Wakhan Corridor travel guide
Some mountain ranges just look more impressive and majestic than others. The remote Hindu Kush is among the most spectacular ones. Here, the valleys are deep and dark with white glaciers and snow-glazed jagged peaks soaring high above. As you descend into the Wakhan Valley from the Big Pamir, you get amazing panoramic views of this massive range that forms the border with Pakistan. The Hindu Kush has 38 peaks higher than 7,000 m. The highest is Tirich Mir (7,708 m) which lies entirely inside Pakistan, however the second highest is Mt. Noshaq (7,492 m) and that one is shared by Afghanistan and Pakistan. Previously, Mt. Noshaq was off limits, but now the summit can be climbed by experienced mountaineers while the base camp can be trekked by anyone. Hindu Kush is a very dramatic mountain range, with many 6,000+ m peaks that look exactly how mountains should look like – like Mt. Baga Tangi (6,513 m) pictured.
The dusty border town of Ishkashim is the entrance point to the Wakhan Valley and the high mountains of Afghan Pamir and Hindu Kush. It's located 4 km from the Tajik border with views to snowcapped mountains and green fields. It's a real (dysfunctional) Afghan town with bearded men sporting army vests over their traditional Afghani dress and women in blue burkas. So if you are coming straight from Tajikistan, it will be bit of a culture shock. The main reason to come here is to arrange Wakhan permits and transport into the spectacular Wakhan Corridor, something that isn't as easily done as it sounds... after all, this is Afghanistan!
An extension of the Wakhan Valley, the word "little" in the name of this place certainly does not refer to area's mountains. They are so tall that even the passes between them and stone hut villages nowhere near the peaks can be snow-blanketed in midsummer. Trade caravans of donkeys, horses and yaks ply a one-month trade route through this roadless wilderness, stopping at villages where people live in near-mediaeval conditions. Around Lake Choqmaqtin, a four-day walk from the nearest road or shop, the villages end to be replaced by yurt encampments belonging to the world's last nomadic Kyrgyz. These stretch out for another three days, all the while getting further and further away from the road. The isolation here is so extreme that it really is like delving into another world. Bring plenty of food, as locals eat only hard bread for breakfast, hard bread for lunch then hard bread, rice and yoghurt for dinner every day. Bring warm clothing, a tent and a sleeping bag even in summer. Bring altitude sickness medicine, as even the passes between mountains can reach 5,500 metres.
Afghanistan's highest mountain is Mt. Noshaq (7,492 m). It lies on the border to Pakistan and is also the second highest peak in the impressive Hindu Kush. Until recently, the mountain was off limits, but it is now open for climbers and trekkers. It's possible to trek to the base camp at 4,450 m from where there are spectacular views to several 7,000+ m peaks. The base camp trek is a four day trek (return) with start and end in the small settlement of Qazideh in the Wakhan Valley.
Sargez village (3,040 m) is a typical settlement in the Wakhan Valley. A few mud houses surrounded by some green fields (wheat and barley) fed by meltwater directed by a maze of water channels. It's located at the entrance of one of the valleys that leed to the Big Pamir and is the ending point of the Wuzed-Sargez semi-loop trek. Like several other places in the valley, a guest house was built (with foreign help) for the trinkle of trekking tourists who venture into Upper Wakhan. What makes Sargez standout, compared to other villages, is it has a tiled pool hut with hot water (it was probably constructed on top of what once was a natural hot spring). It doesn't get more luxurious than this in Wakhan Valley.
The four to five days semi-loop from the settlement of Wuzed to the settlement of Sargez is an amazing trek. The mountain scenery is spectacular with panoramic views of the jagged snowcapped Hindu Kush and you will pass several summer camps of the Wakhi people. The trek starts rather hard with a climb from Wuzed (2850 m) through a narrow gorge to a small sheperd house at 4000 m. The route continues to the first Wakhi camp at their summer pasture at 4300 m. Here, the Wakhi people live a semi-nomadic lifestyle with their herds of sheep, goats and yaks. The Wakhis are very friendly and will usually let you pitch your tent next to their camp. Maybe you can even watch the daily milking chaos – they will definitely come and watch you. The route then follows the green pastures for another day or two, around a mountain massif, before climbing into a pass (4780 m), the route's highest point. From here, it's a long descent to Sargez (3050 m) at the foot of the Hindu Kush with superb views of snowcapped Mt. Baba Tungi (6513 m). You can either carry everything yourself or rent donkeys (donkey boys included) in Wuzed. Donkeys (and boys) will be replaced several times during the journey, so every settlement gets its share of the tourist money.
The Wakhi people live in the Lower and Upper Wakhan. They spend winter at the bottom of the valley in small settlements mostly consisting of clay houses. During summer, they herd their goats, sheep and yaks up to their grassy summer pastures in the Wakhan Range, as high as 4500 m. Here, they live in either stone huts or felt yurts, not very different from the Kyrgyz ones, another ethnic group living in the Wakhan. The Wakhin females wear their hair braided and dress very distinctive in vibrant red clothes – not blue burkas like the lowland Afghan women. The Wakhi are a friendly and hospital people who often will invite trekking foreigners for tea and yogurt, but don't expect homestays.