In the footsteps of history: a walk in Afghanistan's Wakhan corridor

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Asia » Afghanistan » North
August 5th 2012
Published: August 5th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

Please note that due to recent events in Khorog, Tajikistan, many of the details in this trip report are now out of date. The Afghan consulate in Khorog was attacked in the recent fighting and the consul and his staff are reportedly now back in Kabul. The border between Ishkashim, Tajikistan and Ishkashim, Afghanistan is reportedly closed until August 21st, 2012. The border between Tajikistan and Kyrgystan on the Pamir highway is also reportedly closed for travellers entering Tajikistan. Check on the recent situation before heading this way!


July 19, 2012

The rather beautiful unveiled Afghan consulate employee in Khorog, Tajikistan, wearing rather short sleeves, smiled and handed me back my passport after a brief 20 minute wait for the visa. "Here is your tourist visa to Afghanistan. 30 days single entry, starting today. I hope you have a pleasant holiday in Afghanistan and insch'allah I hope to see you again soon."

I was in Khorog, Tajikistan after a trip along the Pamir highway from Osh, Kyrgystan preparing to head into Afghanistan's Wakhan corridor, long a dream trip for me. My Tajik visa and obligatory GBAO region permit I had obtained easily in Bishkek, Kyrgystan in about 1 hour. Now armed with my Afghanistan visa, I was off on a Mashrutka to Ishkashim, Tajikistan in the Wakhan corridor to enter Afghanistan.

I had not been able to find that much reliable information about the Wakhan corridor before I went, so was just planning to show up in Ishkashim, Afghanistan and insch'allah sort things out. I hope this blog post/trip report is helpful to future travellers.

July 21, 2012

After a day's wait in Ishkashim due to a slight miscalculation (July 20th was the start of Ramadan and the border was closed), it was off to Afghanistan. Every saturday there is the Afghan market in Ishkashim, Tajikistan, an initiative of the Aga Khan Foundation to try and reconnect the communites on either side of the Panj river, cut off from each other during the "Great Game" in the late 19th century when the Wakhan corridor was created to seperate the vast Russian and British empires from each other, dividing communities and families in the process.

Something about the Wakhan corridor inspires anyone who is fascinated by history and politics. While at first glance it does not, when you think of the historical importance of this territory, it is nothing more than fascinating. Before contact was made between China and the Western world, it was the vast mountains of this area that kept the advanced civilization of China seperate and cut off from the rest of the world. Travellers who are rumored to have passed along this way include Babur (the first Mughal emperor) and Marco Polo. The people of this area have adapted to some extremely harsh living conditions and live lifestyles that even today remain very far away from the modern world.

After a brief walk around the Afghan market (most of the stuff that the Afghans were selling was shit - a lot of it WFP aid such as biscuits and juices), I was off to cross the border. A very simple process really and within 30 minutes, I was stamped into Afghanistan.

As I was crossing, I ran into a local Afghan NGO employee who had studied English at the Aga Khan Foundation's University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan. He said that he would be happy to help me arrange the necessary permits to visit the Wakhan corridor and anything else I might need, as long as I compensate him for his time. (Around $30 as he was basically was with me all day)

The guesthouse I stayed at in Ishkashim is lovely, Bozmohammed's guesthouse, with heaps of food and a hot shower. From there we went to the tourist officer, police station and border police office to arrange the permits for the Wakhan (you can't enter it without these permits).

With this done, it was off to the bazaar to purchase everything needed for my trek. I decided on a trek from Sargaz to Lake Zorkul and back down to Sarhad-e-Broghil, partly because the jeep ride to Sarhad-e-Broghil is expensive ($450 each way) and I only wanted to do it one way. The ride to Sargaz was slightly cheaper, $300. And I wanted to experience mostly the ways of life of the Wakhi people, who populate the Big Pamir in the summer. Treks through the Small Pamir mostly pass through where the Kyrgyz people live. An important resource while planning your trip is this publication by the Aga Khan Foundation with the different trekking routes:

July 22, 2012

The following day, at 5 AM I was off to Sargaz. My friend had arranged a car for me from Ishkashim to Khandud, a major transit point for trips into the Wakhan corridor. Ishkashimi drivers are not allowed past Khandud and there are many vehicles available there that will take you deep into the corridor.

