Two unpredictable elements of travelling in Central Asia – officialdom and transport – conspired against me in my journey to one of the most remote regions on earth. The ribbon of land called the Wakhan Corridor – with the Hindu Kush and Pakistan on one side, with the Panj River and Tajikistan on the other. This is a rarely travelled route, so rare that I was the first tourist to journey along the Wakhan Corridor this year, and it was already the end of May.
Public transport is non-existent so one must either bring their own transport, or organise a vehicle and driver. It so transpired that there were problems with the vehicle that my guide, Hameed, had originally organised. Thus, 90 minutes after our intended departure he arrived with another vehicle driven by a young man named Mohammadulla, with his brother, Mohammad, accompanying him. Mohammadullah was the equal to the best driver I had seen, but unfortunately, his vehicle, a battered old Landcruiser, was beset by problems that worsened as the journey progressed.
I took my position in the front passenger seat, only to discover that the window was broken, so I moved to the only passenger window
that opened in the vehicle, the left rear. Interestingly, the vehicle was a right hand drive, even though traffic drives on the right side of the road. I figured that these vehicles came from neighbouring Pakistan who drive on the left.
My seat allowed me to admire the beautiful Tajik Pamir mountains underneath an expansive blue sky decorated with fluffy clouds. Shortly after our departure we passed two goats head-butting each other and Hameed joked, “The goats are fighting, just like everyone in Afghanistan” – a comment laced with a hint of sadness.
The road conditions were terrible and definitely the worst I have experienced; our average speed was less than twenty kilometres per hour. The road was marked in some sections, but in other parts it was merely a sea of stones or tightly winding passages of dirt. There was rarely a straight section with which to build any speed. Our vehicle weaved, heaved, rose and dipped across a variety of difficult, but thankfully not precarious, terrain.
Mechanical issues slowed our progress further. Whenever we sighted a mountain stream, we halted to cool the engine by dousing it with volumes of water. Further, when we did
stop, the vehicle was always parked on an incline so that it could roll forward and start. This peculiarity caused us significant problems on the return journey that will be detailed in the next blog.
However, our biggest problem was revealed when we reached the largest settlement in the Wakhan, a place called Khandud. The police halted us upon arrival, and as usual, our travel papers were produced to the police. I immediately sensed something was wrong, and shortly afterward a grim looking officer boarded the vehicle and directed us towards the police station located adjacent to a disused fort.
I asked Hameed, “Is there a problem?” to which he replied “There is no problem.” Hameed and the others headed to the fort with the officer whilst I waited below surrounded by mountain streams and leafy trees – the early days of summer here are beautiful. Approximately 20 minutes later a senior officer with a weathered face and dark piercing eyes approached the fort and beckoned me to follow. Striding up the incline, I saw Hameed, the driver and his brother looking quite downcast with a group of officers nearby. I approached Hammed and quietly asked, “Is there
a problem?” to which his response was “There is a little problem.”
The senior officer who escorted me spoke to the officer who handed him a collection of documents in a plastic sleeve which included my permit, signed letters authorising me to travel and driver and registration details. He asked Hameed where I was from and where we intended to visit. The only part of the conversation I understood was where Hameed responded to the questions of where I was from and our intended destinations, for I heard the words “Australia” and the names of villages “Sargaz”,” Qala Ouest” and “Qala-e Panja”.
The senior officer launched into a fine piece of theatrical rhetoric. It was difficult to discern what was happening, but he frequently pointed to me as “tourist”, waved the papers in the air, and became quite animated and agitated at different points. He spoke with great conviction and was obviously very certain of his position. I dearly wanted to interrupt to uncover what was the problem with me being a tourist here, but thought it best to keep silent.
Hameed looked at this senior officer when he spoke, but the driver and his brother keep
their eyes fixed to the dusty ground. Watching the increasingly uncomfortable movements of my travelling companions as the discourse continued, my journey along the Wakhan was looking doubtful. The driver and Hameed answered some questions, and the senior officer responded with another lengthy lecture. The original officer watched silently, merely nodding in agreement to the words of his superior.
At the conclusion of his ten minute sermon, a period of awkward silence was broken when we were summoned to the gloomy office of the most senior official in Khandud – the District Officer. He was a corpulent man who sat behind a wide desk that matched his large frame. On the wall were posters of the flood areas of Khandud and other administrative maps. My travelling companions all looked contrite upon meeting the District Officer. We were asked to sit in the black faux-leather sofas that lined two sides of the room, and I sat next to Hameed in the closest couch to the District Officer. I gently smiled at each of the District Officer, senior officer and officer. Their expressions remained impassive – this did not bode well.
The District Officer rifled through the papers given to
him by the senior officer, at which time there commenced a tense half an hour of discussion involving many words from all. I watched silently. Judging by the countenance of the police, my journey was looking increasingly doubtful. However, I detected that the conversation seemed to be less about me as a tourist and more about something else which I could not discern.
