Friday, April 21, 2006

ARRIVAL IN AFGHANISTAN: ...ON THE OPIUM ROAD!!!

Notice: to read the full story, have a look at my book "Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan". Clic here to learn more. Order a book and keep me on the road!
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Consciously or unconsciously, every traveler brings forth a brief prayer each time he lifts his backpack, and requests the rose of the winds not to allow symmetry to settle beyond the horizon line. When surprise is warranted, though, he inversely holds the breath for some basic normality. Such was my case when I started hitch hiking to Afghanistan. Afghanistan was traditionally part of the hippie trail, the overland route from Europe to India that thousands of people followed during the 60s and 70s. Back home, the adventurers would talk enthusiastically about that country of hospitable people and extreme landscapes. Dervla Murphy, the Irish girls that in 1963 cycled from Ireland to India dedicated “Full Tilt”, her book, to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and described the first as a nation of intelligent men who were surprisingly sensitive to natural beauty. A lot of water has passed through the bridge since then.

Thirty years of conflicts, the Soviet occupation and the consequent covered supply of weapons by Western powers to the Islamic militias keen on resisting it have stressed the preexisting tribal conflicts beyond the supernatural. Presently, the government of Hamid Karzai and the peace keeping international forces attempt to provide much needed security, but pretty little is what central authority can do away from the big cities, where war lording thrives around a well established opium and heroin processing industry. While the “drug barons” drive state of the art 4WD, the Anti Narcotic Police use tattered Russian jeeps. Not to talk about the policemen salaries (around 50 dollars a month), which largely encourages collaboration and bribing. In two centuries all these events will appear picturesque and travel agencies will promote the Opium Road in the same way they now sell the Silk Road, but now the risk of being caught and beheaded is realistic, especially away from the main roads. In spite of recent tales from Russian hitch hiker Anton Krotov, who highly regards Afghanistan’s bad fame as a ghost, I left Mashhad with some fear.

The first two rides consisted of motorcycles. One of the drivers transported a watermelon in each side pack, and I had to fight not to inherit it. A two wheeled ride after another can only be understood as a tribute to Rocinante, Dervla Murphy’s bike, on behalf of the road. Eventually, I found Abdul, who was driving his old Paykan to Herat to visit his mother. Herat, the first city on the Afghan side. The trip would have been pleasant hadn’t he found a maniac’s pleasure in invading the opposite lane just to realign when we were close enough to the coming truck to feel its engine warmth. In the border Abdul had some problems with his car papers, so I went on alone on foot.

I used to consider customs just as place to be rush trough. Now, I have learnt they are places in their own right. The customs are gates among domino pieces, tracks for love and smuggling, ostracism and repatriation, heaven for travelers, prophets, opportunists, taxi drivers, money changers, crying mothers and corrupted officials. All charmed up by confiscated truck trailers rusting on the side of the road.


The Afghan customs, and the town which stands 5 km away, are called Islam Qaleh. Coming from Iran, the sudden encounter with crowds of men bearing gnarled white turbans and Osama-length beards is a shock. Good bye Middle East, welcome to Central Asia. Mi presence in the untidy customs office arises more surprise than questions. In a poster on the wall, the US Ministry of Defense (still) offers a millionaire reward for information about Bin Laden. Being him so similar to half of the guys around, I can understand why they haven’t found him. I exit the office with a new triangular red stamp in my passport. A man whose beard looks like a stalactite beard offers me Afghanis, the local currency, but he offers a bad rate for my Iranian rials, so I keep my pace, among men pushing karts carrying anything from bricks to car exhausts. Their sight is as committed with their task as if they would be introducing forbidden cults.


A sign makes it official: “Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”. It’s five o’clock, to late to reach Herat, which is 120 km away. I decide to walk to Islam Qaleh and see what happens. A young lad sells me his taxi service to Herat: “I have a Corolla!” –he claims proudly. That’s no warranty of comfort in a country where it’s usual to accommodate up to four “passengers” in the luggage place. Afghanistan is, factually, the most car less country in the world, just one every 1000 inhabitants. Islam Qaleh’s rhythm is common to all borders. Elsewhere, I fear that waiting for rides may equal expecting a passing star to repeat its course.