In Khandud there was a minor argument between drivers over the price I should pay into the corridor. The Khandud guys seemed to want to get the most amount of money from me as possible, but a price of $300 from Ishkashim to Sargaz had already been agreed upon in Ishkashim. The reason for the high price for this journey is that there are very few people who own vehicles on the Afghanistan side and the local people use livestock to move around the corridor. Basically the only people who take vehicles are foreigners and local NGOS. So the drivers can charge what they want. A bit unfortunate but you just have to pay it. Hitching or finding a cheaper ride is EXTREMELY difficult...see my note below about my trip back.

From Khandud, a rather bone-chilling ride to Sargaz where I checked into the lovely guesthouse there. I was told to talk to Safdad to arrange a donkey for my trip, a local man who spoke some English. After a bit he showed up and a price of 500 Afghanis ($10) a day was agreed for the donkey. I thought this was all good and was quite excited to set off the following morning, then he came back and kept repeating "how many dollars for me?"

I had to then make it very clear to him that I did not want him to come with me. I just needed a donkey and a boy. After about 15 minutes of him repeating this question, he finally got the message and seemed quite pissed off. He proceeded to ask me for money ($4) for the local hot springs that I had just used.

Luckily, as I was having my evening stroll, I ran into a local Wakhi NGO worker who spoke perfect English. It turns out that Safdad was just giving me a donkey for 1 day! I was quite pissed off and my new friend was very helpful and tried to negotiate with Safdad for the same donkey and handler for the whole trip. Safdad said he had no one who could go as the grass needed to be harvested for the livestock winter food.

My friend stayed with me in the guesthouse that night, not being able to get home to his own village, so the following morning we could go to another village to ask there for a boy with donkey.

July 23, 2012

Up at 4:00 AM to go to the next village and asked about a donkey. Luckily, there was one, a man named Dadali, and we agreed on a price of 700 Afghanis a day for him to come with me, about $15. I personally do not think you really need an English-speaking guide with you for this trip. I had been studying Farsi a bit before this trip and took along the Lonely Planet's Farsi phrasebook. Almost everyone in the Pamir speaks at least some Farsi so armed with a smattering, you should be just fine.

After a quick breakfast of tea and bread, I said goodbye to my friend who had helped me and I was off into the Pamir.

The first day was INCREDIBLY difficult. My guide Dadali wanted us to sleep at the first Wakhi settlement in the Pamir that night, a good 10 hours walk away. From Sargaz, the trail goes from about 3000 m to a pass at at least 4900 m the first day. As I was not fully acclimatized yet and suffering from a minor stomach complaint, I felt AWFUL as we climbed. I could hardly stand up from dizzyness, my head was pounding, and it was freezing, with clouds closing in.

But we made it after more than 10 hours walking and a very difficult descent over a glacier into the Big Pamir where a nice warm Wakhi yurt was waiting for us.

The evenings in the Wakhi and Kyrgyz communities in the Pamirs are taken up by the obligatory milking of the goats. Then after this, the women cook dinner over a dung fire in one of the yurts. The first night I was allowed to sit in the cooking yurt as I was not feeling well due to the altitude and watched the women cook. There is no chimney and it is incredibly smokey. A lot of these women had quite bad coughs from the smoke.

When dinner is ready, the men all sit and eat together while the women sit to the side. The young boys are the ones who serve the food.

July 24, 2012

The second day was a lot easier than the first and I was feeling a lot better after a good night's sleep, with my altitude sickness symptoms gone. On this day we had to ford the first of what would be many rivers. All of these rivers were absolutely freezing.

Lunches while trekking were my favourite meal, given that we were able to eat the food I brought with me. As a good citizen of the British Commonwealth, I consider it my duty to carry along some British food with me to introduce to the local population. When I saw Baked Beans in the Ishkashim bazaar, I HAD to get them. My tinned food provided quite a nice respite from the repetitive simple diet of tea, bread and rice that the local people survive on. My guide really didn't know what to make of this food, especially the baked beans. You should have seen his face when I brought out pineapples. Sitting in the middle of nowhere in the Afghan Pamir, drinking freshly brewed tea and eating baked beans was pretty epic though.

