This is Afghanistan: the nomadic community living at the 'end of the world'

Young, unmarried girls wear bright red veils in the Wakhan corridor. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.
Young, unmarried girls wear bright red veils in the Wakhan corridor. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

I had been dreaming of going to Afghanistan for half a decade, ever since I attended a lecture by Spanish foreign correspondent Plàcid Garcia-Planas as a first-year journalism student.

I remember it clear as day.

I was sitting in the faculty’s overcrowded auditorium as he was projecting a photo of an old Afghan shopkeeper splashing water over a dusty step.

"This man is washing his shop front after a suicide bomber self-immolated earlier that morning," Plàcid said.

"This is Afghanistan."

What Plàcid intended to do was discourage weak-stomached students from pursuing a career in conflict reporting, but instead it sparked my curiosity and a desire to travel to the country that was once part of the hippy trail.

The Wakhan corridor was created as a buffer zone between tsarist Russia and the British Empire in the 19th century. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

The Wakhan corridor was created as a buffer zone between tsarist Russia and the British Empire in the 19th century. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

I could never have imagined that five years later my partner and I would be trekking along the country’s Karakoram, Pamir and Hindu Kush ranges, searching for one of the last nomadic cultures in the world: the Pamiri Kyrgyz.

Afghanistan’s Kyrgyz nomads live in the high-altitude flats of the Wakhan corridor, a region created as a buffer zone between tsarist Russia and the British Empire in the 19th century.

To this day the corridor remains one of the most isolated regions in the world, and one of very few areas within Afghanistan that has never been under Taliban control.

Shaky legs and oversized backpacks

We crossed the border into the Afghan town of Ishkashim in the late afternoon, armed with a pair of shaky legs and our oversized backpacks.

In less than an hour after leaving the Tajik border control we were inside a beaten-up taxi decorated with pictures of Afghan hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, driving past abandoned Soviet tanks and away from the reassuring familiarity of Tajikistan’s riverside villages.

The mountain passes are treacherous, with days of travel between villages. PIC: Marta Pascual Juanola.

The mountain passes are treacherous, with days of travel between villages. PIC: Marta Pascual Juanola.

As we arrived at the town’s bazaar the driver, a heavily bearded soldier, told us to get out of the car and drove off leaving a cloud of dust behind.

My partner and I looked at each other with a mix of excitement and sheer panic as the curious eyes of bearded shopkeepers dressed in the traditional khet partug scanned us from head to toe.

Was Ishkashim as safe as everyone said?

A view very few people get to see. Photo: Marta Pascual Juanola.

A view very few people get to see. Photo: Marta Pascual Juanola.

Could we trust that none of those people would sell us to Taliban or ISIS militants in exchange for a few hundred dollars?

The town was riddled with Afghan army men glued to old Kalashnikovs and, as reassuring as that was, my mind couldn’t stop thinking about the Taliban-controlled district of Warduj being only 20 kilometres away.

Still entertained by horrific thoughts of kidnappings and public executions, we made our way to a local guesthouse where we dropped off our luggage before venturing out into the bazaar again in search of someone who could tell us where the foreigner registration office was.

As we were walking down the main street, a dusty path flanked by small wooden shops, a middle-aged man wearing traditional Afghan clothes and a mujahedeen hat approached us.

USAID cans litter the landscape throughout the corridor. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

USAID cans litter the landscape throughout the corridor. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

He introduced himself in English as Safi Usmani, a former World Food Programme worker and a Wakhan tourist guide.

After a brief chat he offered to help us organise our official police permits and a car transfer to Sarhad-e Broghil, the last village on the road to the Wakhan.

A beacon of light in our hour of need, Safi eased most of our safety concerns and felt like a familiar face in a town I hadn’t yet learned to trust.

Kalashnikovs - and a vast variety of firearms - are a common site in Afghanistan. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

Kalashnikovs - and a vast variety of firearms - are a common site in Afghanistan. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

One day after accepting his offer for help, we were sitting in a Land Cruiser racing down sandy roads and perilous mountain paths to embark on a 320-kilometre return trek to the end of the Afghan Pamir.

After two days of driving across riverbeds and small farming villages, we finally hit Sarhad-e Broghil, where Safi farewelled us and returned to Ishkashim.

