Sunday, 25 November 2012

Afghanistan 24th September–29th October 2012

 

I hadn’t thought seriously about travelling to Afghanistan until I started talking to Josh at Nomad’s Home Hostel in Bishkek. He was planning to travel there with his wife Caitlan very shortly.

Over the course of a conversation that ran long into the night he planted in my head a strong desire to go.

We started talking about Lawrence of Arabia and the explorer Richard Burton. He asked me if I admired these explorers. Of course I did. “Wouldn’t you like to be like one of them?”

He then gave other reasons for travelling to Afghanistan: When’s the next time you will be in Central Asia? And chiefly; the window is closing and the security situation will only deteriorate when the American troops leave.

I tried to sleep but the idea of actually going to Afghanistan kept me up for a long time.

What the hell?! I was only back in Bishkek to fix my bike. I toyed with the idea for a day before making my mind up.

I found out Josh back at the hostel. “I have a question for you.”

“Where the Afghan embassy is?”

“No, well yes, but would you mind waiting for me until I get my visas and we can go together.” He agreed.

Half jokingly I asked Callie if she wanted to go to Afghanistan: “I’d love to! I wanted to go but I needed someone to go with.”

We dashed round Bishkek picking up visas and buying hiking gear before leaving only three days after deciding we would go to Afghanistan.

We would get to the Afghan border from Dushanbe, in Tajikistan. The journey there was relatively uneventful, except the disappearance of Josh and Caitlan’s passports from their tent, pitched in the no-man’s land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Possibly the worst place to lose a passport. Luckily they were found after a frantic search.

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Travelling with us to Tajikistan was Connor from Salt Lake city. Connor and Callie played on mouth organs while we waited for a lift from the Kyrgyz/Tajik border to Dushanbe.

In Dushanbe, the owner of Adventurer’s Inn recommended the Wakhan Corridor as a good place to travel in Afghanistan for two reasons: It was beautiful and it was safe. But he strongly advised against  crossing from Tajikistan at Sher Khan Bandar as we would have to travel through the dangerous town of Kunduz

I asked Josh where he wanted to go in Afghanistan and he replied all over. He had also said it was safe provided you didn’t go to a region where there were foreign troops and the Taliban, namely the south.

Callie and I decided to leave for Afghanistan before Josh and Caitlin, but the four of us went to a Bazaar in the South of Dushanbe where transport could be found to the border.

I gave Josh my phone number and told him to get a phone so we could keep in touch.

We slept at a truck stop on the Tajik side of the Afghan border. As the sun set I looked into Afghanistan across the Amu Darya river.

A loud explosion woke us up just after midnight. I heard doors opening and hasty footsteps in the hallway and I think I heard the screeching of tyres and a car accelerating into the night. We laid awake frozen in the dark for a while.

We never found out what had caused the explosion.

Callie covered her hair and we made for the border. At customs we had our first experience of Afghan hospitality with the officials offering us tea and sweets.

We decided to visit Mazar-e Sharif first. We changed taxis at Kunduz, where I had read on the BBC website a bomb had killed 16 people earlier in the month. Our taxi driver kindly agreed to arrange a taxi to Mazar and we much appreciated the speed with which we switched taxis.

With Rickshaws and turbaned men, my first impression of Afghanistan was it was very different from the nearby Central Asian countries.

The few women we saw walking the streets were covered with Burkas.

The Taxi dropped us at The Barat Hotel. At $40 dollars a night, this was steeper than the usual $10 dollar or less hostels we were use to. But with a view of the mosque of Ali’s tome, we couldn’t complain.

We ventured out to find food. A lapis seller invited us to sit on carpets in his street side store. His family were originally from Turkmenistan and had moved to Afghanistan in the 1940s. With good English he asked us where we were from and what we were doing in Afghanistan.

We had decided to say we were married, and we were Australian. This made people warm to us. We were asked often if we had any children. Not yet, as we had only been married  6 months.

He told us he had witnessed the Taliban murder 25 men from the Hazara ethnic minority, “Just there, across the street.” His eyes fixed unblinking to the spot, I could tell he was recalling this unhappy memory from childhood.

“Tell me”, he said, “what would that do to an eleven year old?”

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However, the Afghans are surprisingly upbeat after 33 years of war. The guy above was selling bowels of ‘ice noodles’. There was a lot of good food to sample on the street in Mazar.

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Mazar-e Sharif is built around the tome of Hazrat Ali, the fourth Caliph, who was thought to be buried in Nejef until Ali visited a local Mullah in a dream revealing to him his real place of burial.

