In early June 2019, we arrived back after an incredible 25 days in the remote Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan. We wanted to share everything we learnt as there isn’t much information available before going in and what does exist is often conflicting. Here was our process - hopefully it can help you plan your trip.
All of the spots you need to know about can be found in the Maps.Me folder we have created here. Just download Maps.Me on your phone and click the link to download the points. Then go into the guides section of the App and turn on the Wakhan Guide, all the pins of places you need should pop up.
Photos and stories of our trip will be coming up on DumbThings soon.
Visa prices (could change any time and may vary):
British/Australian/NZ = $150 USD
Americans = $220 USD
Europeans = $100-150 USD (online reports say $100, though the Europeans we met were charged $150)
1x passport sized photo
1x copy of your Tajik return visa printed out
The best/only place to get an Afghan visa in Tajikistan is in Khorog. The Afghan consulate is open from 9am-12pm on weekdays (closed on weekends and public holidays). The consulate is located near the Pamir Lodge, on the outskirts of town. There is a lady that speaks English there who can guide you through the process and can check the border situation for you.
The process is pretty straightforward. You’ll be directed to a security guard box outside the consulate and handed a form to fill out your details. They’ll also give you a blank piece of paper to address a letter to the consulate general of the Islamis republic of Afghanistan. Say you wish to visit as a tourist and list your full name, passport, intended date of entry and exit and where you intend to go. Make sure to state that you are only travelling between Sultan Ishkashim and the Wakhan region, even if you are planning to venture to Kabul, otherwise you may be denied your visa. You must also declare that you are responsible for your own actions and security.
The visa can take anywhere between an hour and 3 days to process. If you’re in a hurry you can pay an extra $50USD for “same day service”, but bargain a little and you might be able to get the same day visa free. They’ll ask for USD but will accept Somoni if you persist.
There are no ATMS in the Wakhan so you’ll need to have enough USD for both your Afghan visa and your time in Afghanistan. We would highly recommend getting money out before coming to the GBAO region. Dushanbe or Osh are probably your best bets.
Khorog can be a bit trickier. It took us about 5 days of mucking around to finally get enough USD for the trip. These are the options we found:
There are 2 ATMS that very very occasionally have USD in stock: Oriyon Bank on the west side of the central park and Amonant bank. Both only take visa cards.
Next to Oriyon bank is the First Microfinance Bank. They have a currency exchange and might have dollars in stock in you’re lucky. In 5 days we only managed to change Somoni for $100 USD here. Having said that, they definitely had more USD in stock because they had no problem exchanging our big notes for smaller denominations.
Western Union is another alternative, but has the most expensive fees.
A last resort is at the hostels/homestays/guesthouses. They may be willing to sell you their USD, but don’t expect a great exchange rate.
Sultan Ishkashim (Afghanistan):
Exchanging USD to Afghani can be done at mobile phone shops at the crossroads.
Big USD notes ($100 and $50) are worth a lot more than smaller ones and will get you a much better exchange rate. They won’t accept $1 or $5 notes at all. Make sure the USD you get is in good condition – no rips/tears. Bargain hard with the exchange rate. As of June 2019 1 USD = 79.51 Afghani.
Dollars are usually accepted at guesthouses and with guides. The further along the road towards Sarhad you get, especially once you start hiking they care less and less about the size of the notes. In Langar they didn’t even blink at our $1 bills.
The Tajikistan/Afghanistan border is about 4km out of the Tajik Ishkashim. A shared taxi from Khorog costs 50 Somoni (~$5USD) per person. The shared taxis leave from a small car park on the opposite side of the river to the Khorog Bazaar. Just take the bridge leading out of the Bazaar and you will walk straight to the share taxis. The location is also on Maps.Me. The best time to find a car is between 8-10am. Hitchhiking is also possible.
The border is closed on Sundays and public holidays. But both sides of the border can suddenly shut down at any time; apparently in September 2018 the Tajik border was closed for 10 days because the Tajik president was visiting that area. From our experience, it’s easy enough to convince them to open it for you to let you through.
The border guards on both sides were super friendly and kind to us. They barely looked inside our bags before sending us off.
