Mapping The Afghan Pamirs Expedition - Apply


In July and August 2020 Studio D is running a series of expeditions to Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor and the Big and Small Pamir mountain ranges (regional map). Our mission is to support sustainable tourism in the region and our goal this year is to map six trekking and one bikepacking routes, which we'll publish in a guidebook in 2021. The expeditions will take us through remote herder settlements, alpine meadows and spectacular mountain passes. 

HOW TO APPLY

We’re currently taking applications to join the expeditions. After a review of the applications, suitable candidates will be invited to a video interview, and successful applicants can then purchase a place on the team that is best suited to their capabilities. All applicants need to understand the risks of joining—these are covered in the interview call, and before the expedition need to sign the Risk Waiver and Medical Survey (available on application)—we want to ensure you have the right support in field.

Committing to an expedition is not to be taken lightly. Please take the time to read this page and if it’s a good fit, apply using the link below. Places on specific routes are first come first served.

Apply To Join Expedition

Note: if you've already completed the form, you don't need to reapply—we'll be in touch—look out for emails from Studio D.

Afghan Pamirs (Photo: Charley Zheng)

BACKGROUND

In the past two years Studio D has successfully run two expeditions to Afghanistan’s Big Pamir. While an overview of the region using Google Maps, satellite imagery, and old Russian maps is possible, this only provides a small part of the information required to successfully navigate the trekking and bikepacking routes. A lack of concrete information is holding back the development of nascent local adventure tourism industry. Last year we published a booklet, the Studio D Expedition Guide that includes a map of one of the trekking routes. The project helped us build out a local network and whet our appetite for a more comprehensive study of the area.

The Afghan Pamirs is a unique, sparsely populated region, that requires a nuanced appreciation of local culture, norms and the ability to operate in a place with a variable rule of law.  Tourism, in whatever form it takes, shapes the communities that it touches in both positive and negative ways. Given the high levels of poverty, the socio-economic power imbalance between locals and most foreigners, and the limited infrastructure, tourism has a significant impact on the communities of the Afghan Pamirs. Our objective is to build out an expedition engagement model that is sustainable for locals and respectful to this unique part of the world. 

ETHOS

A well thought-out travel experience challenges who you are and what you aspire to become.

Studio D events attract internationally minded, curious people that can work towards a shared goal. We value gender, ethnic and lifestage diverse teams. Once the full team is in place, we assign each attendee a role and responsibilities in line with their skills and how they want to grow. We’re transparent about the planning process and welcome input prior to arrival at the rendezvous in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (input is optional, although it will enhance the experience). To have a taste of the experience read an account of the 2019 expedition from one of last year’s female team members.

Studio D are professionals in cross-cultural research, and as such attendees will be exposed to our field methods, including finding the right balance between ethics and hustle, negotiations, cross-cultural team dynamics, and problem solving, all under challenging and interesting environments. 

Our decision making process adheres to the One Body Principle that acknowledges that the success of the Expedition is rooted in an ethic of mutual care, relying on the physical and mental well being of all members of the team.

OBJECTIVES

Our primary objectives are to:

  • Systematically map the main trekking routes and one bikepacking route.
  • Build an appropriate, equitable engagement model that benefits the main stakeholders (locals engaged in tourism including the settlements we pass through, trekking guides, cooks, herders, guesthouses, tour operators and drivers), donate expedition equipment and know-how. In addition we will directly support the main local clinic.
  • Meaningfully engage locals in the process of building out this infrastructure, with fellowships and other engagements.
  • In 2021 we will publish a Guide To The Afghan Pamir and related assets to encourage sustainable and culturally appropriate tourism to the region.

For this we need your help.

ROLES

Each of the eight expeditions has the capacity to take between five and ten people. Each team will include a Studio D vetted leader and at least one medic certified in outdoor wilderness medicine training, plus local trekking guide and cook. The remaining roles—cartographer, communications, documentarian, quartermaster, and hydrationist—will be assigned to attendees and can be learned in the field. Everyone is expected to support each other in the running of the expedition, including contributing to the cartography and other roles. Don't worry if you have no experience with these roles, we have detailed procedures in place, and our Team Leaders will coach you through and be there to support you every step of the way.

