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The Wakhan Corridor

Alick Warburton

I wake for breakfast as I had any other morning this past week, but today I am dining alone, here in the small frontier village of Eshkashem in north-eastern Afghanistan. At the conclusion of my tour of central Asia by foot and 40 year old Soviet motorcycle – a Ural – last summer, I resolved to trek Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor. It would provide a fitting climax to my travels before committing myself to another claustrophobic cubicle in a soulless office.

For two weeks I have walked, eaten and slept with the local Wakhi. From village to village; from shepherd’s hut to Kyrgyz yurt, I have crossed turbulent rivers and snow-filled plateaus until I reached the Little Pamir, being treated to incredulous, yet unwavering hospitality every step of the way.

I had met two couples at my Eshkashem guesthouse and we all meet again at the dusty, dysfunctional border the next morning, eager to make our way back across over the Panj river. But, by 4pm there is still no crossing and have been told numerous stories by the Afghani border officials to explain Tajikistan’s motives behind spontaneously closing all of its borders to Afghanistan for the next three weeks.

Contact with the embassies in Dushanbe is difficult and five days pass and I am alone. I subject myself daily to the apologetic voices of consulate employees, breaking up while I perch on the guesthouse roof searching for some cellular connection. With dwindling cash reserves and an expired Afghan and a soon to be Tajik visa, my options are limited so I make the decision to exit Afghanistan by my own means. Which is exactly how I got here.

Only two roads connect Eshkashem to Kabul. One runs through the notorious Warduj district of Badakhshan, which is closed to foreigners due to heavy Taliban fighting. The other is a high mountain pass through Shiwa lake district and has only occasional Taliban arriving from both Warduj and Kunduz. At least that’s what I’ve been told. Both roads then converge again in the relatively safe village of Baharak, a short distance upstream of Fayzabad on the Kokcha river.

I pack my bags and fasten them to my motorcycle before paying the daily bill and thanking my host Juma for his hospitality. I leave through the fortified guesthouse gates and pass through the bazaar saying my goodbyes to befriended shop-keepers, knowing that I won’t be returning. It is with some sadness that I follow the hot and dusty road down to Shughnan. Although it is liberating to finally leave Eshkashem behind, I really feel the invisible confines of my predicament when I spot a tourist vehicle or cycle tourer across the river in Tajikistan. The gravity begins to bear down on me. I make a mental note of places along the river where I could perhaps swim across with my pack. Deep down, I know this is a fruitless thought – something to keep my mind occupied.

Arriving in Shughnan six hours later in the soft afternoon light, I pass twice through the bazaar, never escaping first gear, locals eyeing me curiously as I search for a guesthouse. One approaches and offers to show me the way and I obligingly follow him into what turns out to be the police headquarters. I tell my story while the cops flick through my passport taking little notice of my expired visa but questioning everything else. Little progress is made, stymied by our fumbling Persian and English, and so I wait for their superior to arrive to give me permission to cross the Shiwa lake district.

Thankfully, a local Aga Khan worker called Amir-Mohammed is invited to translate our now largely mimed conversation. Amir warns that although riding is possible, not alone, as many farmers will attempt to stop and rob a solo traveller. Over a round of chai and nan we come up with a plan to present to the Police Chief for his approval. It would have me riding in convoy for safety with one of the two daily shared taxis to Baharak. But, by 5pm there’s no sign of him, so I’m instructed to come again early the next morning before an officer shows me the way to the actual guesthouse.

For two weeks I have walked, eaten and slept with the local Wakhi. From village to village; from shepherd’s hut to Kyrgyz yurt, I have crossed turbulent rivers and snow-filled plateaus until I reached the Little Pamir, being treated to incredulous, yet unwavering hospitality every step of the way.
Badakhshan PanoramaTrek Along the Whakan CorridorTrek Along the Whakan Corridor
This is real adventure, I think to myself, not knowing what will take place or what will even be the outcome of today. The dusty, gnarly road winds its way up through small villages, all of stone and mud construction, with children playing and then disappearing into long, rustling strands of wheat as I pass by.
The next morning, I make my way back to the station, but the Chief is still nowhere to be found. Last month there was an attack in which government workers were killed, I am told. The last week or so has been peaceful, but there is no news today. I walk back through the bazaar to the taxi rank – the next taxi leaves today at midday.

I pull the curtain back and follow the mountain road as far as I can with my eyes. Should I leave today or wait for the first taxi at 6am tomorrow? What if the road is trouble free today but not tomorrow? What if it isn’t today but it is tomorrow? I decide then and there I to leave now, alone. If there is to be a checkpoint I’m no safer with the taxi and the farmers? Well I will just see for myself.

I check the ancient motorcycle, tightening loose items, checking fluids, filling where necessary. Mostly, it’s about confidence – the last thing I need is some inexplicable mechanical failure somewhere along the way. I secure my bags, my backpack on top and an army satchel that I have fastened to one side which carries my spares and tools.

