A River Apart: a Journey along the Afghan Border

We had been warned not to visit the Wakhan, the valley separating Afghanistan and Tajikistan. 

“The German government just released the highest possible warning against travelling there,” a father-son duo told us before we left Murghab. 

To reach the Wakhan, there is one road; a left turn from the Pamir Highway, the second highest in the world. As we approached the dusty track, a soldier stood at the corner, waving a piece of black fabric above his head. He’s going to tell us it isn’t safe to drive here. There’s been an attack. The valley is one of the main heroin trafficking routes in the world and we had heard that shoot-outs are common.

Dressed in kakhis, the soldier peered through the car window: “Wakhan, da?”. 

His white teeth shone against his skin, tanned by months of being outside. 

He was just looking for a ride. 

The road’s first 20 miles were bumpy: wash-board, rocks, gravel, holes. Our soldier shouted over thunderous noise from the backseat as the subaru lurched up the dusty tracks. He made up for our lack of Russian with volume and handgestures: “Sabaca ragh ragh,” he yelled, pointing to Leila and the white hares with long black-tipped ears darting through the boulders. Food is in short supply in the Wakhan. 

The sun painted pastel hues over the mountains as we arrived at the military checkpoint. At the feet of the layered peaks, the Panj river twisted through grassland, marking the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. 

Our soldier insisted we stay with two female shepards in their home next to the military barracks. The house had white-washed walls and was missing parts of its corregated roof. Behind the peeling blue door, animal skin lay on the floor of the bare room. Rusted tins lined a shelf by the only window above a bucket of yak dung standing beside a black hearth in the corner, providing armour against outside’s bitter cold. Either side of a low wooden table were two single beds upon which we were ushered to sit down, their springs digging into our spines.

We had almost forced down the tinned fish, expired decades earlier, and endless chunks of bread when our army man barged in, accompanied by another baby-faced soldier carrying a large gun, and told us to come. 

Three nervy dogs followed us as we stumbled up the path to their barracks in the torch light. The night was black, sprayed with bright stars. An occassional silhouette in the darkness suggested we were now inside the barrack’s barbed wire fences. 

The soldiers led us through leaking corridors into a warm room filled with bunk beds. Guiloteneed music videos played on the broken TV screen, uniform hung from the hooks behind the door, and a strange smell eminated from a pan bubbling on the stove. We were invited to eat with the soldiers. The food was grim, meat soup with an inch of oil floating on the top, but the warmth of the fire and people melted any fear.

Our soldier

Not so long ago, in the 19th century, the Wakhan was a contested area running from Pakistan’s white peaks through Afghanistan to Tajikistan, marking the edges of the Russian Empire. At this time, a political and diplomatic contest between the British and Russians played out on the low valleys and hillsides, a prologue to the cold war, as both sides feared the Asian influence of the other. 

Spies and distrust were vacant as we drove through the valley in the cold morning. We followed the river as it carved through rippled sandy cliffs backdropped by glossy white mountains. The landscape was barren. We saw no one but shepards tending to their goats, sheeps and camals on both sides of the water during the first sixty kilometers.

With each curve of the river, the landscape transformed: fertile plateaus appeared on the dusty horizon, austere yellow rock merged into green farmland, trees flanked the road, and village life unfolded upon the valley’s steep sides. Soon, we began to see people once more: men wearing embroided flat hats nodded to us as we passed whilst children chased the car, shouting “hello”. 

The Afghan Mountains

September in the Wakhan is magical. Autumn brings golden leaves and the harvest. As the villages have poor transport links and are miles away from cities, residents rely on their harvest to survive. Every year, villagers work in the fields for three weeks: sieving wheat, hurling corn into the air with wooden spades, piling trailors sky-scraper high and using techniques long forgotten in the west. As the sun set, they enjoyed vodka and fruits amongst the grass and loaded their donkeys with crunching loads before returning home. 

Villagers working in the fields

The same scenes repeated themselves on the otherside of the river as we continued along the road through fields and around cliff edges. At times, the gushing water narrowed to just a few metres: separating us by an actual stone’s throw from Afghanistan. Afghanistan. A country painted bleak by headlines; its people tarnished by fear of terrorism. Although the Wakhan Corridor escaped the war, simply the country’s name is enough to keep most people away. 

An Afghan village on the otherside of the Panj River

Peaceful life is reflected in the river on both sides: calm villages, school children in shirts and ties return home, the girls with giant white hair ties bobbing above their heads; animals graze on the flatlands, oblivious to the border at their feet, and shepards wave at us from both sides of the river. The similarities flow along the water with only one tangible difference: on the right, the one-storey mud houses are white-washed with blue window frames. On the left, the brown hand-shapen bricks are bare. On the right, life in Tajikistan reflects in the river. On the left, Afghanistan’s mirror image. The same, yet a river apart.