"Ten kilos rice: check. Ten kilos potatoes: check. Two kilos salt: check. Aluminum pot: check. Plastic pail: check. Fifty feet nylon cord: check."
In Baharak we stayed with Sardhar Khan, a powerful leader in the Badakhshan province. We'd been told we needed his blessing to pass through his territory and into the Wakhan.
Khan, 48, is a small ethnic Tajik with a creased chestnut face who calls himself a former warlord. One of the most feared and respected commanders in Afghanistan, he spent 15 years bivouacking in the mountains with his militia—ten years fighting the Russians, five years fighting the Taliban—but the man I met was polite and soft-spoken. He personally laid out the silverware for a picnic in his tiny apricot orchard and told us about the school he'd built with Greg last year. It was the CAI's largest—a fortresslike structure with stone walls four feet thick and a wood-burning stove in each of the eight classrooms. More than 250 kids would be attending the school this fall.
With his wars over for now, Khan was writing poems. Greg sent me a sample of his verse after our trip:
You may wonder why I sit here on this rock, by the river, doing nothing.
There is so much work to be done for my people.
We have little food, we have few jobs, our fields are in shambles, and still land mines everywhere.
I am here to hear the quiet, the water, and singing trees. This is the sound of peace in the presence of my Allah Almighty.
After 30 years as a mujahedeen, I have grown old from fighting. I resent the sound of destruction. I am tired of war.
The next day, our fourth day out of Kabul, we reached the village of Eshkashem, at the mouth of the Wakhan Corridor. Here we met another strongman, Wohid Khan, a tall, taciturn, handsome Tajik in his early forties. As commander of the Afghan-Tajik Border Security Forces, he oversees 200 Afghan troops in their patrol of a 330-mile stretch of the Afghan-Tajik border, including the entire northern boundary of the Wakhan. Khan granted us permission to traverse the corridor, one end to the other, but he couldn't guarantee our safety once we crossed into Tajikistan. The most he could do was provide us with a handwritten note that vouched for our honorable intentions.
ON EITHER SIDE of a flat, brown valley, enormous white mountains—the Hindu Kush to the south, the Tajikistan Pamirs to the north—rose like a mirror image. The huge teeth of these peaks, with a tongue of dirt down the middle, reminded me of a wolf's mouth. The valley disappeared into the distance, a throat of land that reached toward the steppes of western China.
The rough road that the Russian invaders had cut, following the camel path of the Silk Road, was all but gone—covered by rockslides or swept away by floods and avalanches. Our four-wheel-drive Toyota van crept alongside slopes where we were sure we'd roll, crossed fulvous streams so high we were almost carried away. When we sank axle-deep in mud and got stuck, it took hours of digging with ice axes to extract the van.