On the far side of the pass and after losing count of the number of times I cursed myself for not having an updated will, we stopped for lunch at a roadside chaikhana. The looks one gets as a Westerner walking into a place like that, especially with a Kalashnikov under one arm, can be disturbing. A mixture of hospitality, awe, fear and loathing, often in rapid succession on the same face. Fortunately, when you travel with armed guards and a pocketful of US greenbacks, there are few negative emotions that can't be overcome.
I'm pretty sure the kid behind me is trying to convince the kid over my left shoulder to make a grab for my wallet, but he's trying to figure how likely I am to use that Kalashnikov. My PSD insisted on snapping this picture while we waited for the driver to refuel the Land Cruiser. The somewhat pained expression on my face is a result of 1) my general dislike for having my picture taken, and 2) a mind whirling with serious doubts about the provenance of the lunch I just ate. Meat yes, goat probably, age indeterminate but certainly past the prime of his life.
Speaking of PSDs, mine for this trip was Suleiman, one of my best guys. He's a Panjshiri, which means he's a Tajik from the Panjshir Valley, a people with a well-deserved reputation for kicking the crap out of anyone who messes with them. The Panjshiris humiliated the Soviets for ten years, and then slapped the Taliban around for another ten. Not popular with most of the Pashtun Afghans, but utterly reliable fighters and their loyalty, once earned, is undying.*
*In Afghanistan, the concept of permanent loyalty is mostly nonexistent. As the saying goes, "you can never buy an Afghan's loyalty, but you can always rent it." This does not apply to Panjshiris.
This is Suleiman and myself on the far side of the Salang Pass, near a place called Saripul. He's actually a very nice guy and not nearly as mean as he looks in this picture. We stopped for gas, and as you do at an Afghan gas station, took the opportunity to have a cigarette.
Wait, we have to cross that? Again?