26 June 2017

In northern Afghanistan by the Panj River looking across to Tajikistan.

I first saw over two hundred miles of northern Afghanistan along the Panj River.

Above photo shows the Tajikistan road on the left (east) side of the Panj River (the border between the two countries) with Afghan road on the opposite side.

From the Tajik side, I had good views of dozens of Afghan villages, sometimes less than 40 yards/meters away.

All these villages looked quite well kept, with tall poplar trees.

Did not expect such pretty villages in this poor war-torn country.

Maximizing my zoom I was surprised to be able to see Afghans working outside by their homes.

Ordinary life... boys walking to school.

Panj River was unusually high and submerged the Afghan road here. Bad luck for those stuck in this van.

After a couple of days driving along the Panj, arrived at an open border crossing. My venture into Afghanistan was smooth thanks to Sherali's help with transport and guides. (Had my visas all arranged in the US.)

Photo is from the Takij side looking across to the Afghan side.

Crossed the border without too much drama. Got my Afghanistan visa and my extra Tajikistan entry visa in the US. Having a known responsible person meeting me in Afghanistan was a big help.

I hung out with these two Afghan soldiers while waiting for my transport.

With Iqbad drove over to Shugnan the main town in the area.

Small shops along a Shugnan street.

More substantial buildings in the town center.

Iqbal passed me on to Masad, an extremely sympatico and English-fluent guy, to show me around.

Only women I encountered who were not shy about being photographed were these at the wool crafts center where I had just bought a pakol (Afghan men's hat).

The dirt streets were clean and litter free, something not so common in poor countries.

Distinguished looking, effortlessly stylish man on the left ranks high in the local judiciary. Nice guy on the right invited me to walk two hours to his house for tea and perhaps spend the weekend with him and his family.

This sweet, proud father wanted me to photograph his son.

Watermelons are popular everywhere in Central Asia.

About 4 out of 10 men I saw were rocking coordinated traditional clothes.

A half-dozen kids I saw had henna red hair, an Afghan fashion tradition sometimes.

These (somewhat melancholy) young men were all studying English at the Teacher's College Learning Center. They really wanted to practice their English and I wish I could have talked with them longer.

Surprised to see these solar panels next to the English center.

Through the van's dirty windshield I photographed these young women in the distance. The girls' high school had just ended classes for the day. None of the local women wore full burkas or niqabs. I only saw them wearing loosely draped scarves.

Boys walking home after school...

or better yet, riding a donkey.

Driving out town to see the surrounding countryside.

A few miles out of town, happened to met these two men who kindly consented to be photographed.

Returning back to the border crossing. (Most of the border bridges have been closed for a few years; only this one at Khorog/Shugnan and another one farther south in Ishkashim were open.)

Walking back across the bridge from Afghanistan to Tajikistan.
For the record, I'm not promoting or endorsing travel to Afghanistan ― or North Korea, Somalia, etc. It's AYOR. Just a few weeks earlier, 60 miles south of the area I visited, the Taliban had unexpectedly taken over the main town for two weeks before being ejected. Potential visitors do not have access to the latest true combat situation. So you must depend on local people you do not know telling you if is safe or not. AYOR indeed. That said...

Initial reactions:
Life in this corner of northern Afghanistan seemed far more "normal" that I'd imagined: Seeing people living their lives, going to school, buying watermelons, selling clothes, and other ordinary things that somehow to me seemed extraordinary in Afghanistan.

I'd guessed Afghans would be friendly but that exceeded expectations. And somehow the handshakes seemed especially soulful, deep, meaningful, and elevated even more by that hand over the heart gesture after the handshake.

In the past I might have been tempted by critics who urge us to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban or worse. It is, they say, a hopeless "failed state" with corrupt leaders unworthy of Western support. No doubt it is an awful situation with no easy solution but...