The Wakhan Corridor Journey - Afghanistan to Pakistan

The Wakhan Corridor Journey - Afghanistan to Pakistan

The Descent Into Little Pamir

Beyond the footbridge, the high route climbed steeply, leaving the Wakhan River and heading north toward Tajikistan. It hardly seemed the right direction since we wanted to go to Pakistan. But north we went into the Shpodkis ("rhubarb") Valley. At the summer settlement of Alimi, we visited with five Wakhi households grazing their sheep and goats. In Wakhi society, women shepherd the livestock. Men accompany women to protect them from Kyrgyz men who also frequent the area. The Wakhi people had dogs to help guard their livestock from predators. Having heard of the chronic food shortages in the Wakhan, we wondered what the dogs ate. They drink buttermilk left from making butter and hunt marmots, we learned. Continuing up valley, we arrived at the summer settlement of Digarch, one of the worst campsites we’d encountered, with no flat areas anywhere and water that was beyond silty.

As we set off the next morning, the Digarch shepherds were preparing to move to greener pastures up valley. This seasonal migration of livestock and people is called kuch in the Wakhi language. From a hillside above their settlement, we watched the kuch assemble, loading their goods onto yaks while large mastiff-like dogs ran back and forth, excited by the bustle of departure. Midmorning, we stopped at Sang Nevishta ("written on the rock" in Persian). This broad area, where numerous boulders dot low ridges above grassy meadows, was more than one square kilometer. Mostly we found petroglyphs of ibex and bow hunters, suggesting an ancient history of hunting here. The boulders had some writing in Persian, but no Tibetan or old Sanskrit inscriptions.

Our hosts at Sang Nevishta brought a carpet outside for us to sit on and soon we were filling our bellies with more yogurt, bread, and tea. The bread in the pastures, called khista, was made with milk rather than water, and had a delightfully rich taste. As we were eating, the kuch arrived from Digarch — yaks piled high with cauldrons, bedding, and household implements. The men were on foot; the women rode on yaks. Young children clung behind their mothers, while infants rode in cloth-draped cradles perched on the backs of yaks. The women we had met at Digarch were completely veiled, with bright red scarves across their faces and red shawls around their shoulders. One woman wore a full burqa but in a shockingly bright shade of scarlet!

The path through the broad, alpine Shpodkis Valley led through swaths of yellow potentillas and pale blue mint. We passed by Wuch Raowen and Math Khuf with more shepherds and livestock. Farther up valley to Barnoz, we pitched our tent in an unoccupied pasture area beside a large clear, cold stream.

The next morning we woke at our usual time, 5:00 am. By 7:00 am, we were walking across the head of the valley, turning east as we went up the grassy slopes toward Uween-e-Sar (4,887 meters), our third mountain pass. Marmot burrows unearthed and opened from above testified to brown bear presence here. As we neared the pass, we left vegetation behind and crossed a nearly level broad stretch to the pass, marked by stone cairns. We descended to the first tarn, where our companions complained of tutek — altitude symptoms — so we stopped for tea.

Continuing down, we left the snow and small glacier and soon reached the grassy floor of the valley. The Kyrgyz call this valley Ghorumeh (Garumdee) and the Wakhi refer to it as Waramdih, "the place after the rocks." Wakhi riders on horse and yak overtook us as we forded to the river’s east bank. They were from Digarch headed to the Kyrgyz camp to buy livestock. They rode along with us as we walked south down valley to Ghareen, Nek Bakht Shah’s pasture settlement. We pitched our tent on a grassy spot on the east bank, and Nek Bakht’s elder brother forded the thigh-deep river to bring us the traditional welcoming bowl of yogurt.

Tired from crossing the pass, we slept late, until 5:30 am. Our route took us south, high above the river, and turned east into the Aqbelis Valley, which would take us over Aqbelis Pass (4,595 meters) or Kotal-e-Aqbelis, and into the Little Pamir. Just before the gentle pass, we stopped near a large lake for tea and bread. Refreshed, we crossed the broad, grassy pass and descended into the expansive Pamir-e-Kochak or Little Pamir. It was not so little; ahead some 50 miles we saw Chaqmaqtin Lake sparkling in the sun.

We turned southward to Kashch Goz, a Kyrgyz summer camp of five yurts, whose headman, Jan Boi, greeted us at the mud-walled visitors' house. Here at Kashch Goz we said goodbye to Nek Bakht Shah and hired a yak from the Kyrgyz for our onward journey. We decided to spend a day at Kashch Goz to determine the best route up the Wakhjir Valley — whether to follow its true right or true left bank — and to inquire about Dilisang Pass. After much discussion, we decided to follow the north side of the Wakhjir River up valley (its true right bank), then return part-way down valley on the south side (or true left bank).