Linking north-eastern Afghanistan with China, the remote plains and rugged mountains of the Wakhan Corridor offer would-be explorers a chance to follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo and Genghis Khan – if they’re hardy enough….
Afghanistan looked a mere stone’s throw away, across the mighty Panj River. To prove it, we pulled over in our battered Land Cruisers and threw stones with all our might. Only our good-natured Tajik driver, Yusuf, managed to hit home, promptly flashing a wry, gold-toothed smile. The border, however, was still two days’ drive away. This journey, along the spectacular Pamir Highway from the Tajik capital Dushanbe to Ishkashim on the Afghan border, was the only safe way into the Wakhan Corridor; the routes from Faisabad and Kabul were considered too dangerous.
A far-flung corner of the world
In the ‘Fast Facts’ section of my Central Asia guidebook, it says Afghanistan is famous for civil war, the Taliban and carpets – the standard myopic worldview of this beautiful and culturally rich but war-torn country. I knew Afghanistan offered so much more and had signed up to take part in an expedition into the Wakhan Corridor, a 350-kilometre strip of land jutting out from north-eastern Afghanistan towards China, bordered by Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south.
A far-flung corner of the world where the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Pamir mountain ranges meet spectacularly, the Wakhan Corridor was created as a buffer zone during the geopolitical Great Game, played out between Russia and Britain in the nineteenth century. Adventurers such as Francis Younghusband, Lord Curzon and John Wood struck out into this remote territory, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Marco Polo and Ghenghis Khan.
The Wakhan’s remoteness and inaccessibility are the main reasons for its quiet security, contrasting sharply with the rest of the country. The Wakhi people are Ismaili Muslims, who don’t observe Ramadan or worship in mosques, so it’s fair to say that they are more moderate than their Sunni counterparts. Here, women are considered equals, the burkha is nowhere to be seen and the Taliban has never had a presence. Being subsistence farmers, the Wakhi cultivate crops in the spring and move up the valley in summer to higher pasture lands, generally living a peaceful life, tending their goats, sheep and yaks. But the price they pay for such stability and solitude is high – they lack essential government funding for health services and education.
The region is said to have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world and life expectancy is a grim 35 years. Poverty is widespread, so, over the last few years, tourism has been encouraged to bring much-needed money into the local economy. It’s early days yet, and the tourist industry is in its infancy, but there is much to attract visitors to this part of the world, where cultural traditions and lifestyles have changed little over hundreds of years.
Beautiful mountains and macabre landmine signs
We drove for two days along the Pamir Highway towards the Afghan border, passing ruggedly beautiful mountain scenery dotted with bright sunflowers and macabre landmine warning signs. Sitting in the middle of the plain, and in front of the border guard’s office, were two rusting Russian tanks – a grim reminder of this embattled country’s more recent past. Our adventure was about to begin.
I was in Afghanistan with Secret Compass, an expedition company that runs one-off trips for small groups to some of the most remote and unexplored regions of the world. The company is run by Tom and Lev, both ex-military commanders who have almost 20 years of expedition experience between them. The Wakhan trip was born out of their mutual interest in the Great Game and romantic ideas about the mission to reach Lake Zorkol, source of the Oxus River, discovered in the late nineteenth century by John Wood, and the duo worked with a local fixer to arrange this one-off expedition for us. It was a trek, and we’d be walking most of the way, occasionally riding horses or yaks if we got tired; our large packs would be carried by horses and donkeys. The group, led by Tom and Lev, comprised fit-as-a-butcher’s-dog doctor Beth, fake Aussie Glen (no booze, no Vegemite), City banker Mike, quintessential English gent Ritchie (resplendent in cords, Barbour and cravat) and me.
From the border we had another day’s drive to the Wakhan where we were to pick up our permits and spend our last night in guesthouse accommodation before the walking began. Arriving in Gaz Khan village, Ritchie wasted no time in gathering enough Wakhi villagers for what was certainly their first ever game of cricket, much to the delight of a small group of giggling girls, who were soon wielding the bat with glee. We played long into the evening, until we could no longer see the ball, before returning to our lodgings for a simple supper of beans, bread, rice and delicious yoghurt with honey.
Early the next day, our pack animals were assembled and we loaded our gear. With seven horses, seven handlers, plus local guide Mir Sayeed, cook Ghulam Nazir and ten heavily laden donkeys, we were ready, but not before a pep talk from Tom: ‘This is an expedition, so it’s going to be tough. But it’ll also be great fun as well as fascinating.’ Still, this was to be a no-frills trip. I was going to have to man up.
Fun times: exhaustion, freezing water and raging sun
Our first river crossing was calamitous. A small donkey was almost washed away, together with our belongings, and Mike was flung off his horse into the freezing water. The next few days were calmer and took us over ridges, up hills, across plains and through bogs, all the time being buffeted by the relentless wind, scorched by the raging sun, and covered in fine dust. But the beautiful terrain more than made up for any physical discomforts.
We camped at night, slipping – exhausted – into our sleeping bags by eight o’clock so that we’d be up and packed by five the next morning.
