Saturday, 29 August 2015

An unlikely tourist: travels to Afghanistan

Part one: Tajikistan

The Tajik border patrols usually came in trotting formations of boyish men in camouflage gear but this troop were in the black get-up of special ops. My new friend James and I pedaled past, and soon after a shot rang out from a rifle, aimed not at us, the bullets sent somewhere into Afghanistan. I tucked in beside James anyway, keeping myself near the cliff face.

‘What are you doing?!’ he asked, somewhat hysterically. ‘I’m not a human shield!’

‘Jesus, calm down’ I said, as I took some rough measurements, shuffled further into his shadow and ducked.

James was, on first meeting, a soft outline that bloomed from the darkness of Khorog’s campsite. He arrived late on a loaded bicycle, smoking a cigarette which he immediately dropped, and then turned to the other bikers and announced, in a British accent: ‘Right make a grid everyone, let’s get to it. I have to find this fag before it burns a hole in a pannier!’ I liked James straight away; we decided to pedal on together for a week to Dushanbe.

Near Rushan the valley opened up, fields were dimmed by a thin mist which captured the evening, infusing a light the colour of olive oil over the valley floor. Cockrels sounded out over the pleasant-sounding gabble of children playing games. The hospitality of the Pamiri people continued as we were ushered into homes and plied with curds and tea and apricots and those reminders: ‘You’re a guest in Badakhshan! My house is your house!’ There’s nothing dutiful about the hospitality of the Pamiri people, they give naturally, as if it’s their own privilege.

Humpy rock formations loomed from our left, divided up by pie slices of scree. Outside a solitary house a man holding a newborn in a slightly reckless looking scrum-half style, beckoned us over for a chat. He was a 28 year old new father, but we didn’t discover much more because as we talked a great explosion sounded close by, echoed, and the air above the river pooled with dust. James and I turned wild-eyed to each other and then to the man who shouted ‘Afghanistan! Afghanistan!’ in what I now know was an attempt to reassure us, but which of course achieved the opposite. But as I looked across the river from a half-crouched position, I could see what he meant: thirty metres off, across the water, they were carving a new road through the cliff, using dynamite to break trail.

We passed a military base in the evening, the soldiers lolling in mosi nets, giant machine guns trained on Afghanistan which for Tajiks was a source of increasing anxiety, travelling west we were nearing the Taliban strongholds of Kunduz and Faisalabad. The hunt for river wading refugees is a constant one and I’d heard of two bikers who been detained by the army recently for rough camping near here. Heavy looking clouds moved in for evening, reigning in the hour of twilight, and with the river on one side and a virtual wall of rock on the other, camping with enough tact to evade sharp-eyed border patrols would be an achievement. But I glimpsed a steep trail which led to a flattish rocky area hidden from view, and so in the dying day we made a quick recce and then pushed one bike up and then the other. On top was a hideout for the military to inspect Afghanistan: a caravan-sized tilted boulder provided shelter, and we were shut off from view and wind on the other sides by a low wall of rocks. Perfect. We settled in.

Unfortunately we weren’t to be entirely incognito. The first problem was James tent, which was yellow and of the proper luminosity to attract the attention of remote helicopter pilots after an avalanche, not so good for ‘stealth-camping’. For my part I’d zipped myself into my inner tent, but about a foot of zip was broken, and I figured I could leave it open, it was warm and too dry for mosquitoes to be a nuisance. As I lay back, full of dinner and lassitude, something caught my eye: a shadow whipped across the net inner, and leaped, LEAPED!, inside my tent and landed on my sleeping bag.

I learnt that night what sound I would make in my final moments if I was ever to meet a violent untimely death: it’s an effeminate quivering trill, think front man of a failed glam rock band. I began a manic drum solo inside my tent, using my notebook to swat the intruder to death. It was a spider, big, desert-coloured, with unmissable fangs. Later I would learn this is in fact a Camel Spider, not really a spider at all, and one that has a particular fetish for leaping into shadowy spaces, and can bite a bit too.

