Against All Advice: Afghanistan
Against the wishes of family and friends, Zane and Todd entered northern Afghanistan from Tajikistan and spent a few days exploring Ishkashim and the Wakhan Corridor by motorbike.
Whilst there we discovered a fascinating and friendly culture, a people who took a close interest in us with a keen desire to learn more of the world we come from and breathtaking scenery at every turn.
Contrary to predictions the experience overall was greatly positive and rewarding and will leave lasting memories of a remarkable part of the world. Read on for more information about the trip…
As we obtained our visas from the Australian Embassy in Canberra and not in Tajikistan, we didn’t have the required motorbike permit to enter Afghanistan with our bikes
We met and began talking to Major Sayed Ahsan Sadat – the man in charge of the border. He liked Australians after fighting with them in the war. He believed the English and US soldiers thought they were kings, but Australians were more down to earth
Major Sayed ended up letting us into Afghanistan without the required permit. We only had a double entry Tajikistan visa and a single entry Afghanistan visa. We had already been stamped out of Tajikistan and into Afghanistan at this point so going back into Tajikistan was not an option if we still wanted to explore Afghanistan.
Major Sayed informed us about the Afghani Taliban taking prisoners, but Uzbek and Tajik Taliban will cut your head off. He also advised us that the Wakhan Corridor is relatively safe, but the security situation can change quickly.
He made up a detailed cover story for us to use in case we were asked for the missing paperwork in order to cover himself. As he described, if they found out what he had done, he ‘was fucked’.
In and around Ishkashim
When in the main street of Ishkashim an Afghani man who could speak English came up to us. He was from the Tourism Registration Office and said we need to come with him.
We tried to get some forms signed at the border police but a mixture of miscommunication and a vague explanation of a public holiday the following day (?) prevented us from getting the necessary approval to ride further into the Wakhan Valley
People were literally coming out of buildings and shops to get a look of us. Some were very close and intrusive. We experienced much more attention in Afghanistan compared to Tajikistan
It took us hours to find the Marco Polo guest house. There were no signs and everyone gave us different directions
There was no manager at the guesthouse so the duties were given to a sixteen year old kid from a few houses down the street. His mum prepared our meals and brought them to our room
The food was delicious but Todd was sick and only managed to eat watermelon
We drank an Afghan copy of coke
Ride into Wakhan
Zane repaired one of his lights on his bike and we refuelled with a crowd of onlookers
The scenery was spectacular – snow-capped mountains and green wheat fields with yellow flowers
The roads were very slow and rocky. We averaged 20-30km/hr
Irrigation channels cross road everywhere, makes fun to cross on bike
We made it to the first town Qasi Deh
We had a long negotiation with the border police
We were denied permission to continue due to some missing paperwork and instructed to return to Ishkashim
It was incredibly frustrating to backtrack and lose many hours
Ishkashim border police
No one spoke English or knew what to do with our documents
We met lots of soldiers while we were waiting
Zane was taken into the compound to meet the commander while Todd guarded the bikes on the street
We got a good look at Humvees, military quad bikes, and Ranger utes in the compound
Zane got a bit of a verbal grilling from the commander (in another language) about why we want to travel into the Wakhan Corridor
The commander finally decided to sign and stamp our documents
We got some photos from the watch tower with the commander, a soldier and a machine gun
Into Wakhan again
Rode to Qasi Deh again
We were let through this time
There was no food available due to Ramadan, but we managed to share a bottle of Fanta between us for lunch
We pushed on towards Khandud
The roads were horrendously slow going and dusty.
We were fatigued from heat, roads, no food and the sun was going down early in mountains. We checked the map and realised that there were still hours to get to Khandud and it was getting dark. We decided to abandon the ride into the interior of the Whakan and return to last guesthouse, which was an hours ride away
Morale was pretty low ever since getting turned back at Qasi Deh earlier on in the day
Located in tiny green pocket amongst desolate mountainside
We met the owner, his two children and his brother
We also met an enthusiastic 19 year old on a donkey. He let us ride his donkey and took us to see his flour mill. We met his extended family and father who ran the mill. He wore traditional clothing and was covered in flour
The Mill was ancient technology – water powered mill stone in a mud hut
An electric light was all that distinguished this mill form one that would have existed a thousand years ago.
Back in Ishkashim
Women in burqas would turn around or avert eyes whenever a man was present – very sad to see.
We took photos with the military personnel at the border
Todd was told off and possibly threatened for drinking water in the street during Ramadan
Zane swapped hats with one soldier while waiting
We got asked to pay a $100 USD fine each for missing paperwork, but we refused to pay and we suggested they call their commander if they had a problem as he had let us through in first place without it
They conceded and let us go without paying when we produced a photograph with him and ourselves
We finally went to cross the border but told Tajikistan wouldn’t let us back through this day. Their commander was having the day off and they didn’t have the key to open the main gate to let us out
We made a deal – take all luggage off bikes and squeeze through passenger gate and they’d let us out as planned
We made it safely back to Tajikistan
This positive account of Afghanistan is told as experienced by us on our trip into the Wakhan Corridor. No one however should draw the conclusion from this account that all of Afghanistan is safe and rosy as we have described; quite the opposite is evidently true. However opinions and views of people and places can always be more nuanced than is usually presented; a generalisation of a country such as Afghanistan as a dangerous hell-hole fails to capture the truth that we found – that a pocket of this country exists that is relatively safe and is against any measure unbelievably beautiful.
I am left with my lasting belief, that distant and foreign places with bad reputations are often much more benign and interesting than the common perception holds, reinforced yet again. I am often questioned as to why I choose to travel to places far from the conventional tourist destinations – hopefully this provides some insight.