War and peace: Kate Humble treks into Afghanistan
A new trek through north-eastern Afghanistan offers travellers the chance to enjoy breathtaking landscapes far from the conflict elsewhere in the country
Saturday 06 February 2010
'No part of Afghani-stan should be considered immune from violence," warns the Foreign Office. "The potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts. Visitors travelling to Afghanistan do so at their own risk and without protection from Her Majesty's Government."
Few positive things have been said or written about Afghanistan in recent times. It is, however, the place where I chose to spend my summer holiday last year.
While my friends were optimistically packing buckets and spades and heading for the West Country, I was loading walking boots, sleeping bags and blister plasters into duffel bags and checking in for a destination I'd never heard of.
The Wakhan Corridor is a narrow finger of land in the far north-east of Afghanistan. Bordered by Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, it was created by the British in the 1800s. It is a long way from Kabul, even further from the notorious Helmand province, and two dusty days' drive from Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital – which is where our aircraft eventually landed.
The Tajik-Afghan border post is little used. Fourteen Westerners with weird foreign passports undoubtedly provided the most exciting thing any of the border guards had seen in a while. Our crossing took some time. But then we were through, standing on Afghan soil and wondering if we had gone one step too far.
Jonny Bealby is the intrepid founder of Wild Frontiers (which, as its name suggests, likes to take travellers to places other holiday companies don't reach). He has long harboured a wish to bring tourism to this little-known corner of central Asia. He joined forces with David James, who served with the Army in Afghanistan. When he left, he moved to the Wakhan corridor with his wife and young son. David hopes to develop tourism in the area in the hope that it will bring economic benefit to the community. He and Jonny planned this recce trip, one of the first organised treks in the area.
Our party ranged in age from a girl in her mid-twenties travelling with her father, to three men in their late sixties, all of whom proved to be fitter and stronger than some half their age. John, a sprightly 66, was the only member of our party who had been to Afghanistan before – "but that was on the hippie trail and we were all smoking quite a lot of stuff, so I don't really remember being here at all". We were all there because the lure was too strong to resist: going into relatively uncharted territory in an era when the world seems at times too small and accessible.
We spent our first night in the village of Ishkashim. This is the main trading post of the Wakhan Corridor. Its single rough gravel road is lined with small wooden cabins selling garish fabrics, wrinkly vegetables, grain, tea, rope and carpets. There is a barber, a baker and – unlikely though it may seem – a chip shop. The inhabitants, predominantly from the local Wakhi tribe, are small, wiry and tough-looking, with weathered, expressive faces and fiercely firm handshakes. They are also among the most welcoming people I have ever met anywhere. (I can vouch for the handshakes, because I think I shook everyone's hand in the village.)
Later, gathered in the little guest house at the top of the town drinking tea and eating chips out of newspaper, we all agreed that we felt quite overwhelmed by the hospitality we had received. We had been careful to ask permission to take photographs, but no one needed any persuasion. It was refreshing to be in a place where tourists are still a novelty, where a welcome is genuine and not followed by a wheedling plea to buy some bit of faux ethnic tat.
Our Afghan journey continued in a convoy of vehicles held together with string and a prayer. For two days we made our slow, bumpy way east until the road ran out and the mountains took over. At the final village of Sarhad-e Broghil, Gorgali, our local guide, amassed a team of horsemen and donkey drivers to carry all the food and equipment. He also found Amin Beg, who was born in a village a few days' walk away. Maps of this region are vague and show little more than a tangle of contour lines, so Amin Beg would be our human sat-nav.
Ahead of us was a wall of rock rising 1,000m above us. This is the gateway to the Little Pamir mountains. The only way in is on foot.
It was a tough first day's trek, starting at just over 3,000m, plodding painfully slowly to just above 4,000m, followed by an immediate, knee-jarring descent of 500m into a steep-sided gully where we made camp by a river. Our journey had already taken us through a landscape of impressive grandeur, but it was only when on foot that we really began to grasp the scale of our surroundings. Great peaks and ridges crowded in on us on all sides and we had to crane our necks to get a glimpse of the sky. We all quietly hoped, though, that as reward for all that uphill travelling on the first day, our route might flatten out a bit and we would be able to spend more time appreciating our magnificent surroundings.
After crossing the river and climbing out of the ravine, we followed a gently undulating path high above a gorge. We may have been among the first trekkers to this region, but this route is well used by the locals, who frequently cross the pass to bring flocks up to graze and trade with families further up the valley. One morning, we moved off the track to allow a group of young men and girls riding yaks to pass us. The girls, their eyes rimmed with kohl and resplendent in clothes of bright reds and pinks, perched daintily behind the boys, who drove their great, hairy charges on up the slope with sharp cries and whoops. It was, explained Gorgali, the end of the summer holidays, and the children were heading back down to the village to go to school.
