Wednesday, April 26, 2006

IN FORBIDDEN VALLLEYS 1: TEA TIME IN THE MINEFIELD.


Sticky 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". Visit my online bookshop. Order a book and keep me on the road!


I wish the road conditions had been the only factor involved. In words of Heratis, the road is a greenhouse for bandits who run to grab their rifles at the mere sight of a foreigner. “I am Afghan and I don’t dare going there”- Hamid wastes his last ace in his attempt of stopping me. In such scenario, my days in Herat are stigmatized by the struggle between my mind, who carefully listens to the local advice, and my faith in the human being, that translates local advice as local prejudices.

There is, after all, no need to take the Central Road. It’s also possible (and faster) to reach Kabul via Qandahar, in the South, through smooth paved roads. It is curious that being Qandahar the epicenter of the Taliban revival, locals are still advising foreigners to break the journey there, possibly because the paved road allows for an almost non stop journey. Inversely, the Central Road demands a week in exchange of its 800 km, augmenting the exposure to locals and their hypothetical vices. Finally, the road to Kabul via Mazar-e-Shariff, in the North, can be regarded as the safest in the country, with no focuses of Taliban activity, or plus 3000 meters passes. In brief, a boring choice. But what price am I ready to pay for the precious adrenaline? I am conscious that after a year of traveling I have reached that tricky point in which one just trusts everything is going to be invariably OK.




Such dilemmas don’t allow me to enjoy Herat fully, its badly provisioned bazaar, with its goat heads orbited by flies exposed as day’s bargain. The streets of Herat may be, at times, smelly, and some of its avenues just one uninterrupted car workshop, but it is the cleanest and most beautiful city in Afghanistan. For ages part of the Great Persia that extended as far as Samarkand in present day Uzbekistan, Herat is a derelict heirloom.

Three days in Herat are enough to gather all the information I need to hit the road. From Moscow, my friend Alexey, with whom I have traveled through Egypt, has sent me a report of the experience of Russian hitch hikers from AFT (Academy of Free Travelers) on that road. They speak about little traffic (10 to 30 vehicles a day) and hopeless road conditions that demand a truck five days even in a non stop journey, but say nothing about security related problems. Looking at the map that Steven has sent to me from the Netherlands (impossible to find such maps in Afghanistan) I can see the road as a narrow white line departing eastwards from Herat, sometimes always vanishing, and always following the Harirurd valley into an increasingly high ground, which in the map turns to be an ever darker brown. At intervals of 100 km, there are tiny white circles. They are towns.

The first one is called Obweh, then comes Cheshter–e-Shariff. The following 200 km to Chagcharan, already in Ghor province are supposed to be the most miserable ones. To compensate, the internet says there is a base of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) stationed in Chagcharan, making the area safe enough. But Chagcharan is only half way to Kabul. Further away, in the mountain passes leading to Bamian province, is where everybody forecasts enraged lawless locals. At least until reaching Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan only lakes. Between the lakes and Kabul there is also Bamian town, which became sadly famous in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed the biggest Buddha statues on earth, of which now the niche in the cliff face only remains.


The morning of the departure is a 30 Celsius morning as any other. After several useless rides in rickshaws (motorcycle taxis) that only push me as far as the exit of Herat, a Toyota double cab stops. Zaboir, its driver, speaks perfect English. He is going to Karokh, that’s 50 km away but in the North road. In the nearby village of Sangur he is supervising the construction of a school sponsored by “Green Helmets”, a German NGO. As he promises to get me back to the central road the following morning, I accept his invitation of joining him for the day.

Zobair is Afghan. Yet, he has lived and worked in Heidelberg, Germany, for the last 20 years. It was there where he graduated in the Faculty of Engineering. Although he feels stronger links with Germany, he decided to come back to his native country to supervise the construction of nine new schools. Once in Sangur I also meet Joachim, a German Agriculture Engineer representing the NGO. With his long, bushy beard, his sun glasses and his orange bag, one would say Joachim is a hippie who got stuck in his way to India and has been here for, say…30 years. More than supervising he seems to be meditating.




Our conversation is interrupted by the chief of the village. You can see he is nervous, because he doesn’t take the usual time budget all Afghans would take to greet a foreigner. Instead he crosses the room with three steps and whispers something to Zobair. It seems there are Pashto nomads in the surroundings. The man fears that the nomads will try to break in the house thinking that the foreigners keep plenty of money there. He proposes that they should leave the village and stay in the head office of the NGO in Heart.

