Russia. My first visit to the world’s largest country, on the outward leg of this journey had been a brief encounter, but one that had sparked a latent interest in this vast and enigmatic country. Neither Europe nor Asia, Russia perhaps best defines the term ‘Eurasian’ with its diversity of people and endless, glorious landscapes. Crossing into Russia from the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia marked the beginning of a year spent in-and-out of the country in an attempt to see a meaningful proportion of its regions. This particular stage of the journey would take me through the jigsaw of ethnic republics of the North Caucasus, no less troubled, factional and feuding than their independent counterparts in the South Caucasus, and no less scenically spectacular. The highlight however would be the people; from the Russians on the western coastline, to the myriad nations in the isolated mountain valleys of Dagestan, whose outright warmth and kindness defy the often bloody and tragic history of the Caucasus.
It’s the 28th April 2010, and I cross the bridge over the Psou River, crossing the notional Asia – Europe border, and entering Russia for the second time. It’s a refreshingly straightforward border crossing, though due to it being technically illegal, my passport is not stamped. I drive into the small coastal town of Adler, which seems years ahead of somnolent Abkhazia just down the road, and is not nearly as attractive. After staying one night I head north-west up the coastal highway, bypassing the city of Sochi where there are signs of massive building development, with huge tailbacks caused by the upgrading of this single traffic artery linking Russia’s premier coastal resorts with the rest of the country. Beyond Sochi the road becomes highly scenic, with hairpins and steep turns winding up and down over the forested coastal hills and across rivers emerging from them, with occasional glimpses out across the glittering Black Sea.
I reach the coastal town of Tuapse in the afternoon, where I am hosted by Alexandra and her boyfriend Max, who live in a ninth-floor flat overlooking the coastal hills. Tuapse, originally founded as a Greek colony is today more of a port than a resort, but a trip the following day into the hills a few kilometres inland reveals signs of a far more ancient history. We walk up into the ancient oak and beech forest which spreads up one bright green hillside, freshly erupted in the vivid, lime-green of spring. In this atmospheric woodland, amid moss-covered limestone boulders lie a number of dolmens; single-chamber neolithic tombs which are found in certain parts of Eurasia, and date from roughly the 4th to 2nd Millennia BCE, and whose origin and purpose are not fully understood. There are a particular concentration of dolmens in this western region of the Caucasus, and the example we are looking at, which is said to be roughly 4000 years old, consists of a single hollowed-out limestone chamber with a circular portal and a large slab roof. This intriguing and mysterious structure, which had clearly been a site of great importance to a long-vanished pagan culture, adds to the powerful natural ambience of the still, old-growth forest to give this spot something of a palpable atmosphere. Alexandra speaks of the site as one of great spiritual power and energy, telling me of miraculous conceptions to barren women inside the dolmen’s chamber. The low branches of nearby saplings are weighed-down with votive prayer rags attached by locals; evidence of the superstition and spirituality often present in the Russian soul, even today after decades of Marxism.
The road north-east out of Tuapse winds up away from the coastline, through the forested hills, past quaint villages of pastel-coloured wooden cottages with rambling gardens and picket fences; real village-Russia. Occasionally the trees part near the hilltops, revealing a sea of rippling forest which spreads to the horizon in a single shade of brilliant green, a magnificently beautiful and unspoilt natural landscape. At the top of one low pass, I enter the Adygea Republic, the first of the seven autonomous, ethnic republics which make up my route across the North Caucasus to the Caspian Sea. ‘Adyge’ is the endonym used by the Circassians to refer to themselves; an ancient Caucasian nation who may have been the architects of the region’s delmens millennia ago. Having been heavily subjugated and assimilated by the Russians in the 19th Century, with many fleeing to Ottoman Turkey, the Adyge seem to lack the strong (and sometimes troublesome) ethnic identity of many of the region’s nations. Indeed, aside from the signpost announcing my entry into the republic, there is no obvious change from the quintessentially Russian villages as I roll down into the capital, Maykop.
I meet my host Marina in Maykop, and she suggests we meet some friends of hers who are celebrating today’s Labour Day holiday in the countryside to the south of town. We drive south through more undulating hills, to the outliers of the Caucasus which are dotted by limestone bluffs and craggy outcrops, joining the Belaya River which cuts a steep, narrow course through the wooded limestone hills. We drive up close to the end of the road at Guzeripl, and join a group of Marina’s friends in the forest; a group of jolly middle-aged Russian ladies who have evidently been enjoying the day with plenty of vodka and cognac, while their husbands abstain in order to drive. They’re sitting at picnic tables laden with food and drink, and I’m soon plied with sausage, chicken, salad, bread, tea and biscuits. We’re in a wonderful setting of fresh beech forest, whose floor is carpeted with crisp dry leaves, and alive with the sound of birds and the rushing water of the river. Around us are a number of Russian family groups who have set up more permanent camps with tents and washing lines; the Russians’ affinity for and comfort in the great outdoors, combined with near-endless unspoiled nature makes camping a very popular pastime here.
Once it’s dark, we head down towards a clearing in the forest where there is a small festival, passing a large tent playing standard Europop to amuse younger campers, to a small folk-music marquee. The songs, mostly solo acts, are all in Russian, but they’re simple, light-hearted ballads, and the participants are wonderfully unpretentious; nobody is taking themselves too seriously, and there is a genuinely friendly communal atmosphere. We all drive back together, stopping at one point for the ladies to sing from a bridge, before returning late to the deserted streets of Maykop.
In the morning, Marina and her friend Olga give me a tour of Maykop, which is a neat, typical provincial Soviet city. Lenin still stands prominently in Lenin Square on his plinth opposite the Parliament of the Republic, which is decorated with bands of geometric patterns from nominally Adyge textiles as a Soviet gesture to the republic’s titular nation. Around the square are numerous manicured parks and lovingly-tended flowerbeds, and each street seems to have some bust or etching of a local ‘hero’. The street names are also pure Soviet; Krasnooktyabrskaya (Red October), Proletarskaya (Proletarians), Krestyanskaya (Peasants) and Pionerskaya (Pioneers) to name a few, stencilled onto small metal name-plates. It’s a pleasant, calm throwback to what I imagine were the nicest aspects of the USSR, a ‘village’ city where everyone knows each other, and where nothing ever happens. This is probably what caused one of the residents to call the police and report my truck – ostensibly on the grounds of having one wheel parked in a flowerbed – as suspicious. The local bomb squad had apparently been inspecting the underside of the truck with sniffer dogs, though we only catch one policeman who is leaving as we arrive. It’s somewhat understandable perhaps, in this comatose city which lies at the tranquil end of the volatile North Caucasus region.
I leave Maykop and the Adygea Republic the next day, and continue east through fields of rapeseed and bright green wheat towards a distant horizon marked by mountains. In the afternoon, as I wind up into the damp foothills, I pass into the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, a dual-ethnicity republic whose titular nations are respectively Turkic and Caucasian, and which is markedly less Russified than Adygea. The change is quite abrupt; the villages are simpler, with ramshackle cottages surrounded by smallholdings, flocks of sheep grazing hillsides, men on horseback and cows wondering across roads. I stop in the town of Zelenchukskaya where I meet my host Aleksandr, and we drive together to his university dormitory in the village of Nizhny Arkhyz.
In the afternoon, Alexander takes me on a walk through the woodland to a 10th Century Greek (Byzantine) church, one of Russia’s oldest and a postulated location of Maghas, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Alania which was destroyed by Mongol hordes in the 13th Century. Also here is a balbal, an ancient, anthropomorphic menhir, the like of which may be found throughout Eurasia, and which hints at the Central Asian origins of the Sarmatian Alans, or perhaps the native Karachay, a Turkic tribe who came from the steppes of the east and settled this area in the 11th Century.
Alexander is a cosmologist, and the following day we walk up through the forested hills, which at this elevation are still bare and only recently released from their burden of winter snow, to the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences, dominated by the Soviet BTA-6, which until 1993 was the world’s largest solid-mirror reflecting telescope. I am given a brief tour, though being an optical telescope there is nothing to see during the daytime. The overcast sky also hides the mighty peaks which lie a short distance away to the south.
Leaving Nizhny Arkhyz, I return to the main highway and into the east of the republic, turning south up another valley to the small, scruffy town of Teberda where I meet my host Aslan, a Karachay who has a traditional wooden house here where he stays when he is working at the nearby ski resort of Dombay as a ski-lift engineer. We join another Karachay friend of Aslan’s for dinner, and I’m reminded of the recent history of the Caucasus, a history which Russian’s often prefer not to dwell upon. They tell me how during the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is known in the Former USSR), the Karachay (among many others) were seen by Stalin to welcome the Nazis, and in November 1943 were accused of collaboration and deported en masse from their Caucasian homelands to the Gulags of Siberia and Central Asia. It is thought that 35% of the Karachay race was wiped out within two years, and it was not until the 1950s that survivors started to return from exile.
Aslan and I drive up to the end of the road in Dombay the following day, a small resort town which nestles in the steep folds of the Greater Caucasus at the foot of a huge mass of black rock, scoured by glaciers and eroded into sharp peaks, still blanketed in snow. Aslan and I are waved through the ticket queues for the ski-lifts by his friends, and are soon on a ridge at 2850 m. Here, Aslan makes a phone call to another friend, who picks us up in an Italian snow-groomer and drives us at an implausibly steep angle up to a peak at over 3000 m, where we are facing a huge wall of rock and ice, undoubtedly the most striking scenery I have ever seen in Europe, with Dombay nestled in a valley far, far below. Despite being several thousand meters lower than the Himalaya, the scenery around is nearly as impressive, and the combination of rolling green meadows fading into pristine pine forest with rivers of drinkably-clear glacial water, against the perennially snowcapped peaks make the High Caucasus just as scenic.
From Teberda, I head north-east, following a tip from Aslan to drive off the road at the Gumbashi Pass onto the Bichasyn Plateau. The morning is clear and the air dry but I’m unprepared for what greets me as I emerge from the pass onto a rolling expanse of parkland at 2100 m. Soft hills of grass still brown from the winter, dotted with patches of bare forest stretch back to a 150 kilometre-wide vista of the crestline of the Greater Caucasus, a sublime wall of snowcapped mountains. Almost 60 kilometres away, towards the eastern edge of this magnificent panorama, and significantly higher than anything else, are the huge twin-peaks of Mt Elbrus at 5642 m, the highest mountain in Europe. It takes over an hour to digest this view and tear myself away, but eventually I descend, passing the city of Kislovodsk, home to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, to the pleasant Russian town of Yessentuki.
I am hosted by Marcus, an Argentinian and Nadia, a local, who live in the city with their baby son Artur. Yessentuki is part of the Mineralnye Vody region, a popular resort renowned for its spring water which is sold throughout the country. Despite its proximity to the nations of the Caucasus, the region is almost totally Russian; from the window of the apartment, Mt Mashuk, near the city of Pyatigorsk is visible faintly to the east, at the foot of which Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov was famously killed in a duel. I spend a relaxing week with Marcus and Nadia, including the notable Soviet Victory Day holiday on the 9th May, which celebrates the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945. Veneration of the Great Patriotic War was effectively a state religion during Soviet times, and the celebration continues today with parades of veterans and an orgy of Russian nationalism. Accordingly, we spend the day in the park drinking beers, and end up at the opulent home of one of Nadia’s friends, whose mother runs the largest brothel in town, for the ubiquitous Russian shashlik (kebabs) and vodka.
During this week I also finalise arrangements to briefly cross the Caucasus once more and enter the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, which rather like Abkhazia last month, involves emails to the Foreign Ministry in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinval. After initial confusion, I am granted access to visit their tiny republic, which is technically part of Georgia. I leave Marcus, Nadia and Artur early one morning, moving east once more. I’m soon held up in traffic as I pass Pyatigorsk on the M29, the old Soviet highway running from Rostov to Baku. As I leave ‘Russian’ Russia, and enter the Republic of Kabardino Balkaria, so begins a day of trouble with the notoriously corrupt Caucasian traffic police. Just outside the city of Nalchik, I run a concealed red light and am immediately chased by eagerly waiting police. At the border with the Republic of North Ossetia, I am directed to pull over at a check-point and then accused of crossing a solid white line. In the town of Alagir I’m pulled over by a policewoman and told that I “just went over the line, a little bit”, and finally, at around 15:00, as I drive up towards the South Ossetian border, after having eaten nothing all day and certainly not drunk anything alcoholic, I’m breath-tested positively at a checkpoint with an ancient Soviet device. In each instance, a straf (fine) is expected to be pocketed by the policeman, but in each instance I simply refuse and wait them out, before they get bored and send me off. These farcical pantomimes of law-enforcement are more wearisome and time-wasting than threatening, but they’re hardly enjoyable.
In the town of Alagir I join the Transkam, or Trans-Caucasian Highway, which enters the narrow valley of the Ardon River, climbing between the soaring valley sides of beautiful grassy meadows dotted with the ruins of stone siege-towers and churches. The Transkam is one of only two roads crossing the Greater Caucasus north-to-south, a lifeline for the South Ossetians, a highly strategic conduit for the Russians, and a thorn in the side of the Georgians, for it was via the Transkam that the Russian Army supplied their forces in Georgia during the 2008 war. I pass the Russian border post at Nizhny Zarmag with little fuss, though once again my passport is not stamped, reminding me that I am technically entering Georgia illegally. Ten kilometres beyond the border post, still in Russia, I enter the Roki Tunnel which has been bored for 3730 m through the mountains, emerging in a wide amphitheatre of mountains in the de facto independent state of South Ossetia.
I’m flagged down by a few plain-clothed men, who turn out to be the South Ossetian border guards. My passport is taken and a phone call made to the capital; I mention the name of the minister with whom I had been in correspondence, and I’m soon ushered on my way. The landscape on the southern side of the mountains is broadly similar to the north, though slightly more open, and naturally further advanced in the transition from winter to summer. It’s a beautiful, sweeping descent in the afternoon to the capital Tskhinval, where I check into the shabby and decrepit Hotel Ireston.
The Ossetians are an intriguing ethnic group, descendants of the Alans, a Sarmatian tribe who in turn were the western group of the Scythians, a vast and enigmatic nation who inhabited much of Eurasia in antiquity, a time during which ‘Scythia’ represented a land beyond the frontiers of the known world. The Ossetian language is accordingly an ancient member of the Northeastern Iranian family, thought to be the only living remnant of an earlier, unknown Scythian-Sarmatian language. Today the Ossetians are squeezed in amongst the other nations of the Caucasus, though unusually are distributed both north and south of the Greater Caucasus range. With their distinct identity has come a struggle for recognition, which led to the creation of an autonomous South Ossetian region within Georgia throughout Soviet times. With the collapse of the USSR looming, the South Ossetians renewed their call for greater autonomy in 1989, leading to Georgia removing the region’s autonomous status, and the South Ossetians declaring full independence. When the USSR finally dissolved in 1991, these grievances erupted into yet another war in the Caucasus, one that resurfaced in 2008 with open Russian involvement, and has led to the existence of this tiny, largely unrecognised state.
Tskhinval is visibly devastated, with damage from the 2008 war still clearly visible on the northern edges of town, where homes have been reduced to empty shells amid piles of rubble and the overturned, burnt-out bodies of cars. The centre of town has been largely rebuilt, but the place has more the air of a depopulated provincial town than a national capital. It’s noticeably less Russified than Abkhazia, feeling more like the rest of Georgia, though the people look more European. There is a strong army presence, with Russian Army trucks hauling muddied tanks back up the Transkam to Russia, and many men walking around in military fatigues, but the atmosphere is friendly and pleasant.
At the western edge of town lies the strangely restored railway station and beyond, the long-deserted, rusted lines which are starting to warp as grass and small fir trees push up between the old concrete sleepers. The old platforms are breaking up, covered in weeds, and the pylons are slowly tumbling down. Behind the railway lines is a long-stilled crane, and a few old warehouses with leaning chimneys and rusting old metal pipework. The area has clearly been moribund since long before the 2008 war; a poignant symbol of the isolation and decay which the region has obviously suffered since the collapse of the USSR.
There’s really very little to see or do in Tskhinval, so after two nights I turn back north again, slowly heading towards Russia. I have no real map of the area, and there is certainly no guide-book. The only information I have come across comes from the rather optimistic ‘tourism’ section of the website of the South Ossetian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has a series of surprisingly beautiful photographs of the republic which I decide to try to find.
In the village of Gufta, I take a rough side-track which leads to the western edge of the republic, winding up through beautiful, steep, green hillsides dotted with hawthorns and small, brush-like trees. Here, close to the border with Georgia ‘proper’ is Lake Ertso, a shallow lake in a grassy meadow which is apparently famous for disappearing completely, only to later return. Whilst not particularly striking, it’s a pleasant spot among rolling hillsides and mountains still streaked by the last of the winter snows, but is absolutely deserted.
Retracing back to the main road, I stop in the town of Dzaw, the second largest in the republic but in reality a village of around 1500 people. Apart from being the only place I have visited which sports bust of both Lenin and Stalin (Stalin’s home town, Gori, is only 50 km to the south), there is little going on, but the scenery becomes increasingly impressive as I continue north. In the half-abandoned village of Nizhny Rok, I turn east and into the Urstualgom Valley, the highest in South Ossetia. A churned-up dirt track drops down from the main highway, crossing a river and passing an old, ruined siege-tower, then slowly climbs to the east. At the village of Zgubir, a beautiful, wide river valley opens up between mountains clad with pristine pine forest which leads to the Russian border. The village itself – a few houses built on a hill – has an almost complete, but abandoned stone church with a rusting tin roof and birch trees growing from the steeple, which the friendly villagers tell me is Greek (Byzantine).
The villagers in Zgubir also confirm that the ruined settlement of Verkhny Yerman, which the South Ossetian Foerign Ministry touts as the highest village in South Ossetia, lies at the end of the road, but tell me I must negotiate a Russian Army barracks en route. I encounter the army shortly after Zgubir, expecting to be turned away, but after simply showing my passport, I’m waved through and warned to stay on the main track, and not take any turns, indicating that I might be shot by the Gerogians. Soon after the barracks the road becomes a quagmire of muddy switchbacks which are barely driveable, but then levels out and reaches the tiny, isolated village of Edys, which is certainly the most idyllic looking place I’ve seen in South Ossetia. Situated within a wide meander of a small, fast-flowing mountain river, at the foot of snowcapped mountains, the dozen or-so homes of Edys are constructed entirely out of wood, with tall, steeply-pitched wooden-tile roofs overhanging wooden balconies. I decide to leave the truck near the village, and continue further on foot.
