The Key to Afghanistan

This piece was written in 1999, after I’d made multiple trekking trips to the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan with my friend Peter Burgess. Many of those treks had taken us close to the Afghan border, and we’d always gazed longingly across the River Pyandzh that marked the border to the dramatic mountains on the Afghan side – the fabled Hindu Kush. In 1999 we decided to make a determined effort to cross over into Afghanistan. For this trip we were joined by a wandering Ukranian guy called Dima…


Dawn broke imperceptibly over the River Pyandzh as we bounced down the Pamir Highway, heading for the border with Afghanistan; the Ishkashim bridge. This lonely bridge is the only official crossing point into Afghanistan along the one thousand kilometre border with the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan. Our goal was simple: to cross into Afghanistan and spend the next three weeks trekking through a remote area called the Wakhan corridor until we arrived 250km’s further East back at the Tajikistan border. We had valid visas. We had permission from the Afghan Embassy in Dushanbe. The KGB in Tajikistan had endorsed the route. And in theory our departure to Afghanistan had even been cleared with the Russian Border Guards – the feared RBG.

Border guards keep watch on Afghanistan from the Tajik side

But in Central Asia things are rarely so simple. So we were taking nothing for granted as we sat in the back of our Russian 4wd jeep trying to be nonchalant, and handed over our passports to a young border guard. He took them away to his pillbox for scrutiny. This was the moment of truth. The atmosphere was tense. For years we had planned this trip, but security here was tight. The Russians had quarantined Afghanistan, and we’d never come close to crossing this bridge. The soldier came out of his pillbox and walked towards us. We held our breath. Casually he nodded his assent – our documents were in order. Our dream was about to be realised. We gazed expectantly at the high metal gate, topped with barbed wire, and the battered wooden bridge beyond. Then the bombshell.

“I’m sorry but you can’t go in”.

Our heads snapped back to the young guard.

“We don’t have the key.”

On reflection the logic was impeccable. The key to Afghanistan was far too important to be left in the hands of conscript soldiers at a remote border crossing. But at the time I could only see the perversity: a locked gate with soldiers to guard it, and no key. It transpired that the key to Afghanistan was kept under lock and key (a different key) further up the road at a military base. Already fearing the worst, we headed off to see if we could fetch it.

Ever since I first went trekking in Tajikistan in the summer of 1995, the Afghan side of the border has held a special grip on my imagination. I’d already made multiple visits to the Pamir mountains with my friend Peter Burgess, who was working in Khorog, the capital of the Gorno Badakshan region that encompassed the high Pamir. (Think of the Pamirs as the far western end of the Himalayas.)

Looking into Afghanistan from Khorog, the main town on the Tajik side

Each year my eyes had been drawn across the Pyandzh river to the Afghan side. Coming down from high and thrillingly exposed passes, the soaring peaks of the Wakhan corridor – Afghanistan’s final frontier – had taunted us repeatedly. Hitching along the rough road that follows the border on the Tajik side I had sat on top of trucks and peered across the river and back in time…

Looking across the valley of the Pyandzh (Oxus) river from the Tajik village of Vrang to the snow covered peaks of Afghanistan

The Wakhan corridor exerts a powerful grip on the imagination. Captain Francis Younghusband – Britain’s indefatigble Great Gamer – jousted here with the Russians at the end of the 19th century. When a Russian officer rode up to Younghusband’s tent in the middle of the night and unceremoniously booted him out of the Wakhan all the way back to India the insult to Britain briefly threatened war. Good Lord, a British officer humiliated in his nightshirt! A few years later Lord Curzon of India struggled up the Wakhan in his epic – and ultimately successful – bid to find the source of the Oxus, as the Pyandzh was then known. Later still that legendary wanderer Eric Shipton crossed into the Wakhan from China without a visa, trusting nonchalantly in the remoteness of the region to protect him from officials. His confidence was misplaced; he was arrested by the first people he met, carted all the way down the Wakhan to Ishkashim, and thrown into jail. In the circumstances I felt we’d taken the right approach to get our documents in order.

In fact, we’d done more than get our documents in order. For to turn up at the Ishkashim bridge with nothing more than a valid visa is to court at best derision and at worst contempt. Acquiring a valid visa is merely the first stage in a long and tortuous process of gaining permission to cross the Ishkashim bridge. We’d failed in the past, amd decided  we needed help, so we turned to the Tajik KGB. It wasn’t the obvious choice. We were already well known to the secret police, who for many years had suspected our trekking trips hid a sinister purpose. On a past trek we’d been pursued for hours up a rocky path by “agents” armed with sticks who – when they finally caught up – ordered us to turn around, accusing us of hunting for gems. When we refused there’d been a brief flurry of blows with the sticks, most of which landed on my rucsac, before they gave up and went back home for tea. More recently Pete, had been arrested and questioned at length after straying too close to the Afghan border on the Tajik side of the Wakhan corridor. The interrogators had demanded a list of every trek we’d been on since 1997. Peter wrote gloomily from Khorog that he was “busy writing my (and your) KGB file”.