Expedition Leader
Expedition Medic
Expedition Communications
Expedition Documentarian
Expedition Hydrationist
Expedition Cartographer
Expedition Quartermaster
Expedition Evacuations

 

We’re open to creating new roles that support the overall mission (such as nutritionist). We have a core experienced team already in place to draft the Standard Operating Procedures, and a number of centralised roles including risk management, contingency planning and evacuations, local fixers, and ground crew.

LOGISTICS OVERVIEW

Our journey will start in Dushanbe, Tajikistan where we'll drive 4WDs down to Khorog to pick up visas and supplies, before crossing the border into Afghanistan at Ishkashim. After meeting our fixers and trekking guides, we'll obtain the necessary permits, and it'll take two to four days to drive to the trailhead depending on the expedition route. 

The treks themselves mostly involve trekking at between 4,000 and 5,000m (16,000ft). Trekking days typically involve between five and nine hours per day, starting at the gateway to the Wakhan Corridor, along remote mountain ranges inhabited by Wakhi shepherds and sparse Kyrgyz settlements. The endpoint will have a magnificent view of the mountains bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan, and beyond that the Hindu Kush.

The bikepacking team will have various options for riding in and out, where to have support 4WDs, and where and when to arrange supply drops by herders with pack animals.

With the trek or bikepacking complete, it will take two to three days to return to the border town of Sultan Eshkashim before heading to our guesthouse in Khorog to decompress. On the way out we’ll conduct an expedition debrief to discuss the experience and share lessons learned. Our goal is to enable every attendee to take on increasingly adventurous travel with more insight, better skills and higher confidence. The expedition closes with a celebration route-team banquet.

The expeditions end in Khorog, chosen for easy access to Tajikistan’s Pamir highway, should you decide to travel to the Silk Road town of Osh, Kyrgyzstan (3-4 days) or return to Dushanbe (1 -2 days).

ROUTES

We have identified six trekking and one bikepacking route that we plan to map in the Afghan Pamirs. Post interview, we will propose route options to attendees based on fitness and prior experience. You will have the option to request a specific route, although we appreciate some flexibility. 

Interest has exceeded our expectations, but in the event of not meeting the minimum number of people for a particular route, we'll offer attendees alternative routes or a refund. We're confident that the duration of each of these is realistic, but please note that the objective may change due circumstances—these are mostly unmapped trekking routes after all.

1

Zorkul River Route

August 4 - 25
22 days / 11 - 12 trekking

The objective is to complete this classic Big Pamir trek that provides a slow ascent for acclimatisation, mixed terrain, and crosses 3 mountain passes above 4500m. We’ve extended this route to map an unexplored route via Qarabel pass.

Team size: 7 - 12, led by Myric
Grade: Difficult
$6,600

2

Big Pamir Exploration

July 25 - August 19 
26 days / 15 - 17 trekking

The objective is a deep immersion into the Big Pamir, beyond existing high altitude herder settlements. This is our longest trekking route and includes 6 high altitude passes up to 5288m. The altitude gains, trek duration and the open-ended nature of some of the exploration make this extreme grading.

Team size: 5 - 6, led by Sam
Grade: Extreme
$7,000

3

Kush Borderlands

Note: this route will only be launched if the others are full.

June 26 - July 18
23 days / 12 - 13 trekking

The objective is to map 2 unexplored mountain passes above 4000m as they ascend up to Pakistan's magnificent Hindu Kush mountain range.