The track climbs through pine forest, passing cascades of volcanic tephra, then emerges into a double-headed valley surrounded by the snow-covered ridges which mark the border with Georgia. One lone wooden cottage sits in a valley to the south, but all around me are the signs of ancient settlements; foundations of rock walls and long-gone structures, and a plethora of tall gravestones covered in bright orange lichen, most leaning off-vertical and some totally fallen. They each bear a cross and are clearly Christian, but their totem-like form suggests an underlying pagan influence, like a Christianised evolution of the earlier megaliths also found in the region.
Climbing further into the valley to the east, I reach the nearly-abandoned village of Nizhny Yerman where the muddy track ends. Here are perhaps ten homes still standing, surrounded by a network of rambling dry-stone walls. One wooden structure has been built against an almost-complete stone siege-tower, the last remaining link with the stone ruins I see all around. Atop a small hill next to the village is a tiny stone chapel barely large enough for a man to crawl into, with a free-hanging bronze bell suspended on a pole connected to a conical cairn of stones. I speak to one man, who along with one other are the only souls I see in the village. He tells me that he now lives in Vladikavkaz, in (Russian) North Ossetia, and only comes here occasionally. Since the Russian government began to openly issue Russian passports to citizens of South Ossetia (and Abkhazia), it’s little wonder that so many South Ossetian villages are rotting away, as people leave this isolated and war-torn little republic to live in Russia.
Leaving the village, I walk further east into a treeless grassy valley, which is strewn with more ruins; stumps of siege-towers, toppled gravestones and crumbling stone walls. At 2400 m, it’s an intriguing ruin of what must once have been quite a sizeable community, something like Ushguli in Svaneti, Georgia. A few kilometres further, crossing a pass at the head of the valley would lead to the volcanic Kelsko Plateau, but it’s still deep in snow, I am out of supplies, and I am not even sure which country it technically lies in, so I return to the truck in Edys.
Next morning I return to Russia. Like all roads in South Ossetia, this one is a dead end, and so I must backtrack down the valley, past the Russian Army and back onto the Transkam, climbing the last few kilometres to the post at Vekhny Rok where the road plunges back into the Roki Tunnel, back into Russia and into Europe.
This first leg of my journey through the North Caucasus has been a warm re-introduction to Russia, to the western ethnic republics, and to the most striking scenery of the Caucasus. South Ossetia, whilst not technically part of the North Caucasus, is presently only accessible from the region, and has been a curious insight into this forgotten oddity of a country. Now however I have my sights set on the final leg of my journey through the Caucasus; across the remaining four republics to the Caspian Sea.
The Caucasus Mountains stretch from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west, and mark the notional geographical border between Asia to the south and Europe to the the north. The term ‘east meets west’ is used far too often, but in the string of republics which lie on either side of this divide, the largely Muslim cultures of the east and Christian cultures of the west lie (often uneasily) side-by-side. The Caucasus are a patchwork of nationalities with a long history of feuds, internecine fighting and politically charged inter-ethnic hatred. For much of the 20th Century, the Caucasus lay almost entirely within the borders of the USSR, but as the huge empire began to topple in the late 1980s, numerous long-standing tensions resurfaced in a series of bloody wars, leaving wounds which remain fresh today. In this relatively small region are dozens of nations, and a complex jigsaw of borders, enclaves, exclaves, autonomous republics and no less than three de facto independent breakaway states.
It’s the 31st March 2010, and I enter Azerbaijan on a rainy afternoon, at the small cross-border town of Astara. I have a five-day transit visa, but strict vehicle import rules mean that the truck may only remain in the country for 72 hours. There’s a steady rain as I leave the border crossing and head north towards the capital. The low-lying ground along the shore of the Caspian is verdantly green and alive with croaking frogs, whilst my surroundings bear all the familiar touches of the former USSR; small houses with rustic gardens, shops with hand-painted signs, old Kamaz trucks, Ikarus buses, Soviet road-signs, patchy asphalt roads and plenty of nasty traffic police. Whilst being reassuringly Soviet, it does not appear on first impression to be as Russified as most parts of the former USSR.
The history of Azerbaijan is tied very much to that of Persia, though by the 18th Century self-ruling khanates (tribal chiefdoms) had emerged, and in the 19th Century the area formally switched from the Persian to the Russian Empire. Although the Azerbaijanis speak a language quite similar to modern Turkish, they are a mixture of Caucasian and Iranian people, further mixed with later Turkic migrants from the time of the Mongol Empire. While culturally strongly Turkic, the centuries of Persian rule persists in their adherence to Shi’ite Islam. Azerbaijan gained brief independence in the turmoil which followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, but in less than two years was absorbed into the USSR. Lasting independence came once more in 1991, and the country (or rather a small elite of the country) has since quietly prospered with the revenue of its considerable hydrocarbon wealth. A father-to-son dictatorship, Azerbaijan has done noticeably less than neighbours Georgia and Armenia open up to foreign visitors, and the country is deemed to be highly corrupt, even by regional standards.
It’s dark and pouring with rain by the time I reach the capital Baku, where I am hosted by Kyle, an American Peace Corps volunteer who has opted to stay on in the country. Baku is the world’s lowest capital city, located on the oil-rich Absheron Peninsula 21 metres below sea level, and is probably Eurasia’s oldest oil boom-town. Even during Soviet times, Baku was known as a prosperous city, something which becomes apparent as I explore the following day. The city ‘centre’ is located on the damp Caspian seafront, with a long, curving promenade of grandiose 19th and 20th Century buildings, all constructed from fine, buff-coloured sandstone. With the gaping inequality and corruption; late-model black SUVs screeching down streets where old widows rifle through litter bins, the grandeur is somehow lost however, and what might be an elegant and chic city reeks more of the vulgarity of the nouveau riche. The streets are filled with posturing youth attempting to look wealthy and urbane in cheap Chinese copies of western fashions, and the traffic police are out in force with their glowing orange batons, shaking down passing motorists who don’t appear rich enough to have connections in the police. I fail to warm to the place.
Behind this ostentation lies the Old City, which in corners is pleasantly rustic but seems just a little too restored and manicured to have any real historical atmosphere. It’s a pleasant place to walk though, down narrow streets of two-storey sandstone buildings with overhanging balconies of wooden canopies or wrought-iron railings in the midst of which is the occasional blocky sandstone mosque with elegant Persian-style portals. Further Behind this lie the large, newer suburbs of the city which grew up during Soviet times, and are presently being added-to with luxury apartment complexes. Here I catch a glimpse of real life as I sit in a small café full of jolly daytime drinkers, staffed by plump middle-aged women in pinafores who stir large pots of Soviet stolovaya (canteen) food. I could be just about anywhere in the former USSR, but there is a noticeable absence of Russians, even when compared to Central Asian cities such as Tashkent or Bishkek. It’s a reminder of the inter-ethnic wars which followed the collapse of the USSR, part of Russia’s long standing troubles in the region.
I leave Baku the following day, heading north-west, closing in upon the mountains. The road climbs immediately when leaving the capital, and winds up onto a plateau of fresh green grass, undulating over the ripples of outliers which are divided by wide, muddy, boulder-strewn river beds. From one of these ridges I catch my first glimpse of the crestline of the Greater Caucasus range; a sharply-defined, distant ridge of snowcapped rock which marks the border with Russia and Europe. I pass through delightfully bucolic farming villages with trees that are just erupting into full spring bloom and bushes of fresh white blossoms. After so long in Asia’s deserts and mountains, it’s a pleasure to see a real spring, and I realise that even Azerbaijan feels very European with its pretty villages, tree-lined avenues and European flora and fauna such as brambles and blackbirds.
It’s a pleasure to drive through such beautiful vernal countryside, through small villages of single-storey stone houses and whitewashed walls, and provincial towns such as Qabala and Ismayilli which have a strongly Caucasian, rather than Soviet character, and are a world away from the brashness of Baku. I stop for the night in the town of Shaki, which nestles in a fold of mountains marking the border with Dagestan, and was an important city in the ancient kingdom of Caucasian Albania. The steep and winding streets are lined with smart, brick and stone buildings, with flourishes of Persian influence evident in the highly decorated Khan’s Palace and an elegant, restored old caravanserai. The place feels quite Turkish, with men sitting in cafés and on doorsteps playing nard (backgammon), smoking and drinking tea. Walking up a nearby hill one sees perhaps the best view of the town; a sea of terracotta-tiled rooftops pierced only by the occasional minaret.
I have to leave Azerbaijan the following day, and so leave Shaki in the morning, continuing through Zaqatala to the border town of Balakan, which seems a popular spot for begging gypsies. A few kilometres north of town I slip out of Azerbaijan, 71 hours after entering, and enter Georgia.
I can’t remember the last time I entered a country for the first time and was so immediately impressed with it as I am when I enter Georgia at the small border crossing at Lagodekhi. Georgia is one of the oldest Christian states, and has largely resisted the Persian and Turkic empires which have long surrounded it, even driving out the Mongols in the 13th Century after a short occupation. Georgia corresponds roughly to the kingdoms of Colchis and Iberia in antiquity, and is thought to be home to the Golden Fleece which Jason and the Argonauts sought. Christian since at least 337 CE, Georgia has existed through time as a series of kingdoms which were ultimately incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 18th Century. Georgia has had a shaky start to independence, with wars, refugees, economic chaos and rampant corruption and crime, but has recently staged a striking renaissance with transit revenue from the Caspian – Black Sea pipeline (exporting oil from the Caspian to Europe without crossing Iran), and the eponymous and sometimes controversial pro-Western president Mikheil Saakashvili, who is widely lauded for cleaning up the country and inviting massive foreign investment.
I’m slightly puzzled by the EU flag which flies at the Georgian border post, but soon realise that it is merely aspirational, or perhaps a provocation to the Russians. Georgia is the first country in almost three years for which I don’t require a visa, and entry procedures are brief and friendly. I’m soon driving through the damp countryside of Georgia’s Kakheti Region, whose rolling landscapes are dotted with old stone forts and churches, and lined by vineyards and muddy villages of wooden homes. Everything around me is at once familiar, friendly and un-ostentatious, and lacks Azerbaijan’s air of corruption; I’m immediately impressed by the country.
I reach the Georgian capital Tbilisi in the afternoon, where I am hosted by Murdoch, a Kiwi writer whom I had met in Pakistan last year, who lives with his girlfriend Sarah in an apartment in the upmarket district of Vake. Tbilisi is immediately endearing with its ramshackle Old City of decrepit town houses and charmingly faded streets. The central bazaar is alive with commerce, and there is a positive and upbeat air. The city lacks any real pretentious atmosphere, but manages to be suave and even sophisticated. It’s not given over to soulless commercialisation, though is neither squalid nor seedy. As a capital, it’s one of the most charming cities I can remember being in, and I soon feel that it is a place in which I would be happy to live.
Walking up a hill in the west of town, one sees a wide panorama of the city; a sea of low red rooftops amongst labyrinthine old streets. The centre is mostly devoid of ugly new buildings, and the Soviet concrete monsters are relegated to the city’s edge, leaving a largely intact ancient historic centre. To the south, remnants of the city’s medieval walls are draped over long, green hills, and everywhere the city’s roof-scape is dotted by the low, fluted conical spires of Georgian churches, which seem to have survived the repression of Soviet times in great number. Beyond the city limits the Greater Caucasus begin, giving a dramatic mountainous backdrop to this homely and pleasant city.
Tbilisi’s clean atmosphere is helped by the reforms which have been made to the police force. Strong anti-corruption measures have led to a paradigm-shift in the country’s police. Unlike most post-Soviet countries, the Georgian police force is changing from a militia, that is, a force designed to harass and keep watch of the public, to a police force which exists to serve and protect the public. I almost feel sorry for the police, who seem like toothless old dogs compared to their bribe-hungry regional counterparts.
The Georgians themselves are as equally beguiling as their country, with the warmth and laid-back joie-de-vivre of Asians, but also the rationality and worldliness of Europeans. They are rather like Russians in this respect (a compliment few Georgians would appreciate), though further lack their stoicism and tragedy. Georgians will fervently cross themselves when passing anything remotely religious, but they’re hardly bloody-minded fundamentalists. They strike me as particularly easy people to get along with, though many of their neighbours would vehemently disagree; this is after all, the Caucasus.
Tbilisi is so perfect that I easily while away a week here, wandering the city and stopping in plenty of bars to watch life go by. I do however need to find a way to Russia. With the Georgia-Russia border closed to outsiders, my only hope (aside from an expensive ferry or a very long detour) is the breakaway republic of Abkhazia. After initially being refused entry, I make some tense phone calls and eventually speak to someone high-up in the Abkhazian Foreign Ministry, who grants me access to drive over the Inguri River and into Abkhazia. My route into Russia is thus opened ahead of me.
Murdoch and I set off one morning, heading west. We stop in the town of Gori, birthplace of Ioseb Besarionis dze Jugashvili, better known as Soviet leader Josef Stalin. In the centre of town, near his preserved childhood home, stands a large, imposing black statue of the man. Having survived Khruschev’s de-Stalinisation, it seems a slightly odd relic in a country so avowedly anti-Russian and pro-Western, surviving by the sentiment of local residents. The monument was in fact demolished two month later.
We head further west, along the southern border of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, which since the 2008 war with Russia has been a tense cease-fire line, making the de facto independent state inaccessible from the rest of Georgia. From Gori, the road winds further west, though steep, rolling green hills dotted by wooden farmhouses and small fields. We stop for lunch in Kutaisi, the historic capital of Colchis, then descend towards the Black Sea to the town of Zugdidi, close to the cease-fire line with Abkhazia.
Leaving Zugdidi the following day, we drive north and are soon looking at a magnificent view of the mountains; a great wall of snow-covered rock rising up to the north. The road initially follows the Inguri river, then deteriorates in quality as it starts to climb through forest, eventually opening to wide, grassy meadows and mountain villages. The landscape here is just emerging from winter, and at one point a huge mudslide has made the road impassable, necessitating a tow from a bulldozer which is driven by the mayor of the nearby town of Mestia. Whilst waiting at the mudslide, we had been invited by a local to stay at his home, something we are glad to do when we arrive in Mestia in the late afternoon.
Mestia is the capital of the region of Svaneti, a historic, mountainous province of Georgia inhabited by the Svans, who are an ethnic sub-group of the Georigans. In addition to mountainous scenery, Svaneti still retains dozens of characteristically Caucasian siege towers; tall, fortified structures which dot the villages that cling to the mountainsides, and were used for protection in times of war, something also evidently characteristic of the Caucasus. Although Mestia offers plenty of well-kept towers, it still has the feel of a small town rather than a mountain village, and so we leave after two nights to the farthest point of the Inguri Gorge; the villages of Ushguli to the east, which lie under some of the highest peaks of the Cacuasus.
The drive to Ushguli is a marvellous piece of alpine driving, as the snowmelt turns the road to mud, with rivulets of water streaming down the road surface. We have a brush with disaster shortly after leaving Mestia as, whilst driving up the valley side, two huge boulders drop down from the hillside onto the road, one stopping dead and one bouncing off into the valley below, both just metres from the back of the truck. What follows is hours of slow, slippery mountain track which hugs hillsides at awkward cambers, and crosses rocky riverbeds churning with snowmelt. The truck handles it all with ease, but it’s the longest period I’ve yet had to keep it engaged in four-wheel drive.
As evidence of the gruelling road conditions, the most precarious parts of the road are dotted by small shrines; open wooden boxes each on a stake driven into the ground, containing a photograph of someone who most likely plummeted to their death in the valley below, and a bottle of chacha (fiery Georgian pomance brandy) and some small glasses. We stop at one such shrine to toast the deceased, each taking a shot of the clear, slightly yellowish liquid. At around 60% alcohol it burns the throat (for a moment I wonder if it’s not petrol), but we make better time afterwards, despite the treacherous mud.
We find a homestay in Chvibiani, one of the villages which make up the greater settlement of Ushguli. Outside, the clouds roll down and snow is falling once again. Nevertheless, fortified with more chacha from our hosts, and donning a pair of rubber boots, I slide up through the quagmire of mud and manure which passes for a street (and in which the truck is parked), then walk up a nearby hill through snow in places more than a metre deep. I find a good overlook, and as the clouds swirl and lift slightly, the snow stops and I’m left with a view down the valley to villages of Chazhashi and Murkmeli, which look to be straight out of medieval Europe. Squat, austere village houses with open upper floors and ornately carved wooden balconies nestle among tall, imposing siege towers with gently pitched slate roofs. Fierce, bored sheepdogs bark, and pigs root in the mucky alleys between buildings, but barely a human soul stirs. It’s the end of a long winter, during which life must all but stop in this high community. It’s a wonderful scene, and one of my favourite moments in Georgia.
We return to Zugdidi the following day, from where Murdoch returns to Tbilisi and I stay a couple of days preparing the truck for crossing the Russian border. On the evening before my departure into Abkhazia, I meet Karolina, a Polish volunteer who lives in the town, and I delay leaving Georgia by a couple of days. I must leave the country however, as I have been very fortunate to have been given permission to drive through Abkhazia and on into Russia. I leave Zugdidi one morning to the heavily policed bridge over the Inguri river. Here the Georgian police seem surprised by my letter from the Abkhazians, which gives me permission to enter by car, but after asking me to write and sign a disclaimer explaining that the Georgian authorities take no responsibility for my safety whilst in Abkhazia, they let me pass.
With a wonderful, welcoming atmopsphere, a very pleasant capital, stunning mountain scenery and endearing people, it’s really difficult to find fault with Georgia. The only annoyance has been the totally indecipherable alphabet, but that is merely my own ignorance. There is one thing however which worries me about the country; the nagging doubt that its untouched, unpretentious charm may merely be a brief snapshot of a country in flux, rather like the first signs of spring. On its current, western-oriented path, will Georgia surrender to the soul-less modernising uniformity which pervades much of Europe? Or will Georgia perhaps come under Russian influence once again, and return to a more reclusive state of corruption, like neighbouring Azerbaijan?
