Climbing with Bruce Watson from Hokitika, in the Kohi Anjuman Range in August 1996. We were at about 5000 metres when I took the photo. Photo Bob McKerrow
It is a warm sunny day in Christchurch, New Zealand, the 15th of November 2008. I have been back in New Zealand for four days which has given me a chance to put together and publish a few articles I wrote when I lived, worked, trekked and climbed in Afghanistan in 1976, again from 1993-96 and visited in 2003-04 and 05. I also spent two years working in neighbouring Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan and was able to visit the Afghan borders and look into Afghanistan and study the complexities of the mountain systems. See map of Afghanistan below.
The author on skiis in the western Hindu Kush an hour or so from the Salang Pass. January 1996. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Writers and geographers have wrestled with descriptions and the location of the high Hindu Kush. It has been called the solar plexus of Asia, the Pamir Knot and in the second century was thought to be the source of the Nile by the Greek geographer, Ptolemy. Afghanistan is roughly quadrilateral in shape, with the long finger called the Wakhan stretching east wards.
Afghanistan is a land-locked country lying between 29o 35' and 38o 40' northern latitude and between 60o 31' and 75o 00' eastern longitude on the mountainous and desert areas where the Iranian plateau borders with the mountainous systems of Central Asia.
The country is bounded on the north by the countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (9238km), on the north-east by China (96km) and India ? (102)km, on the south and east by Pakistan (2310), and on the west by Iran (925 km)
The cover of the book I wrote on Afghanistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow
The system of folded mountains is quite complex and erratic, but generally run north-east to south-west. The north-east and central parts of Afghanistan make up a huge highland area covering over half the country with an average altitude of 2000 metres. The dominant mourn-tain system in Afghanistan is the Hindu Kush which commences in the extreme north-eastern corner of the Wakhan corridor and stretches in a south-westerly direction for more than 700 km finishing at the Shibar Pass.
A satellite image of the Hindu Kush
On the western side of the Shibar Pass the Kohi Baba curves south-westwards and can almost be called an extension of the Hindu Kush. This huge mountainous region descends on all sides quite abruptly to flatter regions, except to the north-east where it becomes the Pamirs.
To the north the Hindu Kush falls into the plains of Bactria which stretches as far as the Amu Darya (The Oxus River). East it drops to the Indus basin, to the south is the dry deserts of Seistan and Garmsers and to the west, about 140km from the border of Iran the mountains de-scend into the steppes and Namaksars (salty deserts) of Herat province. The huge tract of land north of the Hindu Kush.
The boundaries of Afghanistan have changed dramatically in the last 200 years. At the start of the 19th century, Afghanistan stretched from Meshad to Kashmir, from the Oxus to the Satlej River and to the Arabian Sea. This greater Afghanistan was built by Ahmad Shah Durrani (1747-1773) and was known as the Durrani Empire.
Unfortunately, the British colonialists in playing the great game and wanting to feed their politician's paranoia of the Russians, placed a buffer between Lahore and the Afghan border. The north-west frontier province was carved out of eastern Afghanistan and was incorporated it into the Indian Empire. In placing this formidable barrier between themselves and Russia, they left the highest peak of the Hindu Kush, Tirich Mir in India, now Pakistan. As most Afghans still regard everything in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province across to the Indus as rightly belonging to them and knowing that the 100 year agreement (forced upon Abdur Rahman Khan in 1893) over the artificial border known as the Durrand Line has expired, they believe one day they will get back all their lands illegally seized by the British.
Early writers refer to the the area where the Hindu Kush abuts the Pamirs as the Pamir Knot. or the solar plexus of the mountain system of Asia. Lowell Thomas saw it thus:
The system of folded mountain ranges that spans Asia from east to west radiates out from the Pamir knot, " a region of wilderness, of rock and wind and dizzy peaks." Westward it extends from the Hindu Kush to the Elburz Mountains, south of the Caspian Sea, and to the Zagros Mountains that form Iran's southern frontier. Branching out from the Hindu Kush to the south and east are the four major ranges-the Karakorams, Himalayas, Altyn Tagh, and Kunluns, which continue into China as the Tsinling Mountains. To the north range the Tien Shan and the Atlai mountains, the latter extending from the Gobi Desert to the southern edge of Siberia
This photo shows what early explorers called the Pamir Knot. The coming together of the Pamirs, Hindu Kush and Karakoram Ranges
The English explorer Colonel Schomberg describes the meeting point of the world's great ranges.
