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.
“My name is Sadikalar”, said my new guide. 35 years old, Sadikalar looked a great deal older. He’d spent the last ten years in the Afghan National Police. I didn't pry about whether or not he’d fought. But I assumed he probably had.
14 months before I arrived in Ishkashim, the town did come under attack - at least according to news sources. In May 2017, the Taliban launched an offensive on the district surrounding the town. Apparently, they briefly came to control Ishakshim itself, according to news reports. Cognizant of this recent history, I asked Sadikalar what happened while we walked from the border to his car, where we’d begin our short tour of his district.
Sadikalar denied the attack had happened at all. Perhaps sensing my unease, he reassured me once more: “No no, Ishkashim is very very safe. You don’t need to worry”.
I suddenly became worried that his dismissal of the old man’s warnings was inspired by a need to get tourist dollars into the district rather than a genuine security assessment. This basic question clouded my visit.
About 3 kilometres walk from the border lay Sadikalar’s house - a simple but spacious single-story mud brick building surrounded by tall walls. He opened a garage to reveal his car - a late 90’s Carolla with novelty California number plates. “I have a similar car in Australia”, I said [well, my girlfriend does]. He seemed unimpressed.
Soon, we were driving towards the centre of Ishkashim. It was on the short car trip that he offered me to stay with his family for the night. I was eager to say yes, and we agreed on a price - $100 for a night’s accommodation, food, a tour of the district, and for him to serve as a translator. Ishkashim is known for its ludicrous prices due to its economic suffocation wrought by the Taliban. In that climate, 100 bucks seemed reasonable. And I was happy to deposit a generous sum of US dollars into such a depressed economy. It would at least make my trip a touch more beneficial than Tomas’.
What is striking about Ishakshim is its natural setting - utterly out of sync with what comes to mind when you think of Afghanistan. A truly beautiful mosaic of fields, livestock, streams and mountains is ever-present.
There is a lot of activity in the farms, mainly manual labor, which gives the place a sense of old-world energy - until you look closer. “Why are there so many kids in the fields?”, I asked.
“This is Afghanistan”, Sadikalar replied.
Among Afghanistan’s many challenges is the prevalence of child-labor. Here, it didn’t appearcoerced and could be interpreted by some as some romantic homage - a wholesome taste of what life on the family farm used to be. But it was early afternoon on a weekday. It was sad to see children who should be getting educated manually ploughing fields and herding livestock. Adult women appeared to join them - some pregnant, all shrouded head-to-toe. The men, meanwhile, milled about in the bazaar, which we soon arrived at.
Ishakshim’s surrounds are serene, but its main bazaar is a depressing little outpost. Dozens of half-shipping containers form shop-fronts on the side of a dirt road. All sell watermelons and soft drinks. Fewer sell fresh meats or other non-edible consumer goods. Prices are also, apparently astronomical.
The main roads that connect Ishkashim to the rest of Afghanistan are all occupied by Taliban. It means getting non-essential items to town is ridiculously onerous and expensive. It makes the town largely self-sufficient, and void of luxury goods. The few soft drinks, Nokia 3310s, sim cards, electronics, and clothes that make it in are significantly more expensive than elsewhere, according to Sadikalar, despite the extent of local poverty.
As Sadikalar shopped, I took photos and exchanged smiles and greetings with locals. My first thought while strolling the bazaar was that this WAS Afghanistan. It wasn’t at all similar to Eshkashim in Tajikistan. Here, every scene looked like the Afghanistan you see on TV. Few women were in public - those who were remained clad in full faced burqas. Many men wore traditional Afghan dress, though few sported beards in this comparably moderate corner of the country. Most striking was the amount of weaponry on display.
Police are everywhere in Ishkashim. Literally every few meters. Some walk the streets in traditional clothes with AK-47s in their hands or draped across their back. Others are uniformed. Some ride in the back of pick-up trucks with large, mounted machine guns at their disposal. The police and military nearly outnumber locals going about their business. Sadikalar told me that over 700 military and police are stationed in Ishakshim, a township with a population of only a few thousand. On those numbers, police and soldiers would make up more than 20 per cent of the local population.
The vast majority of locals were overtly welcoming. They’d look at me, smile, and say ‘salom melekom’ (this corner of Afghanistan speaks Persian, not Pashto) with hand-on-heart. Some others looked at me with vacant, discomfiting stares. I assumed none were threatening, like I assume of anyone in any place.