Reaching the far side of the Inguri river bridge, the Abkhazian officials seem surprised to see me, but upon presentation of my letter from the foreign ministry, I’m allowed to enter without even having my passport checked. It’s a grey and dreary morning, which seems to amplify the dereliction and devastation I see around me; a devastated road leads slowly through a dank landscape of abandoned, crumbling and rotting homes; presumably the homes of Georgians, vacated during periods of ethnic cleansing by Abkhazian forces in 1992-3 and 1998. Gali seems to be hanging on the edge of existence, only partly inhabited, with the chorus of croaking frogs enjoying the rain the liveliest thing in town. There is a heavy Russian military presence in the area including patrolling helicopters, and I’m stopped by the Army, who are very polite, but thoroughly search the car.
I get my first glimpse of the Black Sea shortly before the town of Ochamchira, where the road improves markedly, and life returns to some semblance of normality. Despite the obvious signs of depopulation and destruction, one cannot fail to notice just how beautiful the coastline is; with a turquoise sea lapping against clean, pebble beaches lined with palm trees and pines, which continue on into the lush foothills. I reach Sukhumi, the capital around lunchtime, and head to the foreign ministry to pick up my Abkhazian visa, which comes as a loose piece of paper rather than being stuck in my passport.
Sukhumi has a gorgeous location in the mouth of a broad valley, and spreads up into the hills amidst a patchwork of emerald forest. The city still clearly bears the scars of war; whole residential districts of crumbling, bullet-pocked apartment buildings, and plenty of open lots which have gone to seed, with trees sprouting through old asphalt. The old, classical Soviet railway station is unused, leaving a decrepit network of trolleybuses as the only civic transport service. The centre is smarter with a pleasant, palm-lined seafront and several new hotels, but the city’s largest building, the thirteen-storey parliament building, remains a burnt-out skeleton with an empty plinth out front, most likely inhabited by Lenin in times past.
The liveliest part of the city is of course the bazaar, where I sit in a small café for a lunch of basic Russian fare. Here men walk in from the bazaar, take 100 grams of vodka at the counter and walk out wincing, back to work. Unlike Georgia, there are plenty of Russians here, amongst the Abkhazians, Armenians and others who live here. It seems rather like a time-warp back to the USSR; there is no real assertion of national identity that I can feel, certainly not when compared to other newly-independent republics of the former USSR, and the atmosphere is very unlike that in Georgia. An old, forgotten mural near the bazaar shows the classic Soviet image, of three multicultural workers with their tools; but this isolated and half-ruined throwback of a country seems to be a perfect example of the flimsiness of Soviet ethnic harmony, in the Caucasus at least. With the Union toppling, long-standing resentment at ‘Georgianisation’ among Abkhazians erupted into a horrific civil war in 1992, which has left the former autonomous republic isolated and near-destitute. It’s not easy to see what the Abkhazians have gained by chasing all the Georgians out, and I wonder whether this was a conflict stirred up by the greedy and power-hungry, or if it really was an expression of the hatred of one ethnic group for another.
My impressions of a lack of nationalism come perhaps from the large assimilated Russian population, but these are shattered when I meet my first Abkhaz; Gioni, Georgi and Dima, who invite me for a Turkish coffee when I meet them on a seafront bench. Shocked to hear that I have come from Georgia, Gioni begins waving his fist in the direction of Tbilisi; “Fuck you Georgia!” he shouts, “They have caused this; this destruction, desolation and isolation”. These sentiments aside, they are warm and friendly guys, keen for the outside world to see their beautiful, once famous, now forgotten homeland. “Tell your friends to come”. With no airport, it’s hard to imagine many foreigners flocking through Russia or arguing with the foreign ministry to enter through Georgia to this admittedly beautiful slice of coastline, though Abkhazia has become popular once more with Russian tourists looking for a cheaper alternative to Sochi or the Crimean. The guys quickly rebuke any comparison between Abkhazians and Georgians; ethnically, linguistically or physically, but are curious to hear about Georgia. It’s difficult to compare Abkhazia with what is currently one of the most progressive countries of the former USSR, so I merely concede their point that it is indeed different.
After four nights in Sukhumi, I continue my drive up the coast, with the signs of destruction becoming ever fainter with proximity to Russia, and the scenery becoming ever more beautiful. With bright green, forested hills and clear blue rivers cascading down towards the turquoise sea, it’s easily as beautiful as the Mediterranean. I take a side road which winds north towards the mountains, first tracking the crystal-clear Bzhyb river through a towering limestone gorge, then climbing through green forests of beech trees and pines amid a sea of yellow wildflowers to the beautiful alpine Ritsa Lake, with blue waters of glacial melt surrounded by steep, forested hills, and backed by the most westerly snowcapped peaks of the Caucasus. It’s an idyllic spot, one that Stalin also clearly enjoyed, for his dacha (holiday house) lies at the far end of the lake. It is here that I begin to see why Abkhazia was so coveted by Soviet leaders, and why it was the most exclusive of the USSR’s holiday spots. It really is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
Returning back down the gorgeous valley in the late afternoon, I drive all the way to the coastline and the delightful little resort town of Pitsunda, another favourite holiday spot amongst Soviet leaders. After dinner in a café playing 1980s music, I drive out to the beach and watch the sunset from the pine forest which comes all the way down to the sea. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been somewhere as perfectly tranquil and beautiful as this.
Early next morning I walk along the pebbly shore, which has not been ‘developed’ in any way since Soviet times. From the thick pine forest sprout three large fifteen-storey hotels, as elegant as any Soviet structures I’ve seen, with roof bars overlooking the sea, where dolphins jump in schools just off the coast. Pitsunda must have been the holiday spot of the Soviet elite, enjoying the warmth and beauty after the alternately freezing and sweltering depths of the Eurasian continent. It was indeed here in Pitsunda, in 1964 that Nikita Khrushchev received a call from Brezhnev summoning him to Moscow, where he was forced to resign the following day.
Pitsunda has one last delight, as I drive back towards the main highway, when I stop at Inkit Lake. Lying just beyond the coast, fed by the waters of the Bzhyb river, the tranquil lake is backed by small houses and tall, brush-like poplars and conifers, then successive ridges of emerald green forest, crowned ultimately by a fine ridgeline of snow-covered peaks.
Rejoining the main highway, I drive through the popular resort town of Gagra on a winding coastal road, though encounter nothing as beautiful as Pitsunda. In the early afternoon I reach the Psou river which marks the border to Russia and leave Abkhazia. This constitutes an illegal exit of Georgia, meaning I will not be able to return on the same passport. Nevertheless, Abkhazia has been a pleasant surprise; I wasn’t expecting to find one of the world’s most beautiful spots in this neglected corner of a troubled region.
I would like to have spent more time in the South Caucasus; to have visited Armenia, and seen more of Georgia, but the short Siberian summer was beckoning, and so I left further exploration of the region for a later date. Having reached the western extremity of the Caucasus I prepared to double back, passing through the ethnic jigsaw of Russia’s troubled North Caucasus republics, back to the Caspian Sea.
This stage of the journey – passing through a corner of Afghanistan then heading across the plains of Khorasan to the Iranian capital and on to the Caspian Sea and the frontier of the former USSR – would mark the last in the conservative societies of southern and western Asia in which I had been for more than two years.
It’s the 26th December 2009 and Duncan and I have just left the end-of-the-world town of Serhetabat at the southern tip of Turkmenistan, and entered Afghanistan once again. Entering the country is relatively simple despite my lack of a Route Permit, and we soon are in the muddy border town of Torghundi, which looks more like a sprawling village. The town is full of lorries making the transit to Turkmenistan and feels immediately more worldly and alive than any of Turkmenistan’s curiously comatose settlements. It’s late afternoon when we arrive and we decide to stay for the night to avoid driving the road to Herat in the dark, as it passes through areas with a Taliban presence.
As always we head to a chaikhana (teahouse) to stay for the night, but the local police soon find us and forbid us from staying there. I explain to them that we do not wish to pay for an expensive hotel (if one exists) and so we are invited to stay the night at the police station. Thus begins an eventful evening in the company of the police chief, a jolly, wiry Turkmen, and a number of young officers who are interested to meet us. We are fed a good meal which is supplemented by a bottle of illegal Turkmen vodka, though perhaps the most interesting part of the evening comes when the police chief pulls a live kestrel out from a cupboard, and allows it to hop and flap around in the room we are sitting in. Later, well after dark, some of the young officers enter the room, very heavily armed with chains of bullets thrown over their shoulders and invite us to join them on a night raid to ‘shoot Talibans’. Serious or otherwise, I imagine the police chief would not be best pleased if we were to join, and so we decline.
In the morning, just as we are ready to say goodbye to our hosts, the police chief becomes rather worried for our safety on the road to Herat. As there is only one road, there is no alternative and so we are given an escort, or rather a cavalcade of seven Police pick-ups filled with armed officers for the first leg of the journey. Not long after we are stopped by the US Army coming the other way down the road (who have an escort of only three pick-ups) and my pick-up is searched by one of their local officers on suspicion of being used to transport drugs – rather a curious accusation seeing whose company we are in. Pretty soon however we are moving once again, until we reach a small village. All the Police stop here before jumping out and running off amongst the mud houses with guns drawn. Our hosts from last night say just one word to us: “Go”.
The road passes through a few villages in which we don’t stop, then crosses the shallow Robat-e Mirza pass in the Paropamisadae mountains whereupon the scenery changes subtly; gone are the sparse grasslands of Turkestan, replaced instead by a backdrop of long ranges of distant black mountains, beyond which the stony plains of Khorasan extend to the centre of Iran.
The similarity to Iran becomes even stronger once we arrive in Herat, whose long streets of fine bazaars and general air of culture and history make it far more like the great cities of Iran than anywhere I have come across so far in Afghanistan. The black, Persian chador is far more prevalant on the streets than the burqa seen elsewhere; the faces have softer, Aryan features and Persian replaces Pashto or Uzbek as the predominant language. Herat is indeed so much like Iran that I find myself on several occasions forgetting momentarily that I am still in Afghanistan; the city feels just like Iran, just with a rugged, chaotic touch.
Herat features in classical history as the capital of the Achaemenid satrapy of Aria, and became a flourishing centre of culture and the arts in the 12th Century, causing Rumi to describe it as the ‘Pearl of Khorasan’. The city became the capital of the Timurid Empire in the 15th Century following the death of Tamerlane, and much of the city’s grandeur dates this period. Though far from untouched by the ravages of recent history, Herat retains enough of its central streets and ancient architecture to be an impressive and endearing, living city; a far cry from the air of fallen grandeur which permeates Turkestan.
Duncan and I are hosted by Khalil, who works as an interpreter for the US Army in the city. He lives with his family in a modest though comfortable house which he has built himself, in a very rustic part of town which consists of linked mud-brick houses accessed via narrow and irregular alleys down which the truck can barely squeeze. Much of the centre of Herat is given over to bazaars; long streets of time-worn shop-fronts and narrow alleyways which occasionally give way to small caravanserais, some of which are beautifully restored with tall vaulted ceilings and porticoed shops. The smell of the spice bazaars immediately transports the senses to Iran and the Middle East; the pungent blend of spices, herbs and dried fruits which must have scented the trade routes of Eurasia for centuries.
Khalil takes us one evening to the old Citadel which is undergoing restoration; an impressive towered fortress which sits amongst the melee of a busy fruit market. From the ramparts of the citadel one has a panorama over the entire city, set against low, eroded mountains which give it an aspect much like many of Iran’s great cities. Amongst the warren-like lanes of mud-brick homes and shops, the glorious relics of Herat’s heyday as capital of an empire in which the decorative arts flourished, stick out with tall minarets and blue domes.
Herat’s Friday Mosque is the city’s most complete and restored highlight; a Timurid masterpiece covered in lavish faïence which has been very carefully restored and is still clearly in active use. To the north is the Mosallah Complex which would have been the city’s greatest architectural edifice; a medressa (religious school) built by Gowharshad Begum, the daughter-in-law of Tamerlane who made Herat the imperial capital. The medressa complex was levelled by the British in the 19th Century for fears of the Russians using it as a forward-base in an attack on India, and only five of the eight towering minarets remain, in a state of precarious decrepitude. In a adjacent park which is closed to the public, Gowharshad’s own elegant mausoleum sits forlornly; the stunningly intricate fluted dome looking rather bald after having lost almost all its turquoise tiles.
Another highlight, and one which Byron was particularly taken with, is the Sufi shrine to Khwaja Abd’allah Ansari, the pir (saint) of Herat, at Gazar Gah. Lying on a rise to the north-west of the city, the Timurid shrine has an elegant main portal with dazzling geometric mosaics of Arabic script, and a courtyard filled with the graves of those who have been buried near the pir, in the Islamic tradition. As I’m walking around the cemetery, a group of Kuchi nomads from neighbouring Badghis Province enter; three women with rough faces in heavy black chadors and wearing heavy silver jewellery make an offering to the pir, muttering prayers, whilst the men kneel and prostrate themselves towards the man’s tomb.
On my final evening in Afghanistan, I am invited, along with Duncan to have a discussion with a local mullah, though I excuse myself from the meeting as I am not in the mood for a heavy religious discussion. Instead, I take a taxi a few kilometres south of town on the old road to Kandahar, to the Hari river; that which we shall follow tomorrow to the Iranian border, where it heads north, eventually dissipating into the Tejen Oasis south of Merv. Here the Pol-e Malan, a beautifully restored Safavid bridge, crosses the wide, shallow river in twenty-two graceful arches, with water cascading gently over a wide slipway. It’s a popular place for Heratis to come and spend time, and it’s not long before a circle of young men, one of whom is in police uniform, invite me to join them. We speak for a while and share some very pleasant Afghan hashish, and I’m soon feeling extremely mellow. By the Western calendar, it’s New Year’s Day, but the temperature is mild and the sky is slowly dimming with vivid lances of pink and white as the sun dips beyond the horizon. I filter out the sound of conversation and traffic, and hear just the gentle roar of the river which together with the atmospherics is really quite blissful.
I’ve completed my dream of crossing Afghanistan, and it has far exceeded my already high expectations. The people I have met, and the places I have seen have had a magical, timeless quality about them. Afghanistan is utterly fascinating; at once war-ravaged and untouched, tense but welcoming, wild yet sensuously beautiful, backward yet steeped with the ruins of multiple empires which have come to pass. I’m thankful that I’ve not encountered any trouble in the country, but even more glad that I made the decision to come. It would certainly have been quite crushing to have left the region without having visited at least part of the country. I finally have a sense of closure and completion, though despite being more than two-and-a-half years into my journey I still have no wish whatsoever to return to Western Europe. The time has now come to begin a journey to another side of Eurasia; that of the former USSR.
As darkness falls, I rouse myself and begin the six kilometre walk back to Khalil’s house. I enjoy the heightened anonymity of the darkness and deeply enjoy the soliatry walk. Reaching Khalil’s house, I enter the room looking rather distant, and soon excuse myself to go and sleep.
The following morning is spent attending to some last-minute errands; importantly, my customs document has just arrived at the TNT office, meaning that I can enter Iran with my truck. We say our goodbyes to Khalil and his family, with whom we have stayed for a week in the atmospheric back-streets of this most magnificent city in Afghanistan. We head out west, tracking the Hari river towards the Iranian border crossing at Islam Qala. On the way, we call the guys in Mazar-e Sharif and learn that tragically, Ramesh has died. It seems so stupid that a young man who grew up in a war-torn country, who was well educated and due to soon be married, has died in what was a relatively minor car accident, most likely for not having worn a seat belt. It inclines the two of us to use ours more often.
We reach the Iranian border at Islam Qala and proceed to wait while the petulant Iranian officials deliberately delay us. While hordes of Afghans with vast bags full with goods move through with relative ease, we are eventually taken into an office and explained that it is necessary to be fingerprinted, due to being British. The customs officers are little better and I only just manage to get the truck through customs before the border shuts for the night. Despite the nasty introduction it is nevertheless nice to be back on Iran’s perfectly smooth and secure roads, and I drive through the night across the northern fringes of the Dasht-e Kavir on Highway 44, bypassing Mashhad, Nishapur and Sabzevar to arrive in the pleasant desert town of Shahrud.
We are hosted in Shahrud by Amir and his very welcoming family, who feed us wonderful meals of traditional Iranian dishes. Despite the feeling of having advanced several decades in time, there is a clear cultural continuity with Herat, and it’s interesting to see that rich Persian culture brought forward into modernity with bazaars of modern shops, well maintained mosques and gardens, and tidy small towns which are at once traditional and modern. Duncan moves on before me, to see some of the country’s great cities, while I stay a few days relaxing with Amir before moving west towards the capital.
Highway 44 continues west across the desert, through Damghan and Semnan towards the Alborz mountains and the capital. The traffic becomes thicker as Tehran sucks one in, like a massive sprawling organism of a city, feeding on the foul mass of traffic which hurtles headlong with reckless abandon towards the monster motor-city, passing through foul satellite towns such as Pakdasht; once quiet villages now witness to the hideous traffic which snarls endlessly around Tehran. Chimneys belch out smoke, casting a sickly brown light from the low sun. Cars, bikes and trucks hurtle past undertaking, overtaking, weaving through, and one has no choice but to join the locals in their reckless, lawless aggression; tailgating, squeezing in, playing chicken with two cars to squeeze through a narrow gap between trucks, like a charge of wild steeds galloping home, out of control. Entering the throes of the capital proper, one slots onto the system of expressways; speeding masses of cars flowing under bridges and round twisted spaghetti junctions. One has moments only to check a sign, before being swept past the turn, entering kilometres of unknown road twisting round and over the endless suburbs.
More than ever, Tehran seems bland, ugly and singularly charmless; I’m on a come-down after the weeks of adventure in Afghanistan and fall into a spell of boredom. Duncan rejoins me for a couple of days before departing on the train to Istanbul, from where he will fly home. It’s a sad departure after two very memorable months spent together. I must stay in the city however to examine my options for further travel. My ultimate goal is Russia and Mongolia, and I have a remarkable stroke of luck in finding Mr Kamenev the Russian consular assistant, who is extremely helpful; he is willing to issue me a one-year Russian business visa without any bank statements, HIV test or even a legitimate business reason for visiting Russia (though he suggests that I fabricate one for the application). All I need to do is wait several weeks for an invitation to be processed and sent from St Petersburg.
