Wakhan Corridor Expedition 2019

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“There is nothing impossible. If you want to, you can make anything happen. On the first day climbing over the 4,300 meter pass, I realized this.” - Khatera, Northern Afghanistan

In August 2019, Free to Run took 10 participants from across Afghanistan on their first ever hiking and camping expedition to the Wakhan Corridor. The Wakhan Corridor, or the “roof of the world” according to the locals, is a remote corner of Afghanistan surrounded on three sides by Tajikistan, Pakistan, and China. Previously a part of the ancient Silk Road, large parts of the region remain untouched by modern developments. Inaccessible for most of the year due to extreme weather and lack of roads, there is very little known about this corner of the world. 

As our annual Inter-regional Sports & Leadership Expedition, the team embarked on overcoming not only physical mountains but also the challenges of being women performing sports in public space and confronting their own misconceptions about one another being from different provinces and backgrounds.

“We are all from different provinces and didn’t know or trust each other, but when we had to climb mountains together, we became best friends,” said Humaira from the Kabul program.

“I’ve learned not to judge people on this trip because these young women have become my close friends,” said Dina from the Western Afghanistan program.

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Over the course of 3 days, the team conquered over 36 kilometers and reached heights of 4,300 meters. For all of them, it was their first experience camping.

“One night, we could hear an animal poking at our tents. It was really scary for me, but we stayed calm and learned how to cope. At home before, I was even scared of cats but in the Wakhan I learned how to face bigger fears. I felt strong enough to be brave,” said Maryam from the Central Highlands program. 

Once the team had adjusted to the nuances of camping, they quickly grew to love it.

“We had a campfire on the second night. That was my favorite because we had climbed a high mountain that day and it felt good to celebrate with music and dancing,” said Khatera from the Northern Afghanistan program. 

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For 9 out of 10 of the young women, it was their first time on an airplane and their first time traveling without their families. Free to Run believes it’s important to take women and girls outside of their usual environment and create opportunities like this to try new things. It has the power to bring together groups from different cultures, offering them the space, time, and support to begin sharing experiences with each other and challenge their preconceptions of one another. They become visible to each other and to those in the surrounding community. They show each other what’s possible. 

“I learned from Fatima that in life I need to help others too, even if I myself have no problem making it up the mountain,” said Dina.

As part of the leadership component, each day there was a new expedition leader and a sweeper elected from the group. The leader would set the pace and ensure that the back of the group was always in sight. The sweeper’s job was to motivate whoever was struggling at the back of the group to keep pushing forward. 

“When I was in charge at the back of the line, I had responsibility. I was honestly more tired than the people at the back, but motivating them gave me the energy to keep going,” said Fatima from the Kabul program. 

The local Wakhis were often shocked to see fellow Afghan females trekking through their mountains. The group was constantly stopped to inquire where they were from, purely out of shock and curiosity. The Wakhan Corridor sees only approximately 100 tourists every year, most of them foreigners who enter from Tajikistan. To see Afghan females coming from all over Afghanistan to climb 4,000 meter mountains together and view Little Pamir was a first. Throughout the trip, this is something that resonated with the team.

“From childhood, I’ve wanted to change things for Afghan women. Going to the Wakhan has motivated me to work harder towards this goal to change our future,” said Fatima from the Kabul program.

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Rebecca Abel