Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor is a remote place. Steep, rough-walled mountains are intersected by the river valleys that braid together the Pamir, Tien Shan, Karakorum and Hindu Kush. Foreign diplomats scissored this panhandle out of a map of the 19th century.
Tourists come here for trekking in the majestic landscape, and to meet the locals, who have retained an older way of life. What sets the Wakhan Corridor apart is the difficulty in getting here, keeping modern ways and mainstream tourism out. Life is harder and more traditional here than across the border.
Created at the conclusion of the Great Game between the British and the Russians, the Wakhan Corridor served as a buffer between the territories of the 2 empires. Afghanistan’s part of the Wakhan is now called the Wakhan Corridor, as opposed to Tajikistan’s Wakhan Valley.
The imperial carve-up suddenly separated the Wakhi people into inhabitants of 3 different countries. As the borders hardened in the 20th century and communication lines collapsed, each went their own path. In the early 20th century, Kyrgyz shepherds trying to safeguard their traditional way of life from Russian meddling fled to the most inhospitable parts of the Wakhan Corridor, and they remain there to this day. Like everything else in this area, visiting them is an undertaking that demands time, effort and money, but is absolutely worth it.
The Wakhan Corridor was not always as closed-off as it is today. For about 2000 years, low-traffic caravan routes connected Badakhshan with China and Pakistan in summer. Marco Polo (probably), Bento de Goes, Aurel Stein and other Western travelers used this route.
Until 1883 Wakhan was a principality on both sides of the Panj and Pamir Rivers, ruled by a hereditary ruler (mir) with his capital at Qila-e Panja. In the 1880s, under pressure from Britain, the Emir of Afghanistan imposed Afghan rule on the Wakhan.
Agreements between Britain and Russia in 1873 and between Britain and Afghanistan in 1893 effectively split the Wakhan in 2, making the Panj and Pamir Rivers the border between Afghanistan and the Russian Empire (now Tajikistan). On the southern side, the Durand Line agreement of 1893 marked the boundary between British India and Afghanistan. This left a narrow strip of land as a buffer between the two empires.
With the coming of Soviet rule, the border across the Panj hardened: it was no longer allowed to cross over the river and visit friends and relatives on the other side. In 1949, when Mao Zedong completed the Communist takeover of China, the border with China was permanently closed, sealing off the caravan route and turning the corridor into a cul-de-sac.
In 1916, Kyrgyz shepherds fled chaos and conscription as Central Asia rose up against Russian colonialism. A few thousand made it to safety in the Wakhan Corridor. In 1978, Afghanistan started its long descent into war, and a majority of the Kyrgyz fled to Pakistan. They requested resettlement in yak-friendly Alaska, but their request was denied by the US.
Some Kyrgyz returned to the Wakhan Corridor the following year, while others found a new life in Pakistan. The remaining thousand-or-so refugees were finally resettled by Turkey in the village of Ulupamir near Erciş in the area of Lake Van, where you can still find them today.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, newly independent Kyrgyzstan has made some half-hearted attempts to resettle the Wakhan Kyrgyz inside Kyrgyzstan. While some remain, others have returned to a more familiar life in Wakhan.
A road towards China is in the works (perhaps for military use only), as well as a road between Tajikistan and Pakistan. Both should have the result of considerably changing the strategic situation of the Wakhan Corridor, transforming it from a barrier into a bridge. If all of this happens according to plan, trade and tourism in the area should grow exponentially in the near future.
A potential negative is that the new strategic roads might attract the attention of the Taliban and other warring factions.
Getting in and out
Traveling the Wakhan Corridor is traveling to the outer reaches of the planet, or the inner core, as you wish. It takes time. Ishkashim, the border town on the Tajik-Afghan border, is the most common way in. You can cross the border at Ishkashim, and get an Afghan visa in Khorog.
Traveling between Ishkashim and Kabul or other parts of Afghanistan is very dangerous. If you intend to do so, do not tell the Afghan embassy – you may be denied your visa.
Crossing the border with Pakistan is possible, but you will need authorization from both the Pakistani and the Afghan governments. In Afghanistan, try the ATO, the Ministry of Interior, or both. In Pakistan, you can try to contact the Ministry of Tourism or the Ministry of Interior Affairs.
You might meet Wakhan Kyrgyz in the town of Babagundi in Pakistan. They are allowed to come down there to trade.
The Chinese border is closed.
Wakhan Corridor Permit
To travel to the Wakhan Corridor past Ishkashim, you will need to register with 3 different government agencies in Sultan Ishkashim (tourist police, Ishkashim province police and military). You will need 4 passport-sized photos for these registrations (women should have a headscarf). You can get photos taken in town. 6 passport copies are also required; they must be done in Sultan Ishkashim because they need the Afghan entry stamp.
