"Salam Malakam" said the old lady, then she took me by the hand and led me into her yurt. Her hands were rough and her wide smile showed off missing teeth, however her green eyes glowed with excitement at meeting me and she proudly gestured round the circular room, filled with colourful rugs and in the centre a stove, burning dried yak dung as the only source of fuel. As my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I noticed a young girl in the corner holding a toddler. They too were dressed in similar red and gold clothing of the old lady, decorated with beads, embroidery, and buttons. We were in a remote rural village in the Pamirs of the Wakhan Corridor, Northern Afghanistan, a country synonymous with violence and terror but here with this family I felt surrounded by warmth and friendliness.
I had landed in Dushabe, the capital of Tajikistan, in mid July - a few days earlier than the rest of the team in order to do some sightseeing. Instead I came down with tonsillitis so the only sightseeing I did was from the inside of a clinic (a fairly scary experience in itself, being injected in the bottom in a room full of moaning patients on metal beds and blood-flecked tiled walls) and my hotel room. Fortunately the injection and antibiotics had kicked in by the time I met the rest of the group - our guide Greg and six others from Australia, America, Canada, the UK and Ireland.
Dushanbe is the start of our long journey into the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan, where the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs meet. The Wakhan Corridor is a 400km long strip of land in the northeast of Afghanistan. This area has been virtually untouched by the wars that have ravaged the country for decades, with many of the locals telling us it was partly due to the difficult terrain and enclosure by two formidable mountain ranges which have made it less attractive to the Taliban entering from Pakistan.
We set off from Dushanbe in two cars with our Tajik drivers (who could have been Russian bodyguards in a movie) - Yussaf and Olucha. Yussaf was clearly the "man about town" who we all liked even though his English was somewhat limited and mainly contained the word "vodka". The drive to Kalaikhum along the infamous Pamir Highway along the Panj river with Afghanistan along the other side was beautiful with lush fields and mountains all around us however the car snacks (salty cheese balls...?) were an acquired taste!
Our drive was interrupted a few hours later by a blockage in the road for an hour whilst bulldozers cleared the rocks from a landslide, but we finally reached our destination in time for a goat stew dinner in the guesthouse and a few beers before falling asleep in our sleeping bags in the garden - watching the stars and talking excitedly about the adventures ahead.
The drive continued along the Pamir Highway the next morning to Khorog, nestled on the banks of the Panj River. Here, our first job was to get a mess tent from the tourist office and a first aid kit as these had been lost en route by the air operator (thanks Turkish Airlines). Fortunately we had enough prescription medicines and various ointments between us and the rest we scavenged from a local doctor. From Khorog we continued for a couple of hours the next day to Ishkashim, the border with Afghanistan.
A border crossing is slightly nerve wracking at the best of times - let alone in the middle of nowhere with solemn looking Afghan soldiers in camouflage with guns. However despite their exterior they turned out to be very welcoming and we ended up taking a few selfies and telling them about our planned trip (although I denied I had a facebook account!). They told us to avoid a town about 50km away which was rumoured to have Taliban. None of them spoke favourably of the Taliban and one showed me a scar running down his chest and bullet holes from where he had been injured by them. It reminded us of the instability of the country we were about to enter and made the potential dangers all too real.
Once over the border, we met our Afghan guides - Murang and Shaker. Murang I instantly recognised from Lev Wood's "Walking the Himalaya" and we ended up having a good chat about mountaineering given he was the first Afghan to climb Mount Noshaq (the highest in Afghanistan at 7492m) and recently Mont Blanc. He told me about the numerous unclimbed peaks in the area (6000m+) - I sense a future expedition! In Ishkashim we sorted out our permits with the local police and security officers and picked up some last minute items in the bazaar. The dusty street of the local bazaar was lined with colourful stalls selling all manner of trinkets - from brightly coloured scarves to pakol hats and leather shoes. I think the locals were more interested in us than we were in them and stopped to stare as we walked past. Most men wore the beige cotton trousers and tunics similar to our guides and the women were either in long dresses and headscarves or light blue burkas.
We sat down with Greg and ran through the plan for the next few days, although given logistics, changeable terrain and weather it was all subject to change. The uncertainty and flexibility of the route excited me and it felt like we were embarking on a proper expedition.
We set off for Sarhad e Broghil the next day at 8am in two rusty 4x4 Prado Land Cruisers although this time the suspension wasn't as good and the roads (where there were any) were in much worse condition than in Tajikistan. Our driver didn't speak English but I loved how he had decorated his car with gaudy red and gold rugs, gold temple ornaments, flowers, and even hanging grapes! At first we enjoyed his taste in local Afghan music but after we realised it was the same song on repeat it got tiresome after a few hours!
