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BETWEEN ROCKS and HARD PLACES


A Journey to Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor


The "Wakhan Corridor" between the Hindu Kush and Big Pamir range as seen from Daliz Pass, Afghanistan

Sultan Ishkashim, Afghanistan • July 2015


It was an honor killing, we were told. A dispute between a Sunni and an Isma’ili. Someone’s wife or sister or cousin was involved, they said. Perhaps one of the ladies wearing electric blue chadri—the Dari term for burqa—we were now trying not to look at, walking in conspiratorial pairs along the dusty main street of Sultan Ishkashim.

Border crossing from Ishkashim in Tajikistan to Sultan Ishkashim in Afghanistan

After crossing the Panj River from Gorno-Badakshan, the southernmost Soviet oblast of Tajikistan, slogging our way through the heavily-armed checkpoint, tedious protocols and baksheesh-seeking officials, the first thing that greeted us on the outskirts of this Afghan Deadwood was the burned-out hulk of a late model Toyota Land Cruiser pushed off the side of the road. It belonged to the offending Isma’ili, we are told. How he afforded such an expensive ride is tacitly understood—the same way anyone in this dirt-poor region of Badakshan Province affords luxury items. Opium.

My three trekking mates and I met up with Gorgali Khairkhar, our Wakhi fixer, and Mehmet Sakhi, our Tajik guesthouse proprietor. As Sakhi’s hatchback Toyota thumped along the punishing alluvial floodplain loaded with our gear, Gorgali—who speaks passable English—laid out the ground rules. We should maintain a low profile in town, he said. Be sure to check in with both the ABP [Afghan Border Police] and the ANA [Afghan National Army]. And steer clear of those rhapsodic-in-blue Sunni women.

Main street of Sultan ishkashim, Afghanistan
Mehmet Sakhi's guest house in Sultan ishkashim, Afghanistan

My three trekking mates and I met up with Gorgali Khairkhar, our Wakhi fixer, and Mehmet Sakhi, our Tajik guesthouse proprietor. As Sakhi’s hatchback Toyota thumped along the punishing alluvial floodplain loaded with our gear, Gorgali—who speaks passable English—laid out the ground rules. We should maintain a low profile in town, he said. Be sure to check in with both the ABP [Afghan Border Police] and the ANA [Afghan National Army]. And steer clear of those rhapsodic-in-blue Sunni women.

Exactly how “not far away” is that?

“About 18 kilometers,” our fixer replied quietly.

Well, this was Afghanistan, after all.


Until the 19th century, Central Asia was an eastern province of Persia known as Khurasan—“land where the sun rises.” Its history is a long litany of theft, rape and murder euphemized as one glorious bid for empire after the next—by the Achaemenids, Macedonians, Seleucids, Mauryans, Greco-Bactrians, Indo-Scythians, Kushans, Sassanids, Kidarites, Hephthalites, Saffarids, Samanids, Ghaznavids, Ghurids, Mongols, Timurids, Mughals, Safavids, Hotaks, and finally the Pashtuns. What we now call Afghanistan was created in 1893 when Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, colonial British civil servant, drew an arbitrary line from the northeastern edge of the Karakoram mountain range southeast to the border of Iran, purposely bifurcating the Pashtun and Baloch tribal territories.

While this “divide and rule” policy didn’t work out so well for anyone, a fascinating byproduct of the British “Great Game” diplomacy is the Wakhan Corridor, a 220-mile long salient wedged between the Pamir, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges. In 1873, the Brits and Russians came to an agreement separating their belligerent empires at the Oxus [Panj] River. The Durand Line, drawn twenty years later and a few miles to the south along the northern crest of the Hindu Kush mountains, created an effective buffer zone between British India and Czarist Russia grudgingly controlled by Abdur Rahman Khan, Amir of what had become known as Afghanistan. Inadvertently, it also created one of the world’s great nature preserves.

While the rest of the country remains embroiled in a perennial state of war, the Wakhan is a world apart. Never brutalized by the British, Soviet or American invasions—or yet overrun by the fanatical Taliban—it exists in something of a time warp. Cut by whitewater rivers and glacial tributaries, studded with 20,000-foot snowcapped peaks and pristine mountain lakes, this panhandle abutting the turbulent tribal regions of Pakistan and Kashmir swells into the Big and Little Pamirs before bumping into the cold western shoulder of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. The broad alpine valleys between the Wakhan and Pamir Rivers are home to the Marco Polo sheep, Capra ibex, snow leopard and Bactrian camel, where native Wakhis herd their sheep and yaks, and Kyrgyz nomads stage hair-raising Buzkashi tournaments when they are not tending livestock or trading across porous international borders.

Shop keeper in Sultan Ishkashim, Afghanistan

And despite very difficult access, the Wakhan is a fascinating highway of history—once a Silk Road thoroughfare trod by legends like Marco Polo, Mirza Muhammad Haidar, Lord Curzon, and W.H. Tilman—where Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Christian and Islamic philosophies converged, exchanged cultural handshakes and eventually clashed.

I came to the Wakhan in the summer of 2015 to research a novel I had been writing—nothing like boots-on-the-ground to ensure verisimilitude, right? My companions in this edgy adventure were Gary McCue, an old friend and Tibet explorer, Adrian Summers, a Welsh mountaineer and Phillip Metzger, a retired Mayo Clinic surgeon. “Ade” had been to the Wakhan before and knew the ropes. Phil looked as fit as a forty-year-old, and Gary I trusted with my life. We met up in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, and spent two days on the “road”—often more of a punishing gravel track that hugged the raging Panj River—before arriving at the only open crossing point into Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. Another two days of even worse road got us as far as Sargez—a few mudbrick structures and hard-scrabble garden plots—where the road abruptly slid into the swollen Panj. From there it was all up.

The Panj (Oxus) River gorge between Tajikistan and Afghanistan

We spent twenty-one days trekking in the Big and Little Pamirs, crossing snow-bound passes and the flooded Wakhan River valley, and were privileged to experience a small sliver of Afghanistan that is not exactly Shangri-La but about as close to it as I’ve ever seen.

My tribute to the Wakhan Corridor and its tough, beautiful inhabitants appears on Flickr [https://www.flickr.com/photos]. The images are intended as a visual counterpoint to a country that has been brutalized by unrelenting war and fractured by historical xenophobia—as a vision of the Afghanistan almost no one ever sees or hears about.

All photos © Tom Joyce, 2018


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