National Geographic : 1968 Sep
the track begins to climb steadily, and often seems little more than a mountain trail. We crossed rushing torrents that sometimes washed over the hood of the Land-Rover. The last stretch, from Ishkashim to Qala Panja, follows the border between Afghani stan and Russia. At many places one could easily pitch a pebble across the narrow Panja River into Soviet territory. At intervals we passed watchtowers grimly guarding the Russian side. Were they built to keep the Afghans out, or the Russians in? "It works both ways," said a young man who had hitched a ride with us. "Often we see the people across the river working in the fields. They are Moslems like us and speak the same language-some of us are from the same families. But we never meet." Along the 800 miles of rivers that separate northern Afghanistan from Russia, there is not a single bridge. Pass Imperils Horse and Rider The commander of the small fort in Qala Panja arranged horses for us and sent along an escort. Our first day on horseback brought us to the village of Sargaz, on the banks of the Wakhan River, flowing here at an altitude of 10,000 feet. A young Sargaz farmer, Ibrahim, invited us in. Like many Afghans, he had only one name. His simple house was built of stones and set deep into the ground; inside, it resem bled a windowless dungeon. Women of the family were baking bread around a crackling fire of straw. A shaft of daylight stabbed through the smoke hole in the roof (page 321). "It is better if you go on from here with yaks," Ibrahim said. "The horses are strong, but the trail is high and dangerous." Next morning I added a pair of yaks to the caravan. The ridiculous shaggy beasts would do for the heavy baggage, but I kept the horses for riding. By lunchtime, alternately riding and walk ing, we had gained 3,500 feet in altitude; the horses were breathing hard. Finally we led the animals over a snowy pass at 15,000 feet -h ig her than the summit of the Matterhorn. Then I made a serious mistake. I remount ed. It would be all downhill now. Suddenly along a treacherous ledge my weary horse slipped, jamming his foreleg between two rocks. Down he went, pitching me headfirst. My lug-soled climbing boot hooked in the stirrup. I dangled by one leg over the precipice. The horse whinnied in pain and panic.