Few places in the world today seem like less inviting tourist destinations than Afghanistan. Yet some NGOs are trying to lure adventurers and backpackers to the war-torn country as one possible way to stimulate local economic development.
It isn’t easy going. Much of the country is an active conflict zone, and even those regions with relatively less violence have poor roads and minimal connections to the outside world. But the hope is that even a little backpacker foot traffic — a few beds filled at guesthouses, a little income for guides and families providing meals to travelers — might help bring money and more options to Afghan locals.
That was the thinking that inspired David James, a veteran British soldier who completed two tours of duty in Afghanistan and returned to the country in 2009 to found the nonprofit Mountain Unity. James says he became convinced that there would be no peace in the country until Afghans had other methods of generating income other than narcotics, corruption, and insurgency.
“Afghan entrepreneurs invest in opium because it gives them the best and safest return on their investment,” he explains. “[But] the international community really, really needs to focus on helping Afghans find other ways to earn money…. I left the Army determined to return to Afghanistan and do something that would really help the Afghan people. I have to say tourism wasn’t something that instantly sprang to mind, but when you really study it, it makes sense on many levels.”
James isn’t alone in his ambitions. In 2006, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a coalition of development organizations that operates across Central and South Asia and the Middle East, began to develop its own tourism-promotion plans for Afghanistan. Among other projects, it, in partnership with the German government’s development agency, mapped scenic backpacking routes and produced a glossy, photo-filled brochure of recommended treks. Today AKDN continues to train guides in the country’s central highlands and northeastern regions.
Veteran Italian climber Carlo Alberto Pinelli, who climbed extensively in the area in the 1960s, also founded a nonprofit, Mountains for Peace, that organizes training programs for Afghans to become mountaineers and trekking guides. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave him funding to publish in 2007 a mountaineering guide to the Afghan Hindu Kush, Peaks of Silver and Jade. And also in 2007, the travel series Lonely Planet released its first ever Lonely Planet: Afghanistan.
Although tourism in Afghanistan has been slow to take off, for obvious reasons, I can personally attest to the scenic splendor and fascinating cultural heritage of at least one of the advertised routes: the journey through the Wakhan Corridor.
The Wakhan is a legacy of the “Great Game” era, designed in 1895 to provide a buffer between British India and an expanding czarist Russia. It’s a thin finger of land stretching some 200 miles out from northeast Afghanistan, bordering Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south and just barely touching China to the east.
Owing to its high mountains, terrible roads, and risky political barriers, few travelers have seen the Wakhan. Marco Polo passed through in 1271 on his way to China. Lord Curzon, later the viceroy of India, also visited in the late 19th century to discover the source of the Oxus River, now known as the Amu Darya. Afghanistan’s highest mountain, Noshaq, lies within the region. In the 1960s and 1970s, before the start of Afghanistan’s decades of war, these peaks attracted climbers from around the world.
Although the area was used as a route for smuggling weapons during the 1980s war, when the mujahideen resistance fighters fought against the Soviets, the Wakhan itself has always been fairly peaceful and remains so today, removed from the violence that afflicts much of the rest of the country.
During my time working in Afghanistan for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2009, I took three weeks to travel through the Wakhan with some colleagues. A brochure on trekking in the Wakhan Valley, published by AKDN in 2006 with support from the German government, was our inspiration and principal source of information.
Departing Kabul in early July 2009, we passed through the spectacular Salang Tunnel and into Baghlan and then Kunduz. Security in these hitherto safe provinces had deteriorated precipitously during 2009, and we did not linger.
Toward the end of the first day we safely entered the province of Badakhshan, home to Tajiks, Uzbeks, Wakhis, Kyrgyz, and other ethnicities — generally unreceptive audiences for the Taliban’s ideology. In fact, it was only Badakhshan and Panjshir provinces that had not yielded to the Taliban’s advance by the time of the 2001 U.S.-led intervention.
At the end of the second day’s driving, we entered the safe and pleasant village of Ishkashim, situated on the border with Tajikistan and sitting at the entrance to the Wakhan. Here we met James of Mountain Unity in a brand-new guesthouse, built with the expectation of more tourists to come. James helped us in our dealings with local officials and shopkeepers and provided useful advice on routes.
We then commenced our journey into the Wakhan, driving until the end of the road at the village of Sarhad-e Broghil. There we engaged guides — our lead guide, Abdul Wadood, was a young Wakhi trained by the AKDN — and horses to carry our food and equipment. In Sarhad, we stayed in one of a string of guesthouses that AKDN had established, a simple affair, but clean and very cozy with dark-red rugs hanging on the walls.
For the first few days of trekking, the route loosely followed the Amu Darya. Toward the end of the third day of trekking, we reached the Kyrgyz settlement of Bozai Gumbaz. The Kyrgyz women and girls were dressed in beautiful red traditional clothing as they tended the yaks that surrounded their simple homes. We were told that the life expectancy for the Kyrgyz women in the Wakhan is 31, the most common cause of death being childbirth.
Yaks are the basis of the local economy and absolutely essential to life in this harsh environment. Their milk is quite sweet, and we quickly got used to salted yaks’ milk tea. Due to the unavailability of wood, yak dung is used for fires, the smoke from which gives bread and other food a distinctive but not unpleasant smell and taste.
At the end of the fourth day we reached Chaqmatin Lake, our furthest point east. There is an incredible sense of space, and of freedom. There is no government here — there never has been. Whoever holds power in Kabul is almost entirely irrelevant to these people. Few of them if any would vote in the presidential election to be held the following month.
On our fifth day we headed back in the direction from which we had come. Instead of backtracking along the river, we chose to take the Katch Goz High Route — a loop far to the north that crossed a number of passes, the highest at 4,800 meters and still covered in snow in midsummer. We passed through Wakhi summer settlements, where we stayed overnight.
It was with feelings of relief and accomplishment that, after 10 days of trekking, we strode back into Sarhad. From here, it took us another five days to get back to Kabul.
Looking back, I have many fond, as well as frustrating, memories of the time I spent in Afghanistan. But I retain a great sense of privilege to have spent time in the Wakhan — a remote, beautiful, and safe corner of this wonderful land. It is this dramatic mountain scenery and varied local culture that helped attract more than 100,000 tourists annually to Afghanistan in the country’s 1970s tourism heyday. James and his colleagues know the road ahead is steep, but hope to rekindle at least a few travelers’ interest.
Source: Foriegn Policy