The excitement we felt on our first sight of Afghanistan was palpable. Arriving at the small town of Kalaikhum in Tajikistan we gazed across the fast-flowing Panj River to the Afghanistan shore opposite and the rugged mountains that rose above; so near and still yet so far. We followed the river, on the Tajikistan side, along stunningly sculptured mountain gorges, through little villages where apricot-laden trees provided shade and sustenance, bathed in hot springs and scrambled over ancient forts.
And then at Ishkashim we crossed the Panj River; we’d arrived in Afghanistan. As if on cue, iconic images appeared as we ascended the rutted dirt road towards the border town on Sultan Ishkashim in Afghanistan. Rusting tanks lay abandoned, bereft of any useful parts. Dust swirled around us as a wedding party drove past; we slewed quickly out of their way – you don’t argue with a three burly Afghan men atop a jeep, donning Pakol caps, swathed in chequered scarves and holding aloft AK47 rifles with bayonets. Traditional wedding paraphernalia in these parts.
Our journey took us along the remote Wakhan corridor that runs for 220 miles east of the main northern body of Afghanistan. Here live the Wakhi people, of different origin to the Afghans, with their own language and customs.
Every day brought new challenges and adventures. The raging Panj River (a major tributary of the Oxus, now known as the Amu Darya) had washed away a significant part of our road. After much gesticulation and consultation, our drivers decided to cross the crumbling remains. A measurement made with spanned hands gave just two hands-worth of leeway. We piled out of the vehicles and watched with baited breath. The first vehicle drove over the trouble spot, but not without scaping the doors on the rock face. To (cathartic) whoops and cheers, the remaining drivers rushed to their vehicles, keen to also show off their skills.
The return journey six days later proved a little more complicated; the road had been washed away as to make it impassable. Despite the torrential flow of the river, our drivers managed to hew enough rock from the overhanging mountain to build up enough ‘land’ to drive across. Our party didn’t stand aside; we all carried rocks for infill till our arms ached. Did we enjoy it? Of course we did!
On several occasions, one or more vehicle floundered in deep mud or became trapped in boulder strewn fast-flowing rivulets. Plenty of bumper-to-bumper pushing ensued, plenty of bits of vehicles got damaged in the process, but the drivers seemed to care not a jot. All part of a day’s drive in the Wakhan.
It’s a hard life in the Wakhan corridor. Every incident brought home to us the trials faced every day by the people of this region and the precariousness of their existence here. Roads comprised of scree and dirt hug the mountainsides, with precipitous drops to raging rivers below. The terrain is rugged and landslides are common.
At this time of year, the Wakhis are busy. In every settlement we passed men, women and children in their fields, scything wheat and barley, pulling up pea plants and digging potatoes. These crops, along with chickens, goats and sheep will be their diet for the long, snowbound winter months when temperatures drop to -40 degrees. The area will be impenetrable, access to schools and health care all but impossible.
It was a revelation to be in such a remote area and realise that the vast majority of the children (and women) have never been to Ishkashim or ridden in a motorised vehicle. They’ve never seen a shop, a television, a mobile phone (no signal) or a computer. With nothing to buy pre-packed, there is no litter to despoil the landscape or pollute the rivers. With ever-smiling faces, the people greeted us with interest and, after their initial shyness, delight.
At Sarhad, our final destination along the valley where the dirt road ends we walked to a green meadow high above the village, where semi-nomadic Wakhi spend the summer months grazing their livestock. Others of us hiked to the top of the Daliz Pass. At nearly 4,000 metres, the views were spectacular and well worth the lung-effort.
Our last day in Ishkashim (which felt like a very busy, bustling place after the quiet remote corridor) brought us full circle. Having gone to find a lapis lazuli workshop (everyone was desperate for a bit of retail therapy) we were invited to join in a wedding celebration that was taking place nearby.
We entered a low-ceilinged Pamiri room and another world. The blue burqas (not seen in the Wakhan) had been tossed aside to reveal women in glittery, sparkling gowns, faces skilfully made-up, bodies bedecked in jewellery. They danced and clapped with gay abandon alongside men and boys whilst others looked in the windows and cheered. We were encouraged to join in, and then to eat a meal. The stew with delicious Afghani rice we all agreed was the best we’d had in the whole trip.
The Wakhan is beautiful and fascinating – the raw mountains interspersed with views of snow-capped Baba Tangi (6513m) and the Hindu Kush range in the distance; the fertile valleys where the leaves of tall poplars dance in the breeze above grassy slopes where children play and animals graze; the force of nature revealed in the tumultuous rivers and the crystal-clear glacial waters; the humble homes and welcoming people, are all memories that will stay with me forever. The trip has been one of the most challenging and rewarding I’ve undertaken.