Saturday, April 29, 2006

From Shahrak to Chaghcharan: the slow folklore of a desolate land.

My Vehicle: a Russian made Kamaz truck, manned by its driver and his 16 years old assistant. Loaded with oil barrels, it was negotiating slowly the distance between Shahrak and Chaghcharan, my destination. I was going to spend almost a day inside that truck…

The driver and its assistant…

The crew of a tea house –or chaykhana- as they are locally known, can put their eyes away from me.

When human settlements are so Basic, they seem organically added to the environment. As those indicators that would draw us to perceive them as artificial disappear, continuity between human and natural history is magically restored. The ascetic dwellings of Central Afghanistan make the word “artificial” to lack all sense.

The road climbs high in the Bayan Mountains.

There is scarcely a road but, against all odds, there is a fork.

The steep road severely tests a Hi Ace bringing passengers from Chaghcharan to Shahrak.

Soldiers as kids…

The fourth day hides another extravaganza. While I am walking out of the village I meet a marching column of the Afghan army. When the commander who is marking their pace spots my camera, he orders the soldiers with a neatly military volume to turn around, look at the camera, and smile. Only in such a cut off country as Afghanistan can the army members be glad to be photographed!

Most of the soldiers were overaged. I just couldn’t imagine them charging against the enemy…. It made me whish all armies of the world would be like that one. Wars would only end up in short quarrels in which fatigue would soon take over in both bands…

And finally, the commander asked for my camera and took this picture. After such gentleness he carried on directing his troops along the dusty untraveled road.

Kids as soldiers

At El Alamein Military Cemetery, Egypt, where hundreds of German soldiers lie, I had read an interesting statement penned by Einstein: The best argument in favour of peace is the tomb of a soldier. In Afghanistan, where there is hardly a family that hasn’t regretted at least one death as a cause of continuous warring, it seems peace needs stronger motivation. IN the morning, I see Shahrak teachers making the kids march as if they were going to war. Probably I missed part of the context, since I don’t really understand the language, but the image was shocking…

Bin Laden’s last dinner in Shahrak

As if I were surveying all sectors of Afghan society, after the doctors comes a bunch of teachers from Kabul. They are directing the training program for local teachers in Shahrak district, high in the mountains. On the way, already by night, we stop for dinner in a village, invited by the local teacher, who comes out in the dark, ghostly, with a lantern, to guide us through the unlit alleys of the village.

The long beards of those honorable men stand in the weak light provided by a gas bottle, inside of the cavernous room of the humble house. It would be easy to convince television audiences that what is really taking place is Bin Laden’s last dinner. Truth is I feel proud of having the chance to meet these men, that are really playing a role in changing their country from scratch through education. We finally make it to Shahrak, where I stay overnight in “Shahrak Education Management Office”.

Teachers receiving “lessons” from Bellow teachers arrived from Kabul to train them.

The morning of my departure from Shahrak Education Office, local teacher queue to test The Wizard, my backpack.

Warsteiner in Afghanistan?

A truck still bearing a Warsteiner beer advertisement passes by… One of the many that were imported second hand from Germany years ago. Most probably, the driver ignores how unislamic is the messag he is insistently parading….

Fear, beards, mice and flowers….

I had shaved my beard for the last time in Iran, with the hope that it would grow enough to help me blend in. I never try to look like the locals do. It is a matter of sincerity. I want to be perceived as what I am: a foreigner. But a beard gives you extra points in a country where bear-bearing grants respectability…

While I was afraid of the Taliban, a mouse fears me…

No one associates flowers with Afghanistan…

Friday, April 28, 2006

Daily life in the middle of nowhere…

Some kids carry wood in heir donkeys, not far from a Kuchi nomad campsite (behind)

The Harirurd river, which the road sticks to, as if herself afraid of loosing its way among such desolate immensity.

