Finished up our trip about a week ago now so here is some of the latest information.
We entered Afghanistan through the Ishkashim border crossing on the 28th of May. To get there from Khorog it is easy to find shared taxis from the side of the river opposite the bazaar, just make sure to get dropped off at the border post and not in Ishkashim itself. We spent two nights in Afghan Ishkashim arranging permits before departing by car towards Sarhad. It generally takes two days to get to Sarhad as there are a number of checkpoints you need to stop at for registration purposes. These are at Qazideh, Khandud, Qala e Panja and finally Sarhad. We slept at Qala e Panja on the way and arrived at Sarhad the next day.
From Sarhad our goal was to trek through the Little Pamir. The Kyrgyz settlements begin at Bozai Gumbaz to which you can take the lower route or the higher route. The higher route though is not available until mid summer while the lower route is passable nearly year round. We therefore took the lower route and it is recommended that you arrive in Bozai on the 4th day of hiking, stopping at Shower, Vorgetch, and Ghurumdee. 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. We took four days, sleeping at Borak, Witcherow, Mezomrod and then finally Bozai. From there we continued for another 5 days, sleeping at (in chronological order) Chaqmaqtin, Erali, Sulayman, Aqtashtoq, and Sultan before turning back. Coming back we changed it up and slept at Ighambardi, Andamin, Erali, Chaqmaqtin, Garm Chashma, Ghurumdi, Zankul, Shower and then finally Sarhad.
The first two 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. Overall though the terrain is not difficult, particularly after Bozai where it is basically flat. The most demanding thing is just walking most of the day for nearly three weeks straight.
We spent one night in Sarhad before departing by car back to Ishkashim. The drive back only takes one day as there is no need to stop at each checkpoint. After one night in Ishkashim we then departed back to Khorog.
In total we spent 24 days in Afghanistan, 18 of those trekking.
We applied for our visas in Khorog and the process as described by many others is super easy. For both myself, an Australian, and my partner, a Spaniard, it was $150ea, or $200 for express. This may not be official prices though as we came across others from Holland and Switzerland who paid $100, so possibly try for that. Also note that we met one Australian man who did not plan to come back to Tajikistan as he wanted to go to Kabul and they would not grant him a visa.
One the way to Afghanistan the Tajik guards were super friendly and spoke reasonable English. A quick look over our bags and we were stamped out. On the way out of Afghanistan they were not so friendly, didn't speak so much English and there were internet problems meaning delays. Our bags also weren't checked despite the people before us having theirs undergo a thorough examination.
The Afghan guards when we arrived were friendly enough and one spoke some English for passport control. They also had a quick look through our bags before calling us a taxi. Departing Afghanistan was even easier. Just a simple look at the passport and we were stamped out.
I'm not sure what time the border opens or closes for lunch, but it definitely closes for the day at 4pm Monday to Friday, and earlier on Saturdays. The border is closed entirely on Sundays.
In Ishkashim we stayed at the Marco Polo Guesthouse which was quite nice. It is the most centrally located guesthouse of at least three that we saw. The other two are quite a distance from the central bazaar which is where everything is. Arriving from the border, you turn left at the four way intersection in the bazaar and follow the road down, across the bridge and then up the hill. There is no sign at the actual guesthouse however so hopefully you can ask someone to point you to the correct building. The food here was great and it was the only place in our entire trip that we stayed in a bed rather than a mattress on the floor. One 18 year old male was very friendly and spoke some English, the owner less so but still very friendly.
In Qala e Panja we stayed at the only guesthouse which we unfortunately didn't get the name of but it was also nice and the owner spoke good English. They gave us french fries with our dinner so that was unexpected and the owner also showed us around the village. In Sarhad we stayed at Chaqan Guesthouse which to our surprise even had a western toilet, although it didn't flush. The food was decent enough and the start of the hike to the Little Pamir wasn't too far away.
During the hike 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. I strongly advise bringing a tent and sleeping bag. On the higher route there are Wakhi summer settlements which may take you in, but we didn't go that way so we don't know.
Once you reach Bozai Gumbaz you are able to stay at the Kyrgyz villages. Many of them have an actual guesthouse which is nothing fancy, just a room where visitors can sleep. They will provide you with all meals so you also don't need to cook. We didn't sleep in Bozai as it has a bad reputation and upon arriving there we definitely felt why as the man who greeted us didn't seem very friendly, so we camped. From there on though we spent every night in the villages. Be aware that often we shared the guesthouses with Wakhi men who were working in the villages.
Here is a quick rundown of the places we stayed at.
- Chaqmaqtin: Don't recommend. Weren't unfriendly, but in comparison to everywhere else it wasn't as welcoming. Tried to overcharged us by triple for some bread to take with us on the way back.
