End of the road, beginning of the journey

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August 24th 2010
Published: September 13th 2010
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I realised something was wrong in Ishkashim as soon as I arrived. It took an extraordinary event to help me put my finger on exactly what was strange about the place and when it happened I was gobsmacked that I had not noticed before. The event occurred after I had been wandering up and down the town's two central streets, lined with shops selling clothing, carpets and household utensils, for thirty minutes: it was the appearance of four blue ghosts who floated silently down the dusty, pebble strewn main street. This, my first sighting of Aghan women, was in fact no sighting at all, because not one of them was showing an inch of skin or hair; there were not even slits for their eyes in their veils. Before this the street had been bustling, but only with men. It had been teeming, thriving, alive with the sounds of dozens of bargains being argued over. Bearded men in turbans, Arab robes and Afghan sleeveless jackets had been nattering away with friends in shop entrances or exchanging the mandatory five-minute greeting upon bumping into an acquaintance but there had not been a single female anywhere on the scene.

I bumped into Wafiola by accident while looking somewhat lost in Ishkashim's centre shortly after my arrival. He was tall, skinny and dressed in Islamic robes, the lack of a turban exposing a shock of jet black hair that trickled down his face and flowed into a modest beard and moustache. He was calm to the point of being dopey, polite and unaggressive to the point that I suspected it was all an act and underneath it lay a strange, antisocial ruthlessness.

Wafiola hired a car and a driver to take me as far East from Ishkashim into the Wakhan Corridor as the road went. He also helped me organise the numerous permits required to travel that road and head further East on foot into the Afghan Pamir, all for a fee of course. First we went into a concrete-walled government office that smelled of damp, dust and mould. Its floor was devoid of carpet and its walls of decorations. There were three wooden desks in the room, each against a different wall, and behind them sat three bureaucrats, one in a scruffy, tieless suit and the other two in shirts and trousers. My passport and four photographs got passed around as each of the three busied himself with some different aspect of my permit application. After twenty minutes the one in a scruffy suit passed me two hand-written letters, indecipherable to me in their Dari script, which Wafiola explained I was to hand in at checkpoints along the road. We then went into a long, thin, carpeted office that was less drab and smelled less of mould. The rectangular room wass lined with chairs and at the far end was one desk, behind which sat a middle-aged man whose appearance was less disshevelled than that of the bureaucrats in the other office. Wafiola spoke to him for a few minutes, he seemed to nod in agreement and we left.

Next we had to visit the town's police compound. We sat with the chief of police in the shade of a tent made from drapes hung over tall thin sticks that had been driven into the ground. We sat at a long line of tables and benches under the drapes and, after a lengthy discussion of which I understood not a word, Wafiola turned to me and said, "he says you can travel anywhere in the Wakhan and the Pamir as safely as if you were in Britain."

After the chief of police had hand-written another letter for me to hand in to the police at Sarhad-e-Broghil, the last village on the road, Wafiola headed off to organise my final permit on his own while I did some last minute shopping. Soap... toilet paper... food not really needed because I'll buy it from locals in the Pamir, I naively thought.

We drove off and out of town along he dirt track that wound its way over rocky hills, through raging rivers and ever East towards the roadless Afghan Pamir that would stop it dead in its tracks. After a couple of hours we came to our first checkpoint, a piece of thick metal wire extended across the width of the main street of a large village built entirely of mud and stone. One of the machine gun-wielding soldiers approached our car and I passed out the correct hand-written letter to him. After reading it carefully, folding it and putting it in his jacket pocket he signalled to one of his colleagues who lifted the wire barrier and let us pass. Four hours later, having averaged a little over ten miles an hour all the way on the dreadful road, the whole routine was repeated again and the second hand-written letter given in.

The road could take us only as far as the village of Sargaz: after that it was apparently in too bad a condition, the rivers that required fording too wide and deep. I would have to continue on foot for two days to Sarhad-e-Broghil, the real starting point of my trek and the end of the road.