Day 2 saw us staying in the village in the Pamir village of my guide, so the red carpet was pulled out for yours truly here. The young boys who could read and write (most of the older generation can't due to schools being closed for so many years in this region due to civil war and the mujahadeen) were fascinated with my Farsi phrasebook and I spent hours chatting to them, answering questions.

July 25, 2012

On Day 3, we stopped for Chai in a Wakhi village and I sat down with two young teenagers, Abdul Abik and Zikrullah. The two boys asked me what my ambition was. When I asked them what theirs was, young Zikrullah said that his was the development of Afghanistan. This I thought quite amazing for a 14 year old boy! The people of the Wakhan corridor really do not have that many opportunities when you consider that the relationship between Sunnis and Ismaili muslims is not very good and the isolated life that the Wakhis live. Everything in this part of Afghanistan must either come through Tajikistan or up through the dangerous road from Faizabad to Ishkashim, making transport of both people and goods difficult.

July 26, 2012

Day 4 saw me on top of a Yak for most of the day due to the fact that we would be crossing several very deep rivers. Make sure you bring lots of extra Afghanis for the trip! Depending on the time of year, the rivers in the Pamir can be quite dangerous for humans and donkeys and extra livestock might be necessary to help you across. A yak will set you back about 800-1000 Afghanis a day, depending on the village.

On day 4, we passed the boundary between Wakhi and Kyrgyz territory in the Pamir. While I do not think the relationship between the Kyrgyz and Wakhis is that good, the nomadic hospitality still applies in the Kyrgyz regions. That evening we camped at a Kyrgyz village but they still provided food, tea and welcomed us into their yurts for most of the evening.

From what I could tell, the Kyrgyz seemed a lot wealthier than the Wakhis. Their yurts were much more lavishly decorated and they seemed to have more things. But this could be due to the fact that the Kyrgyz spend all year in the Pamir, whereas the majority of the Wakhis move down back into the Wakhan corridor during the cold winter months.

Another fact that I discovered on day 4 was the donkeys are incredibly horny animals. On this day, I saw the first instance of many of donkey rape. My donkey was female and I guess she must have been a bit of a looker as she seemed to create quite a bit of a stir wherever we were camping!

July 27, 2012

On day 5, I was once again on top of an animal, this time a Kyrgyz horse, as we would be crossing another dangerous river. Day 5 there was some incredible scenery, as we were at an altitude of more than 4500 meters, crossing some incredibly rugged territory. The air was crystal clear without a cloud in the sky. We were so high up that the colour of the sky seemed to change.

That night we came across a Kyrgyz winter house that Dadali told me was fine if we squatted in for the night. This was perfect as it was well-insulated and warm for once. (It gets mightily cold at night at an altitude of more than 4000 m)

July 28, 2012

Day 6 we made it to the incredibly beatiful Lake Zorkul, known to the British as Lake Victoria after the great Queen Victoria. We had an epic camping spot beside the lake and was actually quite warm for 4100 m.

July 29, 2012

Day 7 Dadali and I got into a spot of trouble with the Kyrgyz! We walked back from Zorkul, to the Kyrgyz summer settlement near where we had squatted two nights previous. We needed to arrrange for a Kyrgyz to accompany us over the next pass as it involved some difficult glacier travel and Dadali didn't know which way was safe. We arrive to a rather angry Kyrgyz man who asks Dadali why we stayed in his winter house two days ago. Dadali said that we didn't! Now, Dadali had assured me that it was no problem if we squatted in the house for the night so I was a bit surprised.

Nevertheless, the Kyrgyz invite us in for Chai to discuss the guide for the following day. Of course, another Kyrgyz man starts asking me if we had slept in his house two days before and said he wanted money. Dadali gave me a look that said "shut up." So, I did what every respectful Canadian traveller does when he/she offends someone in a foreign country - I said that I was sorry, but that I was American and didn't understand what he was saying, even though I fully could understand. One Kyrgyz man even walked me over to show me his house from the distance. I played super stupid and said, "oh, lovely house, what a lovely view. Can I take a picture?" He kept shouting that we stayed in his house and he wanted money. I just kept repeating "oh, isn't it lovely here? I want to take a picture!"

