Risking it all

The Brave Merchants of Wakhan, the ‘Other’ Afghanistan

Drivers put up with 5,000m high passes and extreme weather to deliver basic goods to Afghanistan’s isolated northeast.

The Wakhan Corridor, a mountainous region situated in the far northeast of Afghanistan, is bordered by the Hindu Kush mountains and peaks, some reaching 5,000 metres.

Isolated from the rest of Afghanistan, the region was spared by the war that raged through the country for years. But many of the territory’s residents continue to live as if in the Middle Ages, without water or electricity.

They rely on a handful of merchants to supply them with basic necessities such as salt and flour. Without these goods, the inhabitants of the Wakhan Corridor would struggle to survive the harsh winter, with temperatures dropping below -30 degrees Celsius.

Hadji and his driver, Naqib, travel from village to village along the mountainous region to sell and trade all sorts of merchandise – generators, rice, flour, salt, shoes, car parts, livestock and more.

Battling extreme conditions, the two merchants cross the only road that cuts through the Wakhan Corridor, a 350 kilometre path carved into the mountains and covered by snow. At any moment heavy snowfall could block the road, trapping them and their goods for several months.

It is a tiring route. I've spent my life on these roads. There is no other way for me to make a living.

by Hadji, merchant in the Wakhan Corridor

”Occasionally the river overflows and there are floods. Sometimes there are avalanches; we get those sorts of problems. But what can we do? That’s just how Afghanistan is,” Hadji says.

”It is a tiring route. But I have to do it, what else is there? I’ve spent my life on these roads. There is no other way for me to make a living. But every time I come here, it really wears me out.”

Hadji has been driving through the Wakhan Corridor for well over a decade, but for Naqib, the Wakhan Corridor is completely new territory.

”I have been a driver for two years. Before, I delivered goods to Kabul. This is the first time that I have come to the Wakhan Corridor,” he says. ”I have no real home or alternative source of income. I have to work really hard to make a living.”

As black ice and snow continue to layer the roads, Hadji and Naqib make their way higher up and deeper into the mountains, from village to village – testing their capacity to outpace the freezing weather in a rickety truck.

Hadji tells Naqib to watch out for the rocks because “all trucks end up slipping here, even the big ones.”

And although “thanks to God and the devil’s ignorance”, Hadji never had any troubles there, he explains that “it is really dangerous here. There is only enough space for one vehicle. The whole road is only hanging by a thread. The truck could tip over at any moment.”

It may take days for the two to return home from their nerve-racking journey. But for Hadji the services he provides are for customers he can stand by.

”In all the years I have been doing business in the Corridor, there have never been any problems. These are good people, honourable people. If they owe me something, they will pay me back. Even if it is 10 years later.”