[S]uddenly a Kirghizian uprising occurred in Semirech’e and consequently the route to Mongolia via Turkestan was closed.
Only later did [Vavilov] tell his family and friends that his Krghizian guides had deserted him; that he had been attacked by a mob but somehow escaped from them on foot, only to be arrested by local officials. Once the local police released him, he was forced to shift his plans, journeying southeastward until he came to an ancient spur of the Silk Road. It was on that spur that he entered into the high, dry and lonesome land known as the Pamirs of Gorno-Badakshan late in the month of August of 1916. …
Somewhere before leaving the Kirghizians for the Tajiks, Vavilov befriended a man of enormous linguistic talent and girth, Khan Kil’dy Mirza-Bashi. Mirza-Bashi, a local Pasha, served not only as Nikolay’s interpreter, but as his mentor in learning the tricks of the trade with regard to back country travel, a venture that Nikolay frequently engaged in until the last three years of his life. The Pasha acquired six horses and two guides to accompany them in their journey across snow-covered mountain passes and wind-swept glaciers, but even these companions did not necessarily ensure him a safe passage.
It was my good fortune to follow Vavilov to where his early misfortune had led him, into the Pamiri highlands of Gorno-Badakshan where both crop diversity and linguistic diversity are startlingly apparent. This autonomous region is presently part of Tajikistan, and lies just north of Afghanistan on the edge of the towering Hindu Kush. It is a cold desert where highland farmers have long worked seeming miracles in getting water to trickle in canals along miles of ridges before it moistens the earth in their fields of mixed grains and legumes. Vavilov quickly recognized the Pamirs as a “a natural laboratory” for crop evolution, and returned there for extended stays on two additional expeditions, spending more time there than in any other region of peasant agriculture encountered in all of his travels.
A treasure of lasting value
It was there — in the verdant fields nestled within the Pamiri desert — that Vavilov began to take the meticulous field notes that have continued to inform other scientists to this day. In three of the steep valleys of the Pamirs, his recorded observations of local patterns of crop diversity are so precise in place and time that we can still use them as benchmarks for assessing changes in climate, crop diversity, farming practices, and food security.
While many have regarded Vavilov’s enduring achievement in the Pamirs to be the founding of the World Collection of Cultivated Plants later housed at VIR in St. Petersburg, we now recognize that his field notes are also a treasure of lasting value. That is not to dismiss the significance of his two hundred-some seed collections from the Pamirs, for they included several samples that were later used to successfully breed early-maturing wheats, chickpeas, lentils and mung beans, cultivars which are still feeding people to this day. Genes from his Tadzhisky 10 chickpea collection still feed Tajiks (“Tadzhiks” in Vavilov’s spelling) through a widely-used cultivar called Zimistrony. Several of his field collections of lentils were hybridized to create Tadzhik 95, another cultivar that has garnered praise from many farmers.
Yes, the physical, biological legacy left by Vavilov continues to buffer poor peasant families against food insecurity; and yet, his intellectual legacy is no less tangible. Vavilov’s carefully crafted field notes paint one of the few historic pictures detailed enough to allow a precise assessment of relative loss or persistence of crop diversity through time, in the very centers where these crops originated.
Extracted from Where our Food Comes From by Gary Paul Nabhan
and used with permission.