The Wakhan Corridor is one of Afghanistan’s most remote regions, but also the only region that is safe for travel. My friend and Central Asia expert, Stephen Lioy, shares his experience traveling this stunning region. If you’re interested to travel Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, join me on this Pamir Mountains tour!
What It’s Like to Travel Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor
“Good Luck!” offers the Tajikistan Customs Officer.
As if I’m not already nervous about entering Afghanistan on a tourist visa, this farewell is enough to raise further doubts as I cross the no-man’s-land bridge.
This is, after all, a country usually associated with war, terrorism, and human rights violations. Even as we prepare to visit by searching out visa info and currency rates my companions and I scour the internet, talk to expats on the ground, and ring up local guides for information on security and tourism in the region.
Will there be somewhere we can sleep? How accepting will they be of foreigners? Westerners? An American?
Having been bombarded for so long with media images of death and destruction, we can’t move past this mindset that Afghanistan must be off-limits. Yet on a hilltop above the town of Khorog, looking across the border from Tajikistan, it seems calm and even inviting.
We see a scattering of simple houses built above plowed field, and donkey trails that wind in and out of the hills as they slope down to the river that marks the boundary between the two countries. Sick with nerves but overwhelmed by the desire to see it all first-hand, we set off to discover a culture that we’ve heard so much about yet that couldn’t feel more foreign.
Journey into Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor
Not even technically inside Afghanistan, we meet Zeki. This Kabuli and his friends — on a work trip to install the beginnings of critical Internet infrastructure in this mountainous border region — are playfully posing for cell phone pictures of each other on the bridge between the two border posts. This strikes me as so normal, something I’ve done myself in front of ridiculous signs and views all the way from the Galata Bridge to Victoria Peak,
Fortunately Zeki has finished work for the day and graciously offers to explore the area with us. Dusty from the mountainous roads it crossed to get here, the group’s hired jeep bounces up a rutted track to the village of Redoge. Climbing towards the hilltop community I find the nerve to ask the question that has troubled me all day: Is it ok to admit being American?
He convinces me not to worry, and this assurance is soon tested. As we crawl out of the overloaded jeep we immediately face the stares so common to tourists who make their way to rural Central Asia, but also the questions, handshakes, and countless “As salaam alaykum!” greetings.
So far, so good, I think.
With so many positive interactions, the negative stands out sharply in contrast. An old man wearing an aged pair of pilots’ wings approaches unnoticed and begins a tirade whose tone doesn’t require translation. As he yells, gestures crazily, and slaps an Afghan boy in the head we wonder exactly what perturbs him. Our presence? Our guides? Afterwards, we ask Zeki and his coworkers what the man had said.
“He says that he is glad to welcome you to our country. Perhaps it is better, though, if you all return tonight to the border post to sleep instead of staying in the village.” We wonder uneasily what has been left out of this explanation.
Travel Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor with me on this Tajikistan Pamir Mountains tour!
Meeting Afghanistan’s Locals
Parting ways with Zeki I’m full once again of doubt and worry about what could go wrong, but not for long. Durmohammed soon emerges from a crowd of onlookers. This complete stranger will quickly progress from guide to host to friend as he invites us however briefly into his life and world.
His polished style and English introduction are a welcome relief from our uncertainty. Recently returned from studying in Kabul, our new acquaintance’s familiarity with the world beyond is the bridge that will make us more comfortable with being here. As such, he’s quick to dispel our concerns by sharing a different side of his culture.
He invites us to a local café for overflowing plates of a biryani-style rice dish cooked with turmeric, studded with raisins, and topped with grilled mutton. As we eat biriz and chat, a traveling Imam recently arrived from Kabul passes nearly an hour attempting to convert our group of three to Islam.
“Now your turn! You say ‘Laa ilaha ill Allah, Muhammadun rasool Allah‘!”
There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.
“Very good, now his turn! Now her turn! Very good, now you are Muslim!”
With turned tongues but unconvinced hearts, we try to explain the difference between practicing Arabic and a conversion of faith. Failing this, we pick up watermelon in the market outside.