I leave Tehran after twelve days, and head north-west to the city of Qazvin, with its beautiful tiled mosques and a very fine, vaulted bazaar. Even more impressive however are the ruins of Soltaniyeh, close to the city of Zanjan. Soltaniyeh was once the capital of the Ilkhanid Empire, founded by Hulagu Khan, grandson of Chinggis Khan, who ruled much of south-west Asia during the 13th and 14th Centuries. Today the former capital is little more than a village, but the vast, domed mausoleum of Hulagu still dominates the barren plains. Erected in the early 14th Century, the 49 metre tall shrine’s vast turquoise dome is one of the largest brick domes in the world. From the exterior, which has lost almost all of its fine tilework, the building is rather brutish and imposing, but the vast interior chamber and upper galleries, reached by staircases which wind around the outer walls, are a magnificent opus of fine brickwork, stucco, and faïence. The contrast of the powerful exterior and delicate interior make it in my opinion one of the more graceful buildings of the Islamic world, and it is perhaps a fine metaphor for the Mongols themselves, whose initial wave of absolute terror gave way perhaps to western Asia’s greatest cultural renaissance.
From Qazvin I cross the western outliers of the Alborz mountains and drop down to the verdant littoral of the Caspian Sea, to the damp coastal town of Rasht which I had visited back in 2003. My host is Setareh, mother of a family who live in a modern apartment in the city centre. Although technically a lake, the Caspian Sea’s damp, salty air give the perfect impression of being at the ocean, something I have not experienced since leaving Sindh months ago. After so long in deserts and at high altitudes, the cool, damp climate makes a pleasant change, despite my pathological dislike of grey skies. However, it is on a trip to an Seljuk castle which lies in the Alborz foothills that I have perhaps my fondest reunion, when I find myself with Ali, Setareh’s eldest son, walking through the cool Caspian cloud forest, with mossy covered rocks and old-growth deciduous trees, swirling mist and a castle around which could almost come from medieval Europe. Thinking back, it’s the first time I’ve walked in a forest since I was in the Himalaya.
From Rasht I drive east once more along the damp coastline, then slightly inland to the city of Sari, capital of the historically notable province of Mazandaran. Modern Sari is a fairly uninteresting town, but it is here that I fall into a small but important demographic of Iran. My host Kiavash, who runs a clothes boutique, comes from an upper-middle class family, but he introduces me to a circle of the Iranian youth who frequent shops such as his; the free, ‘kept’ youth of the rich and powerful, who spend their time driving around town in expensive imported SUVs flirting with the opposite sex, and whose most pressing decision in a day might be what to wear. I visit the home of one such family, who are descended from the Qajar shahs and have a living room furnished with lavish 19th Century artworks. In the evenings there are parties with girls, drink and more, and I’m frequently left in a state of sheer disbelief at being in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
I reluctantly pull myself out of this world which seems so free and familiar, and re-cross the Alborz mountains to the commuter town of Karaj where I stay with Abol Fazl (Abo), who comes from a working class family and has to be one of the kindest people I have ever met. After spending more than a week in the notorious Evin prison, during which time he was tortured, and for nothing but a rumour spread by someone with whom he had fallen out, Abo is determined to leave his country. Without the money or power to enjoy a life of freedom, Abo is seeking it in the outside world.
I spend several weeks in the family home making trips to Tehran most days, where I start a brief and rather dangerous relationship with a young Iranian woman. I also meet my friend Simon who after failing to enter China with his two donkeys (with which he had planned to walk back to Switzerland), had sold them and bought a rather tired VW Beetle in Islamabad, in which he is instead driving home. We drive north in Simon’s Beetle towards Sari one evening, only for the engine to drop a valve and seize at the top of a cold mountain pass, which requires us to rebuild the engine over several days in Kiavash’s garden, much to the chagrin of his father.
Despite my unusual insights into contemporary Iran, as on previous visits I start to feel the weight of repression and frustration which is evident in much of the youth. Iran is a country with a huge young population in the midst of the growing pains of a modernising society which is slowly and precariously escaping the near-medieval rule of an Islamic theocracy. This theocracy, the Velayat-e Fakir, a party of clerics who claim a divine legitimacy to rule, are driving these young, frustrated Iranians away from Islam, and away from the country, just as the late excesses of the regime of the last Shah drove them to the seminaries and allowed the mullahs to hijack a popular revolution. Civil unrest is growing and potentially disastrous economic changes loom on the horizon in what seems a time-honoured repetition of the turbulent and fast-moving history of Iran.
Once I have finally collected the necessary visas, I bid farewell to my new acquaintances and drive through the night, making one final crossing of the Alborz mountains, then driving up the western Caspain coast, a narrow strip of sodden land below tall, lush mountains in which fine tea is grown, up to the port and border town of Astara. Here I say my final goodbye to the conservative Islamic societies of Asia, and slip into Azerbaijan.
The stretch of country ahead of me incorporated some of the least-visited corners of Central Asia; provincial market towns of northern Afghanistan, and a string of sleepy kolkhozes (collective farms) and eerily quiet cities in the desert wastes of Turkmenistan. Both seemed trapped in time, but in very different ways. In Afghanistan, the decades of war have stunted any modernisation of an already very traditional society for two generations, giving one the impression that parts of the country have changed little since the 13th Century. Turkmenistan on the other hand had emerged from the ruins of the USSR in 1991 and became even more insular and xenophobic, leaving the country with a pervading sense of lassitude, trapped somewhere in the 1980s and forcibly ignoring the outside world. For all its forlorn and end-of-the-world feel however, the area was historically at the heart of the great empires of Central Asia, with the oasis of Merv one of the world’s oldest settlements, and perhaps at some point just prior to the Mongol invasion, the largest city in the world.
Duncan and I leave the company of our hosts Elias, Aimal and Ramesh in Mazar-e Sharif (Mazar) on the morning of the 16th December 2009. We head east out of the city, onto the fertile plains between the northern edge of the Hindukush and the Amu Darya. Now, in winter, the weather is cool and the landscape bleak, with only the bright white puffs of wool in the parched cotton bushes standing out from the endless shades of brown. Either side of the road is a continuous stream of small fortified farmsteads, old forts, shrines and ancient crumbling hills which dot the otherwise flat plain, all of the same beige of the native alluvial soils. It is clear that people have inhabited this place for aeons; it has the feeling of generations of cultivation and construction, with many mud-brick buildings slowly returning to the soil. Low graves and shrines are marked by colourful votive rags, which flutter in the brisk winter breeze. An old Soviet pipeline runs along the roadside, broken in places; another construction project now left to the work of time and the elements. The brand-new, western-funded road on which we’re driving is the latest layer of history in this landscape, an artery of a new Silk Road bringing goods from Europe and Turkey through Iran and Turkmenistan to fuel the nascent construction boom across Afghanistan.
Our first stop is the market town of Aqcha, which is predominantly Turkmen. Afghanistan’s Turkmen community left the Turkmen heartlands at the time of the Russian invasion in the late 19th Century and remain isolated from their brethren in the independent state of Turkmenistan, retaining a far more traditional lifestyle. We pull up on the muddy main street of the town, and head into a local chaikhana for lunch, before heading out to explore. The streets of Aqcha could be straight out of a 19th Century photograph; men (and only men) are almost all bearded, and wear voluminous turbans of white, grey or light blue. Men ride horses, or lead horse-carts through the streets, laden with cotton or other goods for sale. The bazaar is ramshackle and rustic with wooden canopies overhanging the entrances to rows of shops which line narrow streets lined with fully grown trees, now totally bare. The range of wares is large, but wool, carpets and jewellery are especially well-represented, and the whole place has a real timeless, Silk Road atmosphere. The Turkmen people are slightly reserved at first, and naturally surprised to see two westerners ambling through the bazaar, but curious glances almost always turn to soft, friendly smiles upon greeting. The range of faces is intriguing; from strongly Mongol to Aryan, highlighting the mixed ancestry from the long history of invasion and migration which characterises the region.
In the afternoon we return to the main road and continue west towards Sheberghan. Small patches of brilliant green grass seem to make use of the cool damp winter, and are attended by Turkmen shepherds grazing their flocks. At one point we pass a large old walled fortress which like so much in the area, is in a state of advanced decay. We stop when we see some armoured vehicles of the Swedish Army, who are based in Mazar. They stop traffic in both directions on the road, and deploy with weapons drawn against a wall on the south side of the road, and seem to be targeting something in the distance which is invisible to us. Other cars are waiting patiently behind and there is no gunfire, so we wait for a few minutes before moving on when signalled to do so. It’s the first time I’ve seen anything like a hostile situation in Afghanistan.
The landscape becomes flatter, and the settlements sparser as we approach Sheberghan and turn south towards the small provincial capital of Sar-e Pol. Low, rounded hills covered in lush green grass appear along the roadside, surrounded by villages of simple mud-brick dwellings where men are harvesting the last of the cotton crop. Sar-e Pol has a slightly different feel from Aqcha; it’s population are largely Tajik and Uzbek, and it’s a market town for the communities of the mountains to the south. Parts of the town seem almost totally untouched by modernity, with unadorned flat-roofed mud-brick houses like those in the villages on the road from Mazar. There are also a number of simple but elegant Bukharan-style mosques with outdoor courtyards covered by roofs supported with carved wooden pillars. Camels walk the muddy streets of the bazaar having been lead in from the surrounding desert transporting goods for sale or trade. At the edge of town, amid a concentration of graves which make the surrounding landscape a plain of hummocky grass is the simple white-washed shrine of Emam-e Khord. Signs of animal sacrifices, as well as the more common prayer rags hanging from stakes above graves hint at an ancient paganism which is practised by some in this most remote corner of Central Asia.
We spend the night in a cosy chaikhana whose walls and floors are covered with colourful rugs, drinking cups of green tea and eating a tasty meal of pulao; rice with meat, sultanas and shredded carrots, accompanied by a small round Uzbek-style nan (bread). Sar-e Pol is the end of a newly-surfaced spur road – beyond here are rough mountain tracks which lead to Bamiyan and the mountainous centre of the country – and so we retrace our steps north to the main road.
We stop in the town of Sheberghan, which was once the capital of an independent Uzbek khanate, and remains the most strongly Uzbek-dominated city in the country. The city is larger and more modern than either Aqcha or Sar-e Pol, with a dusty bazaar full of very friendly Uzbek traders, and Uzbek, rather than Dari is the language one hears on the street. Any remnants of the city’s past however seem to have long been destroyed by war, and after a brief stroll Duncan and I retire to a chaikhana and play cards over endless cups of green tea. In the evening we move to a different chaikhana for dinner, and sleep on the floor of an upstairs room. At around 03:00 I’m awoken by a figure standing at my feet carrying a machine gun. He turns out to be one of two policemen who visit us in the night to check who we are, then advise us that the chaikhana is not secure for foreigners. I shrug my shoulders and say that we’ll leave in the morning, and the officers, after looking rather incredulous, leave us to sleep. I imagine most foreigners they deal with are cosseted in bullet-proof vehicles with private security, and breeze into an expensive hotel.
West of Sheberghan the landscape becomes increasingly arid and the small mud-brick villages of domed houses thin-out, then disappear altogether, leaving the landscape marked only by the occasional crumbling caravanserai or whitewashed shrine. After Andhkoy, the road heads south and soon the landscape changes once more; low, powdery hills appear on the horizon, criss-crossed by endless sheep-trails which give them a velvety texture from a distance. Flash-floods and ephemeral rivers cut into this landscape of soft, loess-like soil, sometimes ruining entire villages which are left to slowly wash away. The road winds into these hills then crosses a low pass and descends into the town of Maymana; the end of the main road before it disintegrates into a terrible mud-track and enters Badghis Province – one of Afghanistan’s poorest – which presently suffers from a high rate of banditry, just as it did when Robert Byron passed through in 1934.
Maymana has something of the air of a desert outpost, yet is large and busy enough to almost feel like a city. It’s the capital of the province of Faryab, which has been suggested as the birthplace of the 9th Century philosopher and mathematician Al-Farabi (Alpharabius), a key figure in the Islamic Golden Age of thought, which developed the ideas of thinkers such as Aristotle and would subsequently fuel the Enlightenment in Europe. Like Sheberghan, Maymana was at one time an independent khanate, and has been historically important as an entry-point to Afghan Turkestan, on the trade route from Herat to Balkh. The town seems to have weathered the war slightly better than others in the region; the central streets retain an orderly grid-plan, lined with roadside channels and mature pine trees, and some of the streets in the bazaar are cobbled rather than the usual morass of sticky mud seen elsewhere. The population of Maymana are largely Uzbek, though with a significant Pashtun minority. This region of Afghanistan is not part of the traditional Pashtun heartland, but the 18th Century Pashtun ruler Ahmad Shah Durrani, effectively the founder of modern Afghanistan, moved his own people into these far-flung frontiers of his empire.
As usual, we spend our time exploring the city, and taking breaks for cups of green tea in chaikhanas, which for us have become something of a substitute for pubs and bars. We are refused permission to stay overnight in a chaikhana due to security concerns, and end up staying in the basic Municipal Hotel, right in the centre of town. Dating from the 1920s, I imagine it is almost certainly the same hotel which Robert Byron stayed in, which is some compensation for being denied the convivial atmosphere of the chaikhana.
The following day we head north once more, back to the town of Andkhoy, the last point of call before entering Turkmenistan. We make a phone call back to the guys in Mazar, as I am expecting an important customs document for the car to be sent there, and hear some tragic news; Ramesh has been in a car accident and is in a coma in a US Army hospital.
As we emerge from the hills once more, onto the desert plains near the Turkmen border, I see something which fulfils one of the mental images I had of Central Asia, long before the journey started. Just beyond the roadside, a man on horseback leads a caravan of six dromedary camels, lightly laden on their way back from town. These camels are not for tourist rides, but are being used to carry goods to market; for just a moment, I am seeing the Silk Road in the 13th Century.
The sense of timelessness is continued in Andkhoy, which is a muddy and slightly shambolic frontier town, one in which trade unfolds as it has done for centuries. Duncan and I find a room in a large chaikhana, then set out to explore the town which I immediately fall in love with. Many goods are brought here by camels, often colourfully decorated with pommels and with beautiful carpets thrown over their humps. The buildings of the bazaar are delightfully ramshackle; at the edge of the ankle-deep mud which fills the streets, the shop-fronts are shaded by canopies of rickety wooden beams, covered in mud and straw to fend off the fearsome summer sun. Under these canopies sit the mostly Uzbek shopkeepers, all in flowing turbans and sometimes wearing thick traditional kaftans, some sitting out on beautiful, frayed old Turkmen teke carpets or Bukharan rugs. The whole scene is my Silk Road fantasy come true; what I am seeing is probably very close to what Marco Polo saw on his Silk Road epic ‘The Travels’. I feel like I am seeing the very last vestige of the Central Asia of old, untouched by the Soviets or indeed by modernity at all. It’s the kind of scene one hopes to see when visiting Samarkand and Bukhara, touted as being centres of Silk Road history, but comes away from disappointed, for the streets there are sanitised, and the bazaars full of Chinese rubbish.
Andkhoy is a famous centre of carpet production, and we visit a number of stalls where gorgeous silk carpets are being finished, and are displayed for sale. I have a strong disliking of souvenirs, but I do look longingly at a beautiful 1 x 2 metre silk carpet of dazzling quality, which at $250 (before haggling) would be less than a tenth of its value in Europe. Regrettably I decide that the carpet would not fare well in the truck, and settle for a tiny, second hand rug which contains a fantastic amount of dust.
Another thing which Andkhoy is famed for is some coarse, locally produced moonshine, and after some sordid enquiries in the bazaar, which elicit winks and conspiratorial smiles in response, we procure two measures, sold in small clear plastic bags. Back in our room after dinner, we drink the stuff which, judging by flavour might be watered down rubbing alcohol or nail-polish remover. As well as being absolutely revolting, it inspires us to violence and we have a good fist-fight before turning in to bed.
The next morning is grim; head and body ache in equal measure. I also need to make a trip to Mazar to see our friends, and to chase my shipment which should have arrived. We decide to take a taxi, and arrive in Mazar to find Aimal, Elias and Ashraf understandably glum, rather different from their normal exuberant selves. Ramesh is in a critical condition and, being in a US Army base, may only be visited by immediate family, or by Aimal who works there. My DHL shipment is nowhere to be found, and it turns out that they had misinformed me; they in fact cannot deliver to private addresses in Afghanistan, and my vital customs documents, without which the car cannot enter Iran, are languishing in Kandahar Airbase. Luckily, I am able to call on AJ in Kabul to collect them from their office in the capital, and send them on to Herat with a more competent and better-connected courier.
The return journey by taxi the following day, during which Duncan and I sit in the boot of a Toyota Corolla estate playing cards, becomes eventful when the driver is stopped by police. The officers find some reason to request a fine from the driver, who becomes enraged, losing his cool and shouting wildly at his tormentors. As he returns to the car to fetch something – his glasses, or some documents – the officers believe he is reaching for a weapon and wrestle him to the ground, guns pointed at the back of his head. After this everything is resolved, and the driver calmly returns and continues chatting and laughing with the other passengers. It’s a good demonstration of the desensitisation of people to violence and danger which belies their friendly and good nature; an ugly consequence of generations of war.
We leave Andkhoy the following morning for Turkmenistan, a necessary side trip on the road to Herat in order to avoid Badghis Province. The border crossing at Aqena, a place which is not marked on any maps I have ever seen, is in the middle of the desert 30 km north of town. It’s an arduous drive over muddy desert tracks gouged out by lorries into deep ruts, and it’s not until around midday that we arrive at the tiny border compound. After leaving Afghanistan we enter the gleaming Turkmenistan border complex at Imam Nazar, which has been funded by the US as a key supply route into Afghanistan. After considerable form-filling and various payments, we are loosed into the back-door of one of the world’s most inaccessible countries. We drive through featureless, scrubby desert past the Zeid reservoir and over the Karakum canal, another Soviet super-project with disastrous consequences, which takes large volumes of water from the Amu Darya and has played a major role in the disappearance of the Aral Sea. In the late afternoon, we reach the town of Atamurat on the Amu Darya, and find a clean and comfortable hotel room in the centre.
