Past the Durand Line and Across the Oxus (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan)



Next morning, with the Home and Tribal Affairs Office permit and joined by a soldier with an antiquated rifle, we started towards the Khyber Pass in a car driven by the motel manager's son. They would not allow foreigners to board the regular Peshawar - Jalalabad bus. Every now and then there were checkpoints with soldiers with the same old, probably British era rifles. The scenery looked rather common at first, while we left the outskirts of Peshawar and we crossed the first villages. Soon afterwards however the dry mountains appeared like out of nowhere and the road started climbing at first in parallel with the British-built Khyber railway which had been abandoned after a certain point, being ultimately damaged by floods. After passing through a rather narrow point and by Landi Kotal with its once famous smugglers' bazaar, we reached Torkham, where crowds of people were moving back and forth through the Pakistan - Afghanistan frontier crossing. One could see the Durand Line winding along the mountain ridge above, the border that had cut Pashtunistan in two. Passports stamped on the Pakistan side, we walked across the border, among hundreds of local people moving back and fro. On the other side two Afghan soldiers searched through our backpacks and then one of them escorted us to a yard where a fully armed US soldier greeted us:

"Why the hell are you going to Afghanistan? There is a fucking war over there!"

He asked the Afghan soldier whether they had searched through our luggage, then, while one of his colleagues was scanning us and our luggage from a distance, he looked through our passports, stopping for a while at a certain page in mine and shaking his head:


Eventually we were free to proceed to immigration, where the Afghan officer on duty was satisfied with the places we intended to visit, stamped our passports, smiled at us, wished us good weather and recommended that we take a private car to Kabul; a driver had already appeared out of the blue, asking for EUR 40. No, we did not want that.

Formalities completed, we walked on for a few minutes, with a lot of people offering a ride here and there. A student approached us and showed us to the first bus that departed to Kabul from a parking lot full of vans, cars and all sorts of buses. He belonged to an Afghan family that had found refuge in Pakistan and he was glad he could help the strangers:

"Afghan people will help you, they would give their own lives for their guests"

The difference from the US soldier's approach was like from Mariana Trench to Mount Everest.

If in Pakistan they drove on the left side of the road and the wheel was on the right, in Afghanistan they drove on the right side of the road and the wheel could be either on the right or on the left, as they had brought in cars from various countries. The bus started along a flat valley surrounded by barren hills, with trees and cereals growing here and there. The road surface was very smooth and new, better than on the Pakistani side; they were working nowadays to expand it into a highway. After a while, we joined Kabul River, whose green water contrasted greatly with the dry mountains to the back. Getting closer to Kabul, the valley narrowed down; there were a few villages that had been destroyed by the war and never reconstructed, as many Afghans that had returned to their country went to make a living in cities rather than in their former villages where they had nothing left. A few old delapidated Soviet tanks rested by the road, nowadays turned into garbage bins. The road suddenly started climbing in tight curves, with fine views to the rocky cliffs around, respectively to the snaking line of cars and trucks above or below us.

Then, all of a sudden, we exited the rocky claws into a wide, flat valley and soon afterwards the bus driver pulled to the right, in a wide parking lot where several taxi drivers surrounded us: this was the final stop, as no long distance transportation was allowed to enter Kabul for security reasons. Reaching Shahr-e Nau Park by taxi, we found a city that was less polluted, as there were hardly any motorickshaws, a city where one did not feel the pressure of the still volatile security situation in Afghanistan except for the omnipresent guards at the entrance of many hotels, shops, banks, or for the many military and police vehicles passing from time to time.

Having read Khaled Hosseini's novel (even though fiction), it felt strange to walk through contemporary Wazir Akbar Khan District in the morning. Large, imposing new villas, many of them surrounded by tall concrete fences sometimes topped with barbed wire, would hardly match the elegant households described by the author of "The Kite Runner". Many of the streets in the quarter were in a bad condition, some of them being in undergoing refurbishment works. Contrasts were plentiful, and next to a new, vividly painted villa there would be a big pile of garbage or even the odd remains of a tank. An extensive park with many red roses was being extended above the district, on the otherwise dry hill slope. Kabul was developing at a fast pace: there were hundreds of construction sites across the city, more boutiques and business centres than one would have expected. As we were to see when traveling through the country, prices in the city centre were high due to the many expats or local people employed in foreign businesses; many local people did not afford to even get close to this enclave which seemed protected under a glass bell. Out of the very city centre, clay houses climbed the steep slope of several hills. As they shared the same colour with the environment they had been built in, they gave the impression that the whole city was part of the dry scenery, as if it was nothing more than a cluster of Bedouin tents in Wadi Rum. From this point of view, it could not have been more beautiful.

