A Warm Welcome in a Harsh Land

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June 3rd 2013
Published: July 17th 2013
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It is a harsh life in the Wakhan. This is best evidenced by infant mortality rates that exceed 40% in places, contributed by a combination of climate and isolation. This harshness is reflected in the Wakhi faces that are as captivating as the mountains they live under. The faces are hard, and every line on their visage tells a tale of trial and tribulation. Even the children wore those same tough visages. It was rare to see a young looking child, for their faces usually resemble the adults, albeit in a much smaller form.

But beneath this hard exterior lies a warm and welcoming heart as our half-day hike through the villages past Sargaz revealed. It was again a glorious sunny day, and the low sun cast large shadows that shaded the main path. We passed numerous vignettes of pastoral life; children watching over grazing goats, men carting goods on the back of donkeys/mules, women tending to the fields. Interestingly, the women often showed their face in public, quite unlike Ishkashim. Usually, rural areas tend to be more conservative than population centres, yet in this part of the Afghanistan, the opposite occurred.

Upon meeting someone, there was always a
Young mother and child - Qala Ouest, AfghanistanYoung mother and child - Qala Ouest, AfghanistanYoung mother and child - Qala Ouest, Afghanistan

I was most surprised when she agreed to this photo.
greeting of placing one’s hand over the heart, which was often followed by a handshake. Many would question my guide Hameed about my presence and where I hailed from. All these encounters occurred whilst dwarfed by the astonishing scenery where rows upon rows of magnificent mountains plunged sharp and steep into ravines and rivers.

We passed an abandoned village whose former residents relocated a few years ago when a gigantic landslide destroyed most of the homes. Only crumbling walls remained, with missing roofs allowing me to peer into their former abodes. As with almost everywhere in the Wakhan, there is rarely a sound to be heard, and this muted environment where not even a bird sounds, provided an eerie setting.

Further along our journey, we were joined by an elderly man and his grandson who wished to accompany us on our trek to our destination of Kizkut. We followed a meandering rocky road that rose high above the river valley and closer to those grand peaks, before we descended into a green plain where Kizkut lay.

This marked the most distant point of my Afghanistan adventure, and the further one progresses along the Wakhan, the more isolated
Goat herder - near Sargaz, AfghanistanGoat herder - near Sargaz, AfghanistanGoat herder - near Sargaz, Afghanistan

He was mute, so we communicated very well by gestures and expressions
it becomes. The Wakhan Corridor is relatively central, but once we arrived in the Big Pamir, villages became less frequent, less populated and vehicular traffic drops to almost nil. During this half-day walk along the Wakhan’s main road, we sighted not one vehicle. Further along is the Little Pamir where no roads exist and all travel is undertaken by foot or horse. One must allow a week to cross the Little Pamir, but time and money prevented me from continuing that far.

Upon arriving in Kizkut, we were greeted by the village elder who immediately invited us to stay for tea. Children and women peered shyly from behind mud-brick walls and homes as we passed. The welcome procedure into any village is similar. One is shown to a common room with a raised floor on three sides which is covered in rugs and the occasional cushion. The honoured guest is given the position in the middle of the centre platform that is usually directly opposite the door.

A silver coloured bowl is produced, and water from a similarly coloured decanter is poured so that guests can wash their hands, with the most important diner receiving the water first.
The bridge in Sargaz - AfghanistanThe bridge in Sargaz - AfghanistanThe bridge in Sargaz - Afghanistan

The building on the middle left is Sargaz guesthouse.
A blanket is produced and unfolded to reveal round, flat bread that is subsequently broken into pieces and distributed. There follows the tea and different dishes, but in this case, only bread was on offer. Food in the Wakhan is almost exclusively vegetarian, and usually consists of beans, potatoes and rice all washed down with a delectable milky tea. The end of the meal is signalled by bringing your two hands to the front of your eyes and moving them diagonally downwards.

During tea I was informed that this village solely exists on farming, and their staple crop is wheat, with which they barter for sheep and goats – and given the number of goats tethered around the village – the village seemed quite prosperous. Their life is harsh in winter, but in summer they at least have green fields and even trees to shelter under. Kizkut has only 149 inhabitants, which seems to be the usual size for population centres in the Wakhan.

When it neared time to depart, the village elder said to me, “I am sorry that I have nothing to offer you but tea and bread.”
I looked at the faces around me, all waiting intently for my answer. They wished to provide me more, but it was not possible.
I replied with a smile, “The most important thing you could give me was a welcome and a smile, and you have done that.”
This comment was received with nods of approval. It again demonstrates an adage I regularly encounter in my travel – the people with the fewest possessions are far more generous than those surrounded by wealth.

I wished to remain in this village overnight, but we needed to continue, especially to avoid overstaying our time in the Wakhan and facing possibly further problems from the police in Khandud. After a much warmer return journey now that the sun was at its zenith, we arrived back in Sargaz and continued by vehicle.

