A lush field of wheat ripening to gold. Beyond that an ancient river celebrated in the Puranas and early Greek texts — a river that flows now across four countries, its colours changing from silver-grey to sparkling deep blues and greens, bordered by sandy beaches of many colours. Beyond that the surrounding mountains, the distant Pamirs in the east, Karakoram in the north and the steep looming peaks of the Hindukush in the south. Jagged cliffs with glaciers, gradual inclines, gentle browns, greys, rocky sides with an explosion of surrealistic colours. In the wide valley below, a people who can be both gentle and strong, survivors, living off a hard land that yields little, waiting for tourists to bring some relief to the struggle for survival. Welcome to Wakhan. Welcome to Afghanistan.
A conflict zone which yields a daily diet of reports about violence is not quite the inspiration regular tourists need to pack their bags for Afghanistan. But an increasing number of foreigners working in Afghanistan and a small trail of foreign tourists are now exploring the safer parts of the country, becoming the first travellers in decades to discover spots of unparalleled beauty, a warm and hospitable people, and unique cultures.
The Wakhan Corridor is a narrow strip of land that juts out of eastern Afghanistan like a pointing finger, bordered by Tajikistan and in the north and Pakistan in the south until it reaches China. Its shape is not incidental — it was a political construct to separate the Russian empire from the British during the ‘Great Game’.
Look at any map of India and examine the crown of Kashmir. North, above Gilgit, you can see a small strip of territory that borders Afghanistan. This border is notional, of course, since the territory is not under Indian control. But if it were, Wakhan is where India and Afghanistan would meet.
Known locally as the Bam-e-Duniya or ‘roof of the world’, the area is where three mountain ranges — the Pamir, the Hindukush and the Karakoram — converge to form the Pamir Knot. As the origin of the Oxus, which runs along the corridor separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan, it drew travellers, adventurers and explorers trying to discover the origin of the mighty river, which runs 2,500km into the Aral Sea.
Once a buzzing thoroughfare on the Silk Route, Wakhan has been completely isolated in three decades of war. The Soviets used the Amu Darya to cross into Afghanistan and even after their withdrawal the ensuing civil conflict ensured that the area was largely abandoned to its fate. With the international borders sealed off, the narrow corridor was forced to rely on supplies through the Afghan mainland, a tortuous process in the forbidding terrain. In fact the terrain is so hostile that Badakshan province (of which Wakhan is a part) was the only province in Afghanistan that remained impregnable to the Taliban. This remoteness has always been both a blessing and a curse. The isolation continues to be a cause of economic deprivation but also results in a stunning wilderness, unblemished by the residue of war and untrammelled tourism. With only one major arterial road, most of Wakhan has to be accessed on small tracks or roads open for only a few short months. It is much more usual to see mules, donkeys, camels and yaks being used for transportation here than motorised transport.
During my visit in early October, we stayed at Qala-e-Panja, a large village from where the route branches off between the bigger and smaller Pamir. Located on the banks of the Panj river, the village spans a small but wide valley ringed by mountains. There is no electricity and there are no shops. Few houses own generators and one or two own four-wheel vehicles. Across the river Tajikistan’s power lines and well-asphalted road power provide a striking contrast. But on both sides of the river the landscape is the same, with autumn turning the trees a vivid yellow, red, orange, brown and russet. Through the day the colours of the surrounding mountains change as the sun runs across the circumference, lighting up each mountainside, every one of a different texture and colour.
On the banks of the river is a huge mound of stones, the ruined Qala of the former Mir, the ruler of the area. Battles between rival Mirs and changes of government resulted in a decline of the family fortunes. Closer towards the village is a hunting lodge of the former king, Zahir Shah, whose passion for hunting has led to such lodges dotting the entire country.
Down in the village wheat is being harvested. Unlike most other parts of Afghanistan where women cover their faces in public, men and women work side by side in the fields, turning their curious gaze on the outsiders. The Shia Ismaeli’s gentle observance of religion belies the rigidities of much of Afghanistan, where a strong conservative culture keeps outsiders at bay. Ethnically, too, the inhabitants of the Wakhan Corridor are very different, comprising the Wakhi in lower Wakhan and the Kyrghyz in the higher areas with their distinct languages. Overtures meet with first a cautious and then increasingly friendly response. Requests from me to photograph the women, usually refused in many rural areas, are smilingly accepted. By the end of a 10-day stay I am being summoned to photograph women all over the village till I run out of space on my small digital camera.
In the village where we stay the guesthouse is the first of its kind for travellers. Encouraging this are the combined efforts by the Norwegian Action Committee and the Aga Khan Foundation to introduce eco-friendly tourism that will help the local economy. With financing from the NAC and expertise from the AKF, a series of guesthouses have been set up along the corridor up to the last motorable point of Sarhad-e-Broghil, from where the way forward is on yaks, donkeys, horses or camels. Trekking routes and itineraries have been identified by the AKF.
In Qala-e-Panja the guesthouse is owned by the Shah, one of the two hereditary leaders of the Shia Ismaelis, whose religious position has now transcended into a political leadership. The rooms are bare but functional and the eco-tourism training includes lessons in hygiene and toilet facilities, which has resulted in all guesthouses having their own western-style toilet.
Laundry comes in the way of two young girls — Daulatmand and Barfaq — who quickly turn into friends. Amazingly Daulatmand, who looks like she is 16 but has a child of one, still goes to school along with a considerable number of other young girls and boys. I soon begin receiving gifts of delicate beadwork — most women wear intricate chokers, as well as kohl or ‘surma’, which the area is famous for.
