The locals call it Bam-e Dunya, the Roof of the World, for it’s here that the Hindu Kush, Pamir and Karakoram mountain ranges dramatically converge in the majestic Pamir Knot. Remote and isolated, the Wakhan Corridor sticks out of North East Afghanistan like the proverbial sore thumb, bordered by Tajikistan to the North, China to the East and Pakistan to the South. This 350 kilometre long piece of land was created as a buffer zone during the Great Game between Russia and British India in the nineteenth century and has had such legendary figures as Genghis Khan, Alexandra the Great and Marco Polo pass through its plains and over its high passes. Up here, far from Kabul and the conflict that troubles the rest of the country, women are considered equal, the burqa is nowhere to be found and the community of Wakhi subsistence farmers abide by a moderate denomination of Shia Islam, known as Ismaili, headed by the spiritual leader, the Aga Khan. The Taliban have never had a toehold here.
Despite being deemed safe, the region is chronically poor and life is hard for the local inhabitants, who are still existing in the same way they have been for thousands of years; living in yurts, cultivating what they can out of the sparse soil and moving in the summer months to higher pasture to graze their flocks of goats, yaks and sheep. Being so cut off from civilisation, the area has long been forgotten in terms of resources such as health services or education. Recent reports show it has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world and life expectancy is a shockingly low – 35 per cent. For this reason, the Aga Khan Foundation is looking to tourism as a viable option to create sustainable economic development. Guest houses are being built, locals are being educated about the benefits of tourism and resources are being provided for training guides. These are giant steps for the Wakhan’s fledgling tourist industry.
Pioneering expedition company Secret Compass has begun to run trips to this practically untouched, wildly beautiful region. ‘We want to show that these remote yet stunning areas, which before had been thought of as inaccessible and dangerous, can actually be enjoyed if done in a responsible and culturally aware manner,’ says Tom Bodkin, one half of the two man team who began Secret Compass in 2011. Both he and Levison Wood are ex-Parachute Regiment Officers in the British Army and have several Afghan tours and over twenty global expeditions between them. Extensive risk assessments are carried out prior to any trip, and behind their adventurous spirits lie level heads and inquisitive minds. ‘We want all our trips to have a narrative,’ says Wood. ‘The idea behind this one was borne out of our desire to reach Lake Zorkul, source of the Oxus River, discovered by Scottish naval officer and explorer John Wood in 1838, while taking in the fantastic surroundings and meeting the Wakhi and Kyrgyz people along the way.’
The Kyrgyz are the proud, haughty horsemen who stalk the same territory as the Wakhi communities in this region. Although being geographically close, they are culturally a world apart. These nomadic pastoralists have been itinerant for hundreds of years, having been originally driven from their homeland by the Mongols. Some stayed in the Pamir lowlands and led an enforced sedentary Soviet lifestyle, but others remained fiercely independent and continued to roam free in the mountains. When the borders were closed in the 1920s, they were permanently cut off from their kinfolk. Now, there are roughly only 1400 left of the last of the truly nomadic yurt-dwelling horsemen.
The Secret Compass two-week trek to Lake Zorkul in July 2011 took its small band of explorers through Wakhi and Kyrgyz territories, over plains and high passes, through rivers and bogs, on horseback and on foot, staying both in tents and in the yurts offered to them by the local people, swimming in Lake Zorkul, and even participating in an impromptu game of the Central Asian sport, Buzkashi, played with a dried out dead goat. The hospitality offered throughout was humbling, considering the economical situation of the area, but both the Wakhi and the Kyrgyz were keen to feed and accommodate these Westerners who had wandered into their world of ice, mountains, yaks and yurts, as curious as the explorers themselves.
For further information on Secret Compass expeditions back to the Wakhan Corridor plus all other forthcoming expeditions, visit www.secretcompass.com
For more on the Aga Khan Foundation, visit http://www.akdn.org/AKF
Photographer: Celia Topping