Silver of High Country

PHOTOS AND SELECTED TEXT BY: Yihui Sim

It’s almost impossible to say the words “Afghanistan” and “tourist” together without raising as many eyebrows as doubts. But there are exceptions to every rule – in this case, the Wakhan Corridor – a narrow finger of land wedged between China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. It’s still Afghanistan, but worlds away from the dangers of Kabul or Kandahar.

 

WAKHAN CORRIDOR

 

The Wakhan is a narrow corridor stretching over 350km from Afghanistan to the edge of China, hemmed by Tajikistan’s soaring Pamirs to the north, and Pakistan’s vast Hindu Kush range to the south. The Wakhan runs from Ishkashim, Afghanistan in the west, to the Wakhjir Pass (4,923m) on the Chinese border.

While the well-documented situation in Afghanistan and Xinjiang means the Wakhan remains virtually unvisited by outsiders, its history dates back centuries as part of the Silk Road.

The corridor is extremely sparsely populated, home to just 10,000 people, including the native Wakhi farmers at lower elevations, and Kyrgyz shepherds at higher altitudes. The Kyrgyz and Wakhi follow Ismail’i Islam, and look to the Aga Khan, meaning much of the infighting and extremism of mainstream Afghanistan are virtually unknown here.

Despite poverty, poor health care and its near-total isolation from the outside world, it remains one of the most welcoming places in the country.

 

DUSHANBE-ISHKASHIM

 

Isolated as it is, the road to Wakhan isn’t via Kabul, but neighbouring Tajikistan. The Pamir Highway connects the Tajik capital, Dushanbe to the Afghan border town of Ishkashim, situated at the entrance of the Wakhan. The “high-way” itself is one of the most rugged and highest-altitude in the world, with numerous river crossings and frequent landslides as it passes through Tajikistan’s remote Gorno-Badakhshan.

Leaving Tajikistan, the road crosses a simple bridge over the Panj River, marking the border between the Tajik town of Ishkoshim and Ishkashim on the Afghan side – it also marks the mental boundary for most travellers between remote and terra incognita.

Trekking groups generally take the opportunity to see Ishkashim for a day; there’s a famous Saturday market that many travellers do as a day-trip, crossing in from Tajikistan. Ishkashim, at 3,000m, is made up of dozens of small farming villages.

While the entire corridor is incredibly scenic (and remote), the main destinations for virtually all visitors to Wakhan are the Big Pamir and Little Pamir.

 

BIG PAMIR – LITTLE PAMIR

Named for the same word in Kyrgyz, Tajik and Wakhi, a pamir is a U-shaped valley surrounded by mountains. The two large valleys of Big Pamir and Little Pamir dominate the narrow geography of the corridor. Big Pamir lies midway down the corridor, bordered to the north by Zorkul Lake (4,130m), while the Little Pamir continues further east, nearly to the Chinese border.

In between, they’re separated by the soaring Nicholas Range, whose summits top out over 5,800m. The route between the Pamirs takes 2 weeks, crossing high-altitude desert and numerous passes over 4,000m high.

From Ishkashim, there’s a single main road heading east through the corridor, along the Wakhan River Valley, bringing you 200km in 2 days into the central Wakhan and the main trailhead at the village of Khunded. While the road itself is extremely hard going, the seemingly idyllic villages en route are starkly at odds with most people’s assumptions about Afghanistan.

Heading east, the road leads on to Wuzed, and the trail leading to Kosh (3,900m), just north of the Pakistani border. The first day involves both a surging, chest-high river crossing on a yak, as well as the route’s first high pass, Wuzed Pass (4,400m), before arriving at Kosh.

Leaving Kosh, the route continues climbing towards the small yurt settlement of Mulungdan (4,200m), where a small, nomadic village of Wakhi live during the summer, on the edge of the Big Pamir – which is surprisingly green and lush, considering its altitude. The route eventually makes another major yak-back river crossing before reaching Bulou Pass (4,500m), and descending to camp at Jelmarcet (4,330m).

From here on, the route remains above 3,500m, meaning trekkers occasionally spot rare high-altitude herbivores like the Marco Polo sheep (with large, curving horns), Ibex, and maybe even the elusive snow leopard.

As the route continues to climb from Elgonok (4,200m) to Mula (4,350m), the population becomes predominantly Kyrgyz, who maintain a seasonal yurt settlement on these aylaq (summer pastures) grazing their flocks.

As the last village before crossing the Showr Pass (4,895m) and into the Little Pamir, Mula is fairly remote even by Wakhan standards, cut off from the outside by two major yak-back river crossings and the soaring Showr Pass.

 

Mula and Buzkashi

Dating back 1,000 years or more to ancient Turkic nomads, Buzkashi is Afghanistan’s national sport that’s popular especially in Mula.

The game involves horsebacked teams of 5-10 riders per side who battle to score goals with a headless goat or sheep carcass. Played in two 45-minute rounds, the unmarked field covers roughly several hundred square metres.

Locals regularly organise Buzkashi matches on Fridays to bring together the surrounding villages.

 

THE RETURN JOURNEY

Mula serves as a base camp for crossing the imposing Showr Pass, with many groups opting to camp next to an azure glacial lake at the foot of the pass.

Most groups rise early to “summit” over Showr, pushing through to the Wakhi yurt settlement of Chapdara (4,050m) on the other side.

The route that leads down from the Little Pamir (about 3,500m) crosses a few final mountain passes (topping out at 4,700m), before the long, 2-day descent to Sarhad-e-Broghil (3,200m) along the Wakhan River. Situated in a tectonically active corner of the region, Sarhad-e-Broghil is well-known for its small hot spring, which has been popular with weary climbers for centuries.

From Sarhad-e-Broghil, the road along the river valley leads back to the village of Khunded and eventually to Ish-kashim.

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