The place that I have dreamed about and wished to go more than any other is Afghanistan.
My great concern with my life’s work has always been about seeing the world and describing it for other people. I come from a landlocked, remote part of the United States. I went to high school in an uber-conservative part of Texas where many of my classmates had never been outside of the state or seen the ocean, let alone travelled to another country. Despite how deeply multicultural the United States is, Americans are astonishingly under-exposed to different ways of life and, innocently or not, have very little to no understanding about how things operate in other places. I really believe that most of my American friends and loved ones want to understand more, but it is prohibitive when you live in a huge country and haven’t the means or time off to travel. I made understanding other cultures and other ways of existence my life’s mission, and that has taken me around the world many times over, and so I suppose I hope that maybe through my little lens, I can offer a different perspective than the ones that people see on the news. Let’s be honest, the media is a huge part of the problem. Our obsession with “the news” is actually our worst enemy, because “the news” rarely if ever captures the intricacies and nuances of humanity or real life. It portrays events devoid of real people, especially because the news is now tied to money, marketing, traffic and commercial and ad sales. The news is important, perhaps, but it is also our worst enemy for any attempt at world peace (except for money, which is the worst worst).
When my logical brain says all hope is lost, my heart still holds a well of hope. It is a small but deep reservoir and I know that love can change everything. So I am doing what I do, and that is to write with love about these things in the hope and belief that my love will meet your love and that will meet all the other wells of love, and together something shifts, one little pond of love at a time.
It is my great regret that, so far, I have never been to Afghanistan. At least not technically. But I have been very near it, and I have been professionally proximal to it for many years, and so I will write from my heart, and I will tell you what small things I know. These are not political things. There are many resources you can read about Afghanistan’s history, and how it was turned into the state of ruin it is in now. I encourage you to do so. Here is a wonderful, interactive history of the Great Game and early Afghanistan from the Library of Congress, with beautiful old maps. And the BBC has neatly summarised how we went from September 11th to the Taliban takeover of the past 24 hours.
In 2013, Lonely Planet offered me my dream job: Destination Editor for North and Central Asia. It was a brand new role on a brand new team of content editors hired to be destination experts on the regions they would be overseeing content for. I was hired into the job for my China experience, and if that wasn’t a complex enough part of the world to look after, I was also assigned all of Central Asia, and my region encompassed two dictatorships (North Korea and Turkmenistan, as well as, arguably at the time, Uzbekistan), and of course war-torn Afghanistan.
So, championing under-loved destinations has been my calling, and I jumped head-first into understanding the parts of ‘my region’ that I didn’t know, including Afghanistan. Lonely Planet published its first-edition guidebook to Afghanistan, by the intrepid author, and my friend, Paul Clammer, in 2007 – a time of relative peace in between many years of war. This wasn’t LP’s first coverage – of course LP’s founders Maureen and Tony Wheeler had travelled right through Afghanistan on their trip across the world in 1972, which led them to found LP. That was when Afghanistan was a free and open society. Amazing how much can change in a short period of time.
Paul’s first-edition guidebook was well before my time at LP, but I inherited his fantastic work, though the situation by 2013 had deteriorated enough that LP was no longer willing to hire and send a writer to publish an update to the guide. I still took my job seriously, and learnt Afghan history and held hope. I read the news of Afghanistan every day.
One day, around 2015, I got a cold pitch (a pitch from an author I’d never worked with before) from a writer called Jonny Duncan, asking if I would be interested in publishing a photo essay from his trek through the Afghan Wakhan. He sent some sample photos that made me melt.
The Wakhan Corridor is a weird thumb of land that juts up into the Pamir Mountains, forming the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
It is the product of the 19th century ‘Great Game’ colonial, territorial jostling for empire between Russia and Britain, which divided the area up into its weird borders. The Wakhan is extremely remote, extremely mountainous and extremely poor, on both sides of the border, but especially on the Afghan side. In the best of times, such as the year of Jonny Duncan’s trip, perhaps a few dozen tourists visited the Afghan side. The Taliban were never very active in the Wakhan, mainly due to its remote location, but that changed a few months ago when the US announced its military withdrawal and Taliban forces began to infiltrate the Wakhan for the first time, sealing up its borders with Tajikistan.
