Our new minibus driver was gregarious and fun. Although he couldn’t speak a word of English, he was always smiling – no doubt at the money he was earning for his services. For two days of hard driving, he was making about three month’s wages.
For three days I had only eaten naan, bread, and drunk a few pots of green tea. The majority of our group were showing signs of illness; the intestinal parasite variety due to the unvarying diet of lamb and mutton, kebabs and bread. My symptoms were high fever, exhaustion, shaking and glazed eyes – no intestinal problems. We had to stop frequently for loo breaks by the side of the road. I was frequently informed that I looked really bad, from people who looked dreadful. We were filthy, hollow-eyed from the dirt, lousy food and lack of clean water and toilet facilities.
We did pay for this and knew what were getting into, right?
I spent most of the day, semi-comatose, with my shoulder and head banging against the unfriendly steel bar that is positioned across the middle of the side windows of every vehicle in Afghanistan. My view from the front window was bisected by the ubiquitous crack in the windscreen, also present in every vehicle in Afghanistan, and the landscape bumping by made me dizzy and nauseous! I thought the drive would never end. Traveling through the remote and wild terrain of the province of Ghor, our minibus would get stuck on a particularly steep and rocky mountain trail. Our sick group had to get out and make a bridge of rocks and stones across a tumbling river, push the vehicle up a steep incline, while our driver relaxed, grinning at the steering wheel.
Eventually we were back on the bus, bouncing up and down rocky tracks into the ever more remote mountains and valleys. We rounded a corner and gasped with astonishment and delight at the view. We had finally reached our destination for this part of our journey. Enclosed in a narrow valley, surrounded by mountains and steep scree slopes, a tall slender tower arose in the wilderness – the Minaret of Djam. Rising 200 feet from its octagonal base at the confluence of two rivers, the Hari Rud and the Jam Rud, the twelfth-century mud brick, three-storey tower, was re-discovered in the mid 1950’s. Only about 1,000 people have seen it since then, due to its extreme isolation and the decades of war.
Near the top of the minaret is a blue tile band of calligraphy bearing testimony to its builder, Ghyassudin, a Sultan of the mysterious Ghorid Empire. There are stories of a legendary city called the Turquoise Mountain. The minaret has an inscription on its base taken from the Koran’s Sura Maryam. To add to the mystery, there is a small Jewish cemetery dating from the twelfth century a couple of kilometers away. The Turquoise Mountain has yet to be located, but local farmers and villagers have been doing their own excavations up the surrounding mountainsides; they have uncovered all sorts of terracotta pots, stoneware, ancient carved wooden artifacts and metalwork.
The Minaret of Djam (or Marmalade, as we had been calling it on our way there) has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004. Due to its remote location, there was little sign of restoration, other than a small guest house nearby with some bearded men denying us the use of their facilities. While some of our group climbed up the suicidal staircase inside the Minaret, I, in my semi-delirious, feverish and filthy state, decided to cool down and bathe in the crystal clear, rushing river. There were convenient bushes and trees to shield me from the prying eyes of our minibus driver, who wanted to "guard" me, so I stripped off and waded through the glutinous mud of the river bank with my shampoo and soap – the best wash of my life.
Some of our group climbed the surrounding steep mountainsides. I luxuriated in the river. They returned with ancient pieces of pottery that littered the hillsides. The whole of Afghanistan is a giant unexcavated archaeological site, lying at the crossroads of the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road. Invasions by Alexander the Great and Ghenghiz Khan razed the country to the ground in the 13th century. Wars, recent looting of artifacts have put a halt to any excavations. It will be interesting to see what organizations, such as UNESCO, will do for Afghanistan’s heritage.
After my bathe, I relaxed under a tree with the caretaker, sharing green tea and a chat in my limited Dari and his little bit of English. From this angle, the Minaret seemed to be tilting precariously, which indeed it was, due to the two rivers undermining its foundations. It is vital to preserve this outstanding monument; one of the most imposing relics of a vanished civilization. After two hours spent inspecting the Minaret and the surrounding hills, we headed off into the sunset.
Our route back took us into more remote mountains, through beautiful country lanes where our friendly driver seemed to know everyone. We stopped several times at idyllic farmhouses with lovely orchards full of ripe fruit. We were invited in by unveiled women and their husbands. The locals seemed to be related to our driver. We came away from these visits with our scarves full of fresh peaches, plums, pears and apples.
After several more stops, our tour leader, Geoff, pointed to his watch and the rapidly setting sun. We moved on, rounding treacherous narrow hairpin bends, passing through more villages. Eventually, we reached the village of Garmao, where we were told the Chai-khana was full. The next village, Kamenj, was a beautiful place. Our lodging for the night lay at the end of the dirt track road, beside a crystal clear stream, surrounded by steep hills and more lush orchards. The stars were bright gold and so close, due to the lack of smog and light pollution. There were two mud brick buildings, one of which was given over to our group. A large, spotlessly clean room with a cement floor and plenty of foam mattresses was the most comfortable and relaxing accommodation we had had on our journey into the wilds. We sat on the veranda, with plates of lamb kebabs, green tea and huge squares of naan. I was starving but could handle the tea and bread. I had noticed during my earlier bathe that I had lost a considerable amount of weight in less than a week. Due to my enforced detox, I was starting to feel healthier and lighter.
There was a group of handsome men sitting on cushions on the other side of the veranda. They turned out to be relatives of the owner of our lodging, visiting from Sweden. It was a pleasure to have a conversation in broken English, German and Swedish. I was privileged to be brought round to the women's room where I was introduced to the two wives of one of the men. Strangely, I thought, his first wife was unveiled and very friendly, whereas his new wife who was Afghan, but grew up mostly in Sweden, was enveloped in her burka; roundly showed off her three-month old son.