If you are bringing your own vehicle in we heard the price for a motorbike was $100USD paid at the border. Not sure about the price of a car, but the Caravanistan forum is a good place to ask.
If you’re not in a rush it’s an easy 7km uphill walk to town, otherwise the guards can call a taxi. They said $3USD per person was a fair price but the driver asked for $10USD. He insisted that there are regulations/policies that dictate the price, but eventually we negotiated it to $5USD per person.
When returning to Tajikistan you cannot enter the country before the start date on your e-visa. Arriving after the date valid on your visa is not an issue. Take this into account when purchasing your return e-visa.
The requirement of permits and registration seems to change with every report you read but this was the process as of May/June 2019.
For all the permits and registration, you’ll need to have passport photos and scans of your passport and visa printed out. You do not get an entry stamp on your visa when crossing the border so you can either make the copies in Tajikistan before you leave or once you arrive in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan a copy shop charged us 20 Afghani ($0.25USD) per copy. This copy shop can take your passport photos if needed, otherwise shops in the main street of Khorog can do them also (near the bank).
In total, we needed 5 passport photos and 9 passport/visa copies. Since everyone seems to have a different experience it would be safest to bring a few extra copies of each.
When you get to Ishkashim many guides will approach you. If you want their help for the permit/registration process expect to pay $20USD per person. It’s also easy enough to do it yourself - this was our process:
1. Tourist ID Card: In Afghanistan, your Tourist ID card is effectively a card in Farsi that has all your passport information. Any time an official in the country asks for a passport, you only need to hand over your Tourist ID card – it has all the details they need. Keep this card with you until you leave Afghanistan.
You can get the Tourist ID in Ishkashim from the Tourist Registration Office. It’s about 50m before the main intersection as you are arriving into town from the border.
The Tourist ID card is free.
To get it you need to hand over two passport photos per person. One photo will be stapled to your ID card and one copy for them. You also need to hand over photocopies of your passport and visa. Our process got a little confusing so we are not sure how many copies they ended up taking, it was between 1-3 copies per person (we think it was just one).
The Tourist Registration office is closed on Fridays so take that into account for when you decide to enter Afghanistan.
2. Police registration: In Ishkashim you need to register your arrival in three different places. The Police, the Military Policy, and the Border Police. You can find each of these places on the same road. Simply continue straight at the main intersection if you are coming from the direction of the border. The police office is on the right about 20m past the intersection - ask locals and they can show you. The Border Police are on the left hand side of the same road at the end of the shops, maybe 300m from the intersection. The Military Police are in between the Police and Military Police on the left hand side. Just look for big gates guarded by men with guns and give them the copies they need.
The Police required 1 passport/visa copy and 1 passport photo per person.
The Border Police required 1 passport/visa copy and 1 passport photo per person.
The Military Police required 1 passport/visa copy
There is one checkpoint on the road in-between Ishkashim and Khandood. All you need to do is show your Tourist ID.
To go further into the Wakhan, you will need to get your permits in Khandood at the government/police office. Walk over the bridge to the bright blue Mosque. If you turn right at the Mosque and look up you will see a bunch of white and brown buildings amongst the trees about 100m away. These are the government offices. The first building you come to is the one where you get the permits - turn right when you come up to it and you’ll find the door. Here the tourist manager will print 4 permits for you that he and the Governor will sign. You need one passport/visa copy per permit per person.
So 4 copies in total:
They kept one for their office
A man took us to the ISI offices in town who took 1 permit and 1 passport photo per person. If you have to find it on your own, as you are walking towards the bridge coming from the government offices immediately before the bridge there is a small road that goes down to the right after the last shop. Follow that road down beside the right hand side of the river until you get to the end. Turn right (second right coming from the bridge) and you will see a guard in front of some big metal gates at the end of the road. That’s the ISI office.
One copy was to give to the guards at the ‘desert checkpoint’ a few km out of town. They also wanted to see our tourist ID card. One of the guards didn’t really know the process so wanted to keep our ID cards but another guard told him we needed them. Make sure you keep it with you until you leave the country.
One copy was for the police in Qual-e-Panja.