A short section of the extraordinary path that follows the full length of the Pyandzh on the Afghan side. Note the solitary figure climbing the path to the left of frame

The omens were therefore not good when we presented ourselves at KGB HQ in Khorog. But we’d been advised that if we were prepared to make some overtures, the secret police may turn out to be less intimidating than had so far been the case. We (Me, Pete and Dima) were ushered through metal grilled doors and into a tiny caricature of a police interrogation cell. A single chair sat behind a grubby little desk, the walls were off green, and a dim bare lightbulb hung in the middle of the room. We were interviewed by two agents, the improbably named Damir and Pamir. We explained our request – was it possible to arrange permission to cross the Ishkashim bridge and visit Afghanistan? After 10 minutes of questions the answer still wasn’t a definite no, and an appointment was made for the following day. Thinking to lubricate the wheels of diplomacy, Pete issued an invitation to dinner. Surprisingly Damir and Pamir agreed. So that night we entertained the KGB to a fish curry and copious quantities of vodka. By 10 o’clock Damir and Pamir were duetting rather unsteadily on various legendary Tajik folk songs. We parted with extravagant expressions of everlasting friendship.

The Afghan mountains of the Wakhan corridor, glimpsed from a snowy mountain pass on the Tajik side

Next morning we were given permission to cross into Afghanistan.

Now we found ourselves at the Ishkashim RBG base – allegedly the home of the key to Afghanistan – waiting for the commanding officer to finish his morning exercises. A jovial group of soldiers offered us breakfast in their cabin, empty apart from a stereo blasting Russian pop songs through the distortion barrier. Eating bread and cheese washed down with tea and vodka, one of their number – Yuri – offered us advice in the event we needed to cross back across the river Pyandzh from Afghanistan into Tajikistan. RBG policy on spotting people in the river is shoot first and ask questions later. “There’s nothing we like better than shooting spies and drug smugglers”, Yuri assured us. He claimed they had shot 3 people in the river in the last few weeks. Yuri’s approved method of getting back into Tajikistan in the event of an emergency was to stand on the banks of the river jumping up and down and shouting to attract attention. Once a passing RBG patrol had worked out who we were, they would apparently come and get us.

Eventually the Commander finished his exercises and his breakfast, and appeared – miraculously – with the key. We shot back to the gate at the bridge. Already there were hopeful signs of activity. On the Afghan bank of the river a fleet of Toyota 4WD trucks were sweeping down towards the border crossing in a long crocodile of dust. But it was quickly apparent that the activity had nothing to do with us – today the border guards had bigger fish to fry. Up from Khorog on the Tajik side of the border came a second convoy of Toyota’s. The vehicles screeched to a halt by the gate. Inside the lead Toyota was the head of the KGB in the Pamir region, and behind him none other than the then President of Afghanistan – President Rabbani.

Although at this time the Taliban controlled 90% of Afghanistan, their government was not recognised by the international community. Instead, the ousted government, led by Rabbani, still held the country’s seat at the United Nations, and still ran Afghanistan’s embassies around the world. In fact Rabbani – through his ally the legendary warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud – only controlled the Wakhan corridor, the Panjshir valley, and the mountainous area of Afghan Badakshan which borders Tajikistan. Now it seemed Rabbani was on his way home, perhaps to shore up the defences of his last remaining strongholds. (Two years later, Ahmed Shah Massoud was assassinated by Al Quaeda, and two days after that came 9/11, which precipitated the US led invasion of Afghanistan, and the fall of the Taliban. Rabbani was briefly president of the reunited country, but was replaced by Hamid Karzai. Rabbani was assassinated in Afghanistan in 2011.)

The legendary key finally appeared, the gate finally swung open, the Toyotas rolled forward and across the border. We’d been ordered to stay back, and could only watch as the gate swung shut again, and was locked. On the other side Rabbani and his bodyguards swapped vehicles and tore up into the hills in a second crocodile of dust. As the convoy breasted a rise above the river valley a sudden, deep crump, crump, crump reverberated through the mountains; a welcoming salute from the heavy guns defending what remains of the old Afghanistan.

The activity over we were surprised to see the head of the KGB stroll over. Clearly our reputation had been rescued by our evening with Damir and Pamir, for he shook us each by the hand and ushered us towards the gate. Once more the key appeared, and at last we passed through. On the other side, Yuri and his colleague had set up a desk in the dust by the river to serve as an impromptu immigration and customs post. Our new best friends smiled, and ordered our bags to be emptied. Still smiling, they swiped several chocolate bars, a few sachets of coffee, and let us repack. It was all done with such good humour it was impossible not to like them. No doubt they saw it as a kind of export tax. At the desk in the middle of nowhere our passports were stamped, and I was delighted to see that it read “CCCP”. On this far flung frontier nobody has yet got round to replacing the old Soviet stamp.

We shouldered our packs, walked about 50 metres, and were delivered into the hands of the Afghan customs and immigration. Except that the official responsible had gone home. So we settled down in the shade to wait for his return. Four hours later we were still waiting, and Dima’s boredom had got the better of him: he was entertaining himself by feeding the rats that were running around under abandoned vehicles…

Part 2 to follow…

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