Invitations into Local Homes
Leaving lunch our host offers to show us around Redoge as well. Again we walk the dirt roads of the bazaar, but as we grow more comfortable we see more of the details. Some of the goods for sale here are identical to the canned Russian exports and locally grown produce available across the border in the shops of Tajikistan, but most resemble the sweets and sundry of Iran.
While browsing scarves and interacting with the crowd that slowly builds around us, a policeman appears and demands that we follow. Over the course of the short walk to the police compound we quietly discuss any number of worst-case fears: arrest and deportation feel realistic in the moment’s uncertainty, and the heavily-armed police force speak to the possibility of worse. In the end, the local commander only wants photos and passport copies to register our presence and make our stay safe.
Perhaps sensing our renewed uncertainty, Durmohammed invites three foreign strangers into his home for the short time we spend in Redoge. Settling down for a night, we discuss history and war and religion and marriage.
Though more biriz cooks in the next room, I’m only dimly aware of the smell of spices as it drifts in with the evening air. Instead, my attention is tightly focused on our host as he tells his story of life in Badakhshan province in the time of warlords and mountain raiders. Interspersed with his daughters and nephews peering through the windows at our palaver, Durmohammed haltingly recalls how bandits would ride down from the mountain passes to raid nearby villages.
Demanding valuables and food, they would be quick to respond with violence to any sort of resistance or inconvenience. After a moments’ pause to find the words, he described how these robbers often acted with casual disrespect for others’ lives, “even if tea was served late or food not brought quickly they would kill the person who brought it.”
READ MORE: Silk Road Travel Guide
The Safest Province in Afghanistan
There’s a touch of ephemerality to his stories as I compare them to my own experience here, so full of greetings in the market and the laughter of children peeking over rooftops. Despite its violent history of banditry Badakhshan has recently been one of the calmest parts of Afghanistan, relatively free of strife for the last ten years.
We’re told that even at the height of the Taliban’s control in the country, different cultural norms in this region never effected the Talib mindset to the same degree as in the south. Given the reception and hospitality we receive, and the kindnesses of people like Durmohammed and Zeki, I’m inclined to believe this must be true.
On politics, though, our host is not cheerful about the future of his country. While Afghanistan is populated largely by the Pashto ethnic group, the northern reaches of the republic in Badakhshan and the Wakhan Corridor are culturally more similar to the Farsi-speaking Iranians, and even their cross-border Tajik cousins, than to fellow Afghani citizens to the south.
Durmohammed (himself ethnically Tajik) cites Pashto greed and hostility towards foreigners as two of the major causes of friction within Afghan society. In a world so separated by ethnicity, even this bias seems strangely normal in the context of the conversation. The history of today’s Afghanistan has often been one of cultural conflict between these ethnic groups, and according to locals few reasons exist to believe this will change.
A Short Walk Near the Hindu Kush
Early the next morning we bid Durmohammed’s family goodbye as he escorts us to the edge of town. Walking from one village to the next, we follow a dirt-and-gravel track that traces the course of the river below.
Forming the winding border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the Pyanj River flows past high mountain peaks and barren deserts. Cultures that were once very similar have been cut apart for decades by this line that marked the terminus of Soviet prosperity, development, and control. Though today local NGO’s are building bridges to reunite these disconnected cultural cousins, the impact of this dividing line is still apparent: Tajik cities of tens of thousands stare across the river at Afghan hamlets measured in the hundreds or less.
Much of the Pyanj’s valley here is desert, but clusters of green mark inhabited areas where people live and work to grow crops that feed the region. Passing through these small settlements, we’re invited into homes for a short break of tea and fresh bread. Communication is often difficult and shared language minimal, but the hospitality even warmer than the endless pots poured out as a respite from the long walk.
We Are All the Same
En route back to the border, the Japanese woman I’m traveling with falls into conversation with three schoolgirls on their way home from the day’s studies. True to the rest of our journey, their exchange is less about politics and war than a stereotypically normal concern for teenage girls: boys.
