The Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan

Wakhi Family

Recently, I had the amazing opportunity to explore the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. Contrary to what you might think, the Wakhan Corridor is an extremely safe and remote part of Afghanistan where terrorism is non-existent and everyday living consists of growing the wheat harvest, tending to the animals (sheep, goats, and yaks), and inviting your neighbors over for tea.

The Wakhan Corridor was created in the Great Game between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire in the 1800s as a buffer zone between British Pakistan and Russian Tajikistan. It is the narrow strip of land that juts out of the northeast of Afghanistan. Today, it is very isolated as there are no open border crossings except for one with Tajikistan at Ishkashem. From the border crossing, a gravel road runs further down the corridor until the village of Sarhad-e-Broghil, about a 10 hour drive. The only way to continue further is to walk.

Fast Facts

Languages: Farsi is spoken as a second language throughout the corridor, except by some folks in remote villages. Wakhi is spoken as a first language in every area east of Ishkashem, with the exception of the Kyrgyz settlements. The Kyrgyz settlements in the far east speak Kyrgyz but many people also know Wakhi and a few know Farsi. Basic English is spoken by a small amount of educated people in the villages up until Sarhad, but beyond Sarhad virtually nobody knows English.

Currency: The Afghan currency is simply called the Afghani. As of September 2018, 1 USD = about 73 Afghani.

Getting in: US Citizens need a visa to enter Afghanistan. At the Khorog consulate in Tajikistan, it costs $220 for 3 business day processing, or can be obtained on the spot for $50 more.

Getting around: Taxis, shared taxis, walking, or hiring a donkey or horse are the main methods for getting around. Tourist vehicles are also available for very high prices. More on this later.

When to visit: The summer months (July, August, early September) are ideal for visiting higher elevations. Outside of these months there may be snow. For lower elevations, late spring and early fall are also good options.

How to visit: This is a lengthy process, so for simplicity I will divide it into steps.

Step 1: Apply for a Tajik e-visa online here: https://www.evisa.tj/index.evisa.html. After you receive your e-visa, apply for a second Tajik e-visa online. You will need GBAO permits with both of your visas, and the total cost will be $140. You do not need to enter Tajikistan with your first e-visa before applying for the second e-visa.

Step 2: Fly to Dushanbe in Tajikistan. Unfortunately flying to Dushanbe is quite expensive and will likely cost over $1000 round-trip from the US. Using miles, United is the best option, with flights from 85,000 miles round-trip using their Star Alliance partners.

Step 3: Once in Dushanbe, you will need to go to Khorog. I would recommend the 13 hour shared taxi/van ride, which costs $30. The alternative is a $100 flight which is not bookable online and is usually cancelled because of the weather, so you may be waiting for days.

Step 4: In Khorog, you will need to apply for an Afghan visa, which costs $270 for same day service or $220 for 3 day processing. You will need to bring a passport-size photograph and a copy of your passport’s information page, as well as your passport, tajik e-visas, and cash. The consulate opening hours are 9 AM until noon, Monday through Friday excluding holidays, and the consulate is located at GPS coordinates <37.488225, 71.556388> just southeast of the city center.

Khorog City Park trees

Khorog is a nice town and worth spending a few days in. Pictured here is a grove of trees in the city park.

Step 5: Take a taxi to the Ishkashem border and enter Afghanistan. An entire taxi for this distance should cost 200 Somoni, or around $20. Marshutkas also leave in the morning and early afternoon and cost 50 Somoni ($5) per person. The drive is 4 hours. Confusingly, there are two towns named Ishkashem, one on the Tajik side and one on the Afghan side. The border at Ishkashem is just before the town of Ishkashem on the Tajik side which the marshutkas go to, so if you are in a marshutka be sure to specify that you are getting off at the border (pronounced “graneetza” in Russian). The border is open during business hours most days, with an hour break for lunch. However we heard it is closed on Sundays and can be closed for other events, so check ahead when applying for your visa at the Khorog consulate.