We continued the next day downriver, which brought a feeling of momentum more than just the modest boost of gravity. The opposing track on the Afghan side was hewn into sheer cliff faces, the river a tantrum of wavelets and eddies and cascades as the water rioted past boulders long ago toppled by landslides. The sky lived now in just a gap between spires of rock, an incidental strip of blue, and as our track lunged down to the melt-water, a cool radiance lunged up. The next day we came to a beautiful tongue of green land extending into a bow of river, specked with mud brick homes below unarable looking tilts of land: it was Jumarj-e-bala. Massive dove-grey mountain loomed behind the village, the peaks fluffed by cloud. 

We stopped for food and I complained the only bread I had left was stale. James turned to me: ‘Here’s how to deal with stale bread: you dip it in some tea, and then in some sugar, and then… (he paused for drama) it’s not bread any more… (he was silent again, his eyes full moons of delight). ‘…It’s cake’. He settled back, staggered by his own genius. ‘Cake?’ I asked. ‘Cake’. He said, making little nods of self-satisfaction.

Ten kilometres from Kalaikhum we camped by a small military base, where two young soldiers thrashed us at pull ups. The next day was a 1500 metre climb over 25 km over rocky terrain to the Khaburabot pass. We snaked up to a green and open culmination covered at points in red tape explained by a sign: ‘Land mine clearance in progress’. They’d been left in the civil war and a joint Norwegian and US project was getting rid of them at last. I had a brief sentimental moment on the summit: there would be other mountains, but this would be the highest point I would ride to for the duration of my journey back home.

We dropped one thousand metres and hit a stream which slunk below massive forested sandstone cliffs, something of prehistory in the overhangs, the crab-coloured rock, rich green trees in the furrows, the nightmarish build of shadows in the valley. There were twenty thorny plants over the several acres of land aside the river, and James managed to set his tent on top of all of them, muttering something about the world’s plants being out to get him.

We were at last out of the Pamiri region, the men had longer beards, the mosques more elaborate, the lingua franca Tajik, but the hospitality was unchanged and the stops for tea and food continued. We were following a new river now: the Obikhingou, as still and grey as cement, Afghanistan was no longer in view.

That night I heard a familiar sound: it was a return of the frontman of the failed glam rock band, and it was coming from James’ tent. The crystal hum of night shattered under the words: ‘Fucking giant scorpion death spider!’ I found him leaping from foot to foot, the same generously fanged Camel Spider scuttling around him. I slapped it to a goo with my sandal.

We met a Swiss cyclist near Dushanbe who complained endlessly about the road which really wasn’t too bad. I had the sudden urge to lay a patronizing arm on his shoulder, look him in the eyes and say ‘its gets worse son. This is a fucking holiday. You’re gonna wish the road was this good in a few days’ time when you can’t walk without wincing and have to photograph your own ass to find out why.’ I didn’t of course, I just said ‘Yeah, I guess it’s a bit bumpy.’

Our last night on the road together we camped by a small stream, and when James made a lantern with his water bottle and torch we noticed a giant unlit blot on his tent outer. ‘It’s back!’ he wailed, and it was. The ‘Fucking giant scorpion death spider!’ had returned for the third time in four nights. This time James smacked his fabric from the inside, sending it on a six metre tour to the bush. We both then zipped up our tents until just a small section of door was open at the top, from where our eyes peeped out and our arms stretched through as we tried pathetically to cook.

The penultimate day to Dushanbe was an ugly one: a big mining area, the sky filled with pale dust making a haze nothing like the cathedral quality of light that we’d known in the evenings in the Pamirs. James disappeared somewhere behind me and reappeared ten minutes later wearing a kind of plastic visor.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘Sunglasses. I lost mine, so I made these. I can’t see anything in this dust’

‘How did you…?’

