Afghanistan October 31, 2015
This may be the fastest visit I will have ever had in a country. It seems fitting that is is Halloween. But I will have set foot in the country, spent several hours and obtained a visa stamp. Seeing as I had travelled just across the river from Afghanistan for 2 days and at times was only 30m from actually being in the country, I felt that I had actually been there. Add one more country to my country count (this will be #55).
And I am not the only traveller who is that shallow. A Scottish fellow saw 207 countries (the FIFA method) in only 3 years and amazingly, he never took a flight. Apparently he only put his foot across the border in twelve of them. He achieved real notoriety and had a BBC documentary made about his feat. But there are many people with all 193 UN countries and lots who have visited hundreds of other destinations. Although I was only in Afghanistan for six hours, it was possibly my best travel day all winter.
VISA. Besides being the best place to organize Wakhan trips, Khorog gives the easiest access to visit Afghanistan. There is an Afghan Consulate here that provides visas in a few hours. Don’t bother applying if your Tajikistan visa is not double entry – you won’t be allowed back in the country – then you have a real problem. So I caught marshrutka 3 to the Afghanistan Consulate and asked several questions about entry points and cost. Then I filled out the standard application form, supplied a passport photo, wrote a brief letter to the Afghanistan Consul in Khorog stating personal facts and accepting liability, had a photocopy of my passport and paid US$50 at a bank back on Lenin St. Total time to get visa: about 1½ hours including the 20 minute walk each way to the bank. The visa was for 30 days, single entry and not date specific. Visa costs for other countries were: US – $160, most Europeans – $80, Iranians – 120€. Surprisingly the Canadian cost is the lowest.
ENTRY. There are two entry points to Afghanistan near Khorog.
1. Ishkashim – 100kms south of Khorog along the Wakhan, I had passed here 5 days earlier and for some reason thought that it was not possible to enter here. The bridge over the river had a big gate and two threatening guards. The market just across the river, which you could previously go to without an Afghan visa, has been closed for several months, so tourists had been visiting the market in Eshkashim, 6kms from the border. A taxi was $20 each way and the market here was supposed to be better than Sheghnan’s. To continue past Eshkashim required a permit letter, difficult to obtain in Eshkashim especially if one does not speak the local language. To continue to the Little Pamir along the Wakhan Corridor, the local taxis apparently were demanding US$450 per car each way. That’s a lot to pay to bounce along a track that parallels the smoother Tajik-side road for most of the route, sharing similar views but lacking the network of homestays. If you do make it to the Little Pamir, exiting to Shaimak wasn’t allowed when I was there. The ‘highlight’ is meeting genuine Kyrgyz nomads. But these folks are shockingly poor and sanitation nonexistent so the experience, while humbling and interesting, is likely to leave you astonished and possibly unwell. Or
2. Sheghnan. The border crossing is only 5kms north of Khorog, so is much easier to do. The town and market is 3kms from the border but is supposedly not as good as in Eshkashim. My only concern was that it was Saturday morning when there was supposedly an Afghan market in Khorog and wondered if most of the people will be there, not at home? The entire border area of Afghanistan just across the river from Tajikistan between Sheghnan and Eshkashim was unsafe due to Taliban insurgency.
So on Saturday, October 31, I tried to find the Afghan market in Khorog just when it was supposed to open at 8am. Nobody spoke English and I received a lot of blank stares and shrugged shoulders. Because of the logistics to go to Eshkashim (3 hrs driving each way, then an expensive taxi from the border to Eshkahim), I thought it would take too long and I may not get a ride back at the end of the day. So I decided go to Sheghnan and see the bazaar there. After a 3 sonomi marshutka, I was dropped off at the bridge to cross the river. Next to immigration was the new Afghan market open on Saturdays, but it was not to open until November 6th. Information is sometimes hard to come by.
I went through Tajikistan immigration and walked acrosse the big bridge. After many delays talking to an Afghan Interpol agent and the Afghan customs officer (who both spoke English), I finally had my passport stamped. But the captain (with nice red and silver epaulets) would not let me go unless I had an escort and translator as he felt responsible for me. I wandered towards the road and piled into a car with an Afghan and 4 soldiers and did the rally drive on a rough road 3kms to the bazaar in Sheghnan. We passed several classic Afghan and donkeys.
The bazaar was nothing special, selling goods appropriate for the local population. I watched a tailor measure and sew, on a hand-crank sewing machine, a pair of pants. He loved the attention and I marvelled at his sewing.
People watching is always interesting – most women carried young children, their hair was exposed at the front under their headscarves, old men in traditional Afghan dress, young people with cellphones and ear buds, loaded donkeys, rattle trap cars and big trucks on the muddy, rocky street.
I wandered up the rough road, heard loud chattering and walked up into an all-girl’s school. After chatting to some giggling girls, a teacher came down and invited me into the school. An English teacher, she took me to the office to introduce me to the woman principal and male administrators. We then went to her class to watch a lesson. This was high school, all the girls were dressed in black wearing white headscarves, and sat crammed three to a small desk. Whenever asked a question, they all eagerly raised their hands. They were studying past tense. Several kids went to the front of the class, started with “praise God” and made sentences using past tenses. After each was finished, all the kids clapped. After leaving, I regretted not telling them something about Canada and myself.
The health center was just down the street and I wandered in and was introduced to a doctor in the hospital. He was Afghan and gave me a complete tour of the hospital – outpatients, lab, pharmacy, baby clinic, public health, gynecology, a male surgical ward and watched an IV being started on a dehydrated baby. It looked like a great facility with lots of preventative medicine.
I wandered around the bazaar – all small wood or metal shacks on several streets – stopped to eat, and was invited by a young man (in town upgrading the hospital’s tele-health system) to share some French fries, bread and tea on the hospital lawn. He invited me down to the guesthouse he was staying in to have lunch. There were many Afghan students staying there, all studying in Khorog (plumbing, electricians, teachers) and waiting for renewal of their Tajikistan student visas. We talked about the Taliban (no problem here as the people want nothing to do with them), school and their futures. They all asked about what it takes to immigrate to Canada. They refused some payment as I was their guest. After exchanging Facebook names and the obligatory photos, two young guys walked me all the way back to the bridge. We took a short-cut on a trail next to the river, all very idyllic – two bullocks pulled a single blade plow, cows grazed and chickens picked between the dung.
Immigration on both sides was routine, I hitchhiked back to Khorog and bought a beer to relax at my guesthouse. It was a great day with many experiences. Sheghnan seems like a progressive town where education is quite valued. It reaffirms my belief that you should talk to everyone wherever you are. You never know what will happen.