The border post sits on an island in the Panj river. Waving us away into no man’s land, the Tajik immigration officers wished us luck. The day was warm and we were still adjusting to the cumbersome inconvenience of trousers and headscarves. The Afghan officials were smiley and welcoming and soon processed us through to Hameed, our waiting guide.
On the short drive to the guest house in world-weary Toyota Corollas, we drank in the new surroundings. Everything was instantly different. Turbans, shalwar kameez, and the occasional burqa adorned the people walking along the rutted dirt road hemmed by fields of lush, lime-green crops that took us all by surprise. Agriculture on the Tajik side of the border had been relatively sparse, with people relying on the trucks plying the superior Tajik roads to supply their basic needs.
Here in Afghanistan, the land was riddled with age-old irrigation channels, that are continually and painstakingly maintained by the villagers. For that very purpose, few men seemed to go anywhere without a long-handled shovel balanced over their shoulder.
In the Afghan town of Ishkashim (really more of a village), the morning bazaar was well underway when we arrived. Colourful, cobbled-together shop fronts bore Persian script labelling sacks of cumin seed, cardamom and fiery-looking green chilies. A couple of small jewellery stalls displayed items of blue lapis lazuli set in dusty silver.
The afternoon was spent procuring supplies for the fortnight to come. Ishkashim may only have boasted a limited variety of food options, but things would be even more Spartan as we progressed up the Wakhan Corridor, where little other than bread and fresh yoghurt is available.
Three jeeps and a minibus swallowed us at first light the next morning and we started eastwards along the “road”. The going was slow but this suited everyone who sat excitedly absorbing each new and novel sight that drifted past our dust-smeared windows.
After a picnic lunch in an Eden-esque village headman’s garden (all apricot trees, short-grazed grass, gladed light and tinkling channels of nearby springs ), we lurched onwards to the village of Keshnikhan. This was to be our first night in an Afghan homestay. The young, friendly family who welcomed us in showed us to a couple of whitewashed rooms in a mudbrick building where we laid out sleeping bags on long-serving floormats. Outside cattle lapped water from the ubiquitous foot-wide irrigation channels, and barefoot children flitted gigglingly past, excited by the tall white aliens that had landed in their village.
Our cook prepared the first of many admirable meals and we ate like sultans, lounged around the floor of a traditional Pamiri room with a skylight of cross-hatched wooden beams above us. The general mood was one of contentment. The fear-spiced adrenalin of the previous morning had subsided, melted by the smiles and peace and picturesque beauty of the Wakhan’s hardworking inhabitants.
The next few days took us further up the valley and deeper into an anachronism. The Wakhan Corridor has just one pitted road which few vehicles dare take on. There is very little to inform the casual observer that they have not somehow stepped backwards into the fifteenth century. No plastic litters the landscape and no branded/printed clothing is to be seen on the Wakhi people, who opt instead for vibrant red shawls, simple-patterend skirts and earth-toned shalwar kameez. The vast majority of villagers follow the Isma’ilism sect of Islam, which means the burqa is a rare sight.
Each evening we set up residence with a new family and took pre-dinner walks through the photogenic villages which are themselves oases of life dotted between tracts of barren, lunar landscape. The life-giving river eternally hurls itself down the valley floor but all around is craggy mountain, desolate rockscape and dust so fine it can penetrate zips and shoelace holes.
Finally, after several raging river crossings that were farcically daunting for our little convoy, the road gave out and deposited us at it’s terminus: Sarhad e Broghil. The village sits in a mountain bowl with mountain passes leading to both Pakistan and China within hiking distance (if you’re fit and willing to cross illegally). We took up residence in a guesthouse and rose early next morning for a day hike up a narrowing valley with yet more streams of glacial meltwater tumbling over rounded rocks. After a vertical kilometre of exertion, the fittest of the group reached a peak of sorts – a pinnacle of rock with a near-360˚ panorama of brutally beautiful mountain. Snow caps hovered all around and packhorses could be glimpsed in the distance picking their way along precipitous, zigzagging footpaths that seemed to defy all logic.
That evening, shining after a wash in the village’s natural hot springs, we settled on a hillside overlooking a grass-and-rock plain to watch a bunch of fearless village men compete in Buzkashi. A sport that almost eludes adequate explanation, Buzkashi can be best described as rugby on horseback but with a recently-decapitated goat (the buz) in lieu of a ball.
In the rich evening sunlight, the daring horsemen chased one another back and forth across the “pitch”, slashing at horses and one another madly with whips, and yanking the hapless, headless goat from each other’s grasp.
The grand theatre of surrounding mountains, the eagerly cheering crowd of village men, and the utterly bonkers sport played before us…it was a paradoxical scene of beauty and absurdity which, as we turned back down the road the following day for the long homeward journey, seemed to perfectly encapsulate the remote region we’d been so privileged to explore.