Trying to reach Kabul Museum I had read about the reopening of, the taxi was stopped by police forces which forbade all motorized access along the road leading there: 5 members of the Parliament had been killed in a bomb blast a few days before and there was a funeral ceremony being held close to the museum, including Hamid Karzai and many other officials. THere were army forces on both sides of the road every score meters for a few kilometers, all the way to the museum. Helicopters were surveying the area at a low altitude, while civilians like us had to do a big loop before reaching the museum area, where we were anyway given the not unexpected news that it was closed, given the security issues in the area. Just across the street from the museum there was a sight impossible to be missed however: Amanullah's ruined palace. Way too grand for its location, built in a totally misplaced European style, the palace must have looked like a hideous, huge birthday cake on which someone had played with too much whipped cream; it was almost fortunate that it had been brought to ruin by war, I would dare say. The Afghan spirit had however survived there just like it had done during the so many invasions these people have faced during their history, be them British or Russian: a few young boys were leading their sheep and goats across the once fine lawn in front of the now desolated palace that boasted holes and cracks in the walls and missed its roof or windows. Babur's Gardens made the whole difference from the palace. Without hosting any large, imposing building, they proved the great sense of space their designer had had, providing a break of tranquility not far from the buzzing city. This was indeed "The Light Garden of Angel King". As the sun was setting, children started flying kites over the flat roofs of their houses clinging on the nearby slopes, around the old city's defensive walls.

Next morning we went to visit the headquarters of a leader that wanted (and needed) no palace to prove what he was: we went to Panjshir Valley, the home of Shah Massoud the Soviets could not defeat during their 10 year offensive against the country. High mountains with steep slopes, the yellow-reddish autumn foliage at the bottom of the valley, rare villages clustered by the strong river, an ingenious system of water channels irrigating trees and small gardens, all were topped by an almost incredible blue sky. Only here and there, rusty war machines, half buried in the small plots of land available for agriculture, as well as a couple of destroyed, abandoned villages, would remind one of recent history. Massoud's shrine was located above the valley, in a place that best suited the man it commemorated; nowadays they were building a larger mausoleum instead of the one I had seen pictures of.

Back in the city, after another failed attempt of visiting the museum (the whole area, including 5 streets around, had been sealed off now), I went to see the Shrine of Timur Shah, just to discover a whole area where thousands of people simply flowed along several streets around the shores of River Kabul. An ongoing bazaar atmosphere, but on the poor side, with people selling second hand clothes, children searching for usable items in the infectious river bed filled with garbage, people that had lost their arms or legs in blasts during the war and were nowadays changing money, selling newspapers or simply begging, this was the other side of the coin from the nice boutiques near Shahr-e Nau area. There was yet another difference here however: in this part of the city I saw no army officers and no foreign NGO branded vehicles: poverty is not appealing to anyone, as it does not usually produce interest and it does not provide a market for foreign products on the short run, not to mention its not being a comfortable or fine company. This time the sun was setting over Amanullah's Shah-e Doh Shamshira Mosque, another artificial architectural import brought to life only by the many pigeons around.

There were news from across the mountains: in nearby Pakistan, Peshawar was in turmoil against Musharraf, there had been a suicide attack against a minister's residence in the same city, while hundreds of people rioting against the regime had been arrested in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Benazir Bhutto was stirring people against Musharraf, but she was to turn typically quiet a few days later.

We woke up at 5.30 AM, in a dark city during the curfew. With most generators turned off and a regular power cut on, only the odd car passing down the street was shedding some light around; we were lucky enough that one of the 5 cars passing in 20 minutes was a taxi taking us to the airport gate for the flight to Herat. With two sets of similar checkings, Kabul Airport had an understandably strict security process for passengers to go through. "Regular" passengers would walk from the gate to the terminal, their luggage would be both X-rayed and searched by hand and themselves being body searched. Officials, NGO workers and other foreigners with business in Afghanistan could go all the way to the main building by car, and they did not go through this process. So, similar procedures followed again inside the main building, for everyone. The terminal had been refurbished and a new one was under construction. We boarded a second hand, former JAT aircraft still bearing the old labels in Serbian. Flying over Central Afghanistan was not even close to the experience of going overland, but time was an important constraint for us and the view from the plane was great at least.