...and the river is dotted wit tiny mud brick villages for which the map barely have names…

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Notice: to read the full story, have a look at my book "Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan". Clic here to learn more. Order a book and keep me on the road!
The town’s English teacher that the following morning shows me the way to the road advises me –and he is not the first one- to beware of the Kuchi nomads that are all around. “They are Pashto, all of them robbers.” he says, and then adds “here we are Tajik”. The division among the Pashto South and the Tajik North is a deep crack in Afghan history. The Pashto –not exactly the poor nomads- have held power for centuries. The Tajik hate them for that and also for being too fanatic about religion. For the same reason the Taliban, who were Pashto, could only by means of force hold control of anywhere north of Qandahar or West of Kabul. The Pashto nomads, who migrate each spring from deserted Helmand and Qandahar provinces to the fertile central valleys are then doubly segregated, for being nomads and for being Pashto. According to the English teacher, also, the dodgy area would more precisely be located between Chagcharan and Lal. That’s a great progress since I left Herat, where everybody regarded the whole road to be a pirate’s nursery. Now hell was growing narrower

The entire bazaar at Cheshter stops working for a minute to catch a glimpse of the foreigner who is sitting by the side of the road and not driving a Toyota 4WD. The first output of the road that morning is, disappointingly, a shepherd boy with his fifty donkeys. After him, luckily, an Indian engineer who directs the works in Band-e-Salme dam stops for me. “The dam is very important for Afghanistan” , he initially says. Then he reviews his words and adds “Well, even a match box is important in Afghanistan”. On arrival on Kabul I would hear the bad news that an Indian engineer had been killed in Herat province approximately at the time I was there…

In Dikhan village I wait almost two hours for a ride. Nothing moves except from beetles and ISAF helicopters behind the valley, none of which are supposed to give rides. Finally, four doctors from Chagcharan give me a lift as far as Kamenj, just where the road forks to the South to cross the mountains. When the succession of mud brick hamlets and road craters was hypnotizing the five of us, we crossed an ISAF patrol. It is my first encounter with the NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan. As the driver rolls down the window, a badge with a Lithuanian flag in his shoulder comes to light. So the troops at Chagcharan were Lithuanian! Since I happen to be freelancing for “Respublika”, a Lithuanian newspaper, the information is relevant and motivating.

Before dropping me off, Dr. Nasser, one of the doctors, tells me to look for him if I ever make it to Chagcharan. I am in the dusty road again, exactly 20 km away from the Minaret of Jam, a enormous engraved minaret that stands in amazing solitude. A little tired of the sight seeing thing, I decide to give it a miss.

As if I were surveying all sectors of Afghan society, after the doctors comes a bunch of teachers from Kabul. They are directing the training program for local teachers in Shahrak district, high in the mountains. On the way, already by night, we stop for dinner in a village, invited by the local teacher, who comes out in the dark, ghostly, with a lantern, to guide us through the unlit alleys of the village. The long beards of those honorable men stand in the weak light provided by a gas bottle, inside the cavernous room of the humble house. I feel proud of having the chance to meet these men, that are really playing a role in changing their country from scratch through education. We finally make it to Shahrak, where I stay overnight in “Shahrak Education Management Office”.

The fourth day hides another extravaganza. While I am walking out of the village I meet a marching column of the Afghan Police. When the commander who is marking their pace spots my camera, he orders the soldiers with a neatly military volume to turn around, look at the camera, and smile. Only in such a cut off country as Afghanistan can the military members be glad to be photographed!

I then found the Kamaz truck. Loaded with oil barrels, and at the breathtaking speed of 10 km/h, the green Kamaz is crossing the Bayan Mountains towards Chagcharan. The chauffeur carries a rifle over the truck’s panel, and is not alone: a 16 year old boy in a greasy overall once and again steps down and dashes to remove a large stone or evaluate the depth of a ditch. No doubt the driver considers his young partner as little more than another device of the truck. Some late development of the Russian truck industry. He doesn’t stop yelling at him.