The next morning we departed towards the Pamir shortly after sunrise in company of two small donkeys and their owner, a Wakhi man called Mubarak Qadam, who was going to guide us throughout the trek.

Life on the land in Afghanistan

We reached the first seasonal Kyrgyz settlement, Chaqmaqtin, after four days of camping along the Wakhan River and navigating up narrow mountain paths.

The settlement, like most Kyrgyz villages, consisted of a handful of mud homes and felt yurts scattered around a small mountain stream, where several furry yaks munched on dry grass and small weeds.

There was no one to be seen.

Unsure if the local Kyrgyz had already migrated to their summer settlement, we set off to explore the village.

As we were walking around, a white veil suddenly appeared from around a corner, flapping in the wind.

In the Pamir, married Kyrgyz women pin long white veils to their hats. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

In the Pamir, married Kyrgyz women pin long white veils to their hats. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

A woman dressed in a bright red and golden dress was on her way to pick up dried dung to fuel the fire.

The front of her dress was decorated with big nacre buttons and many silver trinkets that rattled as she walked in the afternoon wind. Her veil, which hung all the way to her lower back, was pinned to a small, round, hand-stitched hat resting just above her forehead.

The harsh winds of the Pamir had taken a toll on her skin, which showed many years of labouring outdoors in bitterly cold winter temperatures, but her sharp eyes showed she was probably younger than she appeared.

I had never imagined I would see such a bright and intricate outfit in Afghanistan, a country where uniformed women draped themselves in sky blue burqas.

But in the Pamir, married Kyrgyz women pin long white veils to their hats, while young unmarried girls wear bright red veils, instead.

Children living among one of the world's last nomadic tribes. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

Children living among one of the world's last nomadic tribes. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

The Wakhan was most definitely a place of its own, where Islamic cloaks, rocket launchers and white turbans were yet to find their way in.

As quickly as she appeared, the woman vanished inside a yurt, just as a group of young Kyrgyz men came to show us the guest room, a dimly lit dusty space with no furniture other than a couple of metal chests.

Later that day, as we walked around the village before a dinner of rice, tea, bread and yoghurt, we observed the village’s young Kyrgyz girls draped in their red veils as they chased stubborn yaks across the river, back into their pens.

The beauty and resilience of the people shines through. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

The beauty and resilience of the people shines through. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

Running in the endless flats of the Pamir, they herded the sheep, milked the yaks and prepared the food, while men set up Chinese-made car batteries to power a couple of light bulbs.

We had been in the Pamir for less than twenty-four hours, but I was already fascinated by the resilience and the beauty of its people, who challenged the elements to survive in one of the world’s most desolate corners.

As days went on, we discovered that even after toiling all day, the nomads were still eager to laugh over unflattering pictures, try to communicate using hand gestures and share a cup of tea with us.

Alluring and dangerous - the call of the corridor

In a land that resembles a post-apocalyptic movie set, where a rusty USAID can every few kilometres was the only sign of human life, the Kyrgyz ability to adapt to nature in order to survive didn’t cease to amaze me.

A young girl gives her brother a piggyback ride. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

A young girl gives her brother a piggyback ride. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

Isolated from governments and basic infrastructure, the nomads had managed to establish a network of shelters along the walking trails for caravans of local men to sleep on their way to buy supplies outside the corridor.

They have also built informal bathhouses around natural hot springs, and imported cheaper Chinese goods such as basic telephones and TVs, which they power through solar panels.

As life turned tough, they have proven human resilience is greater than hardship, and that life at the end of the world is possible, even in one of the most ravaged countries on the planet.

Visiting the corridor was a humbling experience that tested our endurance, our ability to communicate and our understanding of human nature.

I believe there are places that gently change one’s outlook on life and that will forever try to lure one back in.

The Afghan Pamir, a warm oasis inside one of the most dangerous countries in the world, is one of those places where I will always long to return.

Kyrgyz huts are scattered throughout the corridor. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

Kyrgyz huts are scattered throughout the corridor. Pic: Marta Pascual Juanola.

Marta Pascual Juanola is an award-winning photographer and journalist who got her start at Fairfax Media's Mandurah Mail. She is currently travelling over land and sea from South-East Asia to her childhood home in Catalonia.