John Mock & Kimberley O'Neil

2004 Shipton/Tilman Grant Application

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Project Name

The Source of the Oxus River: A Journey to the Wakhan Pamir and Across Dilisang Pass to Misgar

Who are the team members?

John Mock and Kimberley O'Neil, a husband-and-wife team

What is your objective?

Our expedition's objective is to traverse the length of Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor to the source of the Oxus River near the western base of the Wakhjir Pass and then cross the Dilisang Pass (c. 5,000+ meters) to Misgar in the upper Hunza Valley of Pakistan's Northern Areas, a 300-mile foot journey.

Have you obtained the necessary permits, visas, etc.?

Our itinerary takes us to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both countries require a visa for entry, which we will obtain in May 2004.

We will also need special permission from the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, which we detail below. The team leader's membership in the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies (AIAS) and the American Institute of Pakistan Studies (AIPS) provide us with additional influential government contacts and a network of scholars and expatriate field workers in each country to facilitate the process.


The Afghanistan Tourism Development Organization, located in Afghanistan's capital Kabul, issues permits for travel in the Wakhan Corridor. In addition to this permit, local permission for travel in Wakhan comes from Commandant Wahid Khan in Ishkashim, the main town along the Oxus River (Amu Darya) in Badakhshan Province. He is the chief authority for Wakhan, and all local commanders are under his authority. In Wakhan itself, Pir Shah Ismail is the chief person, and represented Wakhan at Afghanistan's Loya Jirga (National Assembly) in Kabul in 2002. He is the spiritual leader or Pir of the Isma'ili Muslims who live in Wakhan. He resides at Qila-e Panja, the main settlement in Wakhan.

We are in already contact, through associates in Afghanistan and in nearby Pakistan, with Commandant Wahid Khan and Pir Shah Ismail, who have indicated their willingness to permit our journey. Over the past century, Western travelers have frequently been detained by local authorities and it is our intent to enter and travel through Wakhan legally with the prior permission of the highest authorities.


Our proposed itinerary enters Pakistani territory via the Dilisang Pass from Afghanistan. Dilisang Pass is not an open international border crossing, yet we can secure permission from Pakistani authorities to enter Pakistan via this route. With our more than twenty-six years of experience living and working in Pakistan, we are very well-known figures with many friends in the government who will ease and facilitate this process. We plan to secure the necessary permission through official channels starting with the Tourism Division of the Government of Pakistan's Ministry of Sports & Tourism, which is responsible for trekking and mountaineering regulations.

Additionally, we have personal contacts in the office of President Pervez Musharraf and we are confident that the authorities will grant us permission to proceed. We would not do anything that would jeopardize our future ability to travel and work in Pakistan, since that is not in our long-term personal interest.

Once we enter Pakistan, foreigners are allowed to go anywhere in open zones as high as 6,500 meters without a permit or guide. Our entire proposed route from the Dilisang Pass to Misgar and into Hunza is in an open zone where no permits are required.

Why are you doing this?

The Wakhan Corridor, a geographical area in Afghanistan's Badakhshan Province, looks on maps like a finger poking between Tajikistan and Pakistan to touch China's Xinjiang Province. Famously remote and starkly beautiful, the Wakhan is known in Persian as the "roof of the world." The Ab-e Panja (Oxus) River, whose source lies near the Chinese border, courses west-east along the nearly 300-mile length of the Wakhan Corridor.

Since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Wakhan has been inaccessible to Westerners. Its remoteness spared it much of the excess of the Soviet occupation and the subsequent Taliban government. With the fall of the Taliban, our Wakhi friends in neighboring Pakistan have begun traveling to Wakhan. They tell us that now is a window of opportunity to visit this renowned high mountain area.

After following the Ab-e Panja River and its tributary, the Wakhan River, to its headwaters, which is the source of the Oxus River, we will turn south and leave the Wakhan by the almost unknown Dilisang Pass into Pakistan's Misgar Valley. Our expedition will be able to report on condition of the people living in Wakhan and also on the impact of the years of war on their lives, the environment and endangered wildlife.

It's worthwhile to note that two other passes along Pakistan's northern border with Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor are now crossed regularly by local people who travel back and forth into Wakhan to trade and to graze livestock. These two passes, which lie along the Hindukush Range, are the grassy, rolling Broghil Pass (3,600 meters) and the rocky Irshad Uween (c. 4,800 meters). In recent years, a handful of Westerners have illegally crossed these two passes and either descended the Wakhan towards Qila-e Panja or traversed the narrow Wakhan coming from or going to Tajikistan. (One such trip was made by a prior Shipton/Tilman Grant recipient.)