"As the traveller climbs up to the passes on the frontier, he gazes over an expanse of snow and rock. To the east are the Karakorams, the Kun Lun, and the Himalayas: to the west and north are the Hindu Kush and the down-like windswept Pamirs. To the south are the great snow ranges of gilgit and Kashmir. He has reached the solar plexus of the mountain system of Asia, baffling and most repelleFor the purpose of defining the Hindu Kush, I use Moham-med Ali's definitions, the the Oriental Hindu Kush and the Occidental Hindu Kush. Mohammed Ali was a former Professor of History, Kabul, and a prolific writer of books on Afghani-stan.
In deciding where the two divisions occur I amalgamate both Mohammed Ali's and Ludmig Adamec's dividing lines, the Khawak Pass. However Adamec goes further and divides it into three sections, the eastern from the Pamirs to the Dorah Pass, the central from the Dorah to the Khawak; and the western from the Khawak pass to the termination of the range near the Shibar Pass.
Hindu Kush ( Oriental)
The start of the Hindu Kush oriental. A view of peaks near Noshaq taken from the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Starting on the north-eastern extremity of the Wakhan corridor where the Pamirs abut from the north and the Karakorams from the south east, this is the meeting place of four countries: Remote, mysterious and seldom visited the countries of Tajikistan, China, Pakistan and of course Afghanistan meet. With its starting point in the Wakhan, the Oriental Hindu Kush con-tinues through Badakshan to the Khawak Pass in the Panjcher Valley, the graveyards of thousands of young Greek soldiers, who were led by Alexander the Great in the spring of 327 BC over the Khawak Pass. The soldiers died, frozen to rocks as they dropped from cold, exhaustion and frostbite.
It contains the highest mountains in Afghanistan. Noshaq, 7485 metres is the highest point, of the Afghan Hindu Kush.
In an area surrounding Noshaq are many peaks over 7000 metres. The highest peak in the south eastern limit of this Oriental Hindu Kush is Mir Samir, 5,800m, made famous by Eric Newby in his book "A Short Walk in The Hindu Kush," based on his eccentric journey in 1956 with Hugh Carless. Mir Samir is a magnificent peak, close to the Chamar Pass, and a two to three day walk from the Khawak Pass. I attempted to climb this peak in 1995 and climbed an unclimbed 5000 metre peak nearby.This is the upper part of the scenic Panjcher valley and contains the Anjoman Pass, 4200 metres which conects the Panjcher valley to Badakshan. This pass I have crosed four times and affords one of the most spectuacular views of the Hindu Kush, and the Tirch Mir can be seen in the distance in Pakistan.
A Lake in northern Badakshan near the Tajik border
A subsidiary range runs south off the Hindu Kush into Nuristan and another to the north the Khuajeh Mohammad Range with peaks up to 5,800 metres.
Hindu Kush (Occidental)
The road leading to the Salang Pass, which has the highest road tunnel in the world. It conects Kabul and the Shomali plains to the plains of Bactria. Photo: Bob McKerrow
The western section of the Hindu Kush starts at the Khawak pass and continues another 200 km to the Shibar Pass in a south westerly direction. Halfway between the Khawak and Shibar passes is the Salang Pass and the Salang tunnel, supposedly the highest road tunnel in the world. There is no peak over 5200 metres in this section, but what it lacks in height, it makes up with spectacular scenery and hospitable mountain people, particularly in the lower Panjcher valley.