I push the 230kg machine down the drive and, with one simple kick after a tickle of the carburettors, it comes to life. I fill the tank and get moving. My progress is halted quickly. When I arrive at the junction for the mountain road, I’m motioned to stop by an army officer and quickly confronted by three more insisting I accompany them into the barracks. Of course, I reluctantly agree and begin to move off the road to allow the traffic behind me to move. As I do, a young officer quickly advances raising his Kalashnikov to shoulder level, directing the muzzle into my face.

I am escorted into the barracks – a prize to be shown-off – being led into what I assume to be the commander’s office. I’m confronted with military men of varying ranks and my presence is acknowledged not by the customary ‘As-salamu alaykum’ but instead by silent scrutiny. An officer translates my border experiences of the past week and my plans to ride to Baharak. He takes my passport, his face expressionless.

‘It’s impossible,’ the Commander barks through his translator, ‘Shiwa is too dangerous for a tourist, they’ll cut your head off.’

‘What else can I do?’ I blurt, consumed by ill-advised frustration. ‘Swim across the river?’ The subdued answer is as laconic as it is obvious, ‘Of course not, you will be shot. Yes, you do indeed have a problem.’

With no solution being offered, I take my passport and leave without a word. I’m neither stopped at the gate nor when I swing one leg over my travel companion, and after one kick we are away up the mountain. I deliberately leave my frustration with the clouds of dust in my wake.

This is real adventure, I think to myself, not knowing what will take place or what will even be the outcome of today. The dusty, gnarly road winds its way up through small villages, all of stone and mud construction, with children playing and then disappearing into long, rustling strands of wheat as I pass by. The higher we climb into the chilled mountain air, the quieter the road becomes. When I come to a junction in the road with an equal amount of traffic going off in each direction, and having no maps for the area, I’m at a loss for what to do, other than to take another gamble.

I spot a group of people walking the road off into the distance – are they farmers? Could they be someone else patrolling the road? Turning right and confronting the group head on for directions, I see that they are in fact shepherds and other than being a little bewildered at being the confronted by me, they point towards Baharak. With a chill in my spine, I recall Amir’s instructions from the day before, ‘It’s four hours to Khajawin pass, then it will be another two more hours in the Taliban problem area.’

Arrival in BaharakTrek Along the Whakan Corridor
It’s now just after midday, making it two hours since leaving Shughnan as I crest the top of the pass. I take a moment to drink in the landscape that has unravelled before me – the Hindu Kush to the left, Shiwa Lake’s turquoise beauty and the barren mountainous route I will be riding through up ahead. Reasoning that if it has taken only half the time to arrive here then the problem area by all accounts should only take half the time too, one hour. I leave the pass behind wondering what’s awaiting me as I ride deeper into rural Afghanistan.

The narrow, switchback road traverses the mountain side with hairpin corners concealing anything that may lie beyond them. Looking ahead for checkpoints is impossible. With the realisation that the day’s events are far from being in my control, I continue on as I have for any other day this summer and try to enjoy the ride. Descending into the valley, my feet are numb as I guide the Ural over the large cobbles to the other side.

I see a small kiosk beside the road and, in my broken Persian, ask the father and son operating it if there are problems up ahead. They enthusiastically reply pointing in the same direction and reassuring me all is well. I keep in that direction crossing another pass which gives way to seemingly everlasting fields of wheat, parched from the long summer’s sun.

I pass through many small farming communities and, yielding to Amir’s warnings, I reluctantly refuse to stop when yells go out, arms motioning me to with tea cups raised as a gesture of welcome and of peace. Any other day, I would gladly stop, but not today as my thoughts are occupied with just getting through the journey.

Eventually, I pass a German-funded school and feel I can relax. With the drop in altitude I now take the full force of the sun’s searing oppression and find a place to rest on a small ridge at the conclusion of this majestic valley. I rehydrate, marvelling at the peacefulness and the quiet sounds of its inhabitants going about their rural daily lives.

Hours pass as I cross a long, wide plateau passing more farmers with livestock and gnarled faces, stopping only momentarily before beginning a steep descent to the valley floor far below. Through the haze in the distance, I make out settlements and reckon it to be Baharak.

Following the twists and turns downwards, I arrive on the outskirts of a large village. Entering the narrow lanes alone, villagers cease their daily chores and are transfixed by this foreign vision, my excited travel party perpetually increasing in size behind me.

When I finally halt, I am surrounded by 60 locals of all ages. Their faces offer nothing but curiosity, kindness and a jubilant welcome to their village. That evening, resting in my place at the chaikhana, I watch its many patrons; listening, nodding and commenting while the manager tells and re-tells my story throughout the evening. I fall back, head resting on my pack closing my eyes for sleep to come, resting for tomorrow’s ride.

Alick Warburton

Alick Warburton grew up on the outskirts of a small town in the South Island of New Zea-land. He made up his own adventures as he spent most weekends on an old trail bike around the hills. One summer in 2006, between working, he travelled around Eastern Europe learning what freedom was all about. He then became set on travelling across Asia for six months, but six became 18 covering as he covered over 18,000km through 12 countries by motorcycle.

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