The Triplegem Afghan Expedition: Herat Part 2 – Afghanistan

The Triplegem Afghan Expedition: Herat Part 2

Afghanistan

21 August 2005 – Herat
I awoke at 7:30 the next morning, almost fully recovered from the rigors of the journey from Mazar. I even did some Tai Chi and Chi Gung exercises.

Bollywood actresses are really hot these days! They are thin and sexy and modern, especially compared to when I first started watching Bollywood movies in the ’70s, and the standard of beauty equated it with fat. In a poverty-stricken country, the farmers and working folks wanted to fantasize about plump maidens and pudgy heroes. Not these days – now the best Bollywood can offer is better than the worst of Hollywood. I had my mango ice cream and chopped nuts breakfast with music videos, then stepped back through the looking glass to the dusty windblown streets of Herat in mid summer. I ambled down the street to the antique shops. Three years before most of the antiques had been of ‘fair-to-middlin’ quality, but now it was 90% junk, mostly new Chinese ware. The few places that had real beads wanted outrageous prices and put them back on display when I mentioned a low starting price for the bargaining. I finally found one shop that had some good stuff amid the fakes, some old faience and stone beads, some etched carnelians and crystal beads, I high-graded several strands of miscellaneous beads, only taking the few good ones off of each strand. If you have the skill and the information and can tell the real ones from the fakes, this is the best way to buy beads. I bargained hard and got them down to $100 for the lot.

I felt quite satisfied with my acquisitions.

Next I walked to the Marco Polo Hotel. I had made inquiries earlier about transportation to the mysterious Minaret of Jam, a World Heritage site a day’s journey from town. They had asked me to return that day to talk to a jeep driver. He turned out to be someone I knew from the trip from Mazar. I talked to him without an interpreter, my Dari was good enough for that and I thought I could get a better deal speaking directly to him. For a two-day trip that spent the night at Jam and ended in Chaghcheran he would charge me $360 ($180 per day) – way beyond what I was prepared to pay. With two others to share the price it would have been perfect. Again, the lack of other tourists in Afghanistan was complicating matters immensely. I hadn’t seen another tourist since Kabul – NGOs and ISAF were the only foreigners I’d encountered. I was seriously bummed!

I really had my heart set on visiting Jam, it had been a dream for over 30 years, and now it was slipping away. Of course, as a Funky Traveler, I could jump on local transportation and get off at Garmao, then hitch a ride on something, but my pack was too big for all that. I already knew that from the Mazar-Herat road I’d just traveled. I was carrying too much weight for that kind of trek. At anytime I could be forced by circumstances to walk carrying the whole thing. I’d already carried my pack around Mt. Kailash in Tibet, humping it over the 5,680-meter Dolma La, so I knew exactly what I was and was not capable of. This pack was much too heavy! I’d probably make it if I had to, but it was really pushing my luck to put myself into the situation where I might have to. Murphy’s Law was even stronger than usual in Afghanistan. To do this right I either needed to be traveling with a small, daypack-sized bag (I had carried one on the 2002 trip) or a private ride (my tentative plan for this trip) – and I had neither at the time. Bummer! I did my email and left in a cloud of depression.

I stopped at the same restaurant on the way back and it was still quite good, so I highly recommend it to anyone who visits Herat. I stopped for my BollyWorld pomegranate juice on the way back to the hotel, and it cheered me up some… Until I got back to my room and found the electricity out – no fan! The baking heat was stifling, but fit my mood – the thick, dusty, heavy ‘What to do?’ atmosphere that descended on me like a haunted desert miasma.

Yes, ‘What to do?’ echoed in my consciousness. At the thought of missing the fabled Minaret of Jam once again I was feeling distraught. My travel options spun in my brain, dizzyingly. Why go through the extreme hassle of a 10 to 12 day overland journey to Kabul with a heavy pack if I had to miss Jam? The hardship wasn’t worth it, was it? Why not just fly back to Kabul and continue my travels from there? But that was punking out! Only wimps fly in Afghanistan. There was still the chance to get another tourist; with even one more I could afford it. I had looked at the register of the Mowafaq and I was the only foreigner. I had asked the Marco Polo to be on the look out for a tourist who wanted to see Jam. I told the jeep driver as well, so maybe my karma would be better the next day and another crazed funky traveler would appear. Kismet. Karma. Coincidence. Whatever, just so long as I could get one more person. On and on my mind spun as I sweated my way through the hot, still air of the afternoon.

Bummed, I went out in the late afternoon and checked the prices for a Kam Air flight to Kabul – 3,000 Afs ($50) – much cheaper than the jeep to Jam. You always need to have a Plan B when traveling and be prepared to shift directions at a moment’s notice. I tried to put a positive spin on it, but it still felt like I was being a punk. Plan B: Fly Kam to Kabul the day after next. To make matters worse, the moneychangers squatting on the road near the cement monument charged a really bad rate. I pushed it as hard as I could and still couldn’t get close to Kabul’s rate. Screw ‘em, I had just enough to eke it out, Inshallah.

To take my mind off of my no-win situation I walked over to Tamerlane’s Citadel and took some pictures. It’s still used by the military so entry is forbidden. Then I walked to the old bazaar strolling through the section with gold shops to see their collection of antique beads. They were genuine and even more expensive than Mazar or Kabul, not to mention the antique shops near the Mosque. I still enjoyed seeing what they had, they were beautiful examples of the Islamic glass-maker’s art a thousand or more years ago, and the more authentic examples you see, the better your eye gets at spotting the fakes. Walking back on the opposite side of the street I came to an ice cream shop being run by an impressive-looking gray-bearded old man and what was probably his grandson. It was crowded with local Heratis, a good sign. After a few photos I stepped inside and ordered a bowl of what was some of the most delicious fresh pistachio ice cream I’d ever eaten.

When I got back to the Mowafaq I sat on the balcony, admiring the sunset view and trying to stave off depression. To make matters worse, I could not locate the two beads that I had bought in Maimana. Bummer.

I needed a plan.

Get organized and focused. OK – music playing, now think, what to do? The next day I would check my email at the Marco Polo and search for tourists to the Minaret of Jam for one final time. If I couldn’t find anyone I’d just consider it to be the ‘Will of Allah’ and fly back to Kabul, tail between my legs, then head for Bamiyan and Band-i-Amir with a light pack. I’d also take a trip to the Panjshir, so I’d still have plenty of adventures left. Plus it would give me an excuse to return the following year with a friend or two to do the trip right. Gotta look on the bright side. I tried to keep that in mind when I went out and ate dinner, drank pomegranate juice, then read and listened to music until the stars blazed over the citadel view from my balcony and I wrapped it up for the night.

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