Walking into Afghanistan

June 18, 2019 18:17
Ever since the fall of the Taliban regime, the Afghans have generally attached huge importance to education. Photo: AFP

Many people would probably think that traveling to Afghanistan must be a very dangerous proposition.

But the truth is, a trip to the once war-torn Central Asian country through the Wakhan Corridor can offer another kind of traveling experience.

The Wakhan Corridor is a mountainous and rugged panhandle in the far northeastern area of Afghanistan that projects deep into Pakistan, Tajikistan and China.

The salient was off-limits to the Taliban even at the height of its power, mainly due to its difficult terrain.

Besides, not only is the Wakhan Corridor widely considered the only safe region for travel across the entire Afghanistan, but it is also – and this is perhaps relatively little known – an important channel through which the country is drawing foreign currencies.

Recently, I have taken a trip to the Wakhan Corridor from across the Afghan-Tajikistan border.

The trip wasn’t originally on my itinerary, and the main reason why I suddenly changed my traveling plan is that it is a “convenient” way to enter Afghanistan.

Yes, it is convenient because Afghanistan has established a consulate in a small border town in Tajikistan, where international travelers can apply for fast-track Afghan visas at a cost of US$150.

Although that's pretty expensive, there is still considerable demand for them.

And when I said “fast-track”, I meant it was really fast: I submitted my application at 9:30 a.m. and got my visa approved at around 11 a.m.

However, apart from paying US$150, you also have to sign a liability waiver to prove that you are entering Afghanistan voluntarily rather than “being sent” there, and that you agree to travel into the country at your own risk, before you can get your visa approved.

The nearest Taliban position in the Wakhan Corridor is around six hours’ drive from its rural villages.

Although it isn’t really that far away, the Taliban insurgents rarely, if not never, set foot on these villages that lie deep in the Pamir Mountains because it is simply not “cost-effective” for them to do so.

As a result, the Wakhan Corridor has become “another Afghanistan” that is relatively safer and more tranquil.

Of course, there is no such thing as absolute safety in reality, and that applies to the Wakhan Corridor as well.

Two years ago, a retreating group of Taliban troops launched a surprise attack against another small town along the Afghan-Tajikistan border.

Many locals in the Wakhan Corridor still have haunting memories about the Taliban. Even though they themselves have remained relatively safe in the area over the years, many of their friends and relatives were killed in other parts of Afghanistan during the Taliban reign.

Still, the area serves as a valuable buffer zone.

Perhaps what impressed me most about the Wakhan Corridor are the local schools.

Ever since the fall of the Taliban regime, the Afghans have generally attached huge importance to education.

And across the Wakhan Corridor, village schools are subsidized by the local authorities, and kids, in general, can go to school, although on foot under most circumstances.

That explains why kids in school uniforms can often be seen steering their way through the valleys.

In these schools, teachers can speak foreign languages, and have access to online social media. Their biggest hope is that the outside world can once again regard Afghanistan as a “civilized paradise”.

As a matter of fact, quite a number of education projects in Central Asia are funded by the Aga Khan fund.

The Aga Khan is the hereditary leader of Ismailism, a Shia denomination that is very modernized, and is therefore seen by the Islamic fundamentalists, including the Taliban, as a heretical order.

Education is on top of the Aga Khan’s agenda. In recent years, his denomination has set up the University of Central Asia, which has three different campuses in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

I have paid a visit to the university, and believe it or not, I felt that their facilities are even better than those of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

These campuses are all built in the mountain regions of the three countries, with a view to improving the education level of the next generation in these rural areas.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 14

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal