Detained in the Wakhan

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May 30th 2013
Published: July 5th 2013
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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
Friendly and happy boy - Qala-e Panja, AfghanistanFriendly and happy boy - Qala-e Panja, AfghanistanFriendly and happy boy - Qala-e Panja, Afghanistan

He followed me for a long time, always smiling.
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.

Finally, the
Grass amongst the stone - Wakhan Corridor, AfghanistanGrass amongst the stone - Wakhan Corridor, AfghanistanGrass 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.

Two hours
Police vehicle at the fort - Khundud, AfghanistanPolice vehicle at the fort - Khundud, AfghanistanPolice vehicle at the fort - Khundud, Afghanistan

It was here where we remained for 90 minutes.
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 - AfghanistanNegotiations in Khundud - AfghanistanNegotiations 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 - AfghanistanScene from Khundud - AfghanistanScene 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.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


Guesthouse in Qala-e Panja - AfghanistanGuesthouse in Qala-e Panja - Afghanistan
Guesthouse in Qala-e Panja - Afghanistan

I had the entire room to myself.
Helpful man - Qala-e Panja, AfghanistanHelpful man - Qala-e Panja, Afghanistan
Helpful man - Qala-e Panja, Afghanistan

He showed to the view where I took the cover photo of this blog.
Cooling the car - Wakhan Corridor, AfghanistanCooling the car - Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan
Cooling the car - Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan

This was a frequent occurrence.
School in Kipkut - AfghanistanSchool in Kipkut - Afghanistan
School in Kipkut - Afghanistan

Funded by the Central Asia Institute.
Early evening at Mt Baba Tangi - Sargaz, AfghanistanEarly evening at Mt Baba Tangi - Sargaz, Afghanistan
Early evening at Mt Baba Tangi - Sargaz, Afghanistan

The favourite vista of my 5 week Central Asia trip.

5th July 2013
I made it! In front of Mt Baba Tangi - Sargaz, Afghanistan

The Wakhan Corridor...please say hello to the Khan of the Tajik from me. I bow before you O Magnificent One...the Camel has been elevated to greatness...taken in your stride as usual!!!
5th July 2013
I made it! In front of Mt Baba Tangi - Sargaz, Afghanistan

Thanks Dave!
It was immensely exciting and satisfying to visit the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. Tough place to travel, probably even harder than the Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia, but definitely worth the effort.
5th July 2013

The Rare Tourist
How startling to compare your solitary journey to the 1975 Lonely Planet on crossing Asia, where "the Afghanistan government has quoted some incredible statistics about the number of people crossing the border by land," Kabhul is described as a "tourist trap" and the route across the country was solidly part of the backpacker trail. Perhaps we can all remain hopeful that political tensions settle and this country will once again be known for its superb, long isolated roads and local hospitality.
5th July 2013

Much has changed
Thanks for sharing that illuminating 1975 information on Afghanistan. It sounds nothing like the Afghanistan of my experience. Hopefully, tensions will subside, but there are some intense and passionately held views and beliefs within the country, and unless they lessen, there will always be conflict. Thankfully, the hospitality is still there, a really lovely welcome, but unfortunately, travelling down long isolated roads is fraught with danger in many places.
5th July 2013

Diplomatic Gold!
I love your strategy in preventing him from "initiating inane conversation". Hahaha. I can just imagine you finding his babbling tiresome. I know how you dislike extreme inebriation. And all the while he thought he was being revered. I love the last line: "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".
5th July 2013

superb *hiking* that is to say. Not quite sure the roads themselves were ever considered that great; your photos certainly indicate they are aren't.
5th July 2013

From no problem to little problem
We travelers have certainly heard this before, but I was surprised that you didn't have to discretely hand over any baksheesh. I'm so glad you mentioned the school built by the CAI because I recognized the places you were describing from G. Mortonsen's books. Good to see the school was functioning and had girls in it. Loved the last photos of the mountains with sun/dusk/nightfall. Great adventures!
5th July 2013

Thanks for including the link to the Central Asian Institute...
and for the picture of one of their schools. Following the links I learned that Greg Mortenson, the founder and author of "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones to Schools", has recuperated from his illness, and was cleared of the charges brought against him that damaged his reputation. His books are an inspiration. And thanks for sharing your interesting adventure.
6th July 2013

You mention the permit papers that the police scrutinized. I wonder, what sort of permits does one need to do a trip like this, and how dos one go about getting them? If you haven\'t already, you must read Places in Between by Rory Stewart. I wonder if your routes overlapped.
6th July 2013

I love those faces, the looks on their eyes, their to communicate in so many different forms. The place is amazing.
7th July 2013
Boy with his goat - Qala-e Panja, Afghanistan

double cuteness!
a child with an animal=max cuteness factor. but poor goatie seems to have a sore paw :(
8th July 2013
Curious boy - Sargaz, Afghanistan

these people are beautiful, seriously. Phew...relieved you didn't spend more than 2 hours in detention! Amazing photos for an equally amazing adventure :)
8th July 2013
Curious boy - Sargaz, Afghanistan

The beautiful Afghans
Agree that the Afghans are beautiful, and every face reveals so much character.
9th July 2013

A time to speak and a time to remain silent.
Loved reading of your self control of tongue and tactfulness. Makes me proud. :)
18th July 2013

I came so close to saying something, which in hindsight, would have been disastrous, because it was not me that they had a problem with, it was the vehicle. I suspect, but am not sure, that the driver was taken to task by the senior officer for bringing me down the Wakhan in such a dilapidated vehicle. Such concern for me could have evaporated had I interrupted the senior officer's lecture.
21st August 2014

So familiar...
Loved reading your blog and can relate to every minute of it! I'm just back from the Wakhan myself and stayed at both the Sargaz and Qila-e Panja guesthouses. What an amazing part of the world...
23rd August 2014

Beautiful Afghanistan
I just read your blog - yes, I can relate to it as well. Lucky you went deeper into the area than I did on my own - transport cost was too much for one person to bear. I would dearly love to return one day, I'm sure you feel the same.

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