We stopped at Qazi Deh, Malang's village after an hour. He had some family business to arrange as his nephew had just died and they were arranging the funeral. We sat in his mother's house whilst we waited - a small hut with blackened walls and ceiling from the soot from the fire and a firepit in the middle.
We were given tea but after a while of sitting on the cold floor with flies buzzing around I made my escape to play with the local children outside in the sun. The village was small but pretty with lush green fields all around it and a stream running through the centre. After a while, Malang's brother and son came out with a goat and proceeded to slit its throat - turning the stream red with blood. We watched transfixed as the life poured from its neck. They then proceeded to skin it in the courtyard as the children jumped around with glee at the prospect of fresh meat for lunch.
We set off again at midday (after tasting part of the goat which seemed to be mainly organs). It was a three hour drive to Khandud to get the permits to move to the next district. Each one took a while - with the first official asking for a bribe (we declined), some questions from the military, and a checkpoint. Poor Shaker got out of the car to hand over the papers at the checkpoint only for them to be blown out of his hands by the fierce wind! He must have run about 1000m to get them back. It was another hour after that that we reached Quala-e Panja, along the river with mountains either side of us and stayed in a guesthouse for the night.
We left at 7.30am the next morning and drove for 5 hours to Sarhad e Broghil along more mountain roads and across rivers (some so high the water reached the bonnet of the car!). The village is in a beautiful setting nestled in a valley among the mountains. From here we will have to travel by foot and horseback given the lack of roads and steep and often wet terrain. Whilst Greg and Shaker went off to barter for some horses and donkeys for the next part of the journey, I had to lie down as was feeling ill. I wasn't the only one - three of us started vomiting that afternoon and three more the next day. Suffice to say we weren't in the most hygienic place and I don't think the goat helped!
I was feeling well enough however the next morning to take an acclimatisation walk with some of the group and we explored the village with Amir Beg, a local man who's age was impossible to tell but his kind eyes and friendly manner meant we liked and respected him immediately. He showed us the mill which harnessed the power of the river for churning flour and the hot baths for washing (great for cleaning my hair although smelt of sulphur!). It allowed us a rare insight in the daily lives of the people in this remote part of Afghanistan. The village was surrounded by fields of barley and vegetables, interspersed with clay houses and shepherd girls in bright red dresses.
In the afternoon I befriended two local boys - Jamal and Abdul who were so sweet, their laughs were infectious and we chased them around the village. They took my hand and led me to their home, just next to the guesthouse where I met their mother, sister and gorgeous little brother Farood. They were so excited to see our camera and take photos of themselves - it must be rare that they get to see themselves in a picture, if ever. Their father was a shepherd out in the Wakhan and I imagine their life must be simple but they seemed very content and happy, playing with the other children and drawing with chalk on the walls - a million miles away from the children in the UK with their computer games and other luxuries!
We set off just after 8am after much more commotion around the prices of horses and donkeys and how many we needed (4 riding horses, 8 horses and 7 donkeys in the end). We also had a number of horse and donkey men to help with the animals, Amir Beg, a translator Ramon, a cook Ahmed, and an assistant cook Shanbe. It was a pleasant trek through the hills and we all chatted en route, stopping for rests now and again and lunch by a clear blue lake. The terrain was easy going, with the trail being used as a trading route and by shepherds for centuries. In fact, this is the same route that Marco Polo used on his way to China in the 13th century.
A couple of hours after lunch we had our first river crossing. Each of us climbed onto a horse behind one of the locals and held on tight as the horse picked its way across the river. As the trip continued we encountered a number of these crossings - some which were deep enough to reach the top of the horses legs and we risked very wet legs! I even got to do a couple on my own as my confidence on the horse grew. As the evening drew near, we finally reached a campsite at 4200m in a clearing in the valley by a stream - perfect for the animals and cooking. Pitched our tents and had some dinner before snuggling down into our sleeping bags for the night.
We started out at 8am the next day up a steep scree slope along a narrow path as we approached the snowline. Suddenly there was the sound of falling stones behind me and a scream as my teammate Cat, who was riding that morning, careered down the slope with her horse tumbling with her. It was terrifying to watch and I felt helpless as I watched them fall, with Amir Beg and a couple of the horsemen frantically scrambling down the slope behind them. The horse must have lost its footing on the path. Luckily Cat is an experienced horsewoman and said it wasn't the worst riding accident she had had - she didn't seem concussed and recovered from the fall. The horse also escaped with just a few minor cuts and bruises on its legs. We carried on, walking higher into the snowline along rocky paths, and soon reached a pass at 4720m. From here we had a fantastic view of the surrounding peaks and a radiant blue lake below us (our next lunch stop!).
