Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan
The 300 km (approx. 186 mi.) long Corridor, located in north-eastern Afghanistan, bordering China, Tadjikistan, and Pakistan, is considered one of the most remote and difficult to access regions in this part of the world but is also one of the most stable. It was part of the Silk Road used by Marco Polo, allowing the lucrative silk trade, which began in 220 CE, to reach the West. The closure of the Afghan-Chinese border crossing at the east end of the Wahkan Corridor has turned the valley into a cul de sac, inhabited by two distinct peoples, the Wakhi and the Kyrgyz.
They live in peaceful coexistence far from the Taliban insurgencies, trying to survive in a great expanse where the altitude and lack of resources render it practically uninhabitable. The Wakhi are Ismaili Muslim farmers, said to have descended from Alexander the Great. The Kyrgyz are a nomadic herding tribe of Sunni Muslims whose Asian features suggest Mongolian lineage, dating back to Ghengis Khan. Their seasonal villages of yurts spread across the furthest and highest reaches of the Corridor.
In 2011, inspired by an article published by the New York Times, I, along with, Fabrice Nadjari, decided to embark on a journey to explore the Wakhan Corridor. Equipped with photo, video and sound paraphernalia, transported on the backs of donkeys laden with solar panels, we trekked over 180 miles along that closed corridor, from the beginning of the Hindu Kush mountains to the western Himalayas and the border of China, to meet and document the lives of these villagers, farmers, herders and nomads, prisoners of this apogee of the world, surrounded by almost impassable limits. What we discovered during those weeks of walks in an “untouched” Afghanistan were the values of sharing, welcoming, and brotherhood.
We travelled for a month in the company of Amonali and Souleman, two Ismaili Wakhis of 24 and 32 years-old, who are taking care of our horse and our donkey. A last-minute addition to the group was QuarbonBek, a 23-year-old Sunni Afghan, who we picked up at Ishkashim to be our interpreter.
After the first week of hiking across the Hindu Kush at 3,500m to 5,500m above sea level, we exhausted all our supplies. From now on, we have only the low-calorie diet of bread and tea with yak milk which is provided — and which we can buy — in every village. Rarely, we chance upon small quantities of rice here and there, and, then, when we ate some lamb for the first time, it ended up making us all ill, as if our bodies were rejecting the meat.
For three weeks, we had respectfully adapted to the local diet, experiencing firsthand the rigours of survival to which all these families remain inextricably bound. Every encounter and every meal reminded us that, in this region, life expectancy stops short at 50 and the infant mortality rate verges on 60% — the highest in the world.
From Ishkahim to Erjhail — one of the last of the Corridor villages to border with China — we will have probably walked more than 450 kilometres over the course of 30 days, crossing the entirety of the Wakhan Corridor.
Our horse carried the rucksacks, tent, sleeping bags, camping stoves and gas cylinders, as well as the few additional clothes we had — outer-layers, rather than spare garments — while our donkey was loaded with 40 kilos of photo, video, sound and IT equipment, wrapped in two flexible solar panels, essential for recharging all the batteries in a region, which we assumed to be completely without power.
Yet to our astonishment, the Kyrgyz — vertical nomads who are the last remaining descendants of Genghis Khan— live on the highest plateaux of Wakhan at several weeks walk away from any of the main Pakistani, Afghan, Tajik or Chinese villages, yet they have solar panels, satellite aerials, television sets, and an impressive array of batteries, cables and chargers. When Oji Ossman, the Kyrgyz tekin in the village of Kashch Goz, produced a mobile phone from his military jacket — even though there is obviously no network coverage — in order to take our photograph, all our assumptions about these people, the idea that they are still leading the lives of their ancestors, seemed absurd and unfounded. In reality, they live in both worlds.
We shared the guest yurt in Kashch Goz with three Pakistani herdsmen, who had come from the Hunza Valley with the intention of obtaining a herd of goats in exchange for a television satellite aerial, several solar panels, and some sacks of rice and flour.
In Erjhail, we encountered Ramine and his brother, two young Afghans who had walked more than four weeks from Kabul to buy around one hundred goats and ten yaks from the village chief. We would go on to spend two days in their company before traveling together for several days on the journey home until our paths went their separate ways.
Throughout the whole journey, we felt ourselves to be connected, part of a shared experience and a brotherhood. But at this exact moment, our facial expressions and the breakdown of our appearance betrays the disconnection. Even though we knew exactly where we were on the topographical map, in our heads it is the first time that we felt so distant, maybe even lost…
Looking back at the original motivation behind this experience, what have we truly uncovered in the Wakhan? What will we have been able to share on our return and through our photographs?
What stories to tell? There are so many… The Wahkan Corridor series of photographs shares these moments and the very personal film I made attempt to tell this story.
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