Arrival at the Afghan border, Tajikistan 1


We arrive at the Afghan border.

We’re not crossing the border, just driving alongside it, remaining in Tajikistan at all times. A small stream – the headwaters of the Pamir River – acts as the natural frontier between the two nations.

The Afghan border

The Afghan border, Tajikistan

The Afghan border, Tajikistan. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

That’s the border?

The stream is so narrow. And there’s no fence. I could burst free of the car, wade through the water, and be inside Afghanistan in less than a minute.

Then what?

I’d be in big trouble probably.

There’s a guard station, a checkpoint for us to pass through. Not a Tajik/Afghan checkpoint; just a Tajik/Tajik checkpoint. Checkpoints are common in Tajikistan. Especially in GBAO (Gorno-Badakhšanskaya Avtonomnaya Oblast, or the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan).

The narrow, cliff-hugging road, Wakhan Vally, Tajikistan

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

We slide through the checkpoint, then… the car stalls. Satbai tries to reignite the engine. Nothing. It’s dead. We’re less than a hundred metres from the guard post, and still adjacent to the Afghan border. Satbai tries a rolling start. No good. He tries again. Again. Again. Nothing. We’ve rolled another hundred metres forward by this time. We’re at the bottom of a dip, and can roll no further.

The guards have come out of their post; they’re peering towards us. Satbai is out of the car, he waves at them, points to the car, has the hood flipped up in a jiffy. He bends over the engine.

The border guards wander down to the car, they peer in the windows, converse with Satbai. We smile, wave. They smile back. Friendly border guards.

Are they ethnic Kyrgyz? Tajik? Pamiri?

It’s hard to know; they could be from any part of Tajikistan. They’re young, no older than eighteen. I wonder if this is where the army sends their new recruits? Stick them out here in this remote outpost, the Afghan border, days of driving to get anywhere. Give them a couple of guns, a tiny box to live in, sit them next to an extremely porous border. That’ll put hair on your chest.

Bactrian camels

Camels. Bactrian camels. On the Afghan side of the river. They look out of place in this mountainous region. Shouldn’t they be in a desert?

The irony, of course, is that they are perfectly in place. This is Bactria, or close to it.

This is their home.

Bactrian camels, Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

We have a long drive ahead of us. It’s not that late but already it’s dark, the lofty mountains on either side of us blocking out the light, casting us in a premature twilight.

These roads are hazardous; narrow, winding, hugging the sides of the mountains, a steep drop off into the valley below. And they’ve been made by hand.

The narrow, cliff-hugging road, Wakhan Vally, Tajikistan

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

How do you build a road, by hand, on the side of a mountain?

Easy. Get a pile of rocks, fashion them into a wall where you want the edge of your road to be, and backfill. Done. That’s all that’s holding these roads together. Something to keep in mind when you are forced onto the edge of the road to let a convoy of Chinese lorries past.

Yes, lorries. The closure of the Pamir Highway has forced all freight transport onto the Wakhan Valley road. You might think, well that’s okay, there can’t be many freight vehicles moving along those roads. But in fact it is a trade route, moving goods between the food-bowl of Central Asia, the fertile Ferghana Valley, and the buyer of those goods: China.

Hindu Kush, Wakhan Vally, Tajikistan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

It’s sheer madness to drive these roads in a lorry. Steep, treacherous mountain passes, switchback after switchback, sections of the road washed away by snow melt. And the lorries have destroyed what’s left of the road, busting anything resembling a culvert into rubble, turning the surface of the gravel road into a layer of super-fine, ten-inch thick dust.

The lorry drivers travel in convoy, for company as much as for security. Satbai pulls as far off the road as possible when he sees a convoy approaching – which isn’t very far considering we’re driving along a narrow road on the edge of a mountain. The trucks rumble past, ten in a group, each moving agonisingly slowly, keeping in tight formation; drivers crawling forward in a cloud of dust, mindlessly following the tail lights of the truck in front.

The Hindu Kush mountain range, Wakhan Vally, Tajikistan

The Hindu Kush mountain range. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

We pull over for a quick break, our last of the day. One last opportunity to admire these mountains.

The defiant Hindu Kush mountain range, famous – and often romanticised – for the role they played in the Great Game between the Russian and British Empires. Tirich Mir, the Hindu Kush’s highest peak, reaches 7,708 metres, making it the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas.

This is our last brush at the mountaintops, our last moments at high altitude. From here we drop down into the Wakhan Valley.

Practical information and how to reach the Afghan border:

The Pamir Highway / Wakhan Valley is becoming increasingly popular with travellers, in particular cyclists, and deservedly so. Tourism in the region is still in its most nascent of stages though, so don’t arrive ill-prepared.

A basic level of Russian is highly recommended (it isn’t the local tongue but it is a handy second language spoken by a reasonable proportion of the population). There is no public transport option, although you may be lucky and find a share taxi going in the direction you’re headed. Otherwise you’ll have to arrange your own transportation.

More transport info here.

Continue reading the Pamir Highway/Wakhan Valley series:

Part 1: Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan – tackling the Kyrgyz/Tajik border

Part 2:  Kyzyl-Art to Karakul, Tajikistan – the highest navigable lake in the world

Part 3: Ak Baital to Murgab, Tajikistan – breakdowns and snowy mountain passes

Part 4: The Neolithic cave paintings of Shakhty, Tajikistan

Part 5: Bash Gumbaz, Tajikistan – yaks, golden marmots, and a Chinese merchant’s tomb

Part 7: Langar, Tajikistan – petroglyphs and Pamiri spirit shrines

Part 8: Vrang, Tajikistan – apricot groves and a mysterious ziggurat

Part 9: Yamchun Fortress and Bibi Fatima Hot Springs, Tajikistan

More on Tajikistan:

Dushanbe – big flagpole, big library, and very big teahouse

More on Central Asia:


The Valley of Balls, and Lion’s Mountain, Mangistau

Karagiye Depression – 5th deepest depression in the world


Summer pastures and perfectly still lakes – the hike to Song Kul

Bishkek – the most Soviet of Central Asian capitals


Chilpik – Zoroastrian Tower of the Dead

Nukus – Cultural wasteland? I think not


The Registan, Samarkand – place of sand

Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara – the magnificent Tower of Death 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

One thought on “Arrival at the Afghan border, Tajikistan

  • Karen White

    The scenery is so stark but beautiful. It must have been amazing to travel through this country. A bit (or very actually) scary, with the roads, the car breaking down etc. I’m glad the car always got going again.