Our expedition endeavors to explore the 75 to 100 miles of the upper Wakhan that lies above the highest settlements and well east of these two other established routes into Pakistan. Additionally, we want to reconnoiter and establish a route across Dilisang Pass, which is not used by the Kyrgyz nomads of the Wakhan's Little Pamir nor by the people of Misgar. The pass likely presents technical difficulties.

The location of the Dilisang Pass is of geographical and geological interest, where the eastern edge of the Hindukush Range meets the northern tip of the Karakoram Range and the southeastern extent of the Pamir Range. The region is sometimes referred to by scholars as the Pamir Knot. During our previous visits to Misgar and its upper valleys our interest in this expedition began.

To the best of our knowledge, no Westerner has visited the upper Wakhan and the source of the Oxus since H.W. Tilman in 1947, and the Dilisang Pass was crossed only once by Westerners more than fifty years ago in an unplanned, emergency evacuation from Wakhan. We think it essential to visit this remote and fascinating area of the Pamirs while the opportunity exists, and that it is absolutely vital in the post-September 11, 2001 world for Westerners to re-establish links with Muslim populations in Asia's high mountains.

Shipton long ago noted the:

"…difficulty in getting any information about former … routes … " and that "… it would be valuable … to trace the remains of old routes … and to determine the migratory history of the … people of these remote districts" (Blank on the Map, 1938; reprint 1985, 190-191).

Knowledge of the Pamir Range is probably even more incomplete than the adjacent Karakoram wilderness Eric Shipton wrote about, indicating a blank on the geographical, historical and cultural map of the high mountains of Asia. Shipton and Tilman's explorations, carried out in this same spirit, provide our inspiration.

Elaborate on the style in which you will attempt your endeavor.

We will outfit our own expedition and travel as a self-sufficient party of three people. We will travel with one local counterpart, Alam Jan Dariya. Alam Jan is a Wakhi mountaineer and poet from Pakistan's Chapursan Valley who is related to Wakhi people living in Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor and has made several recent journeys there. We will do our own cooking and camp chores and provide all of our own food, gear and supplies. We plan to use horses and yaks for transport through much of the lower Wakhan, and will carry our loads in the upper Wakhan and into Misgar. We are committed to the principles of minimum impact, environmentally-sound travel in remote mountain regions. We have known Alam Jan for ten years and have traveled with him previously in the Karakoram. We know each other's mountaineering abilities and share a similar lightweight style of mountain travel.

Traveling lightly and quickly through the mountains in partnership with local companions is a style that we have used successfully throughout the Karakoram and Hindukush for many years, and is a modern adaptation of the style first espoused by Shipton and Tilman:

"One of the things that I enjoyed most was the opportunity of getting to know the Sherpas intimately … Sharing with them the same life, the same camp fire, the same food and, later, the burden of load-carrying, we soon came to regard them as fellow mountaineers rather than servants and they felt with us the excitement of anticipation and the joy of success. We were admitted to their endless jokes and their occasional philosophical talk. We relied upon their judgement as much as upon our own" (Shipton, Upon That Mountain, 1943; reprint 1985, 405).

Our partnership not only embodies a spirit of international cooperation and teamwork, but acts as an antidote to pervasive stereotypes of the Pamir and its Muslim inhabitants as dangerous and inhospitable. We hope that our expedition can help to offset these stereotypes and restore some sense that mountain travel and adventure in Muslim population regions is a rewarding and positive experience, with the same risks that mountain adventure anywhere on our planet entails. As award-winning writers, we are able to exert some influence on opinion and encourage climbers and trekkers to begin returning to the region. Our writings and publications give us a way to disseminate this information and to publicize trekking and mountaineering possibilities. In so doing, we hope to make a significant contribution to knowledge about the region, to the future livelihood of the people of the region, to foster communication and understanding, and to meet Shipton's challenge to explore the passes and old routes through one of the planet's great mountain ranges.

What is the history behind your endeavor? Who has gone before you? When? What did they do?

Marco Polo's thirteenth century narrative brought Wakhan to European attention and Lieutenant John Wood of the British Navy was in 1838 the first modern explorer. Wood recounts his great expedition through the Wakhan in Journey to the Source of the Oxus. Lord Curzon, who later became Viceroy of India, took a keen interest in the determination of the source of the Oxus River and in 1894 crossed the Wakhjir Pass from China to visit "the ice-cave in the glacier at the eastern extremity of the Hindu Kush," thought to be its source. He writes of his journey in the Geographical Journal (July, August and September 1896) and describes the Oxus as a river whose headwaters, "tell of forgotten peoples and secrets of unknown lands, and are believed to have rocked the cradle of our race." Wakhan became part of Afghanistan in 1895. Since then, few modern travelers have made the difficult journey.