Now, to be fair, I didn't want to give the man money as he was charging a rediculously high price for his father's guiding services the following day. Given that it was Ramadan, no one really wanted to guide us for 8 hours on an empty stomach so they demanded $40 of one day's work. Given that price, there was no way I was going to pay for the house stay as well. And admitting we had stayed there would have got Dadali into trouble as he had already told the Kyrgyz that it must have been Pashtuns.

We moved on from the Kyrgyz settlement to our camping spot, for arrangements for our Kyrgyz guide on horseback to meet us at 7 AM the following day to get us over the pass.

July 30, 2012

Day 8 was probably the most difficult day of the entire trek. The pass was the highest one we crossed. I think it must have been at least 5000 m, maybe more. By this point, I was well acclimatized so that wasn't a problem. But the top was covered with a thick glacier, mightily difficult to walk across without crampons!!! After about 6 hours of climbing, we were rewarded with fantastic views across to China in the distance.

After a grueling 4 hour downhill slog, we arrived back in Wakhi territory in the Small Pamir where we were greeted with the customary Wakhi hospitality.

This evening we were not the only guests in this village, however, so we had to camp. Staying in the visitor yurt was an Afghan Tajik from Kabul, a very distinguised-looking man with perfectly groomed beared, heavily perfumed and wearing a crisply pressed Salwar Kameez.

I sat down and chatted to him for a bit and he told me that he had three wives and fifteen children. I wasn't sure what to say to this but said, "wow, good for you!" and shook his hand. He seemed to like that so I guess I said the right thing.

He told me that he had driven all the way from Kabul to Sarhad-e-Broghil with his eight sons. All of them were then going on horseback into the Pamir to buy sheep. These sheep would then be taken back down to Sarhad-e-Broghil where they would be driven back to Kabul to be sold. Absolutely amazing when you think about time your eating mutton curry in Kabul, think about the journey it has taken to get to your plate.

The man even told me that I could come with him in his truck to Kabul. It is naturally a dream of mine to go to Kabul, but this year I don't think is quite the time, given the security situation on the road. Another trip!

July 31, 2012

Day 9 was the last day of trekking in the Pamir. This day we took a second Wakhi donkey along with us to help as across a couple of difficult rivers. Unlike riding yak and horse, I really don't like riding donkey. I only rode the donkey across the river and walked the rest of the time.

The last day was LONG and mostly downhill. After reaching the crest of the last pass we would cross, we could see views to Pakistan's Northern Areas down into the valley at Sarhad-e-Broghil.

A long downhill difficult slog awaited us, and after about 12 hours of walking, we arrived at the really nice AKF guesthouse in Sarhad-e-Broghil for a hot shower, delicious food and comfortable warm beds.

August 1, 2012

Now the challenging part came...getting back to Ishkashim. I was running low on cash and really didn't want to fork out $450 on a jeep just for myself to get back to Ishkashim. So my plan was to hitch with some local people out of the Wakhan corridor.

After a sad goodbye with Dadali (a lovely guide to trek with...find him in Kip Kot village...he now speaks a few words of English...water, sleep, thank you because of me), I went to hand in my final permit to the local police commander.

We had a chat and tea and there was a big discussion about cars to Ishkashim. I told him I didn't have enough money to get to Ishkashim dar baste and there was talk that maybe insch'allah there would be a car today going that I could hitch with. The guesthouse owner said no, there was no car going today. Then he said that there were more tourists coming tomorrow that I could go back with.

A few minutes later though he retracted that statement and said that no tourists were coming. I was getting quite frustrated by this confusion by this point. We went back to the guesthouse to have more tea. There was more talk about a car and the verdict seemed to be that there would be no car for several days.

Well...while we were having tea, a jeep coming from Ishakashim shows up. The driver said he would take me to the junction town of Qala-e-Panjr for $200, picking up a few local people on the road so it would be a bit cheaper. I figured I better jump on this chance as there might not be another car for several days. The driver assured me that there were many many cars going from Qala-e-Panjr to Ishkashim so it wouldn't be a problem.

