Monday, December 14, 2009

The March Up-Country

This post was supposed to go up back in November, but it's one of those that has been languishing in my Drafts folder. At the time, I thought this trip was pretty interesting, but all the traveling I've done since then makes this seem a little tame.

I realized this evening that I neglected to post the photos from my second trip a couple of weeks ago. The first one, a quick chopper flight down to Uruzgan is detailed here. The very next day, barely recovered from six hours in a somewhat dodgy Russian helicopter, I piled into a LandCruiser with three of my guys and drove up to Sheberghan.*
*For those unfamiliar with Afghanistan, Sheberghan is about an hour west of Mazar-i-Sharif, the major city in northern Afghanistan.

The drive was supposed to take about seven hours, but I knew better than to take a locals word for it. This is still a part of the world in which some people describe the length of a journey by reference to how many cigarettes you can smoke on the way. As in, "the drive to Jalalabad is a six-cigarette trip (i.e about three hours)."

Well, as I expected, we left almost two hours behind schedule and hit the morning traffic trying to get out of Kabul. As a result, we didn't get to the interesting bit of the trip until mid-morning. The interesting bit, specifically, is this:

Apologies for the crappy picture. I'm still trying to get the hang of using my new camera, and truth be told, I'll slightly reluctant to whip it out at every opportunity. Don't want the locals to take me for a tourist.

To be clear, when one drives the Salang Pass through the Hindu Kush, one doesn't really go through the mountains as much as one goes over the mountains. Sure, there are some tunnels* but basically navigating the pass consists of going up one side of the range to a ridiculous altitude and then back down the other side. All the while clinging for life to a narrow road scraped out of the side of the mountain while Afghan drivers compete to see who can be the craziest sonofabitch on the road.

*The tunnels in the Salang Pass (there are about half a dozen) are impressive feats of modern engineering. Sure, they're barely wide enough for one lane of traffic each way, they have no lights other than occasional holes blasted in the rock and they're constantly filled with a choking cloud of dust and diesel fumes, but still impressive nonetheless. Imagine a carnival-style Tunnel of Love, except with eight-ton trucks going both ways, zero visibility and no cheesy romantic music. Oh, and no women.

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.

After another five hours in the car (and about twenty more cigarettes), we finally pulled into Sheberghan around dinner-time. We had been talking about getting something to eat before we reached our ultimate destination. At one point, I mentioned that I like mantu, which is a sort of Afghan-style ravioli. This, as it turns out, was a bit of a tactical error, since the supervisor who was with us had thoughtfully phoned ahead to his family who lives in Sheberghan and asked them to prepare dinner for us and make sure that mantu was the main course.

Hospitality is very important here, and once the invitation was extended, I couldn't turn it down with causing offense. So, I soon found myself sitting on the floor (as one does here), having dinner with my guys, the entire extended family (males only) and a random collection of neighbors, strangers and a couple of shady characters. I'm pretty sure that at least two of these guys were Taliban who were in town on holiday. The mantu, however, was excellent.

After dinner, we dropped off our guys at the base where they'd be working, had some meetings with the site manager and the guards who were already there, and called it a day. Next morning, we got up and did the whole thing in reverse, without the mantu.

Wait, we have to cross that? Again?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dam that beard is sexy, but you know I like a hairy man with a beard. The farm.