With mindfulness, the driver must be aware of the destiny of each wheel of the truck. It seems to be the only way to navigate this road, and never faster than 15 km/h. The villages we pass in our way make me wonder if the Kamaz didn’t accidentally hit a time gate among the ditches in the road. Cubic mud dwellings by the river, with no electricity, nor cars or streets. No signs of schools or clinics. The human drama taken back to episode one. When they see us, women run systematically away. Men continue to plough the land with oxen. The last twenty centuries seem to have tiptoed through these areas, or maybe they are stuck in the road. Not far from the hamlets, occasionally, there are nomad settlements. The contiguity makes you think their presence is a question mark interrogating their sedentary neighbors.

Unlike the Bedouins, who have rapidly embraced satellite TV and pick ups, the leather tents of the Kuchi only hold the carpet that separates them from the ground and bottles of water. Since the road is actually no more than a double strip of land where the grass doesn’t grow, it really feels like we are crossing through some large cattle ranch. I feel tempted to step down and stay overnight with them, but I cannot help harboring the borrowed prejudices of the people I have met on the way. Fear wins this time.

Although Chagcharan is inching closer, the day dies faster, and we sleep in the chaykhana (tea house) of one of the villages. There, my driver assures everybody I am Muslim. I am about to correct him when I happen to think that he might say it for our own safety. Having travelled in Muslim countries already for seven months I can repeat the kalima (declaration of faith any Muslim should be able to say) and with all probabilities I speak more Arabic than they do. However, I hope there is no need for demonstrations.

In the morning we complete the last 20 km, we cross a rudimentary checkpoint consisting of a rope tensed by two poles and we enter the town of Chagcharan. With 15000 inhabitants, the town is the capital of Ghor Province, being ghor an old Persian word for “mountain”. I am received by John, Jeffrey and Morgan, three young American doctors working for an NGO dedicated to fight tuberculosis. Since Dr. Nasser had told them about the Argentinean guy hitch-hiking alone on the way to Chagcharan they have been waiting me to show up at any moment. Since they live here in the middle of Afghanistan, they are surely not entitled to tell me I am crazy. Happy to meet another Westerner, they invite me in for some days. I even have the chance to do my laundry! For hundreds of kilometers my fantasies have been focusing on washing powder.

The first day I do nothing but rest. After four bumpy days in Russian trucks over Afghan roads (possibly the worst combination) the fact that the ground doesn’t move seems rocket science to me. I must rest, since tomorrow a great celebration will take place in Chagcharan. A bushkahsi game is going to take place by the river. Forty jockeys and one beheaded goat. And only half of the way to Kabul…

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


An unpaved road journeys across the lawless country. While I see the white narrow line crossing my map I wonder if I will arrive alive to the other end.

While an NGO called Green Helmets is building a new school, kids attend classes under tents donated by UNICEF.

Agriculture in Afghanistan. I crossed the country and I don`t remember to have seen a single tractor.

White Stones mark out a safe path across a mined area…. Not the best place to hitch-hike!

In the middle of the minefield, the personal of the demining squad explain us their work.

Thomas' Toyota had, strangely enough, Lithuanian "LT" oval adhesive...


Sticky notice: to read the full story, have a look at my book "Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil – By thumb in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan". Visit my online bookshop. Order a book and keep me on the road!

I wish the road conditions had been the only factor involved. In words of Heratis, the road is a greenhouse for bandits who run to grab their rifles at the mere sight of a foreigner. “I am Afghan and I don’t dare going there”- Hamid wastes his last ace in his attempt of stopping me. In such scenario, my days in Herat are stigmatized by the struggle between my mind, who carefully listens to the local advice, and my faith in the human being, that translates local advice as local prejudices.

There is, after all, no need to take the Central Road. It’s also possible (and faster) to reach Kabul via Qandahar, in the South, through smooth paved roads. It is curious that being Qandahar the epicenter of the Taliban revival, locals are still advising foreigners to break the journey there, possibly because the paved road allows for an almost non stop journey. Inversely, the Central Road demands a week in exchange of its 800 km, augmenting the exposure to locals and their hypothetical vices. Finally, the road to Kabul via Mazar-e-Shariff, in the North, can be regarded as the safest in the country, with no focuses of Taliban activity, or plus 3000 meters passes. In brief, a boring choice. But what price am I ready to pay for the precious adrenaline? I am conscious that after a year of traveling I have reached that tricky point in which one just trusts everything is going to be invariably OK.