Our next stop was my favourite village in the Wakhan. Qala Ouest was an expansive village spread across one of the largest fertile plains in the area. To reach the village, we crossed a bridge constructed by the Aga Khan Foundation, a Swiss-based agency that performs extraordinary work improving the infrastructure, self-sufficiency and sustainability in this part of Afghanistan and the Pamir region of Tajikistan.

A gurgling mountain stream with fresh, cold water poured from the mountain and made this an oasis in the surrounding rocky landscape. We were directed to the village elder who invited us into the common room, but this was much larger than that in Kizkut and consequently the audience was greater. Most interesting was that a young lady with beautiful intense eyes holding her child joined the gathering. This was the first and only time that a woman joined any of my conversations.

Much of the conversation involved Australia so I produced my laptop and showed them my photographs. These were viewed with great interest – especially the tall buildings of my former home of Brisbane and the green parkland of Southbank. This discussion involved laughter at my expense as I sought to mime my explanations about Australia in my usual extravagant fashion.

The village elder questioned me on a subject which several others had mentioned. They wanted to know if I was aware of the Afghan cameleers who were brought to Australia (along with camels) in the mid 19th century to help Europeans explore the newly colonised land. They seemed most pleased when I demonstrated my knowledge of this topic by explaining a brief history of the cameleers. My hosts were surprised to know that camels were not native to Australia and that their population now exceeds one million.

When I asked about Qala Ouest, the village elder lamented:
“Hikers and mountaineers do not stop here. They go straight to the mountains,” he paused before continuing. “Last year a large group of 30 foreigners came, but they did not stop,”
“Why should they stop in Qala Ouest?” I questioned.
“Because we can welcome them.” He responded
He then spoke quite quickly which made Hameed smile when he translated it “You are the first foreigner to sit in this room,” which only emphasised the point he was making.
“More people should stop here, you have the most beautiful village in the Wakhan,” I replied, and everyone, as expected, nodded their agreement.
It was apparent that in order to know the mountains you need to understand the hearts of the people that live around them.

Upon leaving, I requested some portraits, and most incredibly, the young lady who sat silently but sometimes laughed agreed to be photographed. We ambled back to the vehicle slowly in order to prolong my time in this beautiful place, and were joined by a group of children who followed us to the edge of the village.

Our bumpy road journey continued, and we frequently needed to stop for water to cool the overheating engine of our troublesome Landcruiser, whose condition was deteriorating. We all felt relieved to pass through Khandud with no interference from the police and that evening we rested in another guest house.

Prior to departure the following morning, I was introduced to the village camels, which pleased me greatly, but there was the promise of more camels further along the road, so I insisted we search for them. This proved to be an unfortunate decision. Being unable to espy any along the main thoroughfare, we detoured from the road and met a goat herder. He stated that wolves had scared the camels the previous night and they were now missing. This was most disappointing; however something far more disappointing awaited, for the battered Landcruiser refused to start. Because the vehicle needed to roll down an incline to fire the engine into life, our group, joined by the goat herder, pushed the vehicle up sandy rises and then thrust it down again, at which time it spluttered but fell silent. This work, under a warm sun and at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres, was hot and tiring.

After 90 minutes we were still heaving this damned vehicle around the sandy terrain. I told Hammed that in ten minutes I would return to the road 500 metres away and hope to flag down a non-existent vehicle to assist. We managed to push the vehicle to the highest point so far and with what felt like an almost final effort, we shoved it forward with great exertion and the vehicle coughed and rattled into life. We all celebrated and after hearty thanks to the goat herder, we quickly boarded and continued our journey – with me promising not to halt for any more camels.

We did however, have to make one more unscheduled stop, but this time for heavily armed border guards. The front suspension of their vehicle had partly collapsed and we had the repair tools they needed. In the half hour it took to fix the problem, I chatted to the only guard who spoke English and we shared
The village of Kizkut - AfghanistanThe village of Kizkut - AfghanistanThe village of Kizkut - Afghanistan

We were provided tea behind the blue door on the right
many laughs about some rather risqué topics. On the rear of their vehicle was mounted a menacing large calibre machine-gun, as both vehicle and its occupants were sent from Faizabad to patrol the Wakhan and ensure a secured border. The guards appeared to enjoy their job and they possessed a great camaraderie. Given the problems they could face, I have utmost respect for them and their work.

Finally, we returned to Ishkashim, where I again heard the prayer call issue from a mosque. I never saw any mosques in the Wakhan, or if they were present, the muezzin did not use any amplification. Though Ishkashim provides rudimentary amenities, it felt positively luxurious after my expedition to the Wakhan which is purely the realm of adventure travel, as one abandons the expected comforts such as electricity and running water.

We had been extremely fortunate during our Wakhan adventure as the weather was perfect. Two days before we departed it was horribly cold, and the day after we returned it worsened dramatically. Whilst at the bazaar, the sky rapidly clouded over, and a fierce dust storm was enjoined by a driving rain and wind that blew down the stall awnings
Village elder at Kizkut, AfghanistanVillage elder at Kizkut, AfghanistanVillage elder at Kizkut, Afghanistan

He apologised for only being able to offer me bread and tea.
and sent shopkeepers into hiding. I too was safely hidden in a room above the bazaar and watched the conditions deteriorate. Electricity within Ishkashim was cut, and the town was still without power when I departed Afghanistan the next day.