I wanted desperately to publish Jonny’s piece, but it had to go through a process of editorial sign-offs, for which I went all the way to the Editorial Director of Lonely Planet at the time, who was actually very keen, provided there were no insurance hiccups. Jonny had already taken his trip, so my commission was okay’ed. It was the first and only dedicated feature article about Afghanistan that has ever been published on Lonely Planet’s website and for that I am both heartbroken and deeply proud.
Please read it and look at his lovely photos and understand how beautiful Afghanistan is: Hidden Wakhan: a trek through Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains
After this, I tried very hard to get an update to our ‘core content’ (this was our ‘guidebook’ content that fed both books and the website) on the Wakhan. I had a writer in mind who had potentially got a trip planned to the Wakhan, it was just a matter of finding a way to make it work. LP’s insurance would not allow us to commission and send writers to destinations that the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office listed as ‘do not visit’, so there was a blanket ban on us officially sending a writer. I tried to go through back channels, thinking maybe I could commission the writer on a handshake agreement and then pay him for his trip after, with a sign-off saying he’d have no travel insurance coverage from us. Unfortunately, this fell through in the end and it was a great pain to me, as I so deeply wished to offer the public and travellers a window and encouragement into a part of the world that most people thought of as war-torn, ugly, scary or some other negative adjective, take your pick.
Then Lonely Planet cut its entire content team and I was laid off alongside 17 other destination experts. And the company was sold. I thought I would never get to see the real Afghanistan.
In July of 2019, not long after I was laid off, Sophie Ibbotson asked me if I wanted to go to Tajikistan. A writer, tourism expert, consultant and PR, Sophie is one of my favourite people, because she is as passionate about post-conflict zones and misunderstood places as I am. And she also has the energy to keep trying to make things better.
Obviously, I did want to go to Tajikistan, and this was for a scouting mission with the World Bank. I was to travel alongside Sophie, who is consulting on the World Bank’s significant development investment scheme in Tajikistan, as well as a videographer and several World Bank types on a 10-day mission through Tajikistan, from its capital city (Dushanbe) east up the Wakhan Corridor, then north all the way to the borders with China and Kyrgyzstan. It was my dream come true.
For this trip, I was commissioned by The Independent to write a piece on driving the Pamir Highway, an article I am very proud of.
About a month before departure, I was busy buying maps of the Pamir from Stanfords, the storied travel bookshop in Covent Garden that is probably one of the only bookshops in the Anglo world that would just have a Pamirs map in stock on the shelves without the need to special order.
My Whatsapp pinged and it was Sophie.
“Would you be interested in going to Afghanistan while we are there? There might be a chance to hop across the border.”
Of course I was interested. Sign me up. What do we need to do?
It turned out a trip into Afghanistan was not on the cards for that trip, either, because like Lonely Planet, the World Bank’s policies wouldn’t allow us to go into a conflict-zone country during an official WB mission. Sad, because the Wakhan remained ostensibly safe then.
The trip still brought us within a whisper of Afghanistan. First, we took a helicopter from Dushanbe to the city of Khorog – an hour of mountain-brushing over peaks, right next to the Afghan mountains. Our driving trip took us up the Tajik side of the Wakhan Corridor, along the Panj River, which forms the border. Sometimes, the rushing torrent was only about 2 metres wide – tantalisingly close yet impossibly out-of-reach.
In Khorog, there is an Afghan Market that happens on Saturdays when the ‘security situation allows’, which basically means if the Taliban are being chill and everything is chill. Which it was for many years while the US forces were maintining the status quo. It wasn’t great – large swaths of Afghanistan were still under Taliban control – but the country was living in much more relative peace than it had during long periods of its active civil war.
