To Afghanistan: Part 1
It's Just There
For most people traveling the Wakhan and the Pamir, there is a profoundly strange sensation in being so close to Afghanistan.
For the past week, I’d been within sight of a country I’d assumed I’d never have a chance to visit. There’s no point rehashing Afghanistan’s obviously tumultuous history. But the unrelenting security challenges of the place simply make it most of the country no-go-zone for even the most intrepid adventurers.
But from the Tajikistan side of the Pamir and Panj Rivers, the northeast of Badakhshan Province, in Afghanistan’s far north-east, looks the picture of tranquility. In parts, the Panj River slows to a benign trickle, leaving its forbidden southern banks heartbreakingly close. The Hindu Kush (the 7000-meter peaks that separate the Afghan panhandle from Pakistan) dominate every view.
I first saw those peaks as Alibek, my driver, and I neared Kargush - a Tajik military outpost on the Afghan/Tajik border, which serves as the gateway to the Tajik Wakhan. As we rounded a corner, and the snow-capped peaks emerged, Alibek appeared as excited as I: “look, look! Afghanistan”.
The further this trip has wound on, I’ve found it challenging to be ‘wowed’ by most places. But something about this scene - the outrageous peaks, the vast emptiness, the sheer distance from my starting point - thrilled me. It gave me that sense of giddiness that you first get when you travel abroad. A physical reaction to your distance that is unable to be explained - and, in my case, has waned as I begin to feel at home in more of the world.
Soon, the road followed the Pamir River and the proximity of Afghan soil made me apprehensive and excited. At points, the river barely separates the two countries. While a handful of Tajik police are seen every 10 kilometres or so, lengthy stretches of river remain unguarded. It would be quite simple to cross back and forth at your leisure.
The remainder of my time on the Tajik side of the Panj, I became increasingly determined to cross the border. But I was cautious in first determining my reasons for doing so.
Was it just an egotistical exercise? An attempt to visit somewhere ‘off-the-beaten-path’ in order to prove myself? Or were my motivations more pure? Were I to go - to take the small risk that is crossing the border for only a fleeting visit - would it be to satiate my genuine curiosity and to see what cultural differences a thin strip of water could create?
The truth is probably in-between. In any case, the temptation to cross at Ishkashim became too great. I rushed to Khorog, picked up my Afghan visa in literally 10-15 minutes (no questions asked), and returned to the border the following morning.
I’d arrived at the desolate border post mid-morning. The crossing sits about 4 kilometres north-east of the Tajik Eshkashim, in what feels like the middle of nowhere. Traffic here is rare, the crossing is exposed, windy and heavily militarised. In the distance, the Afghan Ishkashim sits amongst fields of green, looking utterly peaceful.
Waiting to cross with me was a young Czech tourist named Tomas. Well-coiffed, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, Tomas struck me as the type of character ill-suited to an Afghanistan adventure. My suspicions were more or less accurate: “I’m just crossing for a selfie”, he told me, after forcing me to take dozens of photos of him in front of the border.
Tomas wore his vanity on his sleeve. He unflinchingly posed in absurd stances - one even with his hand on his chin, looking into the distance. At times he posed like Michaelangelo’s David as I took iPhone shots for his instagram. Somehow, he remained unembarrassed. To my concern, we ended up being ushered to the checkpoint as a pair.
The border crossing itself was seamless - except for how busy it was. When Tomas and I arrived, we were met by four tourists returning from hiking trips in the Wakhan. Two of them - an older Dutch pairing who had both served in Afghanistan in uniform a decade prior - scolded Tomas’ dress.
“You’re wearing shorts!? In Afghanistan?” one admonished. Tomas didn’t flinch. “I’m just crossing for 20 minutes for a selfie”.
Somehow, Tomas’ selfie-quest was assumed to be mine, also. “So…you’re just crossing for 20 minutes?”, one of the Dutch men asked me with obvious contempt. I’m not sure why he believed this scruffy Australian traveler and a moisturised Czech-instagrammer with styled facial hair were in tandem. But I didn’t press the matter.
I tried to legitimise my own trip to this more seasoned Dutchman, realising as I spoke that my trip wasn’t, in fact, a great deal more intrepid than Tomas’. I planned to spend only two days in Ishkashim. Compared to weeks hiking in the Wakhan - or years fighting in Afghanistan - my own sojourn seemed silly, selfish and quite pathetic. The Dutch, at least, seemed to appreciate my long shirt-sleeves and pants, if not my cluttered reasoning for crossing the border. After he realised I wasn’t quite as vain as Tomas, his admonition ceded to more useful banter and advice.
