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Wakhan Corridor

In the area of far north-eastern Afghanistan in the Pamir Mountains lies a spit of land know as The Wakhan Corridor. Its shape remarkably resembles a narrow corridor bordered by Tajikistan in the north, China at the east and Pakistan at the south. The Corridor is a long and slender valley, which is approximately 300 kilometres long and between 10 and 60 kilometres wide, with much of it above 3000m.

The Wakhan Corridor was assigned to Afghanistan as a move in the Great Game, a policy and territorial acquisition contest between British India and the Russian Empire. Wakhan was created at the end of the 19th century as a result of a political agreement between Britain and Russia (1873) and Britain and Afghanistan (1893) and it served as a buffer zone delimiting spheres of influence for the two countries. The main idea of it was to ensure that the British Empire and the Russian Empire did not have a common border in Central Asia.

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The Wakhan Corridor is divided by several geographic areas. The western part of the Wakhan is known as Lower Wakhan, which includes the valley of the Panj River. The valleys of the Wakhan River, the Pamir River and their tributaries, and the terrain between, are known as Upper Wakhan. The eastern extremity of Upper Wakhan is known as the Pamir Knot, the area where the Himalayas, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun, and Hindu Kush ranges meet.  It is known in Persian as the Bam-e Dunya - “Roof of the World”. West of the Pamir Knot is the Little Pamir, a broad
U-shaped grassy valley 100 km long and 10 km wide, which contains Chaqmatin Lake, the headwaters of the Aksu / Murghab River.
The Great Pamir or Big Pamir - a valley 60 km long, south of Zorkul Lake, drained by the Pamir River - lies to the northwest of the Little Pamir.

Through the centuries the Wakhan has been an important region as it is where the Western and Eastern areas of Central Asia meet. Although the terrain is extremely difficult, the corridor was historically used as a trading route. It appears that Marco Polo came this way in the 13th century on his way to China and wrote the famous description of the Pamir valleys.

"When the traveler leaves Badakhshan, he goes twelve days' journey east-north-east up a river valley belonging to the brother of the lord of Badakhshan, where there are towns and homesteads in plenty, peopled by a warlike race of Moslems. After these twelve days he reaches a country called Wakhan of no great size, for it is three days' journey across in every way. The people, who are Moslems, speak a language of their own and are doughty warriors. They have no ruler except one, whom they call 'nona', that is 'count' in our language, and are subject to the lord of Badakhshan. They have wild beasts in plenty and game of all sorts for the chase.

When the traveler leaves this place, he goes three days' journey towards the north-east, through mountains all the time, climbing so high that this is said to be the highest place in the world. And when he is in this high place, he finds a plain between the mountains, with a lake from which flows a very fine river. Here is the best pasturage in the world; for a lean beast grows fat in ten days. Wild game of every sort abounds. There are great quantities of wild sheep of huge size. Their horns grow to as much as six palms in length and are never less than three or four. From these horns the shepherds make bowls from which they feed, and also fences to keep in their flocks. There are also innumerable wolves, which devour many of the wild rams. The horns and bones of the sheep are found in such numbers that men build cairns of them beside the tracks to serve as landmarks to travelers in the snowy season."

The corridor was once part of the fabled Silk Road linking China with Europe but has been closed due to political reasons to regular border traffic for over last 100 years turning the area into a cul-de-sac.  Since Marco Polo travelled through the Wakhan Corridor in 1271 only handful of outsiders has ever ventured there.
Today the Wakhan Corridor is slowly wakening to life from being primitive pastoral hinterland. In recent years the Wakhan has become a destination for adventurous trekkers. It has enormous potential for tourism. NGO organisations are trying to increase tourism to the region with the aim of supporting local people. There is some superb trekking along the sharp snow covered peaks among Afghanistan’s highest mountains but also the Wakhan offers unique culture.

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The corridor is sparsely populated by Wakhi farmers and yurt-dwelling Kyrgyz herders. Most of inhabitants speak Wakhi language (Khikwor) and belong to an ethnic group known as Wakhi – they have ancient Iranians roots. Wakhi people refer to themselves as Wakhik or Khik.
Nomadic Kyrgyz herders live at the higher altitudes and originally come from a Turkic pastoral group – their ancient ancestors may have been Mongols. Almost all of Wakhi people adhere to the Shia Ismaili faith. The Kyrgyz are Sunni Muslims. The population of Wakhi people has been estimated at about 10,000 and Kyrgyz at about 1400. People in the corridor suffer from a range of problems including poverty, ill health, lack of education, food insecurity and opium addiction.
The Wakhan Corridor escaped the worst effects of the long years of war suffered elsewhere in Afghanistan since the December 1979 invasion by the Soviet Union.