‘Fanta bottle’ he said. I could see that now. He’d chopped up a Fanta bottle and attached it to his face, looking very much like his elderly cohabiting mother had fashioned an outfit for him for a star trek convention.

Coming into Dushanbe the president welcomed us from countless mawkish posters: he shook hands with the working class, hugged religious leaders, held grain and, my favourite, waded through a tide of poppies. (really? In a suit?).

I stayed in the Green House in Dushanbe, a spacious hostel with a mix of eastbound cyclists praying for mountains, mentally thrashed by the monotony of Iranian, Turkmen and Uzbek flats, and westbound wiry cyclists like me, Pamir-fresh, acting like Vietnam vets in front of the ones who had it all to come: ‘you weren’t there man. You don’t know what it feels like to climb 26,000 metres before breakfast and fight your way out of landslides with a flip-flop’. Everyone seemed to have diarrhea by now, and cyclists had taken to touching fists instead of shaking hands. Nick had christened the toilet ‘the porcelain express’.

I cycled away from Dushanbe, to my north the foothills of the Gissar range were a crowd of dome-shaped land, each hump a different size and depth, like an enormous beige explosion in freeze-frame. Starlings moved between trees, the surprising whirl of them spreading and contracting, rising and collapsing, a watery race of specs moving through the peach-toned dusk. The white Land Cruisers of NGOs zoomed past too close and I decided that if I was to meet my end in Tajiksitan, it would likely be under the wheels of a humanitarian. Or if not, then a wedding party, who drive just as madly, at handspan range, in pimped up beribboned SUVs, and who occasionally must spoil the bride’s special day by decorating the windshield in some poor soul’s spleen.

Part 2: Uzbekistan

The Uzbek border is well known for especially thorough searches for drugs and illegal currency. They also search your hard drives as pornography is illegal, and they suspect everyone of being a sort of James Bond level spy until proven otherwise. Also, they’re bored, and poking about in travelers bags is a better way of spending time than doing nothing. I was particularly worried when I could see there were few others crossing apart from me, and two officials were doing not very much.

And then it began: the most frustratingly thorough search of my five and a half years on the road. The younger officer spent half an hour on one of my two iPods alone, watching every music video I’d forgotten I had and listening with a puzzled expression to the sounds of Jungle at 140 bpm. There were some notable low points: the languorous palpation of the lining of my headbag, the ten minutes he spent peering into every individual section of every tent pole, the search of 4 memory cards, a USB stick, my computer, two cameras and hard drive. And how can I forget the moment when he broke open my bread with his fingers and inspected the inside? The implication being I suppose that I had gone to the trouble of borrowing, or perhaps taking by force, an entire Tajik bakery, and then on receiving some instruction from my hostages on how to bake bread, baking a batch with heroin inside.

The officials spent an age watching my movies and fast forwarding to the sex scene of the film version of 1984. It was a surreal moment when one border guard pressed pause and they all crowded around to ogle at a nude Suzanna Hamilton, tutting and not really meaning it. Luckily they saw the insanity of detaining me for a movie, even if it was a bit racy by Uzbek tastes, or perhaps they just couldn’t rise to the irony of locking me up for possessing a film about totalitarianism. I began to understand their dedication to the search: it was more than the pride of professionalism, it was more than boredom, this level of commitment is the territory only of the sex-starved. On the plus side they were so thorough that they discovered kit I didn’t even know I had. ‘Wow’ I found myself thinking ‘so Hilleberg tents come with a tent pole repair kit then. I needed one of those!’

Three hours later I was released into the darkening cicada-ringing flats of Uzbekistan, but this is a well cycled road and even my silhouette inspired shouts of ‘Otkuda?!’ (where are you from?) which punched through the walls of building night. I shouted ‘Anglia!’ in reply, and the word was swallowed for a moment by the gloom, and then returned with ‘welcome!’