I suggest having your two Tajik e-visas printed, as well as bringing a total of 10 passport size photos and 10 copies of the first page of your passport that you will need for the visa application as well as various permits in Afghanistan. You will also need to bring $270 worth of cash plus another few hundred dollars for your time in Afghanistan, since there are no ATMs in the Wakhan Corridor and you will have to exchange US dollars for the local currency.

Ishkashem border

The Ishkashem border from the Tajik side

Disclaimer

As far as I can tell, this is the first article on the web with the true local prices for goods and services listed. Reading other blogs, you may come to the conclusion (like I did) that everything in the Wakhan is decently expensive and a taxi from Ishkashem to Sarhad-e-Broghil is $300 one way. In reality, this is not the truth. What is true is that you will be charged 5 times the local price for accommodation, transportation, etc, if you book anything ahead of time. The best way to travel to the Wakhan is with NO advance planning. Yes, you heard me right: if you are a budget traveller, do not contact any sort of local guide, etc, before your arrival in Afghanistan, or you will end up paying out the roof, and everything will be centered around charging you as much as possible. I even heard one guide say “If you don’t have very much money, then you are not welcome in Afghanistan.” Fortunately, this is not the view of the vast majority of Afghani and Wakhi people outside the tourist industry, and they are amazingly hospitable.

The best way to visit the Wakhan and experience genuine Afghani and Wakhi lifestyles is to either have a lot of time or a lot of flexibility with regards to what you want to do. In this article, I will focus on how to travel to the Wakhan independently, which could take a little more time than traveling with a tour agency or local guide.

Old Afghan man and his friend

A couple of men I met in Ishkashem, Afghanistan

Highlights of the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan

Ishkashem, Afghanistan, is the largest town in the region and is only a few kilometers from the border crossing. The nicest and most comfortable guesthouse in the Wakhan, the Marco Polo Hotel, is located here, about a 10 minute walk from the city center. The town itself is not too big and is easily walkable. There is a bazaar at the crossroads of the two major streets running through town where a variety of Chinese and Pakistani made goods are available for cheap. Some Afghani-made goods are available here as well. However, as this bazaar is mainly for Wakhi people to BUY goods arriving from other regions, you cannot find Wakhi-made products like wool socks or clothes here.

Ishkashem Afghanistan bazaar

The bazaar in Ishkashem, Afghanistan

In the city center there are also specialty shops like a copy shop and a tailor, which cannot be found in other parts of the Wakhan. In the residential areas of the city are winding roads with picturesque nooks and crannies. Like in the rest of the Wakhan, the irrigation system in the area is well developed, with centuries old man-made ditches running along the hillsides to deliver water.

Ishkashem copy shop

The copy shop from the outside

From Ishkashem, branching off at the bazaar, there is a road which leads eastward. It ends in Sarhad-e-Broghil, but along the way there are numerous towns and villages. The largest towns are Khandood and Qala-i-Panja. I recommend spending a few days along this road as there are lots of friendly Wakhi people living here, some of whom speak English. I got invited to tea several times by local people but could not oblige since I was in a car which was doing the trip to Sarhad in one day (it takes 8-10 hours without stops) because I made the mistake of booking ahead of time.

You will need to obtain a Foreigner Registration Card as well as many permits if you plan to travel down the road east of Ishkashem. You will have to ask around in Ishkashem to figure out the permits. For example, to get the Foreigner Registration Card, the “office” was a guy on a donkey in a field who filled them out for us. You will need 8 copies of your Afghan visa from the copy shop in Ishkashem as well, and then you will need to go to the police in Ishkashem to get the first permit. The remaining three permits are available from the governor’s office in Khandood, and are given to officers at checkpoints in Khandood, Qala-i-Panja, and Sarhad. These ones are more straightforward just ask residents to take you to the governor’s office and they handle all the permit work, and will tell you where to hand in the permits as you travel along the road.

Khandood is the capital of the Wakhan region and has many shops along the main street, which may or not be open depending on the hour and day of the week. The governor is based here in a nice office up on a hill. As of August 2018, the governor was fairly new to the position and seemed very interested in foreigners, asking all sorts of questions about life outside Afghanistan. He also offered my travel companions and I tea while the permits were being processed, and asked for a photo with us.