Throughout the border crossing, Tomas became even more of a pain. He hurried the guards, and began to get angry. He was determined to cross for 20 minutes, before returning to his car in Tajikistan with enough time to return to a warm meal and comfortable sleep in Khorog - a 3-4 hour drive away. His impatience sullied the atmosphere - his stress became contagious and obvious to everyone.
I grew nervous: I was, without my choosing, now associated with Tomas - a bombastic, mean-spirited, vain and angry tourist on a bizarre quest for the world’s most expensive selfie. I’d spent days checking my own ego - trying to convince myself that I wasn’t crossing for reasons as selfish as Tomas’. While my own struggle to justify my crossing was probably over-the-top, he didn’t appear to have even bothered with such an internal debate.
After some time, a few locals had joined the queue, and Tomas’ selfie-quest became common knowledge.
An Unwelcome Premonition
An elderly Canadian-Afghan with good English skills implored Tomas not to make the crossing just as we were stamped into the country. He seemed insulted that his home-town was being used as nothing more than a photo-prop.
“Take a photo here!” said the old man. “No”, Tomas insisted. “A photo from the city is much better!”.
The old man gave it up, but was sour. Fortunately, Tomas was in such a hurry that he left me in his wake, racing away from the border and soliciting a cab to town. I happily let him go - weary of being in Ishkashim with him by my side. While I was confident Ishkashim would be safe, I had no intention of drawing extra attention to myself by having a promiscuously dressed - by Afghan standards - tourist instagramming amidst the misery that is Ishhashim.
After Tomas had left, the old man asked me my plans. I tried to, again, legitimise my own trip while distancing myself from Tomas.
“I’m crossing for a couple of days, maybe two nights”, I said. “I really want to see the difference between the Tajik and Afghan Ishkashims”.
He smiled and came close to me. Then, he whispered a perilous warning.
“I’d stay in Tajikistan”, he said. “If you have to cross, leave very early tomorrow”.
Heart beginning to race, I replied. “Why?”.
“The Taliban are coming”, he warned me. “Tomorrow, maybe the day after. They will be attacking here. They’re in Zebak, just a few kilometres away”.
“What will happen when they come?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“Lots of killing”, the old man foresaw, while making a cut-throat gesture. “For foreigners…not safe”.
His dialogue was like a script from a bad film. I pressed for more details.
“Well, why are you crossing the border if the Taliban are planing to attack?”, I asked.
“This is my home”, the old man said, resigned. “I needed to cross before the Tajiks close the border once the attack begins”.
At this point, I was both terrified and suspicious. I’d just been stamped into the country. While I could have walked immediately back to the guard and get stamped out again, it seemed silly: I was just hundreds of meters from Ishkashim. Everyone - everyone - I’d asked had confirmed the town was secure. I have no desire for reckless danger - and if I felt there was a real, tangible risk, I would have been sprinting back to the security of Tajikistan, likely weeping and longing for home.
But it seemed implausible to receive such a tip-off at a minute-to-midnight that was utterly at odds with literally dozens of assurances that I’d be safe. It seemed like mischief making.
I also felt that the old man was acting in response to Tomas’ insulting entry into his homeland, and I didn’t blame him. I felt he was deliberately scaring me rather than providing an honest appraisal of the security situation. With him were children - several young children below the age of 10 - and despite his stoic claim that he was returning home to face the onslaught, it seemed counter-intuitive to me that he would intentionally deliver his grand children to a bloodbath.
Additionally, Tajikistan would not leave the border open if there was a genuine security threat. Dushanbe is terrified of unrest in northeast Afghanistan - if the Tajik authorities have even the faintest intelligence of a pending attack, they will close the border and leave the Afghans to deal with it alone (leaving any unlucky tourists with no way back to Tajikistan).
Nevertheless, I was concerned. And I hesitated. For 10 minutes, as the wind picked up and a light rain began to fall, I debated with myself what to do.
In the end, I solicited more advice. Several of the Afghan guards spoke near-fluent English (more on why later). I explained to the man who’d stamped me in to Afghanistan what I’d been told. To my relief, he laughed.
“No, no”, he chuckled. “Please, come with me. I will show you Ishkashim. I assure you it is safe now”.
The promise of an armed escort eased my nerves. So I brushed the old-man’s doomsdayism aside, and took my first tentative steps in Afghanistan, passing decaying Russian tanks left idle since Moscow’s 1979 invasion, and wrapped by the warm-blanket that is a camouflaged man with an AK-47.