We awake to a warm winter morning in Atamurat, (which unofficially recorded the highest ever temperature in the USSR; 51.7ºC in 1983) and have a walk around. Once again it’s a sharp cultural contrast between Afghanistan and the former USSR, though the citizens of Turkmenistan are very reserved, if friendly. The city has some streets of neat 19th Century Tsarist buildings, including a neglected old church with plastic sheeting over the windows and a collapsing sheet iron roof, but there is nothing of specific interest. We walk onto a huge pontoon bridge across the Amu Darya, finally allowing us to get close to the turbulent, muddy waters of this great inland river.
We take the road which tracks the left bank of the Amu Darya, though the river never comes into sight after leaving Atamurat, and soon stop at the first of two Seljuk shrines which lie a short distance out of town. The shrine complex of Astana Baba is today a fusion of several buildings of various ages, and provides a touching insight into the secretive and mystical form of Islam which these taciturn people practice. We enter the shrine through an elegant portal, which contains large fragments of ancient Kufic stucco and fine, mosaic-like brickwork. We walk into an almost cavernous room of vaulted ceilings and low arches, beyond which lies the dimly-lit central chamber of the mausoleum below the large brick dome, whose floor is covered in striking Turkmen rugs. The tomb of the saint Astana Baba, whose identity is unknown is also draped in a rug upon which cash offerings are made. The shrine has developed a reputation for healing and is evidently popular as several Turkmen families, all smartly dressed, enter the shrine whilst we are there. On a large rug at one side of the room, the families kneel in the Islamic style, with their palms upheld and heads slightly bowed, and are lead in prayer by a woman. In all my years travelling in the Islamic world, I don’t ever recall seeing a woman leading prayer, and I’m left wondering if this is the result of Soviet gender-equality, or perhaps a far deeper one relating to the pre-Islamic roots of Turkmen spirituality, which are evident perhaps in the votive prayer rags flapping from the trees outside the mausoleum, or the ‘evil eye’ talismans which hang in every shop and car. The second building is the Alambedar Mausoleum, a small and elegant, almost cubic mausoleum with fine exterior brickwork, which represents a very fine example of 11th Century (i.e. pre-Mongol) Seljuk architecture, though has been shown not to contain any body, and seems not to attract the same crowds.
After the mausoleums, the road enters small kolkhozes, then plunges into the sparsely vegetated sandy desert which typifies much of Turkmenistan. As we approach the provincial capital of Turkmenabat, the road draws once again closer to the river and fields of cotton re-appear, before we suddenly plunge into the vast, almost empty boulevards of the city which wind between huge, modern government buildings and rows of old Soviet apartment buildings, made rather unconvincingly to look neat and modern with a coat of paint. We find a room in a basic hotel, then set out to see the city. Our fist stop is a small bar, where we meet Vlad, a middle aged Russian artist who hands us each a portrait which he has sketched in the few minutes that we have been in the bar. My heart goes out to the Russians trapped in this country by circumstance, who have no means of returning to Russia and must continue their lives in a country hell-bent on erasing the Russian language and promoting a sometimes rather fictitious Turkmen identity. After a short walk, we find a nightclub and get dead-drunk with some locals, before crawling back rather late to the hotel.
Next morning I am feeling surprisingly fresh – after recovering my shoes and bag from the car – and we set off to cross the Kara Kum desert. The air in the car reeks of vodka and I’m glad we’re not stopped by police our way out of the city, though soon enough we’re in the isolation of the desert, a monochrome landscape of brown wind-blown sand and parched brown shrubs. The drive has the pleasant, soporific quality of desert crossings which I so enjoy, but I’m struck by just how little traffic there is on this road, the only road to link Ashgabat, the capital to the country’s second city which we have just left, and the busiest border crossing on towards Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Perhaps this is not so surprising in a country where citizens need to apply for permission from the authorities to move from one province to another.
After lunch in the small town of Bayramaly, we drive to Mary, another provincial capital and the country’s fourth largest city. Once again, the city is a mixture of brand new government buildings, such as the striking Haji Gurbanguly Mosque, and crumbling Soviet apartment buildings. It’s clear that almost none of the vast wealth which the country generates from sales of gas and oil is put into anything useful for the general population. Just as striking, and rather more disturbing is the eerie quietness; the city’s vast, monumental highways have light traffic, but there are almost no people to be seen on the streets, and almost no shops, only endless manicured lawns and sterile, ostentations new buildings. A few families quietly wander the park, but the overwhelming impression is bewilderment at where all the people are.
We return to the quiet cotton town Bayramaly for the night, for it is just north of here that lie the remains of what was for a long time one of Central Asia’s most important cities: Merv, in the Margiana Oasis. Situated in the wastes of the Kara Kum desert, where the Murghab river draines into the Margiana lowlands, Merv was an important node of the Silk Road, and a strategic entry-point into either Persia, Afghanistan or the northerly cities of Bukhara and Samarkand beyond the of Amu Darya. Rather like Balkh, Merv has a long history stretching from the time of Asia’s earliest settlements, through the great empires of the Achaemenids, Seleucids, Bactrians, Parthians, Kushans, Sassanians, Arabs, Seljuks, Mongols and Safavids, before being taken by the Uzbek khans, the Turkmen and ultimately the Russians. The precise location of Merv has shifted through the ages, and thus a remarkable collection of ruins dot a wide area north of Bayramaly, which itself is merely the latest incarnation of Merv, having been inhabited since the 16th Century.
We start early and drive into Erkgala, the oldest part of Merv, a large circular crater of heavily smoothed mud-walls, which would have been occupied during the times of the Achaemenids and Alexander the Great. We have the place absolutely to ourselves with the exception of a herd of dromedaries who plod along the track without any guardian. We drive down, through the sparse ruins of Gäwürgala, of the Hellenic to Arab eras, which in reality are largely formless, through a breach in some crumbling defensive walls and into the largest of Merv’s incarnations, the mostly Seljuk city of Soltangala. Here is Merv’s most striking monument; the tall, imposing, square, 12th Century mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, the Seljuk sultan who ruled his empire from Merv, and who was responsible for first building a shrine to Hazrat Ali in Mazar-e Sharif. The once turquoise tile-work of the huge dome is now lost, and parts of the exterior have been rather poorly restored, meaning the structure looks more impressive somehow from a distance, when it rises from the desert haze long before one may discern any more details of the city.
Another of Merv’s intriguing buildings is the kepderihana, a windowless, oblong building with curious fluted walls, which is speculated to have been a pigeon house used to collect guano for fertiliser in the fields of the oasis. From a rent in these walls one may look over the scrubby plain towards Sultan Sanjar’s mausoleum, perhaps the finest view in this ruined leviathan of a city. Given the age of Merv, and the continuity of human habitation here, there is naturally an abundance of shrines dedicated to various holy men and notables. Whilst for the most part architecturally bland, these shrines are of far greater interest to the native Turkmen than any of the crumbling ruins. At the mausoleum of Mohammad ibn Zaid, we see a curious ritual; Turkmen women are circambulating a long-dead tree, whose lifeless limbs are draped in prayer rags, whilst throwing berries at the tree in what I presume is some kind of votive ritual.
We leave Merv late in the morning, and follow the Murghab river south, back towards the border of Afghanistan. We stop at another Seljuk shrine, that of Talkhatan Baba, then have a late lunch in the charming cotton town of Iolotan, stepping into a dark café-come-nightclub with a décor straight out of the 1980s and an attractive Turkmen waitress. In small towns such as this, which feel totally abandoned by any central government, there seems to be a touch more life on the streets, and for a moment Duncan and I consider staying for the evening, a final night of fun before entering Afghanistan and Iran. Our transit visas are due to expire tomorrow however, and so we decide to push on. The road is a lumpy and undulating old stretch of Soviet asphalt which passes through low scrubby hills grazed by occasional flocks of sheep led by lonely shepherds. Shrines sometimes dot the small farming communities on the left of the road which otherwise appear to be still and dormant.
Just after dark, we make the mistake of turning off the road and entering the garrison town of Tagtabazar in search of a hotel, and find ourselves at the police station. After some considerable questioning and inspection of documents, we are let off without a fine for deviating from our specified transit route, escorted back to the main road and told we will be met by police at the border town of Serhetabat, and led to a hotel. Upon reaching Serhetabat, nobody meets us, and indeed there is no hotel according to locals. Thankfully, a kind Turkmen man who sees us inquiring in a shop invites us to his home which he indicates he will not be sleeping in tonight, and leaves us with a roaring gas fire and a bunk bed.
Serhetabat marks the most southerly point of the former Russian Empire, and USSR, and is marked thus by a tall black cross. We climb up the hill on which the cross stands, through a crumbling Soviet Army barracks, for a view over the town. Rows of old and rather decrepit Soviet apartment buildings, dotted with satellite dishes march across the town, beyond which in the morning mist lies Afghanistan once more. It was through this town, known as Kushka at the time, that the Soviet Union first invaded Afghanistan in 1979. After lunch we fill the car with diesel and then head out to the border. Just as I’m getting my passport stamped, the border guard looks at me, and asks if I have been to Turkmenistan before. I tell him yes, and he tells me the exact date and place where I entered; he had stamped me into Turkmenistan just over two years earlier, on my first visit, and recognises me (or perhaps the truck).
Thus ended perhaps the most rewarding single stage of the entire journey. In Afghanistan I had finally experienced the Central Asia I had been dreaming of and with Herat just a few hours distant across the border, I had completed the most logistically difficult part of my drive across Afghanistan. Despite Turkmenistan’s repressive government and severe bureaucracy, I had experienced the reserved warmth of the Turkmen people, and had glimpsed an insight into their slightly pagan-influenced Islam. As much as I would love to spend a few months in the country, for the moment at least it is impossible to do so without state supervision, and thus I cherish the brief but unfettered access I have had to the country in my two visits. Underlying everything however is the region’s great history; two cities which were once the centre of the civilised world, rather than a distant and forgotten outpost. Somehow, their dignified ruin merely adds to the melancholic charm of Turkestan.
Ahead of me lay a stretch of territory which up until the 1990s had been off limits to outsiders since the Middle Ages. I was entering the heart of Turkestan, the searing plains along the near-mythical Amu Darya (or Oxus) River which lies at the very heart of Central Asia. I’m entering the world of Robert Byron’s ‘The Road to Oxiana’, perhaps my favourite travel book; an account of a car journey made in 1933-34 into deepest Turkestan in search of the Oxus, which Byron would eventually be barred from even setting eyes upon. For me too, this would represent perhaps the most memorable stage of the entire journey (despite its rather debauched beginnings), and it would be where I finally glimpsed the Central Asia I had been dreaming of since long before I set off – that of turquoise domes, camel caravans and authentic Silk Road bazaars.
On the 9th November 2009 I drive with considerable excitement over the ‘Friendship Bridge’, a simple 9-piece boxcar bridge across the Amu Darya constructed by the Soviets for the friendly purpose of supplying an army. Off limits until 2006, I imagine I am one of only a handful of foreigners who have driven over it. The Uzbekistani customs procedures are extremely thorough, with everything removed from the truck and searched individually. I know the process could be expedited with a payment of twenty dollars, but I’ve nothing to hide and allow the officers to take their time. It’s after dark by the time I finally leave the border compound, and drive through the huge, empty streets of Termez to the Osiyo Hotel.
The Hotel is wonderful and I’m surprised upon walking in to find a woman at the desk. After so long in conservative and gender-segregated Asia, I almost feel uncomfortable speaking to her. She’s very pleasant however; a rotund and motherly Ossetian who shows me to a room which is very reasonable, and gives me instructions on how to flush the lavatory, lock the door, and tells me to hang my clothes in the wardrobe along with other instructions which I don’t understand.
Crossing the Amu Darya from Afghanistan to the Uzbekistani town of Termez represents a staggering change in culture and atmosphere, and I spend the following days with a sense of profound culture shock; the shock of re-encountering a culture which is really quite similar to my own when compared with those I have lived in for the last two years. I am suddenly in a country where I don’t have to worry about my appearance, or what time I’m in what place, or whether a given place is safe at all… it’s all safe. There are no bandits, no Taliban, and no landmines. The other half of the human race (and in fact it seems like more than half in Termez) are out in public; beautiful young Uzbek and Tajik women with dark eyes and slender figures, and these women run shops, and must even be spoken to during the course of normal transactions. Couples go out hand-in-hand; lovers. It’s all so strange… yet so normal and natural.
The city itself is planned, beautified and well-maintained. Things have been built for everyday enjoyment; benches, parks, playgrounds and sports centres. There are signs, road rules, law and order. I see an old man stoop down and meticulously move a few leaves off the road, just to keep things looking neat. These Soviet citizens certainly aren’t keen on living among piles of their own refuse and excrement, something which until my first encounter with South Asia I had considered an intrinsic human preference, rather than a learned cultural trait.
It all puts Afghanistan and South Asia in contrast, highlighting just how backward they sadly are. In comparison, people here in Uzbekistan seem to enjoy life more, unworried by war or religion, despite their crumbling economy and repressive government. It also has that very endearing post-Soviet feeling of being somehow isolated from the vice and excess of the outside world; it can sometimes feel like a parallel universe, a more innocent and secluded one where people are happily free from both religion and class. Now I really start to appreciate Marx’s vision; this certainly isn’t a country where one sect may choose to kill another, or where beggars clamour to extract a few pennies from the driver of a $100,000 car waiting at the traffic lights. Ironically, the very core social principles of Islam are not far off those of Marx; of social equality, anti-sectarianism and distribution of wealth, yet the concepts seem never to have caught-on in any Islamic country I have yet visited.
I mention these reflections to my contact Abdugafur, a young man who works in the city in a construction company. “How can people say that the Soviet colonisation was a bad thing? If it wasn’t for them, we would be like Afghanistan. After all, we are the same people, who have the same culture and traditions, the same beliefs… or rather we were” Things are far from perfect in Uzbekistan however; inflation is a real problem and there is a genuine shortage of cash in the country, not surprising given that the largest banknote is worth just US$0.50. This is hardly conducive to a thriving market economy; which is precisely what the president wishes to avoid.
Autumn is here in Termez, with fat, ripe persimmons hanging on trees and parks beautifully coloured in yellows, oranges and browns and with crunchy leaves underfoot, swiftly being swept into piles by broom-wielding women. The city’s wide streets, characteristically Soviet are quiet; it’s a low-density place with no real centre, which instead radiates out in huge blocks. Termez has a range of Russian architecture; from the old, single-storey frontier houses, joined in long rows with thick walls and iron roofs, an old Russian Orthodox church which must pre-date the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, then vintages of Soviet apartment blocks all the way to independence. Modern buildings are rather sanitary looking, but clean and neat, though often sporting nasty blue-tinted glass windows and doors.
Sitting in a street café in this tranquil backwater, with a 1.25 litre bottle of good beer and a hot-dog, I feel I’m in heaven. Nevertheless, I must move up-country to Tashkent where I will meet my friend Duncan, with whom I shall travel for the next few weeks, all the way to Tehran. I decide to leave the car with Abdugafur in his business premises, and take the newly-opened railway line which runs overnight through Samarkand to Tashkent.
As much as I hate public transport, I do have a soft-spot for overnight train journeys in the Former USSR, and I find myself sharing a sleeper compartment with three women. As the train rolls north, we pass through fields full of brightly-dressed women and children gathering in cotton, small single-storey farmsteads with golden gardens of persimmon and walnut trees, old Soviet tractors, trucks and buses parked in the fields. The kolkhozes (collective farms) are still alive here, and I think back to the night Ispent with a family near here in just such a setting, just over two years ago. At the stations, crowds of people wait; old white-bearded Uzbeks, fair-skinned Tajiks, beautiful Turkic faces of all forms, touches of Russian-Soviet fashions, colourful headscarves and dresses, long flowing velvet kaftans. It’s rather like an old poster of Soviet cosmopolitanism. The women share their food with me and before long, a large Uzbek gentleman returns from the concertina between the carriages reeking of booze and with a twinkle in his eye. The sun sets outside against the stunning backdrop of the Kugitang and Hisor Mountains, and I bed down for the night. What a joy the train journey is.
I arrive early the next morning in Tashkent, and take the Metro from the station to the end of the line at Chkalov. Memories flood back from my visit two years ago as I make my way to the Grachev’s flat and meet Nail, who soon has to leave for work. I too leave before long to meet Duncan back at the Metro station, where we sit on a bench catching up over a morning beer. Back in September, in Islamabad I had acquired an Uzbek visa in order firstly to have an escape route out of Afghanistan should it have prove to be too insecure, and secondly to get a Turkmenistan visa in Tashkent. Both these considerations turned out to be unnecessary now, and so apart from getting a new visa to re-enter Afghanistan, I have no real business to attend to.
Duncan and I dedicate these three weeks to debauchery; all day drinking between wandering the city streets and bazaars, hopping onto trams until we spot the next drinking den, and falling in to further fortify ourselves with marvellously cheap beer, vino (a rather industrial port made locally, specifically for alcoholics) and vodka. Tashkent has a sordid Soviet underbelly of alcoholism, and a selection of ultra-basic bars to cater for them; places I find infinitely more convivial than the tawdry theme bars and ‘Irish Pubs’ which one usually finds abroad. The clientèle of such establishments are usually punch-drunk and cheery, but occasionally are desperate, comatose, yellow-skinned life-long drinkers. Returning ourselves somewhat giddily one night, we see one such soul silhouetted in the sodium-yellow of a street light, teetering back home on auto-pilot but making little forward progress, until he loses balance and falls flat into a deep, muddy ditch. It’s a slightly depressing window into the negative side of Soviet colonisation, but one that I find seedily fascinating. Often a small drinking den exists within the confines of a shop, allowing one the convenience of purchasing alcohol at retail prices and consuming it on-site. Occasionally we get marvellously lost in the city suburbs, and navigate back through a mixture of luck and perseverance, always finding ourselves eventually in the warmth of the Grachev’s flat to sleep for a few hours before repeating the formula.
