Crossposted from LP's Thorn Tree forum:
Beginning of June, 2014:
As part of our tour of the Pamir Highway, two companions and I were supposed to have two nights in Afghanistan arranged as a tour. Our guide in Tajikistan had a contact and walked us over to meet them. This was near Ishkashim (Tajikistan). The tour operator on the Afghan side was Adventure Wakhan, run by Adab Shah, who Pamir Highway Adventure had apparently worked with before and had no problems with. At least not before.
The guy who met us at the border was nice, but didn’t speak a lot of English, and we were supposed to meet Adab Shah to pay the balance, and have an English-speaking guide. We were taken to the tour office (a storefront) and started the process of registration and obtaining Wakhan permits. This took a big part of the day, and trips to a few different offices throughout town, and lots of curious stares from passersby. No one knew who the guide was supposed to be, what the total cost was, or what we wanted to do, despite numerous emails between our Tajik tour company and Adab Shah. The guide they wanted to give us couldn’t speak much English, and for what we were about to pay for the trip it would not have been worth it; it would have been better to try it on our own. Finally, we wound up with a different guide, Jalil, who spoke excellent English since he was the town’s English teacher, and had worked with tourists before. After taking almost an hour to get in touch with Adab Shah via phone, we renegotiated the details of the tour including cost, and consented to pay just over half as a deposit.
We finally left, in a jeep, and drove out from Ishkashim (Afghani) to Khandud, about 5 hours away. The scenery was beautiful of course, and it was really interesting to see rural life along the way. Tajikistan seemed so developed in comparison. There was obvious work done by NGOs, who’d created the road leading through Wakhan, and each town had at least one guesthouse / campsite which were well marked. In Khandud we stayed at the one guesthouse, which was basic but pretty comfortable as long as you’re not expecting Wifi, electricity, and a nice toilet.
One of the others in my group claimed that they opened her bag while we were out, though, so we wound up not staying an extra night. I didn’t notice any tampering of my bag, and the other guy’s bag was locked, and there wasn’t anything missing from that bag that she could find. Also, after the first day, we switched drivers. Our guide told us that there’s a rule that between certain regions you have to use a driver from that regions. For instance, our driver from Ishkashim could take us to Khandud but not back with him; our second driver was from Khandud and could drive us around that area and then back to Ishkashim, and drive back alone. For economic reasons this probably makes sense, although it means that you hire a new driver everywhere you go.
On the second day we drove to Qala-e Panja, another hour into the valley. This was a really nice stop. Great scenery, and an old fortress against the mountainous backdrop. We had lunch at the homestay there, which looked like it would have been great to stay in overnight, and drove back a bit further than Khandud, to I think Wargand Payan. I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep, but unfortunately there were a few kinds of bugs in the blankets and pillows, and I couldn’t sleep because of all the bites (apparently some were bugs that normally feast on cows, and led to some nice, big, itchy marks the next morning!). I wound up staying up all night, which at least led to being outside and able to see all the stars and the milky way. No light pollution in Wakhan Valley, and no sounds aside from dogs, cows and donkeys.
We had a nice breakfast and set out really early back to Ishkashim to cross back into Tajikistan. About 20 minutes in, we got stuck in the sand because the car was a Toyota Corolla and not the 4x4 we’d started out with. We pushed it, but that only got us so far. No shovel, no boards. Luckily a passing 4x4 stopped quite soon afterwards and pulled us out after a few attempts with a flimsy rope. The rest of the drive was uneventful, and we wound up back in Ishkashim to supposedly just pay our balance and go right to the border crossing.
The wrong price was written on the receipt, so we spent another 30 minutes trying to reach the elusive Adab Shah to discuss. I think the miscommunication was that we wound up driving further out, to Qala-e Panja, which wasn’t originally planned. If we had been told of the extra cost before setting out, it would have been better. Finally we were able to just pay the original amount we agreed on, get a receipt and head to the border.
Unfortunately, the border was closed for lunch. For the next two hours. So, we sat there entertaining ourselves and the border guards, before finally making it back across to Tajikistan, which was like 5-star luxury in comparison!
Overall I can’t recommend going with Adventure Wakhan unless they get much more organised and are more communicative with their customers. Afghanistan is not easy to travel, but if the company had been more straightforward and organised it would have made the trip a lot more worth the money. Even having bottled water for paying customers would be a major improvement, not to mention knowing how many days we were staying and what the cost was supposed to be. I would’ve loved to have had more time in this area and seen more, but it was so expensive to travel that 2 nights/3 days was enough.
Visas: We were issued Afghan visas in Khorog, Tajikistan, with our tour company which had forwarded our passport information already. They were issued in less than one hour after submitting paperwork. Paperwork was pretty self-explanatory, though I used a previous profession instead of photography since this was just after the issues in Khorog. As it turned out, my Tajik visa was single entry, so my guide and I made an arrangement (US$100 “fee”) with the immigration officer at the Afghan border crossing to let me go in and out of Afghanistan without cancelling my Tajik visa. Luckily it worked out, but they still put stamps in my passport (not on the visa though), so if the officials had actually looked at my whole passport when I exited Tajikistan, they would’ve known my visa was invalid because of the stamps and the date stamps on the Afghan visa. If I hadn’t just spent US$200 on the Afghan visa (Khorog officials didn’t check my Tajik visa), I never would’ve risked it, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
Border Crossing: Pretty modern on the Tajik side. You cross a bridge over the small river that separates Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and the first building is the Tajik side. Customs is just a room, and they’ll just hand-search your bag for a minute. Immigration is a little further down the building. Afterwards, you walk through a fenced walkway to the Afghan side, which is one small building. They don’t speak a lot of English and had a hard time dealing with my Spanish companion’s double last name, and the fact that my Russian companion was actually Russian (she’s of Asian descent). Then, they hand searched the bags outside, much more thoroughly than on the Tajik side.
Infrastructure: Very basic on the Afghan side. No paved roads, electricity run mostly on generators and batteries. Toilets are holes in the ground for the most part, and sanitation isn’t the best, so keep that in mind. Not all homestays had electricity, and none that we stayed in had running water. For driving, people seemed to carry their own bottles of petrol, and spare tires were a must considering the condition of the roads. 4x4s did much better in all areas. Having boards for getting out of sand would be useful, as well as a shovel.
Food: I would highly recommend having anti-diarrhea medicines/antibiotics or something, some wet wipes, and to be careful about eating fresh fruits and vegetables. We couldn’t find any bottled water and had to cool boiled water overnight. Bring bottled water in if possible. That being said, the food was fantastic. Our guide did mention to the homestay owners that I was vegetarian, and all the food was vegetarian; tasty rice, homemade yogurt, bread, potatoes, eggs, etc. Of course there was tea as well.
Independent travel: I think it’d be quite easy to arrange transport and homestays through this area if you speak a little Tajik, Pashto, Wahki, or are great at sign language. It felt very safe and this area is known for being very separate from the rest of Afghanistan since it’s really an extension of the Pamir tribes across the river. People are generally friendly and curious, and definitely not used to foreigners. For women a headscarf is a must, and a longer jacket or dress over trousers to cover the hips and thighs. Many men won’t address you, so best to travel with a guy for the sake of ease, or be prepared for the difficulties. There was actually a Russian guy who crossed the same time as us, and spoke no English. He was headed for Kabul and couldn’t even communicate with the guys at the registration office in Ishakashim. I wonder what happened with him.
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Thank you, gonna use some info here to update our Wakhan article https://caravanistan.com/afghanistan/wakhan-corridor/
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