On an expedition through northeast Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, photographer Frédéric Lagrange captures the rugged, elemental beauty of one of Asia’s wildest landscapes—and the resilience of the people who call it home.
By Frédéric Lagrange
IT WAS IN THE LATE 1990s, while reading Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush—an account of his 1956 trek through what is now northeast Afghanistan—that my interest in this part of Central Asia was first piqued. I’d soon made up my mind: I was going.
Then 9/11 happened, and Afghanistan relapsed into war. I ended up visiting the wide-open spaces of Mongolia instead, returning again and again over the next decade. But Afghanistan remained fixed in my mind. So, in the late winter of 2012, after securing a month away from commercial assignments—and convincing my wife that I would be safe—I set off. A friend in London who runs expeditions through the Wakhan Corridor had put me in touch with guides who could take me into Afghanistan from Tajikistan—the dangerous road northeast from Kabul was out of the question.
Equipment in tow, I boarded a late-night flight to Dushanbe. On landing, I was greeted by a Tajik named Shakar. We drove together for three straight days through beautiful hilly landscapes, climbing slowly into the rugged Pamir Mountains before reaching the Panj River, which separates Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Then, on a cold, sunny morning, I crossed the river alone on a fortified metal bridge. On the other side, my passport was stamped by a disheveled army officer, who announced to me in broken English that I was the first foreigner to cross the border this year, I entered Afghanistan and was met by Adab Shah, my guide for the next three and a half weeks.
Adab, 23, turned out to be strong-willed, intelligent, and curious—but also a prisoner in his own country, unable to escape from the stranglehold that violence had over his nation. He held in his gaze the trauma of the ordeals he had witnessed as a child during the rise of the Taliban. “If the Taliban ever comes to power in this part of Afghanistan,” Adab told me matter-of-factly, “I will probably be one of the first to be executed, having been around Westerners.”
We spent the first couple of days in Sultan Ishkashim, acquiring all the necessary paperwork to enter the Wakhan Corridor. A few days’ drive through undulating valleys took us to the village of Sarad-e-Wakhan, which lay toward the end of the road the Soviets had built through the Wakhi ethnic settlements some 30 years ago. There we met the tough mountain man who was to lead our party through the wilderness, Burch Mirzo. Burch—not a tour guide as such but a Wakhi farmer—had arranged for porters, donkeys, and yaks to carry our supplies on the five-day trek to the shores of Lake Chaqmaqtin in the Little Pamir, our final destination.
The air was thin and the walk arduous, taking us through high mountain passes and across frozen streams and rock-strewn trails. Fed by the surrounding glaciers, Lake Chaqmaqtin is located at an altitude of about 4,200 meters, and would have seemed completely isolated were it not for the herder settlements—some Wakhi, some Kyrgyz—dotted around its shoreline. Despite living in such a harsh environment, the people here turned out to be some of the most gracious and hospitable hosts I have ever known. And they live in relative peace—for now.
On more than one occasion, I spoke with clan leaders about the impending 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces. You could feel the anxiety—the thoughts of another period of protracted conflict and violence in Afghanistan, and the prospect of the Taliban making inroads into the Wakhan. The thought of that worries me, but I hope that this corner of the country will remain as beautiful and as peaceful as it is today—as it was when Eric Newby visited.
Originally appeared in the October/November 2012 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Wakhan Wayfaring”)