Ever since we began planning our adventure along the Silk Road, the Wakhan Corridor had been an intermediate goal. It was part of the route that Marco Polo took on his journey across Central Asia in the 13th century. The Corridor itself was created during the Great Game era (1800′s) by the Russian and British who decided their empires should not have a joint border in order to avoid conflicts, so they created this buffer zone, an artificial finger sticking towards China. They gave it to Afghanistan that is quite unfortunate, as the local population is far removed from Kabul and gets little support or attention.
While we expected the mostly unpaved route through the Wakhan Corridor could be difficult, we were shocked at the roads we had to drive from the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, to Khorog, the center of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, which required a special permit. Once the pavement ended in the Panj Valley of the Wakhan Corridor outside Langar, the last village of the agricultural area, we switched to low range and 4×4 to negotiate the difficult sections more easily. But in fact, to our surprise, much of the road was quite passable although very bumpy and extremely dusty. Traffic was light. Small Chinese micro vans and burros seem to be the modes of transportation in the valley. 4×4 SUV’s in the higher, uninhabited altitudes worked better. Herds of cattle, goats and sheep occasionally crossed in front of us.
The attraction of this route along the Afghan border was always the beautiful mountains, some of the highest in the world. As we followed the Panj River and the later the Pamir, always along the Afghan border, the mountain range to our left has often been referred to as the “Roof of the World”. On the southern border of the Wakhan Corridor, the Hindu Kush Mountains could be seen in Pakistan.
We had hoped to meet some of the natives who live in the Pamir Mountains, herding their goats and sheep. To our surprise, most of our interaction was in small villages in the valley where potatoes, wheat and other grains were grown. The area is particularly famous for their apricots of which there are some 160 varieties throughout Central Asia. It was the perfect season for these delicacies. Children were selling buckets of apricots along the road and were waving at us to stop. They were hard to resist at 10 or 20 cents a pound, picked ripe right off the tree. Children, men and women waved as we passed. We sometimes stopped to give the children balloons or stickers from our sponsors.
Our camps were often near a village and occasionally, people would invite us for chai (tea) which we usually declined, knowing that times are tough and they often serve more than tea. People were very busy working in their fields and gardens. For us, it was also the reality that while everyone has a cell phone (or so it seems) and many have satellite dishes, none of them have running water and sanitation conditions are very third world.
We had hope to see a few of the endangered Marco Polo Bighorn Sheep but all we saw were marmots in the higher altitudes scurrying around and the occasional shrine with Ibex and Marco Polo sheep horns.
Some of our camps were above 13,000 ft. and we were able to enjoy hot water and even a nice shower thanks to the new high altitude compensation kit installed on our Espar D5 Hydronic coolant heater.
As we left the valley and climbed into the Southern Alichur Range towards Khorgach Pass, the scenery was shockingly beautiful with its lack of vegetation. Even at this elevation, a few flowers grew. Where sparkling creeks cascaded down from snow clad peaks, grass and small shrubs were growing but the perfusion of wild flowers we had seen in other high altitude areas like the California Sierras or the Swiss Alps, were missing.
On one occasion we were able to assist a couple with a dead fuel pump. They had been sitting on the side of the road for two hours with no vehicle passing and temperatures were down to 5 °C / 41 °F and evening was approaching quickly. Gary had the wire and connectors needed to jury-rig their fuel pump and after an hour, they were gratefully on their way. They presented us with a fresh loaf of Nan (flat bread) and some curiously tasting mothball size yoghurt/salt balls.
While there is much more to be said about this amazing section of the famous Silk Road, we hope the pictures below will give you an impression of our experience.
Despite the rumors of border conflicts, we encountered no problems of any kind and even the Afghanis across the river sometimes waved back to us.