The Hindu Kush occidental, was first named by Persians in their language of the Avesta, well before the coming of Alexander of Macedonia. They called it Paropanisadae, and means, a mountain loftier than the ceiling of even an eagle's flight. Alexander's men graecised it to Paropanisus. However it seems the Persian and the Greeks, were referring to the part of the Hindu Kush seen from Koh Daman, the plains north of Kabul, and is what we call, the Hindu Kush Occidental. The sheer size of the Hindu Kush is hard to gauge from a map. From 1993 to 1996 I criss-crossed the Hindu Kush countless times in the course of my work and the best viewpoint always was flying south to north over the Salang Pass at over 20,000 feet early in the morning. From the air, the Salang Pass appears in the middle of the mountain massif. To the north-east the Panjcher valley, narrow at the start and broadening later, dominates the low foreground. Thousands of peaks, increasing in height towards the eastern horizon dominate the jagged landscape. Two peaks are easily recognisable, Mir Samir on the southern side of the Panjcher and to the north, Kohi Bandak. As your viewing perspective nears the eastern horizon a jumble of indistinquisable high peaks merge into a mysterious white world. The width of the range is astounding, over 190 km including the subsidiary ranges.
To the west the Hindu Kush diminishes in height and later merges imperceptibly into the Kohi Baba which in turns spreads in all directions into the wild and desolate tablelands known as Hazarajat. From the air the snowcovered tablelands look as though the concave mountain faces have been shaped by an ice-cream scoop. Standing alone to the west-north-west is the Turand-i-Turkestan, isolated. impressive and clearly separate from any other range, except for a spur running south-east, named the Hesar Range.
The author wearing a turban at a wedding ceremony in the mountainous Panjcher valley. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Starting 25km south-west of Bamian, it extends in an westerly direction for 120 kilometres miles, curving like a boomerang. From the air its looks like an extension of the Hindu Kush with its highest peak Falodi 5135 metres prominent in the centre of the range. South and south west of the Kohi Baba is a very mountainous plateau area from which various tributaries of the Helmand river starts. To the north-west of the Kohi Baba is a mountain range from which the fist trickles of the Balkh River start. The peaks reach 4555 metres in height and appear from the air as a continumn of the Kohi Baba.
The Kohi Baba is in the centre of a region that early Afghan geographers described as the Central Block of Hazarajat. A number of explorers and geographers have likened it to Tibet. Mohammad Ali's description cannot be bettered. "This is a vast table land extending from Herat to Kabul and from Ghazni to Bamian. It is a high, bleak, and intensely inhospitable country, where snow lies for a greater part of the year, and where little or no fruit is grown, and the cultivation is confined to the narrow banks of rivers and streams. This irregular table-land has been scored and eroded for centuries by river action. From here emerge some of the greatest rivers of Afghanistan. To the north the river Khulm (Tashqurghan) and the Balkh take a hurried start for the plains of Bactria; westward the Hari Rud streams off to Herat; south-ward extend the long curving lines of the Helmand, Harut, Khash Rud and Arghandab, and eastward flows the Kabul with its various branches. A rugged mountain mass, called the Koh-i-Baba and Firoz Koh, the lineal continuation of the Hindu Kush."
Camel trains carrying loads in the Central Hindu Kush, near Hazarjat. Photo: Bob McKerrow
The southern extremity of Hazarajat are Shah Massoud and Kafar Jar Gah ranges which run along the southern border of Oruzgan provinces.
To the west of the Kohi Baba is a twin range named the Firoz Koh. It runs parallel to the Tir-band-i-Turkestan, which lies to the north. The northern branch of the Firoz Koh is called the Safid Koh (the white mountain) and the southern branch is called the Siah Koh (the black mountain) It lies within the Hazarajat region.
The name Parapomisus is a confusing name and it pops up in history books going back as far as Alexander the Great. One writer says " Continuing meanwhile his own advance, Alexander arrived at the foot of the colossal mountain-barrier, the chain of the Paropanisos, which separates Kabul from Bactria.
The natives designation was Parapamisos, or, as Ptolemy more correctly transliterates it, Paropanisos. "(J.W. M'Crindle) In the course of time this range gets shifted to the west. Ali describes it as " a small range lying to the the extreme west, between the districts of Herat and Badghis. Its local name is Siah Babuk.".