- Erali: Good, people weren't overly interactive but were nice and the chief of the village is a respected and known many amongst the Kyrgyz.
- Sulayman: One of our favourites! Old lady was super friendly and even gave me a traditional handmade hat without accepting anything in return. We were given local cheese (the only cheese of the trip) and Qaldama, a traditional meal for dinner.
- Aqtashtoq: One of our least favourites. People were a bit strange, laughing a lot at us and not giving us any privacy to sleep. Even our donkey man didn't enjoy it. Didn't have a guesthouse so instead we stayed in one of their yurts.
- Sultan: Very very good. The chief is essentially the leader of the Kyrgyz and a well respected man. It is a rich village with many animals and a nice guesthouse. People welcomed us warmly and rather than feeling like an important guest, we felt more like part of the village. This is the last village in the Pamir, beyond this point there is no more people in Afghanistan.
- Ighambardi: Decent, it is the village of the brother of Sultan's chief. No guesthouse here, we stayed in a room also occupied by a baby camel. Most people here were friendly
- Andamin: Again a decent place with a friendly village chief. It is located quite close to the lake and appears to be quite a big settlement.
Up until Sarhad there is mains power, although often they only turn it on at night. In Ishkoshim 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 don't rely on it though
Mostly sunny mornings every day, warm and very good for hiking. Early afternoon would often start to get windy so try to get most of the hiking done in the morning. The wind always travelled west to east, so coming back it is annoying sometimes. For a couple of days we had pretty wild weather, but it never rained. One morning we even woke up to a blanket of snow, but this melted away by lunch time. At night it was very cold in the Pamir so if you plan to go outside at night make sure you have a couple of good jackets.
Bring sunscreen though, and make sure you have enough. It is high altitude and the sun feels strong.
Before leaving Ishkashim you need to organise some permits and register yourself at a number of places. We had our guide help us with this and to be honest, doing it without him would have been a nightmare. Nobody at these offices seemed to be able to speak English and you need to go to at three places in town to hand over and receive different papers.
For the paperwork you must have a lot of passport photos. Passport copies are also required but they must be done in Ishkashim as they need to have the Afghan entry stamp. If you brave this alone this is a shop where you can take passport copies if you turn right at the bazaar intersection coming from the border.
As I said earlier, there are checkpoints where you need to register along the way to Sarhad if you are going that far. Once again we had our guide with us to arrange all this and unless the driver can show you where to go this is not so straightforward. At Qazideh it was a simple registration, at Khandud there was more paperwork to be completed, and at Qala e Panja we had to hand in a letter and receive another to give to the chief of Sarhad.
In the Little Pamir once you arrive near to the Shaymak border crossing with Tajikistan (which is not open to foreigners) there is a small Afghan border post camp where we had to register ourselves.
From the border to Ishkashim bazaar you will need the guards to call you a taxi. They will ask for $20 or so, it is only 6km so don't pay that. We paid $10 because it was unfortunately raining so threatening to walk didn't work, but I think they would settle for $5.
From Ishkashim to Sarhad is the killer and we at least knew that coming in. What we were very happy about though was that instead of the $450/$400 one way fee written about we were charged $300. We had our guide negotiate this for us though, so I'm not sure how successful trying to haggle yourself on the street would be.
The road to Sarhad is for the most part awful. There are some good stretches but the journey takes around 10 hours. Be aware that in mid summer it may be very difficult to drive all the may to Sarhad. When we returned from the hike on the 19th of June, the water levels were already getting high and our 4WD struggled to cross the river not long after departing Sarhad for Ishkashim. From what we have read though it seems like some of the problems with high water in the past have been now been negated.
Food and Drink
In Khorog there is a decent size proper supermarket so that's where we bought most of our food. Ishkashim has a decent bazaar though so that can also work. From there on you might find small shops, particularly in Khandud where there is a small bazaar, but don't expect to have much selection. To cook the food we purchased a 2.5kg gas bottle with stove attachment in Ishkashim and that worked perfectly the entire way. If you are in the Pamir and your food stocks are disastrously low, you can purchase bread from the Kyrgyz people.
The Kyrgyz guesthouse food ranged from simple bread, yoghurt and rice, to homemade cheese and Qaldama, a traditional fried bread dish which was delicious. One guesthouse even gave us rice with meat which tasted very good. The best surprise though was finding out there were fish in the waterways around Chaqmaqtin Lake so one afternoon we went fishing and returned with dinner for the next 3 days. Some of the best tasting fish I have ever had as well.
For water we both had water bottles with filters so we drank with those from the streams you come across regularly. Even without the bottles most of the streams looked ok, but you can never be sure.
