x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The tourist trap

Feature Where do four war correspondents go on holiday? To the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan, one of the most remote and unforgiving places in the world.

The scenary was breathtaking but the route was treacherous.
The scenary was breathtaking but the route was treacherous.

I was knee-deep in icy black water, stuck halfway across a river, astride a sputtering Chinese motorbike. It was 3pm in north-eastern Afghanistan, and a bad time to drown. We were halfway up the Wakhan corridor, and there wasn't a soul around for miles.

Ash had made it through ahead of me. Jeremy and Travis were still waiting to cross. All of them were shouting, but their screams were lost against the roar of the water. My bike was stuck and the water was winning. I revved the engine and cursed. Nothing happened. Ghrullam, our Afghan driver, waded in to help. He'd only just made it through in the 4x4 support vehicle. "Gas," he bleated. "Give it more gas."

The air is thin in Badakhshan. We were more than 2,800 metres above sea level, and the engine couldn't breathe. I gave it everything and felt my feet begin to slip. Seven days earlier, we'd set off from Kabul: four war correspondents looking for adventure in the country we now call home. We wanted to complete a British expedition that tried to ride here decades ago. We felt like pioneers, but we weren't, really.

In 1961, Tim Severin, now a professional adventurer, Stanley Johnson, MP (father of Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London) and author Michael de Larrabeiti formed the Marco Polo Expedition when they were undergraduates at Oxford University. They were trying to retrace the medieval explorer's footsteps - on motorbikes. The Wakhan, a rugged and mountainous region jutting out of eastern Afghanistan, sits on the ancient Silk Route, which linked Asia with the West, and Marco Polo was the first European to travel its length some 700 years ago.

The three adventurers went from Oxford to Venice and on to Kabul, taking turns to sit in a sidecar, but they couldn't get government permits to ride the "high route" through Badakhshan, so they crossed the Khyber Pass into Pakistan instead. So, armed with a 33-year-old guide book, four cheap, Chinese motorcycles (worth less than Dh15,000 combined) and a support car full of army rations, the four of us - Jeremy Kelly, Travis Beard, Ash Sweeting and myself - set off for Wakhan.

It started badly. Our friendly fuel supplier got arrested on his way to fill us up and wave us off. He's still not sure why. Instead of siphoning off a few hundred gallons of the New Afghan Petroleum Company's finest (the firm that supplies Nato), we were forced to rely on the dusty and diluted muck on sale at the city's pumps. It was the first test for my Dh2,500 bike, rather optimistically called a Landcruiser.

Apache helicopter gunships swooped overhead as we passed Bagram airfield, the main American airbase north of Kabul. They were spitting out flares to protect a convoy below, and we stopped to let them pass. We didn't want some twitchy teenager on a machine gun to spoil our holiday. Past Bagram, the road climbs into the heart of the Hindu Kush. We were crossing the mountains which cut Afghanistan in half, and the only way through was along one of the highest, longest and most dangerous mountain tunnels in the world - the Salang.

The Russians built the tunnel in 1964. It is 2,700m of puddles, ice and pot holes, and the air is thick with fumes. Even with a headlight, you can rarely see more than three metres through the exhaust fumes. So it was that Travis had to try and fix his broken headlight. I stood cursing and shivering, while he undid almost every bolt and screw on the light. It was sunny when we left Kabul, but hailing when we hit the tunnel more than 3,360m above sea level. My soaking T-shirt was beginning to freeze and my spare clothes were in the support car.

Travis admitted defeat. There was ice on my eyelashes. Ash lent him a camping lamp to wear on his head, and we shivered through together. None of us could see much. Kishim, where we stopped for lunch the next day, marked the end of the surfaced road - and the first real test of our bikes. When Nancy Dupree wrote her 1975 guidebook, An Historical Guide to Afghanistan, she called the road "considerably deteriorated". But, she added optimistically, "an ambitious road-building programme is envisioned, so hopefully better time may be made in the future."

