For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard about Afghanistan in the news – and not for good reasons. It has always been a country that I’ve sworn not to travel to, at least until the Taliban had finally been defeated. But when Steve and I heard that it was possible to travel to the only safe area in Afghanistan from the GBAO in Tajikistan, we just knew that we had to go. We decided to not tell a single soul from back home because of fear of their reactions and unnecessary worry, but we were determined to do it.
After spending the weekend exploring Khorog, Steve and I spent all of Monday getting ready for our upcoming spontaneous trip to Afghanistan. We went to the Afghan consulate as soon as it opened and had our visas within an hour. It was as easy as anything, but it was also darn expensive. The tourist information center in Khorog had told us that it would cost about 60 USD, but it ended up costing 150 USD per person! I was close to just forgetting all about Afghanistan, but I decided to grab this once in a lifetime chance to experience one of the most unspoilt countries in the world despite the price.
After getting our visas, we headed to the bazaar to buy some appropriate clothing for me, and then we caught a share taxi to Ishkashim, a small town near the most accessible Tajik-Afghan border in the GBAO. The ride took three hours and was absolutely beautiful. Throughout the journey, we followed the Panj River with Tajikistan on one side and Afghanistan on the other, giving us the first look into the country that we would soon be visiting.
We got to Ishkashim late in the afternoon when the border was closed, so we had to stay another night in Tajikistan before being able to cross over to Afghanistan. Before going to sleep, we went for a short walk through the town to a viewpoint, where we watched the sun set over the mountains in Afghanistan.
The next morning, we decided to get an early start, so we could be at the border when it opened at 9 AM. We hitched a ride from the center of Ishkashim (our first free ride in Central Asia!), and got to the border at 8.52 AM. The soldiers at the border were very friendly on both sides, but while the Tajik border control took no time to go through, the Afghan one took forever.
We had some problems getting Steve’s passport accepted because of water damage, and the Interpol guy, who was inspecting it, wanted 100 USD to let him through. But Steve insisted on not paying, so he eventually gave up. I’m sure the guy didn’t even try to scan his passport, but just saw it as an opportunity to make a bit of money, but then realized that it wasn’t going to happen. If he hadn’t have given up, it could’ve potentially ruined our little Afghan adventure.
Prior to that incident, just getting into the Afghan side of the border was a hassle. The Tajik soldier unlocked the door from the Tajik side, but he had to call the Afghan soldiers to wake them up, so they could unlock it from their side. The Afghan soldiers did a thorough job of checking through our bags, although they didn’t know what half of our stuff was. One soldier even pulled out our pack of playing cards with a confused look on his face, haha. It was an interesting border crossing that took about an hour to go through, despite being very small!
It was the quietest border that I’d ever been to and apart from the soldiers, Steve and I were the only ones there. Nervous as anything, we walked slowly over the bridge, across the Panj River and into Afghanistan.
One of the Afghan soldiers had called his friend to pick us up, but when he asked 20 USD to drive us 5 km. into town, we were shocked. I mean, we were in Afghanistan, not Northern Europe! But we later found out that prices had gone up a lot for everything in the town due to the threat from the nearby areas that are ruled by the Taliban. The two bridges connecting the Taliban areas with Sultan Eshkashim had recently been ruined to secure the area, resulting in prices on food and petrol reaching sky-high levels.
We managed to get him down to 12 USD, which we still thought was too much, but since we didn’t know how to get there by ourselves, we accepted it. The drive was really interesting, as this was where we got our first taste of the culture in Afghanistan. We were surprised to see how conservatively people were dressed, as we had been told that it would be similar to Tajikistan. But in fact, the culture that we experienced just across the river was so different from anything we’d ever experienced before. I was so surprised and appreciative at the same time. We definitely hadn’t wasted our money and time by coming here. It was like a whole new world, unlike anything I imagined it to be; a whole new story to be told.
We were dropped off in the center of the town, where an English-speaking guy called Mohammad was waiting to greet us. As soon as we got out of the car, 15-20 people gathered around us in a circle to have a look at us, since western tourists are very rare in this part of the world. I’m guessing that my “muslim” outfit didn’t succeed in making me look local at all, haha.
We thought we could just go to the town, find a guesthouse or a homestay and then explore, but that wasn’t the case at all. We had to follow Mohammad to a tourist office, which was also the governor’s office, where we had to be registered. We had no idea why and it seemed a bit silly since we were only there for a few days. The whole thing took well over an hour, as we had to fill in several forms, get passport photos taken and talk to the governor, who offered us tea and mints while he questioned us about our plans in Afghanistan.
When we were finally done, we still had to go to the police office to get registered there as well, but that was quick and easy.
We were happy to finally have everything sorted and now we wanted to get some food before heading to the guesthouse. Mohammad took us to a local restaurant, where we sat on the floor Afghan-style, while consuming beans, cabbage, potatos, bread, rice, sheep meat and tea. I asked to get mine without meat, but when the plate came, it was obvious to me that they had just removed the meat from the rice instead of making new rice. There was even some meat left on the plate, so I returned it and soon after, I got a new one, which they insisted had no meat in it, but I was doubtful, and sure enough, when I moved the rice around a bit, I saw some meat. Vegetarianism definitely isn’t a thing in Afghanistan, but at least the other food was nice and tasteful, haha.
