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Adventure in the Wakhan Corridor by J. Poborsa

May 27, 2014

"Afghanistan is a stark beauty, vicious and seductive. A certain type of person will brave any difficulty to get there, then having arrived, continuously pinch themselves to ensure they are not dreaming. A landscape might be denuded, a human settlement abandoned or lost, but always, just beneath the ground, lies history of preposterous grandeur. Chance encounters hold unexpected charms; perhaps an old man wearing a set of spectacles made up from several different pairs, or a burnt-cheeked street kid with more sass than a tonight show host. They are everywhere, these individuals of undaunted humankind, irrepressibly optimistic and proud."
Christopher Kremmer, The Carpet Wars: From Kabul to Baghdad – A Ten Year Journey Along Ancient Trade Routes
 
A short walk in the Wakhan, on the road from Wardif to Sargez.
  
A land of rugged beauty with a tumultuous and storied history, Afghanistan is the sort of place that truly inspires… the sort of place that leaves one at a loss for words to adequately depict its manifold charms, gut-wrenching dangers, and the sheer sense of adventure and trepidation that overcomes all who visit. It most certainly is a land full of ‘irrepressibly optimistic and proud’ individuals, historically renowned for their unrelenting hospitality and generosity, yet who for the past few decades have been enmeshed in seemingly unending and tragic conflict.
  
Though the Wakhan Corridor is a different sort of Afghanistan, and lies slightly outside the popular imagination of this fascinatingly complex land. Jutting out from the north eastern corner of the country, the oddly construed boundaries of the corridor are no geographical anomaly, but rather the result of the 19th century struggle between the Russian and British empires for control over the region, once romanticised by Rudyard Kipling as that greatest of imperial contests known as the Great Game. Bounded to the north by the undulating Pamir mountain range, the azure waters of the Panj river, and Tajikistan, to the east by a narrow band of land inhabited by Kyrgyz nomads on the border with China, and to the south by the sharply rising snow capped peaks of the Hindu Kush and the Pakistani border, the Wakhan is a narrow stretch of land inhabited by Wakhi and Kyrgyz peoples. Once the stomping ground of such explorers as Sir Aurel Stein, Sir Francis Younghusband, Lord Curzon, and Captain Mikhail Efremovich Ionov, the area has only recently seen a resurgence of intrepid travellers and mountaineers. Remote and isolated, and with little contemporary strategic value, neither the government nor the outside world have paid much attention to the region. Yet throughout the ages, as one of the foremost routes along the fabled silk road, the Wakhan was a conduit for many of the most transformative cultural exchanges to have shaped the many diverse regions of Asia.
  
Historically traversed by such famous travellers as Marco Polo, who walked the length of the corridor on his way into China, and remarked upon the barrenness of the terrain and the sheer difficulty of passing through it, his singular notation in that most famous of travelogues reads: “Vokhan . . . [where] the people worship Mahommet, and have a peculiar language.” Yet well before Marco Polo ever stepped foot in the Wakhan, the Tibetan kingdom was the major power in the region during the 7th century, perpetually vying for influence with the Han Chinese, and fighting many battles over the territory against Tang Dynasty armies. During this period the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang passed through the Wakhan, and wrote about its topography and the Buddhist monastery in the town of Khandud. It wasn’t until the 9th century that Islam spread throughout the region, and by the 11th century the Isma’ili sect took root under the influence the poet, scholar, and missionary Nasir Khusraw. According to the scholar John Mock, "the religious traditions that came with these travelers include Zoroastrianism (from Samarkand and Sogdiana to the north and west), Buddhism (from Balur just to the south, Kabul and Balkh to the west, and Khotan to the east), Manichaeism, and Nestorianism (both from the west via Sogdiana)."
  
This past April my good friend and fellow Canadian Colin MacLennan and I walked the length of the Upper Wakhan from the village of Qila e Panja to Sarhad e Broghil, and then returned to the village of Qazideh, from where we trekked to the base of Mount Noshaq, which at 7492 m is Afghanistan’s highest peak. Kitted out in a newly developed yak wool and silk Khunu base layer, and an ultra soft and warm Khunu voyager scarf, I was in good hands for what was definitely the adventure of a lifetime.
 
