Qala Panjah – Leaving Wakhan

The water is too deep to cross.

The water is too deep to cross.

Today Mr. Juma Khan had to go to Khandod for a business, so I had the chance to hich his tractor to go back as far as Khandod. Transport in Wakhan Valley is always difficult and chance like this of course doesn’t come everyday. My legs are still painful after the long hike some days before and I hardly can walk long.

It was not only me the free loader (muftah). Moalem also took the ride. They way along the southern bank of Wakhan river was quite difficult as there were many rivers and streams to cross, and also the road after the Baba Tangi village was flooded as deep as waist. The river after Baba Tangi was so deep and strong, that we had to throw stones to make the way for the tractor through the water. Then it was another steep climb up the hill. The empty tractor couldn’t make it. Juma Khan was a good leader, and he really knew what to do in all situations. He asked all the hitchhikers (all locals who took the opportunity for free hitch) to collect stones from the mountains and put in the loading part of the tractor, to make the weight more evenly distributed. It worked. The tractor successfully climbed the long steep hill before the bridge near Sargaz.

The hassle of traveling with this vehicle didn’t stop here. Actually tractor is among the sturdiest vehicles to traverse this kind of hard track. It had big wheels so it was not afraid of deep ditches. But deep water was an enemy for the machine.

Juma Khan always had to assure that the water was not deeper than a man’s waist so that the water wouldn’t go to intrude the machine. But this time, the Wakhan river flooded the road near Sheulk village very, very deep. The stream was strong and even if I was walking I would be scared to cross. There were only Moalem and me the passengers at the time, as other farmers and herders just took the lift until their destinations before the bridge. Now what to do with this deep river? There was a secondary road up the hill for the pedestrians, but whether it was passable by tractor was another mystery. We walked along the alternative road. It was quite easy and wide at the beginning, then it started to be full of stones. Not a big problem for tractor. But all we three could do was removing the big stones from blocking the way. In one part of the road was too narrow, so we threw some stones to widen the road. It was not an easy task. We were only three and the hole was very deep. After an hour of effort the tractor successfully climbed this alternative way and we passed the river bellow.

It's a dangerous journey

It’s a dangerous journey

The village of Wardooj is another tiny village but of importance due to its position, proximity to the first bridge connecting the north and south bank of the river. The rais (village head) of Wardooj lived in a house uphill that required long climb from the main road. His wife, as other Ismaili women, was so friendly, smiling all the time while serving the tea and nan to the guests. She didn’t join the conversation but it seemed that she listened carefully to all that the guests were talking about. After teatime, our load got heavier, as villagers also took the chance to transport their stuff by tractor. They asked Juma Khan to bring the wood and furniture down to Khandod, sans personnel.

I thought that now we can travel smoothly, but I was mistaken. After the beautiful waterfalls, the water really fell, now on the road, just nearby. It was very deep. Not a good sign for Juma Khan’s tractor. He asked Moalem to walk the flooded water to see how deep it was, but Moalem was afraid of getting wet. Then there were some local herders who were ‘victimized’ as they had sticks to help them walking in the stream. It was indeed very deep. Juma Khan tractor couldn’t pass. There was an alternative way for the pedestrians up the hill and he asked me to take it. “Ahista, ahistan, paida karo, Qala Panjah Inshallah pahunc hoge,” he asked me not to waste my time to walk to Qala Panjah. Instead of me saying thank you, he first said sorry to me not being able to take me to my destination. “Lekin, kya karenge? What to do?” I did really wish to meet him again somewhere after our farewell.

I walked from Aorgarch, I tried to avoid Moalem due to the accident of opium. He walked fast anyway. And I walked slowly through the corridor between Tajikistan and Pakistan. On my right was Tajikistan, on my left was Pakistan. The scenery was beautiful, but it was too quiet for me to walk alone. I had nobody to rely now, especially when my legs got worse and worse during the walk. I started walking at 1 p.m. and at both legs were already almost paralyzed. I forced myself to walk as there was no other choice. No village existed between Aorgarch and Qala Panjah, and except the three shepherds there was nobody else.