I cycled for two and half days past luscious spreads of cotton plantations, cabbage fields and sugar cane, spending my now stacks of money on melon and round bread (in Uzbekistan fifty dollars equals a 5 cm high stack of notes and supermarkets come with note-counting machines). Shop signs were outlandishly optimistic, glossy seductions of apples and cheese, inside they did a not-so-roaring trade in chewing gum and out-of-date noodles. The days were relentlessly clear-skied and even at 6am there was a creeping heat and the promise of drenching sweats.

Part 3: Afghanistan

Whether to journey to Afghanistan has been one of the hardest decisions I’ve made, and not telling my family was another. I didn’t want to end up a cautionary tale, the Chris McCandless of Central Asia, and yet the country intrigued me more than anywhere, this wasn’t a move born of bravado or box ticking. There was though a sense I was putting myself at risk, but that it was in some way inevitable, as if I was watching myself make a ropey decision with the interest of an outside observer. I couldn’t bring myself to think of home until it was over, and my thoughts turned occasionally to the fearfully silent cancer of extremism, imported through Wahhabism, and nourished by poverty, miseducation and fear.

I drew a line at cycling away from Mazar-e-sharif. It’s been a bad year for the north of Afghanistan. Even the historically safe city has seen massacres and in the past months alone there was an attack on a legal building in daylight in the city centre with many dead, and weeks later the murder of eight ngo workers in their beds. These were targeted attacks as opposed to opportunistic, but they were still a cause to be concerned. Luckily I had company, my friend Sam was heading the same way, and we arranged to pedal together into Afghanistan from Termiz.

On the road to the border I pulled level with Sam and tucked myself between him and the roadside. ‘um, what are you doing?’ he said warily.

‘Nothing’ I said, scrutinizing Sam’s slightly larger outline.

‘Are you checking if I’m a good human shield?’

‘Ok I was, but you’re taller! You have more stuff! If the Taliban attack then it makes sense you should be the human shield, otherwise we both risk being killed. Take one for team, selfish bastard.’

‘You’ll get shot first anyway, you don’t look anywhere near as Muslim as me.’

It was true: Sam had grown a bushy beard for Afghanistan, and even shaved his moustache in the Islamic fashion. It was offset a little by his eye brow and ear piercings, and the tattoo of the Grateful Dead on his bare lower leg.

‘Well with those piercings, if we get into a point blank situation, I’m confident you’ll be executed first’ I told him.

We carried on like this for a while, not belittling the threat, but just to trying to quell the nervous energy building up inside. We were dressed in trousers and long sleeved shirts, but even so there was no evading the fact we were obviously westerners, and on a bicycle you are utterly exposed.

It took us a couple of hours to leave Uzbekistan, but we talked the officials out of another full search of all our panniers and electronic devices three days after my last one. The Afghan border was an easy one, the soldiers welcomed us with cheery surprise, and then Sam got a puncture on the bridge crossing the Amu Darya river, after which we entered a very different world.

On the streets of Hairatan the wandering women were all draped in blue burquas; rippled and tugged and shaped by the desert wind, it looked as if a substance was melting upon them. Police cars and armoured vehicles, dragging long shadows like capes, revved up and down the road. Gangs of men sat in the open topped backs, slung with silvery-worn AK 47 assault rifles, legs draped casually over the side, their turbans wrapped around their heads and faces, just a slit for the eyes. One of these wraith-like men per car attended to a massive mounted machine gun that made my heart race, pause, race again. The homes were low, crumbling mud brick about which goats sniffed in the crannies.

This was wild, soul-seizing country, an embattled nation, unkind to intruders. As I was thinking this a car pulled up. ‘Hey guys. I’m from Slough!’ cried the driver. Oh for Christ’s sake, I was drinking in the exoticism, and I didn’t need to be hearing the names of provincial towns in the English home counties. The speaker was Afghani of course, and lived in Mazar now, he couldn’t know he’d popped my bubble.