 
The first thing one notices upon entering Afghanistan is the heavy
military presence and the remnants of decades of war, whether it
be the two Soviet era tanks abandoned just across from the Tajik
border,the tank tracks reinforcing the ramshackle dirt roads, or the
heavily manned Afghan National Army garrison on the outskirts of
town,full of some of the toughest looking soldiers around, such as
Marouf, pictured here.
         
 Yaks in the Wakhan.
The region abounds with characters such as this man, 
whom we met on the road from Sargez to Wardif.
  
On the cold snowy morning of April 5th 2014, the day of the national election, we set off on the 32 km walk from Wardif to Sarhad e Broghil. Along the way we again met numerous people, most of whom were walking to the voting station, located in a school built by the Central Asian Institute (founded by Greg Mortensen, of Three Cups of Tea fame).
  
 At the polling station there were dozens of people milling about, who were all eager to talk to us about the election and show off their fingers dipped in black ink, signifying that they had just voted. The preferred candidate in the region seemed to be Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik from the north, and former minister of foreign affairs.
  
Onwards we walked, meeting numerous people along the road to Sarhad e Broghil, including this young girl in the village of Neshtkhwar.
  
Every person we met along the trek wanted to shake our hands, and enquire as to where we were from and where we were going. I've honestly never met kinder, friendlier, and more welcoming people in all my travels.
  
 
Man carrying a basket full of yak dung, which is used as a source of fuel for both cooking and heating homes.
  
Everyone in the Wakhan seemed to have an innate sense of style, such as this dapper gentleman, on the outskirts of Ptukh.
  
A house on a hill in Ptukh, just before arriving in Sarhad e Broghil.
  
Young girl on the road to Sarhad e Broghil. 
 
Qach Beg, the owner of the home we stayed at while in Sarhad e Broghil. One of the most formidable characters I’ve ever met, a towering figure with piercing blue eyes, he had just recently returned from having a stomach operation in Faizabad. Though he was in immense pain the entire night, he sat with us throughout the evening, ensuring our teacups were always full, as is the custom. Thankfully I had some painkillers left over from China (from a broken rib), which he desperately needed, as medicine is next to impossible to come by in this remote and isolated part of the world.
 
Yours truly, wearing my Khunu Voyager Scarf at the military outpost in Sarhad e Broghil. In order to travel through the Wakhan, it's necessary to first register with the Afghan National Army (ANA), Afghan National Police (ANP), and ‘tourist police, as they both note your appearance in the region (important as other outsiders could very much be of the undesirable sort), and also ensure that if you disappear, someone will know, and hopefully come looking. The ANA commander in Ishkashim provided us with a handwritten letter in Dari that gave us permission to travel throughout the region, which we would have to show to the commander of the ANA garrison in the next village we visited, who would in turn give us a new letter for the next village. We’re here dropping off our last letter, prior to heading back to Qazideh.
 
Kids on the road near Sargez, helping unload a truck full of supplies.
  
Walking through the Qazideh valley on the way to Mount Noshaq (7942m). Just another day in the Hindu Kush…
  
One of our guides, Imam Dod, prepping their sleeping arrangements for the night, which was nothing more than a ramshackle pile of twigs lining a small stone animal pen, and very much open to the elements. It was one of the coldest nights of our lives, during which we nearly lost our toes, and was about -20 C with fierce howling winds that long frigid night high up in the Hindu Kush.
  
Yours truly at the base of Mount Noshaq (roughly 4500m), wearing my Khunu scarfand surrounded by four majestic peaks over 7000m.
  
Further reading:
  
The Aga Khan Foundation has produced an excellent brochure outlining travel in the region, entitled “Wakhan and the Afghan Pamir: In the Footsteps of Marco Polo”: http://www.akdn.org/publications/2010_akf_wakhan.pdf
  
The website of scholar John Mock and Kimberley O’Neil contains detailed information on the Wakhan, including links to numerous scholarly articles on the culture and history of the region: http://www.mockandoneil.com/wakhan.htm
  
Robert Middleton’s website on the Pamirs contains links to numerous articles on the Wakhan: http://www.pamirs.org/afghan-wakhan.htm
  
About the author: James D. Poborsa is a Canadian scholar of contemporary Chinese photography currently living in Beijing, and a PhD Candidate in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. When not teaching modern East Asian art or modern Chinese history, he’s either off in a library or wandering through the mountains somewhere.