Team size: 7 - 9 led by Jan
Grade: Difficult
$6,600

4

Big Vistas

July 7 - 24
18 days / 8 with 4WDs + 6
 trekking or on horseback

The objective to scout a moderate route that is suitable for photographers and fans of 4WD expeditions in exploring the Wakhan Corridor, the Southern edge of the Big Pamir and the Small Pamir. Includes 8 days of 4WD travel plus 6 days of high altitude horse-trekking towards Chaktmatynkul Lake. Our most accessible expedition fitness-wise, assuming you're good in the saddle.

Team size: 7 - 12, led by Sam
Grade: Moderate
$5,800

5

Bridging Empires

July 3 - 25
23 days / 12 - 13 trekking, including < 3 on horseback

The objective is to trek between the Southern tip of the 19th century Russian Empire and the Northern tip of the British Empire, mapping 6 high altitude mountain passes, a final ascent towards the border with Pakistan’s Hindu Kush.

Team size: 6 - 7, lead by Cara
Grade: Upper end of difficult
$6,600

6

Three Kisses

Aug 2 - 26
25 days / 14 - 15 trekking,
 including < 6 on horseback

The objective is to explore three border valleys with Pakistan and China, and locate the ice cave near the Wakhjir Pass that is believed to be the furthest source of the Amu Darya (Oxus) River. 

Team size: 6 - 7 led by Gyula
Grade: Difficult 
$6,600

7

High Peaks Basecamps

July 5 - 26
22 days / 10 - 12 trekking

The primary objectives are: to explore the approach routes to Afghanistan’s highest peak (Mt Noshaq, summit 7492m), basecamp and possibly also C1 and C2; to explore approaches to Baba Tungi (summit is 6513m). Note: these are non-technical high altitude treks and do not include a summit of the peaks. We're considering offering climbing options in 2021.

Team size: 6 - 8, led by Grant
Grade: Difficult to Extreme
$6,600

8

Full Monty 

July 21 - August 12 
23 days, of which <15 bikepacking and < 5 trekking

The objective is to bikepack the entire length of the Wakhan Corridor from Sultan Eshkashim to the Chinese border, and back to Sarhad. Will include up to five days trekking unexplored valleys on the Tajikistan and China borderlands.

Team size: 5 - 6, led by Jan
Grade: Difficult
$6,600 

 

Notes:
- All dates are Dushanbe to Khorog. Add 1-2 days if you prefer to fly out of Dushanbe, and 3-4 days to travel onto Osh. Because airline luggage can go missing we advise arriving the day before the expedition starts.
- Team size doesn't include leader, local trekking guide, cook, and herders.

FITNESS AND PRIOR EXPERIENCE

Expeditions are a team activity, everyone is expected to contribute to the day to day running as well as taking on one of the roles.

You may think that fitness is the main challenge for trekking in the Afghan Pamirs whereas most people face a combination of mental and physical issues. In our experience the following factors have an equally significant impact on attendees ability to complete the expedition with a big smile:
  • Fitness: aerobic fitness, endurance, conditioning, recovery.
  • Developing country experience: lack of infrastructure, exposure to poverty, limited dietary options, cultural norms.
  • Hostile environments experience: uncertainty, proximity to warzone, army checkpoints, managing expectations at home.
  • High altitude experience: altitude sickness, side effects of altitude-adjustment medicine, appetite, weather, interrupted sleep, and mood.
  • Multi-day trek/ride experience: fatigue & recovery, sickness, outdoor experience, cleanliness, repetition, equipment.

While our expedition leaders have experience in all five attributes, of the attendees that signed up in 2019, most only had experience in one of these factors. The fact that we were able to  successfully complete the expedition is a testament to sound planning, what a team can achieve when they are aligned on goals and values, and human resilience.

If you’re concerned about your current level of fitness, don’t worry. Once you sign up we will provide you with access to a detailed training plan prepared by outdoor training professionals.

FOOD

We will buy local supplies at markets in Dushanbe, Khorog (Tajikistan) and Sultan Eshkashim (Afghanistan). We’ll augment this will supplies we can buy or barter from local shepherds en route. Given the role of nutrition on wellbeing, you may decide to bring some prefered snacks to supplement locally bought supplies.

