One of the wildest and most remote landscapes in the world is located along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. The 210 km long Wakhan Valley splits the Pamir Mountains from the Hindu Kush. The name comes from the people who live in this region, the Wakhi. On the Afghanistan side of the border is the Wakhan Corridor, which is a side-effect of the Great Game that unfolded over the Pamir Mountains between England and Tsarist Russia. The rivalry was for supremacy in Central Asia. From 1813 to 1907, the strategic conflict unfolded. Once an Indian territory, the Wakhan Corridor was given to Afghanistan by the British to have a buffer between the Russian Pamirs and its richest colony, India. The English were very alarmed by the Russian expansion and influence throughout Central Asia. So what we’re left with now is a long arm of Afghanistan, which separates Tajikistan from Pakistan.
Riding through the Wakhan Valley was one of the coolest parts of this long adventure. Raw beauty at it’s best. Here’s an incredible aerial view of what the valley looks like courtesy of the internet. The right side is Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush.
Turning off of the Pamir Highway, a sandy rough road leads over a four-thousand plus meter pass. Here’s a link to my Pamir Highway Post (Pamir Highway), and a link for my post about starting the Pamirs from Kyrgyzstan (Kyrgyzstan-Pamirs). After passing an alpine lake, the route continues twisting down until reaching the Wakhan Valley.
The cold air is harsh up at this elevation and I planned to find a homestay in the little village that appeared on my map. This wishful thinking didn’t pay off though. A road over to the Afghanistan border, a few homes, a few more crumbling concrete structures, and a Tajik check-point were the only signs of life. The sun was quickly disappearing and the next village was a long way off on the sandy bumpy roads. The two Tajik soldiers manning the check-point couldn’t have been much over 19 years old. After a search of my bike, which felt more like them being bored and curious to see some new gadgets, I continued into the Wakhan Valley. The only life around were young shepherds herding their flocks of animals down the dusty road. At dusk, I found a small side-road that led up the slope to a plateau. I set up camp in the great wide open with Afghanistan not much more than a stones throw away. Ninety-nine percent of me felt perfectly safe, but I couldn’t help having a wee bit of nervousness deep down in. The news only puts terrible things out there about the country and plants seeds in your head. I laid out under bright twinkling stars until I couldn’t handle the cold for another second.
The morning sun brought warmth and a gorgeous blue river to follow down the valley. In the rugged brown-gray landscape, the river looks almost out-of-place. The blues of the sky and river contrast amazingly with the rock.
Along the road is an old military post and tall watch-tower. From up top there are beautiful sweeping views up and down the valley and into Afghanistan. A true feeling of solitude can be found out here. Just you and your thoughts. On this day riding through the valley I only passed two vehicles.
The aqua-marine river continues to weave its way west carving out the small border. At some points along the road my GPS showed me in Afghanistan. After a morning a riding down along the river, the wide valley begins to tighten. The two mountain ranges start to squeeze closer. The road climbs up onto high ledges along the river.
Riding on cliffs with steep drops reminds me of Indian Kashmir and riding in the mountains of Ladakh. There, I felt like half the roads you ride on are teetering on the brink. Here it was much less severe, but could still get the blood pumping.
Pictures can never do a place like this justice. It’s way too big to ever capture in one frame and half the beauty of it is standing in it and taking it all in. It’s a place to daydream and let your imagination run free.
It was hard to make much distance when every five-hundred meters I was stopping because of an even more impressive view. The old Pamiri guys would stop me to ask for a cigarettes, I couldn’t help them out since I don’t smoke, but it always led to ten minutes of trying to communicate and plenty of laughing.
It’s not the best place to break down or run out of gas. Luckily for these boys I was coming along at the perfect time and had enough petrol to spare a few liters.
The only traffic jams you will see up here of the animal type. Families herd their large flocks of livestock down from the high pastures back towards the lower villages. During the summer months the animals are taken to feed in the upper hills, but in winter they’re brought back down before the brutal winter hits.
Coming off the pass, the road leads all the way back down to the river where it spreads out into many arms covering the valley floor. The narrow canyon, which once housed the fast flowing water, now widens back open and the water slows. Down here is when the lush green villages start to appear.
On the Afghanistan side of the river, glacier covered peaks have carved channels out of the mountains for their melt-water and debris to flow into the river. They sit majestically snow-capped giving a peak through the openings.
The wide veiny river sweeps through creating a wide plain between the ranges. Down here at the lower elevation, many crops are grown. The small villages are surrounded by fields along the river bank. Most of the people in these communities are basically self-sufficient except for the electricity, which can be unreliable.
