Crossing the Oxus into Afghanistan, one of the most wonderful countries in the world, is a lot easier now than it was two millennia ago when Alexander the Great’s armies floated across the fast-flowing river by clinging onto their leather tents converted into makeshift rafts. In 2007, an imposing 670-m (2,200-ft) long bridge was opened, a vital link in a 21st century ‘Silk Road’ that aims to connect landlocked Central Asia to the Indian Ocean port of Karachi.
The legendary River Oxus (nowadays known as the Amu Dariya) separates Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The people on either side share the same ethnic bonds but for decades they have been divided by political turmoil and the barrier of the river itself, which was crossable only by an intermittent ferry service. The bridge will eventually help regenerate a remote area that is still suffering the aftermath of thirty years of war. Right now it enables the intrepid traveller to undertake a fascinating trip at the cutting edge of adventure tourism.
The spanking new bridge seems utterly incongruous in comparison to its surroundings. As soon as you cross it, you are hurled back through time into a biblical landscape – a startling contrast to southern Tajikistan where the intensively farmed fields and ancient remains of the historic Hissor and Vakhsh Valleys all testify to millennia of civilization.
It may take a while to see beyond the poverty but persevere along the dusty road to Mazar-i-Sharif, the cultural capital of northern Afghanistan, and you will soon be filled with respect for the dignified bearing and beautiful manners of this resilient people; and you will be completely overawed by the staggering beauty of the Blue Mosque – a cogent reminder of the sophisticated civilization in Afghanistan at a time when the West was stuck in the Dark Ages.
By car, motorbike or bike
WHEN TO GO:
April to June or September to October
TIME IT TAKES:
Two to three days by car/motorbike; four to six by mountain bike.
Tajikistan – 18th century Hissor Fort. Ajina-Teppa – 7th century Buddhist monastery complex. Spectacular view from top of Nurek Dam, one of the tallest dams in the world.
Afghanistan – Blue Mosque of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Balkh – medieval ruins and early Islamic monuments.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Most governments advise against any unnecessary travel in Afghanistan but, depending on local conditions at the time of travel, the north is not unduly hazardous. Never travel without a knowledgeable local guide and make thorough enquiries beforehand. Afghan visas can be obtained in Dushanbe