After finishing up at the restaurant, I was itching to get to the guesthouse, so we walked there straight away. On the way, we stopped at a small flour mill, where the owner invited us in to see how they do it. It was quite fascinating and despite me not knowing anything about how to make flour, I could see that it was an old-fashioned way of doing it.
The guesthouse, which is called Ayan Baik Guesthouse and is owned by Mohammad, is located 20 minutes walk from Sultan Eshkashim in the tiny village of Khirmani, overlooking the mountains. After all of Mohammad’s help, we felt like we had to stay there, but it ended up being quite decent, so it didn’t really matter.
We got a basic room with comfy beds, but no shower or any other “luxury” facilities. The price was 30 USD for the bed with food per person, but we thought this was way too much, so we agreed on paying 15 USD without food instead.
After getting settled in our room, we decided to take a walk into town, so we could finally explore it on our own and at our own pace. On the way, we met several small children, who were coming home from school. One girl shyly asked us for a photo and soon after, all the children had gathered around to have their photos taken. They were adorable!
Entering Sultan Eshkashim is like entering a world of yesterday. A world where time has stood still for 2000 years. There are no air-conditioned buildings, no paved roads, no western foods, no wifi, no coca-cola. This is the real deal. This is Afghanistan, completely unpolished. Sultan Eshkashim gave us a great insight into the Afghan lifestyle with its mudbrick houses, its lively and colourful bazaar, its local restaurants and its people dressed in traditional, conservative clothing. We saw several women with burqas around, but we also saw girls who were showing half of their hair, living up to the area’s reputation of being less conservative than the rest of Afghanistan, but still way more conservative than the rest of Central Asia.
We talked to several people during our walk through the bazaar and surprisingly, quite a few of them spoke really good English. One guy asked us where we were from, and when I said that I was from Denmark, he said that the Danish soldiers were recently there and that they were good men. I felt really proud of my country when I heard that, because I honestly didn’t know what the Afghan’s thought about the Danes being involved in the war.
We spent several hours in the bazaar shopping for traditional clothing, eating delicious flat bread and taking lots and lots of pictures of locals, who kept coming up to us and standing in circles to stare at us. I usually dislike it when people stare, but the stares and crowds that we got around us in Sultan Eshkashim seemed so innocent. They were just curious about us and at the same time, they were very respectful and were careful to not cross the line, which they never did.
When we got back to the guesthouse, the sun was about to set, so we decided to go for another short walk to make the most of our time in Afghanistan, before going back to have dinner with Mohammad and his brother.
We couldn’t decide whether or not we should stay another night in Afghanistan or head back to the GBAO to continue our travels there. We both really wanted to stay as we loved it there, and I found Afghanistan so much more interesting than any country I’d ever been to before, but we had limited time left of our travels and we wanted to catch a flight from Khorog to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, which only leaves on clear days. So by leaving early, we would have an extra chance at getting the flight.
It was with heavy hearts that we decided to leave the day after we had arrived, but thankfully, we still had half the day to explore Sultan Eshkashim before the border to Tajikistan would close. We spent the time wandering around the tiny villages near our guesthouse, before going back into Sultan Eshkashim for a last look at the bazaar. We bought so much stuff there, as we wanted as many souvenirs as possible. We bought scarfs, Afghan flags and beautiful locally made rugs, which were the perfect souvenirs.
At about midday, it was time to head to the border, which we decided to walk to, so we could experience the last bit of culture before leaving Afghanistan. During the walk, a police car full of soldiers stopped to offer us a ride, and although it would’ve been an experience, we decided not to as we were in the middle of a photo session with our new Afghan flags, haha.
Crossing the border back into Tajikistan took quite a while, but mainly because the Afghan soldiers all wanted pictures taken!
I found it funny how the Tajik side of the border is all strict with “no photography” signs everywhere, whereas the Afghan side of the border is the exact opposite with soldiers asking for photos to be taken, haha. It was a great last experience in Afghanistan (this time around)!
When we got back to Ishkashim on the Tajik side of the Panj River, we caught a taxi back to Khorog. I felt extremely sad as we saw Afghanistan disappear through the window; I didn’t want to leave it behind already.
The people of Sultan Eshkashim were the friendliest and most beautiful people that I’ve ever met on my travels around the world. Who would’ve thought that people living in a war zone would be so welcoming and warmhearted towards tourists? They were naturally very curious, but in an innocent and sweet way. Even though my life in Denmark is so different from theirs, I felt a real connection with them and I even felt like I could live the way they do. It’s such a simple life, but it’s full of love. I think it’s beautiful. The people of Sultan Eshkashim truly amazed me and are the main reason that I can’t wait to explore other areas of Afghanistan someday.
The area near the border to Tajikistan is the only safe place in Afghanistan for tourists to visit. The Taliban controls large parts of Afghanistan and have been known to kidnap foreigners, but they wouldn’t dare to go anywhere near the closely monitored border to Tajikistan, where snipers are hiding in the mountains, waiting for the Taliban to show up, so they can shoot them down. Knowing this, and with Steve by my side, I felt completely safe while I was in Sultan Eshkashim and never felt threatened by anyone.
Coming to Afghanistan for a few days wasn’t just to tick off one more country, it was to experience a whole new culture and to explore what has barely been explored before. We would’ve loved to have spent longer in Sultan Eshkashim and the nearby Wakhan Valley, but unfortunately, we were running out of time, as there were still things that we wanted to see in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan before heading home. But even those two days were enough to make me fall completely head over heels in love with Afghanistan and its amazing people!