It is a Byzantine process and most people employ a helper. The price is 20$-50$, it should take a few hours.
If you speak fluent Persian, you can do the tourist registration process yourself. In that case the price is 10$. Note that government agencies start their weekend on Thursday after lunch, and return to the office on Saturday.
Asking for bribes is not unheard of. Bring cigarettes.
Registration along the way
You must also register with Wakhan province police in each village where you stay. Note that in each registration office, people often know more English than they pretend to know. If you are speaking English, don’t say anything too interesting, you will be processed faster.
There are also checkpoints where you need to register along the way to Sarhad if you are going that far. Unless your driver can show you where to go this is not so straightforward if you are traveling without a guide. Qazideh, Khandud, Qala-e Panja and Sarhad.
Near the Shaymak border crossing with Tajikistan (which is not open to foreigners) you need to register as well with the border guard.
Security, dangers and annoyances
Although the Wakhan corridor is safe and has not seen war in recent history, you need to travel through Ishkashim and beyond to get there. Ishkashim has historically been seen as a safe place, but this has changed since 2015. Inform yourself thoroughly with local sources. Nearby areas are known to harbour Taliban forces. Landmines still exist.
A forum user adds: in August 2018, a car with 5 soldiers, carrying 8 million Afghani worth of salary for the teachers in the Wakhan, was robbed on its way to the Wakhan. Everyone was killed and the military could not chase down who did it. It happened just 30 km out of Sultan Ishkashim, ON THE WAY to the Wakhan. The exact road, where about 100 tourists pass through each summer. Take this as a reminder, that it is definitely possible, for tourists to be attacked in this region. Just because no serious crimes against tourists happened for a decade (at least not known of… doesn’t mean it won’t. So consider the risk. Maybe it’s safer to travel independently than joining a tour group.
Updates are welcomed in our Wakhan corridor security topic.
As a woman, things get uncomfortable at times. If you are staying in guesthouses, it is highly likely you will sometimes share the sleeping space with local men. They like to watch. As a single female traveler, we urge you to be careful – there will almost certainly be attempts to rape you if an opportunity comes along. Make sure you do not give any opportunity.
Opium use amongst Kyrgyz people is an issue. Cannot really blame them, though, it is often the only medicine available.
Kashch Goz, the first Kyrgyz camp as you emerge onto the Pamir, richly deserves its bad reputation. The Kyrgyz there are rude and aggressively indifferent. This is in stark contrast to most of the Kyrgyz elsewhere in the Wakhan Corridor, who are generally very hospitable, so if you do have a negative experience in Kashch Goz, don’t let it color your opinion of the Kyrgyz generally.
In camps beyond Kashch Goz where there is heavy opium use, Kyrgyz are generally not unfriendly, just kind of incoherent.
A good primer on the area is this excellent brochure by the Aga Khan Foundation.
Drive to Sarhad-e Broghil enjoying beautiful scenery, village walks, diverse cultural exchanges, and visits to intriguing roadside tombs, shrines and petroglyphs. A shorter road trip as far as Qila-e Panja allows for a side trip to the confluence of the Pamir and Wakhan Rivers and a visit to Avgarch village. The spectacular route to Noshaq Base Camp offers world-class trekking just an hour’s drive from Ishkashim.
From Sarhad, you can horse trek up to the pretty but steep Dalriz pass in 6 hours return.
Try one longer route to picturesque Zorkol in the Big Pamir, or to the nearest Kyrgyz camps in the Little Pamir. Combine two routes by traversing the Big Pamir starting from Goz Khun to Zorkol, and then to Sarhad-e Broghil in Upper Wakhan. Attempt a cross-border route from Sarhad-e Broghil in Upper Wakhan to Pakistan’s Northern Areas.
Visit Chaqmaqtin Lake in the Little Pamir and outlying Kyrgyz settlements. Enjoy wildlife viewing in the Little Pamir’s Wakhjir Valley. Combine routes by visiting the Big Pamir and more remote areas of the Little Pamir.
The Kyrgyz settlements begin at Bozai Gumbaz.
When to go
The tourist season in Wakhan is relatively short, starting in May or June and lasting until September or early October. From April to early June, melting snow swells rivers and high water blocks road access to many areas, making some rivers crossings impassable by foot, animal or vehicle. Many areas only become accessible as of early July. The later in summer you travel, the easier it is to cross streams and rivers, and the greater the likelihood of being able to drive as far as Sarhad-e Broghil.
