“It is a harsh life in the Wakhan. This is best evidenced by infant mortality rates that exceed 40% in places, contributed by a combination of climate and isolation. This harshness is reflected in the Wakhi faces that are as captivating as the mountains they live under. The faces are hard, and every line on their visage tells a tale of trial and tribulation. Even the children wore those same tough visages. It was rare to see a young looking child, for their faces usually resemble the adults, albeit in a much smaller form.
But beneath this hard exterior lies a warm and welcoming heart as our half-day hike through the villages past Sargaz revealed. It was again a glorious sunny day, and the low sun cast large shadows that shaded the main path. We passed numerous vignettes of pastoral life; children watching over grazing goats, men carting goods on the back of donkeys/mules, women tending to the fields. Interestingly, the women often showed their face in public, quite unlike Ishkashim. Usually, rural areas tend to be more conservative than population centres, yet in this part of the Afghanistan, the opposite occurred.
Upon meeting someone, there was always a greeting of placing one’s hand over the heart, which was often followed by a handshake. Many would question my guide Hameed about my presence and where I hailed from. All these encounters occurred whilst dwarfed by the astonishing scenery where rows upon rows of magnificent mountains plunged sharp and steep into ravines and rivers.
We passed an abandoned village whose former residents relocated a few years ago when a gigantic landslide destroyed most of the homes. Only crumbling walls remained, with missing roofs allowing me to peer into their former abodes. As with almost everywhere in the Wakhan, there is rarely a sound to be heard, and this muted environment where not even a bird sounds, provided an eerie setting.
Further along our journey, we were joined by an elderly man and his grandson who wished to accompany us on our trek to our destination of Kizkut. We followed a meandering rocky road that rose high above the river valley and closer to those grand peaks, before we descended into a green plain where Kizkut lay.
This marked the most distant point of my Afghanistan adventure, and the further one progresses along the Wakhan, the more isolated it becomes. The Wakhan Corridor is relatively central, but once we arrived in the Big Pamir, villages became less frequent, less populated and vehicular traffic drops to almost nil. During this half-day walk along the Wakhan’s main road, we sighted not one vehicle. Further along is the Little Pamir where no roads exist and all travel is undertaken by foot or horse. One must allow a week to cross the Little Pamir, but time and money prevented me from continuing that far.
Upon arriving in Kizkut, we were greeted by the village elder who immediately invited us to stay for tea. Children and women peered shyly from behind mud-brick walls and homes as we passed. The welcome procedure into any village is similar. One is shown to a common room with a raised floor on three sides which is covered in rugs and the occasional cushion. The honoured guest is given the position in the middle of the centre platform that is usually directly opposite the door.
A silver coloured bowl is produced, and water from a similarly coloured decanter is poured so that guests can wash their hands, with the most important diner receiving the water first. A blanket is produced and unfolded to reveal round, flat bread that is subsequently broken into pieces and distributed. There follows the tea and different dishes, but in this case, only bread was on offer. Food in the Wakhan is almost exclusively vegetarian, and usually consists of beans, potatoes and rice all washed down with a delectable milky tea. The end of the meal is signalled by bringing your two hands to the front of your eyes and moving them diagonally downwards.
During tea I was informed that this village solely exists on farming, and their staple crop is wheat, with which they barter for sheep and goats – and given the number of goats tethered around the village – the village seemed quite prosperous. Their life is harsh in winter, but in summer they at least have green fields and even trees to shelter under. Kizkut has only 149 inhabitants, which seems to be the usual size for population centres in the Wakhan.
When it neared time to depart, the village elder said to me, “I am sorry that I have nothing to offer you but tea and bread.”
I looked at the faces around me, all waiting intently for my answer. They wished to provide me more, but it was not possible.
I replied with a smile, “The most important thing you could give me was a welcome and a smile, and you have done that.”
This comment was received with nods of approval. It again demonstrates an adage I regularly encounter in my travel – the people with the fewest possessions are far more generous than those surrounded by wealth.
I wished to remain in this village overnight, but we needed to continue, and so prior to leaving a number of the villagers agreed to be photographed. I had just completed photographing some children against the wall when the man in this photo strode forth and stood in the same place. The man never said a word, he just looked at me with that intense face. His was a face that told of a hard life in the Wakhan, but beneath that lined visage that told so many tales, lay a warm and welcoming heart.”
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