Ludwig Adamec in his Historical Dictionary seems to agree with modern maps: He spells it Paropamisus and says" the name given by Western writers to the Safid Kuh and Band-i-Baba, the range bounding on the Hari Rud (q.v.) valley on the north." A number of cartographers, particualrly the Polish during the Soviet occupation, leave the name off the map altogether and stick to the more specific ranges, the Safid Koh and Band-i-Baba.
The Paropamisus is specatcular when driving from Qala-i-Nau to Herat. It takes on the appearance of the Italian Dolomites with it sheer-sided pinnacles. The Sabzak Pass is the main pass and is usually cut off in the winter.
This impressive range forms a mountain border between southern Fariab and Sar-e pol and the northern border for Badghis and Ghor provinces with peaks reaching up to 4161 metres. Approached from the north, the Turband -i-Turkestan breaks the lunar-like landscape of Fariab province by providing a stately-white mountain range that dominates the high south-ern horizon. A number of villages at altitudes of 2000 metres are inhabited by mountain Tajiks who plough and plant the treeless mountainsides with a hardy variety of wheat. Pockets of Hazara and Uzbeks families also live in the villages at slightly lesser altitudes. The Tur-band-i-Turkestan is frequently racked by earthquakes, and is situated on an active faultline. At its eastern extermity an outlying range, the Hesar mountains run south easterly where the bor-ders of Ghor, Sar-e-pol meet Bamian province. The highest point of this range is 4539 m.
Lowell Thomas writes about the early history of the geography. "The source of the Nile and the location of the Mountains of the Moon were two of the earliest geographical enigmas. Both puzzles lasted into the nineteenth century, for not until central Africa had been penetrated and mapped did it become possible to solve them. ..... In the second century AD., Ptolemy, with the accumulated wisdom of the astronomer, mathematician and geographer, was more positive.In the fourth century BC., Alexander the Great had consulted the oracle of Jupiter (Amen-Ra) in the Siwa oasis of Egypt about the success of his expedition into the East-and about the sources of the Nile (which he thought he had found in the Hindu Kush mountains of Asia, near the headwaters of the Indus River.
It's a wonder Alexander knew where he was at the time, because he referred to the Hindu Kush as the Caucasus. On later maps they were referred to as the Indicus Caucasus. Probably, "Caucasus" was bandied about in the same way the name "Alps" is to-day, Aristotle further confused the issue by calling the Hindu Kush the Asiatic Parnassus. According to Babur, founder of the Mogul Empire, Hindu Kush means "Dead Hindu." Today we render it "Hindu Death."
Possibly the most photographed mountain range in Afghanistan for from most parts of Kabul the north-west skyline is dominated by Kohi Paghman, a jagged range with summits reaching almost 5000 metres. Kohi Paghman forms part of Kohi Daman, Daman meaning skirt, a skirt of mountains that circle the north of Kabul. On a winter's day there is cannot be a more impressive capital city view in the world than standing in the mountain Lion capital Kabul, looking at the ring of mountains in all directions, the most prominent being Kohi Paghman.
Bushkashi, the mountain metaphor. It is a wild game played on horseback where a goat is used as a ball. Photo: Bob McKerrow
From the village of Paghman a main river valley leads up and forks, one valley leads into Parwan and thence, Bamian, (a well known packing route) the other into Wardak province.
This was the favourite region of the first Mogul Emporer, Babur. Here he wrote his poems, held wine parties, visited friends and soaked in the beauty.
Speen Gar and Safed Koh
This is an off shoot of the Sulaiman range. Sikkaram, its highest peak, is 15,600 feet.A magnificent range when cloaked with winter snow and from the air and ground it dominates the landscape of Nangahar provinces and acts as a divide between Nangahar, Lowgar and Paktia provinces. There is a discernable pass between the eastern Speengar and the connecting range, the Safed Koh, (not to be confused with the Safed Koh in the Parapomisus, which divides Nangahar province from Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. The Safed Koh curves from its predominent west-east direction to the north east as it descends down to and finishes at at the lengendary Khyber Pass.
