Photos by David Elliot
Of a thousand scenes of beauty, the image that will stay with me the longest is this. We were three days' ride into the Pamirs, following a turquoise river as it gurgled over a 15,000 foot steppe. We were riding west, into the last golden rays of daylight when we rounded a corner and the horses caught sight of camp a mile away. They whinnied in unison and took off in a gallop. It was all we could do to hold on as our tall steeds thundered down the valley towards the shepherds' yurts, embraced on all sides by the eternal snows bleeding at sunset.
Exhilarated by the same joy that Marco Polo must have felt tracing the same route 800 years ago, we splashed across the river, dismounted, and were greeted by the warm welcome of several families of Wakhi nomads who kissed our hands and muttered "peace be upon you." We had wanted remote, and we had arrived.
A week and a half earlier the four of us had piled into a rented Land Rover Prado in Kabul, awash with the adrenaline of impending adventure. David Elliot, a wry British businessman and development worker was at the wheel, next to him his 15-year-old son William, and in the back his daughter Anna and I. We pulled out of Kabul, our eagerness flowing fast and powerful.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of our valiant car. The poor thing had probably seen its glory days in the height of the Russian invasion 20 years ago, and had gone downhill from there. It sported an inexplicable sticker on the back windshield that said "Smart One." As we limped our way up to the 11,000 foot Salang Tunnel at walking pace, we were beginning to have severe doubts that we could boast the same.
Whatever the pace, we wound our way through the spectacular craggy mountains, past the rusting skeletons of Soviet tanks, sometimes alone, sometimes in ambushed pairs, sometimes part of an entire graveyard of military metal. They had long been scavenged for useful bits of scrap, and their tracks were used as the inconspicuous speed bumps that sent us bouncing into the air at random intervals when we mustered up enough momentum to warrant them.
We passed through the Salang Tunnel at midday. This tunnel was the Russians' vital artery in their invasion of Afghanistan and it was here that thousands of their soldiers died in fires and ambushes from 1979 to 1989. Later it was a strategic centerpiece for the civil war and was periodically mined and destroyed. It was declared safe and reopened for use in 2002. But travel through it today and you have an eerie sense that there is more than just a 12,000 foot mountain bearing down on you in the stuffy, diesel-thick air.
Beyond the Salang Tunnel, we rolled happily downhill, descending into the lush valleys of Baghlan. We passed orchards of apricots and almonds, vineyards and fields of young wheat. Finally, at the end of the day we pulled into Kunduz, a bustling, sweltering city and our stopping place for the night. The streets jingled with the bells of horse drawn carts as proud-faced men in turbans bargained for bridles and saddles in the bazaars. Between them swished silent women in shining white burqas.
The first hour of driving the next day had us in Taloqan, the next major city and the end of the paved road. A mere 30 minutes later and we were lying in the dust, jacking up the car to change our first flat. With nearly bald tires and a death-trap road that can't have improved much since Marco Polo's predecessors whistled down it in camel caravans, it was a procedure we were to become professionals at. By about the 26th puncture, had you replaced our simple wrench with a pneumatic drill, we could have changed tires for Nascar. And on a 40 degree slope to boot.
We pushed on, through mountains dotted with wild pistachio trees, following rivers the color of melted rock and b
eing careful to stay on the closest resemblance to a road for the Soviet mine fields that lay beyond. Every so often we would pass a mine clearance team crawling on the ground with metal detectors and visors over their faces. Their resting colleagues were dark-skinned and chain smoking in the shade. Red painted rocks declared the presence of the hidden explosives.
We arrived at the provincial capital of Faizabad at dusk, long enough to change money, buy supplies for our trip and regain our senses with a bowl of delicious freshly made almond and cardamom ice-cream.
The next day's journey was through some dodgy parts of the country. The road took us through some very conservative villages and by midday we were in the heart of one of Afghanistan's major opium growing centers. We drove through huge fields of poppies swaying in the breeze, many bursting with magnificent purple and pink flowers. We were in the midst of dreamily taking in the beauty of it all when a group of Afghans appeared in the road, waving frantically for us to stop. We did, and in rapid, unintelligible Dari, they told us something which appeared of great importance, and included the (fortunately bilingual) word "mine." Having seen mine clearance crews all day, we assumed they were telling us there was another team ahead, and were impressed with their severity on the matter. We gave them the thumbs up, and pulled off. They stared at us wide-eyed.
Around the corner we had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a large group of people huddled in the road. We got out to investigate and were quickly shown a circle of rocks in the middle of the road, and a length of electrical wire leading from it to a pile of stones where, attached to a crude board, a string led off to a clump of bushes. "MINE," we were told definitively. We didn't need much more persuasion, nor did we feel much of a need to linger, so we piled back into the Prado, took it off the road, through a ditch, and up again on the other side. We assumed it must have been an improvised explosive device waiting to be detonated under a prime target. The target may well have been the German military, who patrol the area and, in the height of harvest season, have recently started a severely unpopular opium eradication program.
Mines safely behind us, (the ones in the road anyway) we continued our way on through the mountains, crossing powerful snowmelt rivers and rattling over fragile roads above sheer cliff faces. At the end of the day we arrived in Eshkashem, where the headwaters of the ancient Oxus river make a sweeping turn to the north to open the door to the Wakhan Corridor.
The next morning we awoke and stared into the Wakhan. On the opposite side of the river was Tajikistan. A few dozen miles to the east was the Pakistan border. At the end of the valley in front of us was the Chinese frontier. We were some of the handful of travelers to experience this sight in recent years.
