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NORTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN

MAZAR-E SHARIF &

168 BADAKHSHAN •• Wakhan & The Afghan Pamir

ranges converge in the Afghan Pamir, known in Persian as the Bam-e Dunya (‘roof of the world’). Pamir, U-shaped, high-elevation valleys with lush seasonal meadows and vivid blue lakes, are renowned as summer grazing grounds, but lie snow-covered for more than six months of the year. The Af- ghan Pamir includes two such grasslands – the Big Pamir and the Little Pamir. Only occasional clusters of shrubs or willow, birch and other small trees break the vast landscape. A vital branch of the Silk Road flowed

The Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Pamir

through Wakhan. Petroglyphs depicting warriors, hunting scenes, caravans and Buddhist history, along with the occasional rabot (travellers’ shelter), bear silent witness to the tracks of tradition, and the rich herit- age that once traversed remote Wakhan. Trekking is by far the most popular way to experience the natural beauty and cultural diversity of Wakhan, and the only way to visit the roadless Afghan Pamir.

Practicalities

PERMISSION

Permission is required for travel anywhere in Wakhan District. A separate trekking permit is not required. The process for getting permission

changes with some regularity, so cover all your bases. Firstly, in Kabul contact the ATO ( p86 ), who can liaise with govern- ment ministries and issue a letter for you to present at government offices in Faiza- bad and Ishkashim. Second, in Faizabad

contact Engineer Mohammad Deen (x079 9418

060) at the government’s tourist information centre who issues a letter for authorities in Ishkashim. Third, in Ishkashim go to the Border Security Force and the police. The Border Security Force’s commander, currently Mir Abdul Wahid Khan, issues another letter of permission to visit Wa- khan (and the Afghan Pamir if you want to visit the Big Pamir and/or Little Pamir). He may or may not issue a letter without other letters from Kabul and/or Faizabad. The police in Ishkashim can radio permis- sion to police posts up-valley, although this system is prone to technical breakdowns. You may be asked to show the letter(s) at various places, but most certainly at the checkpost in Qila-e Panja and in Sarhad-e

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Broghil. If you don’t have permission, you’ll be sent back to Ishkashim.

WHEN TO GO

May to September is the optimal trekking season. Snowmelt in July and early August, however, swells rivers whose high water can block the sole road. By mid-August, it becomes easier to drive through the rivers. Infamously fierce winds known as bad-e Wakhan blow year round, fuelling dust storms. It can snow any month of the year in the Afghan Pamir and by mid-September passes can close.

GUIDES & PORTERS

Wakhan has no fully qualified guides, al- though handfuls of young men are receiv- ing training in basic mountaineering skills, trek operations, cooking, and English. The daily wage for someone with some training starts at 500Afg. Hiring a local person with their pack ani- mal (donkey, horse, yak or camel) to trans- port your gear, help with river crossings, and show the way is the best approach. Villages have a rotational system to equitably assign work. The daily rate in the Afghan Pamir has been fixed at 800Afg, and Noshaq Base Camp at 1000Afg, although it may be pos- sible to negotiate. For some treks, it can be more cost effective to buy an animal (eg a donkey costs between US$150 and US$200), manage it yourself, and sell it afterwards. Distances in the Afghan Pamir are vast, so you’ll likely want to hop a ride during part of your trek. Yaks transport gear and are use- ful for crossing rivers. Horses are also good mounts on trails, but not on snow. Donkeys are study, but cannot cross deep or swift riv- ers, and often struggle on passes. In winter when rivers are frozen solid, it’s possible to move on the ice in traditional caravans of Bactrian camels. In Kyrgyz areas, it’s common to travel on

horseback and you’ll likely be asked to hire a Kyrgyz while traversing these areas. Consider retaining a Wakhi person, however, as Kyrgyz people sometimes don’t want to travel as far from their homesteads as you may want to go. It’s usual for Kyrgyz to ride horses rather than walk, but it’s not generally expected for you to pay additional charges for horses they ride. It’s also acceptable to pay a proportion of the daily wage for part-days worked.

