Hidden Wakhan: a trek through Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains

Afghanistan. A place once firmly on the traveller trail rendered, by modern history, virtually unvisited. Much of Afghanistan remains off-limits to regular travellers and most governments advise their citizens to stay away.

But there is a special part of this country kept hidden from war and insurgency; a place concealed by the towering peaks of the Pamir and Karakorum ranges. The Wakhan Corridor: a mountainous land where a remote tribe of nomadic Kyrgyz people have lived cut-off for more than a century, only reachable by an arduous four-day trek across high passes and through deep gorges.

A rock-strewn landscape gives way to a river running through a dry mountain valleyThe rocky road from Ishkashim into Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor © Jonny Duncan / Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet contributor Jonny Duncan embarked on a truly epic journey through the Afghan Wakhan. This is his story and photo diary from this lost land.

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all but essential travel to Afghanistan. Before undertaking any travel to Afghanistan, check with your relevant national government.

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Afghanistan: entering the unknown

The Wakhan Corridor is a narrow region – the north half in Tajikistan, the south half in Afghanistan – which came into existence as a buffer zone during the Great Game, a period of espionage and conflict between the British and Russian empires during the 19th century. China sits to the east and Pakistan to the south.

View of a river in the foreground with yellowed grass meadow and snow-capped mountains in backgroundThe Wakhan Corridor was created during the Great Game in the 19th century © Jonny Duncan / Lonely Planet

Though it’s my second visit to the Tajik side of the Wakhan, I’ve always wanted to explore Afghanistan. After a few days of staring longingly out across the border, I find myself at the Afghan consulate in Khorog, Tajikistan, applying for a visa.

There are two other travellers at the consulate, who turn out to be planning a drive up the Wakhan Corridor followed by a 10-day trek into the Little Pamir to meet the remote Kyrgyz people that live there. They ask me to join them, and luckily for me, they have their own 4WD Land Rover converted into a mobile home.

A Wakhan Kyrgyz family with grandmother, mothers and children, all dressed in traditional headscarves and colourful, embroidered clothingNomadic Kyrgyz families have lived at the remote end of the Wakhan since the Great Game © Jonny Duncan / Lonely Planet

Two days later, I have my Afghan visa in hand and the three of us meet up in Ishkashim, a border town on the Tajik side, surrounded by mountains.

Crossing the border into Afghanistan

Nerves. Real excitement. The gates of the Afghanistan border open for our vehicle, and three Afghan soldiers dressed in modern military clothing and carrying old Russian assault rifles observe us warily as we drive in. Two destroyed armoured vehicles lie a few hundred metres past the gate, a visceral reminder of the country’s violent history. But our nerves are eased when smiles spread across the soldiers’ faces as we hand over our passports.

A man rides a donkey down a desolate dirt road with huge mountains in the backgroundIt’s an arduous drive in a 4WD to Sarhad village and the start of the mountain trek © Jonny Duncan / Lonely Planet

It’s a 10-hour-plus drive along a rough, stony road – the only one up the Wakhan Corridor – to the trek’s starting point. The plan is to drive slowly eastwards over a two-day period, camping outside the vehicle beside the Wakhan River, which runs through the valley. From the easternmost village on the road, Sarhad, it’s another four-day mountain trek on foot to reach the remote area where the Kyrgyz live.

Along the drive, we stop at as many villages as we can. People are surprised to see us, but welcome us with fresh bread from their farms. Children often come along to ask for their photos to be taken; elders watch from the doorways of mud-brick houses. It’s the end of September and the trees are fading from green to yellow, providing merciful shade from the glaring high-mountain sun. Dust from the wheat harvest fills the air: the locals are preparing for winter.

A lone walker treks along a steep mountainside path with tall peaks in the backgroundTwo hiking routes lead through the Little Pamir into the valley where the Kyrgyz live © Jonny Duncan / Lonely Planet

Trek into the Little Pamir

In Sarhad, very few people speak English but one local has some spare rooms in his house and offers us accommodation. We also hire a trekking guide and donkeys to carry our gear. The village is tiny but has one very welcome feature: a hot-spring bath.

There are two trails to reach the Kyrgyz from Sarhad: an easier, lower altitude path and a harder, higher one. Each hike takes four days. We plan to enter via the easier route and spend two nights in a large valley where most of the Kyrgyz live, then trek back out using the more difficult route.

A herd of yaks carrying bundles of goods walks up a mountainside with a green river below in the distanceCaravans of yaks carry supplies into and out of the remote parts of the Wakhan © Jonny Duncan / Lonely Planet

These trails are the only supply routes for the Kyrgyz and are plied by ten-strong yak caravans, which move at great speeds. Afghans trade in rice as well as other goods, and in return the Kyrgyz sell their livestock, mostly sheep. The first three days of trekking are steep ups and downs. We follow the fast-flowing Wakhan River along the base of the towering, arid Pamir Mountains, passing the ruins of villages and lonely ancient tombs.

A small stone ruin sits atop a ridge in the foreground with tall mountains in the backgroundThe Wakhan trails pass ancient tombs and settlements © Jonny Duncan / Lonely Planet

At night, the herders stop to sleep in simple stone and mud-brick shelters that are dotted regularly along the trail. Most are dark, cramped and dirty, the worst having goat droppings all over the floor. The herders sleep on thin canvas mats they carry with them. The rooms smell of animals and burning wood – fires are lit in the middle of the hut for brewing tea, which is drunk non-stop. The atmosphere inside the huts is very social in the evening and through smiles, sign language and just plain messing about, we get to know some of the traders.

Night in the stone shelter, with a fire to the left and men in traditional hats seated half in the darkTraders and trekkers share accommodation in rough stone huts along the route © Jonny Duncan / Lonely Planet

The Wakhan Kyrgyz

The Kyrgyz people who live in this part of Afghanistan are nomadic, and once travelled down from their native country, neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, during the summer months to graze their animals in the grasslands surrounding several small lakes here. When the Wakhan Corridor was created in the late 19th century, several thousand were stranded inside what became Afghanistan and remain scattered around the valley in small communities.

On our fifth day, we encounter an army checkpoint – a few heavy canvas tents and some Afghan army soldiers fenced in by barbed wire. It’s only when we’re asked for our permits that we realise the papers we need were left with the police chief in Sarhad village before starting the hike. We’re escorted into one of the tents while our guide and the soldiers radio to Sarhad, and eventually told we’ll have to spend the night at a mud compound near the checkpoint.

Two young woman dressed in long red embroidered robes and headgear, stand with a baby in front of a yurt tentA Wakhan Kyrgyz family welcomes the author into their camp © Jonny Duncan / Lonely Planet

The compound includes a small boarding school for around 15 Kyrgyz teen boys. After days in cramped mountain shelters, the accommodation here feels palatial: clean floors, comfortable cushions, blankets, and most importantly, a wood-fired heater.

The evening offers cultural exchange: we teach the teens to do handstands, and the Afghan soldiers point out their hometowns on a map of Afghanistan and explain their desire for the Taliban and foreign insurgent fighters to leave their homeland.

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