In the hamlet that precedes Islam Qaleh town, two kids that happily carry a disposed car battery in their kart accompany me for a mile or so. Then a Border Police pulls by to alert me that “you face a very dangerous trip”. I don’t listen. At least in main asphalt roads, I am committed to give Afghanistan a chance to prove itself hassle free. Locals, for the moment, seem surprised rather than hostile. I had entered a small mud brick shop to buy some water and I found, when I turned around looking for the exit, that the space of the door had been filled with faces, turbaned faces. The image resembled a finished 3-in-line board finished in draw. A taxi driver (yes, a Corolla) that returns home after a long day of work invites me in. Islam Qaleh is made of mud brick houses with domed roofs of the same substance and minimal windows.

In Karim’s place, only the red carpet on the ground interrupts the mud brick hegemony. Over it we play cards with his three brothers. Soon on of the town’s teachers is called in. He presents himself as Farsi (the language spoken in the West of Afghanistan), mathematics and English alphabet. Then he breathes deeply and recites it: “a,b,c,d,e…”. He wants to show me that he knows it, plus he can master the “what is your name” type of questions…The cards game is called 21, and goes slow, cause each time is Karim’s turn he is busy exploring all the possible ring tones of his Nokia. Write down, you, contemporary historians, throughout the Islamic world, men gather to talk about their phones, which they never use because call rates are far too expensive.When I tell Karim I would like to go to Kabul through the central road instead of taking the ring road via Kandahar in the South, he thinks I am crazy. Even if the Taliban are more powerful in the South, in the center and far from the main roads I would be more exposed to common banditry, while in Kandahar the presence of international peace keeping forces makes for a safer scenario. Afghanistan is the first country to consider itself dangerous and full of bad intentioned people. Normally, countries think that of their neighbors, not of themselves. The Turkish think it of the Iranians, the Iranians of the Afghanis, and the Afghanis of themselves…




When I wake up in the morning, Karim is already out working. His father, a man featuring endless white beard whose granddaughters play around his arms as if they were sparrows being fed, brings me some tea and advices me to hitch hike only near the police post out of town. On the way to it, I find a kid playing over a derelict, graffiti-covered, Russian military vehicle, on the left side of the road. Russian troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989, leaving behind all sorts of toys European boys can only dream of finding on their streets. And thousands of personal mines. The police post is a mud brick hut with a ruinous Afghan flag towering it. When I explain I intend to stop a Herat bound truck one of the policemen considers it necessary to sit by my side leaning over his AK-47 fusil. I smile and stretch my thumb behind him. As there are almost no trucks, the policeman gets bored and starts killing ants with the caliber of his gun. A Land Cruiser of two wealthy men from Herat finally gives me a lift after half an hour waiting: two hours later we are in the city.



Four large, ruined minarets, which earthquakes and centuries have left standing in odd angles mark the entrance to the city. In the main crossing, an officer attempts to put some order to traffic. If chaotic, traffic is here navigable, as it is mainly a rickshaw frenzyness consisting of bikes, motorcycles, rickshaws, horse karts and some cars. You should go back to 1910 to find something similar in the West. In Herat, life means bazaar: vendors with ascetic looking beards, price shouting soprano kids, women covered completely in their sky-blue burkas (a garment that only allows for a fine net for the eyes to see), all spinning according to that stunning, if austere, bazaar astronomy. Time for me to find a place in such planetary system…

2 comments:

abufares said...

You haven't written in a while. I hope you're alright. A new posting is a good enough reply for me.
Take care, enjoy it all.

Soen Joon Sunim said...

Wonderful post. Thanks for the insight into a country I've longed to visit, and for telling photographs, too.