We left Hairatan fast, unsure about safety, into desert proper where unlike Uzbekistan, irrigation was mostly undeveloped. The desert dunes looked to claim the road with reaching arms and tentacles of sand, but we had a good, quick surface. The temperature rose to 40 in the fleeting shade, Sam was looking increasingly dismembered by the heat and I’d drunken eight litres of water with the day just half gone. Eventually we met the main road at a junction thick with parked lorries where drivers prayed beneath. Turn right here and we’d head to Mazar-e-sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city, left towards Kunduz and in twenty kilometres or so the land would be under Taliban control. We went right.

My main anxiety now was that we’d be caught after sundown on the outskirts of Mazar, a place we’d been told contained pockets of Taliban supporters. But probably I had mixed up the value of the threats: as cars sped past at insane velocity I realized getting hit was more likely than getting shot or abducted. Later I’d visit the orthopaedic ward of the city hospital and discover this was true, 70% of the patients have been in road accidents. Police checkpoints were many, the officers delighted to see us, but wary too: ‘careful. Taliban near here’ said one, miming a beard with a drop of his hand below his chin, and a turban by turning circles above his head. ‘But we’ll protect you’ he told us by way of a pantomime of shots into the desert. We span through the industrial outskirts of Mazar, a chinook helicopter skimmed through the sky above carrying US special forces, the last of a retreating international mission. An airship floated to the south, used for surveillance. Afghanis waved and shouted and generally made us feel welcome amid the building picture of ‘war zone’.

Eventually we hit the city centre: a square around the blue mosque and a picture of the characteristic face of Massoud, the Afghan national hero, savior and bane of the Soviets, killed by an exploding TV camera in an assassination in 2001.

The next day I woke before sunrise and watched Mazar-e-shairf come to life: the sun broke the horizon behind me, twinkling the aquamarine domes of the mosque and turning the sky a barley-yellow. The vendors began their day, yet to become embattled by the rush of city-life, and men began to get stuck in those interminable handshakes of South Asia. A tough gang of street kids were fighting. Most, around three quarters of women, were clad in the blue burqua, but some in black niqab (eyes showing) and about 10% with a hijab pulled so far back behind a plume of dark hair that it looks almost defunct. Men wore the loose Khet Partug and every day I’d spot a new use for the Shemagh, the Afghan man’s scarf – to shield the head and face from the sun, to carry melons, to swat flies, as dental floss, to sit on and for the kids, to whip each other with. Mazar homes a great variety of peoples, the city’s history written into hats, skin tones and faces: from Hazara and Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen, to a whole bunch of lesser known ethnicities. And the population is growing fast as those affected by the spreading violence flock to the safer streets of Mazar which is under the control of an immensely wealthy Tajik governor Atta Muhammad Nur known previously as ‘the teacher’ for his time teaching the Mujahidin in the art of war. He has the monopoly on violence and is respected for keeping order, and the Taliban at bay.

Little things worried me, our hotel had no guard and was left open all night. On our little explorations of the city centre, I found that everyone knew who we were: word had spread, Mazar had tourists, we were the only ones. So much for blending in. But the reaction we got from those we met was one of warmth and even gratitude for coming. We ate a ton of Mazar’s famous ice cream, chatted with students who’d often assume we were soldiers, met Afghan translators for the US military, two American teachers, local doctors, and a lovely Hazara family. Too much happened off the bike in Afghanistan to relate here, so I’m afraid I’m going to save it for the book. Instead I’ll leave you some photos from the streets of Afghanistan:

A sign warning people that women police officers will check under burquas in case of suspecting a suicide bomb attacker.

Photos courtesy of Sam Lovell and myself.

Thank yous: Dr Ralimullah, Mattias, Wahed and Ru, Naser and friends, Ethan and Aaron, and the three cycling buddies I’ve had over the last month: Sam, James and Nick.

Next up: the meat of Uzbekistan, a sliver of Kazakhstan and the boat to Azerbaijan.

I was happy to win the We Said Go Inspiration Writing Contest this month as well as getting Highly Commended in the Bradt / Independent writing contest.