Somewhere in a finger-shaped corner of Afghanistan called the Wakhan Corridor, in the dusty warmth of August, I am trekking as slowly as time seems to be moving. A plateau stretches into a distant horizon of vast peaks, as the alpine sun, intense at this elevation, bears down mercilessly. My hands, the only body parts that aren’t covered, are dark and dry, the texture of crinkly paper. My back is searing from an ill-fitting backpack. My calves burn. My right heel, inflamed by tendonitis, forces me into a somewhat staggered, unwieldy gait.
The insides of my stomach occasionally lurch and wriggle from whatever dodgy meat or silty mountain water I had imbibed in prior days, each passing wave of panic producing frantic dashes toward the nearest clump of boulders. I feel heavy and listless, hungry, and angry at having fallen so behind in my group, a caravan of intrepid hikers blazing up and down the steep hillsides ahead. It is mid morning — still only the beginning of our day, really — yet there is far more distance to cover before we can rest, and I’m fighting with myself whether I’m capable of any more steps, much less five or ten-thousand more.
If someone had asked me even in late June what I was expecting to do this summer, I certainly would not have imagined myself out here on alien terrain, about to trek over two hundred kilometers across 11 days with 8 others in perhaps one of the world’s more dubious places to travel.
I was unexpectedly offered a fellowship… recording the operational practices, norms, and emotional journey of the experience.
I’m an outdoorsy type to be sure, but I’m not crazy. Yet I’ve come to this far northeast corner of Afghanistan to join an expedition run by Studio D Radiodurans, an international design research agency that studies human behavior one half of the year, and guides adventurous explorers to extraordinary corners of the globe in the other.
I was unexpectedly offered a fellowship to come on board this year’s team of five men and two other women as a photo documentarian, whose main purpose is to capture the entire expedition in a series of images, recording the operational practices, norms, and emotional journey of the experience. Everyone else on the team also has a role to play, from wayfinding to negotiating prices for our daily pack animals to keeping inventory of our water supply. What drew me to this expedition was not just that its timing seemed almost serendipitous (I was contemplating what I would do after I wrapped up a freelance contract in Portland), but because it presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a country and culture that not many people would ever get the chance to witness first hand. It’s a place that’s much maligned by most media coverage, and there was more a sense of intrigue, rather than fear, involved in the idea of seeing what may lie beneath the headlines.
However, I am just coming to realize that there exists a lacuna between personal expectations and reality — that this expedition is far more than a simple sightseeing hike. On this sparse, flat steppe in the Wakhan Corridor, a 185-mile long strip of land flanked by precipitous mountains, I am as remote as I could ever be. The home I’m familiar with is halfway across the globe, and anything close to modern conveniences (and I use “conveniences” very lightly) is at least several days out on foot. It’s our third day on the trek, and the longest distance we’ll hike this week — 20 miles across dry and yellow monoscapes, networks of wide glacial streams, knee-bashing climbs up unforgiving talus trails, and pastoral yurt settlements inhabited by the Wakhi tribes. A journey into the Wakhan is an experience in traveling back in time, to a place in the world where life is simple and defined by few, but elemental, rituals: the tending and bartering of livestock, the drying and collection of yak dung, breadmaking, and afternoon games of knucklebones, an early version of dice that utilizes joint bones meant to be tossed across a small, dusty playing field. There is no mains electricity, immediately potable water, or sheltered bathrooms.
Perhaps because of its remoteness and inhospitable geography, the Wakhan has remained relatively untouched by the wars that have embroiled the rest of the country for so many years. It forms a rugged valley wedged between three great mountain ranges known as the Pamir Knot. The locals who reside here refer to it as “the roof of the world.” Thus, if I choose to stop or give up at any point, there is simply no easy way home.
One of the first things we learn as a group on this trek is the One Body Principle — a tenet that asks of us to think of each member of the team as part of a single, holistic organism. Therefore, we always move as a single unit, our individual well-being tied to the well-being of the entire group. At first impression, it’s a rule that makes a lot of sense, with its emphasis on keeping the team close together, intact, and cohesive at all moments of the expedition. Yet, consistently finding myself to be one of the slowest hikers in the group nonetheless fill me with frustration, for in my mind I am slowing the group down as a whole, failing to live up to my part on the team, and most of all failing to live up to my own internal expectations around my own physical capabilities. The confidence I first had coming into the expedition is slowly falling, as I feel my body rebelling against me, as it leaves me feeling weak, slow, tired, and hungry.
I walk the landscape of my own self-imposed imposter syndrome in parallel with my real footsteps.
Simultaneously, I am in a psychological battlefield over my role as the documentarian — what if I turn out to be a terrible photographer? What if I’m out of practice? What if I miss all the best shots because I’m too paralyzed by my own fear, by the discomfort in my surroundings, by the uncertainty I have over my place in the group? I walk the landscape of my own self-imposed imposter syndrome in parallel with my real footsteps. On this eternal trail, where even time begins to lose its own structured clarity, I have every boundless moment to contemplate all the questions that come.
The sun is beginning to set over the jagged ridgeline, as a set of dark clouds loom ominously behind us. We are perhaps just another thirty minutes away from our camp for the evening, but some of us are nearly ready to call it quits and make do with wherever we are right now, even if it means camping on an unlevel slope far from a water source. I am certainly exhausted enough both physically and mentally to consider this a viable option. But we painstakingly continue, and finally crest the top of the ridge where we can see our guide and our animal herders ahead of us, carrying our things into the valley below, our resting spot for the night. As we clamber down, rain comes.
A wave of mild panic sets in as we hurry down the hillside, dismayed at the idea of further misery to be had at the end of a long, arduous day. The men on the team — Seth, Mike, Myric, Alex, and Jan — are charging ahead to assist the local Studio D crew, and luckily, arriving right before the worst of the storm, swiftly put up all the tents.
