Afghanistan – the perfect place for a holiday...
Afghanistan might not be top of most people's holiday destinations, but a former Westcountry soldier turned explorer who has returned from an expedition says the country's wild north is a far cry from its war-torn southern region.
Simon Clarke, from Totnes, spent six years in The Rifles before pursuing a career in photography and travel.
While in the Army he deployed on operations in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, spending six months in Helmand Province.
After leaving the Forces last year he joined Secret Compass, a company run by experienced ex-Parachute Regiment officers which leads exploratory expeditions to the world's most remote regions.
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This summer he led a three-week trip to the Wakhan Corridor, sandwiched between Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south, a vast and changeable landscape of sweeping valleys and snow-capped ridges.
Travelling by a combination of Landcruiser, horse, yak and foot, the group of seven Canadians and one American made their way across the harsh terrain with the help of three locals – who acted as a translator, a cook and a guide – and a medic from Plymouth, James Jewell.
Mr Clarke, 29, said his strongest impressions from the trip were of the warmth of the people and the stunning variety of the landscape.
He said: "When most people think of Afghanistan they picture flat, dusty deserts, and that was certainly my experience from serving there. It has been wonderful to replace that.
"It was only arriving in the border town of Ishkashim at the start of the trip that took me back there. The Soviets had used it as a crossing point and it resembled the compounds we had been fighting in. I immediately felt exposed and unarmed, as it is so drilled into you to check for IEDs and other threats. Luckily, the feeling passed quickly."
The group were lucky enough to witness a game of Buzkashi, the Afghan national sport. A bit like polo, it consists of teams on horseback propelling an object towards a goal. In this case, however, that object is not a ball – but a headless goat carcass.
Mr Clarke added: "It's hard to explain the sport to a Westerner but it was absolutely incredible to watch. The game basically continues until the horsemen or the horses are tired or the goat body becomes too broken up to carry on."