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Callie in Tajik dress looking back at the entrance to the shrine.

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A couple we met in the hotel offered to show us around. I said I wanted to see the neighbouring historic town of Balkh and as they had a car agreed to take us.

At one point Dravid let me drive his car. Then later he stopped and borrowed a bicycle off a kid and started cycling it sitting backwards in the saddle. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant with an armed guard and had Kabuli – meat on the bone covered with rice.

They took us to a shopping mall where Callie bought a black Afghan dress.

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She decided against purchasing one of the above, more commonly worn at a wedding.

They took us to a theme park and we rode the tea cups and Ferris wheel. Apart from soldiers frisking us as we entered, the place had a relaxed atmosphere, most women had lifted their Burka over their heads to reveal their faces.

Dravid really wanted us to have a good time in Mazar. So much so as we parted at the end of the day he gave me some knock-off Viagra.

After three nights in Mazar we headed for Faizabad in the Badakshan province – where we would then travel into the Wakhan Corridor. We travelled with a young family. During the trip the wife threw up under her Burka. She later told Callie in a curtained off room of a tea shop she was suffering from morning sickness.

The first night in Faizabad we stayed at a hotel, but decided to search for cheaper accommodation the next day.

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In Mazar and Faizabad a crowd would quickly assemble if we stopped in the street to purchase food or look for gifts. Intimidating at first, the crowds were always friendly.

We crossed the river and entered the old quarter of town where the main bazaar is located. With open fronted shops either side of a mud road, the place reminded me of the wild west.

We asked a local for directions to a guesthouse and he guided us through a maze of backstreets between high mud walls to a guesthouse for Germans working in Badakhshan. 

Kindly, they allowed us to camp in their beautiful garden overlooking the river and hills. From the garden you could see kites being flown by young boys.

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Callie ‘Afghanified’ on the veranda of the German guesthouse.

One German guest, Helmut, declared us prisoners and our possessions confiscated. He had travelled quite a bit in Afghanistan, and I think understood why we had come. I talked to him about the history of British involvement in Afghanistan. He expressed admiration for the daring army officers Britain would send disguised into Afghanistan to collect intelligence and foil Russian interests in the country.

Helmut bought us beer at the German army base on the outskirts of Faizabad. We handed our passports over to Mongolian soldiers who were manning the perimeter. At the entrance to the base were two rows of parked lorries waiting to be loaded with equipment once the base closed. Their mission over, the soldiers flew back to Germany whilst we were in the Wakhan.

After the base we were taken to a house where the younger German expats had gathered for a few drinks. Most present were working for the German government’s aid agency, Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, or GIZ for short.

After getting some good practical advice on getting to the Wakhan from Helmut, I asked if he wanted us to bring him back anything. “Just coming back safely will be enough.”

He suggested we buy dried mulberries in the Bazaar as it made good trekking food. After all, he mischievously pointed out, an Afghan fighter would live on only a handful of the stuff a day and they managed to defeat the British army.

We got up before sunrise packed the tent and walked the short distance to where the mini bus was leaving for Soignon.

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The driver stopped often to fill the radiator, and repaired the hose with a plastic shopping bag. The route took us past Like Shiveh.

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The journey was long and to pass the time I put my hands in the air to a tune on the radio and pretended to dance. The other passengers cheered me on and started clapping to the beat of the tune. This was a mistake: they were bored of the journey and insisted I dance almost every ten minutes.

On high passes the lad next to me would point at the road ahead and pull on an invisible trigger indicating there were bandits ahead.

Then, as the sun was setting another passenger, a man in a leather jacket, made me repeat the first line of the Koran over and over until I got it right. His insistence I repeatedly recite the Shahada un-nerved me: it felt like a test. I wondered if it was to help me should we come across bandits.

The bus stopped in fading light. The man in leather jacket left the bus, spread his scarf on the ground and began to pray.

Nearing Soignan another man with a thin line of black mascara under his eyes began singing verses from the Koran in a lilting high register. He also insisted I repeated after him. My attempts were met enthusiastically by the rest of the passengers in the mini bus. I wondered what I was singing.

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The man in leather

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Lad with the trigger finger.

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The Soprano.

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The mini bus stopped on a precarious stretch of the road hanging off the side of a mountain where a 4x4 had broken down. It occupants were foreigners. We exchanged numbers and agreed to met up in Soignan.

We slept in our own room in Choikhana – a restaurant cum hostel for travellers, an institution in Afghanistan. A teacher at the local teacher training school kindly acted as translator. We were woken next day by the foreigner’s Afghan fixer inviting us for food.