Wakhan governor group photo

Our photo with the governor of the Wakhan

From Ishkashem to Qala-i-Panja, the road follows the Tajik border, and you can see Tajikistan across the river. Just after Qala-i-Panja, the road moves away from the border, crosses a bridge, and splits. Going left actually leads to a goods-only border which crosses into Tajikistan at Langar (rumor has it that this border will be opened as an international border crossing eventually). Going right follows the Wakhan River and leads further into the Wakhan to Sarhad, passing many villages along the way and crossing a few smaller rivers.

Road viewpoint in the Wakhan

View along the road between Qala-i-Panja and Sarhad

A couple kilometers before Sarhad is located Chilkand village, with the Zalik Guesthouse. Although I did not stay here, I would recommend it based on reports from other travelers. In addition, Amil Mohammed, a wonderful guy and honest donkey owner who speaks basic English, lives here. If you need a pack animal for your trip, I would recommend hiring Amil Mohammed. You can ask about him at the guesthouse.

Amil Mohammed

Amil Mohammed

Sarhad itself is a nice little town with several guesthouses and friendly people. However, many guesthouse owners and donkey owners here are in the habit of overcharging foreigners. Nonetheless, the majority of the village is extremely friendly and I was invited to tea by a young man here and got to meet his family and see his house.

From Sarhad, the trekking begins. The road turns into a trail and continues eastward into the mountains. The first part of the trail is quite strenuous with lots of elevation gain, crossing a mountain pass with amazing views towards the mountains to the south on a clear day. It is about 10 miles (16 km) from Sarhad to the first decent camping spot, but better camping spots are available a little further down. Several huts built for shepherds are available as well for sleeping in, however, the shepherds like to light fires in these huts to stay warm so they can be a bit smoky.

Wakhi shepherds hut

A shepherds’ hut

The second day, the trail crosses a bridge over a small river coming out from a canyon. A few hundred feet (100 m) after the bridge, the trail splits, with the left (higher) branch starting to switchback up a mountain and the right (lower) branch continuing to follow the Wakhan River. The left branch is the high route to little Pamir and the right branch is the river route. Overall the river route is a little shorter and easier, but the high route crosses much more beautiful terrain and a couple high mountain passes with glaciers nearby. The high route could be impassible due to snow after the beginning of September, as one of the mountain passes, Garumdee Pass, is 16,000 feet (4895 m) high. This pass may also be difficult for those prone to altitude sickness, and hikers should be sure they properly acclimatize. I took the river route there and the high route on the way back so I will describe the hike as I did it.

The majority of the second day trekking, along the river route, is a bit dull. The trail follows the river but since the valley is very narrow, it is always going up and down. After hiking 12-14 miles (20-23 km) or so, there is a camping spot with shepherds’ huts and pens for sheep called Langar (different from the Langar mentioned earlier), as well as a few other camping spots before and afterwards. The third day on the river route is similar, still following the river, until the last mile when the trail reaches the beginning of the little Pamir and moves north away from the river to reach the first Kyrgyz settlement of Khash Ghoz.

In Khash Ghoz, the Kyrgyz people are relatively rich and hire Wakhi shepherds to take care of their sheep for them. It is definitely a divided society, with the Wakhi people much poorer than the Kyrgyz. The Wakhi shepherds all live in a one room mud house on the edge of the village (as opposed to the Kyrgyz who live in yurts). I stayed with the Wakhi but met the Kyrgyz village boss, and his son, who visited the Wakhi house. The son seemed very interested in getting to know me, and we talked a little about development plans for the region. From what I gathered, the Wakhi only live in this village during the summer but the Kyrgyz live there year-round. The Kyrgyz there also smuggled a car in from Tajikistan, and they have a few motorbikes as well.

Wakhi boy near stove

A Wakhi shepherd boy warms up inside after tending to the flock in Khash Ghoz

The Little Pamir is a high elevation, flat valley with mountain ranges to the north and south. It is quite easy to trek through since there is minimal elevation gain or loss. It is filled with settlements of Kyrgyz people. Sadly, in many of the Kyrgyz settlements, especially in the closer parts of little Pamir, the Kyrgyz are addicted to smoking opium.

