The Curious Case Of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor

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Head of Ab-i-Panja Valley, Looking Towards Wakhjir Pass and Oxus Source Glaciers, 1912
The Wakhan Corridor, a buffer zone between three nuclear powers, is one of the most strategic regions in the world.

If you look at a map of Afghanistan, you’ll notice a curious protrusion in the country’s North-East side. Wedged between Tajikistan and Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir (PoK), is the Wakhan corridor, 210 kilometres long. At its narrowest point, it is only 20 miles wide (32 kilometres).

The locals call it the “Roof of the World”.

It looks like a finger extended from Afghanistan to prod each of the great empires in the land. And indeed, that’s how the region came to be. It’s a buffer-state, carved out of a no-man’s land to keep Russia at distance from what used to be British India – the so-called “Great Game” between Britain and Russia in the late nineteenth century. The ancient geopolitics that carved up this mountain passage is no longer at play today, but new ones have taken their place.

On March 30, 1885, Russia and Britain nearly went to war. The Russian Empire was expanding Southwards, having occupied most of modern-day Turkmenistan. Britain’s policy in Afghanistan had been to contain Russian influence as much as possible, to forestall an invasion of India. Keeping Russia away from India was the reason Britain invaded Afghanistan in the first place. When Russian forces took over an Afghan garrison near the Kushk and Murghab rivers, it seemed as if a great war was incoming. The Anglo-Russian Commission divided up the region from 1885-1895. The Panj and Pamir rivers served as the border with Russia. But the question of Afghanistan’s border with India remained.

In 1896, the Durand Line was settled on. The negotiations between the British and the Afghan rulers were fraught with give and take – sometimes, the maps painted a picture that was not matched on the ground. But the outcome was a controversial border with India (later Pakistan), and a small buffer zone to keep the Russian Empire at a small distance from the British one.

The Durand Line has been blamed for much of the tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And the role of Afghanistan as a battleground of empires continued into the twentieth century. But throughout the century’s many wars, the Wakhan corridor managed to stay unravaged. Today, it borders Afghanistan with Central Asia, China, and Pakistan. Amidst all the turmoil and violence of the Afghani mainland, the corridor seems like another country altogether.

It used to be nothing more than a passage for travellers, as well as a part of the Silk Road. 1400 years ago, the Chinese traveller Xuanzang used the corridor to traverse Afghanistan. Six centuries after him, Marco Polo took the route to travel to China. It has been a no-mans’ land for as long as man has fought over land in the area.

It’s a rugged, mountainous terrain. Surviving here is not easy, as Marco Polo wrote:

So great is the height of the mountains, that no birds are to be seen near their summits; and however extraordinary it may be thought … Fires when lighted do not give the same heat as in lower situations, nor produce the same effect in cooking victuals [food].

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Roughly a thousand Kyrgyz stay here, in dome-shaped yurts. Designed to be dismantled and reconstructed, they suit the nomadic lifestyles of the Kyrgyz people. When the grass runs dry, they pack up and move somewhere else.

Along with them, there are ethnic Wakhi people – Ismaili Shias, whose religious practices are miles apart from that espoused by the Taliban. Together, there are about 12,000 people living in the Wakhan Corridor. There are no cars, so they travel by yak.

Women entering here can safely take their veils off. But not many choose to enter this nomad’s land; Jean Bowie Shor was among the first Western women to travel the region in 2004. Because of its remoteness from the Taliban insurgency, adventurous travellers have started making their way to the region. There are even guides on how to do so.

One of the advisories requested that travellers do not attempt to cross the international borders, particularly, the one with China. The Wakhjir Pass has been closed ever since Chairman Mao’s Communist forces took China in 1949. At 4,923 metres above sea-level, the two countries end. Between them is a sharp jump in timezone – from UTC +4:30 to UTC +8.

Despite Afghan requests, the Asian giant has kept the pass closed – fearing an influx of drugs and militants to its insurgency-struck Xinjiang province. An unwary traveller here could spark a diplomatic incident. Since 2016, reports have emerged of Chinese troops patrolling within Afghan territory. The worry may be that the declining U.S. presence in Afghanistan could lead to more smuggling across the border.

The isolation of the locals is every bit as poignant as that of the mountain. Half of all infants born here die from extreme conditions and disease. But since 2014, a national park and conservation effort have helped create jobs and socioeconomic development for some of them. The Wakhan National Park is a thriving home of the elusive Snow Leopard, as well as to a diverse bunch of animals that includes the Marco Polo Sheep, the world’s largest wild sheep.

Wakhan’s modern-day geopolitics have to do with Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan, China, and India. A tiny section of it touches what India calls Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir. It’s one of the world’s most volatile flashpoints. With tensions between India, China and Pakistan all at once, Wakhan is a buffer state between disaster.

But for centuries, it’s been the land that time forgot. Its locals will be hoping that this continues.

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