August to mid-September is the optimal travel time, definitely if you plan to get in any hiking. By early September, however, snow can close trails and roads for the season. We have a forum topic running for all questions and comments regarding when to go and what to expect at different times.
Is traveling in Ramadan a problem?
Not really. According to the Quran, if somebody is traveling they are allowed to break the fast. Reports indicate finding someone to accompany you with animals should not be a problem. You will still be welcomed with bread, tea and yoghurt everywhere you go.
Mostly sunny mornings every day, warm in summer during the day. Early afternoon, the wind tends to pick up and can be quite fierce, but rain is rare. The prevailing wind comes from the west. Be aware that at this altitude, snow is always a possibility, and nights are always cold. Also, bring sunscreen and a hat. One look at the locals’ weathered faces will make it clear the sun is strong here.
Trekking and climbing
Everything you need to know about hiking and climbing in the Wakhan Corridor can be found on the excellent Juldu site. Trekking in Tajikistan also has the 10-day hike to Lake Chaqmaqtin included. Here are some things not mentioned there.
If you do not want to go trekking, you can do the entire thing on horseback as well. Mirzo from Ptukh comes recommended as a good horse guide.
Walking the villages
Some people decide to walk the valley before Sarhad-e Broghil, to get acquainted with Wakhi culture and acclimatise to the elevation. Should you decide to do that, know that good guesthouses are available at regular intervals. Qala-e Panj to Sarhad should take 4-5 days.
At Sargas, there is a hot spring. The spring is in a small private building which you hire for a few dollars. It has a tiled floor and is clean. The water is piping hot and the man outside can alter the temperature. They are happy for mixed gender groups of tourists to bathe together- no one else will come in whilst you are there. You can wash your clothes if you bring soap.
Sarhad-e-Broghil to Lake Chaqmaqtin
The high route is not available until mid-summer due to snow, while the lower river route is passable nearly year-round. Previously, the river route up to Chaqmaqtin could be impassable in the summer if the water level was too high on a couple of the side streams. With 2 new bridges in place, this is no longer an issue. The river route comes recommended because it is a good way to gain elevation gradually, and it’s beautiful. Take the high route on your way back.
On the lower route, it is recommended that you arrive in Bozai on the 4th day of hiking. 3 days would be possible, but they would be long days and as you will likely be accompanied by a donkey/horse, it also depends on the speed of the animal.
The first 2 days of the hike are by far the most difficult as it is a bit up and down, particularly on the first day as you have to cross the Daliz Pass (4267 m). Overall though the terrain is not difficult, particularly after Bozai where it is basically flat.
Guides, tours & animals
You can trek on your own without any animals or guides. If you do not speak the local language and want to go it alone, it is still a good investment to get a helper to sort out the paperwork in Ishkashim for you, though.
If you are less confident in your fitness, definitely get an animal to carry your gear. You can get either donkeys or horses, or even yaks and camels if you are travelling in a big group and need multiple animals. Donkeys cost 500 afghani per day and horses/yaks 1000. The price includes the owner of the animals who will accompany you the entire time. His wellbeing is his own responsibility.
Since animals come with their owner, a guide might not be necessary if you are willing to struggle a bit without a common language.
If you want to get a guide: it has been highly recommended to get a Wakhi guide. None of the guides based out of Ishkashim are Wakhi. It will give you a far more authentic local connection as you travel through the Wakhi areas (and the Kyrgyz areas for that matter). The guides in Ishkashim are not Wakhi, and they will tell you it isn’t possible to find a guide after you head up into the Wakhan, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you cannot connect with a Wakhi guide before you arrive, then just engage one of the Ishkashim guides for a day to get your paperwork in order and help buying food supplies, then hire a vehicle to Khandud or Qala-e-panja, and spend a night at one of the guesthouses in those places. You will quickly be connected to a Wakhi guide. The price should be $25 a day maximum, with cheaper rates negotiable for longer trips. Ishkashim guides tend to charge 50$/day.
A scam by Ishkashim guides to watch out for is to hitch a ride after you have declined their services, then not get out and subsequently try to charge you for their time with them.
The following men are all from Ishkashim.
- Safi Usmani has good English and has been recommended several times to deal with the paperwork in Ishkashim: Facebook, +992 935 001 567 (TAJ), +93 798 999 062 (AF)
- Yar Mohammad came recommended as a guide. A subsequent forum post has described him as dishonest and a rip-off.
- Hameed ([email protected]) has also been recommended.
- Farhad Badakhsh: [email protected], +93 797622978.
- Wafiola runs a tourist agency in Eshkashim.
