Thursday, April 27, 2006


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!
The town’s English teacher that the following morning shows me the way to the road advises me –and he is not the first one- to beware of the Kuchi nomads that are all around. “They are Pashto, all of them robbers.” he says, and then adds “here we are Tajik”. The division among the Pashto South and the Tajik North is a deep crack in Afghan history. The Pashto –not exactly the poor nomads- have held power for centuries. The Tajik hate them for that and also for being too fanatic about religion. For the same reason the Taliban, who were Pashto, could only by means of force hold control of anywhere north of Qandahar or West of Kabul. The Pashto nomads, who migrate each spring from deserted Helmand and Qandahar provinces to the fertile central valleys are then doubly segregated, for being nomads and for being Pashto. According to the English teacher, also, the dodgy area would more precisely be located between Chagcharan and Lal. That’s a great progress since I left Herat, where everybody regarded the whole road to be a pirate’s nursery. Now hell was growing narrower

The entire bazaar at Cheshter stops working for a minute to catch a glimpse of the foreigner who is sitting by the side of the road and not driving a Toyota 4WD. The first output of the road that morning is, disappointingly, a shepherd boy with his fifty donkeys. After him, luckily, an Indian engineer who directs the works in Band-e-Salme dam stops for me. “The dam is very important for Afghanistan” , he initially says. Then he reviews his words and adds “Well, even a match box is important in Afghanistan”. On arrival on Kabul I would hear the bad news that an Indian engineer had been killed in Herat province approximately at the time I was there…

In Dikhan village I wait almost two hours for a ride. Nothing moves except from beetles and ISAF helicopters behind the valley, none of which are supposed to give rides. Finally, four doctors from Chagcharan give me a lift as far as Kamenj, just where the road forks to the South to cross the mountains. When the succession of mud brick hamlets and road craters was hypnotizing the five of us, we crossed an ISAF patrol. It is my first encounter with the NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan. As the driver rolls down the window, a badge with a Lithuanian flag in his shoulder comes to light. So the troops at Chagcharan were Lithuanian! Since I happen to be freelancing for “Respublika”, a Lithuanian newspaper, the information is relevant and motivating.

Before dropping me off, Dr. Nasser, one of the doctors, tells me to look for him if I ever make it to Chagcharan. I am in the dusty road again, exactly 20 km away from the Minaret of Jam, a enormous engraved minaret that stands in amazing solitude. A little tired of the sight seeing thing, I decide to give it a miss.

As if I were surveying all sectors of Afghan society, after the doctors comes a bunch of teachers from Kabul. They are directing the training program for local teachers in Shahrak district, high in the mountains. On the way, already by night, we stop for dinner in a village, invited by the local teacher, who comes out in the dark, ghostly, with a lantern, to guide us through the unlit alleys of the village. The long beards of those honorable men stand in the weak light provided by a gas bottle, inside the cavernous room of the humble house. I feel proud of having the chance to meet these men, that are really playing a role in changing their country from scratch through education. We finally make it to Shahrak, where I stay overnight in “Shahrak Education Management Office”.

The fourth day hides another extravaganza. While I am walking out of the village I meet a marching column of the Afghan Police. When the commander who is marking their pace spots my camera, he orders the soldiers with a neatly military volume to turn around, look at the camera, and smile. Only in such a cut off country as Afghanistan can the military members be glad to be photographed!

I then found the Kamaz truck. Loaded with oil barrels, and at the breathtaking speed of 10 km/h, the green Kamaz is crossing the Bayan Mountains towards Chagcharan. The chauffeur carries a rifle over the truck’s panel, and is not alone: a 16 year old boy in a greasy overall once and again steps down and dashes to remove a large stone or evaluate the depth of a ditch. No doubt the driver considers his young partner as little more than another device of the truck. Some late development of the Russian truck industry. He doesn’t stop yelling at him.

With mindfulness, the driver must be aware of the destiny of each wheel of the truck. It seems to be the only way to navigate this road, and never faster than 15 km/h. The villages we pass in our way make me wonder if the Kamaz didn’t accidentally hit a time gate among the ditches in the road. Cubic mud dwellings by the river, with no electricity, nor cars or streets. No signs of schools or clinics. The human drama taken back to episode one. When they see us, women run systematically away. Men continue to plough the land with oxen. The last twenty centuries seem to have tiptoed through these areas, or maybe they are stuck in the road. Not far from the hamlets, occasionally, there are nomad settlements. The contiguity makes you think their presence is a question mark interrogating their sedentary neighbors.

Unlike the Bedouins, who have rapidly embraced satellite TV and pick ups, the leather tents of the Kuchi only hold the carpet that separates them from the ground and bottles of water. Since the road is actually no more than a double strip of land where the grass doesn’t grow, it really feels like we are crossing through some large cattle ranch. I feel tempted to step down and stay overnight with them, but I cannot help harboring the borrowed prejudices of the people I have met on the way. Fear wins this time.

Although Chagcharan is inching closer, the day dies faster, and we sleep in the chaykhana (tea house) of one of the villages. There, my driver assures everybody I am Muslim. I am about to correct him when I happen to think that he might say it for our own safety. Having travelled in Muslim countries already for seven months I can repeat the kalima (declaration of faith any Muslim should be able to say) and with all probabilities I speak more Arabic than they do. However, I hope there is no need for demonstrations.

In the morning we complete the last 20 km, we cross a rudimentary checkpoint consisting of a rope tensed by two poles and we enter the town of Chagcharan. With 15000 inhabitants, the town is the capital of Ghor Province, being ghor an old Persian word for “mountain”. I am received by John, Jeffrey and Morgan, three young American doctors working for an NGO dedicated to fight tuberculosis. Since Dr. Nasser had told them about the Argentinean guy hitch-hiking alone on the way to Chagcharan they have been waiting me to show up at any moment. Since they live here in the middle of Afghanistan, they are surely not entitled to tell me I am crazy. Happy to meet another Westerner, they invite me in for some days. I even have the chance to do my laundry! For hundreds of kilometers my fantasies have been focusing on washing powder.

The first day I do nothing but rest. After four bumpy days in Russian trucks over Afghan roads (possibly the worst combination) the fact that the ground doesn’t move seems rocket science to me. I must rest, since tomorrow a great celebration will take place in Chagcharan. A bushkahsi game is going to take place by the river. Forty jockeys and one beheaded goat. And only half of the way to Kabul…

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