Wakhan Dream

By Alpkit

Adventure meets untamed beauty in Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor, a hidden gem for those seeking wilderness.

Alan Halewood - freelance Mountaineering Instructor (MIC) won a PipeDream 800 sleeping bag in our Sweet Dreams competition last year. His dream was to explore the Qala -e Hurst valley in Afghanistan… obviously taking his PD800! His expedition enjoyed national coverage on the BBC and The Sun. You can find Alan working most of the winter at Glenmore Lodge.

It began with the map. Twenty years ago I was 19 and raking through a box of second hand maps in a cardboard box in a Glasgow climbing shop. The writing on it was in Japanese and mountains were triangles joined by straight lines for ridges. Most were white but a handful were shaded in black. The lat. and long. Were in English and back at home a check of the atlas revealed that I was looking at a map of the Wakhan Corridor. This product of the ‘Great Game’ a strange geo-political quirk in Afghanistan.

As I gazed at my map in 1990 the Soviets had only recently pulled out but this was very much a country still at war and not an ideal location for my next expedition… but I didn’t forget.

Fast forwards to 2007 and a friend is stationed in Pakistan with the Foreign Office and telling me about the Kyrgyz living in the isolated valleys of the Little Pamir and how the time might be approaching when a mountaineering trip might be feasible. In 2010 and now with a different climbing partner (the diplomat hurt his back skiing) I’m rattling round in the back of a battered 4 wheel drive with our 18 year old interpreter Hayat Khan (who is on his school holidays). The journey from Ishkashim (the last major town where we purchased supplies, met Hayat and took tea with the police) to the end of the road at Sarhad takes 2 days. We spent a good deal of that time sitting watching our drivers (we were accompanied for the first part of our journey by 2 BBC Scotland journalists) rescuing each other’s vehicles from rivers and mud slides.

At Sarhad we stayed with Qachi Beg. This guest house owner personified the hospitality we were to meet over the next 3 weeks. The Ismaili Wakhi and the Sunni Kyrgyz alike treated us as nothing less than honoured guests. Whether we were paying for accommodation or not we were met with courtesy and kindness in their yurts and houses. There was tea (endless brews of salty cher choi heated on burning yak dung) and naan bread in profusion, advice and assistance was offered to help us on our journey. We trekked for 6 days to Kasch Goz with Hayat and our 3 local horsemen. We crossed 3 major passes up to 4885m and our trip co-incided with the flooding in Pakistan caused by torrential rains. This led to our horses being unable to carry loads in knee deep mud so we became the beasts of burden leading them unladen. We were also forced to shelter from the rains for a day sharing a yurt with Nasim Morning, a sheep trader from Kabul. He was travelling with a wonderful collection of cutthroats and their yaks. These were laden with batteries, torches, solar panels, satellite dishes and dvd players for the Kyrgyz of the Little Pamir. The passes normally snow free were also hard going with deep fresh drifts and for the first time I was really glad of the PipeDream 800 Alpkit gave me for the trip when I responded to their request to ‘pipedreams’.

We arrived at the main Kyrgyz settlement, Kasch Goz, during a buzkashi match. Picture a sort of rugby played on horseback, with no teams and a headless goat’s carcass instead of a ball. We thought we were safely off the ‘pitch’ on a steep bank beside the flat plateau where the scrum of whipping, pushing, grabbing riders competed for the goat with their reins in their teeth. However we were rudely disabused of this notion when 2 dozen horses stampeded through the spectators heedless of who was trampled in the quest for the ‘ball’.

A change of horsemen was needed here to proceed into Kyrgyz territory and 2 days later we left them behind to disappear into the Pamir i Wakhan range (which we believe to have been previously unexplored by westerners) for a few days. After experiencing some extremely loose rock (a sort of Cuillin Ridge made of cornflakes) and avalanche prone snow we returned having made the first ascent of Koh e Iskander (5561m). Weather was very mixed, rain, snow and sunshine were often experienced all in one day and we camped on a ridge reminiscent of a slate quarry at over 4000m. The PD800 was performing well- released from its stuff sack it lofted up to fill half the tent and attracted envious looks from my climbing partner. Summit day was well over 12 hours and it was an Alpkit Gamma that picked out the tent s we staggered back into camp (one set of batteries for the whole trip programmed to the strongest setting).

The journey home was made in better weather and with a small detour to climb the 5327m Koh e Khar (Peak of the donkey, named for its twin tower summit reminiscent of the ears of the beasts now carrying some of our baggage).

Back in Sarhad the adventure began a new chapter as we discovered that the road was washed out and our vehicles 50 miles away. We learnt to ride in a hurry as we had a plane to catch in Dushanbe.
15000 gallons of salty tea, 2562 naan breads, 113 tons of rice, 5 worn out 4wds, 3 horses, 2 first ascents and more new friends than I can thank add up to one hell of a dream trip! Travel in this area was possible with no danger of interference from insurgents or armed criminals in 2010 (over 70 western trekkers/mountaineers visited). Before arranging a future trip it is important that you check with people on the ground in the local area as to the current situation. See the Mountain Unity website for details.

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