As someone who has never been on a proper expedition before, “expeditions” have always felt like an overtly masculine space. In popular imagination, expeditions — epic journeys into an unknown, extreme wild — are where men are celebrated for battling beasts, blizzards, and demonstrating incredible feats of strength and survival, which never quite seemed to resonate personally for me. After all, expeditions fuel the mythology of the conquering hero, many of whom typically do not look like me.
As someone who has never been on a proper expedition before, “expeditions” have always felt like an overtly masculine space.
I spot Bjork and Joyce dashing into a tent the moment we hit camp, and I quickly follow. Inside, the air is frigid and the heat of our bodies produce a haze of precipitation. We huddle close to each other, hugging our knees and laugh with gratitude to be inside, to finally not be moving, giving thanks to the rest of our team hard at work in getting the remainder of the camp situated, and to share in each other’s company as the rain begins to pound against our tent. As I witness our male team scrambling to settle for the night, distributing freeze-dried dinners, making rounds to deliver hot water, and checking in on each other, I wonder about what an expedition really means. What we believe the outcomes should be, who we come into the expedition as, and the reality of who and what we actually leave with.
Bjork, Joyce, and I are the only three women in the group, and we have naturally gravitated towards each other — not with the intent to isolate ourselves from the rest of the men, but because “female space” arose quite organically, almost intuitively since day one, as a space for us to find reprieve and personally recharge from the long hard days of walking and playing our parts on the team. Joyce, in fact, has a very demanding role as the “Water Ambassador,” which requires her to keep constant stock of our water supply, know where and what all of our available water sources are, and make sure all of our water containers are refilled with filtered water every night. As the entire team’s well-being hangs in the balance if our water situation is not taken care of, the job is defined by mental and emotional fortitude more than it is by physical strength. Joyce is the smallest human on the team, yet the mightiest of us all.
Joyce is the smallest human on the team, yet the mightiest of us all.
The girls and I sit nestled in our sleeping bags, backs and legs sore from the physical demands of the day. In the privacy of our tent, we can simply be who we are. Our tent is a haven of sorts, a place in which we can change comfortably and practice the hygiene rituals that help preserve our sanity as days pass without showers. We each have brought artifacts from home: charcoal-activated wipes from Portland, lemongrass oil from Iceland, and moisturizing serums from Singapore. Our little space echoes murmurs of delight as we vigorously scrub the dirt and grime off our faces, snuggle deep into our bags, reach for our novels for some bedtime reading. These are the small moments we connect to ourselves and to each other, to the comfort of familiarity in a place so unlike the ones we’re from.
Suddenly, it’s light. I open my eyes, unzip the front of the tent and peek out. A soft sun begins to rise high in the sky, burning through a vaporous mist. In the distance, a donkey grazes on a carpet of grass beneath a razored set of frozen peaks looking like they’re eating into the sky. There is a surprise waiting for us: we find out there is a hot spring right above our camp up a craggy hillside. It almost sounds too good to be true — our first shower on the trail!
The girls and I opt to go first. In the Wakhan, religious ideology is a little looser, so I unravel my hair, let it breathe, as the Afghan herders nod morning greetings. We make our way up to the hot spring, hopping across wobbly plates of rock towards a cozy enclosure of boulders, a perfect stream of water flowing into the steaming pool like a faucet over sink.
I’m the first one in the spring. I submerge myself as deep into the water as possible, and like an ocean wave it envelops me in a sweet, melting embrace. I lie flat on my back, my face pointed towards the sky. I listen to my own breathing, and for a brief moment everything is still. I may not feel like I’ve yet found my groove on the team, but I know that will come. I may not be the strongest, or the most physically capable, but I know that isn’t what really matters. For me, this expedition is not about how I battle beasts or blizzards, but how I find what’s important to me — the moments of connection to a small piece of the world, to a part of myself where I can be vulnerable, where the only thought that seems to capture the essence of the experience is simply, “I am here.”
Today, I tell those who ask that the expedition was by no means a comfortable or easy travel experience. There were no luxuries. The Wakhan landscape often appeared incomprehensibly big, unforgiving. Parts of it are steep, aggressive, and therefore extremely tough on the body.
Beyond the physical challenge of trekking in the Wakhan across ~200km of formidable terrain, there is also the mental, psychological battle of withstanding the external damage inflicted by Mother Nature, like the sun, altitude, wind, and snow, and in another part, a battle against ego — one’s sense of self-importance in an atmosphere of uncertainty. There are times when you need to make peace with discomfort and unpredictability, which isn’t a particularly intuitive or wanted process when you’re used to the creature comforts that a modern and increasingly manufactured world provides nearly 24/7. Based on this experience, “expeditions” are no where near as romantic as what the mythologies present. But they can be transformative — just not always in the “conventional,” expected way.
One walks away from an expedition with more questions than answers, and I like to think that’s a good thing. I left the experience not with a bolstered sense of self, but perhaps a more expansive one that now stretches into more directions, open to further exploration. For me this is what defines a good travel experience — when you are challenged to redraw old boundaries of self and look at it anew. When you leave not only feeling proud of what it has accomplished (no matter how big, small, or inconsequential you may think those accomplishments may be), but with a broader understanding of why it’s important to embrace all of its parts — its strengths and limitations, its durability and its fallibility.
We cannot always be conquering heroes, but we are always human.
Photos: Charley Zheng & Joyce Chua
Charley joined the 2019 Short Walk Expedition on a Documentarian Fellowship. To support nascent adventure tourism in the region Studio D will be returning to the Wakhan Corridor to map trekking routes. To apply to join the 2020 Afghanistan Survey Expedition, sign up here.