We headed off, picked up some Afghan traders from Faizabad along the way, and eventually made it to Qala-e-Panjr. When we got there, the local policeman said that there hadn't been a car to Ishkashim in 2 days! But insch'allah there would be a car tomorrow for $20. Or the day after tomorrow, insch'allah. This did not sound very definite.

The Faizabadi traders that we had given a lift to set off walking. The policeman said it was a 4-5 hour walk insch'allah to Khandud, from where I could get a car easily to Ishkashim.

I figured that that was probably the best bet. It was only 2 PM, so that would mean I would be in Khandud by 6 or 7 PM. With sunset at 8 PM, that would be perfect. Then I could settle in to the nice AKF guesthouse that night and get a car to Ishkashim the following morning.

Turns out that it is actually a 6-8 hour walk to Khandud from Qala-e-Panjr. Along the way I sat down with the Faizabadis. They said that there would be a car coming along the road today that we could hitch on. This got me excited, but they added every traveller's dreaded word to the end, "insch'allah." I continued walking...

Along the way, I chatted to a couple of Wakhis and they told me that the reason there were no cars was that it was Ramadan! Of course! How could I be so I continued walking.

As the sun was setting, a major sandstorm blew up, and I was still at least a couple of hours from Khandud, and I had finished all my water and had not eaten in over 12 hours. To say the least, I was not feeling too great.

After walking in the dark for about 1.5 hours, a police car came the other way. They seemed very surprised to see the crazy foreigner walking in the dark. I told them I was going to Khandud, and they said it was very near. Thankfully they turned their jeep around and drove me the remaining few kilometers. Exhausted, extremely hungry and thirsty I rolled into the Khandud guesthouse.

Thank goodness for the wonderful food and tea and welcome in these guesthouses...after a filling meal of bread, green tea, rice and a spinach curry, I was feeling a lot better and ready to move on to Tajikistan the following day.

August 2, 2012

The boy who was hosting me at the Khandud guesthouse told me that there would be no problem finding a car to Ishkashim for 800 Afghanis, sharing with other passengers. This, of course, is the local price. We go down to the bazaar and there is not a single driver willing to take me. The first guy wants $150 for the trip, dar baste. I told him I had only 1000 Afghanis, a slight lie, and he refused to take me.

Eventually another driver said he would take me for $60, sharing with other passengers. He wouldn't go any lower than this so I figured I better take it. $260 Sarhad-e-Broghil to Ishkashim is better than the normal tourist price of $450.

After picking up several other passengers, including a burqa-clad woman who was very sick and kept puking under her burqa, we headed off to Ishkashim.

An hour after leaving Khandud, the driver said, you know the border with Tajikistan is closed! I was like, fuck, why didn't you tell me this earlier!!! He said there was fighting between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. This I found hard to believe, so I hoped that he was maybe mistaken.

We rolled into Ishkashim around 1 PM. After I got out of the car, I came across two guys I had met in Khorog a couple of weeks earlier. They asked me if I had heard about the problems with the border. I thought to myself, shit, the driver was right.

Apparently a few days after I crossed into Afghanistan, there was a bit of fighting in Khorog, Tajikistan, and because of this the border had been closed since. Khorog, Tajikistan is well-placed on the drug silk road from Afghanistan to Europe, a hot spot for the trafficking of opium and heroine. Most of this trade occurs through official border posts with corrupt government officials from both Afghanistan and Tajikistan doing most of the trading.

The local KGB chief in Khorog was meant to put a stop to some of this smuggling, but instead he is reported to have demanded a cut of the profits. As a result, he was basically butchered to death outside the bazaar in Khorog. After this, there was major fighting that erupted for about 16 hours, that left up to as many as 200 people dead.

There were some Afghans involved in the fighting, and there are rumors floating around that the Tajik government are putting blame on extremists from Afghanistan for this fighting. As a result, the border remains closed until August 21, 2012 at least.