Herat proved to be at least just as fascinating as I had read. Despite the incredible destruction done by the British army to the Musalla Complex, which had foolishly razed off most of the architectural monument to have clear shooting in case of an eventual Russian attack (which never happened at that time), the 5 still standing minarets were like emeralds in the desert dust: they were even more beautiful and more impressive like that, with their superb, even though little tile work that had survived on them. The blue coloured tiles contrasted in a fine, somewhat delicate way with the reddish clay and brick structure of the minarets. The few shrines in the area also had intricate patterns of design inside, on the domes and walls, reminding of the great Persian art.

The Juma Masjid provided a sudden, welcome introduction into Central Asia, also reminding one of the country bordering Afghanistan to the West of Herat. The citadel still preserved Timurid patterns of ceramic design on one tower, raising from the old city and overlooking it. The old city itself sprawled on an extensive area, with the traditional network of narrow streets and clay houses, with that fascinating light-and-shadow play, with the odd motorbike or bicycle stirring the dust, with women in light blue burqas floating along those twisted alleys... Unfortunately many of the old houses had been or were being demolished to make place for new concrete structures. Only in a couple of places the covered bazaar survived, with its fine vaults and cool atmosphere.

The great heritage of the city was however best preserved in old shrines like Gazar-Gah, with the fine painting and tile works, and especially with that peace that seemed to have come from another world, with the faithful coming to pray and going in a quiet, almost imperceptible human flow.

Finding information about onward transport to the Minaret of Jam was not that easy, as people did not know where Jam was or, if they had a vague idea, they could provide no help on getting there. Furthermore, even a travel agent having off road vehicles that could have followed the bad road leading to that part of Ghor Province, was not a reliable option, as he said yes only having money in mind, and proved to have no knowledge of the road, saying we can reach Jam in 5 hours during a journey which was to take us 10 hours of almost non stop driving. Being quoted exorbitant prices for a 2 day ride, we eventually got down to an "old men council" at the hotel, with a few men from Chaghcheran gathering and brainstorming to help us, investigating all possibilities there were, drivers, vehicles, prices, itinerary. The extent to which they were concerned about for a stranger (or "guest", to put it their way) was simply astonishing, even after having traveled to other countries where people share a real cult for hospitality, not using it as a shiny package for tourists, like in countries having a well developed tourist industry.

At 7 AM we went to a garage where transport was usually arranged for merchants going to Chaghcheran, and talked to the garage manager that knew all drivers there. Even though we came to terms with a driver quite late, at 9.30, the driver agreed to start immediately. The garage manager pointed out that we should be aware, however, of the volatile situation along the road between Herat and Obey; a week before some people had been shot at by the Taliban on this road, as there were relatively long legs between communities and little police presence other than a few checkpoints along the road crossing the vast, flat valley. After we agreed to assume these risks (therefore closing in a sort of verbal contract), we could go with Bismillah, our driver that spoke no English at all, but the kindness of which needed no translation whatsoever. Soon after exiting Herat, the asphalt was history. We crossed barren, dry and dusty fields that were only host for rare flocks of goats and a few local farmers. Slowly, the Hari Rud Valley got more emphasized, with the distant mountain slopes bordering it getting closer and the road taking in altitude at a slow pace. Small Toyota Hi-Ace vans packed with twice as many passengers than they should have, with heaps of luggage and even more people on the roof, overloaded Kamaz trucks, random motorbikes stirring the fine dust, this was the road that crossed the desert-coloured villages with houses made of clay and children dressed in colourful clothes, smiling at the sun and waving at passing vehicles.

At 2 PM we arrived at Chist-e Sharif, the last town en route to Jam, host of two domed, finely decorated, red brick tombs that proved to be an interesting introduction to Ghorid art.

We stopped for lunch at a chaikhana, where I had some of the best mutton in a long while. Bismillah insisted he paid for us all, and only hardly I could pay instead of him. Truck or van drivers and their passengers, young boys leading small donkey caravans along the valley, as well as the odd foreigner, all stopped there for a 15 minute break and a meal before continuing a long journey.

The scenery changed, as the valley got narrower and, about 2 hours later, shortly after crossing the Hari Rud, the road turned into a dusty trail clinging on the steep slopes, crossed by ditches and streams, or taking very steep turns often followed by steep descents that made driving a nervous gamble. Villages were smaller and smaller, with their houses adopting a simpler shape and structure, mere square settlements placed where people had found tiny plots of flat ground, whether this was on the valley bottom or on a cliff. Apart from the popular Toyota Hi-Ace vans, most transport in this rural part of Afghanistan was done by donkey, whether it was about sacks of cereals, hay or firewood. People would collect dry bushes, placing them in big piles next to their houses, in order to feed the fire with them. Just like in Panjshir Valley, they had created an irrigation system with channels that started from the river or various mountains streams, going across the small patches where grass or basic cereals could grow, or along lanes where trees had been planted.