We ate a huge breakfast with Dwight Razor, his wife and two colleagues - missionaries developing a writing script for for the tribal dialects spoken in the Wakhan. They prayed for us.

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We walked to Ishkashim, on the Tajik border, where we would get our permits to enter The Wakhan.

We walked through fields belonging to a small village. The harvest was in the final stage of collection. The wheat was being separated from the chaff by flinging the cut grass into the air.

We were invited into the house of a school teacher where we had milk tea with animal fat, which floated on the surface of the tea in massive yellow globules. I quite liked it.

A picture of the Aga Khan on the wall of their front room indicated they were Ismaili Muslims.

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It took us two days to walk to Ishkashim. We camped above the River Panj. Across the river is Tajikistan and the Pamir Highway. I could make out tents and a fire. The Pamir must have re-opened to tourists again.

We got a lift in the afternoon of the second day and arrived in Ishkashim just after dark and were pointed in the direction of the nearest Choikhana.

For two dollars we got a huge plate of rice, some meat, bread and tea and a really tasty chickpea dish. After dinner, the raised platforms are used for prayer, and after this you get given bedding and the lights go off. Callie had to sleep behind a curtain.

We were told by a friendly man staying at the Choikhana that the owner was Mujahedeen. He looked it: turban, back beard, piercing eyes. I wasn’t sure we were welcome at first, but Callie’s Dari seemed to win them over.

Every night the men in the Choikhana would watch a Turkish soap, dubbed into Dari, with the cleavage of the actresses blurred by the Afghan sensor. They were hooked on this melodrama, even the former Mujahedeen owner.

One of the nights we stayed there the news showed amateur footage of a women in a Burka being stoned to death by the Taliban.

After getting permission to enter the Wakhan from the government’s local representatives, the army and finally the police we bought enough food to last several days and walked out of Ishkashim and entered the Wakhan.

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We walked along the only road in the Wakhan. Any one we met on the single dirt track road would be surprised when we told them we were walking and staying in a tent.

Near the small village of Khandud we stayed at a police barracks in the final stage of construction. We’d been picked up a few hours before in a 4x4 the driver of which said it would be alright to stay. I woke up to find a mouse eating our bread.

The next day we pitched our tent near a group of farm houses. The elderly occupants would come down to see what we were about. I was ill in the night and told Callie we would not be doing any walking that day.

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I lay in the tent while Callie fixed her petrol stove. There is little spare food in the Wakhan, so without a stove, we would have struggled to get enough to eat. She fixed it, and cooked me rice for dinner.

Faizabad had been warm, but higher up in the Wakhan the nights were getting colder. We had left our sleeping mats in Bishkek, which made the nights a little uncomfortable.

Further into the corridor live the Wakhi with their own culture and dialect.100_0666

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We met a large group of Wakhi moving with their Yaks to lower pastures. The Yaks are ridden with stirrups and saddles.100_0685

Handing out balloons in one village.

 

 

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The army surplus pack we bought in Bishkek was hurting my shoulders and I had several blisters on both feet and my hiking boots were slowly disintegrating.

We decided to turn back near the village of Kret rather than try to get into the Little Pamir near the Chinese border, in order to have enough time to visit Kabul.

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Pushed for time we kindly accepted lifts whenever they came. The local police offered us a lift part of the stretch, stopping to drop off food at one village – we were not sure whether this was part of their official duty or a profitable side operation.

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Back in Ishkashim we stayed at the same Choikhana, but this time it was a lot busier. There was a discussion between several men whether we could stay. We got up to go a couple of times before they let us bed down for the night.

Breakfast in a Choikhana consists of bread and milk tea with salt in it. I liked to tear the bread into pieces and drop them into my bowl of tea.

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Not so lucky with lifts between Ishkashim and Soignan, we stopped before midday as it was now Callie’s turn to be ill. A sandstorm picked up out of nowhere, and in the process of taking down my tent – which was getting a battering – one of the poles snapped.

We found shelter in an unused shepherds hut, where I fixed my tent and we slept the night.

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A shepherd arrived with his two massive dogs to see what we were about. He didn’t seemed to mind us being there. He posed for a photo.

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We walked almost all the way back to Soignan – invited in for tea and bread at the army checkpoints by bored soldiers.

Near Soignan two foreign aid agency 4x4s passed us. The second stopped and we accepted a lift. The driver and his mate were Afghans with good English. In the other 4x4 was a Frenchmen who worked for the GIZ. He’d been checking the progress of the construction of bridges in remote areas of Badakshan and the Wakhan.