We stopped around 4 hours later in a clearing by a stream at 4200m. Quite a few people were feeling ill, either from food or a bug or perhaps the altitude. It's difficult on a trek such as this to really recover fully given the conditions. We chatted with the porters and guides about the plans for the next few days then managed to get an early night and some rest in our tents.
We set off early the next morning. The terrain was beautiful and varied, as we walked through rolling hills, across rivers and traverses on steep moraine, and over a glacier. Finally we crossed over the Showr river on horseback and camped at Witzerum for the night. There were a few stone shepherd huts here and a yurt which the locals allowed us to sleep in for a small fee. We ate yak curd with honey and Afghan rice for dinner then cosied up for the night among the elaborate rugs and pillows.
The next day continued along similar terrain, which steepened in the afternoon. It felt great to get the lungs and legs really working and kept saying "bia brim" (let's go!) to Amir Beg. Around 2pm we reached our next campsite, which was breathtaking - in a quiet valley surrounded by 6000m+ mountains, most of which Shakir and Amir Beg said were unclimbed due to their remoteness and avalanche risk. I've been reading the great climber Walter Bonnati's book in the evenings - he describes a real adventure as "isolation, the unknown... these are what test man's resource, ingenuity, and limitations". I hope to find this on the upcoming Atlantic row and then on my own mountain expedition one day, who knows perhaps somewhere in this part of the world.
We set off at 6.15am the next morning to the Showr Pass. Everyone was excited about reaching our highest point on the trek and we were in good spirits. The sun came out against the blue skies and it was great fun scrambling over rocks and up snowy paths until we finally reached the pass at 4,850m around 11am. Even the younger Afghan men wearing just their tunics and rubber shoes managed to make it up without incident! It was a magical moment reaching the top of the pass with them, many who were miles away from home and had never walked with Europeans before, and despite our cultural differences, there were hugs and handshakes all round! After numerous photos on the pass, we descended down into a valley, crossed a couple more rivers, and then walked along flat ground to a clearing to set up camp around 4pm. Ahmed and Shanbe were making bread in the cook's tent and watched them and practiced my (very bad) Afghan, managing to make a joke about eating donkey kebabs which they found hilarious! Instead we had soup, potatoes and beans and then retired to our tents around 7pm.
Awoke at 4am to the sound of one of the donkeys braying (I knew we should have made donkey kebab...) and started walking a couple of hours later. We soon came across a settlement known as Mula of yurts, goats and horses with a group of boys playing outside. They were nomadic Krygyz people, originally from Kyrgyzstan who had migrated to Afghanistan many years before. An ethnic group of around 2000 Kyrgyz nomads roam on what they call Bam-I-Dunya, or Roof of the World. They looked more Asian than our Afghan guides and dressed in decorative, brightly coloured clothes. We stopped for a while and met the old lady and her gorgeous family - a lady, two little girls and a baby, and I'm guessing some of the little boys were related too. She took my hand and led me into her yurt to show me inside, chatting away and although I had no idea what about I'm sure it was friendly! Their yurts were beautifully decorated with rugs and cushions and outside there were wooden frames erected outside on which yaks cheese was drying (I tasted some but it was so sour and salty!). However these small luxuries beguile the tough life these people lead. Due to the lack of access to medical facilities and malnutrition, the Wakhan Corridor has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (160 of every 1000 babies do not survive birth).
Our horsemen decided to leave here as the animals were getting tired and we swapped them with some horses and men from the village. Only our three guides and two cooks would carry on with us. The negotiations took some hours however (even though we had agreed a rate back in Sarhad e Broghil ) with some arguing that their animal had carried more than agreed, that they should be paid a full day for today, and even over the USD/Afghan exchange rate! Shaker, who was translating and also trying to negotiate, called them "very noisy men" and had to have a cigarette to recover after!
It was such a cold day it started to snow so we retreated into a stone hut for tea, bread and yak curd whilst we waited for the new horses to arrive. We got 11 in the end - for 1000 Afghanis (c.$10) each day, although we noted that one had an injury to its face and the other was lame in the leg, so not the best quality. I rode one of the horses most of the way over the next flat, plain section and over a deep river - it was fun to practice my riding skills and wearing no stirrups was a good workout for the thighs in the end! We came across some empty buildings en route, perhaps shepherds huts for the winter, and walked through the valley surrounded by the majestic Pamir peaks of Tajikistan and the jagged mountains of the Hindu Kush. That evening we arrived in Bechkonok at 4,100m due West of Robot to settle for the night.