One man spoke perfect English. His name was Idi Mohammed. I learned that, in addition to running a small shop selling cigarettes, bottled drinks and dried noodles, he was the region’s only English teacher. He was the man who’d taught the local border guards such perfect English.
We chatted for 15 minutes. I asked about the security situation, and tourism in the region. Again, I pressed about the attack that happened last year.
“There was no attack here”, Idi said. “It was a few kilometres away from here, but not in Ishkashim”.
He then offered that familiar refrain: “It is very safe here. You have nothing to worry about”.
I was confused. Unless credible news sources were entirely inaccurate, there was an attack on Ishkashim in May 2017. I felt like the locals were just reluctant to say it was so. Perhaps it was a minor incursion that was reported out of context. But their denials seemed strange to me considering the local military commander had given a press conference to foreign reporters spruiking his success in driving the militants out of town. Maybe they were unaware of the foreign media’s coverage of the attack. Maybe the attack didn’t really occur - or was at least so insignificant compared to other attacks that locals weren’t perturbed. In any case, it highlighted the challenges of ascertaining accurate information in a region clouded by war and the constant threat of violence.
I asked Idi about the state of tourism. On this question, he seemed to allude to the attack.
“We used to have more tourists 3 or 4 years ago”, he said. I asked why there are fewer now.
“I think people are scared, because of what happened last year. And because less people are coming, the guest houses are closing down”.
Idi implicitly admitted to the 2017 incursion. But again, he stressed the safety of the region, and made one final argument in favour of his homeland.
“Afghanistan is a wonderful place every day of the year. It is only when they attack that it is a bad place”.
Idi Muhammed, a local shop-keep and Ishkashim's resident English teacher. He has been teaching all of the border guards English in an attempt to broaden their ability to welcome tourists to the region.
6 KILOMETERS FROM THE TALIBAN
Back in the Corolla, we drove south of town. Sadikalar wanted to show me more of the region, but was driving out of the secure zone and south towards Zebak - which is currently controlled by the Taliban, and is only 20 kilometres from Ishkashim. I became uneasy, particularly when he pointed at a nearby hill - not some soaring, snow capped peak, just a pathetic, easily-climbable hill - and said “the Taliban are just 6 kilometres away. Just over that mountain”.
I made it clear we’d driven as far south as I felt necessary. He laughed and did a u-turn.
We were to spent the night at his house, but first, we visited the in-laws.
It was a bone-rattling drive from central Ishkashim to a nearby village, about 5 kilometres from the bazaar and close to the border. We parked and opened a large gate, entering a beautifully kept garden, which served as the veggie-patch of Sadikalar’s mother-in-law, Ruboda.
My first glimpse of Ruboda was memorable. There stood a remarkably strong woman. Her grandchildren lined up behind her, as if she was their protector. She stood tall, was draped in a purple shroud and welcomed me with a tired smile. She looked to me like some sort of hero - an almost mythical sage from the pages of history; a warrior, which I suppose she was. She invited me into her home for tea.
I slipped off my worn-out boots and stepped in. Houses in this part of Afghanistan adopt a typical Pamiri structure. There is a large open area where guests eat, sleep, and gather for discussions. Beautiful rugs and tapestries cover every surface. Sadikalar and I entered, followed by some other hangers-on whom I couldn't quite place in the family structure. We drank green tea and broke bread. Without prompting, Ruboda spoke to me through Sadikalar’s translation.
“We lost both my husband and my son to the Taliban”, she said, utterly out of context with my basic conversation starters such as “you have a beautiful home” and “the tea is delicious”. I apologised for her loss with no real understanding of what she must have endured, which I’m sure was obvious.
Ruboda’s son and husband had been police officers, like Sadikalar. They hadn’t died in Ishkashim, but elsewhere in past fighting.
Ishakishim is known as perhaps the safest part of Afghanistan. It struck me that, even here - in the safest corner of the country - the impact of the Taliban is tangible and ever-present.
At Ruboda’s, we sat in silence. It wasn’t akward. But it was quiet. Soon, Sadikalar suggested we leave for his place. I thanked Ruboda and took her portrait, which I felt captured every ounce of her strength. Sadikalar dropped off some food. This appeared a daily ritual - him checking in on his mother-in-law. Perhaps Sadikalar was the only man in Ruboda’s life that was left. I’m not sure. But their relationship appeared closer than that of typical in-laws. Her presence left a mark on me. Her weathered, sad face - her ability to only muster a half smile - personified the horrors of 40 years of war.