Wakhan Valley

The Wakhan Valley (also pronounced Vakhan) is a majestic alpine valley in the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan and Tajikistan (the "Wakhan Corridor" refers to the part of the valley in Afghanistan). It is located in the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia. Its upper reaches consist of two wide, hilly plains surrounded by alpine peaks, beginning near the Chinese border in one of the most remote regions of the world. Further down, where the Pamir and Wakhan rivers join to form the Pyanj River, the valley narrows, finally becoming a severe canyon with roaring river rapids at its end in Ishkashem. Its muddy rivers are fed by water from huge glaciers on some of the highest mountains on the planet, fantastic views of which are visible throughout the area.

High peaks on the Pakistani side include Tirich Mir (7,690 m), and Nushak (7,455 m) to the south; and Karl Marx (6,723 m) and Engels (6,507 m) in the north. Access to the valley on the Tajik side is from the Pamir Highway, either from the northeast at Alichur, or from the west at Khorog. Several very high and rough trails lead from the Shokhdara Valley across the mountains as well. It theoretically is possible to travel from the Chinese border from Shaimak along pristine Lake Zorkul (the headwaters of the Pamir River); however this area is a strictly controlled nature preserve (Zapovednik) and requires a special permit to transit.

Politically, the valley is divided among three nations; areas north of the Pyanj River belong to Tajikistan (GBAO); the land south of the Pyanj to the mountain ridges is part of Afghanistan; and the very high mountains to the south are located in Pakistan. The Wakhan Corridor (the part of the valley belonging to Afghanistan) was created at the end of 19th century by the British Empire, to act as a buffer against potential Russian ambitions in India during the "Great Game". The peoples on either side of the river speak a similar language and have a shared history; however, the Imperial and Soviet periods in the north and Islamicization of Afghanistan have created a wide cultural gap that is readily apparent.

While traveling on the road in the north of the country, one may view right across the valley caravans of camels, led by bearded, armed men in traditional Afghan dress; Tajiks on the other are Western in appearance and only soldiers on patrol may carry weapons. This part of Tajikistan is heavily patrolled by the military, with army posts every few kilometers. Armed soldiers walk the roads, protecting the area from militants and drug smugglers. The region was strategic even in ancient times; many armies conquered the area and left fortifications all along the valley, whose ruins still can be seen. There are in fact countless artifacts, ruins, petroglyphs, murals, and Islamic and Buddhist sites scattered all over the valley. These include the fortress of Ratm (Kushan period), which guards the junction of the Pamir and Wakhan Rivers; the fortress of Kaahka (3rd c. BC - 7th c. AD), which stands high on a rock in the centre of the valley; and the fortress known as Zamri Otashparast ("Castle of Fire Worshippers", 3rd c. BC) near Yamchun, set in a completely unassailable spot in a cliff, protected by two deep river canyons; and the large 4th-7th c. Buddhist complex discovered near Vrang.

A chain of small, quaint, tidy villages dot the bottom of the valley, each located at a spot where a cascade of fresh water comes gushing out of the steep ridge. The Pamiri people are masters of terrace building and hydro-engineering. Their houses are cleverly arranged on terraces on the hillsides, so as to make use of the maze of canals and channels, pipes and pools which run everywhere; none of the precious water is wasted. Ancient water-powered grain mills are arranged on the largest channels, providing the locals with flour from their small wheat crops. The terraces are constructed of extensive rock walls and stairs, and well-kept thatch fences and hand-carved gates complete the picturesque landscape.

The bottom of the valley is intensively farmed in irrigated areas, with wheat, corn and vegetables most common. Most plowing is done using donkeys and oxen and harvesting is done by hand. Large fruit and nut trees dominate the villages, and in fall abundant amounts of walnuts, apples, apricots, grapes and other delicious treats are available. Though surrounded by extreme high altitude areas with permanent snow cover, the valley actually has a very moderate climate, with temperatures in winter People in the area are incredibly warm and hospitable, always greeting strangers with a bow and a hand over the heart. Visitors are always welcome to stay in local homes, and invitations to tea are standard practice. Visitors should not miss the chance to stay in a unique, traditional Pamiri house! The most astonishingly beautiful of these villages are Lyangar, one of the farthest settlements on the Tajik side of the valley, where a large gallery of petroglyphs is located; Zong/Isor; Shirgik, majestically located on a large rock outcrop; and Vrang, one of the largest towns on the route.

Ishkashem, at the end of the valley, has been an important trade and transportation center since ancient times, and continues to be to this day. On the opposite side of the river, in Afghanistan, the mountains part where the Vardush River pours into the Pyanj. This valley leads to the Afghan city of Faizabad. Caravans traveling through the Wakhan used to stop at an ancient caravansarai here (6th-12th cc.), and ford the river at that spot into what is now Afghanistan, because the route to the northwest was impassable through the Pyanj River canyon. Today, there are two towns, one in Tajikistan and one across the river in Afghanistan, The towns are a reasonably busy trade hub for goods passing between the two countries.

The Tajik town has an exciting "frontier" feel, and has an interesting bazaar; it is a pleasant place to have a traditional meal in a caf? and walk around. Recently, the European Union built a special trading area near Ishkashem, locally called the "Afghan Market", located just across the river in Afghanistan proper, in order to provide economic assistance to local Afghans; visitors may attend the bazaar without a visa to Afghanistan. It is one of the bizarre highlights of the area, the opportunity to buy Chinese and Pakistani products from bearded afghan villagers in Tajikistan!