I love Tashkent for its monumentalist Soviet architecture and air of being trapped somewhere in the 1980s, a comfortable island of a European city adrift in the ocean of Central Asia. Possibly my favourite part of the city is its Metro system, which is designed along the lines of a 1970s science fiction film set, with deep tunnels doubling as nuclear bomb shelters, dimly lit by elegant Soviet chandaliers, eerily devoid of conversation, heavily policed and with a pervading odour of floor-polish. Some of the stations are real masterpieces of design, such as Bodomzor with its modernist uplighters, and Kosmonavtlar with its ethereal portraits of Soviet cosmonauts, as well as the Timurid mathematician and astronomer Ulugh Beg, grandson of Tamerlane himself.
Every so often in the afternoon Nail’s mother Gulya who lives in the flat next to us, brings her English students to meet us, ignoring or not realising our tipsy state. The students are genuinely pleased, though a little nervous to have the unique experience of speaking to two scruffy, boozy Englishmen, and we are glad to talk to some locals in English. We manage a trip to the Afghan Embassy to acquire new visas, plus a couple of out-of-town drinking trips, but the three weeks fly past and before long we’re heading back south on the train. In Samarkand we moderate slightly, and take in the magnificent architecture, though spend the cool nights drinking at the Bahodir Guesthouse where I receive a warm welcome from the family more than two years after my last visit.
We have an arduous bus journey back down to Termez in an asthmatic old Hungarian Ikarus which is reduced to walking pace when faced with any hill and has two tire blowouts en-route. We check back into the Osiyo Hotel, and make a trip by local train – which costs just US$0.20 – to the small farming town of Jarqurgon, where amongst the walled farmsteads and cotton fields lies a stunning Seljuk minaret. The tomb-tower is a beautifully preserved masterpiece of fluted brickwork, with beautiful bands of Kufic verse. A friendly local girl fetches the gatekeeper and we squeeze up the spiral stairs for a foggy view across the nearby kolkhozes. Uzbekistan seems so gentle and innocent, a place where time has stood still for the last thirty years whilst neighbouring Afghanistan has been thoroughly destroyed. It’s rather hard to look forward to returning.
I feel quite melancholic on the morning that we leave Uzbekistan. Duncan is understandably slightly nervous before entering Afghanistan for the first time, whereas I am rather reluctant to leave the refinements of Uzbekistan; order, cleanliness, the public presence of women, draught beer, people who mean what they say and know what they are talking about, and the wonderfully benign and friendly atmosphere. To be leaving such civilised comforts doesn’t presently give me the thrill which it usually does. The morning is cold, grey and dull, and perfectly reflects my mood. A cold persistent drizzle begins as we head for the border, disposing of our last few shards of Uzbekistan’s farcical currency in a shop en-route. The Uzbek authorities are thankfully rather less thorough upon leaving, and as we leave the border and head for the Friendship Bridge I’m asked for a lift by Mr Rajabi, an Afghan emigrant from London who is visiting Afghanistan with his wife and baby.
On the Afghan side of the border the trouble starts, once again for my not having a Road Permit. After a few minutes of wrangling with the customs officer I am passed to the chief; a large ugly man with a puffy mongrel face who is drunk and angry. Mr Rajabi, who has been my translator and has been frantically arguing my case is deeply offended by the Swine behind the glass of the customs post: “Look at our country, at our people! He is absolutely drunk! How will our country ever progress with people like this? No education and totally corrupt; these are the problems we face”. Behind Mr Rajabi a Turkish lorry driver with a large mole on his brow smiles a warm Turkish smile and rubs his thumb and index finger “No problem!”, gesturing to the Swine. I know I could bribe my way through, but I stick to my principles of patience and perseverance.
Finally, the Swine makes a call to his superior regarding the British tourist with a car and no Road Permit, and by his sudden increase in fury has obviously been told to let us in. He orders a full search of the car, and a swarm of officers come out. It’s clear that they are highly embarrassed and offended by the Swine, but have nevertheless to follow his orders. He stands in the rain, screaming at his subordinates before ordering one to bring a pick-up, from which he resumes his screaming from the passenger seat with the heater runing. Eventually, the Swine’s gaze settles upon two large books which he indicates are illegal; a large paperback history tome by Jawaharlal Nehru (admittedly a Marxist, but I doubt he knows this), and a totally inoffensive hardback travel guide to Afghanistan, endorsed on the first page by the president himself. It’s hard to imagine that these books can be in any way illegal, or indeed that the Swine is literate, but he obviously intends to keep them for it takes 1.5 hours to rescue them from the censors, none of whom can read English. What excites the censrs most is a picture in the guidebook of a pair of Uzbek womans boots, which elicits great bouts of sordid schoolboy laughter. How I hate being in a country where a picture of boots is an illicit and titillating sight.
It’s raining hard when we leave, but the road is brand new and we soon dry out. My spirits are buoyed by having come out on top from the ordeal, though I feel Duncan has had a slightly rough entry into the country. In Mazar-e Sharif (Mazar) I collect my Turkmenistan visa from the fawning consul, who is a picture of politeness and helpfulness compared to the surly staff in the Tashkent Embassy. The streets of the city centre are flooded in up to half a metre of muddy water; cars sit stranded, headlight-deep in the middle of the road and filling with water, but we emerge warm and dry onto the driveway of our hosts. A hellish border crossing completed, and a new visa in hand, we are set to cross Afghan Turkestan.
Our hosts run a small logistics company in the city, and we stay with them for just under two weeks. They are Elias, Aimal and Ramesh, and are often joined by their friend Ashraf. They are wonderfully generous hosts, putting on dinners of local fish from the Amu Darya, giving us endless information on the surrounding area and great company each evening. I soon forget the spoils of Uzbekistan and flip back into the Asian lifestyle.
Mazar is the country’s fourth largest city, and effectively the capital of northern Afghanistan. The city is named after the shrine of Emam (Hazrat) Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, who is generally regarded as being buried in Najaf in Iraq. Nevertheless, a 12th Century local Mullah saw the location of Ali’s grave in a dream, and a shrine was erected by the Seljuk sultan Ahmed Sanjar. Mazar lived in the shadow of nearby Balkh for centuries, but the tables were turned in the late 19th Century and Mazar has been the more prosperous and important city ever since. The Shrine of Hazrat Ali marks the very centre of the city, attracting pilgrims from across the country and beyond. In the large park around the shrine, families stroll and feed the flocks of white doves for which the park is famed, giving it a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere. The shrine itself, a 15th Century reconstruction of the original which was razed by the Mongols, is strikingly tiled though does not quite have the same grace and exotic flair as the Timurid masterpieces of Samarkand. Around the shrine, the city centre radiates out in blocks of street markets and narrow bazaars which are frantic with activity. Whilst not particularly traditional, Mazar is certainly more down-to-Earth than the economic bubble of Kabul.
One Friday morning we all head out to the stadium at the edge of the city to watch a match of the peculiarly Central Asian game of buzkashi. It’s a game played on horseback by a seemingly unlimited number of men, who must each attempt to pick up the headless carcass of a goat or calf, and carry it across a marked boundary without any other player gaining the carcass. It’s clearly a game which came off the nomadic steppes of Central Asia, but the Afghans play it with such vigour and brutality that one can see the spirit of the Mongol hordes which swept down upon this region in the 13th Century.
Duncan and I make a day-trip to the south-east, back down the main road towards Kabul, through the stunning gorge beyond Kholm and into the mountains to the town of Aybak. The main street through the town is lined with old pine trees and single storey shops, and feels far less modern than Mazar. Bearded Afghan men in shawls and turbans mill through the bazaar, often riding horses pulling traps. What lies just behind the town however, is one of Afghanistan’s oldest surviving ancient monuments. On top of a protruding dome of limestone, out in the fields which spread across the broad valley between the outliers of the Hindukush, is a huge carved Buddhist stupa dating to the 4th – 5th Century CE. The stupa is carved wholly out of the native rock, a smooth inverted bowl topped by a cubic reliquary. Carved out of a lower nearby hill is a small cave monastery complex reminiscent of those in Bamiyan, though from the Theravada, rather than Mahayana school of Buddhism.
On another day, we head west from Mazar to the quiet country town of Balkh. Today something of a agricultural backwater, it is hard to overestimate just how important the city has been in the context of Asian history. Located on a wide floodplain just north of the point at which the seasonal Balkh River spills its water from the northern fringes of the mountains onto the barren Oxus Plains, Balkh has been inhabited for at least 4,500 years. Balkh may have been one of the first cities of the Aryans as they moved south and east from their homeland on the Pontic Steppe. Zoroaster, founder of Zoroastrianism, is thought to have been born in Balkh in roughly the 11th – 10th Century BCE, and to have also died here. When Alexander and the Greeks arrived they called it Baktra, and from this came the name Bactria for the historical area as a whole. Following a period of Buddhist influence under the Kushans, the Arabs arrived, and sensing the antiquity of the place named Balkh the ‘Mother of Cities’. Balkh figures heavily in Persian mythology and literature, and is considered to be the home of of Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, one of Asia’s greatest poets. Today however Balkh is little more than a collection of villages – albeit with some intriguing remains – and perhaps best captures the ruin of Central Asia. Balkh was levelled by the Mongols in 1221, and again by Tamerlane in the 14th Century, yet it was an outbreak of malaria following widespread flooding in the mid 19th Century that finally sealed its fate.
Balkh today is centred around a circular park, in which sits the elegant Timurid shrine of Hoja Abu Nasr Parsa. A slightly jaded but charming victim of both neglect and war, the shrine has lost its minarets though retains some beautiful Kufic faïence in the main portal and a delicate, fluted turquoise dome. The shrine looks very much the same as it did when Byron sketched it in 1934, but in its heyday must have been every bit as impressive as the buildings of Samarkand and Bukhara. On the far side of the park, which is filled with straggling mature plane trees, is a single ruined arch from an old medressa, still bearing patches of striking tile-work.
The most atmospheric of Balkh’s ruins however is immediately to the north of the town centre. The Bala Hisar, the town’s old defensive fortress, is a huge circular citadel roughly a kilometre in diameter whose heavily eroded perimeter walls are dotted with the stumps of long-collapsed defensive towers. Locals scour the area for glass beads and occasional coins in the sticky mud, and one feels that the whole area might still echo with the sounds of ancient battles, or just the hum of millennia of habitation, such is the palpable sense of history about the place. At the western edge of the citadel are some modern shrines, one of which is currently used by the followers of another historical figure. Baba Kuh-e Mastan is attributed with the first cultivation and use of hashish, the resin of the cannabis plant harvested by running the palms of one’s hands up and down a budding plant. Originally on the main road into town, the police have moved the followers to this discreet corner of the citadel, where they are left to smoke in glorious worship.
We walk into a dingy, smoke-filled room where half a dozen frazzled-looking men sit on mud benches around the walls, centred around an enormous hookah pipe containing at least five grams of hashish. Turns are taken and I take three lungfuls of choking, burning smoke which leave me with a raw throat, hacking cough and a deep and rather pleasant sense of detachment from reality for several hours.
To the east of the citadel, one may walk down a breach in the old walls into the villages which dot the surrounding farmland. Graves here are marked with poles bearing the Shi’ite symbol of a hand and are tied with colourful pennants in a manner which reminds me of the Sufi shrines of Sindh. It was indeed from this region of Central Asia that Sufism penetrated the Sub-continent. Though having declined greatly in popularity in recent decades, Balkh has strong Sufi connotations, for it was for some time at least, the home of Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi. Perhaps the most famous of the Sufi philosopher-poets or polymaths, Rumi was one of Asia’s great thinkers and remains a household name to Muslims across the region. His most famous work, Masnavi, is an epic poem of 50,000 lines and is one of the greatest works of the Persian language.
We ask after the great man’s home as we walk through villages populated by friendly Uzbek farmers. In the village of Hoja Gholaq, amidst a scene of muddy farmland and mud-brick houses which can hardly have changed since the 13th Century, we are directed to the ruined khanaqah (meeting place of a Sufi brotherhood) where Rumi’s father taught, and where the young boy is said to have grown up. A few arches and part of the dome still stand, but there is otherwise no sign as to the alleged historical importance of the ruins we are looking at. Locals tell us that the great man was born here, but like Hazrat Ali, and many historical other figures, his birthplace is somewhat speculative. Evidence suggests that Rumi was in fact born in Vakhsh in present-day Tajikistan, before his family moved back to Balkh, only to escape a few years later to Konye in modern-day Turkey, shortly before the oncoming slaughter of the Mongol invasion. Whatever the truth, the ruins are an intriguing find, and it’s a touching remnant of the import of Balkh that these farmers bring him into their folklore and customs, 802 years after his birth.
Mazar is an easy city in which to while away time, especially given the comforts and good company provided by our hosts. After thirteen days however, the time comes to make some progress across the country. Ahead lies a string of old Silk Road caravan cities; the untouched heart of Central Asia.
Afghanistan is a small, landlocked and isolated country of rugged mountains and deserts, which forms something of a melting pot of Persian, Indian and Central Asian influences. I had lusted after a chance to visit the country for years, and when that time came in late 2009, I had high expectations; ones which were not disappointed. I sometimes wondered quite what about this war-ravaged and neglected country exerted such a magnetism. The cynical might attribute it to voyeuristic urges of seeing a fresh warzone, or some thrill of danger, but the country has enchanted travellers for generations. Afghanistan is no stranger to war; Alexander the Great, The Mongols, and Tamerlane are just a few notables in a long line of invaders who have used the country as a theatre for combat. It has also drawn plenty of adventurers, forming the keystone in the Great Game as the country became a buffer zone between Russian and British Empires. It seems always to have been a country renowned for rugged, wild beauty, fierce yet welcoming tribesmen and the romance of the unknown. By the early 1970s Afghanistan was a popular travel destination, with backpacker guesthouses catering to overlanders crossing the Hippy Trail from Europe to Delhi and Kathmandu.
Things started to fall apart in the mid-1970s as the country was once again used as a theatre for someone else’s war; a revolution part-fomented by the Soviets in 1978 saw the beginnings of an insurgency, which in one form or another has continued to the present day. Violence escalated and in December the following year, the USSR formally invaded. A full Cold War proxy battle ensued, with the US and Pakistan funding insurgents in a war which raged on until Soviet withdrawal in 1989, though continued as a civil war until 1996 when the Taliban brought some degree of peace and stability to the country. Rather than covertly fund opposition groups, the US and supporting Coalition Forces found grounds to occupy the country, and such was the status quo when I crossed the border from Pakistan.
Whilst generals reported progress of some sort to the Western media – admittedly some limited development work had been done in the country – it was clear to those on the ground that the country was slowly slipping away; more and more areas were reverting back to Taliban control, violence and deaths were slowly but steadily increasing, and many started to look back with some fondness to Taliban times when, if nothing else, there was peace. It was with this as a backdrop that I entered the country; hoping to see as much as I could before the whole place fell back into the chaos and isolation which had defined much of the last thirty years for the Afghan people.
It’s the 10th October 2009, and I have just crossed the Khyber Pass, left Pakistan for the final time and am standing at the locked gate which leads into Afghanistan. A guard bars my way, and indicates with wrists crossed that the car is not coming in. An old hand in Asia by now, I am used to these kind of obstacles, and smile back, indicating that I am indeed coming in. The guard asks for my ‘Road Permit’, some kind of endorsement for the car which the Embassy in Islamabad had refused to give me. I am really not keen on lying, but occasionally needs must. ‘I was told that I don’t need one, as it’s a British vehicle, not Pakistani’ I lie. There is some discussion amongst the soliders, and then I’m offered lunch – which I politely decline – and am waved through to immigration. One of the soldiers jumps in, so that I find the building without a problem amongst all the chaotic activities of trade and smuggling which go on all around. Immigration and customs are easy, without so much as a sniff inside the car, and I’m soon merrily driving alone along the infamous Torkham – Kabul Highway.
The first few hours in a new country can often be quite intense, but here especially I’m looking carefully at the reactions of people. With Pakistani-style number plates on an unmodified Toyota Hilux, wearing a long, flowing shalwar kameez and a Chitrali cap, and with my complexion which I’m told is remarkably Pashtun in appearance, nobody takes a second look. Nevertheless, I do my best to be inconspicuous.
The 76 km drive to Jalalabad is beautiful; the landscape is far greener and less forbidding than on the Pakistani side of the border, with quiet farming villages interspersed by fields of fruit, which children sell at small roadside stalls. Trees overhang the road, giving it a definite Central Asian feel, and the atmosphere seems secure and benign. I soon see my first US Convoy, and remember Shahab’s (my host in Kabul, whom I had met in Peshawar the previous evening) advice to stay well clear of them. With suicide bombers and roadside IEDs, the Coalition Forces are liable shoot the driver of any car coming too close or attempting to pass, and ask questions later.
Jalalabad takes me somewhat by surprise; I had imagined a wild and shambolic Pashtun city, but it turns out to be a fairly neat, sedate and relaxed place. There’s a heavy Pakistani influence – Pakistani Rupees are more widely used than the Afghani – but there is also some noticeable Soviet influence in some of the architecture, and the planned layout of the city. The US Military are here in number, with convoys passing through the city centre and Hercules, Chinooks and drones passing overhead from a nearby airbase.
Through Shahab in Peshawar, I have the details of Aemal, a local opthalmist who has an office on one of the city’s main streets. We sit talking in his office while he sees patients, my first chance to speak in detail with an Afghan in Afghanistan. Aemal has lived in Afghanistan throughout the wars, telling me that the worst time for him was during the Mujahiddin wars in the 1990s when he lost his ten year-old brother. His anger is however focused not at the Soviets who ignited the war, nor the Americans who again destabilised the country in 2001, but at the foreign (mostly Arab) Jihadists who come to Afghanistan to fight. “The Islam we have here is just a little faith, then mostly politics, Arab nationalism and anti-Semitism. The Arabs are doing this. They send us, their Muslim brothers, nothing except Jihadists. They want to revive an Islamic Caliphate, but nothing good will be built by these people. They have no knowledge, their culture has produced nothing. At least the Soviets came with some ideological convictions, and built something. They were civilised people.”
As I’m sitting in Aemal’s office, I notice a bullet hole in the glass shop-front, and ask him about it. “Oh, the Taliban were shooting here last month, but I wasn’t in here, it’s no problem.” A little later, a huge Pashtun man from neighbouring Kunar Province comes in carrying a wounded boy, who has shrapnel in his eye from an American mortar attack. Aemal is unable to treat the child, and has to send the man away. Just as he turns to leave, he looks at me for a moment, then walks out wordlessly.
