National Geographic : 1950 Nov
We Took the Highroad in Afghanistan BY JEAN AND FRANC SHOR With Illustrations from Photographs by the Authors REMOTE Wakhan! Some 700 years ago this Afghan district on the Russian border linked Orient and Occident. Great caravans of Marco Polo's time inched their way across its craggy peaks and cre vasses. Today, by-passed by modern trans port, it stands virtually "out of this world." But should the Communist drive for world power push south, Wakhan, a thin strip of no man's land separating Russia from Paki stan, lies like a gigantic tank trap across the most direct route to the riches of the Indian subcontinent (map, page 676). A year ago the idea struck us: why not explore the ancient highroad on the rooftop of the world? We set our plans in motion, but met discouragement from all sides. It was barely possible that our proposed journey across prohibited military zones of Turkey and Iran might be arranged, we were told, but Wakhan was strictly taboo. A number of scientists and explorers in re cent years had requested permission to traverse the Wakhan corridor, but the Afghanistan Government had refused everyone. Even if permission were granted, the trip would be too dangerous, we were told. The tribesmen of the Pamirs were fierce and inhospitable. We decided to go ahead with our plans anyway. We were well received in Ankara and Tehran and crossed Turkey and Iran without difficulty. Then we went on to the capital of Afghan istan, Kabul, an up-to-date, progressive city with a population of about 250,000 (page 675).* Here we expected our romantic jour ney to come to an abrupt end. We were ad vised to present our request to the director of the press, His Excellency Syed Kasim Khan Rishtya (page 701). "What magazines do you write for?" Rishtya asked. When I mentioned that Jean and I had recently done an article for the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, Rishtya smiled broadly. "I am a reader of THE GEOGRAPHIC," he said, "and so is His Majesty the King. You couldn't have a better recommendation." Indeed, we couldn't. Two days later Rish tya summoned us. "His Majesty," he said, "has ordered an exception in your case. You will be the first foreigners in more than 100 years to make the full journey. The Minister of War will furnish a military escort, and I will send a journalist from my office as an interpreter." We later discovered that one man had pre ceded us in the Wakhan traverse. H. W. Tilman, English mountain climber, in 1947 tried to cross the northeast tip, but the Kirghiz arrested him and took him down the corridor to Faizabad. Being under arrest, he had little freedom of observation. We were the first Westerners since the time of Marco Polo to explore fully the entire length of the corridor. A Visit with the King We tried to express our gratitude, but Rishtya waved our thanks aside. "His Maj esty will also receive you for an interview at his palace at Paghman. There you may photo graph him and his son, Prince Nadir Shah." Mr. Rishtya drove us to the palace, where we had a friendly chat with His Majesty Mohammed Zahir Shah. The King is well above medium height, slender and handsome, with a lean face and piercing eyes (pages 674, 682). He pointed to the current copy of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE on his desk and said, in perfect French, "I look forward to its arrival every month. I know of no better way to learn about the other peoples of the world." The next two days were a whirl of last minute preparations. Finally we struck out in a rented station wagon for Faizabad, cap ital of Badakhshan, with Ghulam Hazrat Koshan, the young journalist from Rishtya's office (page 685). After a two-day trip over poor roads, we reached Faizabad, where we met the governor of Badakhshan, Mohammed Sawar Khan. He explained we should have no difficulty travers ing the Wakhan because the snows would not come for another month. He said he would provide us with riding horses and pack ani mals, as well as military escort. It all seemed too good to be true-and, as it turned out, it wasn't true. But that night we went to bed in high spirits, believing for the first time that we were going to succeed where so many had failed. We spent the following two days preparing *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Back to Afghanistan," October, 1946, and "Afghan istan Makes Haste Slowly," December, 1933, both by Maynard Owen Williams.