Afghanistan isn’t a country you’d normally think of for your summer break, but John Pilkington took his Rohans up the Wakhan Corridor and found a little Shangri-La.
High in the Pamir Mountains, Afghanistan meets its northern neighbour Tajikistan on the banks of the thundering Panj River. For most of the last century this marked the southern limit of Soviet Central Asia, and there’s still an outpost in the form of a Russian-speaking village with a single narrow bridge across the river.
I crossed the bridge and stepped back a hundred years. On the Tajik side were cars, electric lights, piped water and central heating; on the Afghan side donkeys, candles, water buckets and smoky yak-dung fires.
From here a finger of Afghanistan goes east for 350 kilometres, separating Tajikistan from Pakistan. This is the so-called Wakhan Corridor, a relic of the 19th-century ‘Great Game’ between Britain and Russia. It leads to the High Pamir, where four separate mountain ranges come together in a tangle of peaks and glaciers.
As a travel destination, I’d definitely advise against most of Afghanistan. But this north-east corner is different. The Taliban never gained a footing here, and for several years now a trickle of foreigners have been finding their way up the Wakhan Valley to this so-called ‘roof of the world’.
These are the lands of the Wakhi and the Kyrgyz. The Wakhi live in rough stone houses; the Kyrgyz are semi-nomadic and prefer big round tents which they call ‘yurts’. Both have wandered these mountainsides for centuries with their sheep, goats and yaks. Apart from them, the only creatures you see in the high valleys are marmots, vultures, and – if you’re really lucky – a faraway glimpse of a snow leopard.
I can’t speak either Wakhi or Kyrgyz, so I found myself an interpreter called Yar Mohammad and he in turn came up with two splendid horsemen, Shogun and Amin Bek. I was well equipped with cold-weather Rohans, a tent and a 5-season sleeping bag, and was intending to be self-sufficient, but in all the villages people instantly came out to greet us with rounds of bread, and bowl after bowl of freshly made yak’s-milk yogurt. If you haven’t experienced yak’s-milk yogurt – well, it’s tangy, it fizzes on the tongue, it’s rich in Vitamin C and it’s very addictive. We were also offered cups of salty and slightly rancid yak-butter tea, but somehow I never found this quite so tempting.
I had a month’s visa for Afghanistan: not long when you think of the distances involved. My first idea was to take some pens and exercise books to the pioneering school for nomadic Kyrgyz children built by Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute. It took a week to get there, but the students’ reaction was heartwarming and humbling. As far as I could tell they had no stationery whatsoever.
Then it was off to my second objective, the source of the Oxus. The location of this was hotly debated among Victorian geographers, till George Curzon explored the area in 1894 and found it to be a glacier tumbling into the remote Wakhjir Valley, near the point where modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and China meet. His celebrated ice cave can still be seen in the glacier’s snout, though thanks to global warming it has migrated a quarter of a mile up the valley and is now rather higher than Curzon’s estimate of 4,500 metres.
After a three-day ride I found the river emerging dramatically from an ice chasm not far from the cave. Grey with silt and bloated with the morning’s meltwater, it thundered against the ice walls as I crawled up to photograph the exact spot where the water first sees daylight. A bit reckless, on reflection. Suddenly there was a bang like a gunshot, and a giant ice block collapsed and disintegrated on the opposite side. I watched in horror, snapped the vital picture and fled.
This was no place to linger. And as it happened, I had an appointment two days’ ride away with another British character from the days of the Raj. On 14th August 1891 Captain Francis Younghusband was arrested by Cossacks at Bozai Gumbaz, near where Greg Mortenson’s school now stands, and ordered to leave what they claimed was Russian territory. To the British government this seemed disturbingly like the prelude to a Tsarist invasion of India, and they immediately mobilised troops to defend the frontier. Luckily in the end the Russians backed down and war was averted, but this so-called ‘Pamir Incident’ led directly to the creation of today’s curious boundaries, with the Wakhan Corridor incorporated in Afghanistan to prevent British and Russian forces ever again having to meet.
I wanted to mark the 120th anniversary of the incident by giving a nod and a wink to the officers involved, who actually behaved with impeccable Victorian courtesy all round. (The Cossacks even gave Younghusband a haunch of venison.) But crossing the river to Bozai Gumbaz I somehow managed to fall off my horse. One moment it was wading happily across; the next it was on its knees and I was tumbling over its head. Luckily my foot caught in one of the stirrups, so instead of being swept away I was dragged foot-first through the freezing water and dumped on the far bank.
So my salute to the Pamir Incident wasn’t quite as intended. My dripping figure must have looked a bit pathetic, compared with the smartly uniformed officers puffing out their chests all those years before. But at least I didn’t nearly start a war.
My four weeks in Afghanistan were the most difficult, exciting, terrifying, thought-provoking and occasionally comical that I’ve had for a long time. It’s a sad fact that the numbers of Wakhi and Kyrgyz who are willing to pursue this tough life are dwindling year by year – and of course no one knows what will happen after most of the NATO forces depart, probably in 2014. So if you enjoy mountains, and if you like yak’s-milk yogurt, I’d say go while you can!
For more about John’s trip visit www.pilk.net