Journeying through a remote region of northeastern Afghanistan, untouched by the war and preserved from the Taliban regime, this story pays tribute to the ancient culture of this land, which has never disappeared but which has simply been forgotten.
This narrative serves as an introduction to my multi-platform project, ‘Wakhan, an other Afghanistan’. One of the photos from this project won first prize in the 24th annual National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest, and the 78-minute film ‘Wakhan’ was selected as one of the firm favourites to feature in the Etonnants Voyageurs Festival in St-Malo, France.
My mind takes me back to 8 August 2011. It must have been around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, but in any event, time here takes on an alternative dimension, something which we have been discovering and settling into since the beginning of our journey.
Then I remember a young Afghan saying to me a few weeks earlier, “You have your watches, and we have the time.”
Under the arborescent canopy of a small shelter made with stones and yak excrement, Fabrice and I wait for our hosts to bring us bread and tea, which has been our sole source of nutrition morning, noon and night for more than three weeks. Dates, energy bars, dried fruit — these are a thing of the past, and I have already lost 15 kilos.
We had planned ahead with two people in mind, forgetting on market day at Ishkashim — the village on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan — that we would be accompanied by one guide or several for this expedition along the Wakhan Corridor, as far as China.
We travel for a month in the company of Amonali and Souleman, two Ismaili Wakhis of twenty-four and thirty-two years of age, who are taking care of our horse and our donkey. A last-minute addition to the group is QuarbonBek, a twenty-year-old Sunni Afghan and real ‘city boy’, who we have picked up at Ishkashim to fill the role of interpreter.
After the first week of hiking across the Hindu Kush at 3,500 to 5,500m above sea level, we have exhausted all our supplies, and from now on we have to satisfy ourselves with the low-calorie diet of bread and tea with yak milk which is provided — and which we can buy — in every village. We have chanced upon small quantities of rice here and there, and then three days ago some lamb for the first time, which has ended up making us all ill, as if our bodies were rejecting the meat.
Humbly and respectfully we have been adapting for three weeks to the local diet, experiencing firsthand the process of survival to which all these families remain inextricably bound. Every encounter and every meal reminds us that in this region, which fully awakens the senses and intensifies the emotions of the traveller, life expectancy stops short at 50 and the infant mortality rate verges on 60% — the highest in the world.
We pause for several hours in one of the villages situated along the Corridor ‘high route’ that is the pathway for the return journey, making a transition from the lands of the Khirghizes to Wakhi territory. From Ishkahim to Erjhail — one of the last of the Corridor villages to border with China — we will probably walk more than 450 kilometres over the course of 30 days, following in the footsteps of Marco Polo and Alexander the Great in crossing the entirety of the Wakhan Corridor.
Our horse carries the rucksacks, tent, sleeping bags, camping stoves and gas cylinders, as well as the few additional clothes we have — outer-layers, rather than spare garments — while our donkey is loaded with 40 kilos of photo, video, sound and IT equipment, wrapped in two flexible solar panels, an essential for recharging all the batteries in a region which we assume to be completely without power.
Yet to our astonishment, the Khirghizes — a nomadic people of Mongolian aspect, the last remaining descendants of Genghis Khan, living on the highest plateaux of Wakhan, several weeks’ walk away from any of the main Pakistani, Afghan, Tajik or Chinese villages — have solar panels, satellite aerials, television sets, and an impressive array of batteries, cables and chargers. And when Oji Ossman, the chief Kyrgyz in the village of Kashch Goz, produces a mobile phone from his military jacket — even though obviously there is no network coverage — in order to take our photograph, all our assumptions about these tribes, the idea that they are still leading the lives of their ancestors, seem absurd and unfounded.
The Wakhan Corridor, as part of the Silk Road, has been established for centuries as a route for traffic and trade of all kinds. Pakistanis, Afghans and Tajiks still spend weeks at a time traversing the mountains, on foot or on horseback, to purchase from the Khirghizes the herds of yak, goats and sheep which have always been at the root of their livelihood.
We shared the guest yurt in KashGoz 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 in excess of 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 travelling together for several days on the journey home, until our paths went their separate ways.
As always, the looks we attract from the four herdsmen in the Wakhi village perched high in the mountains, where we rested for a few hours, are benevolent, but also perplexed. They are asking themselves, “What are these two strangers doing here?” “A report about us” is the most likely answer from Souleman, pointing out with his finger the camera and video equipment placed on a piece of cloth on the ground.
Our hosts frequently thank us for coming to meet them and for taking an interest in their lives. Repeatedly we feel the sadness in their gaze as they watch us leave again. I have the feeling that they are somehow counting on us from the moment we are welcomed.
We are now in a relatively advanced state of physical and mental fatigue, and the distance separating us from each other is immense. Throughout the whole journey we have felt ourselves 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 know exactly where we are on the topographical map, in our heads it is the first time that we are feeling so distant, maybe even lost?
Considering the original motivation behind an experience like this, what have we truly uncovered in the Wakhan? What will we be able to share on our return, and through our photographs?
What stories to tell? There are so many.
At the heart of a journey devoted to documentary, it is the personal and professional questions which confront each other, providing answers and sometimes shedding light on one another. And when I look at Fabrice, who is silent as I am, my companion of days gone by, of this moment and always, I feel myself reconnecting.
We have never been consciously afraid, neither of the mountains, nor of all that we have witnessed in Afghanistan in more than 20 years, yet the self-knowledge of this moment is deeply reassuring.
Because if I ever shut down — something which I feel capable of right now — he will be there to restore me. By shutting down, I mean cutting the cord, and no longer being able to endure the weight of escalating hardship, a burden which grows hour after hour, days and weeks on end.
As a humanist, it pains me to see so many men, women and children living under such extreme conditions, and myself unable to endure any longer the psychological torture of knowing that the next bit of potato or piece of fruit is a mere three weeks walk away.
Have we become psychological prisoners of our own investigation? I watch Souleman, crouched down opposite me. This young man, who seems ten or fifteen years older than his thirty, is smiling, supporting me now as he has done for the last three weeks, in such a way that with every gesture I make, I can feel his watchful presence.
I sense that it is not just the traveller that this young man is supporting and protecting, but also the writer, who has promised, with all his photographic and cinematic recording kit, to uncover to the rest of the world his very existence, that of his loved ones and of his community as a whole. We cannot afford to show any sign of weakness.
So when the bread and tea are eventually served, bringing us back to our senses and to the harsh reality, I look at Souleman and smile at him in my turn. Through this knowing smile, a mutual promise is made.
He will keep me safe and sound until the end of my journey, and I will pay homage on our return to all those we have encountered, opening the world’s eyes to an other Afghanistan, which has never disappeared but which has simply been forgotten.
PHOTOGRAPHS AND TEXT BY
VARIAL CÉDRIC HOUIN