John Mock & Kimberley O'Neil

Expedition Report

The Source of the Oxus River:
A Journey to the Wakhan Pamir & Across Dilisang Pass to Misgar
(July-August 2004)

by John Mock & Kimberley O'Neil, Copyright Text © 2004

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PLANNING  | Politics  | What About Those Warlords  | How Do You Get There?  | Maps: Where's the Dilisang Pass?  | Speak to People in Their Own Language |
THE JOURNEY  | Islamabad: From Tourism to Interior Ministries  | Kabul to Faizabad: Meeting General Warduk  | Faizabad to Sarhad: The End of the Road in the Wakhan  | Wakhan: Trekking from Sarhad to Kashch Goz  | Little Pamir: Kashch Goz up the Wakhjir Valley  | The Source of the Oxus River: Is there an Ice-Cave?  | Kamansu: The Way to Dilisang  | Across Dilisang Pass to Misgar  | After You Marco Polo, But After Us … |



To avoid arrest, getting shot, or otherwise creating an international incident, we would need special permission from the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to enter Pakistan via the Dilisang Pass from Afghanistan. The only glitch was the Dilisang Pass is not an open international border crossing.

We were counting on our years of experience living and working in Pakistan, during which we had become very well-known figures with many friends in the government. It seemed like time to call in a few favors. Additionally, John's membership in the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies (AIAS) and the American Institute of Pakistan Studies (AIPS) would provide us with academic credibility and official contacts if needed. We decided to go as high up as necessary to get permission - even to Pakistan's President Pervaiz Musharraf and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. We just weren't certain exactly how to do that. What we did know is that we were not willing to do anything illegal that might jeopardize our future ability to work and travel in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Jeopardizing our long-term interests for a short-term goal, no matter how appealing, would be a mistake.

We began our permission quest with a letter writing campaign two months in advance of our departure. We wrote the Pakistani Ambassador, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington D.C. and to the Federal Minister for Tourism, Rais Munir Ahmed, at the Government of Pakistan's Ministry of Sports & Tourism in Islamabad. Although we made numerous follow-up calls to Washington and had friends in Pakistan contact the ministry in Islamabad, we never got a reply to these letters before our departure. But then again we didn't really expect one. Things in Pakistan usually happen face-to-face at the last minute and we knew it. The letters were just a beginning, and although we did not know it at the time, they proved useful later on.

Earlier that spring we had received an invitation from the Government of Pakistan to the "Golden Jubilee Celebrations of K-2 & 51st Anniversary of Nanga Parbat." We were to be official guests of the government in July, the week before we planned to fly to Kabul. We were certain top government officials would be attending the celebration where we hoped to gain access to the right people.

Afghanistan was another matter entirely. We weren't certain where to start our quest for permission. The country was still a "conflict zone," and Kabul's authority over remote areas like Wakhan was uncertain. We secretly kept hoping we wouldn't need any special permission to exit Afghanistan. Why would Afghan officials in Kabul care if we slipped out of Wakhan and into Pakistan? Once we left, we wouldn't be in their charge any longer and as far as we knew, there were no government officials in Wakhan to stop us.

The only other Westerners to cross the Dilisang Pass were Jean and Franc Shor, a husband-and-wife team who recounted their journey in "We Took the High Road in Afghanistan," National Geographic, November 1950. Although it had been more than fifty years ago, we were purposefully following in their footsteps. We turned to Jean Bowie Shor's book After You Marco Polo to see how they had dealt with Wakhan. The Shors had sought and received written permission for their journey in Kabul from the King of Afghanistan Mohammed Zahir Shah and his Minister of War General Mohammed Omar Khan. Their plan had been to cross the Wakhjir Pass into China, and it was only because of a border war and the subsequent communist takeover of China that they evacuated over Dilisang Pass and ended their journey in Pakistan's Hunza Valley.

