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Afghanistan: Why Go?

It’s taken me a while to absorb my trip to Afghanistan. 

The last of the Nomads: Afghanistan's remaining Kyrgyz nomads who live in the high altitude Pamirs.

The last of the Nomads: Afghanistan’s remaining Kyrgyz nomads who live in the high altitude Pamirs.

The blissful feeling of flopping on a mattress at the end of the day and the convenience of turning on a tap still hasn’t worn off after the 22-day expedition with two weeks of trekking all day in desert-dust to snow storm conditions, camping above 4000 metres, trying to wash in a glacial river and living off a diet of rice, beans, bread, cheese, an occasional mouthful of meat and whatever the local tribes people of the Pamir Mountains had to rustle up.

Flat rock-free land nowhere to be seen

Flat rock-free land nowhere to be seen

The all-important food, although basic, was tasty, sometimes delicious and always dished up with unwavering hospitality. Hunger overlooked the odd inevitable goat hair found in the freshly baked unleavened bread. I wish I could say the same for the mutton stew of innards and gums with teeth still attached. This meaty meal was a rare treat. I must do better.

Get your teeth into that

Get your teeth into that

I went to Afghanistan to join an expedition to connect two parts of the Pamir Mountains in the Wakhan Corridor by crossing the 4850 metre Showr Pass. Few have ventured into this cutoff corner of the world where little has changed in a thousand years. It’s the first commercial trek to attempt this route since the recent conflict, say organisers Secret Compass.

Crossing

The 4850 metre Showr Pass. One of the most remote mountain passes in the world, say Secret Compass.

It was a tough journey, both physically and mentally. I’m putting my hand up to several mild panic attacks, one brought on by my tent collapsing in the middle of the night under an unseasonal snow blizzard, another by a random – albeit friendly – “papers and passports please” police interrogation in the border town of Ishkashim …oh ….and then there was that gun-slinging border guard who prodded my knickers with the muzzle of his kalashnikov. I wasn’t wearing them at the time (she quickly adds). In his defence, he quickly shoved them back into their smelly bag when he realised.

These friendly guards were up for a laugh

These friendly guards were up for a laugh

Why would anyone, let alone a woman, risk going to a dangerous war torn country, notorious for the repression of women and where the dark shadowy threat of the Taliban still looms? It’s a fair question; and one which was asked by family and friends of the five men and seven women who joined the expedition.

The fact is that we saw very little evidence of the conflict . We went to a part of Afghanistan which is so remote, isolated and inaccessible even Manchester United soccer merchandise hasn’t made it out there. And neither has the Taliban.

Wakhi Settlement

Temporary settlement: The Nomads move their herds around the Pamirs for grazing.

But political freedom comes at a price. With no electricity, communications, clinics, hospitals, or running water, the average life expectancy in the Wakhan is 35 years and the area has the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

The mountain nomads – the Wakhi and Kirghiz – survive the lengthy and brutal winter thanks to their herds of yaks and sheep that provide them with milk and cheese, wool for warmth and dung for the fire. In summer, they welcome traders into their yurt homes and  – more recently – intrepid tourists who hire pack animals to explore the region.

locals load up the stout yaks with supplies and food for the expedition

locals load up the stout yaks with supplies and food for the expedition

Still, I admit to being a little anxious about coming across post-conflict hostility. Instead I found humble, warm and generous people who survive at the outer edge of human habitation on nothing but their ingenuity.

The Secret Compass motto is “achieving the extraordinary” and the extraordinary is not found in convenient places as co-founder and ex British Army officer, Tom Bodkin, explains.

It’s a four day jeep ride just to get to the start of the trekking location. Not many places are as difficult to access as this.

Rocky Road

Rocky Road in to the Wakhan Valley

I like to spend my travel dollars where I think they make a difference. I believe Secret Compass have got the balance right when it comes to developing responsible and sustainable tourism in one of the world’s poorest regions. My deepest hope is that the new trekking route will bring some relief to their harsh existence without radically changing the way they live.

IMG_0780

Heading deeper into the Pamirs with Wanderlust Guide of the Year 2012, Luca Alfatti

But to answer the question on so many lips: “Why go?” Besides the experience of the journey, the history, the education, the spectacular mountain region and the wonderful group of characters I travelled with, the answer is best summed up by author Greg Mortenson who wrote Stones into Schools about the region.