So many interactions are like this: the topics mundane but important ideas like marriage or family that affect everyone regardless of race or nationality. Though it initially seemed so foreign, traveling in Afghanistan has forced this realization. Indeed, even when the particulars of our lives are so different, our shared humanity bonds us more than our differences divide us. Finally having understood this, my fear and nervousness is gone.
A Guide to Traveling Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor:
When to Go
Summer (June to August) can be quite hot in the dry valleys of Badakhshan province, but this is the only time of year that the mountain passes which provide access to nearby Lake Shiva are accessible. At other times of year, villages in the region are still accessible, but walkers should be well prepared with warm clothing.
Getting a Visa
Afghanistan requires most travelers to arrange a visa prior to arrival. This can be done quickly and easily in the Tajikistan town of Khorog. Applicants who arrive shortly after the Afghan embassy opens can expect to receive their standard one-month tourist visas on the same or next day. Make sure to take two passport photos and a passport copy, as well as $51 USD to pay into the Consulate’s bank account. Take care not to lose the bank receipt on the way back to the Consulate, or a $10 tax will be applied as well.
Getting into Afghanistan
Access to Afghani Badakshan is generally easier and safer from Tajikistan than from the rest of Afghanistan. Fly to Dushanbe (Tajikistan) and then catch a domestic flight to Khorog ($90). But why fly when you can travel overland and experience both the journey and the destination.
Join Nellie on her Tajikistan Pamir Mountains tour which will take the slow way from Dushanbe to Afghani Badakshan through the mountains.
No direct flights to Dushanbe are available from the United States, but with connections in Istanbul round-trip prices start at $1500 from New York (~20 hours) or $1700 from Los Angeles (~21 hours). Cheaper tickets involving much longer journeys are possible via Moscow or Beijing.
Getting Around Afghanistan
While busses leave each day from main villages to outlying areas, schedules can be hard to find. Instead, consider traditional hiking paths or hitchhike with local drivers between settled areas. To help find your way around the region, many of the Pamir maps available in Khorog or Dushanbe extend into Afhganistan as far as the Pyanj River valley and the surrounding mountains.
Accommodation in Afghanistan
With little tourist infrastructure in place, homestays are generally the only accommodation in the villages of rural Badakhshan. Either take a guide who can arrange these through his own contacts or ask around in the market areas of each village. For guided assistance, ask at guesthouses or travel bureaus in Khorog for contact information.
Packing for Afghanistan
If you intend to stay with local families, small gifts for children or mementos from home can be great icebreakers. Basic foodstuffs and souvenirs are available in the markets of Afghan Badakhshan. but many Western treats can be hard to find. Also consider packing some small packaged snacks for long walks between settlements where food may be another few hours away.
Cost of Travel in Afghanistan and Tajikistan
Accommodation in Badakhshan will mostly be in homestays, and meals will consist mostly of locally-raised food. As such, prices are quite cheap by global standards (the author’s party averaged $10 USD per person per day, and this was more than hosts quoted as fair prices).
Costs in Tajikistan are moderately higher. $1 = 51 Afghan Afghani = 4.7 Tajik Somoni, and best rates for currency conversion in both Afghanistan and Tajikistan are usually available in town markets.
Resources for Afghanistan Travel
One of the best resources on the internet for Central Asia is Caravanistan. Visa information for this region can change relatively quickly, but this site tends to be the most reliable source of information. The author’s blog Monk Bought Lunch is also a great resource for all things Central Asian.
The US Department of State advises against travel to Afghanistan. If you decide to go, register with the Smart Traveler Assistance Program before you go.
About the Author: Stephen Lioy
Central Asia-based writer and photographer Stephen Lioy seems obsessed with the Silk Road, bouncing across the ‘Stans for as long as visas will allow. He blogs at MonkBoughtLunch, with stories and photos from Afghanistan to Kazakhstan and much of the rest of Asia as well.
Travel Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor with me on this Tajikistan Pamir Mountains tour!
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