Once you’ve signed up we’ll check in with you to see if  you have any dietary restrictions. If there’s anything significant you can’t eat, particularly if you have food allergies, let us know.

Obvious alcohol may be confiscated at the Afghanistan border.

ACCOMMODATION

Accommodation will be a mix of guesthouses, yurts, and expedition tents while on the trek.

Afghan Pamirs [Photo: Jan Chipchase]

TRANSPORT

We’ll be taking 4WDs from Dushanbe to the trailhead. In Afghanistan our vehicles will be mostly well worn in Toyota Landcruisers. Our average speed in-country was 13km/h, due to the poor roads and multiple river crossings. Trekking is on foot with a daypack, supported by yaks, horses and donkeys for carrying gear.

COMMUNICATIONS

Once inside Afghanistan there is limited (often non-existent) cellular coverage. Take the opportunity to leave your phone in your pack and enjoy the experience.

Each team leader will have satellite communications equipment that supports messaging for use in an emergency. 

EQUIPMENT

We’ll supply team equipment, including tents, sleeping pads, stoves, cooking gear, medical kits, and other items. You'll be required to bring your own personal clothing and equipment, including a four-season sleeping bag and worn-in hiking boots with good ankle support.

We will provide a comprehensive packing list on sign-up. 

Bikepackers joining Route 8 need to bring a bicycle and spare parts. We'll figure out the optimal set up when the team is in place, suffice to say that we want to minimise the risk of mechanical failure.

COST

Ticket prices are shown in the table above.

For all expeditions, a non-refundable deposit of $1,500 will be required to secure your spot and to cover the vetting and advance costs. The balance is due by May 15th 2020. If the full payment is not received by then, the deposit will be forfeited and we will make the place available for another attendee. Please review our cancellation policy before booking. 

The ticket price does not include flights or transport to and from the start/end point, visas, evacuations, insurances, or alcohol. 

Visa costs (as of writing):

  • Tajikistan: $70 for each of the two single entry visas (total $140).
  • Afghanistan: $150 - $250 for a single entry visa obtained in Khorog, depending on nationality. This visa can be issued in a few hours. There are cheaper options outside the country, but these take longer.

 
Please note that as of writing Chinese, Russian and Turkish passport holders are currently refused visas to Afghanistan. 

We recommend carrying additional cash in small denominations for purchasing local items.

RISKS

All team members will be required to sign a comprehensive risk and liability waiver, and are required to have travel insurance that includes medical repatriation for Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Once you’ve signed up we will provide you with a list of insurers that can provide this coverage. 

Visiting the Afghan Pamirs exposes people to diverse and often unpredictable conditions. Higher risk regions and places that live under variable rules of law demand a constant evaluation and re-evaluation of best- and worst-case scenarios, and a process for understanding, surfacing and mitigating risk, often on the fly. The mindset and skills this requires can be applied to all aspects of life.

While we have conducted a comprehensive risk assessment, and have detailed contingency plans in place, including evacuation plans, it’s important to recognise that all trekking teams will be remote and far from immediate help. Any incident will require a strong commitment from each individual to work as a team and solve the problem at hand within the resources available to the team.

In the event that the Tajikistan/Afghanistan border is closed prior to arrival, we’ll initiate a plan B, that would take us to trek along the Tajikistan / Afghanistan borderlands (itself a fascinating journey to the edges of the Soviet empire). We’ll also have contingencies in place if the border shuts whilst the team are in Afghanistan. That said, the Wakhan Corridor and Afghan Pamirs is considered a peaceful part of Afghanistan.

The expedition includes briefings that cover the psychology of travel to higher risk environments, the fundamentals of wilderness medical care, wellbeing and team dynamics. On the last day, we’ll run a retrospective to reinforce what we learned on the journey.

For all that you might imagine can go wrong, the greater risk is looking back on a life half-lived.

We endeavor to make this a life affirming experience.

Risk Waiver & Medical Survey (available on application)

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