Little Pamir

The Little Pamir, with our donkey in the foreground

The Little Pamir is a nice place to spend some time since it is beautiful and relatively easy to get around. A couple hours’ walk further from Khash Ghoz is the town of Bozai Gombaz, which is basically a school with a couple of teachers from other parts of Afghanistan who are paid by the government to live there and educate the Kyrgyz kids. The school is very basic, with 60 students and not nearly enough supplies. There is a building where the teachers live and have an office, and then two yurts in a courtyard which act as classrooms. There is also one Kyrgyz family living in Bozai Gombaz who are not very nice and very addicted to opium, even the women.

Bozai Gombaz school

The school in Bozai Gombaz

About 3 hours trek from Bozai Gombaz is an amazing, beautiful hot spring in the middle of nowhere. Local people have piled up rocks to create two bathing pools, an outdoor pool for men and a more secluded pool for women. If you go there you will probably have the place to yourself. Some locals come here once a month to bathe and wash clothes. Note that unlike in Tajikistan, locals keep on their underwear while bathing rather than sporting the good ol’ birthday suit.

Little Pamir hot spring

At the hot spring in Little Pamir

I did not go further into little Pamir than the hot spring. However, a large lake is only a few hours walk beyond, and many more Kyrgyz settlements as well. We heard that the Kyrgyz get more friendly the further one goes into the Little Pamir. I also heard rumors of Chinese-funded Afghan military bases near the Chinese border to stop smuggling into China, and met a Chinese traveler who was trying to make it all the way to the border with China to speak with the Chinese border guards there.

Anyway, heading back from Bozai Gombaz, to take the high route, you will need to head towards Akbilis Pass, an opening between a couple mountains to the west. The pass is a decent climb and going up and down will take several hours. You will pass a lake just after the summit. On the other side of the pass, the trail heads down into a river valley and turns gradually to the right (northward). Across the river, there are a couple settlements. The only settlement on the right side of the river is known as Garumdee Village, and is a Wakhi village populated during the summer months (all of the Wakhi villages along the high route are seasonal, with the Wakhi people moving to lower elevations during the cold season). The Wakhi in this village are very friendly, I recommend visiting and/or sleeping here. It was probably my favorite Wakhi village on the route.

After Garumdee Village, there are no other Wakhi villages for a while and the trail ascends up to 16,000 foot Garumdee Pass, the highest part of the route. The pass is beautiful, so try to catch it on a sunny day!

Garumdee Pass

Garumdee Pass was the highest point I had ever hiked at 16,000 feet (4895 m)

After Garumdee Pass, the trail descends into a broad valley with a river. This part of the hike is very easy as the trail is quite flat and passes a number of Wakhi villages. The first village is Nowhobid Village, and has some scary dogs, so be careful. I spent the night here.

Wakhi kitchen

Inside a Wakhi House in Nowhobid Village

There is another village a couple hours walk further on the same (west) side of the river but I do not remember the name. There is a very easy spot for crossing the river soon after this village, with lots of giant boulders.

Another couple hours walk further is a third village known as Madkhoof Village, on the east side of the river. I did not stay here, but a couple of my travel companions did and had a great experience, so I would probably recommend staying here or at least visiting.

The next village, also on the east side of the river, is known as Sangnawishta Village, which means “writing on the rocks” in Wakhi. Fittingly, it is surrounded by rocks with petroglyphs!

Petroglyphs at Sangnawishta

Some petroglyphs at Sangnawishta

At Sangnawishta, the river enters a canyon and the trail traverses above it on the east side.  The route becomes more strenuous again with lots of ups and downs, but the views are quite good. There is a Wakhi village hidden a little bit above the main trail with a couple of houses called Bashgaz, but it may be hard to find. Soon after passing near Bashgaz, the trail begins to descend, and eventually makes its way down to the Wakhan River valley and intersects with the river route, as described earlier. There are many camping spots and shepherds’ huts here to spend the night before traversing for another day back to Sarhad.