The weather was perfect. Clear days of brilliant sunshine, tempered by the altitude and a cool breeze, made for glorious walking. It also meant that the snow fields and glaciers were still melting and the river we were due to follow had flooded, blocking our route. Once we'd crossed the pass from Sahad, we'd planned to walk a circuit starting on a relatively low, gentle path following the course of the river, and then climb to return via what was promised to be a spectacular high-altitude valley. Now we were forced to reverse our plans and to keep climbing. The final push to V C camp was a killer; it was rather a glum collection of faces that gathered around the table for dinner.
By now even John, the Afghan veteran, was beginning to feel we were undergoing an endurance test. Our aim was to reach a lake called Chaqmaqtin. It seemed certain now, though, that with the earlier delays and the flooded river, we wouldn't make it. Ade, our trek leader, decided to scale back our ambitions to allow for easier and shorter walking days. We would press on and over the Uween-e-Sar pass – at just under 5,000m the highest point on our route. If we got news the flood had abated, we would go back along the low route; if it hadn't, we would simply have to retrace our steps.
The walking may have been hard, but we were more than rewarded, not just by breathtaking scenery but by unexpected archaeological gems such as Sang-e Navishta. A short climb from camp brought us out into a wide, green valley. Large boulders lay scattered on the grass, many decorated with carvings and inscriptions. There were images of long-horned ibexes together with stick figures of people, and one with a gory interpretation of a man being attacked by a snow leopard.
Andy Miller, a British archaeologist, has spent several years in this region making a study of many of the cultural sites. He believes these petroglyphs, which range in age from the time of Stone Age man right up to the modern day, were used as a focus for prehistoric worship, route markers through the mountains and as an artistic record of events.
Amin Beg's family home, a group of low stone houses huddled beneath the mountains, lay just beyond. Here, we got a glimpse of life in one of the most remote and tough environments in the world. Within moments, I was crouched behind a sheep, trying – not very successfully – to milk it. We were then taken into one of the houses to admire a newborn baby. Children were brought out, held aloft by proud parents. Everyone wanted their photograph taken. They made us lunch, consisting of a traditional dish which tasted something like a cross between risotto and rice pudding. The rice was cooked in sheep's milk and flavoured with oil.
No vegetables grow here. The people of the Pamirs live purely on milk and yoghurt from their goats and sheep, who also provide occasional meat. They will trade animals for other staples such as rice, flour for bread, tea and sugar.
After saying our farewells, we walked the length of the valley to the foot of the pass. It took five hours, by which time we were all shattered. Gorgali and the horsemen got there way ahead of us. Water was already boiling for tea, and the horsemen were playing cards around their fires, having unloaded their horses and set them loose to graze.
Every morning, before the horses were saddled and loaded, they would be groomed with a whittled stick, their feet checked and any wounds or sores treated. They looked magnificent with their shiny coats and flowing manes and tails, but were as tough and indefatigable as their owners, and could pick their way up a steep incline of loose rock or cross a raging torrent of freezing water without complaint.
Revived by food, tea and a good night's sleep, we woke early to take on the pass. We were almost at the snow line, and Gorgali told us the view on the other side was quite magnificent. He went ahead with the horsemen. I found myself out in front as we climbed a gentle slope up to a boulder field and then picked our way through the rocks to the top. I scrambled up a final incline and let out a gasp. I was standing on the edge of a snow field; below me was a glacial lake of exquisite blue and all around was a landscape of incomparable beauty. Amin Beg appeared at my side. Giggling like a couple of children, we chucked snowballs at each other, just for the sheer joy of it.
The Afghanistan we hear about is the one synonymous with war, corruption, and tragedy. I had found the other Afghanistan, where the people do battle only with the elements, or snowballs, and where strangers are treated with a warmth and generosity seldom experienced beyond the hidden valleys of the Pamirs.
* The writer travelled with Wild Frontiers (020-7736 3968; wildfrontiers.co.uk ), which offers a 20-day Wakhan Pamir Recce Tour departing on 28 June from £3,150 per person. The price includes full board in hotels, guest houses and campsites; water; a tour leader and local guides; transportation and transfers. International flights are not included but can be booked through Wild Frontiers using airBaltic from Gatwick to Dushanbe (Tajikistan), via Riga; returns start at £575. AirBaltic (00 371 6700 6006; airbaltic.com ) also flies from regional airports via both Copenhagen and Riga.
* Kate Humble will describe her journey into Afghanistan's far north-east at the Royal Geographical Society ( rgs.org ) in London on Tuesday 16 February at 7pm. Tickets cost £15, with all proceeds going to the Wild Frontiers Foundation. They can be purchased on the door, or through Wild Frontiers.
* British passport-holders require a visa to visit Afghanistan. These can be obtained from the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 31 Princes Gate, London SW7 1QQ (020-7589 8891; afghanistanembassy.org.uk ). A one-month single-entry tourist visa costs £50.
* The Foreign Office (0845 850 2829; fco.gov.uk ) warns: "The threat from kidnapping, suicide bombs, roadside bombs, indirect fire and ambush throughout Afghanistan remains."
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