Into Afghanstan – Eshkashim, The Wakhan Corridor and the Hindu Kush… but not with the Land Rover
How we spent a lot of time on the Ishkashim border, got stuck in no-mans land, had to leave the Land Rover with crazy Tajik police and got a military escort into town.
…and hatched a plan to re-new our 15 day import permit.
The Plan: pick up our Afghan Visas at the consulate in Khorog, drive to the border at Ishkashim, exit the country fully using the second entry on our Tajik Visa and return the same way thus renewing our temporary import document.
While we were in-country it would also be rude not to go for a drive up the little known Afghan side of the Wakhan Valley.
Many of you will be wondering what on earth we were thinking’ tourists in Afghanistan’. Pfft. But the security situation in the Wakhan region of the far northeast has been stable for many years and see’s somewhere in the region of 200 tourists every year. To question our actions is reasonable but to condemn them as foolish or selfish is narrow minded. We asked a lot of people both in Khorog and in Ishkashim about the security situation and everybody said it was fine. There is even a multinational group of tourists doing a 22 day horse-trek in the valley this year. There has been some fighting in Faizabad earlier in the year but ISAF forces were controlling that. We had a contact at home in the UK who had full details of our Itinerary and who we kept in full contact with via our satellite phone.
The Wakhan corridor was a political creation of the Great Game. On the corridor’s north side, agreements between Britain and Russia in 1873 and between Britain and Afghanistan in 1893 effectively split the historic area of Wakhan by making the Panj and Pamir Rivers the border between Afghanistan and the Russian Empire. On its south side, the Durand Line agreement of 1893 marked the boundary between British India and Afghanistan. This left a narrow strip of land as a buffer between the two empires, which became known as the Wakhan Corridor in the 20th century.
The Corridor is a long and slender Panhandle, roughly 220 km long and between 16 and 64 km wide. Part of Badakhshan Province, Wakhan Corridor separates the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast of Tajikistan in the north from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit Baltistan in Kashmir.
As we knew the road wasgoing to be rough we arranged with the Pamir Lodge to leave our Trailer and a number of things behind with them to collect on our return. This would lighten the load on the 90 and make it much more nimble when things get serious. We made our way to Ishkashim with Adam under blue skies stopping off at the Garam-Chasma hot springs for a wash off. The mood couldn’t have been better. We stayed at the Hanis Guesthouse later that afternoon planning to enter Afghanistan the next day.
After a relaxed breakfast we made our way to the border. It was dead. The Tajiks opened up and let us through. They didn’t seem to know what they were doing with vehicle paperwork mixing up ours and Adam’s V5 documents several times. When we quizzed them on our temporary import they didn’t seem to know what we were talking about, doubt soon set in as we only had 3 days left.
We got stamped out and the Afghans opened up to let us in. we gave them our passports and we were then asked for the usual vehicle documents. On handing over the V5 he said ‘not that one the other one’. ‘What other one?’, ‘the special one’.
As it turns out the ‘special one’ is known locally as a Rupos. This document is your vehicle registration papers translated into Farsi. It also turns out you cannot get this at the border. You can read more about this document here: Do as I say, not as I do
So where do you get it? The Consulate in Khorog. Smiles tuned to frowns and discontent. The immigration and customs guys were making phone calls and trying to find a solution. It was Friday afternoon and we knew there would be nobody at the Consulate who could help. In the confusion it was now 1830 and the Tajik side had closed. We were stuck. We couldn’t drive into Afghanistan and we couldn’t re-enter Tajikistan. The Afghans wouldn’t let us leave the Land Rover and Motorbike there, nor would they store it in a customs compound inside Afghanistan. The man in charge phoned his commander who came down in his armoured Ford Ranger complete with roof mounted machine-gun. He said he couldn’t give approval for us so phoned his boss who also said no. There was no way we could do anything to get in. They called the Tajiks who came over and opened up. We could drive back and store the vehicles in their compound while we went in on foot, so that is what we did. It was a very confusing few hours in the blazing sun. trying to translate between Farci, English and Russian and trying to think of ways around moving documents, Fax, email and courier options were all explored! I tried everything, Including phoning the Consulate on the Sat phone.
The Afghan police phoned for a taxi and a guide who came to get us from the border. We quickly got some bags together and got going just as night fell. Behind us was the military police pick-up as we raced into Eshkashim toward our Guesthouse for the night. Both myself and Adam had an uneasy feeling about leaving the vehicles with the Tajik police. They were outside, visible from the road with only a small wall to guard them. We decided there was no point in being there without our own transport as the costs in this region are huge compared to other Central Asian countries. So over dinner, we decided we would leave the following morning. The food was a great spread, something we had not experienced in other countries. Maybe it was our tight budget getting in the way? Breakfast the following morning was also great, although Adam likened the beds to Taliban torture racks which was probably not far from the truth.
We had a lot to do that morning. We couldn’t leave without registering. So we had to sort that out. This required photos, 4 copies of your visa, 4 copies of your passport and a further $10. We had to explain why were not staying several times to our guide and then again to the local officials. I took the opportunity to start asking people if I could take their portraits. I got a few nods, alongside many refusals. Fair enough. In the hope of increasing chances for others I went back to the photo printing shop and gave them the SD card out of my camera. They produced copies of my photos which I took back and gave to the two local men who agreed. They were very happy with the results and surprised to have been given something back. If you get the chance to do this wherever you are in the world, I highly recommend it.
We got to the border to find the Land Rover next to the road over 50m from where I had parked it and no sign on Adam’s bike. We both had the keys, what the hell had happened. We could see it as we crossed back through immigration. Asking the border police we were told that 20 soldiers had picked it up and moved it outside. That is over 2000kg of Land Rover, moved, by hand. Everything seemed OK with the truck with exception to the AK-47 scratches now in the driver’s door and Adam’s bike was parked safely next to it. To make things worse Tajik customs would not re-new our vehicle documents. We were told it could be done in Khorog but not told where. Being midday on Saturday we raced back to Khorog and found the customs office. They looked confused and didn’t want to deal with us so we got sent onwards to the other border with Afghanistan. We knocked on the gate but the young guy who answered didn’t speak Russian, didn’t want to know and shut the gate on us. We stayed and tried again. Eventually they let Lisa in with both ours and Adam’s documents. They didn’t want us all in. Five minutes later Lisa returned with our original documents but with a fresh stamp and signature. With relief but overall disappointment we returned to the Pamir Lodge for a well earned rest.