What comes to mind when you think of Afghanistan? War? Terrorism? Osama Bin Laden? Mother of All Bombs?
Of course, much of Afghanistan is still dangerous – but there is also an incredible amount of beauty, hospitality and kindness in this country that is not reported.
It’s far too easy to slander or wipe out an entire country when you don’t need to look at those people. People with the same hopes and dreams as you – to survive, find happiness, and fulfill their family’s needs.
I was able to experience the positive side of Afghanistan and its extraordinary people, up close and personal, during my trip there last summer. From then on it became the most memorable travel adventure for me.
Here are some photos of people & my favorite sights from my backpacking trip 100 miles to the remote Wakhan Corridor and mountains in Afghanistan.
Wakhan is a rocky and wild area in Northeast Afghanistan, part of the Badakhshan Province. It is a narrow plot of land, about 400 km long, surrounded by Tajikistan, China and Pakistan on three sides.
Two large mountains dominate the region, the Pamir in the North, and the Hindu Kush in the South. The Wakhan Corridor was created by politicians in the 1800s during the “Big Game” in an attempt to leave the buffer zone between India, England and the Russian empire.
Passing By Yak
Traveling on foot with my backpack, I managed to take a yak ride for some routes. We met a group of Wakhi who led their yak through the mountains. While they stopped for tea, they let us borrow their yak, which we carried further into the valley until the owner followed us later.
4 × 4 in Afghanistan, able to climb steep rocky terrain and power through cold ice rivers. There are no trees above 10,000 feet, so locals are forced to travel for 3 days to reduce their height with animals to collect firewood to cook and warm the body.
Ancient Silk Road
Wakhan was once part of the ancient silk road, an important trade route that connected China to Europe. Along with silk, horses and other items, it is also a highway for soldiers and explorers. Explorers like Marco Polo who are believed to have passed here during the 13th century.
Crossing steep mountain slopes and remote highlands, passing yak caravans and donkeys filled with goods, spending the night in a rock shelter with traveling merchants – I feel like seeing a glimpse of what the silk road was like years ago.
Many faces of Islam
Like many different Christian branches, there are many different branches of Islam, all with their own beliefs and values. Many people living in the Afghan Wakhan Corridor are Ismaili Muslims, who practice a form of moderate Islam. They number 25 million worldwide, and hate the Taliban.
Their spiritual leader is Aga Khan, a successful British businessman and Imam who runs the Aga Khan Development Network, a very important charitable organization that improves living conditions and opportunities for the poor in Africa and Central Asia.
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Wild Blue Rivers
The Wakhan River flows through the Wakhan Corridor, fed by high Hindu Kush mountains on the border with Pakistan. Snakes break through the mountains and are the main lifeline for people who live in this hard and unforgiving landscape.
The bright blue color of this water is due to the reddish color of the surrounding rock formations, and the clear source (glacier). Water molecules absorb other colors, like red, more efficiently than blue.
Epic Mountain View
When the weather is sunny, I am rewarded with incredible mountain views like this! The trail is obsolete, because it is used every day by a small group of locals who travel in yak caravans or donkeys from settlements to settlements.
10-day trips range from 10,000 to 16,000 feet, and we travel an average of 10 miles per day. I began to feel the effect of the height on my body around 12,000 feet with short breaths. At 16,000 feet hiking becomes more tiring and difficult.
Kyrgyz people in semi-nomadic Afghanistan, moving from valley to valley herded their cattle into different pastures depending on the season. They live in comfortable yurts made of fleece, which can be broken down and transported over long distances.
Each settlement consists of 2-3 families who live and work together. Originating from the area around Kyrgyzstan, their ancestors were trapped somewhat in Wakhan after the Soviets took over Central Asia, forcibly settled nomadic tribes, and closed the silk road.
Salted Milk Tea
Both Wakhi and Kyrgyz drink large amounts of salted milk tea, called Sheer Chai. Served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Basically, this is a mixture of yak and goat’s milk, boiled for hours and dried into a portable block. It was prepared by adding boiling water, loose tea, and rock salt.
Salt is very good for high-altitude & dry rehydration – I call it my Afghan Gatorade. It takes time to get used to (is there hot salty milk?), But at the end of the adventure my body really wants mere chai for every meal. You can also dissolve raw butter into tea at breakfast for extra calories.
Towards the end of my second day on the trail, we climbed past a set of ancient petroglyphs depicted on large dark stones overlooking the valley. My local guide, Yar, cannot tell me much about them, besides they think that these signs are several thousand years old.
They described the hunting scene, people armed with what looked like a bow, as well as big games like ibex and rare Marco Polo sheep. This is just one of the many petroglyphs that meet the scenery in this mountain. They are considered to mark the place of ancient hunting claimed by various tribes.