Tilman, in 1947, crossed the Wakhjir Pass from China into the upper Wakhan as Curzon before him had done. Tilman had planned to travel through part of the Wakhan, loop back into Pakistan and Hunza by crossing the Irshad Uween pass and continue on to Gilgit. After crossing the Wakhjir Pass and reaching the source of the Oxus, Tilman looked to the south and wrote of the Dilisang Pass:

"There is a pass leading from here over the Hindu Kush to Misgar and I was tempted to try it in case my assumption about the absence of officials in Wakhan proved to be ill-founded" (Tilman, Two Mountains and a River, 1949; reprint 1983, 627).

Tilman, however, had entered Wakhan without the necessary permission and visa and when he reached Bozai Gumbaz word came that he had to go down to Sarhad and meet with Afghan officials. He was denied permission to cross either Irshad Uween or Broghil Pass and went to Ishkashim where his party was further detained by authorities. Tilman never completed his planned route, nor did he ever cross any pass from Wakhan into northern Pakistan on this or any subsequent expeditions.

The only published account of any Westerners crossing the Dilisang Pass is an accidental crossing by Jean and Franc Shor more than fifty years ago. Franc Shor, a former Associate Editor of National Geographic, and Jean Shor, a husband-and-wife team, were photographer/writers who National Geographic described as "the first Westerners to fully explore the mountainous Wakhan Corridor … " Their journey is recounted in "We Took the High Road in Afghanistan," National Geographic, November 1950 and in Jean Bowie Shor's After You Marco Polo. The Shors traveled through Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor and had intended to exit the Wakhan by crossing the Wakhjir Pass into China, but were turned back short of the pass by armed conflict and, when Franc Shor became seriously ill, were evacuated by Kyrgyz nomads over the high and difficult Dilisang Pass into Pakistan.

In addition to the Shors, Sabrina and Roland Michaud ("Winter Caravan to the Roof of the World," National Geographic, April 1972) visited the Wakhan Corridor, but did not follow the Wakhan River, instead visiting Kirghiz nomad camps in the Little Pamir. The sole descriptive ethnography of the Wakhi and Kirghiz residents of Wakhan was written by M.N. Shahrani and published in 1979.

Please elaborate on the team's qualifications for succeeding on this proposed endeavor.

John Mock holds Ph.D. and M.A. degrees in South and Southeast Asian Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a Fulbright scholar whose doctoral dissertation research was on the oral traditions of the Wakhi community living along Pakistan's northern border. John is the only American and one of only a handful of scholars worldwide who knows the Wakhi language, spoken in Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor. He is additionally competent in Afghan Dari Persian, the lingua-franca of northern Afghanistan, and fluent in Urdu, the lingua-franca of Pakistan. John's language skills and cultural familiarity always paves the way and enables us to get a close-up look at the local people's lives.

Kimberley O'Neil is an award-winning author of travel guidebooks. She has been writing, and coauthoring with her husband, for Lonely Planet Publications for the past ten years specializing in hiking and trekking guides. She has trekked and traveled throughout Pakistan, India and Nepal during her years working in the adventure travel industry designing and operating trekking and mountaineering expeditions throughout the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindukush.

We are recognized as experts on this region, having coauthored the guidebook Trekking in the Karakoram & Hindukush (Lonely Planet Publications, 2nd edition 2002, 1st edition 1996). On our numerous Karakoram and Hindukush trekking and mountaineering expeditions over the past twenty-six years, we have crossed more than forty different passes, traversed almost fifty different glaciers, and visited many more valleys than we have counted.

Our most recent guidebook Hiking in the Sierra Nevada (Lonely Planet Publications, 2002) was winner of the 2002 National Outdoor Book Award for the year's best outdoor adventure guidebook. In addition to coauthoring guidebooks, we have also worked together as consultants on conservation and ecotourism in the Karakoram and Hindukush mountains for IUCN-The World Conservation Union, WWF-The Worldwide Fund for Nature, and the Snow Leopard Conservancy. Our photographic images have been published in more than a dozen travel guidebooks, magazines, travel brochures, calendars, diaries and encyclopedias, and have appeared in corporate and educational advertising campaigns.

We have substantial experience and a demonstrated record of achievements in the Karakoram. John is an experienced rock climber and we both have mountaineering skills and vast experience trekking in rugged terrain at altitudes as high as 6,000 meters. We have proven ability to successfully reconnoiter Karakoram routes, having discovered new passes and rediscovered almost forgotten passes. For example, we discovered two passes - Ghidims Pass South (5,650 meters) and Ghidims Pass North (5,486 meters) - on the Central Asian watershed in 2000 as recipients of the 2000 Shipton/Tilman Grant. We have also rediscovered Karakoram passes that had not been crossed in as long as fifty years, including Mai Dur Pass (5,700 meters) in 2000 and Lupgar Pir Pass (5,190 meters) in 1994.

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