The Wakhan valley cuts the line between Tajikistan and Afghanistan along the broad grey waters of the Panj River. It’s a line that’s as arbitrary as many in post-Soviet Central Asia, drawn straight through the southern Pamir, leaving two sides of the same people feel as if they were completely different. It’s a border that winds and crawls through roads of sand and dirt in places they were never meant to go. It’s a path blasted through the rock on the Tajik side, one literally carved into the cliff on the Afghan side. The Wakhan is completely different than the rest of the Pamir up until it. The desert red, brown, and khaki have been traded for a lush ochre, green and blue. The fields are full, framed by tenacious snow mountains that have pushed right up to the rivers edge. Houses burst forth in perfect complexions of white and pale turquoise. The roads are full of children that come out to not only wave but also dive into the road for high-fives. It might just be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. A dreamscape realized.
The presence of Afghanistan itself looms heavy on the American part of my mind as we enter the Wakhan. I’ve only ever been exposed to negative news about the country and warnings ad inifitum. But even more I’m pained by curiosity. What is it that makes there “there” and here “here”? Why am I told this side is ok and that one isn’t? (In fact, the Tajik side of the river apparently still has live mines planted.) There’s really no clear-cut division to be spoke of. No fence, no sign, no indication –only a river and unbelievable mountains that go on for forever. Sometimes the water runs broad through the valley, other times it slots tight through deep, deep canyons. Only the sound of rushing water breaks the silence.
The other side is so close at most points that we wave to the Afghan side just like we do to the Tajiks, both banks only populated by donkey-riding herders. Every now and then on the Afghan side there’s a group of horsemen; every so often on the Tajik side there’s a semi-truck. At different points on the river, different sides are equally active and equally spectacular. Villages are built into the spillways of mountain river deltas and up to the very edge of fragile rock cliffs. The grey mountains feel more like a cradle than a deterrent. Yet somehow that other shore always seems so distant, masked in some geopolitical preconception or distorted by excess imagination. Like a hologram it almost feels projected: a place I can’t reach now. It as if I would stretch out my hand and it would glide right through the image --a landscape so striking it looks an illusion. For five days we drive along the Wakhan. For five days I stare in wonder at the other side, not yet comprehending the side I’m on.
This mystery first manifests itself as uncertainty, even fear. When we arrive at the last checkpoint before the valley, the guard tells us people are being denied going west because of recent Taliban. Whether this was even true or not is debatable (up until recently this was one of the safest parts of Afghanistan and a stronghold for the United Front in the Afghan civil war); nevertheless it makes our entrance into the Wakhan feel more foreboding than inviting. From the slots in the hills it’s easy to imagine how anyone could sneak through if they wanted. Things become even more nervous as the roads turn into pure sand. The drive slows in the fading daylight as we stop to pick up fallen bikes and decelerate to try to create any semblance of traction in this remnant of a road.
We only make it about 40km in the last hours of the afternoon, almost a third of the distance we’d hoped, and still far away from anything close to settlement. Searching out to the west, we are absorbed in the sunset. The last rays of sun are trapped in the rain starting to coming into valley. A lavender haze covers the snowcapped peaks. I stop by the edge of a turnout to actually try to understand what I’m seeing; I’m in awe. Transfixed we sit and stare into the water in the base of the canyon and follow it to the edge of the horizon. It flows so unceremoniously; it has such effortless grace; it’s seen this all before.
As the road rises from a lower gorge into a high cliff edge, we look out into the valley and realize that we are going to have to find somewhere to camp. On the edge of the mountain we find a space that’s not cliff and decide to stop after I wander down and realize it’s steep to drive back up with all the gear on. It’s by no means flat, but it’s not by the road, and it’s not a sheer drop so it seems to make sense. Trying to use the sheepskins and extra clothes to flatten the uneven curves in the tent, we get everything set up just as a big storm begins to set in.
High up in the mountains, the sun has fully set but for some reason the sky is not yet dark. The belly of the storm is lit from below, ominous and omnipresent, filling every inch of the sky. The wind has picked up on this edge of the canyon and the clouds are the deepest hue of black there is. The tent shakes constantly. Even Jie says it harks back to something ethereal. The bikes are stuck downhill and even if we wanted to we couldn't drive them up. The satellite phone's signal is blocked by the clouds. It's just us out here, at the mercy of the benevolence of fate. I try to sleep as fast as possible, just waiting for it to be light in the morning.
At 5, just as the sun begins to show, I get up and leave the tent. The storm is over and the valley is warming, any malevolence harbored in the sky has faded. Small wisps of clouds skid across the mountaintops. I climb up the nearest hill and watch the sun come up. Soon, Jie joins me for breakfast. The only sounds are the clicks of a shepherd in the distance and the rush of the water deep in the canyon. Slowly, the whole world begins to wake up.
From this moment on, the Wakhan is nothing but good to us. The mystery melts from fear into full-fledged capitation.
From the harsh, dry upper reaches of the Wakhan we descend quickly toward the valley. The roads are still full of sand, including a 200-meter stretch so deep that feels like it was almost set up for an obstacle course. But with the sun bright and the sky clear we’re able to crawl our way across rock faces with relative ease.
