Experiencing Afghanistan—the Nation, Not the War

In Afghanistan’s ruggedly beautiful Wakhan corridor, villagers are far removed from their nation’s capital—and the bloodshed there.

This story appears in the August 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Afghanistan is a place, not a war.

Taliban suicide bombings may dominate the news, but the sprawling Central Asian country—bigger than France—embraces a cosmos. One of its least visited corners, the rugged Wakhan corridor, is an Afghanistan as few outsiders imagine it: shielded from violence by the Hindu Kush mountain range, locked in a more idyllic time, and shining with alpine light.

Last summer I hiked through this utterly remote wilderness hemmed by the mountain walls of Tajikistan, Pakistan, and western China. For weeks photographer Matthieu Paley joined me, and we trekked up valleys where peaceful Ismaili farmers threshed wheat in the biblical way, under the hooves of oxen. Waterwheels spun in icy creeks, grinding out flour. Villagers tending apricot orchards at the foot of glaciers were barely aware of the bloodshed in the distant capital, Kabul.

View Images

We traversed the largely roadless landscape in the same way early Silk Road travelers had: with pack donkeys. “Zabardast!” we cried, urging them up a nearly 14,000-foot pass. It’s a local command that translates roughly as “superb” or “fantastic” or “powerful”—words that describe the Wakhan itself. Look for the story of our traverse in September’s National Geographic.

The Out of Eden Walk
In 2013 Paul Salopek began what he calls “an experiment in slow journalism”: a walking journey of 21,000 miles along the pathways of the humans who first explored Earth in the Stone Age. As he travels, he’s covering the major stories of our time, from climate change to cultural survival, by giving voice to the people who inhabit them every day. You’ll find periodic updates in the magazine and can follow the entire journey online at