Page last updated at 08:36 GMT, Wednesday, 12 September 2007 09:36 UK

Tourist trail in the Afghan wilds

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Wakhan Corridor, north-east Afghanistan

Buzkashi players on horseback
Buzkashi is a popular national sport in Afghanistan

A lilting voice singing of summer and of meadows was all but drowned out by the crack of whips, the tearing at bridles and the cheering of the crowd as the horsemen battled over the carcass of a headless sheep.

Buzkashi is the traditional Afghan sport - each man has to wrestle the animal from the pack, ride once round the field and then drop it into a circle, while two dozen other riders try to stop him.

The match was the highlight of the Pamir Festival, a cultural event supposedly aimed at tourists high up in the mountains of the Wakhan Corridor in north-eastern Afghanistan.

But there were no tourists here this year - just a row of local dignitaries, arranged in descending order of importance on the carpets laid out in front of the buzkashi field, whiter beards and finer clothes nearer to the stage.

The musician was young, but an excellent rubab player. He had his fame as the horses were being prepared, but he played on as the successful riders came forward to collect their prizes.

There was soap, baseball caps, towels - all fished out of a plastic sack and exchanged for each successful dropping of the sheep into the circle.

"Tourism as an alternative means of livelihood for the people," said Mahbub Aziz, the project coordinator for Wakhan Tourism.

A rubab player
This rubab player played as the buzkashi winners collected prizes

"There are very few economic activities here, and a few years ago unusual weather killed 6,000 animals and destroyed crops and it was a disaster for the people, so that is why we are trying to promote tourism in this area."

But last year only 150 or so tourists made it into the valley. This year it's unlikely if there will be more.

The Wakhan Corridor is stunningly beautiful - with its 7,000m snow-topped peaks and unspoilt mountain tracks - and unusually, it's a safe part of Afghanistan.

It's too remote for the Taleban to target, or for bandits to find enough rich people to rob and so, while much of the country is under the grip of an insurgency, security in the narrow finger of land that points into China is not a problem.

Getting to it is tough - a two-day drive from the nearest airstrip in Badakhshan's provincial capital, Faizabad, along a rough track cut by rivers and landslips.

And insecurity elsewhere means that, although there is incredible potential for tourism, here it will be a long time before people say Afghanistan and think mountain trekking on foot or yak.

Sunset over mountains
The Wakhan Corridor is an area of great natural beauty

The Wakhan Corridor was created as a buffer between British India and the Russian Empire as the two expanded towards each other in the nineteenth century.

To the south is modern Pakistan over the Hindu Kush mountains, and on the east and north the Great Pamir and the Small Pamir mountains lead up to the borders of China and Tajikistan.

The people in the valley are known as the Wakhis and speak an archaic form of Persian, and high up in the hanging valleys the Kyrgy nomads drive animals such as the huge-horned Marco Polo sheep over the passes.

It is terribly poor in the Wakhan, with almost everyone being subsistence farmers.

Most people don't grow enough wheat or barley to make bread all year round, even when there's a good harvest.

And when grains fail they eat the fodder crop which contains poisons that can cause brain damage and paralysis.

There is little money used - traders come up the valley and exchange commodities such as tea, sugar and rice for livestock. And often they also offer opium. Addiction is a huge problem.

Last year the 150 tourists brought in thousands of US dollars, and aid organisations - particularly the Aga Khan Development Network - are trying to improve infrastructure and help the people.

But there are many other problems in Afghanistan and this forgotten corner with few good schools and terrible communication links struggles to make a living amid the idyllic scenery and wilderness.

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