I woke in the middle of the night to use the "facilities". As I was creeping over my companions' legs and luggage, one of the men woke up to show me to the stream; but he also wanted to "guard" me – from what or who I cannot imagine! I gestured for him to leave, but he turned his back! Afghanistan is full of contradictions. On the one hand, women are hidden in burkas and generally assured their privacy. However, we saw groups of ladies doing their ablutions by river banks always accompanied by a man.
Another pre-dawn start; this time we were in a little convoy with the relatives from Sweden heading for Herat, thence to Tehran for their flight back home. As we wound our way through more lovely mountain scenery, we passed huge green Kamaz lorries – the old war-horse relics of the Soviet era occupation – packed with migrating Aimaq nomads, their belongings piled high in the back. We stopped for tea and chatted about the safety of the road ahead at a small hamlet with our new friends. I asked for the toilet and the proprietor pointed to a small hill nearby, where a new latrine block and a water pump had been built. What a pleasure to have no smells and total privacy, even fresh clean water to wash up afterwards! A local man called out to me “ Missus, Missus, see our school!” The brand new building was constructed out of local stone; had two stories and windows with glass panes, something we hadn’t seen for a few days. The builder proudly assured me that girls would be attending.
We met up again with our Swedish expatriates at the 12th century Domes of Chist-I-Sharif; another archaeological treasure of the Ghorids that marked the boundary of Ghor province. This obscure mountain tribe rose to dominate most of Asia; from Baghdad to India for fifty years until Genghis Khan destroyed their empire in 1216. The pale brick domes are mausoleums to the Chistiyeh; order of dervishes who used music and dancing to reach an ecstatic state of union with God. There is an ancient graveyard between the domes and the barren mountains that frame them. The site of Chist is absolutely spectacular; the atmosphere, quiet and peaceful. On feast days and holidays, Chist is filled with families having picnics or praying to the Sufi saints, but the day we were there, we had the place to ourselves. As we drove closer towards the border between Ghor and Herat provinces, we saw distinctive beehive domed dwellings with strange square chimneys protruding at right angles; natural air-conditioning, keeping the buildings cool in summer and warm in winter.
We reached the outskirts of Herat in mid-afternoon. Our driver stopped at a roadside stall to buy sliced melons – a traditional goodbye gesture. We were deposited at the Mowafaq (our accommodation) – exhausted, filthy and sweaty – only to find there was no electricity or running water. There was, though, a shop in the lobby; red and gilt fittings, with the reception enclosed in a glass booth, vaguely reminiscent of a theatre or cinema. A dry fountain stood next to the grand staircase covered in faded red carpet. A group of bearded men wearing Iranian style dark collarless suits sat staring at us. The shop had its own small generator, so delicious cold drinks from Iran were available – pomegranate, lemon and grape juice.
In typical Afghan fashion, I was invited to share a strange local version of pizza. By now I was picking up quite a bit of Dari, which is not difficult. I had studied classical and modern Arabic at university in Dublin many years ago, had spent a lot of time in Turkey and had Iranian friends in Ireland. Dari is one of the major languages in Afghanistan; it's a conglomeration of ancient Persian, Arabic and Turkish. I was gaining more confidence; I could form a sentence and understand key words – essential for survival, especially in remote regions of the country.
On our first night in Herat, we were too tired to venture out. I had a picnic in my room – a double with ensuite, three military style iron-framed beds, nylon curtains hanging off the rail, a bathroom with electric shower not working (due to no electricity), and a western style toilet with no flush and the plastic seat askew. But it seemed like the best five-star inn in the world after five days in rural Afghanistan. There was a trickle of cold water in the tap of the hand basin, so I filled up the plastic bucket and had another memorable wash. The generator was switched on a couple of hours later; great to power up my camcorder, mobile phone and digital camera! I watched Herat’s three television channels until 10:00 p.m.
It was an eye-opener flicking channels. The national TOLO station had an interesting mix of programs, including a showcase for teenage musicians, a cookery program featuring a good looking male chef dressed in casual western clothes creating such local dishes as Kabuli Pilau rice. His beautiful assistant sipped juice from a wine glass; her veil kept slipping off her sleek hair! Another channel showed a crime thriller from India, with the Bollywood actors speaking English for at least half the film. There was also the ubiquitous Indian MTV with the shimmering censorship of the performers from neck to feet!
Next morning we explored Herat; a beautiful city which was once the jewel in the crown of the many empires that absorbed it. It showed few signs of the destruction prevalent in the rest of the country. Herat had traditionally been a liberal, free-thinking city, full of artists and writers. It is only 120 kilometres from the Iranian border; there is a distinctive Persian feel to the city. Across the street from where we were staying, was the magnificent 13th century, Jami Masjid or Friday Mosque. It has an immense entrance topped by arched windows; the whole covered in blue tiles. Built in 1200 A.D. by those mysterious Ghorids, there is a huge marble courtyard where the faithful pray and a giant cauldron covered with black calligraphy. The cauldron is said to have been made from two golden birds taken from the legendary Turquoise Mountain; melted down to provide a vessel for drinking water for the faithful.
Off to the left, we heard the tinkling and tapping of the workshops where the restoration works of the Mosque take place. A young man with good English showed us how the tiles are baked: how the brilliant blue and gold colours are produced, and how the intricate calligraphy is first laid out on great rolls of tracing paper to provide a template for the mosaics that adorn the walls and minarets with quotations from the Koran. Heading off into the courtyard next, we removed our shoes and left them in a pile at the entrance. An elderly caretaker was hosing down the already spotless marble; lovely as it kept the burning stone cool in the heat of the morning.