The village took part in a buskashi match the next day with some of the surrounding settlements. After a couple of hours wandering around trying to find the match venue, we finally reached a huge group of 40-50 horses and riders dashing around in the dust. Buzkashi (literally "goat grabbing") is the national sport of Afghanistan where the horseriders each try to take a headless goat carcass from each other. Traditionally there is a goal so points can be scored although there is no set time limit for the game so a match can last several days. In the version we watched it was all Krygyz people who don't use a goal but just individually play for the fun of it about once a month - with the riders throwing the goat between each other, dropping it, or riding off depending how they felt! Amir Beg pointed to a rock where we could sit in (relative) safety to watch the game although a number of times the horses thundered right past us and around us which was pretty terrifying! One of the riders fell off at one point and luckily I had my first aid kit to clean and patch him up before he jumped back on his horse and joined in the game again. It was so exhilarating to watch.
We walked the next day in the rain, with the Krygyz horsemen clearly upset by the weather and grumbling that both themselves and their horses were tired after the exerting buskashi match the day before. It was a long, flat day over a plateau - broken only by the sight of a camel which looked out of place against the mountainous backdrop. Part riding and part hiking up steep rock sections, we reached the next settlement of Jerlmaset (4,300m) with a guest yurt surrounded by goats in the late afternoon.
This is Ramon's village and he was clearly delighted to see his family again. We said goodbye to the Krygyz's and switched instead to yaks and horses from Jerlmaset. The yaks were unusual, almost prehistoric, to look at but the perfect pack animal for high altitude expeditions. It can carry 100kg+ loads up to 5,500m and were happy to amble along with all our kit. I took a ride on one after lunch which the Afghan guides found hilarious - each taking another yak and pretending to play "yak buskashi" with me - with Ahmad hitting mine to go faster, then being catapulted off his own! They were a lot more difficult to control than the horses and we were soon left behind the others as they refused to take instruction and ambled into the nearby river. I was screaming as the others fell about in hysterics then Ahmed and Shaker finally pulled my yak back onto dry land!
As the ground steepened we were forced off the animals and trekked over stony exposed paths with breathtaking views. We went over a suspension bridge and reached a camp spot nestled in the hills by a stream at 3,550m. Another meal of soup and Afghan rice, but Greg cheered us all up by discovering some macaroons in a kit bag which had remained hidden all the way from Dushanbe - a small luxury!
We spent the next two days hiking out of the Pamirs. The terrain continued in much the same way - over undulating dusty paths through valleys and over rocky passes and flowing rivers. We seldom saw other people, just a handful of shepherds, and I felt very remote among the grand yet barren landscape of the Pamirs. On the afternoon of the second day the path began to descend and we reached a small village where we stopped in a guesthouse for lunch - it was great to finally have fresh vegetables again, picked fresh from their garden. We divided the leftover food between the remaining porters, with a mad grab for the most coveted items! Most of the porters as well as Shanbe and Amir Beg then left us to return to Sarhad e Broghil. It was a fond farewell as we said thank you for all they had done for us over the trip.
We drove on in four local cars (Toyota Carolas) to Quala-e Panja which was a pretty hairy journey in itself over unmarked roads and steep paths. At one point two of the cards got caught in sticky mud and it took a lot of pushing and shoving to get them out! We stayed for the night in a guesthouse then continued our journey to Ishkashim the next day in the Toyotas. I was driven by Malang's son who although a competent driver didn't look much older than 15! The whole journey was a bit like wacky races off-roading in the dust and rocks and through streams. All the cars broke down at one point apart from ours - from blown tyres to overheating engines and we had a couple of near misses overtaking each other! We finally got to Ishkashim in one piece around 2pm (with one group hitching a ride when their car finally broke down for good). A quick bit of lunch and shopping, haggling over the brightly coloured scarves and Afghan hats in the local bazaar, and then we set off towards the border.
The guards on the border were pleased to see us again, shaking our hands vigorously, asking us about our experiences and posing for even more photos. We said goodbye to Malang and the other guides and made our way over the border into the comparatively luxury of the Tajik Toyota Prado 4x4s waiting for us with Yusaf on the other side. It was amazing to drive with leg space, air conditioning and flat roads again, but this paled in comparison to the feeling of my first hot shower at the guesthouse in Khorog! A night of relaxation then we made our way back to Dushanbe again via Kalaikum.
The three weeks were an amazing cultural experience and I feel blessed to have spent time in such remote and breathtaking surroundings with a great group of fellow travellers. The opinion I had of Afghanistan is no longer the one of terror and violence we so often see on the news, but I know now there are parts of this country that are peaceful and beautiful, filled with kind and welcoming people. One day I hope I may return here to deepen my understanding and explore the mountains and valleys of this unique country even further - Inshallah!
This trip was organised by Secret Compass, an independent expedition company that provides adventures in some of the most remote and undiscovered locations in the world. To find out more about their extraordinary expeditions click here.