We were still pondering what to do when in early May 2004 we received an unexpected invitation to attend a 30-person luncheon in honor of Hamid Karzai to be held in California. Since the King of Afghanistan is in exile and no longer in power, we thought meeting President Karzai would be ideal. Not that we cared, but the guest list was impressive - Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would be there. We envisioned President Karzai granting permission and presenting us with a very official-looking letter on state letterhead. Who in Afghanistan could refuse us with a letter like this? In the week leading up to the luncheon, we were granted clearance to attend the function by the U.S. Secret Service. But a few days before the luncheon Ronald Reagan died, and both President Karzai and Governor Schwarzenegger attended the funeral, cancelling the luncheon. We didn't give up hope, but it would have been an honor to meet the president.

What About Those Warlords

We knew that whatever authority Afghanistan's central Kabul government had in remote provinces was in the hands of local commandants or "warlords," as they have come to be called. These men were tough, local mujahideen commanders who resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980's. In northeastern Afghanistan, where we were going, these commanders also fought against the Taliban government. Some of them were said to be facilitating the lucrative opium-heroin trade now flourishing in Afghanistan. No matter their politics or funding sources, these men were still regarded by local people as heros who resisted the Russians and fought for a free Afghanistan. The commanders had been in charge for so long that they were the defacto authority. You just can't argue with a man pointing a gun at you. Our route would pass through several warlords' areas, but we weren't certain how we would both steer clear of them and gain their permission to proceed. The good news was that Wakhan, as part of Badakhshan Province, was under control of commandants who were part of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and the Northern Alliance supported the government in Kabul. Maybe the local commandants would acquiesce to permission issued from Kabul.

We did know that the commandant in Ishkashim, the district headquarters and main town along the Amu Darya in Wakhan, was the chief authority for Wakhan with all local commanders under his authority. We even had his name and telephone number - Abdul Wahid Khan. But who the other commandants were, and who was the chief commandant in Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan Province, we had no idea.

We also knew that the Afghan Tourist Organization (ATO), located in Kabul, issued special permits for travel in Wakhan. Although we were told that getting a permit was simply a matter of paying the required fee, we had our doubts. One of our friends, a professor and Afghan specialist, told us of how he had been denied permission to travel to Wakhan without a special permit. We decided that we would have to approach ATO - what other choice did we have? We also decided to involve a Pakistani friend whose brother worked in Wakhan for a small non-governmental aid organization. Perhaps, we thought, working from both ends, we might be able to make our way along the chain of Badakhshan commandants.

How Do You Get There?

When we first considered a trip to Wakhan about three years ago, we had decided we would travel with an old friend as our local counterpart. We met Alam more than ten years ago and had trekked with him across several mountain passes and glaciers in Pakistan. Alam, a Wakhi mountaineer and poet from Pakistan's Chapursan Valley, is related to Wakhi people living in Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor. He had visited there recently, and we were sure his family contacts would come in handy. It was his older brother who was working in Wakhan and who knew the Wakhan commandants.

Our plan was for the three of us to fly from Islamabad to Kabul. From there, we would be faced with the drive from Kabul to Badakhshan. Not only was it a journey of several days over rough roads, passing through areas not yet cleared of land mines, but it also passed through multiple warlords' domains. Exposing ourselves to that indeterminable risk seemed pointless - our goal was to traverse Wakhan, not to traverse central Afghanistan. But what way to best get to the mountains? The Wakhan Corridor is in the far northeastern part of the country. Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan, was the nearest town with an airstrip and we decided we would have to fly.

Some checking showed that there was no domestic flight service from Kabul to Faizabad. Another professor and friend even suggested that we start our journey from Tajikistan! We read in the 2nd edition of Crosslines Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan, just published in May 2004, that several private companies provided humanitarian air service to Faizabad. It was a stretch, but we would try to get on one of these flights.

Maps: Where's the Dilisang Pass?

The seventy-five to 100 miles of the upper Wakhan and the Afghan Pamir, which comprises all of the Little Pamir, lies above the highest year-round settlements. The Little Pamir has two distinct branches: to the northeast is Chaqmaqtin Lake, which is the source of the Murghab River, and to the east is the Wakhjir Valley. The route to Dilisang Pass branches south off of the Wakhjir Valley.

