The Triplegem Afghan Expedition II – Kabul, Afghanistan

The Triplegem Afghan Expedition: Kabul Part 1

Kabul, Afghanistan

11 August 2005 – Peshawar to Kabul

Intrepid and Well-Armed Author
Intrepid and Well-Armed Author
I woke up early, had my usual Pak breakfast, then went down to the Rose Hotel office to meet Prince. It was a small taxi that drove around to the Khyber Agency office to pick up the armed guard. While waiting for the guard I watch some small boys herding goats – in downtown Peshawar – and then we were off to Torkham. It was a bit hazy, but it felt great to be heading back into the good ol’ Khyber Pass. Not much had changed since the first time I came through in the autumn of 1972. When we stopped to put water in the radiator I got out and took some photos. The guard was nice enough to lend me his AK-47 for a classic shot in the Khyber Pass. Little did I realize at the time that this would be the recurrent theme for the whole trip. For me it echoed an earlier picture I still had framed on my office wall back at the University – a younger ‘me’ carrying an AK during the Afghan war with the Soviets twenty years before, taken when I was buying rough lapis from Massoud’s Muj for my gem business in Kathmandu.

I walked across the Afghan border at 10:30. I was surprised to see computers and digital photos being taken on the Pak side of the border – this was new. On the Af side you could barely even find the office where you had to sign in with a ballpoint pen and get your blurry green entry stamp. I had no trouble finding a shared Toyota Corolla taxi to Kabul. I bargained for a bit and got the front seat for 600afs, about $10. The back was filled with a Tadjik from the Panjshir and two Pakistani Pathans from the tribal areas.

The road to Jalalabad was much worse than three years before. There were many ‘diversions’ – long, bumpy, dusty detours around construction work to widen the old two-lane blacktop. We stopped for lunch in Jalalabad. On the drive we came upon several American roadblocks. I noticed a couple of new American bases outside of town, the one with the helicopters coming and going that was manned by soldiers with beards and semi-Afghan outfits – US Special Forces, no doubt.

Three years before, the Khord Kabul – The Kabul Gorge, infamous site of the British massacre of 1841 – was one of the worst roads I had ever ridden on. This year it was smooth, newly-laid blacktop. After that the road got seriously bad! When we came out on the plains at the top of the gorge there was another major ‘Diversion.’ This time we had to go way out of our way through narrow mountain passes – unpaved, dusty, twisty, windy and nasty. Roll-up the window to keep out the dust, the greenhouse effect kicks in and it’s 55 degrees centigrade. Roll down the window and your lungs are filled with choking dust, even through a scarf. We encountered wrecked, overturned trucks strewn down the steep gorges all along the way, hour after hour of what seemed like hell. Little did I know that this was mild compared to what awaited me on the back way to Herat from Mazar-i-Sharif.

<The Magic Bus
The Magic Bus
We finally arrived at ‘Bagrami,’ a large mini-bus and taxi stop outside of Kabul. I shared a local taxi into town with the Tadjik man who had ridden with us to Kabul from the border for 200 afs – 1/3rd the price of the entire trip from Torkham. I was really relieved to roll up to the Mustafa Hotel in Shar-i-Nau, near the bottom of Chicken Street. The same hotel had been there during the 1970’s but we had never bothered to stay, as it had been too expensive for our pilgrim’s budget – and besides, it didn’t even have a garden. Now it was the best mid-range hotel in town, frequented by freelance journalists, NGO workers, and military contractors. I was given my $15/night room on the lower floor. Luckily, I had made that reservation, or they would have charged me $20 a night. I had $15/night rooms there every time I returned to Kabul. It became much like a home base for exploring the country. The atmosphere at the hotel seemed to reflect the situation in Afghanistan perfectly, and I grew quite fond of the place.

I had a hot shower to wash off the dust, then went to the bar – yes, the infamous Mustafa Bar; an equal mix of a California Hell’s Angel’s bar, a Wild West Saloon straight out of Deadwood or Tombstone, and the Star Wars Cantina in Mos Eisley where Luke first meets Han (Han shot first!). I had a Becks Beer to wash down the dust. Then I had another. It was Happy Hour and beers were $2.00 each – cheaper than Japan! I spoke with a few folks, but, being a war zone, most were reluctant to talk – who could know what ‘Alphabet Soup’ organizations had eavesdroppers posted around? I learned quickly to listen, nod, and smile enigmatically. I did meet Wais, the son of the original owner from the ’70s. He grew up in Europe and New Jersey, but had been back in Kabul since Taliban times. He was a really cool guy loaded with plenty of exotic stories. He wore a Colt .45 automatic on each hip, under his shirt. As I looked around, I noticed that I was almost the only one there without a pistol. Then I saw the pile of machine guns all stashed behind the bar when folks came in. It was the Wild West, for sure.

New Friends
New Friends
They invited me to a barbecue! In Afghanistan! I raised my eyebrows in appreciation of the ingenuity. Several military contractors lived at the hotel and their main job was flying supplies to the US forward bases near the Pakistani border. Just like in Viet Nam, the US soldiers had all the comforts of home, and some of those comforts happen to ‘fall off the back of the truck,’ as it were. So we had a barbecue with frozen crab legs, steaks, ribs, cheesecakes, etc. It was a regular, weekly occurrence – right after the weekly supply flight, by some coincidence.

It had been a long, hot, dusty day. The beer was mellowing me, so, after I emailed my friends John and Kim to tell them where I was (I’d try to call them in the morning), I decided to call it an early night.