In the higher reaches the Kyrghyz depend entirely on their herds of goats and sheep, the rarest of which is named after the famous traveller Marco Polo. The Marco Polo is not the only exotic species. A 1977 wildlife survey, the last before war erupted, revealed the presence of snow leopards, the Himalayan lynx, bears and the Siberian Ibex. The Wildlife Conservation Society is currently undertaking a survey to map the flora and fauna of the area. Plans to declare the area a natural reserve are being revived and the Wakhan Pamir may soon be declared one of Afghanistan’s first national parks along with the spectacular lakes of Band-i-Amir in central Afghanistan.
In the village of Qala-e-Panja, the visitor’s centre for the national park is already under construction. Working as a mason on the building is Afiyat Khan. His real passion, however, is mountain climbing and he is among a handful of young Afghans who are becoming pioneers in the revival of this adventure sport. Mountain Wilderness, an Italian organisation, has conducted training courses here for Afghans to enable them to become guides. Afiyat hopes the visitor’s centre is yet another step towards drawing more adventure tourists to the area so he can earn his living through tourism rather than the trowel. There is no reason why it shouldn’t. Despite a short warm season, the weather in the area is ideal, according to mountaineers like the accomplished Carlo Alberto Pinelli. The short distance from the road to the base camp is another attraction. The biggest lure, however, will be the fact the area is relatively virgin and unexplored.
Mehboob Aziz, who oversees the eco-tourism program of the Aga Khan Foundation here is hopeful that tourism will emerge as an alternative source of livelihood for the area. Afghan guides and guesthouse owners have been taken on exposure visits across the border into the Wakhi area of Pakistan. Aziz hopes there will be more tourists coming via Tajikistan and, indeed, many visitors have opted for that route — flying into Dushanbe allows you to travel on smooth roads up to the Tajik Ishkashim. The Afghan Ishkashim marks the beginning of the Wakhan Corridor. “Tourists rather than terrorists are being encouraged to cross the border here,” jokes Aziz. If they do come in larger numbers, they could help turn around the lives of a peaceful community.
Fly to Kabul and take a domestic flight to Faizabad using Ariana Airlines or travel by road via Kunduz after checking route safety. From Faizabad, a bumpy road suggests a break at Ishkashim, the beginning of the Wakhan. Alternately enter from Tajikistan: fly to Dushanbe and drive on better roads up to the Tajik Ishkashim, crossing into Afghanistan across the Oxus river. All road travel must be with a good four-wheel drive (you will need to ford rivers) with spare parts and petrol. The nearest petrol station is in Ishkashim though a few litres can be cadged in Khandud, 82km inside the Wakhan corridor. Vehicles cost $120-150 a day.
Where to stay
Guesthouses offering simple basic fare and basic hygiene including a toilet are available at Ishkashim, Qazi Deh, Khandud, Qala-e-Panja, Gozkhun, Sargaz and Sarhad-e-Broghil. Rooms typically cost $25 per person per night — not as high as it seems in Afghanistan’s post conflict economy. Longer stays can be negotiated.
What to see & do
Breathe in the gloriousnatural beauty, go for walks — perfectly safe — but with the help of local guides. Visit the friendly locals, drink endless cups of tea with naan. Visit the shrines dotting the landscape, walk along the Oxus river, visit the locals, climb mountains, go trekking and hiking on foot or using animals or both.
The Aga Khan Foundation makes it very clear that it is in no way a travel or tourism company but its exceedingly charming employees who work to promote eco-tourism will help any visitors as a gesture of goodwill until the time that Afghan Tourism develops its own capacity. Contact Asif Soroush in Faizabad (+93-799431933) or Mehboob Aziz in Ishkasim (799418060).
At least two tour companies operate in Afghanistan currently. They can take care of permits, travel, stay, interpreters and other logistics including security where required. The first is Afghan Logistics (702-77408/ 70288668/799391462, 24-hour satellite phone: 0088-216-2116-4294, www.afghanlogisticstours.com). The second, more high-end company, is The Great Game Travel Company Limited (799-686688, 799-489120, www.greatgametravel.co.uk).
When to go
Best during the short summer, which lasts from late June till mid September.
What to pack
Warm clothing, including a high-altitude sleeping bag. If you’re going trekking or mountaineering, all gear must be brought along. Satellite phone, extra phone batteries, camera and extra film and additional batteries, good torches, sun screen, fresh vegetables (locals are always happy to cook for you for a consideration), fruit and canned food. Carry sufficientbottled water to tide you over until you discover a clean water source. Carry everything you might need, from shampoo to rubber bands. Remember, there are no shops though you can always get anything the villagers themselves use — either as a loan, on rent or by buying it.
Permission to travel into Wakhan must be obtained from the border police at Ishkasim, currently Commander Waheed (+93-799139962). Make sure the commander is in town or arrange to have letters of approval prepared in advance. The Wakhan is perfectly safe with no hint of the Taliban or conflicts, but like any other remote area, it’s always good to check the current security situation before travelling.
Wear loose clothing — such as full-sleeved salwar kameez and a headscarf. Ask permission before photographing. Ask permission before speaking to women if the tourist is a man. Don’t drink alcohol publicly.
> Culture, Information and Tourism Department, Faizabad (+93-799863931)
> For information, look up www.wakhan.org, www.akdn.org
> For trekking and mountaineering, consult Peaks of Silver and Jade by Carlo Alberto Pinelli and Gianni Predan