A young officer was summoned and shortly after, the driver and his brother were escorted from the room by the police officers, leaving only the District Officer, Hameed and me. The District Officer was engrossed in some documents apparently unrelated to us, so I whispered to Hameed, “What is the problem?” to which he whispered back, “Problem with registration of the car.” I was so shocked that I blurted in an unhushed volume “Why in the f@#& wasn’t the car registered!” Hameed did not respond, which was prudent, for this conversation was best left to later. I was subsequently informed that the vehicle did not have the correct registration for it to travel past Khandud. Why someone would offer to drive a vehicle down the Wakhan without correctly registered papers is a mystery.
Grass amongst the stone - Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan
Any waterway always had green surrounding it, but it was barren ground thereafter.
door swung open and the senior officer swaggered in and seated himself on the other side of the room. I watched the officer’s movements and when his eyes met mine, he gave me a smile. I leant over to Hameed, “The officer smiled at me, I think everything is okay.” to which Hameed nodded. After more than 90 minutes, it appeared that a resolution was imminent.
The senior officer and District Officer briefly conversed, and they spoke to Hameed, who turned to me and with relief sounding in his voice stated “Let’s go!” Hameed and I shook the District Officer’s large hand, and through Hameed he asked me, “Are you enjoying your time in Afghanistan” to which I responded, “Balley”, which is Dari
for “Yes”. With that we exited the office and hurried back to town.
The final negotiation of our dilemma occurred in the dusty street. The good news was that we could proceed if our time in the Wakhan was shortened by one day, and if accompanied by a government official who would travel to Sargaz. The bad news was that this official was known for his addiction to both alcohol and opium.
after being detained, we continued our journey – it was an enormous relief to be travelling again. The elderly government official sat next to me and I could smell the alcohol on his breath. He carried a dark-coloured opium derivate in a small metal cylinder, which he frequently consumed. The addictions made the official loquacious, and he constantly nattered about mostly frivolous topics. It was better than dealing with a maudlin character, albeit marginally.
We arrived at our overnight destination of Qala-e Panja in time to see a camel and its baby being herded by a young child. Children often are seen herding all manner of animals. I was taken to the guesthouse, and being the only guest, I had the enormous common room to myself. The owner informed me that I was his first guest of the year, and that he hopes to welcome more than the 60 tourists who stayed with him in 2012. Considering that Qala-e Panja is the usual stop for Wakhan travellers, it demonstrated how few people traverse the territory.
During the evening I considered our predicament with the official. His constant babblings fuelled from alcohol and opium consumption were not only irritating,
Negotiations in Khundud - Afghanistan
Hameed (left) with papers, the driver (right) and his brother (centre) negotiate with the partly visible senior officer.
but the longer he remained, the more likely it would cause a problem if any incident gave him reason to complain. I decided that instead of him accompanying us for every village stop of our Wakhan journey, we would change our itinerary and proceed directly to Sargaz, where our ways would part. We would place him in the front seat on the premise of his importance, whereas the real reason was to prevent him from constantly trying to initiate inane conversation when sitting next to me. The driver could bear that burden instead, especially since it was his incorrectly registered car that caused the official to be with us in the first place.
The next morning, I explained my proposition to Hameed, and asked him to relay to the official that due to his generous offer to accompany us, we would change our itinerary and ensure he reaches his destination as fast as possible, and we would allocate him the front seat due to his importance. This of course received an enthusiastic response and he proudly took the front seat, leaving me to enjoy the day’s ride in relative peace.
The journey from Qala-e Panja passed quickly, and
Scene from Khundud - Afghanistan
I took this while the others were negotiating with the police.
the roads here were an improvement from the previous day. We stopped at a school in Kipkut in response to a waving welcome from one of the teachers, and were given a brief tour. When photograph time arrived, all the men and boys enthusiastically formed a concave line, whereas the girls sat quietly to one side watching the commotion. This school, and others in the Wakhan have been built by the Central Asia Institute
, an organisation that assists remote mountain communities in Central Asia. Shortly afterwards, we bid farewell to the official. He did seem a nice enough chap, but his addictions made him a tiresome companion.
With the official now deposited safely and out of annoyance’s way, we headed to the guesthouse for the evening. Since I was the first tourist of the year, it took some time to open the room, unfold all the blankets and cushions, and air the room. Unfortunately, there was too much dust, and my exposure during these nights caused my slight allergy to dust to develop into a brief period of illness.
It was when returning to the Landcruiser to collect my backpack that I was astonished by the immense mountain looming nearby.
I had failed to notice it earlier due to it being behind me when approaching the guesthouse. The 6,513 metre Mt Baba Tangi, with a carpet of freshly fallen snow, arose before me – it was my favourite vista of these five weeks in Central Asia. After settling into the nearby natural thermal bath to wash away the ubiquitous dirt and dust, 90 minutes before sunset I settled on a rock and watched the shifting light of the waning day cast its coloured hues onto Baba Tangi.
This was one of those vistas where you can admire and reflect on the glory of the world and of life. As dusk approached many groups of herdsmen with their flocks of mostly goats returned to their respective homes and pens for the evening. A slight wind blew as the sun’s orange glow slowly crept towards the peak of Baba Tangi until it was finally extinguished. In languorous solitude, the air cooled and sky darkened, and I was content to sit alone in the quietude with only the towering mountains and star covered skies as my companions.
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