After hours of negotiation in Sargaz with Said Faqir, a young man whose twenty words of English complemented my ten of Wakhi, the local language, I finally managed to hire him and his donkey to come with me to the Pamir for 400 Afghanis per day.

"I'm you, Pamir, $50?" he asked me as we walked out of the village the next day. Did he mean per day or in total? If per day it was ridiculously expensive and if in total it was far too cheap. It had become clear from our endless negotiations that few of the villagers had much understanding of the value of money so I was loathe to agree n anything other than what we had nailed down 100% definitely during the discussions in the village.

"400, one day, 800, two days, 1200, three days," I said, just reiterating the end result of our mammoth negotiations and the price we had agreed on and shook hands over multiple times.

"Noooo, noooo!" he said, shaking his head in frustration and turning back to the village.

Five minutes later we were sitting down in the same room with the same villagers who had joined in our previous negotiation.

"400, one day," I said showing everyone 400 Afghanis in notes from my wallet as I had done during our first round of negotiations, "or 800 for two days." I carefully counted out eight hundred in front of everyone.

"Yes, very good!" said the old man sitting opposite me in Wakhi as others around him nodded in approval.

"Nooo, noooo!" said Said Faqir, "500!"

I was not so annoyed by the rise in price itself as by the fact that he had made it after our initial agreement without deeming it necessary to tell me, without a thought for the problems this would cause. I put it down to a fundamental lack of understanding of money rather than any actual deceitfulness but argued him down to 450 anyway.

Finally leaving the village at around eleven in the morning, we followed the track that hugged the banks of the Amu Daria, known throughout history as the Oxus. Using our almost non-existent knowledge of one another's languages we managed to find out some basic information about each other. He was twenty, his wife eighteen. They had no children. He had relatives in the village of Rorung, three hours' walk from here, where we could sleep that night, relatives in Rochung where we could have lunch the next day and relatives in Ptukh, a seven-hour walk from Rorung, where we could sleep the next night. The day after that we would walk to Sarhad-e-Broghil, an hour and a half from Ptukh, and continue into the mountains from there the same day.

His voice was innocent and kind and he gave the impression of being as unwordly-wise as a six-year old. After an hour of walking we grew tired of trying to understand one another but, rather than lapsing into silence, he began belting out what sounded like a working or marching song in his language. We settled into what was going to be a very long walk, the black waters of the Amu Daria frothing and churning violently, now three feet to our right, now hundreds below us, as the road wound its way up and down the rocky mountains that formed the walls of the Wakhan Corridor.

At first I had found this alien land, with its fearsome reputation, my near-complete lack of knowledge of the language and people whose culture was so different from mine that at times any sort of mutual understanding seemed utterly impossible, way outside my comfort zone. Now, however, I was already beginning to like the unassuming, unself-conscious young man with whom I was traveling; I realised this was someone I could spend three weeks on the road with even despite the language barrier.

Occasionally he stoped his loud, bold singing to ask me the English word for things around us - mountain, snow, plant, stone - or to tell me the name of one of the many villages we were passing, tiny huddles of buildings, never more than ten mud and stone huts, usually less, surrounded by a tiny patch of cultivated, irrigated greenery amid the vast, brown, barrenness of the Corridor. Usually they were situated where a stream of freezing cold water cascaded down from the snowy peaks, eventually splitting into rivulets that irrigated the various families' tiny allotments.

We passed a few people riding donkeys or herding camels in the opposite direction. Said Faqir stopped and shook the hand of every one of them, pressing his right cheek to theirs as he did so and stopping to chat for several minutes before moving on.

The one or two women we passed woring in fields, to whom Said extended no greeting whatsoever, were dressed very differently from those I had seen in Ishkashim. In Ishkashim they had been covered head to foot in mono-colour blue burkas, whereas here in the villages they wore beautiful red and purple patterned dresses, often complemented by multiple necklaces, earrings, bracelets and brooches. Their faces were never covered.

While we were sitting at the roadside and forcing down a few mouthfuls of bread for lunch, I thought to ask Said why he was not fasting for Ramaddan.