The Wakhan is one of the last remaining locations for at least four endangered species - Siberian Ibex, Marco Polo Sheep, the Himalayan wolf and Snow Leopards. Sadly all are still hunted by the Kyrgyz. In long winters snow leopards and wolves prey on sheep kept by human. But the change is coming: Wildlife Conservation Society wants to make the entire region a protected international park.

 

* The above information was sourced from the internet and various publications.

 

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"I am here to hear the quiet" - Teru Kuwayama

My fascination with the Wakhan Corridor started growing after I left Afghanistan in 2008. I had to wait until summer 2010 to fulfil my ambition to visit this remarkable place.  My curiosity with the Wakhan could not be fed as there is little information on the culture and geography of the region.
However, in recent months a number of websites and travel blogs have discussed the area in some detail. My knowledge of the Wakhan had been further bolstered by a limited number of books written by travellers and explorers from previous centuries. Marco Polo, Babur, Bronisław Grąbczewski and Peter Hopkirk made journeys to this land which inspired wonderful written accounts of their adventures.

A trek to the Wakhan Corridor is one of the most adventurous treks one can still do in this world. In July 2010 to satisfy my curiosity I decided to make my own way and travel to the extremely remote Wakhan and Pamir regions of Afghanistan to meet Wakhi farmers, transhumance herders and the yurt-dwelling Kyrgyz. I followed out in the steps of the great explorers in pursuit of lost world and ancient passageway to China, the Wakhan Corridor. During my journey I trekked to the remote areas of Little Pamir and Lake Chaqmatin. I was embraced by the hospitality of the Wakhi people and Kyrgyz nomads. I was enchanted by the forgotten wildlife rich valleys of the Wakhan. I discovered a world of dwindling ancient culture, a land of immense scale, beauty and contrast which exceeded my greatest expectations.

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The sun is already going down. Rich light spreads along the valley and it has this amazing quality of making everything look vivid and clear. The mountain’s peaks covered with snow shimmer in the gully. In maybe half an hour it will be completely dark. Twilight is coming inexorably. It is prayer time. Soon the sky will be covered with millions of stars. Bitter wind lashes my tired face. I follow my Wakhi horseman. So far I have managed to keep up with him, but I am lacking his finesse. It is his home soil, he knows it by heart. From afar I can see herders rushing to their village with their sheep and goats. Another long day in nearly gone. It was long day also for me...

I am on my way back, halfway through. In the last few days I was traversing the forgotten land of northern Afghanistan. I was wandering in very remote areas relying on people I met on my way. They hosted me, made me feel safe and made my journey possible. The extreme environment they live in shapes and dominates their unique culture. They are a hard people, with a great sense of humanity and a level of kindness I have never felt before.

I reflect upon my journey way back to the beginning, it feels like a distant memory. My head is full of images, like in kaleidoscope. I see melting glaciers in late summer’s sun, raging rivers, lush seasonal meadows. I walk through wide open spaces of the Afghan Pamir. Over my head there is an eagle soaring high above.

The first days of my trek were exhilarating. I was driven by the unknown. Every day was like a gift. Today even the biggest obstacles seem to be trivial and without them the entire journey would be bereft of its essence.

We stopped for the night in a small compound.  Villagers invited us into their stone hut.  Inside the house was filled with smoke. It was hard to breathe. My eyes were running. Young woman offered sheer chai (salt tea) and freshly baked nan bread. Her face was weathered by the severe environment in the Wakhan. Gaunt children with curious sparkling eyes gathered in the vestibule. Outside women were still bringing sheep and goats into the corral for the evening milking.

I walked nearby and sat in the silence of my own thoughts, mesmerised by the beauty and simplicity of life. I was surrounded by the magnificent Pamir Mountains. I looked to the sky - there were millions of stars - and I sensed the silence.

 

all content © 2011 by zygmunt korytkowski