September 2011: I went to Afghanistan for the first time in 2011 for a week to see the Wakhan Valley, a remote valley sandwiched between the Pamir and Hindu Kush mountains that is one of the most remote places on earth. The narrow strip of land that juts out from Afghanistan is bordered by Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. its shape was deliberately designed as part of an agreement between rivals England and Russia during the “Great game” imperialistic expansion of both countries in the 1800s. The Wakhan was meant to be a buffer between the empires of Russia, which was Tajikistan and of England-India and Pakistan during that time.

The mountains on both sides of the Wakhan Valley reach in excess of 20,000 feet in some places and are home to snow leopards, Marco Polo sheep, Ibex and many more rare animals. The Wakhan Valley lies along the ancient Silk Road where Marco Polo and the armies of Alexandar the Great once traveled. It is home to two unique ethnic groups, the Wakhi and Kyrgyz. Whakhi people utilize animals such as goats, yaks and have herds of Bactrian camels, cold weathered thick furred camels with two humps. They raise animals for transportation, clothing and for meat.  Then there are the Kyrgyz nomads who live in yurts high up in the mountain plateaus. The Kyrgyz are so isolated that they are more traditionally Kyrgyz in the Wakhan than they are in Kyrgyzstan.  The Wakhan has remained isolated over the years because of the area’s high mountains, the war and dangers of the Taliban and because of the poor condition of the roads leading into the Wakhan. The roads leave much to be desired. Most of the time the road is little more than a boulder field or a river and cars are commonly swept away by rivers or abandoned because they are too damaged to drive.

 

Map of the Wakhan

My plan was to enter into Ishakashim, Afghanistan from Tajikistan and travel overland all the way to Sarhad, which is the end of the road and from there hike up into the mountain passes of the area before returning back the same way into Tajikistan.

I’ll never forget how I felt when my taxi pulled away leaving me alone standing on a remote border crossing into Afghanistan. Two Tajik soldiers opened the barbed wire gates on the Tajik side of the bridge that connected Tajikistan to Afghanistan. As I walked forward across the bridge, I felt a mixed feeling of excitement and apprehension. On the Afghan side of the border was a burnt-out Soviet tank, an appropriate welcome mat into Afghanistan. I was alone because no one I knew felt comfortable with traveling to Afghanistan. I was only able to find one person on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, an Afghan girl, who was willing to join me but something about her didn’t add up and given the high risk of being kidnapped in Afghanistan, I was reluctant to trust the Afghan girl by sharing with her my exact location to meet. So, I ended up traveling alone. To assist me with permits and a vehicle I did hire an Afghan fixer in ishakashim.  Once across the bridge my Afghan fixer was waiting for me. he was friendly and spoke some English putting me at ease.

Once in Afghanistan, I was amazed by the difference between it and Tajikistan just by crossing the river. In Afghanistan burkas, and Islamic dress were prominent. The living standards appeared to be significantly less advanced. It was Ramadan, a Muslim holiday of fasting so the streets were empty until around noon, when mostly men emerged. I saw some women too, burka clad, appearing like floating blue ghosts, and I did my best to avoid aiming my camera anywhere into the direction of these women since I was aware of the sensitivities of the people when it came to this.

At first, I was intimidated to take photos or even to show myself in the streets because I was an American in Afghanistan and naturally, I felt some apprehension. However, my fixer re-assured me it was no problem and so I said screw it asked people for photos. Surprisingly, everyone was very kind and seemed to love posing for my camera.  Most men wore the Pakol hat, commonly wore by Afghan men throughout northern Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ishakashim Afghan Men Posing for Photos in the Market 

Ishakashim Afghan Men Posing for Photos in the Market 

I was told later that this guy commanded soldiers against the Soviets and later Northern Alliance soldiers against the Taliban. I couldn’t help but to see a little Jay Leno in this guy.

In Ishakashim, my fixer helped me get the three permits I needed from various police, military and government agencies in town. Ishakashim was heavily defended against any incursions from the Taliban in the south but there were reports of Taliban incursions on occasion and even one tourist who had encountered them when trekking but was lucky to be unharmed. I had to get multiple copies of the permits in town from the one wooden shack that had a working copy machine, but it was closed until noon because of Ramadan. The military station, where I had to pick up one permit was far from friendly and one soldier laid his gun on the table before me with the gun barrel pointing towards me, which I interpreted as a sign of attempted intimidation. Once all permits were obtained, i decided to leave town as soon as possible and head into the Wakhan and stay in villages, where I felt I would be safer.

A national identification card of one of the men before me at the police station. I couldnt help but to think that identification cards from the Civil War era of the USA looked much different than this one. 

My fixer, driver and random people we would always provide rides to since transport was so scarce in the Wakhan. Iam on the far right

My Afghan head dress

Driving through the Wakhan to the tunes of Afghanistan

Mountain scenery

 An ancient ruined castle overlooking wheat fields of the Wakhan

Village man with his donkey

The walled village whereI spent the night

Village Qual E Punj

Man Carrying a Bundle of Wheat. Villages cling to the river valley where water is irrigated to the fields to grow crops such as wheat.

Bread is a staple food in the Wakhan. During the night my guide broke out a bottle of vodka smuggled from the border guards in Tajikistan. Alcohol is banned in Afghanistan however my Muslim fixer and driver didn’t seem to agree with this. Lets not forget that it was Ramaddan. 

Soon the road gave way to 4WD terrain, rocks and loose silt. We had to cross rivers that claimed several vehicles left abandoned to the water. The drive was starting to get exciting, and villages were far scarcer now.

Crossing rivers

The original road was washed out in one area and the new road according to this man ran through his property and he demanded a fee to pass. He asked for 100$. We laughed at him and ended up paying 20$ instead.