He was heading back to Faizabad the next day and offered to give us a lift.

We stayed at a different Choikhana, the owner and guests were curious and friendly. Callie was put behind the curtain with the rest of the women, who had travelled to Soignan for medical treatment.

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In the morning Eric turned up with his Afghan colleagues. He told us it was easy to find us, he just asked people in the market which Choikhana the two foreigners – ‘Kkhaa-rej-I’ – were staying.

Over a large breakfast in his guesthouse Eric turned to us: “Oh yeah, my Afghan colleagues want to know: what the fuck are you doing here?”

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On the way back to Faizabad Eric had to inspect some bridges. We passed an old Russian Afghan army helicopter that had crashed the previous winter.

He was sharing a house in Faizabad with a German guy also working for GIZ. He said we could stay. On arrival I stuffed my face with pasta and Kebab. I also got beer. Then we watched ‘The Big Lebowski’ on their home cinema.

Eric got a phone call on the second night we stayed from a colleague asking where those two backpackers he had picked up were. The American government had been searching for Callie after her parents discovered she had gone to Afghanistan.

We took the coach to Kabul. We left before sunrise and arrived after sunset. We passed through the famous Salang Tunnel, built by the Russians and thire main supply route to Kabul. It was here the famous Mujahedeen commander Ahmad Sha Masoud would ambush the Russian convoys.

Masoud was killed by the Taliban two days before the planes hit the Trade Centre. His popularity since death has soared, his picture adorns most car windscreens and many public places.

We had arranged to stay with an Afghan Couch Surfer. He picked us up from the coach station and dropped us off at a guesthouse in Shahr e Nau, near the centre of Kabul. It was Eid, and all families would be celebrating this together. A bad time to couch surf in Afghanistan.

Everything closed for four days and we were stuck in Kabul with little to do. We watched a lot of rolling news and films on our room’s television. I played cricket with a member of staff in the guesthouse’s small garden. He had a wicked spin.

They had an internet connection so we checked our emails for the first time since Mazar.

We discovered the British and American governments had been searching all over Central Asia for us. I had received an email from the British embassy in Kabul asking for me for a response.

The FBI asked Callie and me to go to the American Embassy the next day. They phoned Callie and told her Josh and Caitlan were still missing.

At the American Embassy we were met at the security checkpoint by two agents who escorted us through several further checkpoints each more elaborate and heavily armed.

We were ushered into an apartment and answered questions on Josh and Caitlan. They didn’t know where they were, and wouldn’t have told us anything if they knew anyway.

At the end of the interview one agent turned to Callie and told her that there were lots of interesting places in the world to visit where Americans are not hated.

We were worried about our friends. Our adventure had suddenly turned serious; dangers that had been brushed aside now seemed real and immediate. We wanted to leave Afghanistan as soon Eid finished and we could get a taxi to take us to the border.

To kill time we went to Babur’s garden; a peaceful enclave in a bustling city. Kabul has been rebuilt since the civil war of the early 90s and has lost much of its previous charm. Babur, the founder of Mughal Dynasty, thought the city beautiful and is buried in the Garden that he gave his name to.

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Signs of war were apparent, with bullet holes visible on a marble mosque in the garden.

Eid over we could leave. We shared a taxi with two neatly dressed Afghans. One was my age; and he was travelling to Kunduz to give his fiancée a ring as an Eid gift. He was worried if the Taliban stopped us he would be in trouble as he had once been a television presenter. I said he had nothing to worry about, as they would be more interested in us foreigners.

This was the third time we had travelled through dangerous Kunduz. We were a little apprehensive, but we didn’t stop for long and within thirty minutes we were at the border.

The taxi driver demanded double what we had agreed to pay. We refused to pay the extra and the border guards intervened to settle the dispute. He explained that as we were foreigners we should pay extra, but after an hour of arguing he took the original sum, but not before threatening the Taliban would slit our throats. He drew his thumb across his throat and walked off.

We arrived back in Dushanbe the same day, quite a feat; Kabul to Dushanbe in one day. We waited at the hostel for Josh and Caitlan to return. Every time the door opened we hoped it would be them.

But as their Afghan visas expired and our Tajik visas were soon to expire we headed back to Kyrgyzstan.

Back in Bishkek, Nomad’s Home hostel had closed for the season, but by luck the owner was walking past and agreed to let us stay.

Our bikes had accumulated 7 weeks worth of dust.

2 comments:

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