Trip Report: Afghanistan Under Fluttering Taliban Flags

Trip Report: Afghanistan Under Fluttering Taliban Flags

This summer Jan headed to Afghanistan. If you're interested in joining the Afghan Pamirs Mapping Project in 2024, drop your details here.


Many of you have been following along our Mapping the Afghan Pamir Project. The long term goal is to support socio-economic develop in the region through adventure tourism. 

This summer I returned to Afghanistan—now under Taliban 2.0 rule—to understand whether it was prudent to continue the project and if so, to log data on trekking and bike-packing routes, collect information, and figure out suitable expedition protocols for next year.

Of the three main routes into the country—flying into Kabul, through Torkham Pass with Pakistan, or via the Shir Khan Bandar bridge from Tajikistan—I opted for the latter because it supports visa on arrival. Even with advanced preparation, crossing the border into Afghanistan can feel somewhat like jumping into fast moving river at night, with unknown obstacles ahead—once you’ve made the leap the only option is to swim with the flow. How would the Taliban and other locals react to a British citizen visiting so soon after hostilities have ceased?

Studio D 2023 Afghanistan Expedition

After an hour to obtain a visa, we (interchangeably my coordinator and guide) drove 450km to the beginning of the Wakhan Corridor, passing through numerous Taliban strongholds that were off-limits on previous trips. Artefacts of a prolonged, partially civil, often barbaric war were omnipresent: captured US Humvees positioned at numerous checkpoints, road-side cemeteries honouring those who died in combat, soldiers on motorbikes weaving through traffic carrying flatbread in one hand, an AK-47 in the other, and a victory’s worth of fluttering Taliban flags leaving no-doubt who was in control. All major infrastructure projects we passed along the way had stalled and almost the only new visible construction was in the form of mosques. One local said the government’s plan is to build one mosque at least every five kilometres.

Current travel rules require foreigners to be registered with the Ministry of Tourism and Culture in each province they pass through, and these stops involved endless offers of tea and provided a glimpse into the Taliban bureaucracy. The Taliban leadership is generally open to tourists of both genders. On one of these stops I politely declined a request to be interviewed for a Taliban-approved media organisation.

The psychological comfort of a familiar guesthouse in Sultan Eshkashim, situated at the mouth of the Wakhan Corridor, provided the first opportunity to take stock and turn my attention to the work ahead. Over the next three days our 4WD crawled along a 250km up a dirt road to the beginning of first multi-day trek. From our starting altitude of 2600m, we slowly ascended a 1500 meters— started to cool, settlements became less frequent, and the ethnicity of locals shifted from predominantly Pashtuns, to Wakhi and Kyrgyz. Most of my time here was spent at between 4100 - 4500m, with a relatively slow ascent supporting acclimatisation.

Studio D 2023 Afghanistan Expedition

Once up in the Pamir I managed to log a number new treks and rides.

Thus far I've logged around 500km of dirt roads and herder tracks that are suitable for bikepacking and mountain biking, including the relatively flat Small Pamir area (~4200m). There are many trails still to discover.

One of my treks/rides took me to the Wakjir Pass, to check out the progress (or otherwise) on the first land route being built between Afghanistan and China. If it becomes a trade-road it will fundamentally alter the dynamic of the Wakhan, will extend Chinese influence (along with other initiatives such as aid and a new clinic). It took us three days of gentle incline to reach a line-of-sight to the border crossing that sits at 4800m, which we celebrated with a lunch of dry flatbread and a can of sardines in tomato sauce, and a stunning view of the valley and glacier below. That evening we were relieved to return to our camp and find our pack animals gently grazing, as we had seen numerous wolf and bear prints. 

Studio D 2023 Afghanistan Expedition

Most interactions with Taliban were polite. On more than one occasion there were pointed questions from heavily armed border security patrols, questions that one would naturally expect to be directed at a citizen from a recent adversary spending time in the borderlands. A less experienced version of me would would have been stressed in these situations, but with patience on both sides they took on a relatively predictable cadence and I started to look forward to these interactions. Having a mountain bike certainly lessened the tension and younger Taliban would take turns handing their weapons to comrades before taking it for a spin.