"Me - Ismaili Islam. Ramaddan three days," he told me.

"Ishkashim - Ismaili?" I asked.

"Noooo, Ishkashim Sunni Islam. Ramaddan one month."

The house of Said's relatives in Rorung was no different in size or shape than any other in all the villages we had passed. Immediately within the doorway a short corridor led to the house's only room. The first quarter of the room one came to from the corridor was empty floor space, the other three quarters being a raised platform covered in carpets and lined with cushions, mattresses and blankets, their colours purples, reds, maroons and browns.. When we arrived, the father of the family, Darwish, bade us lie down on two of the mattresses and relax while he went and prepared salty tea. He came back ten minutes later with the teapot in one hand and a kind of thin, striped rug folded up in the other. He set the teapot down next to us and with a flick of the hand unfolded the rug and threw it to the floor next to the teapot, revealing three large, flat, circular pieces of bread inside. We sipped the tea and chewed the bread, inside of which something crunched like crumbs of grit or earth. After the bread Darwish brought us each a bowl of homemade yoghurt and another of rice with what looked like half a bottle of cooking oil floating on top.

"Very, very good," Said said, smiling, shaking his head and pointing first at the rice then at Darwish.

The next day, after a breakfast of bread and salty tea, we set off. The road was flatter but involved crossing multiple rivers. Their water, coming from the melted snow of the mountain tops, was painfully cold. In the afternoon, after a lunch of bread and salty tea at Rochung, we came to a place where river after river stretched off towards the horizon as far as the eye could see, one brown, frothing, fast-flowing streak after another. I took off my shoes and socks and pushed my way through the almost thigh-deep waters of the first, sometimes having to stay still for several seconds to steady myself as I crossed a particularly deep and fast-flowing part and wincing with almost every step as my frozen feet trod on the hard, sharp stones at the river's bottom. The second river was harder than the first and the third harder than the second. By the time I was staggering across the seventh or eighth I was actually shouting out loud with pain at every footstep as the stones dug into my iceblock feet. Still the rivers continued as far as the eye could see and, unable to bear the thought of any more, I lay down and began rubbing some life back into my bright pink feet. Said was having no such problems and merely sat and watched calmly from his position several river crossings ahead of me. Eventually, however, the nightmare was over and we arrived at the village of Ptukh shortly before nightfall. The house was almost identical to the one we had stayed at in Rorung as was the evening meal, minus only the cooking oil. Relatives crowded around me, men women and children, begging for their photos to be taken and roaring with laughter at the results on my camera's small screen.

After a breakfast of bread and salty tea, we walked the short distance to Sarhad-e-Broghil. The road petered out roughly in the centre of the large village and we walked on through grassy fields to the mud-built police station where I handed in my final hand-written permit. We walked a further half hour to some of Said's relatives on the edge of town, had an eary lunch of bread and salty tea, and left to begin the real trek.

Click this link for advice on independent travel in the Afghan Wakhan and Afghan Pamir

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13th September 2010

Fascinating as usual. Amazing pictures. Seems the vodka has been replaced by bread and salty tea! Reminds me of Yak butter tea with salt that I had to endure in the gompas of Ladakh
13th September 2010

nice pictures
the kids are beautiful. the older ones must be too if they only learned to use sunblock and moisturizer. sun damage on skin has never been more evident
14th September 2010

Another journey!
Hey, we can't wait to read your next few blogs about this latest journey. Got to hand it to you to make all those heretofore unknown, exotic adventures. Stay safe!
5th January 2011

The Wakhan Corridor looks very tempting as a destination - thanks for providing such a great read!
2nd November 2011

Beautiful Pictures.
Hi Edward firstly great Blog. I am shocked that you actually did this journey into Afganistan on your own. Are you planning another trip to Afganistan again, I've been reading about a place called Nuristan where the country is like untouched by the outside world. I am very keen in going there if there's a chance. Regards, Ranjit
15th December 2013

Great Photos
Lovely shots here, especially some of the people and that huge mountain scenery. Any interest in contributing a guest blog to www.travelwakhan.com

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