In the evening I find a hotel which is built in the old caravanserai style, covering small shops and filled with goods on their way up-country. In one of the shops I befriend a group of Nurestanis, a wild-looking bunch from the inaccessible mountains to the north of the city. Only relatively recently converted from Paganism to Islam, the Nurestanis are something of an ethnic mystery, similar to the other Dardic tribes in the region such as the Kalash in Pakistan and the Brokpa of western Ladakh. Almost no foreigners have visited Nurestan in recent years, and it’s something of a dream destination in Afghanistan. My Nurestani friends are particularly struck at how much I look like them, insisting that I am the image of one man in their village. They invite me to their homes, suggesting that I could pretend to be mute at any Taliban checkpoint we encounter (a US checkpoint would likely be more troublesome). It’s a tempting offer, and I think about it for a moment, but decide that it would be pushing my luck a little too far, especially on my first day in the country.
I spend the next day walking in the city; sitting in the park, wandering through the bazaar and the fruit orchards on the city’s edge, and sitting in solitude at the riverside close to where the Kunar River meets the Kabul River, which will flow back towards Peshawar and meet the Indus, ultimately flowing past my former home in Hyderabad and out into the Arabian Sea. Jalalabad has been a very pleasant introduction to Afghanistan, and I’m beginning to feel just how different the country is from Pakistan, not least for the absence of the latter’s ever-present overcrowding.
After two nights in Jalalabad, I continue my journey west, re-joining the main road to Kabul which is effectively an extension of the Grand Trunk Road which runs to Kolkata. The road starts to wind around hills and valleys, following the Kabul river as it winds through a lush green landscape which is particularly beautiful near the town of Sarobi, famed for some of the world’s best pomegranates. US convoys patrol the road, and when I see one a little way ahead, I slow right down to stay clear of any fire they may draw. The road starts to climb and enters the impressive Kabul Gorge, switching back over blasted rock ledges which would make a perfect ambush point.
Shortly after leaving the gorge, the road drops down slightly to the edge of a great plain, and I roll into the eastern outskirts of Kabul. The traffic is chaotic, watched over by US forces who are hopelessly outnumbered by the melee of trucks and taxis, but I’m soon in the city centre. Reaching Kabul marks the end of the Peshawar – Kabul leg of my journey, which is likely to be the most insecure, though has passed without incident. I eat lunch in the old city centre before moving out to Shahr-e Nau, the New City, where I meet Shahab once again, who kindly accommodates both myself and the truck at the guesthouse of the consultancy firm for which he works.
In the morning I decide to orient myself in the city by climbing the large hill which wedges itself into the southern edge of the city, and is crowned by the old mud-brick city walls, eroded by war and by the elements. It’s a steep slog, but the views are magnificent. Kabul sits in a dusty bowl of mountains, not unlike Quetta in Pakistan. From an aerial view, the city is obviously more planned than any in South Asia, with mostly regular grid blocks and streets. At this distance, the city bears no scars of war, these only being visible on closer inspection when one sees the occasional rubble-strewn plot, or bullet-pocked wall. At the western end of the ridge, which plummets down into the city again, one has a marvellous panorama over the bustling streets of the bazaar, and over the gardens of Babur, the sensitive, journal-writing founder of the Moghul Empire who was infatuated with his native Central Asia, and with Kabul.
I too, soon fall in love with Kabul. Although an ancient city, it has never rivalled the region’s great cities such as Herat or Samarkand, and the years of war have left it with very little of historical note. It is however, a fascinating blend of the cultures which surround it, and one which I later realise is Afghanistan in microcosm. Walled, tree-lined streets are highly reminiscent of Central Asia, though there is not the post-Soviet authoritarianism which pervades that region. The public presence of women – often very beautiful and elegantly dressed – gives an Iranian touch to the place, though there is not the drab, mundane uniformity one finds in all Iranian cities. The frenetic bazaar and thronging crowds add a South Asian touch, but there is not the overwhelming squalor and unplanned sprawl from the over-population which one finds in every city of Pakistan. Instead, it’s a charming and quintessentially Afghan blend of these cultures.
Also different from Pakistan are the people, who seem a touch more worldly and confident. There is not a stuffy air of religious posturing, but rather one of greater tolerance. These don’t seem like a people cut out for Islamic fundamentalism, and I imagine it must have been quite a sour time under the Taliban.
One part of the city in particular has a strong Soviet feel to it; the Mikrorayon, which is a Soviet housing district identical to those found in many Central Asian cities. I am surprised by how much the Soviets have built in Kabul, and find it at once homely and tragic. The apartment buildings are probably the best-built structures in the city, certainly of better quality than the new apartments which are popping up like mushrooms in Shahr-e Now, and might collapse just as quickly. In the 1970s, Soviet technocrats and a nascent Afghan middle class lived in these housing projects, and they are still amongst the most sought-after real-estate in the city.
The Mikrorayon is tragic however, for the loss it represents; the modernising, egalitarian and secular ideology of Soviet Communism which had actually invested in the country. Whatever of the motivations and subsequent war which the Soviets had brought to the country, they had built something, and stood for some positive change. Whatever communism might have brought the Afghans, it would most likely have been better than what they have inherited.
There is clearly a lot of money in Kabul; plenty of brand new bullet-proof Landcruisers belonging to the various warlords, NGOs, multinationals, consultancies, armed forces and security firms which cream the profits of war and foreign-sponsored reconstruction. Plenty of Afghans are making money, but their investments are all short-term; vastly overpriced guest-houses aimed at expatriates, flashy restaurants and faux-boutique shops. Most of these Afghans have foreign passports, meaning that as soon as the bubble bursts, they can take themselves, their families and their money out of the country. Nobody is investing in industry; everything imported from Pakistan, Iran, China, the UAE and Europe. About the only locally made product I find is Coca-Cola – even the matches are low-grade Pakistani exports. It’s difficult yet to see a future for Kabul; what will be left once this ‘international’ community pulls out?
I spend a week in Kabul, and when I’m not wandering the various parts of the city; the atmospheric Ka Faroshi Bazaar (Bird Market) near the river, the Mikrorayon, the ruined tomb of Shah Mohammed Telai on Tepe Maranjan, or sitting in a park in the city centre, watching life go by, I am usually sitting with AJ in his bookshop. AJ is an Afghan who has lived in and out of the country in the last few years, and is one of a small class of secular but locally educated Afghans who have travelled abroad, but who have returned to Afghanistan. People such as AJ are those that have the greatest potential to make a prosperous and stable Afghanistan, but sadly they are a tiny minority. Spending hours in a bookshop is never difficult, but here in Kabul, with an interesting stream of customers and AJ’s wild stories, it’s a real pleasure.
Leaving these comforts, I decide to push on into the mountainous centre of the country. I leave early one morning and drive north for an hour out of Kabul, then head west into the Ghorband Valley, on a hellishly rough road which winds slowly up through mountain villages, over the dusty Shibar Pass and then down into the Bamiyan Valley. The drive takes all day, and it’s after dark when I finally roll into the town of Bamiyan and call my host Simon, who brings me back to his farmstead in which he lives with some local Afghans. Simon works for a French NGO which sets up greenhouses in the valley, to allow villagers to grow a wider variety of crops over a longer growing season. It’s a simple, grass-roots initiative, and unlike many NGOs, has measurable results. Simon’s life is far from the cosseted security of expats in Kabul who are virtually imprisoned by security fears, and he leads a wonderfully independent life living like a local in the friendly Bamiyan Valley. It’s not long before I’m rather envious of his position.
Bamiyan is one of those special places, like the Hunza Valley or parts of Ladakh, which is marvellously isolated and bucolic, removed seemingly in both space and time from the modern world. The town sits on a wide, fertile plain between pinky-buff eroded hills, beyond which are the higher grey ridges of the western Hindukush. Small farms create a patchwork of fields, and the pace of life is almost medieval; a glimpse of the pre-modern world as men till field with oxen, or carry winter wood supplies in horse-drawn traps, while women wash clothes and dishes in the icy mountain streams. Bamiyan is a perfect example of the remote and timeless mountain communities which exist right across Asia.
Despite the slow pace of life however, Bamiyan has a considerable history. Lying on the ancient Silk Road, Bamiyan was perhaps most famous for its two giant Buddhas, the largest standing Buddhas in the world until their mindless destruction by the Taliban in 2001. What remains today are the two vast niches hollowed out of the pinky cliffs to the south of the town, together with the hundreds of troglodyte meditation cells hacked out of the soft rock. When the Chinese Buddhist Pilgrim Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) visited Bamiyan in the 7th Century AD, it was a religious centre of considerable importance, with numerous active monasteries. Today just a few frescos inside the odd cave exist, thought to have been left between the 5th and 9th Centuries by travellers on the Silk Road. In the niches themselves, almost nothing remains of the Buddhas, though in one, a single foot still stands, the size of a lorry. They must have been an awesome sight against such a timeless agricultural scene.
Another highlight of the valley is the people, who are predominantly Hazara (with a Tajik minority), and invariably friendly, gentle and smiling. The Hazara, as Shia Muslims, suffered sectarian prejudice from the Taliban who murdered many, and are thus well-disposed to the occupying Western forces in Afghanistan. The Hazara have strong Mongol features, but seem in reality to be descended from a mixed bag of Asian ancestries, and are quite different from Uzbeks, for example. The only people who are not friendly in the town are the local police who, in this most tranquil part of the country, treat me with the greatest suspicion.
After three wonderful days with Simon in Bamiyan, I push further into the mountains, west towards the very heart of the country. Up here in the stark mountains lies what first sparked an urge to visit Afghanistan in my imagination; the stunning blue Band-e Amir Lakes. Driving west out of Bamiyan, the road starts to climb, the valley broadens and the mountains recede to a distant backdrop, until the valley becomes wide open, undulating plains of barren, dusty hills. Men leading donkeys laden with firewood, or small herds of goats cross these barren plains of rippling velvet, following an invisible path which seems to lead from nowhere to nowhere.
It is against this setting of colourless pastel and dust, of barren plains lying over 3000 metres above sea-level, that one first glimpses a slash of the most dazzling sapphire-blue water, part of the largest of a series of six lakes, each held up behind naturally deposited dams of travertine. It’s a truly stunning and thrilling sight, and one that must have struck awe into the souls of the travellers on this stretch of the Silk Road. Local legend tells that the lakes formed in a rent in the Earth created by Emam Ali striking the ground with his sword, and the highest and largest of the lakes, Band-e Zulfiqar, is named after that sword. It’s well out-of-season, but I manage to find a small guesthouse operated by a local man, who claims not to be Hazara or Tajik, but Syed, descended from the Prophet Mohammed himself.
I spend five days around the lakes, mesmerised by their beauty and the peaceful solitude of the environment. The lakes are soundless but for the cascading waters falling over the edges of the huge natural dams, and I am immediately in love with the place. The sheer contrast is also striking, for beyond the cerulean lakes is an endless expanse of rolling mountain steppe. To the north, steep cliffs have been eroded by water over the aeons, not unlike a miniature Grand Canyon, and are reflected in the perfect mirror of Band-e Ghulaman, around which a small village spreads. Band-e Paneer, a small lake to the east, has the look of a Caribbean lagoon, with underwater plants, and turquoise water fringed by a white shore.
The whole area is so marvellously tranquil that I spend my days just sitting around their shores, walking, writing and enjoying the solitude after so many months in the frenetic cities of Pakistan. I have a huge sense of fulfilment in coming here; I’ve filled a blank in the middle of Asia, completed a dream journey to the heart of Afghanistan, and also found one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever visited, tucked into the bosom of this vast and fascinating continent. I have plenty of time to think of the future too; what to do after Afghanistan. After two and a half years away I still have absolutely no wish to return to western Europe, so I begin to plan a journey to Russia and Mongolia in my mind. All this lies far ahead however; I still need to find a way to cross Afghanistan to Iran.
On my final morning at the lakes, there has been a touch of snowfall; the harbinger of what must be a long, cold, bleak winter. I drive back down to Bamiyan, and as Simon has left town for Kabul, stay in a traditional Afghan chaikhana (teahouse). The chaikhana is a legendary institution in Afghanistan, and harks back to the days of traders on the Silk Road. One eats dinner in the chaikhana, then simply beds down on the carpeted floor and sleeps, free of charge. In a country where night-time travel is often insecure or inadvisable, a night or two in a chaikhana is an inevitable break in a long overland journey. Bamiyan’s ‘Turkistan Restaurant’ is my first such experience. I enter a huge, carpeted room filled with sitting men sipping from bowls of tea. There is a lot of shouting going on; calls for tea, and for the food to be ready. The owner, an ebullient Hazara with a bowl haircut wearing a black leather jacket, oversees the operation, whilst his staff unroll long mats in rows across the floor, then bring round bread and the main meal; a choice between kebabs, stew, or soup, all deliciously fresh and filling.
I spend three more days in Bamiyan exploring the surrounding area; the intriguing formations of the Ajdhar Valley, said by the locals to be more work of Emam Ali and his sword, and the defensive fortress at Shahr-e Zohak, where an old Soviet gun still stands sentinel over the valley. In the town itself, I am intrigued by the atmosphere of the graveyard, where the surrounding tall trees are totally leafless, in stark contrast to others in the valley which are in riotous autumnal colours. Women circambulate the squat, domed mausoleums of the cemetery, showing the typically Shi’ite love of grief and mourning. The lesser graves are marked by beautifully carved tombstones; almost Picasso-esque roundels of Quranic Arabic adorned by beautiful birds. I feel that I could spend weeks in the valley, but while Bamiyan is a beautiful place, I begin also to realise just how backward it really is; it’s the capital of a province in which there is no mains electricity, no sanitation, no paved roads, and no industry.
Eventually, I must retrace my steps to the capital on the torturous road, back to the main highway, which I reach just before sunset. The sight of electricity pylons (which carry electricity imported from Uzbekistan down to Kabul) and a smooth asphalted road transport me back to the 21st Century, though the joy of driving is somewhat offset by the utter free-for-all of Afghan driving. Afghans drive like invading hordes of rapacious Mongols swooping down upon civilised Asia, and it’s little wonder that the country has just about the highest road fatality rate in the world. Nevertheless, as the sun sets in a cold, pink autumnal sky over the Shomali Plain, two Chinooks pass low over the horizon from Bagram Airbase towards Kabul, and I revel in what a beautiful, raw and exciting destination Afghanistan is.
I spend nine more days in Kabul exploring the city, and passing time with AJ in his bookshop. I make a journey to the Embassy of Turkmenistan in hope of securing a transit visa, which would allow me to reach Herat without passing through the highly dangerous province of Badghis. I am fully expecting to be turned away from this, an Embassy of one of the world’s most insular and recalcitrant dictatorships, but instead come out with the promise of a visa (to be collected in Mazar-e Sharif as the computers here are not working) after giving nothing but my name and a photocopy of my passport.
After four highly enjoyable weeks in the country, it’s time to move on to Uzbekistan, where I will meet Duncan, whom I had met and trekked with to the base camp of Kanchenjunga in Sikkim 18 months ago. I leave Kabul one morning for the last time, driving back over the Shomali Plain, up into the Hindukush, winding ever up through long Soviet avalanche tunnels, finally ploughing into the unlit, smoke-filled tunnel of the Salang Pass at 3350 m, then down through clouds, down past autumnal villages of stone and earth buildings, hugging hillsides ablaze in the reds and golds of autumn, inhabited by bearded Tajiks. The Anderab Valley opens up as I enter Baghlan Province, passing through the muddy town of Pol-e Khomri and on, past rice paddies and oily grey skies bearing rain, over the low Robatak Pass and into Samangan Province, plunging briefly into mountains in an awesome, steep, twisting gorge.
On the north side of the gorge the road exits the mountains with breathtaking abruptness, rolling onto the vast, absolutely featureless plains of Oxiana as if by teleportation. Deep blue skies replace the boiling grey cloud of the mountains, and a bitter wind howls across the steppe. On the horizon is a wall of windswept dust, like a curtain shielding nothing as the sky here simply meets the plain at an indeterminable distance. Camels and mounds of heavily eroded ruins dot the plains around the town of Kholm; I am back in Central Asia.
I spend a night in Mazar-e Sharif (where I will return next month), then head north to the border. A brand new road winds through the scrubby desert for the final fifty kilometres of Afghanistan. Wind blows sand dunes onto the asphalt in places, and it’s not until I’m practically at the edge of the mighty Amu Darya that the desert suddenly breaks into greenery. After three searches of the car by police, I am allowed to cross the Amu Darya on the infamous ‘Friendship Bridge’, into the most sensitive underbelly of the former USSR.
I arrive in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad on the 16th September 2009, and set down my tent at the ’Islamabad Campsite for Foreign Tourists’. The days are rather humid, but the nights cool and pleasant and I enjoy fresh doughnuts for breakfast and lunches and dinners of fresh dal, chick peas, pakora curry, or kebabs; life is pretty comfortable. There is a clutch of other travellers camped here; a German couple heading back to Germany with their young children after three years driving around the world, an older Dutch couple in an enormous mobile home lorry-conversion, Walter and Lori, a German couple whom I had met last year, on the road for nine years in their mobile home, and Simon, a Swiss traveller whom I had met earlier in the summer in Gilgit, who sadly had been turned back from the Chinese border with his donkeys (with which he had been planning to walk back to Switzerland), and was now trying to replace his broken passport and dissuade his girlfriend from flying home.
The less pleasant part of my time in Islamabad is all the running round from office to embassy. I request a second visa extension, and am told to leave Pakistan by a pompous Punjabi at the Ministry of Interior, who eventually agrees to give me a three week final visa extension (marked ‘FINAL’ in my passport) on the grounds of my appeal that I had no way out of the country at the time.
I also need to extend the duty-free period for the truck, to avoid it being confiscated (something which has befallen a few oblivious travellers), at the Federal Board of Revenue. Here I have a wonderful stroke of luck, in meeting Sadiqullah, a marvellously intelligent and entertaining middle-aged Pashtun from North Waziristan, whom I immediately befriend. He helps me sort out my documents, and we meet in the evening for dinner. Although his name rings a bell, it’s not until he starts to tell me of his previous postings that it strikes me that Sadiqullah is a long-lost friend of Aly in Hyderabad, who is very happy to hear from him when we call a moment later. In a country of 170 million people it’s quite a coincidence.