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BADAKHSHAN •• Wakhan & The Afghan Pamir 169

SLEEPING & EATING

Although village leaders traditionally ex- tend hospitality to guests, travellers should not rely on such generosity in an impov- erished society. Minimise your impact by bringing a sleeping bag and tent, and as much food as possible. The local diet of bread and tea, with occasional rice, dairy and meat, is unlikely to be sufficient for most foreign trekkers. Villages have little or no excess food to sell, so plan to cache some food for after your trek. Most Kyrgyz camps will have a mehman

khana (guesthouse) or guest yurt, primarily used by local traders. They too welcome anyone to stay and may provide blankets, but these communal sleeping areas aren’t appropriate for women and frequently have vermin.

Hot springs with bath houses at Shelk,

Sargez and Sarhad-e Broghil, and a few hot springs in the Afghan Pamir (in Alisu and near Chaqmaqtin) provide the only hot water for bathing. Tourism infrastructure in Wakhan is de-

veloping quickly. Newly built guesthouses (with dorms and private rooms) and camp- ing grounds are in Qazideh, Khandud, Goz Khun, Qila-e Panja and Sarhad-e Broghil. Initially priced for NGO employees rather than tourists, competition is now bringing prices down to about 500Afg per night. Be prepared for tough negotiations. A fee of 100Afg per tent is appropriate for pitch- ing your tent in village camping grounds. Elsewhere there is no camping fee.

WHAT TO BRING

Self-reliance is essential, so bring all the cooking and camping gear you need. Lim- ited food (eg rice, flour, lentils, potatoes, onions, tea, sugar, cooking oil, spices, etc) and supplies (eg stove, pressure cooker, cooking pots, utensils, toilet paper, matches, etc) are available in Faizabad, Baharak and, minimally so, in Ishkashim and Khandud. Kerosene, used for aviation fuel, is avail- able only in Kabul and Faizabad. Propane gas in 5kg cylinders is available in Faizabad and Ishkashim. Sheep and goats are readily purchased from herders.

Getting There & Away

Allow two days to drive the 200km-long road between Ishkashim and Sarhad-e

Brog-hil, stopping overnight in Khandud or Qila-e Panja. Special hires cost US$100 per day. Drivers may try to charge for extra days by driving too slowly or because of vehicle breakdowns. Hire an experienced driver with a 4WD who has previously been to Wakhan and knows how to drive through rivers. Don’t hire a Toyota Town-Ace if you’re going beyond Khandud. High water, particularly in Ish Murg, may force an overnight in Khandud and can block the road anywhere beyond Khandud. Be prepared to leave the vehicle and travel onwards by foot or horse- back at any time.

Lower Wakhan

More than 5000m of vertical relief com- mands the southern horizon of Lower Wak- han, the villages between Ishkashim and Qila-e Panja, where the valley is only 2km across at its widest point. Snowcapped peaks soar majestically above villages and glaciers descend precipitously to feed the Panj River in this land of immense scale. Afghan urial and ibex thrive in numerous steep and arid side valleys.

QAZIDEH

Qazideh is 20km and less than one hour’s drive from Ishkashim. Qazideh Campsite, in the shaded garden of Pir Shah Langar, offers a pleasant, spacious and secure com- pound to pitch tents. A nearby building provides a safe place for expeditions to store gear. Close by is Madam Bar’s house, a sev- eral-hundred-year-old home that is a living museum of traditional Wakhi culture.

NOSHAQ BASE CAMP

The base camp of Noshaq (7492m), Af- ghanistan’s highest summit and the second highest peak in the Hindu Kush, is one of Wakhan’s best and most easily accessible treks. Trekking to base camp (4450m) is the only way to see Noshaq, which is hidden from view up a narrow side valley. From the trailhead at Qazideh (2800m), the moder- ate five-day, round-trip trek unveils superb close-up views of four 7000m peaks.

KHANDUD

Khandud, 82km from Ishkashim, is Wa- khan District’s headquarters, with a police post and government offices. The bazaar is

NORTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN

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