Out of Eden Walk: Walking Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor 

Afghanistan’s wild and mountainous Wakhan Corridor is an isolated region, home to the rare snow leopard and to a human culture that has gone unchanged for centuries. People still get their flour for baking from water-powered grist mills. Host Marco Werman speaks with National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek about his trek through this rugged alpine wilderness.

The World

National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek has been traveling the globe on foot since 2013. He’s on a 24,000-mile journey known as Out of Eden Walk, following the path of human migration out of Africa, moving eastward across the globe, and eventually ending at the tip of South America. 

The last time The World caught up with Salopek, he talked about his 2016 trek through Uzbekistan, where he followed the Great Silk Road and learned how it was a thoroughfare for explorers, traders and conquerors throughout the centuries. 

From Uzbekistan, Salopek eventually made his way to Afghanistan, where he wrote about being greeted by Afghan soldiers at the start of the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip that runs nearly 200 miles eastward toward China. Host Marco Werman caught up with Salopek again to learn more about his experience walking through the corridor.

Marco Werman: So, you reported from Afghanistan right after 9/11. What did you see this time compared to then? How different was the experience? 
Paul Salopek: Yeah, the first time I was there, Marco, was, of course, during the active phase of the US-backed conquest of Afghanistan, if you will, using local forces like the Northern Alliance. I was there as a war reporter. I was covering front-line conflicts on the Somali plain and the fall of Kabul, the capital. This time, I was way up in the northern mountains, an area that is so remote that it has been largely untouched by war ever. It was like a completely different Afghanistan. 
You were hiking through the Wakhan Corridor, which looks kind of unusual on the map. How do you describe this narrow strip of Afghanistan? 
Indeed, it’s a strange kind of appendage that pokes out of northeastern Afghanistan for about … it’s like a finger that extends towards the Chinese border for about 170 miles, about 270 km. It’s only about, on average, 10 miles or 15 km wide, very thin. It was created more than 100 years ago by the British and Russian empires. They wanted to keep their armies separate, a buffer zone. So, they created this extension in Afghanistan. So, it basically is a high-altitude river valley, 20,000-foot mountains, glaciers, and very, very few people. I think nobody really knows, but maybe 15,000 people in the whole region.
So, really remote. I mean, who are these 15,000 people? 
These are folks who’ve basically been buffered from the influences of the outside world by these massive peaks, some of the tallest peaks on the planet, you know, it’s part of the Himalayas. And also by the fact that the war has cut them off for decades as well. Down in the lowlands, they’re ethnic Shia farmers, Ismailis who basically live off the grid. And then up in the highland pastures, they’re nomadic yak herders, ethnic Kyrgyz. It’s kind of like a time capsule, a place lost in time.
Yeah, I mean, that’s the real sense I got from reading about it.  So, you describe seeing a tiny and windowless hut in a high, wild valley in Afghanistan, and this hut was making a sound, a strange humming sound. What were you hearing, Paul? 
It’s kind of almost like this industrial hum. And there’s no electricity, you know, no phone lines or nothing. It’s a kind of alpine wilderness. It is an ancient watermill. This technology that’s more than 2,000 years old, that’s still in use in the region. They’re using 600-pound granite wheels that are turned by glacier-melt creeks to grind up their wheat into flour. So this was kind of an ancient technology that was still kind of very robust, again, like a time capsule. 
Dusted with stone-ground flour, Shambe, 9, is an apprentice at a vanishing, millennia-old trade. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
Yeah. I mean, ancient technology in the 21st century. So, what is life like for an ancient-style miller running a water-powered gristmill in this part of the world? 
You know, I did a little bit of homework once I came across this. It was delightful, first of all, to come across this kind of artifact of another time, a pre-industrial time. The last time a census, a big census, was done in England was a thousand years ago, and they had thousands of these things, you know, one for every 4 or 5 families. And that kind of medieval sense of water, hydropower was still very much in effect in this very remote, high corner of Afghanistan. The same family was passing down the kind of tradecraft of how [to] grind flour. It’s not as simple as it sounds, from father to son. And when I met the guys, when they came out of the hut, they were covered head to toe in white flour. They look kind of like ghosts. 
You were out in nature, as you usually are, Paul, and right in the middle of the habitat of the snow leopard, one of the world’s most-vulnerable species. You joined up with a team that traps and tags these animals for their protection. What was that like?
Again, just another extraordinary experience. One of the most extraordinary stretches of this global walk was being up in an alpine environment where wildlife was still seen. At that point, I’d walked, I don’t know, 10,000 miles, 16,000 km across the Earth, and so much of the Earth had been changed by agriculture, industry, pipelines, highways, you name it. The last place I saw wildlife, like I did in the Wakhan of Afghanistan, was way back at the beginning of the walk in 2013, in Africa. This was the only other place in the walk where I saw ibexes, these kind of big montane antelope. They’re the size of small ponies. There are bears up there. There are golden eagles up there.
The pug mark of a snow leopard in the Chapursan Valley, Pakistan. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.Paul Salopek/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
So, you spoke about geography isolating this area, but is that the only reason? Why has this part of the world not emerged from the past?
I think it is largely geography — I think it’s mountain walls. Also, you know, until now, no lucrative natural resources have been found that would invite industrial development. Although I will say this, Marco, I just checked lately about the fate of the region since the Taliban took over. The Taliban had never entered the Wakhan until, you know, they took over the country. 
Why? Was it just too troublesome to get over the mountains? 
Yeah, it was kind of off their radar. It wasn’t their cultural kind of area, right. The Taliban are Sunni, you know, these are Shia Ismaili people who are from a different Muslim sect. They’re considered kind of, you know, outside the family, if you will, and they’re considered like kind of half-wild populations of shepherds. And so, it’s always been marginalized, even before the Taliban took over. It’s always been a kind of a neglected, forgotten corner of Afghanistan. But what I’ve read is that just this year, the Taliban government has pushed through a new road to reach the Chinese border in hopes of establishing a trade link across these vast mountains. So, if that’s true, and I don’t know of anybody who’s been up there lately to take a look, that could radically change this very remote corner of the world. 
Last steps in the Wakhan corridor. The grueling ascent to Irshad Pass, Afghanistan’s 16,335-foot gateway to Pakistan. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org.Matthieu Paley/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
So, you tried to enter Pakistan from Afghanistan on foot via a high mountain pass, but that did not go well. What was the problem? 
That’s an understatement. So, imagine it’s tough enough in October to climb over the Hindu Kush in a blizzard. It was literally whiteout conditions, we couldn’t see 2 or 3 miles ahead of us on a 45-degree slope. And we had two cargo donkeys, the donkeys were rolling down the slopes. My walking partner, Matthieu Paley, and I were climbing down to get these poor donkeys back on their feet. We finally get over the mountain pass. We sleep near the summit. My clothes freeze inside of my tent as I’m wearing them. It’s that cold at night. And then we think we’re kind of home-free when we come down on the Pakistani side, but it turns out we weren’t. Pakistani security forces arrested us, detained us and deported us, basically sent us out of the country, and we had to go to Abu Dhabi. And then, I got permission to come back in to continue the walk. It was a bit of a surprise, but they allowed me to continue to walk through. So, no complaints there.

Parts of the interview have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Writer and National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek has embarked on a 24,000-mile storytelling trek across the world called the “Out of Eden Walk.” The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonders of our world, has funded Salopek and the project since 2013. Explore the project here. Follow the journey on X at @PaulSalopek, @outofedenwalk and also at @InsideNatGeo.

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