From the village of Yamchun, a steep gravel road twists its way up to the Yamchun Fortress, which was most likely the best defense fortification ever built in the ancient Wakhan. Constructed on a cliff overlooking the valley, it dates back to 3-1 century BC. The tall watchtowers and thick stone walls played a very important role on the famous Silk Road. It was built using materials that had to be delivered from far way since many of the forms of rock aren’t found in the area. It’s a pretty incredible sight when you think about everything it has been through from human attacks to natural forces. The fort has definitely been weathered down from its former glory, but still impressive.
One thing they had in the fort were amazing views.
The valley continues like this for a while, which is nice for the morning sun. Sometimes in the steep narrow sections the sun doesn’t reach you till well into the day because it’s hiding. Without the suns warmth it’s very chilly, especially on a motorcycle. It has to be one of the prettiest places on earth, and so untouched.
Eventually, the mountains begin to suck back closer to each other again and squeeze the river into a single channel. On the Afghan side of the river there are some of the cutest villages I’ve ever seen. It really feels like you’ve stepped hundreds, if not thousands, of years back in time to a different pace of life. Little mud houses with beautiful trees thickly mixed in between. Surrounding this are the villages crops, which are mostly already harvested at this time of year. Most are situated at the out-flow of a water source. Behind the villages are big glaciers, which supply the streams with melt-water. The scenes remind me of something out of an old movie taking place in biblical times.
Eventually, the mountains begin to suck back closer to each other again and squeeze the river into a single channel. Eventually, the mountains begin to suck back closer to each other again and squeeze the river into a single channel.
The valley tightens up even further until you’re riding along cliffs with the river far below. Khorugh is fast approaching, the largest city in Gorno-Badakhshan.
A great place to stay in Khorugh is up at the Pamir Lodge. Run by a great family, and established to fund the local jamoat khana (Ismaili prayer hall). They’ve done an amazing job setting up a sanctuary for weary travelers looking for a respite from the road. During the summer, bicyclists, hitchhikers, motorcyclists, and every other type of traveler stays here, which makes a great atmosphere. And, they even have their own personal photographer on site (who might hang necklaces on your motorcycle at night, and leave you with a mystery).
In Khorugh, you join back up with the Pamir Highway, which comes in from the east. Heading north, you continue along the Afghanistan border. The river flows quickly through the steep valley walls. If I made a movie, no matter what genera, part of it would be filmed through here. A love story, an action adventure, alien invasion, they would all work.
The river loses its surreal blue color for a gray-blue tinted look that’s beautiful in its own way.
At one point along the road I spotted a big tank facing Afghanistan. I pondered it for a few seconds and pulled a u-turn to go check it out. It looked like a small army base with a few pieces of equipment, vehicles, and a big building under construction. When I first pulled up a big guy with his shirt off crossed his arms at me as if to say, “stay out”. I made a comment about the tank, and then he asked where I was from. When I told him America he quickly got a smile on his face and waved me in. He loaded me up with handfuls of apples and pears, and then invited me to go see the tank. I think they might have been a bit bored out there because they sure were excited to have a visitor. There was one guy who spoke a little bit of english and translated for everyone else. They were a police unit from Kulyab and stationed out there.
They wanted me to stay for dinner and sleep at the barracks, but I decided not to. Before leaving, they gave me more fruit and a Russian military MRE. I was pretty stoked to have a snack for later, but later when I opened it on the side of the road, a swarm of tiny flies came out of it. According to the packaging it was sealed in 2011 and the expiry date was a month away. It seemed completely sealed up, and it’s crazy they were able to live in it. Maybe it was a practical joke on me. If it was, it was a good one. I about jumped off my motorcycle.
Sorry to disappoint, but I didn’t actually drive the tank like the name of the post suggested. That’s where they drew the line.
Continuing north through the narrow canyons towards Qal’ai Khumb where Afghanistan is at its northernmost point.
From Qal’ai Khumb, it’s a bit over 300 km on the south route to the capital of Tajikistan Dushanbe. Just a handful more check-points and that will be over. After going through Gorn0-Badakhshan via the Pamir Highway and Wakhan Valley, I’ve probably done over ten of them. They were hassle free for me and none of the young soldiers ever tried to get a bribe out of me like I’d been warned of. All they do is take your passport into their little booth and jot down your information. Half the time they were more concerned with getting my white-out pen to write on my motorcycle. They all wanted to mark my bike with the names of their home villages. A couple of them wanted me to try holding their assault rifles (without the clip). One was super excited to snap a cell-phone pic of me holding his gun. The funniest experience was when I saw a truck driver coming the other way hand the soldiers down a large melon, and once they got my information, they bid me farewell and gave me the melon. When I got to the next city I gave it to a taxi driver. The circle of life.