The Triplegem Afghan Expedition: Road to Herat Part 2
18 August 2005 – Maimana to ???
I was up at 4:00 a.m. and decided that it’d be better to dress Western for the overland journey – black cargo pants, khaki shirt, hemp sunhat (with the new hatband) and Asolo hiking boots. For a scarf/sweat rag I chose the Cambodian blue- and red-checked cotton one rather than the larger white-and-black Afghan one favored by Massoud’s Panjshiris. I removed my gold and lapis ring and earring and put them in my wallet and hid my necklace under my shirt. This was one of the poorest areas of a poor country and I didn’t want to attract even more attention to myself than necessary – envious, avaricious attention could prove deadly. I shouldered my pack and walked to the Saddam Yoush, a pleasant stroll in the dark, my SureFire flashlight allowing me to skirt open sewers and various other dangers. I found my Toyota HiAce 4WD waiting. After putting my pack into a nondescript black duffle bag for disguise, I tossed it in the back. I was given the third-row window seat on the right – not bad; at least I wasn’t in the middle of the row. I ate a Dramamine and waited expectantly for the van to fill up.
It was still dark when we pulled out of Maimana at 5:00 a.m.; the dust and the heat were yet to come, but the bouncing and shaking and rocking and rolling that were to become the vary staple of existence had already commenced. For 15 hours that day I endured one of the most hellish rides on the planet, yet it was also one of the most sublime. The landscape was bleak, yet we encountered nomadic encampments all along the way. This was the primeval Afghanistan, beyond Coca Cola, beyond any hint of modern life, not counting our vehicle – the black tent lifestyle as it has been lived unchanged for thousands of years. Every so often the road disappeared and the men had to get out and walk up a particularly steep trail while several Afghans attacked the hillside with picks and shovels and the van lurched up in 4WD low gear. At those times I was particularly grateful for the wide-brimmed sun hat and heavy hiking boots. The sun was a scorching orb of fire radiating from infrared through ultraviolet behind the deep blue sky; the air was dry and sucked the moisture from every pore. At the top we would all pile back in and bounce off down the narrow track past the hulking wrecks of Soviet-era tanks.
We had our first stop in mid-morning – breakfast. It was a small, nondescript Afghan town, but the market was filled and I had a great time walking round, snapping photos, surprising the locals twice – first just by the incongruous appearance of a westerner in their midst, then even more when I spoke to them in Dari. I bought some fruit, both fresh and dried, for the journey.
As I walked back to the van I was called into a chaikhana by two of the men on our van. They were the kalaan nefar, the important men who rode in the two front seats next to the driver. I had first met them on the road to Maimana, then again at the Saddam Yoush. I’m afraid I made a serious faux pas when I was buying my ticket. Not realizing that they were originally Pathans from Kandahar, I had referred to Gulbadam Hekmatyar as a ‘Son of a dog’ – pedar sag! Hekmatyar was the fundamentalist Muj commander who had received the lion’s share of the Saudi/CIA money during the war and thought he could take over the post-communist government, thus causing the disastrous civil war of the early ’90s that was only ended by the rise of the Taliban – Robin Hoods come to save the people from chaos. It was an awkward moment, to say the least. That’ll teach me to show off my vocabulary of Dari curse words! The older of the two could even speak some English, as he had a son in California who ran a used car business.
It was a typical chaikhana, a Russian samovar over a wood fire at the entrance. I took off my shoes. (One of the disadvantages of wearing hiking boots is how much of a hassle it is to always take them off and put them back on in shops, chaikhanas and houses.) The wooden benches were covered with Turkoman carpets, Maimana kilims and cushions, a dark, dirty, dusty, nitty-gritty version of the Arabian Nights. I had chai-sobz – sweet green tea. Again, the juxtaposition of my foreignness and my Dari made me the center attraction, and increased the standing of the kalaan nefars, since I was their friend and they were buying me tea. I hoped that this helped pay them back for my slip of the tongue in Maimana. Not long after that we heard the call to return to the van and to continue our journey.
More camels, more nomads, more Kuchi dogs the size of small ponies chasing the van, more burned-out tanks, more hiking, more heat – much more heat as the sun climbed and the van baked – more clouds of fine dust infiltrating everything everywhere, boulder-like boogers filling my nostrils, the scarf barely saving me from choking. The lower of the two metal bars that went horizontally across the window next to me was at exactly the perfect spot to bang a deep bruise on my shoulder at every lurch and bump, which were constant. The whole of the two-day journey was a test of will and extreme endurance, at times it echoed some of the most hellish rides of 33 years of hard Asian travel. But the extreme hardship threw the high points into starker relief. The wet, sweet taste of sheberghan melons, the most delicious Persian melons in the world even when sitting at a restaurant in Kabul, was amplified exponentially when sharing a slice with the rest of the folks in the van, cutting through the thirst and the dust like a laser beam.
Once we stopped in the middle of nowhere on the edge of a drop with a National Geographic-quality view down a river valley, just a small shaded lean-to of sticks and leaves and a large earthen jar of cool water half buried in the dirt. I had a drink with everyone else, it was cool, wet and I suffered no ill effects, but I sure wouldn’t advise it for every traveler – it could be one of the biggest mistakes of your life. But the intense pleasure of stopping, getting out and stretching was exquisite.
We stopped in a village that I never learned the name of, somewhere before Qala-Nau, at a chaikhana on a circle of park-like splendor where the open-air prayer takes place. It was 8:00 p.m., but summer so it was just getting dark. I walked around the town for a bit then joined the kalaan nefars in the center of the little park for dinner. They had ordered food from one of the chaikhanas; a delicious kabuli pillou with fruit, tea, and yogurt. The moon was full, the park was peaceful, two important Afghans were sleeping near to keep me safe – this was much better than sleeping in the chaikhana. I rolled out my gore-tex bivvysack and covered myself with my wool Afghani blanket. I watched the moon and diamond dust of stars until I drifted off to sleep.