The Triplegem Afghan Expedition V – Kabul, Afghanistan

The Triplegem Afghan Expedition: Kabul Part 4

Kabul, Afghanistan

13 August 2005 – Kabul, Afghanistan

Kabul Market Scene
Kabul Market Scene
I had another Mustafa’s special breakfast in the marble-flagged courtyard. It was already hot, even in the shade. I noticed that the guy at the next table was using an iBook, so we started talking computers. I run a computer lab at my university and we insist on Mac. Nico was a young Greek doctor, right out of his military service and working for a small Greek NGO in Kabul. Then we started talking to a second guy at another table using an iBook. His name was Charlie and he was a freelance photojournalist, half-British and half-Japanese, based near Kamakura. I live in Japan, too, and my college-aged daughters are half-Japanese. So we all hit it off and moved around one table to talk and finish breakfast. Charlie was even interested in the land cruiser trip to the Minaret of Jam, a World Heritage site, and Herat. I only needed one more traveler to put the trip together – getting closer and closer, I felt.

I surfed the net and caught up with email for a while, then went out to check on prices for the land cruiser. John Mock had given me the name of a reliable tour service across from Shar-i-Nau Park and near the Park Hotel. It was called, oddly enough, Park Tourism – what a coincidence! It was run by Pakistanis who also had an office in Islamabad. They were quite nice and very helpful. After crunching the figures, a one-way, seven-day trip to Herat with stops in Bamiyan, Band-i-Amir, and Jam would cost $1200, including gas. $400 for a week sounded about right – I’d paid $1200 for three weeks in Western Tibet when I did my trek around Mt. Kailash – but I couldn’t quite afford $600 We still needed one more rider – damn! – and they didn’t know of anyone else. It wasn’t too difficult to pick up a third rider for the Tibet Trek, even in Nepal, with the Maoists and monsoon, there were enough people, but this was Afghanistan and it would still be a few more years before travelers started coming back in any numbers – the hand grenade that had gone off next door a month or so ago killing a UN worker didn’t seem to help attract tourism, and neither did that kidnapping of the Italian aid worker at the beginning of the summer.

So it goes…

The Mustafa still seemed my best bet to scare up one more rider, so I headed back to kill the heat of the afternoon and see what sort of a hand karma would deal me. If nothing presented itself in Kabul there was still Plan B – go North to Mazar-i-Sharif and take the back way to Herat then try to get to the Minaret of Jam from the West side, where it was much closer.

When I returned to the Mustafa I talked to the manager about a car and driver to the Panjshir Valley. It was a day trip to visit Ahmad Shah Massood’s tomb and I wanted to look for rough gems as well – the Panjshir was famous for emeralds, rubies, and tourmalines. I was informed that it would cost $100 for the day and that the driver was a native Panjshiri. Again, I needed only one more rider to be able to afford the trip.

Bright sun glared off the marble and the chairs and tables had been moved under the thin line of shade. I joined the others seeking shelter from the mid-day sun. Charlie was there, working on his iBook, and waiting for my news. Josh was basking in the sun in shorts, T-shirt and Oakley shades. Nico, the Doc, was talking animatedly with a beautiful Dutch woman with flaming red hair. Mary was a freelance journalist and a university economics instructor – she and the Doc comprised a close couple. Also there was a wannabe war correspondent from some small alternative online rag from Seattle, he was wound a bit too tight, even for Afghanistan. I told Charlie the price for the trip, and he also agreed that he can afford a third but not half. We asked around but nobody knew of any other prospective traveler. Bummer.

A little while later a friend of Charlie’s stopped by. Scott worked for the New York Times, and he’d just gotten back from 12 days embedded with a US Army unit near the Pakistani border. He was an interesting guy, usually based in New Delhi, and we had a few acquaintances in common. Then it turned out he graduated from Colorado State University in Fort Collins. My middle daughter goes to the same university and my Japanese ex-wife and youngest daughter live there also. I’d even owned a house there for a bit, so I knew the town well. Granfalloon, as Vonnegut used to call it.

ISAF Trucks
ISAF Trucks
We shot the shit and drank green tea for the hottest part of the afternoon, and then I felt the need to move, so took a sunset stroll through the old bazaar down by the river. I always enjoy a random stroll through an Afghan bazaar. I had my camera and took many interesting shots. I saw no other foreigners, but didn’t feel the slightest hint of danger. I had my ‘antenna tuned’ and wasn’t walking blindly. But, since I can speak Dari, I chatted with the moneychangers, the butchers, and the dried fruit sellers, anyone who I came across. Everyone was friendly, and critical of the corrupt government. They had been hopeful when Karzai took power, but there had been no improvement in the daily lot of the Afghan man on the street. It was a dangerous game of chicken to even cross the street. The traffic was worse than a Bangkok rush hour, but a lot better armed. I made it back to the Mustafa as it was getting dark.

I showed my pictures to Josh and Mary, the Dutch journalist. Around 7:00 p.m. I went into the bar with Scott for Happy Hour. He was meeting a couple of friends who were in town, and they were already in the bar. We took a table and ordered pizzas to go with the beer. Charlie soon joined us. I started talking with Max, the youngest of the newcomers. He had MAD MAX tattooed in Gothic script down his right forearm, and this was his first venture as a war correspondent. He was only 20 but he had trekked around Mt. Kailash the year before with his grandfather. So we had something in common, as I’d done the same trek two years prior. After a while, I discovered that his grandfather was the famous Tibetan expert and first American Tibetan Buddhist Monk, the Columbia University professor, Robert Thurman. I was impressed, as I had several of his books in my personal library back at the university. We all shared our adventure stories – the journalists were even happy to hear my tales of the good ol’ Pilgrim Trail days of Afghanistan in the ’70s.

Later Wais took us up to the ‘penthouse,’ a glassed-in room at the top of the hotel. It had a fantastic view of the city, and we talked and smoked and drank for hours, before finally drifting off to our rooms. I didn’t even realize that Scott had paid the beer and pizza tab, courtesy of the NY Times, until the next day. Thanks, Scott, if you’re reading this.