When flying from Jalalabad to Kabul's Bagram airport it is possible to see the Speengar and the Safed Koh to the south and to the north a craggy range running from Assadabad in Kunar province to near the town of Metarlam in Laghman province. The south-western end of the Kashmund range drops into the southern end of the Alingar valley which leads to the high peaks of Nuristan. Further westwards is the fertile Tagrab valley which has an impressive un-named twin peak with a spot height of 4420 , trees cling to its steep sides up to 3,500 m. In winter the twin summits look similar to New Zealand's magnificent ice peak, Mt Tasman and its lesser peak of Silberhorn.
This range is the barrier between the Indus basin and the Helmand River. It starts in Paktia Province at the Shutur Gardan pass 11,200 feet and runs in a south-south-easterly direction where it takes on additional names, the Mangal and Jadran hills. The highest points reach up to 12,000 feet. It is likely the mountain range got its name from the Sulaiman Khel Ghilzais, the name of the tribe whose land it passes through. There is another range of this name which runs along the Baluchstan-Punjab border.
The bones of thousands of over-ambitous conquerors and their followers lie strewn across the heights of the Hindu Kush as they tried to take Afghanistan, but few were able to hold the mountain lands for long as the Soviets found out in the 1980's. This current war, like so many earlier ones against Persian, British and Russian armies, will be decided in the mountain valleys and passes where fanatical warriors momentarily put aside tribal feuds and joined together, displaying a unique brand of mountain guerrilla warfare which is based on hawk-like instincts, circle, swoop and loot. The spoils of war provide important resources. Of all the mountain passes in Afghanistan, the Khyber pass has a long history of conquests and death.
There are thousands of significant mountain passes dotted throughout the country and it is not possible to name them all. However, the important ones have been mentioned in this article already.
The road winds up to the Khyber Pass, Landi Khotal and Torkham.
The most famous of them all is the Khyber Pass as it is weakest chink in the great chain of mountains stretching across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan is the most famous of all passes in Asia, the Khyber Pass. Lowell Thomas describes the Khyber's strategic importance:
"The fabled Khyber cuts through the mountains south of the Hindu Kush, west of the Pamir Knot, connects the northern frontier of West Pakistan with Afghanistan, and links Turkestan in Central Asia with the subcontinent of Hindustan."
Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass became the nineteenth century's legendary Northwest Frontier, patrolled by British military units like the Bengal Lancers. Campaigning through the "hills," their deeds of glory provided colorful material for Rudyard Kipling. In his "Arithmetic on the Frontier," Kipling paid tribute to the price paid by those early "few" with slightly racist overtones, not uncommon of that ear.: "
With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,
The troopships bring us one by one
At vast expense of time and steam
To slay Afridis where they run.
The "captives of our bow and spear"
Are cheap, alas! as we are dear
Landi Kotal Cemetery
A reminder of the huge loss of life can be seen today, when you head towards the Khyber Pass you pass the Landi Kotal Cemetery where soldiers of the British Army, mainly from 1879-80 (Second Afghan War) and 1898 and 1919 (Third Afghan War), are buried. Many regiments and battalions are represented here. Two stone obelisks stand in the middle each bearing a plaque. The inscription on one is almost faded and the other records: "Sacred to the memory of the British soldiers of all ranks who lie buried near this spot 187 of whom died at Landi Kotal from the result of wounds received in action and from disease during the Afghan Campaign of 1879-80 and the remainder since the reoccupation of the Khyber in 1898"
Wherever you are in Afghanistan it is impossible to escape the influence of the mountains. The success of crops depends on adequate winter snows, millions of sheep, goat and cattle rely on the lush summer alpine grazing for their survival, the country's economy depends on the gemstones lodged in deep mountain recesses, transportation is reliant on the condition of the alpine passes, avalanches, spring snow melt and the resultant floods can wipe out a village and its total crops with a flick of its icy tail.
And, with the heavy deforestation and overgrazing up to the snowline all year round, local eco-systems and the biodiversity have been so impacted that the mountain habitat is degrading so quickly that landslides, flooding from bursting natural dams caused by blocked rivers, have wreaked havoc in mountain regions. Local mountain inhabitants complain that changing weather patterns are affecting their lifestyle. The result is a major ecological disaster occuring in the Hindu Kush.