Such dilemmas don’t allow me to enjoy Herat fully, its badly provisioned bazaar, with its goat heads orbited by flies exposed as day’s bargain. The streets of Herat may be, at times, smelly, and some of its avenues just one uninterrupted car workshop, but it is the cleanest and most beautiful city in Afghanistan. For ages part of the Great Persia that extended as far as Samarkand in present day Uzbekistan, Herat is a derelict heirloom.

Three days in Herat are enough to gather all the information I need to hit the road. From Moscow, my friend Alexey, with whom I have traveled through Egypt, has sent me a report of the experience of Russian hitch hikers from AFT (Academy of Free Travelers) on that road. They speak about little traffic (10 to 30 vehicles a day) and hopeless road conditions that demand a truck five days even in a non stop journey, but say nothing about security related problems. Looking at the map that Steven has sent to me from the Netherlands (impossible to find such maps in Afghanistan) I can see the road as a narrow white line departing eastwards from Herat, sometimes always vanishing, and always following the Harirurd valley into an increasingly high ground, which in the map turns to be an ever darker brown. At intervals of 100 km, there are tiny white circles. They are towns.

The first one is called Obweh, then comes Cheshter–e-Shariff. The following 200 km to Chagcharan, already in Ghor province are supposed to be the most miserable ones. To compensate, the internet says there is a base of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) stationed in Chagcharan, making the area safe enough. But Chagcharan is only half way to Kabul. Further away, in the mountain passes leading to Bamian province, is where everybody forecasts enraged lawless locals. At least until reaching Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan only lakes. Between the lakes and Kabul there is also Bamian town, which became sadly famous in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed the biggest Buddha statues on earth, of which now the niche in the cliff face only remains.

The morning of the departure is a 30 Celsius morning as any other. After several useless rides in rickshaws (motorcycle taxis) that only push me as far as the exit of Herat, a Toyota double cab stops. Zaboir, its driver, speaks perfect English. He is going to Karokh, that’s 50 km away but in the North road. In the nearby village of Sangur he is supervising the construction of a school sponsored by “Green Helmets”, a German NGO. As he promises to get me back to the central road the following morning, I accept his invitation of joining him for the day.

Zobair is Afghan. Yet, he has lived and worked in Heidelberg, Germany, for the last 20 years. It was there where he graduated in the Faculty of Engineering. Although he feels stronger links with Germany, he decided to come back to his native country to supervise the construction of nine new schools. Once in Sangur I also meet Joachim, a German Agriculture Engineer representing the NGO. With his long, bushy beard, his sun glasses and his orange bag, one would say Joachim is a hippie who got stuck in his way to India and has been here for, say…30 years. More than supervising he seems to be meditating.

Our conversation is interrupted by the chief of the village. You can see he is nervous, because he doesn’t take the usual time budget all Afghans would take to greet a foreigner. Instead he crosses the room with three steps and whispers something to Zobair. It seems there are Pashto nomads in the surroundings. The man fears that the nomads will try to break in the house thinking that the foreigners keep plenty of money there. He proposes that they should leave the village and stay in the head office of the NGO in Heart.

In a nearby village two foreign aid workers were injured when somebody threw a grenade through the window of their house while they slept. It can be said that some 5% of Afghans perceive foreign aid workers as invaders not different from American troops, making it hard to deliver help. In top of that, there are people who don’t have an opinion on the matter but will always be ready too pull the trigger in exchange of a banknote with Franklin’s face. Neither Zobair and Joachim abandon the village, nor I quit my plan of taking the Central Road. We will have to learn to master tranquility in spite of that five per cent…

The children arrive punctually for school the following morning at 8 o’clock. As the school is completed, classes take place in large tents donated by UNICEF. When he finishes paying workers their weekly wages, Zobair drives me to the beginning of the Central Road, which in its birth seems an inoffensive detour to some side village. No hint of its depth. Zobair makes an ultimate effort to drag me into the safer Northern Road by saying “Even the Governor faces troubles when he takes this road, and he has military escort.”

