FHM's 100 Great Adventures 2009

Posted by , 25 June 2009

The world's most dangerous roadtrip

Jerome Starkey went to Afghanistan and found mountains and the Taliban waiting…

Standing knee-deep in an icy, black river, astride a spluttering Chinese motorbike, is never good. Worse if you’re more than 2,800 metres above sea level, on the most remote mountain range on Earth. But when you’re in north-eastern Afghanistan, surrounded by murderous nomads? It’s lethal. What the hell was I doing?

Seven days earlier, three mates and I had set off from the Afghanistan capital, Kabul, armed with a 39-year-old guidebook, four rickety Chinese trail bikes worth less than £1,500 combined, and a Toyota Landcruiser full of black-market US army rations. Our destination: the recently re-opened Wakhan Corridor in the north-east. It’s a mountain pass to China, with Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south. Marco Polo was the first European to reach it trekking from Venice to China more than 700 years ago. A band of British adventurers, including Boris Johnson’s dad, tried to retrace Polo’s steps in 1961, but they never made it.

Into Taliban territory
And today it’s even harder. Afghanistan, in case you hadn’t heard, is at war. As we set off, helicopter gunships swooped over the American airbase at Bagram to remind us. True, most of the fighting is in the south, and we were riding north-east. But there was one district on our route we’d been warned to avoid: a small enclave of the Taliban, called Wardooj. A Nato convoy hit a roadside bomb there two days before we arrived. And that, stupidly, was where I crashed. Almost comically, I hit the only other vehicle we’d seen all day: another motorbike with two men. No one was hurt, but my front wheel was completely buckled. As the men I’d nearly killed rode off as soon as they could, we were stuck for two hours rebuilding the wheel.

We took turns as lookouts; none of us fancied spending a night, or 90, in a Taliban well – a favourite place for hostages. But with a billion-dollar heroin trade and a lucrative market in guns, the locals have bigger things to worry about than dirty foreigners on motorbikes. And so we made it to the Salang – one of the highest and longest mountain tunnels in the world through the mountains which cut Afghanistan in half. The Russians built it in 1964: 2,700 metres of puddles, ice and pot holes, 3,360m above sea level. Thick with fumes, you can rarely see more than a few metres in front of you – exciting when most people are driving B6 bullet-proof armoured cars. And you’re on a motorbike. But we survived. Kishim, where we ate lunch the next day, was the end of the Tarmac road and the first real test of our rust-riddled bikes. Our ancient guidebook warned the road was “considerably deteriorated”, but, it claimed, “an ambitious road building programme is envisioned, so hopefully better time may be made in the future.” Four decades later, they are still building it. Afghanistan’s border police have a similar approach to bureaucracy. For our Wakhan “permits” (a handwritten scrap of paper from a local colonel), we spent a day dodging bribes in police headquarters. But it’s worth it: the local nomads double up as smugglers. A Russian climber who made it in without a permit has been missing, presumed dead, for more than a year.

Mouth-to-mouth mechanics
If all this sounds a bit too much trouble, believe me: every pothole, every bribe, every near-death overtaking manoeuvre was worth it when we finally made it to the Wakhan. It’s breathtakingly beautiful: a wide, lush valley, flanked by the Pamir Mountains, and fed by glaciers that rise above the snowline. The glaciers melt during the day and the river levels rise. The best time to cross is mid-morning – in a big car. We arrived at 3pm, on 150cc motorbikes. The river was in flood, at least 20 metres wide, deep and thick with silt. I charged in and lost my bike. We dragged her out, but all the mouth-to-mouth mechanics couldn’t save her. I was broken. My mate Jeremy’s bike went next, and we had to ride in the support car as the others struggled through river after river for two long days. Then, finally, we reached Sarhad-e Broghil, a hamlet hemmed in by mountains that marked the end of the road. From there, the only way forward is on foot, horse or yak. We’d ridden more than 1,000km through the most dangerous of territories, climbed over 4,500m and survived eight crashes, en route to one of the most remote places in the whole world. According to the locals of Sarhad-e Broghil, it was the first time anyone had done it. Two of the four bikes made it to the end of the road. None of them made it back.

How To Do It
All you’ll need for an Afghan adventure Flights: Fly into Kabul from Dubai (with KamAir, Safi or Pamir Airways) or from Delhi (with Indian Airways) for around US$600, return. Visas: Take a few days from the afghanembassy.com in London. Bikes: Chinese trail bikes, like the ones we used, cost around $770 (shops in Kabul accept dollars). Cheaper bikes are available… Support: Register with the British Embassy in Kabul in case things go tits up. Cars with a driver and translator range from $150 to $300 a day, from afghanlogisticstours.com. There are no sizeable shops in the Wakhan – carry 40l of extra petrol in the car, spare diesel, and three days’ worth of rations. The ‘Bush Bazaar’ in Kabul sells all sorts of knock-off American supplies. If you plan to go trekking take tents, food, a first aid kit and water purification pills. Emergencies: Most of the road is covered by Afghanistan’s mobile networks. Foreign phones can roam, or you can buy a local SIM card. Tour companies can provide satellite phones for emergencies.

Up-to-date information:
The Aga Khan Foundation runs a tourism office and guesthouses along the corridor (wakhan.org). The Kabul Survival Guide (kabulguide.net) has a well-used bulletin board with up-to-date news and gossip from the Kabul-based ex-pats. Remember: Cars and bikes break down, officials are corrupt, permits are revoked, roads get washed away and mechanics make things worse. Don’t expect a five star holiday.

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