The approach of Simona and Danielle on a cold morning in Tajikistan was exciting. Ilona and I were heading south and the awesome Italian duo, north. There was no need to pull off onto the shoulder to exchange stories and advice – we were the only ones around. No cars, no people, the wasteland even devoid of livestock – just the four of us trying our luck out on the Pamir plateau.
For our part we spoke of our experience staying in the town of Murghab, and the story of our previous night, hunkering down through a (light) snowstorm in a crumbled fort. What northern Tajikistan had in store for Danielle and Simona was desolation, more high passes and a route that was to have them skirting another frontier – that of the Chinese. Epic, yes, but lacking the lore and mystery of what we had our eyes set on for the weeks ahead. We couldn’t wait to ask “hey, did you guys come through the Wakhan Valley?”
If Afghanistan is a unicorn, the Wakhan Corridor is its horn, albeit a deformed one. This narrow appendage juts out from the rest of Afghanistan and gestures eastward towards the Chinese border, where it terminates. In doing so it magically wedges itself between Pakistan to the south, and Tajikistan to the north. Like a horn, it’s pointy – but almost entirely so. The beginnings of the Hindu Kush Mountain Range spikes the Wakhan Corridor nearly all over.
And yet, these peaks don’t merge immediately north into those of southern Tajikistan. In the way is another Wahkan – the Wakhan Valley, with high walls crumbling, collapsing on either side. Endless gravel, mountain bits race down towards the valley’s excavator – the Panj River. For all the Hindu Kush does to hide away Pakistan, the Panj counters: Allowing unobstructed views straight over to this strange sliver of Afghanistan. The river is the border and you can cycle, drive, walk, ride donkeys along its course for hundreds of kilometres.
We knew little. Somewhere I had read or heard an indirect account – “he said, she said, he said” of cyclists having rocks thrown at them from the Afghan side while passing through the region. We knew the detour through the Wakhan Valley was approximately three hundred kilometres. We knew that for many people, it had been the favourite part of their time in Tajikistan. We also knew it was as close to Afghanistan as we were likely to get in our lifetimes, and that we were going.
What did Simona and Danielle say about their time in the Wakhan? Two things: That it was beautiful, and that the Saturday border market, at Ishkisim, had been closed the past week. They had heard mutterings of terrorist activity, whatever that means, but internet is unavailable in this part of Tajikistan. None of us were in a position to further investigate until weeks later, when we had access to more rumours and theories in the city of Khorog.
We parted ways and less than a week later, Ilona and I were in it, figuring it out for ourselves.
What was this part of the world like for us? The following is a collection of memories, loosely chronological, accumulated from time spent in both the Wakhan Valley and the continuation of the Tajik-Afghan border north of Khorog. My aim is to document a little of the landscapes, logistics and people existing in this region.
We were falling into a nap after a picnic lunch, sprawled out on Ilona’s well-worn silver mat. As we closed our eyes, the only thing in sight in either direction was the road of sand and the military checkpoint we had crossed seven kilometres previously. Ilona woke up before me, just as a man was slowly passing us on foot. Seeing her awake, he waved hello and came over. He had nothing but a little backpack and and an empty water bottle with him. He was quiet, and we didn’t share a language. We’ve been since asked if he was a shepherd, but we were skeptical – he lacked livestock companions. We shared our water with him and he was on his way. From where, to where, we had no idea – the man of mystery in the vastness.
The roads were humbling in the eastern section of the Wakhan Valley, particularly from Hargush Pass to the village of Langar. I initially named this post “Walkin’ in the Wakhan,” and not without reason. Ruts, ridges, gravel, rocks, deep sand, steep grades – we found ourselves banished to walking not only on the ups but even on the downs, our brakes ineffective when the wheels were up against the loose stones. And yet, there was some enjoyment to be found. It was like a hike and bike trip, leisurely passing the time and the metres beside Ilona, chatting or in silence. Failing that, when the paralleling Afghan road was visible, it rarely looked better.
It wasn’t long after taking our tent out of its dry bag that the shepherd approached us with his son. We had just passed him as he perched on a rock that afforded him a watchful gaze over his flock, grazing high, high, high up the slope. It was me who brushed off his initial offer for us to sleep at his house that night. The tent was out, and sometimes an impulsive “no” can push itself in front of any contemplation. Ilona and I often balance each other out, and as a result we accepted his kind offer. The shepherd’s work continued but his young son took us home. The three of us made our descent towards the Panj River. “My name is Office,” he introduced himself, and I am almost certain I am misspelling it. He continued, “Mama my name is Golestan,” as he extended the phrase in the only way he knew how. Next pointing across the river valley, Office explained – “my name is Afghanistan.”
My friend Jenna had emailed me while I was in Tajikistan, asking me to share a memorable moment of my time cycling. I knew immediately what my reply would be. We had experienced a complete absence of green vegetation for weeks in southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan, and its absence was noticed, dramatic. When we entered into the stretch of the Wakhan Valley with alluvial fans and river bars capable of supporting trees and plants, I couldn’t believe how much I noticed it. From then on, each passing day welcomed us into increasingly lush surroundings. I mean, relatively speaking…
The sandstorm kicked up late morning and whipped through the valley – we walked our bikes for much of the day. The journey was punctuated by greetings exchanged with Wakhis in transit between nearby villages in cars or on foot. We also took a break to document the storm at a fiercer moment, giving Ilona a chance to see how the Thailand farmer’s hat stood up as a shield. Mediocre at best.
We slept out under the stars in the grass, hidden from the road by a dilapidated building. The next morning remnants of bygone rockfalls stood guard around us, and the hair of grazing cows appeared velvety in the early light. It was a scene that complemented silence, but packing up our things we suddenly heard music. The road was empty. It took a while to discover that the songs were being played on a motorbike across the river. ‘Oh, it’s nothing, just music from Afghanistan.’
The turnoff to Bibi Fatima had come and gone, the white cement signpost marking the side road with red Cyrillic letters to us a few days previously. We liked the idea of soothing ourselves in hot springs, but neither of us had been sufficiently committed to the idea of a six, or seven, or maybe eight kilometre uphill detour. A second chance to soak presented itself as we neared the turnoff for Garam Chasma, another developed spring. Asking a passing truck if that was indeed the way, the men’s response was enthusiastic – “Garam Chasma! Let’s go!” We couldn’t resist, and go we did, throwing our bikes into the back and ourselves into the front.
It was one of several homestays in Tajikistan, but this night stayed with me. It wasn’t because of the food, or the coziness of the sleeping arrangement. It was the quiet but curious demeanour of Yamina, who took us to her house when we inquired about a place to sleep. It was another night amongst tropical-themed posters, another night amongst beautiful women, all generations swathed in colourful clothing. Another night of macaroni, of bread, of individually wrapped candies, of sound sleep on stacked blankets.
I will end with this, the view across the river. The family was outside of their tent when we spotted one another, separated by the Panj River. We stopped to inspect each other – they had a set of binoculars which they used to see us clearly. Many dwellings and villages belonging to Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor are visible along the way. Moving east to west we saw the preponderance of mud structures, devoid of movement gradually (though, not always) replaced with larger villages, where school children sometimes shouted and waved, and motorcyclists sometimes honked.