What’s it like to travel as a solo woman in Afghanistan: Wakhan Corridor.
Most everyone was questioning my mental stability when I said I was going to visit Afghanistan. Even after I’ve returned unscathed (aside from the 8 hour Afghan colon cleanse, but that’s another story) people are still concerned over my faculties. And others will continue to think I’ve absolutely lost it. And I’m sure I’ll even have to face backlash from a few righteous travel bloggers acting like I’ve committed the worst offense by visiting a country that’s been considered a war zone for decades. You know the ones that have a fit about others visiting war zones, crazy regimes, and countries whose government’s have atrocious and well publicized human rights violations. All the while their high-and-mighty-blogger-asses visit places pulling some pretty bad moves (even violating human rights), just with rulers who are much better at sweeping it under the rug and hiding it (i.e.: paying big mouths to shut the fuck up) from the international community.
In September 2017 I turned up in Eshkashim, Afghanistan as a solo female traveler with nothing planned, no fixer or guide arranged, but an idea of what I wanted to do. Within minutes of crossing the border everything was settled. I’d found a guide and was on my way to a guesthouse to begin arranging all the Wakhan permits with Malang (my guide) who I would definitely recommend to anyone headed to the Wakhan.
Yes, I am fully aware Afghanistan in general is probably one of the hardest countries in the world to be a woman. However the Wakhan Corridor is a little different for women in comparison to much of the rest of the country. And while I’m on this, let’s stop feeling sorry for the women of Afghanistan, let’s respect them for what they do and deal with. They have it hard and that sucks, but I don’t think enough people realize how amazing, resilient and tough these women are. When in parts of the country you have women and girls risking their lives on the daily for something so humanly basic as an education, you know you have a country full of burqa and hijab clad bad asses.
Disclaimer: Most every country on Allah’s green Earth recommend against all travel to Afghanistan because of the decades the country has spent racked with war and let’s not forget those assholes, the Taliban. The Wakhan Corridor has remained pretty safe throughout the years, however anything could change at any time. Do your homework. Be sure you can handle this. Afghanistan isn’t a place to go for the notoriety of saying you’ve been. If you chose to go, you are going at your own risk.
So what was it like to travel as a solo woman in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor?
Easy, amazing, eye-opening and mostly hassle-free. However, be prepared to rough it. This is an extremely remote chunk of Afghanistan, after all. Running water, sewer lines, hygienic standards, and central heating DO NOT exist yet here.
Most the inhabitants of the Wakhan practice Ismailism.
The Islmailis are a Shia sect that are found in the Tajik and Afghan Wakhan as well as into the Hunza Valley in Pakistan and of course scattered worldwide. In the grand view of Islam, Ismailism is pretty liberal. It’s not uncommon to see women without the headscarf on the Tajik side of the Wakhan, with that said, generally all women and teenage girls you will see in the Afghan Wakhan will be wearing a headscarf as this area is far more cut off from the world than its Tajik counterpart and in general live more traditionally. I’m not going to delve to far into what Ismailism is, because you can google that yourself. But I will say that women hold a pretty high regard in their society and are well respected. Wearing the headscarf is optional.
What did I wear?
Guess what? I DID NOT have to wear a burqa, as most think when I say I went to Afghanistan. I still chose to go the conservative, modest route. My outfit included a black pair of Elephant pants (you know, like the ones everyone buys in Thailand), a grey long sleeve shirt, and a headscarf. For cold temps (which you will almost certainly encounter in the mountains) I had a hooded sweatshirt and a rain jacket. This was the perfect outfit. Not too hot for the valleys and down below, could layer up for colder temps up higher and conservative enough to blend in.
Don’t be shocked on arrival in Afghan Eshkashim to see some women wearing the famed blue burqa. Eshkashim is not quite yet into the Wakhan Corridor. So you will see some women taking care of business in town wearing just a headscarf as well as others fully covered in burqas. As you delve further into the Wakhan the blue burqa will become non existent.
Tip: didn’t pack something clothing wise you may use/want while here? Like a long enough top or a headscarf? Head to the bazaar in Eshkashim. You can pick up cheap clothing here easily.
Expect some stares.
No, not in a let’s-make-her-feel-uncomfortable kind of way. More out of curiosity kinda way. On any given year, the Wakhan, Afghanistan’s hoppin tourist hot spot will usually see no more than 100 foreign tourists. Being a tourist there makes you a spectacle. Being a woman makes you even more a rarity. A solo woman? You may as well be a unicorn.
And yes, everyone wants a selfie with you.
Hey girl, heeeeeeey.
JK. I never was cat called once I arrived into the Afghan Wakhan, what a relief. I’ve traveled a fair amount of the world, majority of it as a solo female. Catcalling is usually something you just have to deal with, i.e. ignore most the time. But here? None.
Tip: if you do get harassed or catcalled, make a scene. Others won’t tolerate it either.
I got a view into the lives of women that male travelers would ordinarily never see.