The security situation in 2019 was ok, and the Afghan Market was running. It is located in a newly built brick-and-concrete building just up from the bridge and border crossing. Mainly, Afghans come across into Tajikistan to sell all sorts of stuff ranging from food and spices to traditional eye makeup, herbs, used books and all sorts of odds and ends procured on Afghanistan’s black market.
This was my favourite place. We were told to be so careful, and we took that to heart. I felt totally safe, but of course you don’t really know what could happen at any time. Our guide could easily spot the difference between Tajiks and Afghans – perhaps based on nuances of clothing or physical features – but I was only able to spot the traditional pakol hats (soft, rounded felt caps) worn by Afghan men.
Driving for several days up the Wakhan, we had Afghanistan out our right-hand windows at all times. It was easy to see how much worse things were on the Afghan side – a tiny dirt track formed the ‘main road’, which was trafficked mainly by donkey carts and the occasional sputtering car. Road washouts and floods along the Panj are frequent, and a flood had left a line of foot and livestock traffic stranded with nowhere to go. They were right there, yet so far away. We carried on up the Tajik side on our relatively nice grated dirt road in our very nice Land Cruiser.
Near Ishkashim, our Tajik driver pulled the Land Cruiser over for a smoke break and pointed toward a bridge across the Panj, the only other crossing point between Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the Wakhan. He pointed toward a rusting tank and told us it was left over from the Soviets, and said that a tiny cohort of a few Taliban tried once before to take over Ishkashim (there is an Ishkashim on both sides of the border) but never made any progress, and that the town always resisted, so they never came back. There’s never been war up here, he said.
We spent the night in a friendly homestay in the settlement of Langar, at the confluence of the Panj and Wakhan Rivers. I went for a lone walk in the evening, following the course of an irrigation ditch south, past a toothless shepherd and his bony cows, toward the Afghan peaks. The sunset was soft pastels. It was the kind of quiet where you can hear water trickling in some distance away and the flitter of insect wings.
That night, we sat on logs outside the homestay and looked for meteor showers and it was the first time some of the people had ever seen the Milky Way. It was the brightest sort of Milky Way – stars forever, and far beyond the reach of light pollution or war.
It is my greatest wish to visit Afghanistan, not for any reason than I believe it is a beautiful place full of people with love and kindness in their hearts. People who also want to see their kids grow up and get an education. People who want to have soft beds to lay in each night and warm showers. People who want family dinners and hugs and to hear a good story over a campfire, to feel the peace of not worrying about being shot or raped or pulled from their homes at night. People with beautiful landscapes in their heart, and myths. People who also look at the night sky and wonder what is out there and what this life is for.
I write this post in the vague hope of offering an alternative lens, any lens at all, on Afghanistan beyond 9-11 and Biden and George W. Bush and Taliban and terrorism. Those are the keywords yet they have nothing at all to do with the even briefest glimpses of this place, which I have been privileged to have, however under-informed and distant they might still be. I hope maybe pictures and words and experience can be a reminder that we are all human, we are all one, we are all the stuff of life on this little planet Earth.
I’m sorry this isn’t better. I’m sorry I don’t know more. I’m sorry my experience isn’t enough to make a difference or come at all close to understanding Afghan culture or people or real life. I feel sick today, and I will feel sick for a long time to come. But I hold hope in my heart that I will someday sit alongside fellow humans in the lands we now call Afghanistan, to have a meal and exchange stories and see light and love and know we are both humans together.
In the meantime, some things we can do to help:
- Write to your politicians demanding expedited legal routes for Afghan refugees to come to your country. Brits, you can do that here.
- Read about Afghanistan’s history (see links above, or just do some googling).
- Donate to an Afghan aid organisation, such as AfghanAid or Women For Women International.
- Open your heart and mind to a place you might have reached saturation point with hearing about on the news, and push yourself to be reminded that humans are humans, and we all deserve safety, love, food, shelter and a decent life.