This simple 3-room school in the remote village of Bozai Gumbaz in Afghanistan was built by Greg Mortenson and his Central Asian Institute. You may have heard of Greg before, he is the author of the best-selling novel Three Cups Of Tea, about building schools for girls in Pakistan.
The school in Bozai Gumbaz, where I spend the night playing cards with Afghan army soldiers, stands out in book 2, Stones To Schools. The next morning a group of boys appeared with donkeys for class. I saw many CAI schools along the way from Eshkashim to Sarhad-e Broghil.
Camping in Afghanistan
As a big fan of nature, one of the highlights of this trip is the opportunity to camp in the mountains of Afghanistan. Almost every night we can stay in small Wakhi or Kyrgyzstan settlements in basic guest lodges, but we also camp in tents a few nights too.
Usually I am the type of hammock camping, but because I know there will be no trees for most of this trip, I pack my super lightweight Tent Nemo Hornet 2P. Snowed several times during the trip – in August!
I am continually welcomed with your salāʿalaykum which means “peace with you”. The shorter version of this is only salām. Shaking hands is normal, and so is putting your hand in your heart, which means your words come from the heart.
Another important term that I used during my trip was taschakor, which means thank you. I always recommend trying to learn the 10 most used words in the local language before traveling there. In Wakhan Afghanistan, most people speak Dari (Farsi) along with local dialects.
Women in Afghanistan
Many people ask if I see women in Afghanistan. Yes I saw women during my trip, but most were very shy, especially if I had my camera. Plus in their culture, talking to foreign men is taboo. But photographing men or children is not a problem.
Near the border city of Sultan Eshkashim, with a large Sunni population, many women wear long blue burqas that cover their faces. In more rural areas in Wakhan, it’s not too tight. Women wear long colorful dresses with simple hijabs. I can greet and see their faces.
Temples & Graves
I found some ancient tombs during my time exploring the Wakhan Corridor. Near Bozai Gumbaz’s Afghan military post, there is a strange collection of Kyrgyz beehive tombs, along with evidence of Soviet bombings (craters, fragments of bomb) from occupation in the 1980s.
In the Langar settlement, we found a pile of ibex horns that marked the burial place of a big, strong man. In Afghanistan, rich & powerful people are often called “big people”. It’s like calling someone “boss.” The more animals, land, and wives you have, the “bigger” you are and the more influential you are.
Before I started 10 days, 100 miles traveled through the mountains, I had to rent a 4×4 van to take me to the last village at the end of the road. We passed a number of military checkpoints along the way, stopping to drink tea & sweets with officials before continuing.
The trip takes 2 days, and the roads are the worst I’ve ever seen. Dust seeps into the vehicle, covering us with dirt. We crossed the river, drove along the edge of a steep cliff, and were often stopped by a large herd of goats blocking the road. Van suffered 6 flat tires during the trip.
When I entered Afghanistan alone, I decided to hire local translators / guides and horsemen to accompany me on my way to the mountains. It will be very difficult to communicate with other people without their help. We spent a few nights at Wakhi settlement during the hike.
Wakhi house is basically a stone hut with a ground floor, built using manure for cement. The roof is made of logs, grass, and more manure to keep it waterproof. Some shelters have stoves inside, others only have fire pits. Either way it’s quite smoky inside with fire …
Life in Wakhan is difficult, especially for children. About 60% of children here die before the age of five, the highest infant mortality rate in the world. If they survive, they work to help the family business – grazing animals.
There are several schools here, thanks to the Central Asia Institute, but it’s up to parents if they leave. In some communities, only boys are sent to school. Morning trips can take several hours with donkeys due to lack of roads and distances between settlements.
Wildlife in Afghanistan
I really hope to see snow leopards or sheep Marco Polo when I travel through the mountains in the Afghan Wakhan Corridor. You know, Walter Mitty style! Unfortunately these two rare animals are very difficult to recognize – but I did find a camel!
Fortunately, the Wildlife Conservation Society has staff in the area, often spending weeks in the field collecting data to protect wildlife in Wakhan. They estimate that there are around 100-200 snow leopards living in these mountains. Wolves and bears also call this house a wilderness.
So that’s how it is. Peek at the other side of Afghanistan that we have never seen on the evening news. After traveling the world for the past 6 years, I have noticed this is a general theme.
Don’t let our media, which primarily focus on negative & sensational topics, be your only window into the dynamics of foreign countries that you have never visited.
I will not tell you that Afghanistan is safe. Not this one. Our troops who have served there can notify you. The Afghan people themselves are very aware of the dangers that are plaguing their country too.
But I think there is another side to Afghanistan that deserves attention. Sturdy and beautiful mountain landscape. Friendly and friendly local people.
I look forward to the day when Afghanistan’s problems fade, and more adventure travelers can safely enjoy the beauty this extraordinary country has to offer. ★