People most neglected and least valued by the masses often represent the best of who we are.

I think I speak for everyone when I say, we are all richer for the experience.

Please enjoy these images of Afghanistan – perhaps not as you know it.

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Tracey Croke is a journalist, travel writer, photographer and adventurist, specialising in stories about roughty-toughty travel, offtrack adventure and anything involving a bike

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38 Responses to Afghanistan: Why Go?

  1. Renuka October 3, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    Thank you for bringing out the beauty of Afghanistan!
    Renuka recently posted..Photo Contest – Capture The Colour 2013My Profile

  2. Tracey October 3, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

    It was my pleasure Renuka. Glad you liked it.
    Tracey recently posted..Afghanistan: Why Go?My Profile

  3. Pete R. October 5, 2013 at 12:02 am #

    Wow.. This really gives me a new perspective of Afghanistan. Stunning photos!

  4. Mare R October 5, 2013 at 1:00 am #

    Very nice pictures, congrats! May I ask you which camera you used?

    • Tracey October 5, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

      For sure. – I used a Cannon Powershot G15. Compact and very portable. Also a Cannon EOS 4000D was used to take the photos credited to Helen Spencer.
      Tracey recently posted..Afghanistan: Why Go?My Profile

      • Mare R October 5, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

        Thanks a lot Tracey

  5. Johanna October 6, 2013 at 11:35 pm #

    This trip looked absolutely amazing, and thrilling and hard work and enthralling and enlightening and and and! I admire your tenacity, but it must have been an incredible adventure and one that few people actually do. The food looked a little suspect ;) but when you’re hungry you do and can eat a lot more than we’ve become softened to and used to in the West! If I look back on my back packing and travelling days I realise what a wimp I’ve become over the years. Can’t wait to see the full story, and hope you’ll link to it when it’s published. You go girl! (Ps I commented last week, but it’s disappeared … sorry …and thanks for commenting over at ZigaZag this week too)
    Johanna recently posted..The Empty Nest Syndrome and Tips to Help you Set a New CourseMy Profile

    • Tracey October 8, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

      Ha Ha Johanna, I know that backpacking girl is still in there. It was an amazing trip and I’ll share the article when it goes out. My site went down last week for a few hours so I would think that’s where your comment went! Thanks for coming back.
      Tracey recently posted..Afghanistan: Why Go?My Profile

  6. Chanel @ La Viajera Morena October 22, 2013 at 12:31 am #

    That is beautiful! Thanks for sharing. I am sure many people do not think of this side of the country when they hear the name Afghanistan so it is good to read about, especially from a woman’s perspective! :)

    • Tracey October 22, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

      Thanks for your feedback Chanel. Where have you been that’s surprised you on your travels?

  7. Jessica J. Hill October 25, 2013 at 11:40 pm #

    Wow. What a truly unreal, remarkable experience. I’ve read both of Mortenson’s books, and each made me desperate to visit the mountains describes so powerfully within. I think it’s great that Secret Compass is doing such treks, where people can get a glimpse into both nature’s beauty, and civilians in a war-torn country. Bravo to you for going! Let us know when your articles are published! I’d love to read.

    • Tracey October 27, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

      Hi Jessica, I will most certainly let you know. I came across a few of the schools set up by Mortenson’s institute as we made our way into the Wakhan. He’s a legend out there among the locals and the scenery is just how he describes. It’s a special place and I hope you make it out there one day. I Appreciate your comments and hope to see you here again.
      Tracey recently posted..Afghanistan: Why Go?My Profile

  8. Sand In My Suitcase October 27, 2013 at 7:12 am #

    Wonderful story, and a great read… You’ve shown us a different side of Afghanistan – we’ve only read the conflict news stories… And we luv your yak photo. But you’re more adventurous than us :-). George can rough it, but Janice still needs a daily hot shower and soft bed to stay happy.
    Sand In My Suitcase recently posted..Wonder where the lions areMy Profile

    • Tracey October 27, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

      Thanks guys. Believe me, if I can get a hot shower and a soft bed I take it. I only knew of the conflict side of Afghanistan too before I decided to go there. I was only in a small part of it. I read a blog recently written by a Japanese journalist who backpacked through a great chunk of it on her own. She said she had no problems. Even so, I don’t know if I could do that. She’s much braver than I am.
      Tracey recently posted..Afghanistan: Why Go?My Profile