They are still building. Wardooj was the only place where we had been warned not to stop. It is home to a small enclave of Taliban sympathisers and it is where a Nato convoy had been bombed a few days earlier. That's where I crashed. I hit a motorbike, head on, and it was entirely my fault. No one was hurt but my bike was wrecked. The front wheel was buckled and Ghrullam didn't want to hang around. He was scared.

Ash heaved a spare rim out of the support car and began swapping over the spokes. The rest of us took turns to keep watch along the road. It took 90 long minutes, and we were running dangerously late. Then we crashed again. Travis and I were out front, racing along at dusk. His headlight was still broken, the head torch was useless, and we were trying to make Ishkashim by nightfall. Apart from the threat of bandits, it's hard work dodging potholes, rocks and ditches in the dark.

The ground gave way. Suddenly the track dropped two metres into a stony riverbed and we were both in the air, and then sprawled flat on the ground in seconds. We eventually rolled into Ishkashim, cold, wet, hungry and exhausted, an hour after dark. We spent the night there before moving on. The next morning we found another peril along our route. The police marched us into their station to swap bribes for dodgy travel permits, and it was only when we set off the next day that we realised they were worthless. We had to ride back and endure the whole charade again, but with the border police, the following day.

I could see the Wakhan from the roof of our guesthouse. "Could we get so close and yet fail, for a tatty piece of paper," I wondered. We got permits with help from Aziz Mehboob, the local Aga Khan tourism rep. They were three handwritten letters addressed to the checkpoint commanders along the way. The Wakhan is breathtakingly beautiful. A wide, lush valley flanked by the Pamir Mountains, and fed by meltwater rivers that rise above the snowline. The people who live there are called Wakhis.

But for all its beauty, the valley is one of the poorest places in Afghanistan. More women die during childbirth there than anywhere else in the world. Glaciers melt during the day and the river levels rise. The best time to cross is between 9am and 11am - in big car. We arrived at 3pm, on 150-cubic centimetre motorbikes. The first river was at least 20m wide, deep, and thick with silt. I charged in. There was a sand bank halfway across. My wheels scoured the stones for traction. I jerked forward and I was on the spit. Then I plunged in a second time. Ghrullam beckoned me upstream, but the water was deeper and the current was faster. The engine gasped for oxygen but it couldn't find any power.

Froth surged up the side of the bike, crushing me sideways. I tried to heave her upright but I couldn't beat the river. I was thigh deep, and the bike was on its side, underwater and drowning. Jeremy and Travis found a better place to cross. I dragged mine out on the far bank and all the mouth-to-mouth mechanics we could muster wouldn't bring her back to life. My bike was dead, and I was broken. We towed her to the next hamlet, two hours up the valley, and slept in a guesthouse.

I left the bike with a man who said he was a mechanic's son. He had no parts and no workshop. I had no choice. The expedition had to go on and my bike was broken, so I rode in the support car. Jeremy's bike went next. He raced into a river, got stuck in a hole and fell sideways, flooding the engine and smashing off the clutch pedal. We towed him to the next house, left the bike with a farmer, and he joined me in the car.

Ash and Travis navigated river after river - until Ash almost lost his on the final crossing. The current spun his bike downstream and the engine took on water, but we towed him two miles and it started again. Dusk lasted forever. Ash and Travis rode side-by-side. Travis still hadn't fixed his headlight and he needed Ash to light the way. It was dark when we finally made it. The end of the road was a hamlet, hemmed in by mountains, called Sarhad-e-Broghil. From there, the only way forward, towards China, is on foot, horse or yak along treacherous mountain tracks. That's another story waiting to be written.

We'd ridden more than 1,000km, climbed more than 4,500m, and survived eight crashes, en route to one of the most remote places in the world. According to the locals, it was the first time anyone had done it. Two of bikes made it to the end of the road; none of them made it back. But we did. motoring@thenational.ae