This was a fitting farewell from Afghanistan; watching the dust and rain batter Ishkashim whilst safely ensconced in a room surrounded by my new Afghan friends. Though the land is extremely tough, the welcome has been most generous. This has been one of the most remarkable weeks of all my travels – a time of incredible contrasts. I felt an irrevocably change within me from this experience, but am unsure exactly of its essence, but strongly sense that it will manifest over time.

The negative image of Afghanistan as portrayed in the media does not apply to the Wakhan. It is a shame that people take reports from the media and the Internet of terrorism or unrest that only effect certain parts of a nation, and wrongly extrapolate it to the entire country. The more I visit these supposedly dangerous destinations, the more enamoured of them I become for they always provide the most memorable and enjoyable travel experiences.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


Boy who escorted me to Kizkut - AfghanistanBoy who escorted me to Kizkut - Afghanistan
Boy who escorted me to Kizkut - Afghanistan

The children seemed to posses adult faces as well.
Village elder of Qala Ouest - AfghanistanVillage elder of Qala Ouest - Afghanistan
Village elder of Qala Ouest - Afghanistan

He wished tourists would visit his village before heading to the mountains.
Pushing the broken Landcruiser to higher ground - AfghanistanPushing the broken Landcruiser to higher ground - Afghanistan
Pushing the broken Landcruiser to higher ground - Afghanistan

I helped with the pushing after taking this photograph.
Common room in Dogornund - AfghanistanCommon room in Dogornund - Afghanistan
Common room in Dogornund - Afghanistan

This is typical of the rooms where I was served tea and bread.

17th July 2013

travels in a harsh land
"people with the fewest possessions are far more generous than those surrounded by wealth." I can picture you now...relishing the hospitality...relishing that you are there.
18th July 2013

Relishing the hospitality
I was relishing the hospitality and was equally humbled at the same time. It is difficult to convey what an unusual feeling it is to be so humbled by the generosity of those far less financially wealthy than yourself. But such hospitality demonstrates that they are very wealthy in other ways.
17th July 2013

Bread and Tea
Another amazing insight into the lives of those who have so little but so much - thanks Shane :)
18th July 2013

Bread and Tea
Thanks for your eloquent comment. Those people that do have little so often possess plenty in terms of non-tangible treasures that we too often miss in a wealthy society.
17th July 2013

Humans are kind. Each experience helps us put a bit more of this puzzle together. You've got some of the bigger pieces in place now. What an amazing experience.
18th July 2013

This was an amazing experience, no doubt. But upon returning to Tajikistan I had one that was perhaps even more incredible that added even more pieces in completing that picture of humanity - and also of life. This will be described in my next blog.
18th July 2013

Great article
Really enjoyed your article on Northern Afghanistan. I travelled through Afghanistan from Iran to Pakistan and back in 70/71 but only on the main roads. Still have fond memories of there.
18th July 2013

nice work
What a great trip, reminds me of stories from a more golden age of travel, Richard Haliburton maybe. Photos are worthy of National Geographic. Hameed looks a little untrustworthy though.
18th July 2013

A great writer
I follow your blogs through Facebook and Travelblog. You are a great observer. I would love to go to those lands, no matter how hard it might be. I love that. I agree with you about the political views on terrorism, I mean, there´s a difference between people and government. Hugs from Argentina. Graciela
20th July 2013

I can just see you there, insisting that the journey not go on without looking for those camels :-) Seriously though, thanks for once again opening our eyes to reality in your typical eloquent way. A beautiful story.
20th July 2013

In pursuit of camels
It is always a priority when I travel - if camels are near - I shall seek them.
21st July 2013

Another meaningful journey, i'm always delighted to read about deep impact. It gave me new perspective of the country and its people as well. Why time was pressuring you, because of the visa?
21st July 2013

My return journey in Tajikistan provided an equally meaningful experience, that will be detailed in my next blog. My time was short because of needing to return to Dubai - I had 5 weeks in Central Asia. However, the main reason for not continuing down the Wakhan was financial. If I had the money I should have been able to find the time.
30th July 2013

A hand over the heart
Your acute attention to detail makes me feel as though I were there and that makes me want to read more.
16th August 2013

Fascinating place
I find this region really fascinating. I actually just finished reading and watching the amazing pictures from Matthieu Paley's book. Do you know this book ? I don't know if there is an English version, mine in French. Matthieu travelled 3 times during the winter in the Little Pamir and his book is just amazing. Very talented photograph. Wakhan will come later for me maybe but hopefully, I should start with the Pamir in Tajikistan next summer (I read your post about it too, great reading). I was meant to go there last year but the military events there last august stopped my plan :-(
14th September 2013

Beautiful article
I'm jealous and amazed that you were able to experience such a warm welcome with those villagers. They look like beautiful, remote places. And you're right - the best gift anyone can give is a warm welcome.
14th September 2013

Warm welcome
Thanks for the comment! I generally find that the less materially wealthy a country, the more generous are its people.

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