But we weren't there yet. And our prospects took a dramatic about face an hour later when we were seated at a table in the leafy compound of the Tajik-Afghan Border Police. We had come to ask the Commander's blessing on our journey. The Commander was in the next village, however, and we found ourselves staring into the steely eyes of his deputy, with an immaculately trimmed beard and a pakool
resting confidently on his head. He jabbed a finger into what we thought was an impressively official letter that we had brought from the Ministry of Interior in Kabul, declaring that we were four foreigners who wanted to see the Wakhan and posed no immediate threat to anyone.
"Do you know how far we are from Kabul?" he asked us. "This means nothing to me. You are in our territory now."
He let the words hang in the air. We were sitting between him and a pair of remarkably well-kept Russian rocket-launching trucks. It was not exactly a position to negotiate.
Fortunately we had a contact in town who knew the Commander, and after a quick call on the radio to clear up the confusion, we jumped in the Prado and were on our way once more, through the gateway of the Wakhan Corridor.
We had hoped to make it to the village of Gaz Khan in a day's driving, but treacherous mud and persistent flats had other plans. That afternoon, in the middle of crossing a nearly-boatable lake in the middle of the road, we found that we were stuck in two feet of mud. The car was perched at a precarious angle, and the wheels had no traction whatsoever.
"Shit," was David's one-word assessment.
The construction worker we were giving a lift suddenly started laughing from the back seat. His bright green eyes sparkled. "Kam kam mushkil khub ast
!" he said, "Sometimes a little difficulty is good!"
As often happens in a crisis situation in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan, about 20 men appeared to help dig us out with shovels. The local car expert, a man who owned the only vehicle in the surrounding villages - a rusted, broken down Russian jeep in worse shape than ours - showed up to lend his services. Using a jack under three feet of water, he raised the car and with the rocks we all carried down from the neighboring fields, built a small road under it. Two and a half hours later, to cheers of "Al hum dulillah
," "Thanks be to God," our Prado crawled out of the mud pit. We stayed in the next village when the village elder invited us to be his guests.
We awoke the next morning and looked up to find the stern face of Wali Jan, the chief of Gaz Khan village watching us. He had the chiseled features of a mountain man and wore a Russian winter hat and green sports jacket over his shalwaar.
Good God, I thought to myself, still groggy from sleep, here
was the man to put your life's savings on in a buzkashi
match. Suddenly he burst into a smile, revealing two perfectly symmetrical gold teeth.
Wali Jan had heard about our desire to take horses into the Pamirs and had come to help. We left the car where it stood, in a more pitiable state than ever: covered in mud, with two punctures and a four wheel drive system that we had just realized was a complete hoax. We were not sad to be rid of it for a few days. We caught a lift to the next bridge in a miracle passing car, and then walked into Gaz Khan.
We slept at Wali Jan's house and in the morning woke to the sound of whinnying horses. We saddled up and hit the trail. We rode all day, following the river that cuts Tajikistan and Afghanistan in two. On the Tajik side there were electric and telephone poles. On the Afghan side, it had been two days since we had seen electricity, and we were miles from a telephone. We slept at a camp of nomadic Wakhi shepherds, who move around the mountains in the summer with their flock of 300 sheep and descend to the valley to hold out the fierce winters. We slept in a felt yurt with an open roof that let in the light of a thousand stars.
We were saying thank you and goodbye in the morning when one of the old women told us she wanted to sing a song. We waited to hear it, until she told us it was a song for departures, and ushered us to leave. We mounted our horses and turned them to the dark cloud of snow flurrying in from the Tajik Pamirs looming directly in front of us. And the women of the camp sang. It was a haunting melody which seemed to set the mountains humming in a timeless harmony. With waves of chills from more than just the cold, we rode until we could hear them no more, and then rode on in silence.
We continued riding for five days, staying with shepherds camped at the base of the snows. One day we rode yaks to climb a 15,500 foot snowbound pass that would have been impossible for horses to climb. The yaks were broad-backed and sturdy, moving over the rock and ice like a four-wheel drive vehicle. Every so often they would bellow to each other, spooky sounds like orcs.
On the fifth day we descended from the mountains to the valley and the road. We dropped 5,000 feet in altitude to the village of Kip Kut. That night we soaked in a natural hot spring. Slipping into the steamy, sulphurous water, we felt every inch of our burned and cut skin cry out, but what ecstasy!
I got to talking to Bara Khan, the keeper of the spring. Like many people of the Wakhan, he told me he had never been to Kabul. Looking at the last sun on the mountains around us, it felt as though we were in another country altogether. I was reminded of what Anna had told me about the Masjid Jomeh in Herat, that within its tiled walls it held some of the only square meters in Afghanistan that hadn't been bombed to oblivion in the fighting. The Wakhan resonated with the same stillness. The war had never reached up into its lofty valleys. Not in the Russian invasion, nor in the civil war that followed. The mountains reverberated peace.
Bara Khan told me the farthest he had been to his village was one time that he traveled to the Wakhan's mouth at Eshkashem.
"I have no reason to go beyond Eshkashem," he told me, "After Eshkashem there is simply less and less peace."
I nodded, feeling his words strike chords of truth deep within me. Yet the next day we would start our long return journey to Kabul. Anna had a flight to catch to France, and David and I had work to go back to. I wondered what we would be leaving when we quit the flanks of these mountains at daybreak. We had tasted the lotus of the Wakhan, and perhaps that was as much a blessing as a curse. The last of the sun slipped over the toothy peaks, and we walked back to our tent in darkness.