When most people think of Afghanistan, they don’t normally consider going on a trek there. In fact, since the allied invasion ten years ago we have heard very little from the region except stories of violence and bloodshed. But there is hope. Levison Wood explains his reasons for visiting the Majestic Wakhan Corridor, one of the most remote valleys in the world.
As the sun rises over the snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains, Abdul, a local school teacher and volunteer guide points out a mud shack that sits on the edge of the Oxus river. “This is the only school in the area,” says the smiling 27-year old- an old. “We teach the local children all the subjects. They especially like history.”
It isn’t surprising when you think that this beautiful and remote valley has been host to some of Asia’s most important developments for over 2000 years. Alexander the Great entered the Wakhan Corridor in his conquest of the unknown world in 326 BC; Marco Polo trekked here on his mission to reach China in the 13th century; and the Pamir knot (as the convergence of the Hindu Kush, the Pamir mountains and the Himalayas is known) was the scene of great exploration and political intrigue during the days of the Great Game in the 19th century.
Abdul leads the way along a boulder-strewn valley, covered with high green grass and buttercups, where Yaks munch contentedly, watched over by their nomadic keepers. An antique mud fort clings to a cliff top reminding the visitor of his ancient predecessors. Further up, as the mountains loom large and the river is reduced to a narrow torrent, toothless herdsmen grin from their Mongolian-style Yurts and give a friendly wave. There is no violence here. The Wakhan Corridor is so remote that it was almost completely ignored in the 20th century. The Russian Army barely bothered with the region and the Taliban has never been here. Ten years of war in Afghanistan might as well be a million miles away. For the local nomads, their valley is virtually an autonomous region, ethnically, linguistically and even religiously distinct from the rest of the country. Their only problems are economic isolation and lack of education and healthcare.
For the past three or four years, the first intrepid adventurers have been enjoying the pristine remoteness of the Wakhan and the generous hospitality of the Wakhi and Kirgiz tribesmen. For the first time in over 30 years, Afghanistan is open to tourists and a trek to the Wakhan is fast becoming the ultimate in remote expeditionary travel. David James, a former British Officer came here in 2009 determined to make a difference. He founded the charity Mountain Unity to support the growth of tourism in the region. “There would be no peace in the country until Afghans have other methods of generating income other than narcotics, corruption, and insurgency,” he said.
He is not alone. Greg Mortenson, the mountaineer and bestselling American author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools has been setting up schools in the Wakhan for the past 15 years after falling in love with the place and the people. More and more travellers are taking advantage of the improved access and peace to be one of the few people to explore the remote area before the tourist hordes arrive to the levels before the civil war. Mountaineers, climbers and ordinary hikers are all allured by the prospect of an untouched mountain paradise in an enigmatic destination.
A trek in the Wakhan takes in not only some of the most incredible and untouched mountain scenery in the world but also offers a chance to visit Lake Zorkul, one of the famed sources of the Amu Darya or Oxus River. Sitting at over 4,000 metres it is a testament to its local name- the roof of the world. Travellers might also witness some of the majestic wildlife- brown bear, wolves, Marco Polo sheep and even snow leopards that inhabit the crags and peaks. Furthermore, visitors can rest assured that their dollars and pounds are really helping out and injecting some much needed currency into the local economy and encouraging development in this long forgotten land. Abdul stops on a hillock that looks back down the breathtaking valley and smiles. “We don’t want sympathy; we just want to share this wonderful place with new visitors.”
Levison Wood is a former British Army Officer and has worked and travelled in Afghanistan over the past seven years. He currently runs the pioneering expeditionary service Secret Compass and plans to lead a team into the Wakhan in July 2011. He is currently seeking volunteers to join the expedition.
For more information see www.secretcompass.com