Before we make it down, we stop in a sandy turnout where a group of Chinese truckers have spent the night: road warriors more adept and hardened than we may ever be. For them, the ride that takes every ounce of our focus to get through is an everyday activity. Chinese truckers make up about half the drivers here, and China is the main benefactor in a GBAO that relies heavily of foreign aid. They drive in steel, rebar and concrete, and return empty –by law— to China. Eggshells and instant noodle wrappers are strewn around the cab; a carton of baisha cigarettes sits as the centerpiece in the window. We start talking. They lament about the road quality –they waited all night for two broken down trucks—and the fees they get charged here by the local police. They even give us advice on how to deal them. “If there’s a problem,” one trucker says “just slap down your American passport and protest. Americans can always protest.” Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to really be how it works.
The lower valley of the Wakhan is breathtaking in a whole new way. The fertile floodplains of the Panj are filled with grain and green. The unassuming homes of the highlands give way to perfect sculpted white, wood shutter houses steeped in poplar forests that could fit in just as well on the hills of San Francisco as they do here. The road is dotted with unmarked shrine filled –sometimes literally in piles— with the skulls of Marco Polo sheep, massive and sacred animals that only live in this part of the world. Each time we pass one, we’re reminded of the uniqueness of this community, their blend of moderate Ismal’ilism and the animalism of their ancestors. Every where we go children run out of their yards and through the streets to greet us; families washing their carpets in the road stop to say hi. There are wild pomegranates that grow by the roadside. They fall easily as we pick them, not ripe yet but we try to eat them anyways.
I daydream about having a summer home in these hills, away for months on end relishing in a paradise tucked deep into the mountains; there’s nothing more in this moment that seems more right. It’s so good to be here.
In the early afternoon we turn up the north bank of the valley through rows upon rows of switchbacks to find the Bibi Fatima hotsprings. We pass vistas that can only be described with a hint of amazed disbelief and crumbling remnants of a fortress that once overlooked the entirety of the road we’ve just driven. The building that houses the hotsprings sits high in the mountains overlooking all of this. After talking with an older woman who speaks English despite having only learned in school and not having practiced in 40 years, we slip into the men-only session of the pool as it opens. The hotsprings themselves are housed in a small cave of moss covered stalactites and an eerie teal colored rock face. Jie crawls into a small hole rumored to be able to increase fertility; I bask in a waterfall of sulfur smelling water.
Outside two Tajik sisters and their daughters, twins named Syram and Myram, knock on the window and point to my earrings asking to see what they are. They tease me when I take it out of my ear and it’s only a burnt piece of porcelain. They don’t have a ride down from the hill, so they half-jokingly ask us if they can get on the motorcycles to go into the city. One refers to jie as “my panda”; the other one jokingly asks if her and I can get married; the twins both giggle trying on our helmets. Tajikistan is by far the most conservative country we’ve been to, and it’s unique to have any women be as forward with us as these two are. Most women we encounter shy away or move to the background behind men who come to talk with us. Maybe they’re bored from waiting or maybe we’re just relaxed from the hot spring but we all laugh really easily throughout the afternoon, each of us waving goodbye like old friends as we leave.
Further down the Pamir highway, beyond what is technically the Wakhan, the valley continues to unfold in perpetuations of people this friendly and places this beautiful. We stay at a flower-filled homestay with an older lady in Rushon and at a house with a balcony that hangs over the river in Qali’kum. A Pamiri named Manu, back on holiday from working in Moscow (like many do) buys us breakfast one day, having known us for less than two minutes. He says Pamiri’s are shy, but he’s glad that he’s able to have the chance to talk with us. I don’t know how much I agree with the former –especially because he came to talk to us—but the later definitely rings true for me too. He’s upset that he comes back to the village and that things are still the same, that it’s still so poor. I feel the same way, not that it stil is, but worrying that if I come back it still will be. The next day we try to help a group of Pamiri boys push-start their black Lada that’s broken down. It doesn’t work but we all manage a laugh as we massage our thighs, flexed tight from pushing uphill.
The road is never good, and at points downright terrible –full of massive potholes and abused asphalt— but the drive is still stunning. Past Khorog the valley turns into a gorge, the walls sharpen and fill with red rocks. The road digs deeper into cliffside and mountains edge even closer. The villages of the Tajik side are now small and cluttered compared to the sprawling settlements on the Afghan side, which at points seem to climb impossibly high into the hills. Tajik soldiers on patrol flag us down to ask for drinks of water from our camelbacks; Afghan kids play soccer on riverbed where the water has receded. Everyone is out here surviving how they can. Sometimes it feels like existence here is like the lone telephone pole we pass attached to a rock in the middle of the river or like two women we see collecting vegetables on a literal cliff face: if you don’t balance perfectly, everything might go terribly wrong.
Yet for all that seems possible, in the Wakhan things only seem to go right. Right in a way beyond what I could ever ask for, let alone try to make happen. Right in the way where you feel like the build up of everything has lead you to a place that you only could have encountered in this way. From an opportune trip, to an opportune road, to an opportune time, everything has somehow culminated to lead us to these moments and these people. We’ve come like miners to a vein of gold amongst layers of bedrock. Unyielding in it’s positivity, unphased by everything that should be working against it, the Wakhan too glitters for all those that stop to see.