From Ishkashim to Sost, which is a few kilometres after you turn inland to the upper Wakhan, you can use T-Cell mobile from the Tajik side. Megafon is available sporadically along the way to Qala e Panja, while the Afghan provider Roshan is available only in Ishkashim. From there on there is nothing until
the end of the Little Pamir where Sultan village is located. Here you can get Megafon although I can't comment on the 2G internet available as our Megafon data plan had expired.
In terms of actual speaking, 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.
Unless our either broke for cash or incredibly confident in your fitness, definitely get an animal to carry your gear. You can get either donkeys or horses, or even yaks 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.
We hired two donkeys and the owner who came with us fortunately spoke some words of English. He was a nice enough guy although after 9 days he seemed to be a bit tired of the trip. Still though we shared all our food and he shared his, he cooked delicious rice and he was flexible with plans. He lives in Sarhad so you cannot contact him in any way, but his name is Mubarak Qadam so if he is free don't hesitate to ask for him.
We were recommended a few contacts before leaving and in the end we were helped a lot by a man named Safi Usmani. He had probably the best English out of anyone we found in the entirety of our time in Afghanistan and was a very friendly guy. We highly recommend his services although I advise you plan much of your trip with him in advance in order to get everything organised quicker when you arrive and to have an idea of costs. You can reach him by phone or facebook.
Tajik Number: +992935001567
The Wakhan is expensive. Not for day to day things, but accommodation, transport, services etc comes at a disproportionate cost. I'll list off all our expenses.
- Ishkashim/Qala e Panja: $25 per person, per night
- Sarhad: $20 per person per night
- Kyrgyz Villages: One didn't make us pay and one we only paid 500 Afghani to, but budget for 500 Afghani per person per night. (Approx $7.50)
- Car from border to Ishkashim bazaar: $10
- Car from Ishkashim to Sarhad and back: $600
- 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.
- They will ask for $50 a day. We paid this for our guide to help us organise permits and everything prior to leaving. From there on though it was too expensive. May or may not be able to haggle.
There are no ATMs available so bring all the cash you need with you. Changing money from dollars to afghanis is easy, the reverse less so. Also be aware there is only one ATM in Khorog that works for foreign cards and it only accepts Visa. Alternatively in Khorog there is also Western Union.
Not once did we feel at risk in the Wakhan. In Ishkashim there is a sizeable military presence and throughout the entire region the people absolutely despise the Taliban. For example, we met some traders from Kabul along the way and both the Wakhi and Kyrgyz people were incredibly wary of them. We spoke to the traders and they came across as very friendly, even shaking my partner Marta's hand. Still though, we were constantly warned about them being 'Taliban friends'. On the other hand, the traders definitely didn't approve of Wakhis because of their Ismaili faith.
For Marta though, she had a few uncomfortable moments. As we would occasionally share the guesthouses with other Wakhi men, often she was stared at even when trying to get ready for bed or wake up. In her words, as a single female traveller it would be quite uncomfortable and unsettling. One particular time she would try to put herself between things so she could change her headscarf, but the men would go to the effort of moving to continue watching. She never felt in any danger, but it is not pleasant, so be aware of that.
Was Travelling in Ramadan a Problem?
Not at all. According to the Qoran anyway if somebody is travelling they are allowed to break the fast. Therefore finding someone to accompany us with their animals was no problem. Everywhere we went we were welcomed with bread, tea and yoghurt and we didn't feel uncomfortable at all eating it in front of others.
What you will find though is that many of the Kyrgyz men sleep during the day. The women might be the only ones out and about until the evening when the men start to wake up. This isn't a problem but it was strange basically arriving to a ghost village every time we reached somewhere.
Is it worth it?
. We had an incredible time. The scenery is stunning, better than the Tajik side in our opinion. The Wakhi people are incredibly friendly, the Kyrgyz people beyond Chaqmaqtin at least were very welcoming, and the experience will never be forgotten. If you are into hiking there are a few other treks around the Wakhan which we heard were great, such as the Noshaq Base Camp trek. It is expensive though, so you need to factor that in, particularly if you want to get out to the Kyrgyz people. If you are happy to spend the money then even a short trip is nice, but to really experience something unique you need to either do the Noshaq trek or go beyond Qala e Panja at least.
If anybody has any questions I would be happy to answer them. This is just a informative summary, I will write a personal experience later on our blog but I'm a bit behind on that at the moment. The link to the blog anyway is https://thephotographyjournalblog.wordpress.com/
so keep an eye out if you're interested.
As a side note, while we were in Tajikistan in Langar we stayed at the same homestay as an official working on the construction of a new border crossing there. He estimates that in 2-3 years once a road through to Pakistan is completed then the crossing will be open to everyone.