For the teammates who join us on our Wakhan Corridor expeditions, Afghanistan never fails to leave impressions that last a lifetime. The things which stand out the most though, changes depending on who you ask. Joining our 2019 team of nine, Mark Lewis from Portland, Oregon shares some of the moments which stand out to him most now he looks back on the expedition to consider his adventure. Illustrated below, by the photography of his fellow teammate Lee Kearns and his own.
There are too many tales packed into this adventure to even know where to start. Maybe the best place is the night sky. Most of us came from places where at night you’re lucky to see the moon. When you open your eyes here you look into the depths of the universe. It was especially at these moments as I lay awake in my warm sleeping bag that I came to understand why I was here.
The reason for each of us was different but in every case our dreams were fulfilled. I had this fabulous picture (care of Lee Kearns) printed out on metal and it hangs in a prominent spot in our house. Not only does it elicit lots of comments and questions, but it is my pathway back to Afghanistan lying under the stars with my new best friends. Could life be any better?
If you can embrace the unexpected then this trip is perfect for you. In fact, getting to the trailhead was an adventure on its own. Multiple flat tyres and in this case a broken cam belt, which in mechanical terms meant the end of the line for our rig. Fortunately, there was enough space in the remaining vehicles that we were able to crowd in and get to know each other even better, placing our faith in more traditional means of transport.
In the Wakhan Corridor there are four basic ways to transport gear; on your back (my least favorite), on a donkey (used at all elevations), on a horse (used at lower elevations) and on a yak (used at higher elevations). The donkey may get the prize for load to weight ratio and cuteness. The horse gets an award for getting you across a stream without getting your feet wet. But the yak is one of the coolest beasts you will ever encounter. They are enormous in size and placid in character. However, they do seem to have a mind of their own and are challenging to stop if they have their heart set on a fertile grass meadow. If you are ever faced with crossing a wicked bad river you want to be on one of these beasts. Their footing is unquestioned and their calmness greatly appreciated.
Our two British guides were the most competent any of our group has ever experienced in our collective travels around the world. Their compassion for the native people was boundless – one of the above photos shows Rich treating an old frostbite wound. Rich was also a master of always being able to create shade for us to rest under in the midday heat. The first week saw temperatures soaring to 90ºF / 32ºC. The previous year’s team we learned faced cold and wet for most of their trek. You just never know, but shelter in both cased is a welcome addition.
One of the greatest things about traveling the world is meeting people. Afghanistan is certainly no exception. The women always dress in colourful garments even when they are busy rolling felt. Watching them made our task of walking across the countryside seem like a cakewalk.
You can already see the effects of the harsh climate in the cheeks of this young girl and man above. I can’t gaze into their eyes for long before I find myself back in their world. Even in the pictures it feels like their eyes look inside my soul.
If you want to experience mystic places like this you need to get in shape. This trek is not for the faint of heart and the enjoyment is proportional to the time you spend conditioning. The guy pictured below is 66-years-old, he followed the conditioning schedule provided by Secret Compass and as a result he had a wonderful time. You will notice he’s also carrying a backpack. The weight of the pack starts out at around 7 kilos in the morning with 4 litres of water and by the end of the day it is down to around 4 kilos. Things happen on the trail and typically you’re separated from your primary kit bag for most of the day. It’s best to have rain pants, a rain jacket, fleece, small first aid kit, sun screen and chap stick. On the high passes it’s good to have a warm jacket as well. The three things I found to also be invaluable were trekking poles, a wide brim hat and a good sized scarf. The scarf can shade you in the sun, keep the bugs off your face and serve as a washcloth when crossing a stream.
When you are a long way from anywhere, you come to expect the unexpected. As we ate lunch by this rock the herdsmen, with our gear and lunch, went to a different location. It all works itself out but reinforced the reality of really just how remote this place is.
In Afghanistan everything is a long way away. Showr Pass is the low spot in the background just left of centre. I learned a new term on this adventure: Afghany flat, which means you may only gain 200 meters net for the day but you could climb up and down a 1,000 meters and cross numerous streams / rivers to achieve it.
This is our other British guide Paul, standing at the top of an unnamed pass on our last day of hiking. The snow covered mountains in the distance are in Pakistan. From here you descend 1,500 meters on a trail that is 7 kilometres long through numerous scree fields. The reward is a great meal, a bath in a hot spring and a good night’s sleep.
This horseback game is called buzkashi. You can read about it all you want, but if you want to really experience it for yourself then you need to visit Afghanistan. Standing in the middle of the playing field on a giant rock we found ourselves in the midst of utter chaos and unbelievable horsemanship. The game seems to come to an end when there is nothing left to play with.
The majority of these incredible photos were taken by Lee, an absolutely great photographer. When he wasn’t taking pictures he was always able to find a way to enjoy a cup of tea. In Afghanistan you make do with what you have.