We are passing the last Wakhi village and crossing the plain of Sarhadd, end of any road
into the Wakhan.
Going to the Afghan Pamir Mountains in winter is a bit like defying authority: Common sense dictates not to do it. I am no daredevil, I cherish life too much. But up there I often feel like a kid who has gotten the candies he wasn’t supposed to. I sometimes giggle in my down jacket, looking at the expanse in front of me, the yaks kicking the ice in the air, and whistling and singing of the shepherds. These wanderings in no-man’s-land elate me, giving me a feeling of freedom I could never get in the coded world of our well-tuned civilizations.
Over the last ten years I have grown addicted to this mountain remoteness. I have been on the road for five days since leaving Dushanbe, crossing Tajikistan to reach Afghanistan. I have traveled through countless avalanche breaks, and dense fog patches rising from the river, met corrupt policemen, and passed sleepless nights wondering what is ahead. A cold front hit the western Himalaya just before I started my trip. There is snow everywhere. My driver, Ghulomsho, is originally from the Tajik Pamir. He’s my age: 38. He gets out of the car, gives money to a policeman, and we go on. On the other side, a stone’s throw away across the Amu Darya River, a donkey makes its way through snow. This is Afghanistan—so close, yet a world apart. We stop. A small side stream has transformed the road into a solid sheet of ice.
On the Ishkashim, a border bridge to Afghanistan, two laughing soldiers bearing Kalashnikovs go through my stuff. They don’t really know what they are looking at: ramen noodles, a BGAN, a solar panel, lithium batteries, lenses, a tripod, computers, hard drives, and more. I have just enough luggage to head out in polar temperatures and be totally self-sufficient for one month. The expedition plan is simple: Reach the roof of the world in the dead of winter.
Starting at (1) Sarhadd Village, I plan to travel across the Little Pamir to (7) Ech Keli.
Two Wakhi shepherds tend a fire inside one of the low huts that provide overnight shelter during the trek up to the Little Pamir.
A yak caravan makes its way to Sarhadd. The yak is of central importance to the people of the Wakhan, providing transportation, wool, milk, and meat.
Snow leopards also reside in the Pamir Mountains.
My wingman for this trip will be Malang, an old Wakhi friend, who meets me at the border. “Hey, you leou Khalidji!” he shouts. That’s my old Wakhi nickname, “Crazy Foreigner.” I have no idea where he got that from. I am so happy to see him. We hug. I say good-bye to my driver Ghumolsho. We shall meet again, here, in one month, Insh‘allah, as they say.
Walking up and down the bazaar with Malang, I need to get so much paperwork done in Ishkashim. I meet with commanders, central police, border police, and tourism officers. This is bureaucracy the old way, without any computers. You get your official authorization scribbled on a bit of paper: “This is to authorize the foreigner named Mister Matthieu to enter the Wakhan and reach the Pamir.” Everyone justifiably questions my goal. “It’s too cold, you won’t get there, we will have to pick you up—in a block of ice in the river.” We laugh. It makes me nervous, but I have done it twice before, in 2008 and 2011.
When I’m on assignment, my emotions rise and fall. That night, alone in the freezing guesthouse, I feel down. I miss my family terribly. Suddenly it’s 5 a.m. The sun comes up, and my mood does too. I feel lucky to have come this far. In a day or two, we will start the trek up for several days in this frigid fairy-tale world. Walking on the frozen Wakhan River, the yaks will lead the way to the abode of the Bam-e-duniya, or the roof of the world.
Matthieu Paley has spent more than a decade documenting the Afghan Kyrgyz of the Little Pamir. Learn more about him and his work at www.paleyphoto.com and http://paleyphoto.blogspot.com. His book Pamir: Forgotten on the Roof of the World will be published this year by La Martinière in France and Knesebeck in Germany.
Next dispatch: “Heaven and Hell”
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