When I crossed the Panj River from Tajikistan to Afghanistan I stepped back 100 years. On the Tajik side were cars, electric lights, tap-water and central heating; on the Afghan side donkeys, candles, water in buckets and smoky yak-dung fires.
From the border village of Eshkashim a finger of Afghanistan extends east for 200 miles, separating Tajikistan from Pakistan. This is the Wakhan Corridor, a relic of the 19th-century ‘Great Game’ between Britain and Russia. It leads to the High Pamir where the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Kunlun and Tian Shan mountain ranges come together in a tangle of glaciated peaks.
I was now in the territory of the Wakhi and the Kyrgyz, who’ve wandered these mountainsides for centuries with their sheep, goats and yaks. The Wakhi are sedentary and live in rough stone houses; the Kyrgyz are semi-nomadic and prefer felt tents called yurts. Not speaking either language, I found myself an interpreter called Yar Mohammad and he in turn came up with two splendid horsemen, Shogun and Amin Bek, each complete with a horse.
I had a month’s visa for Afghanistan: not long when you think of the distances involved. My first idea was to take some pens and exercise books to the pioneering school for nomadic Kyrgyz children built by Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute. It took a week to get there, but the students’ reaction was heartwarming and humbling. As far as I could tell they had no stationery whatsoever.
Then it was off to my second objective, the source of the Oxus. The location of this was hotly debated among Victorian geographers, till George Curzon explored the area in 1894 and found it to be a glacier tumbling into the remote Wakhjir Valley, near the point where modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and China meet. His celebrated ice cave can still be seen in the glacier’s snout, though thanks to global warming it’s migrated a quarter of a mile up the valley and is now rather higher than Curzon’s estimate of 14,700 feet.
After a three-day ride I found the river emerging dramatically from an ice chasm not far from the cave. Grey with silt and bloated with the morning’s meltwater, it thundered against the ice walls as I crawled up to photograph the exact spot where the water first sees daylight. A bit reckless, on reflection. Suddenly there was a bang like a gunshot, and a giant ice block collapsed and disintegrated on the opposite side. I watched in horror, snapped the vital picture and fled.
This was no place to linger. And as it happened, I had an appointment two days’ ride away with another British character from the days of the Raj. On 14th August 1891 Captain Francis Younghusband was arrested by Cossacks at Bozai Gumbaz, near where Greg Mortenson’s school now stands, and ordered to leave what they claimed was Russian territory. To the British government this seemed disturbingly like the prelude to a Tsarist invasion of India, and they mobilised troops to defend the frontier. Luckily in the end the Russians backed down and war was averted, but this so-called ‘Pamir Incident’ led directly to the creation of today’s curious boundaries, with the Wakhan Corridor incorporated in Afghanistan to prevent British and Russian forces from ever again having to meet.
I wanted to mark the 120th anniversary of the incident by giving a nod and a wink to the officers involved, who actually behaved with impeccable Victorian courtesy all round. (The Cossacks presented Younghusband with a haunch of venison.) But to get to the spot I had some rivers to cross, and in the middle of a particularly wide one I managed to fall off my horse. I’m not sure how it happened. One moment the horse was wading across steadily; the next it was on its knees and I was tumbling over its head. Luckily my foot caught in one of the stirrups, so instead of being swept away I was dragged through the freezing water in a rather undignified way and deposited like a wet fish on the far bank.
So my salute to the Pamir Incident wasn’t quite as intended. My dripping figure must have looked a bit pathetic, compared with the smartly uniformed officers puffing out their chests all those years before. But at least I didn’t nearly start a war.
If they really had invaded India, the Russians would have done so via the Boroghil Pass, the most famous and popular of the many trading routes across the North-West Frontier. Thanks to Taliban activity on the Pakistan side it’s now sadly closed and guarded, but I wanted to set eyes on this gap in the mountains which has been trudged across by so many people and animals over the generations.
To reach the pass I had to cross the Wakhan River, the widest and deepest so far. For this final challenge I chose the second horse, which luckily proved more surefooted than the first, and we splashed our way through the waves without incident. Four hours later I was at 12,500 feet, looking down a broad grassy slope into Pakistan. For such a well-trodden route the path was surprisingly modest. And luckily for me, neither Taliban nor border guards were anywhere to be seen.
These four weeks in Afghanistan were the most difficult, exciting, terrifying, thought-provoking and occasionally comical that I’ve had for a long time. Wherever I came across Wakhi villages or Kyrgyz encampments, people came out to meet me with smiles and bowls of milk or yoghurt. (Except for Effendi Bey, the opium smoker of Kashch Goz, about whom the less said the better.) It’s a sad fact that the numbers who are willing to pursue this tough life are dwindling year by year, so to finish this update here’s just a selection of those I was lucky enough to meet.