By day eight we were due to pass from Wakhi to Kyrgyz territory and had been walking for about 35 kilometres when it began to get dark. At the top of the foothills ahead, we could see a clutch of yurts through the darkening gloom. To our left stood a ridge of Tajik mountains and to the right a ridge of Afghan peaks, glowing in the setting sun as a drizzle set in. We’d reached 4,500 metres and I felt dizzy and nauseous from altitude sickness.
Finally, after about an hour, we arrived at the small village of upper Elghonok and immediately my spirits lifted. From between the dust-encrusted yurts women wearing red dresses, beaded necklaces, ornate silver jewellery and tall white headdresses came rushing towards us with arms outstretched in welcome. Small boys were playing among the donkeys and goats and girls peeked shyly from behind their braided hair as our bedraggled group shook hands with the chieftain and were ushered into the warmth of a yurt. We were in Kyrgyz territory now.
Dinner with teeth and a globular eye
As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I noticed the wooden frame of the dwelling, thick sheep felt covering the walls and piles of embroidered cushions, snug blankets and bright felt rugs. The villagers welcomed us, bringing tea, bread and yoghurt. In the centre of the room a wonky old stove pumped out remarkable heat and the open flap of felt in the roof offered a stunning view of the starry night sky. We were excited at the prospect of lamb for dinner, having been on a diet of pasta, rice and bread for eight days. A large plate of meat was placed in front of us. A globular eye stared unappetisingly up at me.
I gingerly picked a chop, but found a row of teeth where the bone should be. Not wanting to upset our hosts, I selected something that didn’t seem to be part of a face and sank my teeth in. It tasted magnificent! Definitely better to not look, just eat.
The following morning, when I unzipped my tent, I had a surprise. Snow! In July! It’s abnormal at this time of year, but it did provide glorious vistas. While we admired the pretty landscape, Lev and Tom spent two hours negotiating with the Kyrgyz chief and his men for the animals we needed. ‘There’s a fine line between being culturally aware and being taken the piss out of,’ explained Tom, whose experience of two tours in Helmand served our expedition well.
The Kyrgyz were driven from their homeland by the Mongols hundreds of years ago and have been itinerant ever since, using high pastures to graze their animals in the summer months. Fiercely independent and stubbornly proud, they experience as harsh an existence as their ancestors did in medieval times, herding yaks, goats and Bactrian camels, trading with the Wakhi, but otherwise remaining isolated.
After an 11-day trek it was yurts, yaks and hot springs
The Kyrgyz guides watched us begin our walk then mounted their horses and rode nonchalantly past. Kyrgyz don’t walk. Ever. We were much slower on foot than they were on horseback, and they simply left us behind. With no idea how close we were to the village, not a Kyrgyz in sight, nor any of our bags, morale was low. Then, unexpectedly, a lone horseman appeared on the horizon, loping steadily towards us. After a few minutes’ confused translation, we learned that we were still two hours from camp. I was cold, hungry, exhausted and ready to fly home. That was when I realised the Kyrgyz have a wicked sense of humour – we arrived at camp just 15 minutes later, with a yak-dung fire and steaming mugs of tea waiting to warm us.
On our very welcome rest day we went swimming in the icy water of Lake Zorkul. ‘More Westerners have summited Everest than have seen this lake,’ mused Lev as we took in the remarkable sight. It had taken 11 days from Dushanbe to reach our remote destination, but it was worth every step.
Continuing our journey from Zorkul took us through more Kyrgyz and Wakhi settlements and past more stark mountain plains. We slept in yurts – a welcome and warm alternative to our mountain tents. For the final leg of the journey, traversing the Hindu Kush for the descent into Sargaz, we rode yaks – far sturdier and much less capricious than the Kyrgyz horses.
While relishing the hot springs in Sargaz, I contemplated the trip. I’d been exhausted for most of it, the altitude had left me breathless and nauseous, I had been windswept and sunburned, the food had been terrible and dust had permeated every pore. But I felt elated. It had been a phenomenal journey: we’d covered 224 kilometres in nine days, even managing to pack in some culture. Yes, it had been physically trying, but there aren’t many opportunities to trek in such a remote and beautiful landscape.
So, if you fancy a similarly challenging holiday next year – perhaps to South Sudan, the Congo, Ethiopia, Mongolia, West Papua or even Wakhan – you know who to call. But I’m warning you: it’s tough.
Secret Compass runs one-off expeditions rather than repeat tours. However, the company will be heading back to the Wakhan in 2012 – the same area but with a different mission. ‘Ice Caves of the Wakhan’ is a challenging expedition to the eastern end of the Wakhan Valley that aims to reach the source of the Oxus at the ice caves, as claimed by Lord Curzon when he explored the area in 1894. July 1-22 2012. £2,999 land only, including all meals, transport and accommodation.
Trip suits… Travellers of all ages with a good level of fitness who are able to endure 12 days of trekking and/or horse-riding of around 25 kilometres a day at an altitude of around 4,000 metres.