Stage 16 – Pakistan & Afghanistan: The Khyber Pass and Beyond [3/3]
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.