In Ishkashim, a couple of Afghan NGO workers came and chatted to us. One of them told us that the border was open today! I figured I may as well try to cross, as the alternative was sticking around Ishkashim for days on end with the possibility that I might have to go overland to Faizabad (dangerous) and fly to Kabul to get out of Afghanistan. Considering that I was desperately low on cash and needed to get to an ATM soon, I needed to get out of Afghanistan.

So I quickly made my way down to the border. The dimwit Afghan soldier manning the border post told me that the man with the stamp wasn't there. He dissapeared to the army building nearby and he came back and told me to wait. I waited for another 30 minutes then he came out and told me that the border was closed. I asked him when it would open. He said he didn't know but that it was closed for the foreseable future.

I started to walk away when there was a sign of a man in a white salwar kameez walking down the road to the border. The soldier told me to stop and wait. This man got into a police jeep and drove past me. He shouted at me to get in, so I did. As we were driving down, an old hippy man squeezed himself out of no-man's land and had a pee in the middle of the road. The soldier asked me if he was my friend. I said of course not.

The car stopped and the guy in the salwar kameez shouted at the old garlic-smelling hippy to get in the jeep. He said, "no, I have just come from Tajikistan, I don't want to go back." I thought, god, you idiot, you enter Afghanistan without getting a stamp? You're going to end up in prison!

We walked into the border post and the man in the salwar kameez takes our passports then starts shouting at both of us asking for money. I tell him I don't have any money and that's why I need to go to Tajikistan. He said we needed to give him $200 each. I pleaded with him to let me through without money but he started shouting, even louder, if you don't give me money, go back to Afghanistan. The hippy was shouting at him in Russian and he was shouting back that he should go back to Tajikistan.

After about 20 minutes of this shouting, the man in the salwar kameez stamped my passport out of Afghanistan and demanded money again, but I just walked away. My dimwit soldier friend from earlier asked to search my bag for drugs and did a 3 second search of one of its pockets. I could easily have smuggled several kilos of opium if I had wanted.

With that, I was onwards across no-man's land to Tajikistan. There was no one in the Tajik border office on the other side of the bridge across the Panjr river. So I walked up to the gate with the road between Khorog and Ishkashim where two soldiers were standing.

They told me to wait and that the KGB commander was coming. A big burly man wearing sunglasses with a moustache, he told me that the border was closed. I was thinking to myself, shit, I'm stuck in no-man's land. I couldn't go back to Afghanistan, especially after having pissed off the stamp guy on that side by not giving him his money.

I told the KGB commander I couldn't go back to Afghanistan and that I had major stomach problems and really needed to get to a hospital in Tajikistan as soon as possible (a blatant lie). I pleaded, begged and tried to appear as upset as possible. Then I of course mention the possibility of money, which he outrightly rejects. The KGB commander says that the border is closed until August 21st and that he doesn't have the key. I plead even more.

Suddenly he pulls the key out of his pocket and opens the gate and lets me into Tajikistan. He pulls me aside and asks to see my passport. He opens to a blank page and points to it, "money." I insert about $20 and he laughs and tells me I can go back to Afghanistan. So I insert some more...making it about $40-45.

He tells his underling to go get the immigration card and pulls a chair out for me next to his tank. He gets into his tank and pulls out the immigration stamp. I fill out the immigration card, which he stamps, along with my passport. The money is exchanged in the secrecy of his tank then we share a laugh about how both of us are wearing crappy Chinese-made sunglasses and how crappy Chinese-made stuff his.

He gives me a big handshake and tells me to get in his car and that his underlings would drive me to the bazaar in Ishkashim where I could easily find a car to Khorog.

My Afghan adventure was at an end and it was onwards to Khorog to peruse the bullet holes and shell casings left behind from the fighting.

This was such an amazing trip and definitely a highlight of all the places I have been to. If you want to organize your own trip into the Wakhan, don't hesitate to contact me if you have questions! It truly is worth it.

Additional photos below
Photos: 87, Displayed: 43


3rd September 2012

Great stuff, thanks! I trekked through this area a few years ago and your blog has made me even more determined to go back!
30th June 2013

This is a wonderful logbook. I like the way and the style it is written. Without any excess and any self promotion, it gives relevant and sharp details.

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