  9. globalmouse October 30, 2013 at 7:32 am #

    Wow, what an amazing trip! I would love to visit Afghanistan but with children in tow it’s going to be a few years before that happens!! I thought North Korea was adventurous but it was nothing like this! Lucky you to experience it and I’m really impressed!
    globalmouse recently posted..What My Children Say About…IcelandMy Profile

    • Tracey October 30, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

      Thanks globalmouse – North Korea sounds really interesting. Was it different than you imagined? Do you have a post or any info to share? I’d love to know more.
      Tracey recently posted..Afghanistan: Why Go?My Profile

  10. Jane St Catherine November 4, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    Thanks Tracey, for sharing your adventurous trip and for the information about Secret Compass. Your photos and words tell a very enticing story. Where’s your next adventure? This sure will be hard to top!
    Jane.
    Jane St Catherine recently posted..How did I get to drive a 400 tonne mining truck?My Profile

    • Tracey November 4, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

      Thanks Jane. I’m staying local in Sydney for a couple of months and then i’ll be itching for some mountain biking I reckon. I’m an off-the-cuff kinda gal, so not sure where to next, but I have a feeling I’ll be going somewhere with Secret Compass again.
      Tracey recently posted..Afghanistan: Why Go?My Profile

  11. Daniel November 18, 2013 at 11:15 pm #

    Tracey,

    Lovely post; what an experience. Beautiful country and people.
    Daniel recently posted..The Fall of the Roman EmpireMy Profile

    • Tracey November 19, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

      Thanks Daniel – your engaging cultures trips look really interesting.
      Tracey recently posted..Afghanistan: Why Go?My Profile

  12. Judie Clay November 26, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

    Absolutely amazing. My friends think that I’m crazy for wanting to go to afghanistan but this post just might make them understand me a little better!! Than you.

  13. Karisa November 27, 2013 at 4:12 am #

    Afghanistan is one of those countries that has always interested me-the same goes with Rwanda, Cuba and Iran. I’m not sure why I want to go to these places with such sad histories and troubled presents but after reading your post I’m sure that going to thees difficult places would be a rewarding experience. :)
    Karisa recently posted..Fearless Female: Sarah of Travel CakeMy Profile

    • Tracey December 2, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

      It’s a great question and one I ask myself too Karisa. Perhaps it’s because we yearn to learn first hand? Maybe it’s because we don’t judge a place solely on the bad news or rely on books for knowledge which, although interesting, cannot teach experience.
      Tracey recently posted..Afghanistan: Why Go?My Profile

  14. Jade December 8, 2013 at 3:19 am #

    Wow! I’m totally inspired … What a great post. I look forward to reading the full experience when its published ;)
    Jade recently posted..Travelling around Christmas timeMy Profile

  15. Linda Bibb December 11, 2013 at 7:03 am #

    Although I’m not a good candidate for trekking like that, I’m jealous. I would love to have the opportunity to visit Iraq.
    Linda Bibb recently posted..Eating at Restaurant L’Hort de Casa, AndorraMy Profile

  16. Tracey December 12, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    I’m sure there are growing opportunities for Iraq too Linda
    Tracey recently posted..Deeper Travel: The Enchantment of Carnarvon GorgeMy Profile

  17. Sonya December 24, 2013 at 7:48 am #

    Your journey in Afghanistan looks like an amazing adventure!
    Sonya recently posted..4 Places To Go Glamping In AustraliaMy Profile

  18. Tracey January 12, 2014 at 1:38 pm #

    It’s well and truly lodged in the memory bank Sonya.
    Tracey recently posted..Mountain Biking in Burma: A Surprising StartMy Profile

  19. Ankit February 7, 2014 at 5:03 pm #

    Your Blog about Afghanistan is superb and the way you represent is attracting me towards Afghanistan.
    Next Time Whenever you plan for it…please let me knoe.
    I want to enjoy the same.

  20. Sarah Duncan April 7, 2014 at 6:20 pm #

    What a wonderful look at your trek through Afghanistan, Tracey!
    Sarah Duncan recently posted..What’s it like living in Colombia?My Profile

  21. Paul Skidmore April 9, 2014 at 5:21 am #

    Brilliant article Tracey, I love learning about far-flung regions of the world such as this and their inhabitants – Not so sure I would be willing to try that stew!! Some amazing photographs too – Love the ones of the locals

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