River Panj marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The border is a result of the Great Game, when the Russian and the British Empires competed for influence and control in Middle Asia. The river was called Oxus back then, and its valley was populated by Tajik- and Pamiri-speaking farmers. The Great Game divided this community, and they remain far apart until now.
On my way from Dushanbe into the Pamir Mountains, I followed the Afghan border for 580 km. This route allowed a rare insight into everyday life in Afghanistan, without risking to set a foot into this conflict-ridden country. Tourists go there: It is easily possible to obtain an Afghan visa in Khorog, directly at the border. Tour operators bring Western tourists from Ishkoshim to the Little Pamir in the Wakhan Corridor, and other Afghan mountain areas. However, the last Taliban incursion onto the Afghan side of the valley was just two months ago (April/May 2017), so I did not dare to risk it.
Here is a photo summary of the trip along the Afghan border:
Rough roads and a spectacular landscape: Afghanistan on the right, Tajikistan on the left, and river Panj in the middle.
On the Tajik side, a road follows the whole border. It starts as an excellent highway, which makes look the modest Afghan villages even more out of place. After 150 km, however, just an old Soviet road in very bad repair is left. The Afghan side is even worse. On most stretches, there is just a donkey path. Some parts (as in the picture) are being upgraded right now.
Afghan border post at Qalai Qumbh. The bridges look old and miserable, and are not made for vehicles (which at times cross nevertheless). In Qalai Qumbh, Khorog and Ishkoshim, cross-border markets („Afganskyi Basar“) with visa-free access for both sides were thriving for a while. When I visited, Ishkoshim market was closed due to security concerns, and in Khorog only a few stalls were left.
Landscape in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. The villages look like ages behind the Tajik ones, with their one-storey mudbrick buildings. But the houses and the fields are very tidy and well-kept.
Monument to the Soviet Border Guards in Khorog, the capital of Tajikistan’s autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan Region. Khorog is the base for excursions into the Wakhan Corridor, a strategic area during the Great Game. Within a few kilometers, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and (nominally) India meet there. And it is the most scenic part of the Tajik-Afghan border road.
Tajik boundary post. Afghanistan is a few meters away – and so far nevertheless. „A hundred years ago, there was a lot of contact across the river, we had family there. This is no more, now I maybe have a third grade cousin over there“, our driver Ergash commented. A Wakhan Valley local mentioned: „I have been to Afghanistan thousands of times! During the civil war in Tajikistan, we went over to buy groceries. It was not allowed, but the guards tolerated it. That was when it was bad here and good over there – now it is the other way round. We don’t go anymore.“
Qahka fortress is many hundred years old. Yet it still stands at a strategic point, overlooking the Afghan Wakhan Corridor. Therefore, the Tajik army uses it as a lookout post. Some of the towers and trenches are not historic, but just some months old – Taliban had briefly taken the other side in April/May 2017, so Tajikistan had reinforced its positions.
Three countries in one picture: I took it in Tajikistan, across the border into the Wakhan Corridor. The Hindukush Range – in the picture – marks the border between Afghanistan (in the foreground) and Pakistan (behind the mountains) – just 20 km away from Tajikistan!
Buddhist stupa (or ziggurat?) at Vrang, overlooking the wide Wakhan valley, with Afghanistan on the left and Tajikistan on the right.
High up in the Pamir, after four days and 830 km alongside Afghanistan, the river had become a little stream. It was time to say goodbye: I continued my trip towards the Pamir highway and via Kyrgyzstan over to China’s Xinjiang region.