A Short Ride in the Hindu Kush
(New Zealand Herald Oct 2009)
Ian D. Robinson
The Pamir Mountains in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush, white-washed with snow, reflect in the waters of remote Chaqmaqtin Lake. Water for tea boils on a fire of dry yak dung as my horse grazes after a long day on the trail. A passing Kyrgyz nomad calls a friendly greeting and insists I visit his round tent on my way past tomorrow. As the sun drops the wind gasps its final breath of the day and there isn’t a sound, save for that of munching grass.
Pinched between the borders of Pakistan and Tajikistan the Wakkan Corridor is that little tail on the end of Afghanistan’s map. So separated from the rest of the war-ruffled land it feels and acts like a different country, even the camels here have two humps instead of one. The corridor offers the rarity of safe Afghan travel in the shadow of the Pamir Mountains; trekking, horse riding and climbing in Afghanistan’s highest and most secure region.
Setting out from Ishkashim, the last real town in the northern province of Badakhshan, on a horse purchased in the bazaar and a loaned saddle, my travel permit from the local constabulary is tucked away inside my passport. The trail away from the final vestiges of civilisation leads along the southern bank of the Amu Darya River, formally know as the Oxus. On the other bank just a stone’s throw away, literally, is Tajikistan. A ‘friendship’ bridge across the river means anyone wishing to visit the Wakkan can do so directly from the Tajik side and thus avoid the less stable rest of Afghanistan.
Few travellers come this way on horseback or foot as most are carried by 4WD to the end of the road two day’s drive up river from where they begin their treks. However, making the journey in such a sedate, eco-friendly way (horses are low carbon emitters!) gives one the opportunity to experience local village life among the Tajik farmers. They are masters of irrigation cutting channels, sometimes for miles across the mountainsides with nothing but pick and shovel, to bring water from distant streams to quench their fields on the river’s flood plains.
Everyone waves and gestures for me to take their photo, kids scamper alongside my trusty mount between swaying fields of wheat and barley, the constant invitations to tea would make the ride never-ending if even half were accepted. Afghan traditions of hospitality are ingrained in the local psyche here; handshakes are common, firm and full of meaning- welcome!
At night I stay in which ever mud-brick village built into the mountainside I end up in, billeted by a local farmer for a gift of a few dollars, or I find lodgings and stables in one of the guest houses funded by the Ismaili Muslim leader the Aga Khan. Alternatively I camp alone between settlements on the banks of the river and make tea from the Oxus. Evening entertainment consists of watching the sun go down behind the mountains, waiting for the stars to come out and then crawling into my tent.
One afternoon I wander away from the main road on what looks to be a shortcut only to find myself virtually in someone’s backyard. By a creek I startle three un-veiled Tajik women doing the laundry. As they scuttle inside the sanctity of their walled home the eldest hisses at me like a defensive cat, the younger two smile and giggle. I hurry on through the fields but don’t get far before the man of the house emerges and calls me back.
“Bebakhshed baba-jan!” I apologise, I’m sorry uncle. In other parts of Afghanistan such a mishap could have caused grave offence.
“Ne! Ne bebakhshed!” No, don’t apologise, and the farmer’s hand, as rugged as a rawhide glove, grasps mine to show that none has been taken by the moderate Ismaili. Back in his home I’m offered everything in the pantry, tea, sour yogurt and fresh baked bread, and even the old man’s wife eventually smiles.
At the village of Sarhad-e-Broghil the road runs out, anyone who continues further does so on horse, donkey, yak or foot. I have my permits checked by the local commandant, who gives me a serious ear-bashing for camping the previous night on the south side of the river too close to the Pakistani border, and then sends me on my way into the mountains of the Pamir.
From here the trail climbs, really climbs, over goat tracks that lead the only way through a gorge I will follow for the next two days. Altitude adds another obstacle to the rugged terrain and physical strain. The wise are prepared for this section of the corridor and carry enough supplies with them to last until they meet the locals again. I am not wise. Not realising I won’t find anyone living in the narrow valley I walk (it is too steep and too tough on my poor horse to ride) for two days on an empty stomach and wobbly legs having taken nothing with me apart from tea and a scrap of flat bread.
By the third day I’m wondering whether I should start boiling the pages of my notebook or the soles of my shoes, and the fat orange marmots who whistle at me from the entrances to their burrows are beginning to look as appetising as roast chickens. Even the intentions of the massive eagles carving circles in the skies above are a concern.
Thankfully I am rescued by two Kyrgyz nomads who come up the trail behind me. Stopping to share my fire they unwrap a large cloth full of crispy fried bread! They fill my tucker bag and when I offer to pay they refuse anything I try to give them insisting I am a guest in their mountain home. By this stage I feel less like a guest and more like a grateful beggar.
At the head of the Wakkan Corridor the valley opens out into sweeping grazing lands. At the joining of the Wakkan and Wakhjir Rivers conical mud-brick tombs mark the graves of past Kyrgyz shah at the winter grassland of Bozai Gumbaz. On the morning I pass I stop at the only tent on the pasture hoping to be offered something to eat, unfortunately the tent’s sole occupant, a nomad in his forties is too busy trying to get his opium pipe lit to stoke up the fire for tea.
Below the dramatic Himalaya-rivalling ranges Kyrgyz nomads live an uncluttered life, with their yaks, fat-tailed sheep, goats and horses; they spend the entire year in the high valleys even toughing out the brutal winters. Each cluster of their round felt-covered dwellings has a ‘guest tent’ where those passing can spend the night. One evening I share rug space with a trader who has loaded his donkey with bolts of cloth, thread and wool yarn, flashlight batteries, combs, matches, and assorted odds and ends and is spending the summer trying to sell it all. Sadly he has nothing of much use to me, no toilet paper or food.
The old trader is the last reminder of the Silk Route, a branch of which passed down the Wakkan from the deserts of Chinese Turkestan, the modern border of which is just a few kilometres away. Marco Polo passed through the valley on his way to meet the Emperor of Cathay and left his name on the curly-horned sheep which still inhabit the high peaks. That night is the eve of Ramadan, (known as Ramazan in Afghanistan) the Muslim holy month when the faithful fast during daylight hours. To see in the start of the festival we are taken as guests to every tent in the camp and served milky tea and fresh bread.
Heading down the corridor again I skirt the northern shore of Chaqmaqtin Lake and climb slowly into the Pamir range. Crossing two high passes, Aqbelis and Kotel-e-Qarabel, the trail reveals hidden lakes and small glaciers. My faithful horse and I find ourselves on some nights in uninhabited valleys, home to the unseen snow leopard, and on others sharing a fireplace in the cosy stone hovels of the Wakhi herdsmen who give the region its name. Primitive etchings of ibex and other prized kills of the pre-historic hunt are scratched into the boulders along the rivers and attest to how long the region has been inhabited.
After three weeks on the trail the first flurries of winter snow and the vision of a hot shower, a change of clothes and a meal of something other than tea and bread leads me back through the gorge, this time more sensibly provisioned, to Sarhad-e-Broghil. The commandant seems pleased to see me back safely this time and helps me arrange transport back down to Ishkashim. Before I leave for the town I bid a sad farewell to my dear horse, he, however, doesn’t appear at all unhappy that the adventure is over and that he’ll be left in relative peace on the high pastures of the Afghan Pamirs.