One of the permits from Khandood was for the police in Qual-e-Panja. The office is just down to the left behind a small circular building in the centre of town. We had read in previous reports that people here received written permits to give to the Police in Sarhad. We didn’t get given anything and it wasn’t a problem later on.
The police station is tucked away diagonally right from the small strip of little shops. It has a big antenna out the front. They had a quick glance at our Tourist ID cards and that was it. There was no other permits required between Sarhad and Chaqmaqtin Lake, though again we’ve read in reports from previous years that a letter was required.
On the way back to Ishkashim you do not have to check in with any police or anything. Only show your Tourist ID at the road blocking checkpoints if they are manned.
Hitchhiking: it is possible but will take you much longer. Trucks will be your best bet - we had one give us a free ride. Otherwise Aga Khan cars (big white 4WD’s with green number plates) will often pick you up if they have space and take you for free.
Share Taxi: the easiest way to get a share taxi is to walk out of the town a little bit and wait. That way when the cars come they should already have passengers, which will make your ride cheaper. We found it difficult asking in town as drivers were only interested getting us to pay a high prices to rent the whole car for just the two of us. Prices we came across were as follows…
Ishkashim to Khandood: A local told us a fair price is 4000A if you are paying for the whole car, or 1500A per person if there are other passengers in the car.
Khandood to Qual-e-Panja: 2000A is the going rate for a whole car
Khandood to Sarhad: 5000A is what we paid for two people in a shared taxi and locals seemed to agree that was a good price.
Private cars: are available from almost any town. If you’re short on time, you can get a car direct from Ishkashim from Sarhad, but it will come at a cost - $300USD one way
Camping spots along the road can easily be found in between the towns. In our experience no matter how remote you feel someone will inevitably find you. But it is always safe and anyone who comes across you will just come over to say hello, probably stare for a while out of curiosity and then eventually wander on. You may also be able to pay a guesthouse to camp on their land if they have any. Tea and bread can also be purchased from guesthouses if you are just passing through.
If you are hitchhiking, you may be able to stay with the drivers’ family. This is a great experience but try to give them some money to make sure to not exploit their incredibly generous hospitality.
On average, the guesthouses are $15-25USD per person per night for food and accommodation. You can always try to barter for a lower price if you don’t want food. We didn’t stay in any guesthouses because we met some amazing families along the way who took us in, so we can’t comment too much on them. But this is what we’ve found from other reports and travellers we met:
Marco Polo Guesthouse: we had read the Marco Polo guesthouse charges $25USD per person per night and met people who had paid that. However we also met an older American man who had been charged $40USD for the night. Some other Australians were quoted $35USD.
Ishkashim has a few other options which can be found on Maps.me
In Khandood we were invited to stay with the Governor for free. DO NOT accept this offer, particularly if you are female. We had a very scary experience staying with him.
There is one guesthouse in Khandood
Between Khandood and Sarhad there are several guesthouses. Most villages have at least one or can show you somewhere to stay.
We met the owner of Chaquan guesthouse in Sarhad and he was exceptionally nice and hospitable. We also met someone who stayed there and hired a donkey man who lives there and co-runs it and only heard good things. Can definitely recommend this place.
While hiking, camping is free but stays are available in some Kyrgyz yurts (at Bozai or Chaqmaqtin Lake) for about $7.50USD per night per person. Bear in mind that some Kyrgyz villages are friendlier than others - check out this report on the Caravanistan forum for more details.
Khorog will have the biggest variety available. Afghan Ishkashim has a mix of fruits and vegetables available along with other basics. Khandood has a limited supply and vegetables are not always available. After Khandood your options become very limited with not much more than rice. You could probably buy some bread from the guesthouses if you needed.
The diet of people in the Wakhan generally consists of naan (round bread) and chai for breakfast and lunch, and rice (with naan and chai) for dinner.
HIKE to lake chaqmaqtin
When we entered the Wakhan it was still pretty early in the season and the snowy conditions meant that the hike to Lake Chaqmaqtin was our only real option. It was a beautiful trek and we’d reccomend allowing at least least 8-10 days to give you time to explore a bit more. There are also a bunch of lesser known tracks that you can find more about here.