When Zobair’s support of my paranoia is winning the wrestling, another 4x4 driven by foreigners pulls by. It’s two German aid workers from Kabul on holidays in Herat province. They ask directions for the Central Road. They plan to explore the Harirurd valley as far as Obweh and then turn back to Herat. I promise Zobair I will come back with them and take the Northern Road, but within myself I have already decided I will try to reach Kabul. “Don’t trust the police too much,” Zobair says before speeding out, “they are the Taliban of 5 years ago. There is no system in Afghanistan. The last system was God, but now it’s the Jungle’s Law”. While we shake hands an Italian helicopter flies by. “You see how things end” says Zobair pointing at the chopper as if it would alone be a confirmation of his words. Somebody will have to pay my guardian angel for all the overtime. I greet Zobair and get in the car.

Thomas and his wife are two German agriculture engineers based in Kabul who research on alternatives to poppy cultivation. ”It’s is hard to make the locals understand that there are no long term benefits you can get from opium, just easy cash in hand in the short term.” He starts to explain me but he suddenly stops talking because red and white flags have appeared on both sides of the road, and a man with a blue jacket and a metal detector is making signals to us. The road goes through the middle of a mine field. And just minutes ago we were discussing about stoping for a picnic spot…

In the middle of the field, in a safe area marked with white stones, the commander greets us with some tea and pistachio. The image is worthy of the cover of a Pink Floyd album. The episode is the first jewel granted by the Central Road. Now I am already sure it is my road!

In Malwah, a tiny riverside village, we call a break for lunch. At our sight, a policeman gets out of a mud brick police station towered by an Afghan flag in miserable conditions. It is the image of a hungry dog that has smelled food. Thomas explains him our intentions in English. The policeman doesn’t understand a single word, but is happy we have paid him some attention and walks back to his hut proudly. How do the central authorities hope to impose respect with such un untidy police force? I still wonder.

My last chance of going back to civilization is gone together with Tomas’ Toyota. They drop me off in front of a school, and make an irrevocable U-turn. At least, alone with the Central Road, which is now a tiny white line in my map. As I sit down over my backpack and wait for a lift, I fully empathize with Pac Man’s delusions of persecution. Bearing witness to the dual nature of the moment, a moderate grin of excitement frames my vulnerability. Twenty minutes later, an orange Mercedes truck carrying wood planks, stops. Its driver is a Hazara, literally “one of the thousands”, as comprehensively the locals denominate those descending from the armies of Genghis Khan, who invaded these valleys seven centuries ago.

Travelling over wood planks in a truck that seems to hit every ditch of the road is not very comfortable. But at least there are four of us to commiserate. Two labors from Herat seem used to it, while a third turbaned passenger holds a golden kettle as if the continuity of the planet would depend on its stillness. They are all going to Cheshter-e-Shariff, where a new town hall is being built. We are almost the only vehicle on the road. At times, we are passed by light motorcycles driven by men who carry their burka clad wives in the back seat. Notably, we see a second truck carrying a refrigerator in the back, secured by ropes as a captive Minotaur.

On arrival to Cheshter-e-Shariff, I am greeted by the local police chief. As he talks to me, he doesn’t stop smelling a rose that is pinned to the pocket of his shirt. There are never BBC cameras to broadcast these moments. When the sensible policeman decides I am enough of a good boy, the town hall builders call me in, and put me up in the unfinished town hall for the night. We all have dinner together, down in the floor. I think I could live on the crispy and perfumed Afghan bread. The menu today is rice with mutton. And finally a boy makes a round distributing apples. Among the 12 labors there is a man who insistently touches his long beard and looks me in the eye. His sight intimidates me a bit. So I decide to play myself with my beard, which I haven’t shaved since Turkey. It is a good ice breaker, the grave looking man cannot repress a smile and then everybody is just happy because I have a beard too, and they believe me to be Muslim. In Afghanistan, beard reduces the impact of strangerhood…