In a nearby village two foreign aid workers were injured when somebody threw a grenade through the window of their house while they slept. It can be said that some 5% of Afghans perceive foreign aid workers as invaders not different from American troops, making it hard to deliver help. In top of that, there are people who don’t have an opinion on the matter but will always be ready too pull the trigger in exchange of a banknote with Franklin’s face. Neither Zobair and Joachim abandon the village, nor I quit my plan of taking the Central Road. We will have to learn to master tranquility in spite of that five per cent…




The children arrive punctually for school the following morning at 8 o’clock. As the school is completed, classes take place in large tents donated by UNICEF. When he finishes paying workers their weekly wages, Zobair drives me to the beginning of the Central Road, which in its birth seems an inoffensive detour to some side village. No hint of its depth. Zobair makes an ultimate effort to drag me into the safer Northern Road by saying “Even the Governor faces troubles when he takes this road, and he has military escort.”

When Zobair’s support of my paranoia is winning the wrestling, another 4x4 driven by foreigners pulls by. It’s two German aid workers from Kabul on holidays in Herat province. They ask directions for the Central Road. They plan to explore the Harirurd valley as far as Obweh and then turn back to Herat. I promise Zobair I will come back with them and take the Northern Road, but within myself I have already decided I will try to reach Kabul. “Don’t trust the police too much,” Zobair says before speeding out, “they are the Taliban of 5 years ago. There is no system in Afghanistan. The last system was God, but now it’s the Jungle’s Law”. While we shake hands an Italian helicopter flies by. “You see how things end” says Zobair pointing at the chopper as if it would alone be a confirmation of his words. Somebody will have to pay my guardian angel for all the overtime. I greet Zobair and get in the car.





Thomas and his wife are two German agriculture engineers based in Kabul who research on alternatives to poppy cultivation. ”It’s is hard to make the locals understand that there are no long term benefits you can get from opium, just easy cash in hand in the short term.” He starts to explain me but he suddenly stops talking because red and white flags have appeared on both sides of the road, and a man with a blue jacket and a metal detector is making signals to us. The road goes through the middle of a mine field. And just minutes ago we were discussing about stoping for a picnic spot…

In the middle of the field, in a safe area marked with white stones, the commander greets us with some tea and pistachio. The image is worthy of the cover of a Pink Floyd album. The episode is the first jewel granted by the Central Road. Now I am already sure it is my road!


In Malwah, a tiny riverside village, we call a break for lunch. At our sight, a policeman gets out of a mud brick police station towered by an Afghan flag in miserable conditions. It is the image of a hungry dog that has smelled food. Thomas explains him our intentions in English. The policeman doesn’t understand a single word, but is happy we have paid him some attention and walks back to his hut proudly. How do the central authorities hope to impose respect with such un untidy police force? I still wonder.

My last chance of going back to civilization is gone together with Tomas’ Toyota. They drop me off in front of a school, and make an irrevocable U-turn. At least, alone with the Central Road, which is now a tiny white line in my map. As I sit down over my backpack and wait for a lift, I fully empathize with Pac Man’s delusions of persecution. Bearing witness to the dual nature of the moment, a moderate grin of excitement frames my vulnerability. Twenty minutes later, an orange Mercedes truck carrying wood planks, stops. Its driver is a Hazara, literally “one of the thousands”, as comprehensively the locals denominate those descending from the armies of Genghis Khan, who invaded these valleys seven centuries ago.



Travelling over wood planks in a truck that seems to hit every ditch of the road is not very comfortable. But at least there are four of us to commiserate. Two labors from Herat seem used to it, while a third turbaned passenger holds a golden kettle as if the continuity of the planet would depend on its stillness. They are all going to Cheshter-e-Shariff, where a new town hall is being built. We are almost the only vehicle on the road. At times, we are passed by light motorcycles driven by men who carry their burka clad wives in the back seat. Notably, we see a second truck carrying a refrigerator in the back, secured by ropes as a captive Minotaur.





On arrival to Cheshter-e-Shariff, I am greeted by the local police chief. As he talks to me, he doesn’t stop smelling a rose that is pinned to the pocket of his shirt. There are never BBC cameras to broadcast these moments. When the sensible policeman decides I am enough of a good boy, the town hall builders call me in, and put me up in the unfinished town hall for the night. We all have dinner together, down in the floor. I think I could live on the crispy and perfumed Afghan bread. The menu today is rice with mutton. And finally a boy makes a round distributing apples. Among the 12 labors there is a man who insistently touches his long beard and looks me in the eye. His sight intimidates me a bit. So I decide to play myself with my beard, which I haven’t shaved since Turkey. It is a good ice breaker, the grave looking man cannot repress a smile and then everybody is just happy because I have a beard too, and they believe me to be Muslim. In Afghanistan, beard reduces the impact of strangerhood…












1 comment:

Dave said...

Dude, I don't completely agree with your politics but I respect what you are doing and what you are saying here.

Rock on....AXLE ROSE AS GOD....that is hilarious.

Dave