Beyond Ishkashim, we have gathered the following recommendations:
- Ibrahim Amdard is a pharmacist from Khandud who speaks some English. +992 502165904 (TAJ).
From the aforementioned Juldu:
- A donkey carries as much as a horse
- A horse has taller legs than a donkey and therefore is more suitable to keep your feet dry when crossing rivers and streams
- A yak is by far the most powerful animal, it can go anywhere, carry anything, for any period of time (ideal for icy terrain)
- A camel is the most respected animal, for it can carry the heaviest packs
- Donkeys do not like to cross bridges
- Stallions are more robust than mares and walk further
- Yaks can carry people but are difficult to handle for the inexperienced rider
- At weddings, a yak is worth 20 sheep, and a camel 2 yaks
- Pack animals always come with their owner, who can also be useful as guide
- Yak-dung is the most appreciated for fuel
- Prefer donkeys in the Wakhan, horses in the Pamir
- Pack animals must be changed at each village so that they can all benefit from the business
It may be better to buy donkeys. Packing donkeys is easy, ask somebody to teach you. Buying donkeys will save you the burden of intense negotiations at each village. It will also turn out cheaper than hiring them beyond a certain number of days. You can still hire guides on the way for a few dollars.
Mountain Unity was the expert on travel in Wakhan, and was well-respected. It is no more, and is now recommending Wakhan Adventure. Some had a great experience with them, while others mention that they are not well-liked by locals and are even under suspicion of fraud, or simply disorganised and pretty clueless. Chime in on our Wakhan tour operator topic if you know more or have further questions.
We recommend a trekking tour with Sharaf, an experienced mountaineer and trekking guide based in Khorog, who organises treks in the Tajik and Afghan Pamir.
Except for Ishkashim, guesthouses do not have beds, only mattresses on the floor. Expect to pay between 15$ and 25$ per person per night for a night’s sleep, dinner and breakfast. In Kyrgyz settlements, aim for about 7-8$ for full board.
Guides, especially the Ishkashim ones, do not like camping. If you intend to go camping, it’s easiest to go it alone. If you still want help, go for a donkey man, rather than a guide. Be sure to explain clearly that you intend to camp.
In Sultan Ishkashim, the Marco Polo Guest House gets good reviews. A little past the main village, it is set in a quiet garden with mountain views, great food and a very clean bathroom. It also has beds, a rarity in the Wakhan Corridor. The owner is very kind but does not speak English. Cost is $25 per person per night, which including a lavish dinner and very good breakfast.
- A chaikhana in town for men: the cheapest option but no luxury here. Located south of the main crossroads. They can lock your valuables away, serve tasty food but there is no bathroom.
- Aga Khan Guesthouse: $35 with food. Western toilet and hot water bucket shower. Opposite Wafoula’s office, nice courtyard.
- Juma Guest House: $25 with food. Squat toilet and hot water bucket shower. Cross the river on the east side of town, follow the path uphill and take the right-hand fork. Inside a compound wall. Three rooms with several beds in each. Lone females won’t be expected to share with strange men.
Between Ishkashim and Sarhad
In Qala-e Panja there is only 1 guesthouse. The owner speaks good English, is friendly and food is well-reviewed.
There are numerous villages along the route offering accommodation (shared sleeping surface with blankets provided) and meals. Some have bathrooms, some don’t. If you arrive at lunch time they will give you bread and tea for a small amount of money. Sargas is recommended since it has a hot spring.
Chaqan Guesthouse has pleasant hosts, decent food and a western toilet, but it does not flush. Zarik Guesthouse in Sarhad has been reviewed as “amazing”. There is one other guesthouse: so far no reviews.
Sarhad has hot springs if you need a wash, located in a small building on the east side of the village.
Hiking towards Chaqmaqtin Lake, the first 3 and final 3 nights until Bozai Gumbaz you must camp, at least on the lower route. There are no people and only very rudimentary shelters along the way. On the higher route there are Wakhi summer settlements which may take you in.
Once you reach Bozai Gumbaz you are able to stay at the Kyrgyz villages. Many of them have an actual guest house or guest yurt (you might not be alone – women should take note). They will provide you with all meals. There are probably no bathroom facilities. Bozai has a bad reputation but other camps are reported as friendly.
The villages of Chaqmaqtin and Aqtashtoq have been reported as weird, not so welcoming or greedy. No bad reviews for any of the others.
Up until Sarhad there is mains power, although often they only turn it on at night. In Ishkashim the power is constant. The Kyrgyz villages have solar power which they may allow you to use for charging if you really need it. Definitely do not rely on it though.