Rare Kamaz trucks would also make the journey, mostly overloaded with sacks of cereals meant for remote villages which would be isolated for a few months because of the snow that made access over the high passes impossible in winter. Apart from their heavy loads they often also took people asking for a ride, which were sitting with their merchandise or luggage on top of the heavy sacks. As evening was close and it was rather cold and dry, they wrapped themselves in their thick pattus, slowly bouncing to the sides, as the truck took a turn or when there was a bump in the road. Drivers proved to posses next to incredible patience and nerves of steel, as they drove for hours at 5-10 km. / hour on trails which were neither stable, nor flat, and having a 15-20 ton load on the back, also bearing responsibility for the few lives wrapped in pattus leaning to the sides up there... In places where two vehicles met, one of them had to reverse until its driver found a place to pull over and make place for the other one to pass, as the road hardly had a single lane for both ways, not to mention one lane per way. At a certain point, in one of the places where the trail was crossing a steep slope and where everything was covered in a layer of half a meter of fine dust, we met 3 loaded Kamaz trucks: one of them had broken down and the other two drivers were trying to help their colleague. Smiling at us, they moved their trucks so that we could go on. The following day, when returning, we were to find the driver with the broken truck alone, sitting in the cabin. He had not left his vehicle and asked our driver to contact his company so that they could send over assistance (as we were a long way from the closest point with mobile phone coverage, and the driver did not have a Thuraya phone). And he was still smiling: that was the very light of their sun, as Jason Elliot had brilliantly put it in one of the greatest real life books I have ever read.

At sunset we left the Hari Rud Valley and continued on a bad, rocky trail along one of its contributors. Past a few villages, the road began to gain altitude steeply. After one hour of driving through the darkness, always feeling the valley to the sides when Bismillah took tight curves, we reached a pass at about 2700 m.a.s.l. We then started descending into the dark on the other side and, soon after reaching the bottom of the valley, we forded a stream (the Jam Rud) a few times, then the trail followed the very river bed. through the half a meter deep water, as we were going through some narrow gorges. After passing through Jam Village and continuing down the valley for a few kilometers, we almost bumped into the fence around the Minaret of Jam, which looked like a dark, imposing, endless pillar holding the dark blue sky full of stars.

Next to the minaret there was a government-run guesthouse and it was full with workers, as they were consolidating the river shore, in order to protect the minaret foundations from the spring floods. We were greeted and invited to dinner by the construction site chief, which also discussed with the guesthouse manager to obtain a discount for us:

"In the 1960s I ran a small travel agency. It was fine back then, we had many tourists coming to Afghanistan. Then the war started and we lost everything. First the Russians came, now the Americans. We do not have any tourists now, not even in places like this one. The UN, which used to bring delegations here from time to time decreed the road from Herat as unsafe and they stopped. Now we see nobody here nowadays."

In the morning we could see the minaret and its superb location, at the confluence of the Jam Rud with the Hari Rud. Is sprang from the valley bottom in perfect harmony with the reddish, rocky slopes to the back. Its geometric brick decoration, as well as its setting alone would have made a trip to Afghanistan worth. The construction team at the site gathered around us, smiling and asking questions: they were curious about the two feringhi, there were not many of these coming.

After walking down the valley for a while and climbing to the fortification ruins across on the other shore, the time to go had come, as Herat was 10 hours away. As we went back, getting close to Chist-e Sharif, the valley was wider and a steady wind started blowing, stirring the dust. As the sun went down, the haze created surreal images, with people, trucks, houses, trees or mountain cliffs appearing like ghosts through the golden, dusty air, just to disappear again. After crossing Obey, as night was falling, Bismillah pulled to the right in front of a chaikhana: this leg of the road was not safe at night, we were exactly in the area where they had had problems with the Taliban a week before, so we had to stay there overnight. I for one preferred that chaikhana to any hotel in the world. After having dinner on the carpeted floor (the price of which also covered sleeping in the same spot), people would lie, wrap themselves in their pattu, sip some more sia chai, ask questions about the two feringhi, and then prepare to go to sleep. Truck drivers, donkey leaders, people that had arrived walking, passengers of a long distance van, shepherds, as well as the odd tourist, all shared the same common area, gathered in small groups that chatted in low voices. The TV set outside was the only thing that made any difference from the same place some 200 or 2000 years before.

