: I like social sciences, but it should be useful. But actually, the definition of usefulness is an anthropological problem in itself. I think that’s actually the contribution of anthropology, to critique things in order to offer new insights. But as a PhD student, trying to answer that question is quite ambitious, but that’s the way I’d like to consider my contribution, to at least offer new ideas.

To learn more about Tobias’s research and to read some of his latest publications, please visit his site here.


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