Food and water
Food is best bought in Khorog, which has a bazaar and a supermarket. You can also buy with sufficient choice on the bazaar in Ishkashim. Guesthouses also provide meals, but do not rely on buying food for self-catering once out of Ishkashim, except for Khandud, which has a small bazaar with limited selection. The Kyrgyz people might sell you homemade bread.
Toilet paper is a must-buy if you need it. Bring a form of water purification.
Guesthouse food is generally plentiful and tasty, and ranges from simple bread with yoghurt and butter to rice dishes with dhal, homemade cheese and qaldama (a fried bread dish). Cucumber-and-tomato salads are a possibility. Chicken or mutton is served sparingly. There is fish in the waterways around Chaqmaqtin Lake, another option for self-catering.
Sheer choy (butter tea) is served without reserve. Every village where you stop, even if only for a short time, will want to offer some sheer choy and bread.
The price from Ishkashim to Sarhad has been fixed at $300 for tourists, in either direction. From Ishkashim to Khandood it should be about $120, and another $30 to Qala-e-panja.
Backpackers without guides have been able to circumvent the tourist pricing by hitchhiking and using local taxis. In that case, expect to pay around 10 times less. Although hitch-hiking is an option for the time-rich, please note there are only 40 cars in the Wakhan corridor.
The road to Sarhad is for the most part awful. There are some good stretches but the journey takes around 10 hours for 200 km. Additionally, you lose time at the checkpoints where you need to stop for registration purposes, so it might make sense to do the trip in 2 days. On the way back there is no need for registration so you can gain time there.
If you are taking your own car, know that a 4WD is probably necessary. If you want to cycle, take plenty of spare parts.
Money, budget & communication
You can pay the driver and guesthouses in dollars–they prefer it. Bring lots of small bills, fives and tens. If your guesthouse costs $15, you will cause a panic in the village if you try to pay with a $100 bill.
Afghanis are good to pay for donkeys and day-to-day expenses.
There are several money changers on the bazaar in Ishkashim. Changing money from dollars to afghanis is easy, the reverse less so. Do not expect to be able to change afghanis outside of Afghanistan.
There are no ATMs in Ishkashim so bring all the cash you need with you. For money provisions in Khorog, see money in Tajikistan.
Accommodation, transport and services in the Wakhan are expensive. Not to mention the Afghan visa.
- Visa: always changing, but definitely budget $150
Guesthouses with dinner and breakfast
- Ishkashim: $25 per person, per night
- Sarhad/Khandood/Qala-e Panja: $20 per person per night
- Beyond Sarhad: 14$ per person per night
- Kyrgyz villages: budget for 500 Afghani per person per night
- Car from border to Ishkashim bazaar: $5-10
- Car from Ishkashim to Sarhad and back: $600 tourist price, 60$ hitchhiker price
- 500 afghani per donkey per day, or 1000 afghani per horse per day. Price includes animal owner who takes care of himself with food and accommodation.
- $50/day for Ishkashim guides, 25$/day for Wakhi guides.
From Ishkashim to Sost you can use T-Cell from the Tajik side. Megafon is available sporadically along the way to Qala-e Panj. The Afghan provider Roshan is available in Ishkashim, but no further. Beyond Qala-e Panj there is nothing until the end of the Little Pamir where Sultan village is located. Here you can get Megafon.
In terms of language, don’t expect to find a word of English or Russian beyond Sarhad. Dari is spoken by all men. Kyrgyz women will often only speak Kyrgyz. If you want genuine conversations you will need a proper guide.
Food is plentiful, coffee and sweets are not.
At many of the small villages people will ask for medical advice and medication. Depending on how you feel about dispensing this kind of thing, you might consider stocking up on basic medicine to distribute. People have very little access to medical care or medication, meaning most of them turn to opium for their medical needs.
Pens and notebooks for the kids in Sarhad-e Broghil (hat tip Jacob).
Want more extensive trip reports? Check out the following:
- 2019 Solo trekking to Chaqmaqtin lake
- 2019 25 days in Wakhan and Little Pamir
- 2019 Wakhan and Mount Noshaq
- 2018 – 1 month in Wakhan and Little Pamir
- 2018 solo female traveler 1 month
- 2018 – 3 weeks trip
- 2017 Afghan Wakhan to Sarhad
- 2014 2-day trip report with tour operator
Photos and videos
Wakhan Corridor is the most photogenic part of Central Asia, and visiting here has become something of a rite of passage for photographers. Meaning, lots of eye candy to enjoy. Start for instance with the work of Theodore Kaye, Matthieu Paley, Fabrice Nadjari, Andy Isaacson and Cedric Houin.