The Wakhjir Valley 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 as the Pamir Knot.

Dilisang Pass, once used by the Kyrgyz nomads of the Little Pamir and the Burusho people of Misgar in Pakistan's Northern Areas, is now in disuse and is essentially unknown. The pass is not marked on maps. H.W. Tilman, who had crossed the Wakhjir Pass from China into Afghanistan in 1947, remarked in his book Two Mountains and a River that from "…some yorts [yurts] on the south bank of the [Wakhjir] river where the Kama Su nallah joins it … there is a pass leading … over the Hindu Kush to Misgar …" This was the only description we found that indicated where the Dilisang Pass might be.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) published a seven-map series, the 1:500,000 Pakistan Satellite Image Maps. Two of these maps, N.W. Frontier Pakistan Map I-2587-B and Northern Areas Pakistan Map I-2587-C, show most of Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor and Little Pamir, including the Wakhjir Valley, and the adjacent areas of Pakistan. These satellite images provided a graphic overview of the mountain range we would cross. Although we didn't know precisely where Dilisang Pass was, we spent hours studying the satellite imagery and evaluating all the possibilities.

For the field, we photocopied the relevant sections of the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency's topographic maps for pilots: the 1:500,000 Tactical Pilotage Chart (TPC) G-6B and G-7A. A map at a scale of 1,500:000 isn't much on the ground, but we continued to look at this map for an overview of our route.

We also had a photocopy of a sketch map called "Pamir Und Wakhan Östlich Qala Pandjia (NE - Afghanistan)" from Die Kirghisen Des Afghanischen Pamir, a book by Austrians Remy Dor and Clas Naumann published in 1978. This sketch map included many local place names - including all the side valleys. Was Dilisang at the head of the side valley called Mohammad Nazar or the Kamansu? From looking at the satellite imagery and reading Tilman's account, we were certain it could only be one of these two side valleys, but the Austrian sketch map placed "Kotal-e-Delsang" between 15 and 20 kilometers farther east at the very head of the Wakhjir Valley. Crossing their "Kotal-e-Delsang" would clearly involve extensive glacier travel through the highest elevations along the Afghan-Pakistani border, yet this was the only map known to us that indicated the Dilisang Pass. Could it be right? It seemed unlikely.

The maps we coveted were the 1,100:000 topographic maps with 40-meter contour intervals made by the Russian military, labelled in Russian. These maps cost $75 each, which was way beyond our budget, and we would need several map sheets to cover our route. Fortunately, the University of California at Berkeley map library had all the sheets we needed. As a Berkeley alumni and current University of California faculty member, John was able to copy the digitized map files and later print them at a friend's architectural office using their oversized color printer. Although these detailed maps did not show the Dilisang nor any other pass leading from the Wakhjir into Pakistan, having these Russian map sheets was key to our successfully finding Dilisang Pass. From west to east, the map sheets are:

J 43-99 shows from Sarhad to Borak
J-43-100 Langar shows from confluence of Borak and Wakhan Rivers, up Shpodkis Valley, across Uween-e-Sar and Aqbelis, to Kashch Goz
J-43-101 Chakmaktin shows the Wakhjir Valley east from the confluence of the Bozai Darya and Wakhjir River to the Wakhjir Pass and the glacier with the ice cave, and the Little Pamir north to Chaqmaqtin Lake
J 43-113 Babakhundi shows the Kamansu Valley south across Dilisang Pass into Pakistan

Speak to People in Their Own Language

John speaks fluent Urdu, the lingua-franca of Pakistan, and is also competent in Afghan Dari Persian, the lingua-franca of northern Afghanistan. And, as a linguistic anthropologist, John is the only American and one of only a handful of scholars worldwide who knows Wakhi, the language spoken in Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor. John's language skills and cultural familiarity always pave the way. In Wakhan, the only explanation local people had when meeting this Wakhi-speaker was that he was from Kanjut, a local name used to describe Hunza, which has a long history of interaction with the Wakhi people of Wakhan. We didn't dispel these beliefs and said, "Yes, we're going home to Kanjut." It made sense to them and to us.

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