Being a girl traveling in Islamic countries really is a treat in this sense. You get to join the women behind the curtains where no man is allowed. By the second day I lost count of how many times I had been kidnapped by a mob of women and girls to flip off all the layers and talk over bowls of shirchai.
One evening this lovely lady in Aksanktich taught me how to milk a yak. Full disclosure: It was super easy, yaks have tiny teets, and we both were laughing uncontrollably.
Tip: Keep an open mind about the lifestyles here. I know some westerners that would find the lives here of women to still be, well, pretty old school. Understanding goes a long way.
And then expect to be the third gender.
Writing ‘third gender‘ makes me laugh thinking of the hoopla going on in the United States over the transgender bathroom debacle.
Now there isn’t quite the extent of gender segregation here as you can expect to see in other parts of Afghanistan and even the greater Islamic world, however you’re still viewed almost as if you were another gender. Immune from being banned from things that women ordinarily can’t or wouldn’t do. You’ll likely be invited to partake in activites that women wouldn’t typically be, but also you’ll be invited to take part in women-only events
On another note: Do still expect to shake hands with men, but wait for them to gesture first. In many Islamic areas of the world, unrelated men and women do not touch. A safe bet is to always put your hand over your heart and slightly bow your head. I found in 99% of cases the men reciprocated and then held their hand out to greet you.
Do expect to be asked about your husband and children.
While being a pretty liberal region of Afghanistan, women still live pretty traditional lives and typically will have large families. If you don’t wanna be questioned so much say you’re married with kids whether you are or aren’t. I always replied that I did not yet have kids and that was almost always immediately met with a ‘why not?’ It’s highly unusual for a 30 year old to not have a child here. I found a ‘maybe in a couple years‘ usually stifled off any further questions regarding reproductive planning.
Tip: Bonus points if you have pictures of your family whether it’s real or fantasy. Wakhis are always delighted to see what your life is and looks like back at home.
People are very honest here.
I, being the scatterbrain I am left my wallet with over $1,000 (yeah, don’t expect to find ATMs) sitting on a chair in the passport control office at the border. I didn’t realize it until probably 10 minutes later as I was saying my goodbyes to new Afghan friends and my guide, Malang. I walked into the office to find the Afghan border guard waiting with my wallet sitting on his desk for me to come back for it. If I did the same at home my wallet would have been emptied in mere seconds.
Expect to be treated like royalty.
The Wakhi are known for their hospitality. Even if a family has little in way to offer they will still go above and beyond (and even into debt) to treat a guest extremely well.
Tip: pick up a few supplies at the bazaar in Eshkashim to share with new friends. Even if it’s just a bag of potatoes or a stack of non bread.
Other helpful tips:
Make sure you’re up to date on vaccinations.
Outbreaks such as cholera are not unheard of. Hygienic standards are not up to par with western countries and illnesses spread fast here.
Bring any necessary medications with you.
Anything you need, bring it. Also worth having is a broad spectrum antibiotic, Imodium (back to the 8 hour Afghan colon cleanse), anti inflammatories, etc. are worth packing.
Pack layering clothing.
Even in summer you can expect near or below freezing temps high in the mountains. During the day and especially down in the valley you can expect pretty warm to hot temperatures.
Expect to get dust everywhere.
It is likely the dustiest place I’ve ever visited. Make sure and protect your electronics and bring allergy pills if you’re susceptible to dust born breathing problems.
Plan the first 1-2 days of your Afghan arrival to be spent getting necessary permits.
Several passport photos, and passport copies are needed for the various bureaucratic hoops that your fixer will likely jump through for you. On day 1 Malang took my passport and got all the copies he needed to begin the process. Day 2 I spent roughly 4 hours sitting in the Eshkashim police station handing over copies of my passport and photos to get my migration card and the hand written permits to travel further into the Wakhan. I don’t quite understand the process, but it’s just what needs done.
There was a huge meeting in Sultan Eshkashim in August 2017 to begin steps forward to consolidate this process to make travel here easier in hopes to bring in more tourists. As well as agree on lowering prices for services such guiding, pack animals, and taxis to lure in more visitors. However as it stands now, trading several passport copies around town and a lengthy visit to the police is the procedure. Plan to pay your guide/fixer $40-50 for this service. Unless of course you speak fluent Dari and wanna give it it a crack yourself, OR you plan on only visiting Sultan Eshkashim and not adventuring further into the Wakhan.
Do you want to travel as a solo woman in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor?
This is likely to be an experience you will never have anywhere else.
Check out these posts to start planning:
Guides I recommend?
Malang Darya is who guided and translated for me. He’s professional and knows all the ropes, and is among the first Afghans to summit Noshaq Mountain. He runs his own company called Big and Little Pamir Travel made up of 6 guides beside himself. Shoot him an email at email@example.com or reach him at +93 794766067.
Got questions about travel as a solo woman in Afghanistan and the Wakhan Corrodor?
Ask in the comments below!