We waked up at 5 AM and left almost simultaneously with everyone else. The air was cold and dry. As the sun rose, the haze was high and the few cars or trucks passing seemed more like ghosts across the desert-like plain. After reaching Herat, Bismillah was so tired that he hardly remembered where our hotel was. When we gave him the rest of the money in dollars, he went to a taxi driver and asked him for help. Soon it was all clear: he knew the local money by the colour and design of the Afghani banknotes, but he did not know not dollars. Yes, Bismillah was illiterate. But no, that did not change a thing about his being a trustworthy and kind Man. Capital M man.

After being welcomed with happiness by the hotel manager which served us a healthy breakfast joined by chai and fresh na’an, as well as after washing down half of the world's dust that had gathered in our hair, we took the rest of the day to slowly walk across the city, looking at carpet merchants wearing out their rugs to make them proper for use. It was interesting to see the different designs from the area, as well as from Turkmenistan or Iran. Every little carpet shop was like a cave full of jewelery. The typically Herati red carpets were the most impressive of them all; it was sad to learn that nowadays they imported wool from Belgium for their carpets, as that was fine and ready to use.

In the morning we went to the airport for the flight to Mazar-e Sharif. As the plane was coming from Kabul, there was a 2 hour and a half delay. While we waited in front of the airport, 3 buses arrived bringing a large group of people that were going on pilgrimage to Mecca with a charter flight. Men wore impeccably white shalwar kamis, women had shining burqas, everyone was lined up in the yard, waiting for the plane to be announced, while someone was shouting "Allah akbar!" every now and then. There could be felt a certain sense of inquietude and expectation, both blended with a lot of respect and pious meditation. Our plane eventually arrived and the flight was rather smooth. After missing the runway and landing twice, taking ever tighter turns, the pilot managed to eventually get us on the ground, not without shaking and stirring the plane well enough for cabin luggage to almost fall off.

Mazar-e Sharif was a modern, bustling city gravitating around Ali's shrine. Lacking old bazaars and grand old mosques, the city had a charm of its own with its being fully alive. I could not say the same thing about the Uzbeki Consulate where we wanted to ask about the crossing over the Oxus: it was open 12 hours a week, i.e. from 9 to 12 Monday to Thursday. Nearby Balkh was the unexpected jewel of Northern Afghanistan, with its serenity and lost, ancient world purity. Beyond its ruins, the people of Balkh were the centerpiece of the town. Teenagers playing in the dusty streets, butchers chatting under their small shop covers, a mid-aged man wrapped in his pattu sitting high on Bala Hissar and staring into the desert beyond it, women wearing the light blue burqas fluttering in the dim wind, small children joining hands and dancing in the street, everything and everyone overwhelmed by the haze through which the sun could hardly pass, throwing scant rays once in a long while.

In the evening we got back to Mazar, to find the shrine lit in flashing green, blue, yellow and red. Lights had been arranged in shapes of flowers, and the otherwise superb domes now looked more like a Christmas tree in a mall, than like a place of worship and meditation. Electric-lit, plastic palm trees had also been set in the park around the shrine. This was however one more proof that Afghans were trying hard to express themselves at least, after a long period of black-out. Well, they did not have all knowledge to better organize tourism for one (or to first secure the country), but the extent to which they were willing to try things and to learn was astonishing, especially as they were coming after a long and exhausting period of war.

The time to cross the Oxus had arrived. Starting in the morning towards Hairatan, after crossing the desert through the same dim wind stirring the dust, we reached the river and the border at 11 AM. It took us 10 minutes on the Afghan side, another 10 minutes to walk over the infamously called "Friendship Bridge" (built by the Soviets as a "gift to the Afghan people" in the 1970s, and used for the invasion in 1979), and then 2 hours on the Uzbek side. It felt at least strange to see that on the Afghan side there was no foreign soldier telling us how "lucky" we were to leave the country or asking why "the hell" we had gone to Afghanistan and the "fucking war" there, just as we had been greeted by that US soldier upon entering the country at Torkham. This was not "politically correct", I dare say. But it perfectly fit the impeccably white bridge built by some other pathetic would-be peacemakers, to consolidate better understanding, friendship between world nations and the other political marketing crap granted in prime time news.

Uzbekistan was quite welcoming tourists; “friendly” even, just like the bridge between 1979 and 1989... (click here for the sequel)



THE AFGHAN SECTION (you are here)


Afghanistan... People that travel with their donkeys loaded with sacks of cereals, people that walk for dozens of kilometers to reach next village, people that hitch-hike the odd Kamaz truck, traveling on top of the heavy load, with only their pattu to protect them from the bitter cold and the dust stirred by the wind. People that automatically, without even considering whether they have a dime or not, invite the obvious stranger for some chai or for a loaf of na’an.