Alpine Lake

Village where we spent the night

As we drove further into the Wakhan we climbed higher and it became colder. The highest I climbed was 12,000′ and the temperatures plummetted, especially at night. 

We started to encounter many Wakhi people now in their rock houses. The Wakhi people that live in the Wakhan Valley are Ishmaeli,  an offshoot of Shia instead of Sunni like most other people in Afghanistan. The women wear veils instead of burkas and are extremely friendly when it comes to asking for photos. The Wakhi women would end up being the only women in my Afghan travels that would let me photograph them.

wakhi lady with camels

terrain we drove over in roadless areas where the road gave way to fields of giant stones

Wakhi lady

Wakhi family at a hot springs I relaxed in and the only time I bathed in the Wakhan since it was so cold and the hot water from the hotspring just felt great

Wakhi family

This girl’s husband died and the author of Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortinson built a house for her.

Wakhi kids in the village I stayed at

I stayed another night in Sarhad in a Wakhi village. I loved playing with the friendly Wakhi kids and they all loved their photos being taken.  But in the back of my mind, I was always worried about the Taliban. One morning my driver came to wake me up to let me know there were some men who wanted to meet me. I looked out the door and saw three stern looking men. My mind concluded the worst that the Taliban came for me. But there was nowhere to go so I walked towards the men and once I was near, they broke out in big smiles and warm hand traditional Afghan handshakes with one hand clasping my right hand and the other hand bracing their hearts. The men, claimed to be businessmen trading in the village and were excited to meet a foreigner.

One of the three men I thought were Taliban but turned out to be a traveling trader who was excited to meet a foreigner

We had to check in at the local military base where a small dirt landing strip was located that I learned was made by the Americans. Now we were free to go beyond into the mountains, an idea that wasn’t too enticing given the constant freezing drizzle and the altitude sickness I was starting to experience. But I was here, and I had to go further.

Local man I met that resembled actor Richard Gere

The Wakhis are the only culture that raises yaks and rides them like horses. I could not believe that to go up into the mountains, we could do so via a yak, an extremely stubborn animal. Just to get a saddle on a yak was difficult and the yak was very resistant. We crossed a large river in the yak and it appeared once we were 20′ across that the water was going to high and strong enough to sweep us away even on a yak so we had to retreat and go a different route straight up a steep ridge. The yak handler was always nearby with a long stick to coax the yak back on to the chosen direction when it would veer off course, which was often. My yak would sometimes walk perilously close the edge of a huge cliff worrying the crap out of me and would pay little attention to my commands. We traveled on the yak up and over the mountain pass leading to the Little Pamirs and we stopped to visit remote Wakhi stone houses where families are far removed from modern life and live very challenging lives.

Our unhappy yaks being wrangled from the fields

My Afghan fixer on a yak

Me on a yak

Crossing rivers too high to cross

Cold and inhospitable Mountains

The Wakhi were always kind and welcoming. In this house, there were at least 20 people seated inside eating cold goat soup. They welcome us in for tea and to share the undercooked goat meat with them, which was absolutely vile and being that I was already feeling sick it was hard for me to consume the soup without gagging but I also needed to be respectful, and I couldn’t decline their hospitality, so I tried some in plain view and then placed the bowl on the ground when no one was looking.

Wakhis in their stone houses

Wakhis family iving inside their stone house

Wakhi family

Wakhi son and mother

Family eating undercooked goat meat and bread

Wakhi Lady

Wakhi Family

After climbing up into the pass for the day and visiting remote Waki houses, we had to start heading back to Ishakashim. I badly wanted to continue further up into the mountains and visit the Kyrgyz nomads but I didn’t have enough time and I needed to get all the way to Uzbekistan now, which I admit with its sunny and warm weather seemed heavenly to me at this time. The next morning, we traveled far to one of the villages near the trail that goes up to the highest mountain of Afghanistan, Mount Noshaq, 24, 580.’ The climb is an adventurous one where climbers have to not only cope with extreme climbing conditions but also live land mines.

Stone walkways of the village where I stayed

We stayed in a small village with endless rows of meandering walled pathways where I was constantly becoming lost. I stayed in a home with a family in my own bedroom. In the evening when I was re-packing my gear, an elderly man with a turban entered my room. He walked up to me and sat on my bed besides me. he shook my hand and then very silently without ever trying to speak, he started to look belongings out of curiosity. He did this for about 20 minutes picking up each item, flashlight, quick dry towel, water purifier, and basically every item in my pack with extreme curiosity before he just suddenly got up and walked away. He never said one word during the whole ordeal. 

Village where I stayed

Beautiful village girl I met

I decided to hike in the mountains, so I asked one of the locals where the trail was and he pointed upwards, so I just set off by myself on the trail to Mt Noshaq. I climbed upwards all day and the further I climbed the more amazing the scenery. I stopped to eat my lunch in the ruins of an ancient castle ruin overlooking Mount Noshaq and its icy glaciers. This hike was another amazing part of the Wakhan where I could have spent days exploring but i didn’t have time so i settled with a day hike before heading back to Ishakashim, where we stayed the night in a guesthouse.

My hike up to Mount Noshq base camp

My hike up to Mount Noshq base camp

My hike up to Mount Noshq base camp

My hike up to Mount Noshq base camp

After a week in the Wakhan, I barely made it back to Tajikistan. The border closed out of the blue with no warning it was only because my fixer was familiar with the officials working the border that he was even aware. But no worries, this part of the world is very corrupt and the price to re-open a remote border is cheap. To get the Afghan border police to allow me to cross, I gave them approx. 6 eggs and for the Tajik police, the price was steeper. For them I had to pay them 20USD. Now I was back in Tajikistan waiting on an empty mountain road for my driver who my fixer in Afghanistan texted.

3 + 4 =

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