On another evening, as we are strolling through a park, I tell Sadiqullah of my recent journey through the rather unstable North West Frontier Province (NWFP), close to his family home. We move on to the subject of why the country has become so destabilised, particularly in the regions inhabited by his fellow Pashtuns. Sadiquallah spreads a little light on the incredibly murky and impenetrable subject of politics in Pakistan, as follows. Persian was previously – for a long time – the second language of Pakistan, a language he remembers learning at school. It was the language of the court of India, of the Moghuls. During Pakistan’s upheavals under the military government of Zia ul-Haq in the 1970s, Arabic was introduced by an administration of Punjabis, a people whom Sadiqullah describes as “having no culture, and who have never been rulers”. Whilst Persian was a language of poetry, with close links to Urdu, Arabic was the language of religion, a language which virtually nobody knew. Thus came increasing control from the Mullahs and medressahs, which infiltrated Pakistani society. In the case of the Pashtuns, it sat especially easily alongside an extremely strict and rigid code of tribal values which has given rise, with the help of US sponsorship of the Mujaheddin in the 1980s, to the current situation of Islamic ‘extremism’ which blights the life of so many Pashtuns, both directly as a threat from bombings and counter-insurgency, and in an increasingly widespread mistrust of Pashtuns. Sadiqullah would love to take me to his native North Waziristan, but explains that to do so would be a threat to both our lives. He’s a man who fears returning to his native home, thanks to the machinations of geopolitics which have destroyed so many lives in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
I receive news from the Iranian authorities that I have been approved to apply for a visa, and I also receive a visa for Afghanistan with little fuss. The largest piece of paperwork remains however; the permit to drive from Peshawar to the Khyber Pass. For this, I must speak to the right people in Peshawar, an ancient city which was the Kushan capital Purushapura. Despite having travelled widely in Pakistan, I have somehow never managed to visit Peshawar, something I regret slightly on arrival as it’s an immediately endearing place. I am here primarily for paperwork however. At the office of the Khyber Political Agent, I am immediately refused a permit to travel to the Khyber Pass, though on explaining that I have a vehicle and must pass this border, I am directed to speak to a Mr Munir Ullah, at the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Secretariat across town. Mr Ullah, who turns out to be ‘Head of Narcotics’ is a patient and helpful man, who listens sincerely to my case that I have a visa which is due to expire, no visa for Iran, and must therefore return to my home via Afghanistan. I leave his office optimistic.
The next day I make a phone-call from a chaikhana in the bazaar, and speak to Mr Ullah, who tells me: “Mr Daniel, there are two districts which you must pass through in Khyber Agency, Torkham and Jamrud. We have received permission for you to proceed from Torkham, and once we receive the permission from Jamrud, we will be able to issue you a permit. Please call tomorrow at 10.” I begin to believe that the impossible is possible; one must simply ask the right people in the right manner.
The very next day I have my permit in hand, to drive from Peshawar across the Khyber Pass on the 10th October. I don’t think I’ve ever valued a piece of paper as much as this simple typed document. Years of dreaming of Afghanistan are about to come to fruition. But with the final barrier dropped, permit in hand, visa in passport, the doubts and fears seem closer. I’m about to enter what, to all intents and purposes, is a warzone, for nothing more than to satisfy my curiosity about the country. Afghanistan has become more than just another country and a string of sights however; this isolated, savagely beautiful, wild and war-torn country has become something of a Shangri-La. It is to me what what Bukhara was to Alexander Burnes, or Tibet to Francis Younghusband. I simply must see this country. I have become obsessed by it, and will happily risk my life to see it. A fear of death is perhaps more a fear of wasted life, for death is inevitable. If one is doing exactly what one wants in life, perhaps death becomes less frightening.
Returning to Islamabad that evening to collect the last onward visas and take stock before moving off, a storm comes over the plains. Beyond the city, to the west, a band of late-afternoon light from beyond the stormclouds picks out the mountainscape of the Northwest Frontier in a jaundiced silhouette, low but immense, occupying the entire horizon in a broad mass of sharp, overlappng, barren peaks. These are not the rolling green hills which give Islamabad its pleasant backdrop; these mountains form one of the wildest, most lawless and dangerous areas on Earth, and my feelings in anticipation are of equal parts delight and terror. I’ll certainly breathe a sigh of relief once I reach the safety of Kabul.
The days in Islamabad pass easily; it’s a city of relative comforts, and something of a shock after the rest of Pakistan with its orderly green streets and relative cleanliness; a world away from the filth, chaos and noise of every other city in the country. For all its slightly characterless suburban pleasantries however, it is a city gripped by security paranoia and stacked full of barriers, security gates and concrete bollards. Near any diplomatic building or major government office will be a plethora of guards behind sandbags, checking with mirrors under incoming vehicles and otherwise sitting down and passing time doing very little at all. Tens of thousands of men spend their days sitting about with nothing to do. The most shocking of all these defences is undoubtedly outside the Marriot Hotel, which is barely visible behind four-metre high walls of sandbags and numerous security checkpoints. Islamabad’s neat grid-plan of streets, designed for easy access, has been jerrymandered into a complex system of blocked roads, U-turns and bottlenecks at security checkposts. The huge, almost Soviet-looking Constitution Avenue, which runs past many high-profile government offices, the Supreme Court, Parliament and disgracefully lavish Presidential Residence in ten neat lanes with manicured lawns and trees, is virtually empty thanks to strict police checks. Islamabad is a city on the frontline of the War on Terror, or rather the terror which results from this war.
I have two visas to collect in Islamabad, in no particular order. I had planned to visit the Uzbek Embassy this Monday morning, but at the last moment change my mind and go instead to the Iranian Embassy. When I get back I learn that there was a bombing in the headquarters of the World Food Programme which killed five. The office is directly opposite the waiting area outside the Uzbek Embassy.
I drive to Peshawar on the Thursday, back into the clamorous Old City. When I was here last week, I had a light-hearted look around the bazaars; this time it’s the last stop before I take the plunge into Afghanistan. I have all visas and permits in hand, and am pretty much past the point of no return. I discover new joys in Peshawar however, finding a truly wonderful section of the Old City with just enough old charm and not quite enough smoking rickshaws and furious motorcyclists to make the place every bit as enchanting as Damascus or Shiraz. It’s a delight to sit sipping kawa (zesty green tea) on a charphai (rope bed) in the old Storyteller’s Bazaar, where merchants would come from India, Inner Asia, Persia and beyond to spin yarns and exchange information, as well as sell their goods. All around is the faded elegance of the old buildings; tall, elegant town houses of the rich old Hindu and Sikh merchants who are long gone, their splendidly faded abodes with carved wooden balconies and shuttered windows a leftover from old India, British India, a past era which has been utterly and irrevocably consigned to history.
In this bazaar can be found many of the most sensuous delights of South Asia; the wafting cry of the muezzin echoing around the labyrinthine rooftops; the smell of spices, tea and roses wafting from stalls whose wares have remained unchanged through the centuries; and the momentary glance of a woman’s dark, beautiful eyes from an otherwise veiled face of deepest black, as she flits silently through the raucous crowds. I could sit here for hours in this richest and most enchanting of environments. The local residents of Peshawar are similarly charming; outrightly friendly, with even the most fierce or vagabondish face erupting into a gentle, genuine smile on hearing the most passing politeness or gesture of greeting from me. I find myself flitting from shop to shop, learning and absorbing the interactions. These warm Pashtun shopkeepers are acutely aware of the negative image which Pakistan, and Muslims in general have in the Western media and it troubles them (and frankly myself) that the extremists who have hijacked a peaceful and humanist faith are the darlings of this media, something which is degrading to these people both as Pashtuns and Muslims.
The Old City exudes a genuine, centuries-old essence of having been lived in since time immemorial; a woven tapestry of small interactions so perfectly balanced and immensely intricate – the cool bargaining of merchants and customers, the errand boys running between shops and the teahouses with trays of pots and bowls, the old men pulling carts laden with boxes, and the craftsmen at work in open-fronted rooms; tailors, goldsmiths, watchmakers, printers and cobblers. The place must have run like this for centuries, and there’s not a trace of soulless, glass-fronted ugliness, no multinationals, no e-shopping. It’s timeless, and deeply, intensely human, an enclave of the old Silk Road frozen in time, a showcase of a pre-globalised world. The murmurous patter of all the human interactions is the very essence of the Asian Bazaar, which must be as old as civilisation itself.
The 9th October is my final full day in Pakistan, and together with Kausar, a native of Peshawar whom I had met earlier in the year, I take advantage of Peshawar’s well-stocked Khyber Bazaar to stock up on some last minute clothes and supplies. We leave the bazaar in a rickshaw, and ten minutes later switch on the television in his office to learn that a bomb had gone off. Moments after we left the bazaar, a minibus carrying 100 kg of explosives detonated at a busy crossroads – exactly where we had been – killing 55 people. It’s the second time this week that I have narrowly missed being at the site of a bomb attack though strangely, the fact hardly affects me at all.
In the evening I meet Shahab, a Pakistani Pashtun who moves between Peshawar, where his family live, and Kabul where he works. I’m hoping to stay with Shahab in Kabul, and looking forward to being shown around Peshawar by him this evening. We agree to meet in the Rose Hotel, which is on one corner of the crossroads where the bomb went off earlier today. The area is closed off to vehicles, and has been sanitized, though rubble and twisted wreckage remain, drawing huge crowds of curious locals and a few foreign journalists.
I arrive early in the hotel, where I meet Keith, one of those unashamedly eccentric characters one seems only to meet when travelling. Tall and well-built, loud and flamboyant, Keith, half Geordie and half Turkish has long, flowing hennaed hair and wears an Egyptian jellabiya which stands out from the ubiquitous shalwaar kameez of Pakistan. Keith had been teaching music in Lahore, where I had initially met him last year, and on joining him for dinner one evening had realised that he seemed to be on very good terms with most of the young men in the neighbourhood. I meet Keith this time fleeing the lobby of the Rose Hotel, chased by a young man brandishing a cane, whom he had presumably fondled. He wouldn’t be out of place as a character in a Graham Greene novel. Being just outside the bomb site, Keith had gone out and immediately witnessed the aftermath, and was shocked not only by the carnage and gore, but at the reactions of the local people, walking around casually taking photographs of the dead and dying as if it were some kind of art installation. It seems that one can remarkably quickly become desensitised to appalling violence.
Shahab soon arrives and takes me around town briefly in his Landcruiser, to the vast Islamia University College which exemplifies the pink sandstone fusion of Moghul and Gothic styles found in the Subcontinent’s grandest Raj-era buildings. We then drive west to the edge of town and into the salubrious suburb of Hayatabad – a mini Islamabad – with orderly streets and opulent mansions. We visit a good friend of his, who is picnicking on his lawn in the pleasantly cool evening, and have tea brought to us by a servant. We then pick up Shahab’s brother-in-law to-be, Ali, and I’m taken to an upmarket restaurant on the city’s Ring Road. Here we are served some Pashtun fare, eating masses of meat; huge slabs of lamb flame-grilled with no accompaniment; just the taste of pure, fresh meat, a carnivore’s heaven. As we sit on the manicured green lawn, served by fawning waiters in tails, large trucks pass by frequently, supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan. Just earlier that day a number of them had been set ablaze by what the local media called ‘miscreants’.
After eating we head to Ali’s thirteen-bedroom mansion. “This is our town house; it gets too tiring to drive from our village every day”. The family own a large amount of land a few kilometres beyond the city limits of Peshawar, in a village which I suspect effectively belongs to them. Outside this palatial town house, which would not look out of place on the French Riviera or on a Caribbean Island is a flock of luxury cars and SUVs, though Ali bemoans that he prefers not to use the black, S-Class Mercedes, as one becomes a target for kidnapping.
We drink more kawa from ornate, bone china cups on the lawn. Just at the end of the road, a stone’s throw away from this luxury begin the Tribal Areas; Khyber Agency, an almost medieval society of fortified mud-brick buildings and strict tribal codes which include violent inter-tribal conflicts, honour killings and a huge drugs trade. With alarming regularity these days, rockets rain down on these opulent western suburbs of Peshawar, on the very limit of government-controlled territory, from the restive Tribal Areas just beyond. I’m awestruck by Ali’s house; I don’t think I’ve ever been to a more impressive home. “In England, we can only dream of living in a house like this” I say fawningly. “You’d be surprised how many of us would trade it all for the safety and security you enjoy in England” Ali counters sincerely. Many have, of course. I wonder how many of these rich landowners and warlords have left such wealth and power to live in grey and dowdy cities in the UK.
As often happens with Pashtuns, the conversation turns to guns: “They are part of our culture, part of being a man. Everyone here has at least one gun, even the simplest, most peaceful man will have one… you never know what can happen. They are cheap, it’s like having a mobile phone, a basic of life for us. And it keeps petty crime down; nobody will try to steal you wallet or mobile phone in case you have your gun with you”. Ali and his uncle regale me with stories of horrific weaponry used in tribal wars; these aren’t noble horsemen who fire muskets at each other, but born-and-bred fighters who are heavily armed with modern weaponry, all manner of assault rifles, high-calibre cannons and anti-aircraft guns. “In the tribal areas, they mount them on top of the house and during times of war, fire at people as they approach. Once we bought an old Russian tank from Afghanistan; it was cheap, only 130,000 rupees. We kept it and used to drive it round and fire it ocassionally. Then one day the Political Agent in Peshawar wrote to us, and asked kindly that we surrender it, which we did”. Shahab drives me back to my hotel in the city centre, my head spinning with the days events; a major bombing followed by an amazing insight into the life of the rich and powerful of the region.
On the morning of the 10th October, I drive to the Khyber Political Agent’s office where I am to pick up my levies; members of the Khyber Khassadar Force (KKF), who are picked from Pakistan’s tribal areas and provide some semblance of security along the road to the border. In reality they are the subject of frequent attacks, and spend much of their time behind thick walls of sandbags, in fear of their lives. I’m feeling a little nervous; despite Shahab, who has driven the infamous Peshawar – Kabul road several times, reassuring me that it is fairly safe at present, I’m still about to enter a country where I have few contacts. I am also nervous in case this all comes to nothing, that something happens at the last minute which will prevent me from reaching my goal, after all the preparation and anticipation.
The tension eases as I pick up two armed levies and head out of the city. At Khyber Gate, the symbolic entrance to the Tribal Areas, I am joined by another Toyota Hilux, full of KKF levies. Immediately, we go back in time; all around are scattered village buildings, squat, mud-brick enclosures with fortified towers which would not look out of place on a Medieval British castle. The road is busy however and doesn’t feel hostile, but my escort puts on sirens and flashing lights, stopping traffic at the roadside as I’m whisked up like a VIP. I am a huge responsibility for these men, but at the same time their presence and haste make me a conspicuous target as we wind up the mountains into forbidding, rocky territory.
Like the Bolan Pass, the Khyber is less of a marked crestline between two valleys, and more a winding passage through a rocky defile which snakes around the base of much higher mountains. The scenery seems to be inextricably linked with the toughness and austerity of the people here; small nondescript villages and fairly wild-looking towns give it a wonderful frontier atmosphere; wild and romantic with the old ways of tribal vendetta. Every turn seems to offer a new position for ambush from the slopes above. Shortly after the village of Ali Masjid, where the road enters a narrow, twisting valley, looming above the road is the Kushan Sphola Stupa, somewhat incongruous against the backdrop of tribal warfare, but a reminder that this artery has been the gateway between India and Central Asia for millennia. Alexander’s Armies marched through here and shortly after, it was the conduit through which Buddhism left India, spreading into Central Asia, Tibet, Mongolia, ultimately reaching Korea and Japan. I am truly privileged in this day and age to have the chance to drive myself over this historical divide.
Shortly after, I pass the huge, fortified complex of drug-warlord Ayub Afridi – Asia’s Pablo Escobar – who lives a life of vast wealth derived from drug-trafficking (it’s widely rumoured that the CIA used Afridi’s network to supply money and arms to the Mujaheddin in the 1980s), wholly unmolested by any authority. I pass through the wild-looking town of Landi Kotal, which looks to have been built specifically to withstand a siege, and shortly after, the road turns at Michni Post where the land rolls away steeply to reveal a narrow valley choked with lorries and other indiscernible chaos in the hazy distance. This sprawl is the cross-border town of Torkham. I have crossed the Khyber Pass.
Heading down into town with my escort eager to have me off their hands, I first must visit the customs office to have my truck stamped out of the country. Outside, it’s bedlam with dozens of people milling around, forms and payments changing hands, huge old ledgers and walls stacked high with decaying old papers. A foreigner is not a common sight here, and so I’m led off to a beautifully serene courtyard out at the back, where the senior customs officer sits under a tree amongst voluminous bougainvillea. An enormous old ledger is brought out in which are recorded all foreign vehicles crossing this border, with records going back to the 1970s. It’s an incredible historical document charting the end of a golden age of travel, the Great Overland Trail, or Hippy Trail, which saw people routinely driving cars from Europe to India, passing a beautiful, pre-war Afghanistan. How times have changed since then. I am taking the fourth foreign vehicle across since the area was officially closed to foreigners early last year, and the seventh since my Austrian friend Oliver crossed in 2007.
I drop Sadiqullahs name to the officers, which is a good move as they all know him, and the paperwork is processed quickly. They comment that I have considerably overstayed, but Sadiquallah’s letter seals any problems. After tea and biscuits, my force of levies, which by now has grown to a small troop, take me to the immigration window, where my passport is stamped in deep red: ‘EXIT PAKISTAN VIA TORKHAM’, and I’m bundled past the last gate and onto the border line. I have reached Afghanistan at last. Ahead of me lies a transect through some of Central Asia’s least visited places, and I can’t think at present of any trip, anywhere in the world that appeals to me more than this.
Adding up my three visits during this journey, I had been in Pakistan for exactly 365 days. At once I was eager to leave and see new places, but at the same time I was still sad to leave. I could spend weeks sipping tea in the bazaars of Quetta or Peshawar, or relaxing in the mountains in Gilgit, enjoying meeting other travellers, for Pakistan attracts a small but interesting crowd of visitors. Such inertia could occupy a lifetime, but I realised that in Pakistan I had finally, found somewhere I could call home.