As a side-note, most of the Taliban we interacted with on this trip carried smartphones, and initiated requests for photos, only after which I requested my own. 

Studio D 2023 Afghanistan Expedition

In one encounter, a squad of soldiers from Taliban Badakhshan Border Security overnighted in the same guesthouse as our small group in a Wakhi settlement in the centre of the Corridor. Some hours later I was invited to join the chief of border security and his lieutenants in a private room for a meal of freshly slaughtered goat cooked in an Iranian pressure cooker. The long evening evolved into one of the more memorable conversations of this trip—spanning perceptions of Afghanistan, life in Japan, the value of multigenerational households, religion (I don’t have a faith, but appreciate it’s value to many), and more. To my surprise, their questions overwhelmingly came from a curiosity mindset rather than one of dogma. I find it impossible to imagine residents of my home country being such gracious hosts were the tables turned—given the history of our nations, ideals fought for, and their comrades, friends and family lost to war. The inner conflict is in framing these human-level interactions within the larger arc of women’s lack of rights e.g. girls/women over the age of six are banned from formal education and work, and the treatment of religious minorities. Late into the night my guide/translator and I bade thanks for the hospitality and farewells, and 4am the next morning they quietly departed in Hiluxes to check on the borderlands with Tajikistan, Pakistan and China.

Many people are trying to predict how long the Taliban will remain in power. To the litany of indicators of support for the Taliban I would track foot-soldiers “footwear and facial hair”. Why? Rank-and-file Taliban, are young, male, armed, and often seem bored after the drama of war, yet their presence and continued belief is required to enforce policies on the ground. Footwear is often discretionary, and is a low-fi way of projecting personal identity and aspiration. The level of attention paid to male grooming is one indicator of where personal priorities lie.

Studio D 2023 Afghanistan Expedition

All visitors to another country are balancing adherence to local norms versus imposing their own and I was curious how this would play out. At one remote Taliban checkpoint a soldier asked to given a lift to the nearest town. My Wakhi driver and guide were obviously against the request, but looked to me to make the final decision. My rule of thumb in the mountains is to always offer a lift to locals when there is an open seat in the car because it provides an opportunity to gather information, and because it usually positively impacts future interactions. I invited the soldier to join us as long as he obeyed ‘house’ rules’—no guns in the vehicle. I then took the wheel, and once we were out of earshot of the checkpoint, turned on the stereo and played music for the next 200km. Music is banned by the Taliban, and our driver, now sitting in the passenger seat, was grinning ear to ear. I mention this anecdote because from a distance systems appear to be rigid, but that in-context there is considerable malleability. Over the course of the journey as the conversation flowed and life-contexts were shared, our local team warmed up to our new passenger.

Studio D 2023 Afghanistan Expedition

A major surprise on this trip was that much of the Small Pamir—the area that borders China, Pakistan and Tajikistan—now has 2G connectivity leading to the surreal experience of traversing a 4900m mountain pass, over a full day’s trekking from the nearest road and overhearing my guide on horseback making a call. Surprisingly, there is also a short 300m stretch of dirt road that has full LTE, leeched from one of the neighbouring countries cell towers, something I have duly logged for the map.

This is my 7th visit to Afghanistan, and my 3rd to the Wakhan, with one aborted attempt the year the Taliban took control of the country. Would I recommend coming here? It really depends on mental preparation—Afghanistan consistently shines the harshest light on who you think you are, but the ample reward is that is provides a glimmer of what you might become.

If you're interested in joining the Afghan Pamirs Mapping Project in 2024, drop your details here.

Thanks to the team of KM, AZ and GA for trusting the intent of my borderland requests, patiently helping me avoid being pulled into undercurrents, and rolling through the tough days with a smile. Additional photos on IG here.

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