Qurban in his post

Qurban in his post

When I arrived in Qala Panjah after 4 and half hours walk, I almost died. The border police, Qurban, saw me and said, “my heart is painful looking you like this.” Such a romantic little boy. He took my bag and helped me to walk to the Shah’s house. Now my knees completely couldn’t be bent, I walked just as my legs were two stiff bamboo sticks.

I thought I would be completely fainted when I arrived in Shah’s house. This time I was housed in a guest room on the second floor. Climbing the stairs with stiff legs was as glorious as independence struggle. But I was not alone in that room. There was Arnoult, a Frenchman used to work for UNAMA and just finished a month of trekking in Wakhan and Pamir. We discussed a lot, despite of my fever and pain. We discussed about the meaning of nation, what Afghanistan means for Afghan, the concept of nationalism, the values of being a nation, until the philosophy of Islam.

The national hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud

The national hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud

The next day, early in the morning, with lots of struggle, I went to the border police post. Qurban said previously that today there would be an Acardian car going to pass to Ishkashim, that I might hitch. I had breakfast with the border police, a cup of milk tea, a cup of sweet black tea, and nan. Qurban communicated with other post in Khandod with the satellite phone. It’s the only method of communication here, and it cost $1.50/minute. “Pamir…Pamir….” Repeated Qurban as it was the code of the post. Not long after, it became a chit chat between the border police of the two posts. “Qurban jon, bakhari hasti? Aram asti? (Qurban dear, are you allright? Everything is fine?)” said the other.

The border police post was a house with simple three rooms. The communication room was merely 3 x 1 m, with a small table and chair, a set of telephone appliance, some ISAF News (Sada e Azadi) tabloid which then turned to be wallpaper, and a huge Masoud poster. It seemed quite comfortable to live here.

The border guards of Afghanistan

The border guards of Afghanistan

Later, after waiting for a while, there was no vehicle at all passing, but Juma Khan’s tractor at 10. I was so happy to meet him again. He successfully passed the flood of Aorgarch in early morning where there was less water. And at the end, we arrived in Khandod at 12. I missed the connecting transport to Ishkashim again. Who expected to travel the 100ish km distance from Krat to Ishkashim one needed 3 days? And it was not cheap at all. After discussing with some Sunni traders from Ishkashim, we managed to rent (dar bast, door closed) a Falancoach to IShkashim. It cost 700 Af for the ride. Falancoach was not a suitable vehicle for the terrain like Wakhan. IT even couldn’t pass any ditches and passengers needed to go down to throw stones to the ditches. Sometimes the passengers also turned to be road builders with scopes and hands to make the way for the poor carriage. The bridge was broken and the road was swept by the flood. The unreliable Falancoach needed an hour with the help of local men to pass. In return, we agreed to take two women in our car. They were Ismaili Tajik and the younger one was wearing burqa. Burqa didn’t really serve the purpose as most of the time the girl didn’t cover her face with the veiling costume. After arrived in their village, still in Wakhi Tajik area, the girl simply threw away her burqa and walked unveiled. The burqa was merely to satisfy the Sunni passengers.

Again, I missed the connecting transport as our Falangcoach arrived in Ishkashim at 2 while the last car going to Baharaq left at 1. Who to blame?

When traveling in Afghanistan, the more you rushed, the more you got stressed.

About Agustinus Wibowo

Agustinus is an Indonesian travel writer and travel photographer. Agustinus started a “Grand Overland Journey” in 2005 from Beijing and dreamed to reach South Africa totally by land with an optimistic budget of US$2000. His journey has taken him across Himalaya, South Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, and ex-Soviet Central Asian republics. He was stranded and stayed three years in Afghanistan until 2009. He is now a full-time writer and based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Contact: Website | More Posts

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