Bashgaz Village

A donkey and yak relax near one of the houses in Bashgaz Village

Overall, I would recommend allowing at the very minimum 3 whole days for traversing the river route from Sarhad to the beginning of the little Pamir at Khash Ghoz (or vice versa), and a minimum of 5 days for traversing the high route from Sarhad to the beginning of little Pamir at Khash Ghoz or Bozai Gombaz (or vice versa). I spent 11 days/10 nights in all but did not venture very far into the Little Pamir.

Other routes exist to a broad river valley called Big Pamir to the northwest of Little Pamir, which is filled with Wakhi settlements. I did not go there so cannot comment on these routes.

Important Cultural Information to Know about Afghanistan and the Wakhan

The majority of the people in the Wakhan are Ismaeli Muslims, and although more conservative than the Muslims in adjacent Tajikistan who are also Ismaeli, they are relatively liberal compared to the rest of Afghanistan. For instance, the women do not wear the blue burkas that you will find in other parts of Afghanistan (with the exception of a few women in Ishkashem).

However, it is considered EXTREMELY rude to take photos of women without talking to them and asking for their permission first. Usually they will say no, but some women do not mind. Unfortunately, many tourists have taken unwanted photos of women in the past, prompting the women to avoid tourists completely because there is a chance they will have their photos taken.

On the other hand, taking photos with men and children is encouraged, and they are very happy to have their photos taken when asked (except for police or military). If they have a phone, offer them a chance to take a photo with you and their faces will light up with a smile.

There is more gender segregation than you would find in other countries. Women mostly tend to house chores and things in fields close to the house (harvesting wheat, milking goats, etc) and the men act as shepherds and travel with the grazing animals, or run errands.

Logistics

Costs

Costs in Afghanistan are quite cheap compared to American standards.

Transportation: Since there is only one road through most of the Wakhan and it is an extremely safe place, it is easy to catch rides with people by flagging down cars along the road. This is how all the locals travel around. It is also possible to hire a private car for yourself by paying a local.

The local prices are as follows (Sept 2018):
From the border with Tajikistan to the town of Sultan Eshkashem (15 minute drive)-
Flagging down a car on the main road about 1 km past the border: 50 Afghani/$1 per person
Hiring a taxi by asking the border guards: The local price would be 200-300 Afghani/$4 but the border guards may try to charge you $8
From Sultan Eshkashem to Khandood-
Flagging a car: 250 Afghani/$4 per person
Hiring a taxi: 1500 Afghani/$20
From Khandood to Sarhad-e-Broghil-
Flagging a car: 1000 Afghani/$14 per person
Hiring a taxi (if you hire a taxi be aware it will have to ford some rivers before Sarhad, make sure the driver is ok with crossing rivers): 2000 Afghani/$28

Cars run frequently between Ishkashem and Khandood, but beyond Khandood cars may only run every few hours. However, hiring a taxi from Khandood should not be too difficult if you cannot find a ride.

If you hire a vehicle beforehand with a tour agency or guide the cost is $300 from Ishkashem to Sarhad one way, and you will be rushed along the road, might have to skip lunch, and will be paying six times the local price. You will also be coaxed into paying high prices for accommodation and everything else since the guesthouse owners will think you are willing to overpay when arriving in a tour vehicle.

Guesthouses: Most guesthouses in the region should cost around 500 Afghani/$7 per person, with the exception of the Marco Polo guesthouse which costs $20 per person. These guesthouse prices include dinner and breakfast. However, meals are usually pretty simple, and the further one goes east of Ishkashem, the simpler the meals get. The reason why the Marco Polo guesthouse costs more is because the meals are much better than in any other guesthouse we went to. Be aware that prices are not set and require haggling skills.

Due to more tourists coming in recent years, many Wakhi and Kyrgyz villages on the walking routes to Little Pamir and Big Pamir have built guesthouses or set up yurts to host visitors, and sometimes expect payment for hosting. The costs should not be more than 500 Afghani/$7 per person per night.

Local families may invite you to stay in their houses or invite you to tea without expecting any payment. In this case, it is good (but not required) to have a small gift to share.