We did the hike solo, no animals, no guide and it was easy. Maps.Me has the track on it and the path is pretty clear the whole way. You can always buy some rice from Kyrgyz villages near Chaqmaqtin Lake for your return trip if you need.
There are two routes to Chaqmaqtin Lake (low route and high route, referring to altitude). During May/early June the only walk possible was the low route to little Pamir, the high route was still impassable.
Via the low route it takes 4 days of solid walking to reach Chaqmaqtin Lake. Good camp spots along the way are Borak, Langar, Bozai and the lake itself.
The Kyrgyz settlement of Bozai is the first place along the route to the lake where you can pay to stay with them. Once you get to the lake there are many yurt settlements (by end of June/July at least).
The book 'Trekking in Tajikistan’ by Jan Bakker and Christine Oriol is a great resource. You can also find GPX files and trip reports with a quick google search.
The road in and hiking paths were easy during May (little bit of snow on top of the Daliz pass), but by the beginning of June snow melt had already significantly raised water levels. By late June/July you may have to wade sections.
The mornings were always crystal clear and still. In the afternoon the winds pick up down the valley but settle down around dusk. We had two nights of snow in June but it had all melted by 9am.
Don’t get your hopes up about the Sarhad hot springs for a wash on your return. As of June 2019 they are out of action and not functioning. Hopefully you’ll get lucky but it didn’t look promising for the near future.
Important: All border crossing mountain passes are closed and the valleys leading up to them are, for the most part, also off-limits to foreigners with severe penalties if caught (Wakhjir valley and pass for sure).
GUIDES / ANIMALS
We didn’t go with any guides or animals, despite all locals insisting that we would need one. We haven’t heard of anyone else going without a guide but it wasn’t an issue for us. But here is what we have heard about guides/animals with some advice from @girlgonetolive:
Spend at least a day with your animal owner/guide before going with them to suss them out.
Make it clear to them that you want to camp. Reports have said that some guides don’t want to camp and will force you to stay in overpriced guest houses/yurts that they make a commission off.
Guides are usually 1000A per day
Donkey and handler are usually 500A per day
Yak or horse and handler are usually 1000A per day
We met a guide called Ibrahim Hamdard who we would highly recommend. He was super kind and went far out of his way to help us. We’ve also heard good things about him from other travellers. He runs the pharmacy in Khandood (on the main street, just over the bridge) and his number is 0749229030
TIPS FOR FEMALE TRAVELLERS
Travelling in Afghanistan as a female is not for the faint hearted. Expect many uncomfortable moments with Afghani men. In my experience, there was lot of intense staring, catcalling and blatant sexual advances. If an opportunity comes along, there will almost certainly be attempts to rape you. Make sure you don’t give them any opportunity. The whiter and blonder you are, the worse it is likely to be. I found that men we met from places outside the Wakhan (e.g. traders from Kabul or government officials from Badakshan) were a lot more intense.
I’m always one for solo female adventures, but in this case, I’d only recommend travelling by yourself if you’ve had a solid amount of experience in places like India, Pakistan and Iran. If you’re a confident, sturdy and brave you should be good to go, but keep your guard up.
Some extra tips:
Clothing: You’ll definitely want a hijab*. Scarves are 100 Afghani (~$1USD) in the Ishkashim bazaar or ~25 Tajik Somoni (~$2.50USD) in the Khorog bazaar. Covering your arms and legs is also a must. The looser/baggier the clothing the better. Make sure your ass is covered and use a scarf to cover boobs if possible. You can get traditional Afghani dress in the Ishkashim bazaar. I’d recommend getting a set of the shalwar kamiz you see men wearing, which costs around 100-400A ($1-5USD). Women in Ishkashim typically wear a full-length burqa. Further down the Wakhan, outside of Ishkashim, women mostly just wear a hijab.
Say you are married: Everyone will ask about your marital status. If you say you’re single, you’re basically saying you’re a prostitute. I wish I was exaggerating. Being ‘married’ will give you a little status, though bear in mind that it’s not going to stop an Afghan man from trying something.
