Photos

Photographer's Note

The reason I went to Khorog was to get an Afghan visa. I had tried in London but my visa application was rejected. They didn’t stamp my passport nor did they make a note of my details. They simply requested more documents that I was not able to get. Compared to that, applying for a visa in the consulate in Khorog is incredibly easy. All you need to submit (except for a couple of photos and an application form, which you can fill in while there) is a letter that explains the purpose of your visit (i.e. ‘tourism”) and contains a statement that you are aware of the risks of such a journey. Then you wait 24 hours, pay 100-200 US dollars and you are ready to go to Afghanistan.

The next morning I took a shared taxi to Ishkashim, 100 km south of Khorog. The road is bad and the journey takes 2-3 hours. We stopped some 5km short of Ishkashim, by the bridge on the river Panj.

According to Google, and various other websites, the border is open from 09:00 to 11:30 and then from 14:00 to 16:00. In fact, on the Tajik side, it’s always closed. There is simply not enough traffic to justify that kind of discomfort. Instead, the soldiers are based in a much bigger and nicer building on the other side of the road, some 200 metres from the bridge.

Fortunately the driver of my shared taxi knew the procedure. It took some whistling and shouting and 10 minutes later (I felt self-conscious about the other shared-taxi passengers waiting to continue their journey to Ishkashim) a young soldier appeared.

“Visa?”, he asked and looked surprised when I showed him the relevant page in my passport.

He didn’t even have keys to the border gate. He had been sent to check if the whistling was not a false alarm and case serious enough for more senior officers to bother. A phone call and another 10 minutes later (while my fellow shared taxi passengers waited patiently) two more soldiers appeared and unlocked the gate. They were very nice and happy to find out I spoke Russian. They asked every possible question about my planned journey: why, where, how, and was I really, really, going on my own – a solo travelling female going to Afghanistan. They’d never been there (“Nas nie pooskayoot” – we are not allowed). They even carried my rucksack from the first gate to the next.

There are 3 gates on that bridge. The Tajik soldiers have the key to the first one, the Afghan (also Tajik) to the last one. To open the middle one, representatives of both border forces need to be present; there are two chains and padlocks on that gate.

I call Afghan soldiers Tajik because… that’s who they are. Some 45% of the citizens of Afghanistan are Tajik. It was very obvious when crossing that border. The soldiers on the two sides of the frontier, in spite of wearing different uniforms, spoke the same (or very similar) language and knew one another’s first names. Afghanistan feels like an artificially formed country (which it really is) made up of cross-border peoples: there are Pashtuns (also present in Pakistan), Tajik, Wakhi (I mentioned that ethnic group in my posts from Khorog), Kyrgyz…

I can’t remember the moment I entered Afghanistan. All I can recall is that, as I was walking through the middle gate, I covered my hair with a scarf. I suddenly felt scared. I didn’t know what to expect or how to behave. On this side of the border no one spoke Russian.

I was also conscious that I had booked a guide I had found on the Internet and I didn’t know anyone who had ever met him. He turned out to be a nice and professional young man. His name was Azim and he had come to the border zone to meet me.

Two hours and some complicated registration process later, I was out in the street outside my guesthouse taking this photo. I was on my own and no longer wearing a scarf. Azim had explained it was not necessary for me to wear any special clothes like long shirts or baggy trousers, in spite of the fact that most women I had seen in Ishkashim wore a burka. I had also been told I could walk on my own wherever I liked and it was fine to photograph people in the streets… Heaven.

…and indeed, these guys didn’t mind at all. When I pointed at my camera they nodded their heads, posed for a few seconds and then carried on working as if nothing had happened. I took a few photos: them looking at me, curious, smiling at the camera, looking away, then back at work. I chose this image, because I like the interaction between the man wearing a hat and the youngest boy, probably his son.

If anyone is interested what was in the plastic bag the man is holding – it’s not gunpowder… ;-) It’s flour. The words written on the bag are: “first class flour” in Russian. Probably import from one of the “stans”, former Soviet republics.

Two more photos in WS.

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Additional Photos by Kasia Nowak (kasianowak) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Note Writer [C: 1422 W: 7 N: 2738] (15002)
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