Scotland

Afghan tourism: The climbers

Two climbers shopping for food in Ishkashim
Image caption Alan Halewood (left) and Neal Gwynne shop for food in Ishkashim.

Alan Halewood's dream to climb in Afghanistan began with a map.

As a teenager, he was hunting for a bargain in a Glasgow climbing shop when he came across a black-and-white document - marked simply with triangles for peaks and lines for ridges.

The writing was in Japanese, but the latitude and longitude were written clearly in one corner.

"It cost about 50p and when I looked it up in the atlas I discovered it was this place called the Wakhan Corridor," he says.

The mountaineering instructor, from Fort William, has since climbed all over the world, making first ascents in Mongolia, Chile and his native Scotland.

But the map has played on his mind ever since.

"I knew that some day I would come here and it's taken me half a lifetime. It's taken 20 years for the country to reach a situation where that's possible.

"It's the culmination of a long-held ambition."

Most people view Afghanistan through the prism of daily news reports depicting the insurgency, troop deaths and suicide bombings.

But others are starting to visit the country as tourists, mainly in the Wakhan Corridor in the north-east, but also to Kabul and Faizabad in the north of the country.

Image caption The climbers want to illustrate that there is another side to Afghanistan

The numbers are small - the Wakhan Tourism Office says only 56 people have come to this area so far this season - but the industry is growing each year.

A least one commercial trekking company is now operating in this part of the country.

And a Welsh expedition has just made the first British ascent of the highest mountain in Afghanistan for 30 years.

Three climbers from the team reached the 7,492m (24,580ft) Noshaq on Wednesday and made it back to Ishkashim on Sunday.

Many of the trekkers, climbers and skiers are drawn to the area by the unexplored wilderness and stable climate.

Alan calls it a "fascinating knot" of a huge number of mountain ranges, with dozens of unclimbed peaks.

He says these unclimbed peaks - the uncertainty of the unknown - are one of the reasons he has decided to spend a holiday in Afghanistan, at the eastern tip of the Hindu Kush.

"I want to go places with no maps, no guide books and no people - where you aren't sure what's round the next corner," he says.

"Not knowing what we're attempting is possible until we get in there and rub our noses against it."

This drive is shared by his climbing partner Neal Gwynne, a biology teacher at The Glasgow Academy.

Neal has taken pupils climbing and mountaineering in many far-flung places, including east Greenland where the group made several first ascents.

He says: "I've never been enthusiastic about climbing really hard, nor about climbing very high mountains.

"For me it's about exploration, going to some of the world's most beautiful places - remote corners of the world - and meeting and interacting with local communities.

"I think Afghanistan can offer all that."

Image caption Ishkashim has been largely untouched by conflict

The pair prepared for their 24-day expedition in Ishkashim, after crossing the Afghan border earlier in the day - and passing the relics of Soviet tanks on their way into the town.

They faced the bewildering task of buying all the food for their trip, while overcoming the language barrier, and working out just how much rice, beans, oil and potatoes they will consume.

The next stage is a two-day drive up the spectacular Wakhan Corridor - with views of Tajikstan to the north and Pakistan to the south - followed by a five-day trek to base camp, accompanied by a local guide and animals to carry supplies and equipment.

Both admit family and friends expressed fears for their safety when they learnt about the expedition.

Alan says he even received emails from UK troops serving in Afghanistan, warning him not to go.

But Neal hopes the visit will help change the impression that many people have of the country.

Image caption The men have spent time in Ishkashim preparing for their climb

"I think it is essential to illustrate that there is another side to Afghanistan and what we hear in the news doesn't apply to all areas of the country," he says.

"To only portray one side of the country is terrible for the people that live here."

And in the back of his mind, Neal is already toying with the idea of bring pupils here - to Afghanistan - on a school trip, if he can be confident that rescue would be possible should something go wrong.

"Maybe not in the next few years but in the future," he says.

"I think the parents of the pupils I teach are used to me saying quite ridiculous things to them - and I've managed to persuade them in the past."

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