Trust your gut instincts: Keep your guard up at all times when around men and don’t hesitate to get out of a situation you’re feeling uneasy.
Accommodation: If you are staying at guesthouses, or in the Kyrgyz villages during the hike, bear in mind that you’ll be sharing a room with local men who are likely to watch you for most of the night.
Hang out with the local women: Travelling in the Wakhan as a female gives you the unique experience of spending time with the Afghani, Wakhi and Kyrgyz women in the absence of men. Offer to help out with washing or cooking, and you’ll enter a very different world. Observe just how strong these women are. It was a definite highlight of my time there.
*This is mainly for your own comfort and safety. Locals have said they won’t get offended or feel uncomfortable if you don’t wear a hijab. It is your choice to wear one or not, but I’d 100% recommend it.
We spent 20 days of our trip during Ramadan and never had an issue. People always invited us in for tea and naan, no-matter what time of the day. We generally found that someone would stay with us to refill our glass when we finished it or tell us to keep eating if we stopped for a second. As long as you feel comfortable, there is nothing but kindness and hospitality from their side. You are their guest and they are proud to host you.
While hiking people would also call us over for tea and naan if they were having a break during the day. Breaking the fast is allowed when travelling so they will be eating as well. In this region of Afghanistan the people are mostly Ismaili Shia and more flexible in their rules.
Once Ramadan has finished there are three days of holiday. Most places close so changing money, getting permits etc. may be much harder. But in our experience, it’s a small place so if you ask around a bit someone always knows someone who can help you out.
We never felt even the slightest bit uncomfortable eating during the day. People were always very accepting and it didn’t seem to bother them one bit.
The only thing to be wary of is that during Ramadan all shops close at 1pm every day. Outside of Ramadan they are usually open until 4/5pm.
Everything is closed on Fridays. This will mostly just affect the ability to get permits, tourist ID card etc. so keep that in mind for when you choose to cross the border.
In Sarhard nearly every kid asked for pens or notebooks so if you wanted to bring some things they’ll be a lot of help. When hiking, the Wakhi and Kyrgyz people ask for medicines. Generally pain relief like paracetamol is desired but I’m sure anything helps.
We met a middle aged American man who was overcharged at the Marco Polo Guesthouse. He had also been thoroughly searched at the border and the guards were asking for some of his possessions. The tip here is to not look overly wealthy and you’ll avoid some trouble.
Season to go: Late May to early October.
Language: Most people will speak Farsi and Wakhi. The Kyrgyz nomads speak Kyrgyz. We downloaded some free Farsi and Kyrgyz phrasebooks online that were useful. For English in small towns the kids are your best bet for basic communication because they learn English at school. Ishkashim, Khandood and Sarhad all had several people who spoke pretty reasonable English. These people are usually either guides, run guesthouses or work for Aga Khan.
Safety in the Wakhan: As you’ll read elsewhere the Wakhan is a very safe area that hasn’t seen much Taliban activity. A few years ago there was some action in Ishkashim but it has been fine recently. But anything is possible so it’s always worth checking before you go. A guy from the PECTA office told us (on June 10, 2019) of ISIS activity in the region bordering Tajikistan North of Ishkashim. In terms of personal safety we didn’t read any reports of crime and never felt like anyone would even think about robbing us or stealing anything. Very trusting. The only thing to be wary of is if you are a female traveller do not let yourself get into any situation with men that presents an opportunity to harass you or touch you.
Finally, remember to be respectful of the local people and culture. For foreigners it is a very different, special place to visit but don’t forget to follow the same standards you apply elsewhere. Ask people if they are okay with their photo being taken before you take it, especially women. Also remember, while their hospitality is incredible, this is a very impoverished area so be conscious to not take advantage of their kindness and give back, in money or other, where you can.
Wakhan Brochure: http://www.mockandoneil.com/wakhanafghanpamirbrochure.pdf
30 days solo female traveller report: https://caravanistan.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=7312
Tajikistan hiking book: https://www.cicerone.co.uk/trekking-in-tajikistan
PECTA office/website: http://www.visitpamirs.com/
National Geographic article: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2013/02/wakhan-corridor/