Bo White has done a lot of treks. Between a career in international development and a love for climbing and hiking, the 31-year-old has been all over the world. But nowhere quite like the Pamir.
Never heard of it? Neither have most people — even though the Pamir region in the Himalayas of Tajikistan offers some of the best climbing in the world.
"It's pristine, it's beautiful," says White of the Pamir, known for meadows flecked with wildflowers and sheep, turquoise rivers and lakes, and world-class peaks that give the area the name "Rooftop of the Gods."
Some treks White wouldn't do again if you paid him — the expedition he did to the Everest base camp in Nepal, for example. He says it's littered with tourists and trash. But the Pamir doesn't have porters to carry your pack. And there's undiscovered territory. "You can do unclimbed peaks of major importance — first ascents. That's exciting as a climber," says White.
The Pamir is pristine because it's remote — far from airports, cities and reliable roads. It's so far from the sea that it's technically one of the most landlocked inhabited place in the world, which, without transportation and opportunity, also leads to poverty. Of the 220,000 people living in the region, many live in poverty and a quarter live on less than $2 U.S. a day. Many survive on subsistence agriculture.
So how do you bring poverty relief to one of the most remote places on earth? For some Pamiri locals and American entrepreneurs, the answer is attracting more people like Bo White.
Wakhan valley in the Pamir region is flanked by the Shokhdara and Hindu Kush mountain ridges, which makes it the most mountainous region in Central Asia with peaks over 22,000 feet. It's dotted with hot springs, serene rivers and lakes, and Buddhist and Zoroastrian monuments. The ancient Silk Road passes through here to China.
It's not a bad place to be a tour guide, and PECTA (Pamir Eco-Cultural Tourism Association) is trying to train more of them. PECTA is a local organization set up to kickstart tourism in the region, and White works with it to train guides every summer.
White started Pamir Alpine Club (PAC) to offer training to dozens of would-be guides, but in recent years narrowed it down to five or six through an application process that winnows it down to the most dedicated.
One of the guides is 29-year old Sharaf Saidrakhmonov, director of the Pamir Alpine Club. He speaks excellent English, as well as Russian, Pamiri and Tajik, like most people in the area. He also speaks Farsi. He is sought out by trekkers looking for someone to organize and lead climbs, and he's trained in mountaineering, skiing, and rock climbing.
He and his wife are expecting their first child, and he supports his famly mainly on the money that he makes during high tourist season — May through September, and like many people in the area, he picks up work here and there to make up the difference, like taxi driving.
PECTA's goal is to train more people like Sharaf and bring in more tourism and create jobs in hospitality, hotels, restaurants and outfitting.
So far the number of guides has climbed to over 100 in the last several years, and the tourist count went from a couple hundred 10 years ago to almost 2,000 last high season. It's hardly a flood of visitors, but it's a start.
White, who studied at a university in the Pamir as part of a Fulbright fellowship, believes that locals are well-suited to being business owners.
"Pamiri have that entrepreneurial spark that a lot of Americans have. They're keen to start something new."
Matthias Poeschel is a tourism development advisor for the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme (MSDSP) in the Pamir, funded through development funds from the Aga Khan Foundation, that supports development in local villages, including agriculture and tourism.
He confirms the oft-cited notion that Pamiri are especially friendly and welcoming. "When you're climbing here, you might get invited in for hot tea or a meal. People are inviting." In fact, Pamiri are so inviting, that the idea of charging fees for services, rather than giving way food or housing for free, is a cultural shift.
"In other places, supporting agriculture might work, but there's not land for that in the Pamir," says Ryan Bastian, an MBA student at Brigham Young University who spent a year living in the Pamir. The idea, he says, is to use the Pamir's obstacle to prosperity — the mountains — and turn it into an opportunity.
Bastian, whose wife is from Tajikistan, lived for a year in the Pamir and is now raising funding for “Unveiling the Pamir,” a film that would draw attention to the Pamir's pristine beauty, and hopefully help promote adventure tourism in the area.
The combination of history, stunning natural beauty and a tolerant, welcoming local population sound promising. But there are also big obstacles to starting up tourism in one of the most isolated places in the world.
The most obvious is transportation. The region is a 16-hour drive, or two-hour additional flight, from the international airport in Dushanbe, the capital. But there are also more practical concerns.
For example, most tourists in the Pamir rely on "home stays," rudimentary type of arrangements in which travelers pay to stay in local homes. But most local homes don't have Western-style bathrooms and toilets. They have latrine ditches.
Locals offer local food — a bed with a continental breakfast is out for Pamir tourists. FMFB (First MicroFinance Bank), also affiliated with the Aga Kahn Foundation, provides microcredit loans to 12,000 people in the country and counting, 25 percent of which are women, and in the Pamir they can be used for things like bathroom updates and cooking classes for local home-stay hosts.
And as much as Pamiri are known for their warmth, the culture is different than somewhere like Nepal, says White. "They're not going to carry your pack for you," says White. "Sherpas are not a thing in the Pamir."
This is mostly a good thing — White doesn't want the Pamir to become the next Nepal, and PECTA's goal is to increase tourism sustainably.
Last year, the Pamir was named one of the top "100 Green Destinations" in the world by eco-tourism groups Travel Mole, Vision for Sustainable Tourism and Totem Tourism.
White is relying on an "If you build it, they will come" model. "No one has exposed this place and how easy it is to get out there and have life-changing experiences," he says.