Pack Animals: The going rate to hire a donkey is 500 Afghani/$7 per day. The going rate to hire a horse is 1000 Afghani/$14 per day. The owner will come along to manage his animals and this is included in the price. As an added bonus, many donkey and horse owners are familiar with the routes. An honest animal owner will not insist on charging you more than the going rate, if they do, look elsewhere.

Keep in mind when hiring a pack animal that the owner may or may not have a shelter for sleeping. If he does not, you may be limited to sleeping where there are shepherds’ huts or villages. Pack animals also need to rest and eat grass for an hour or two in the middle of the day so your journey may revolve around making sure you break for lunch where there is grass, and sleep where there is grass.

Pack animals can also be ridden if they are not carrying a pack. From personal experience, however, riding a donkey over long distances is NOT comfortable or much faster than walking.

Guides: The tourist industry suggests hiring a “guide” for an absurd $30 per day. In reality, guides are not needed since trails are easy to follow as long as you are paying attention. The trails have been created by shepherds and locals over the thousands of years the Wakhi have been living in the area. Even so, for an extra precaution, I recommend downloading the app Mapy.cz or something similar so you can have an offline topographic map on your phone.

Foreigner Registration Card and Permits: The cost for these is free.

Facilities

Afghanistan is one of the least developed countries in its region of Asia, and the Wakhan is one of the least developed areas of Afghanistan. Do not expect to find the same level of infastructure as elsewhere. For instance:

There is no running water inside buildings. Locals use nearby irrigation ditches to collect water for use. You can either filter or boil water so it is safe to drink. Bottled water is not readily available.

If you are planning to shower, only bucket showers are available, and only in a limited number of places. Usually bucket showers are cold, but in one guesthouse they heated water buckets on a gas stove for warm bucket showers. (This option is probably only available if you are paying higher than the typical 500 Afghani/$7 price as it costs quite a bit in fuel to heat a bucket of water.) Locals usually only shower once per month.

There are two types of toilets. Porcelain toilets are available in some guesthouses but need to be flushed by pouring water into the toilet. Pit toilets are common. Away from the road there are usually no toilets so it’s just you and nature.

Electricity is available along the road but usually not available east of Sarhad, with the limited exception of a few car batteries and solar panels.

WiFi is non-existent in this part of Afghanistan. Most locals use Tajik SIM cards which get cell service and slow internet from across the river. T-Cell has the best service. Beyond Qala-i-Panja there is no cell signal. Locals share photos between their phones with Bluetooth.

Restaurants are non-existent as far as I could tell. The closest thing would be a guesthouse. Guesthouses along the road also offer lunch. Little shops selling food and basic goods exist up and down the road but are not always open and have limited selections.

What To Bring

I would suggest bringing the following in addition to normal travel supplies:

-US Dollars to trade for local currency
-bottled water
-snacks
-little gifts for families you stay with, or the kids
-pictures of your family and hometown on your phone to show people
-offline Farsi translation dictionary or phrasebook
-headlamp
-power bank
-hand sanitizer
-toilet paper
-a small game or book
-for women, a headscarf to cover hair

For those who want to do trekking beyond Sarhad or in the mountains:
-water filter
-a tent
-warm sleeping bag (can get a little below freezing at night even in the summer at the higher elevations)
-sleeping pad
-clothes for anything from 25F/-5C to 85F/30C
-food for however many days you will be on your own. If you stay in villages, they will probably provide rice, bread, milk tea, and maybe yogurt
-a compact solar panel
-moleskine for blisters
-sunscreen
-topographic map (hard copy or downloaded to phone)

Closing thoughts

I hope that this comprehensive guide will help you plan your own independent trip to the Wakhan Corridor. It was really an eye-opening experience for me and I hope it can be for you as well!

There are rumors that a road will be built through the Little Pamir, connecting Afghanistan directly with China. If this road is completed, then the area will of course change immensely. Right now may be the best time to experience this isolated pocket of unique culture before it opens up to the rest of the world.

Posted in Destinations, East, Southeast, & South Asia, Middle East & Central Asia.

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