Afghanistan Diary
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10 August 2001  Peshawar

Went to the airport to collect medicine. The agent advised me to be ‘very precautious’. A bribe of $20 was all that was needed to clear the goods.

I had a long conversation with Rezwan and Daud about the Taliban. They alleged that rape and prostitution were rife before the Taliban came along. Now it is safer than New York. They have elaborate justifications for the lunatic restrictions – that they are provisional pending the end of the war. ‘But why ban TV?’ asked Rick. Maybe it saps the will, like masturbation at public schools. They say that they only want to ban TV until the establishment of a government controlled station. Daud said Pinteresquely that the CIA were behind the Taliban and their aim was to keep Afghanistan under sanctions. (Their pro-Taliban position is exactly the same that I read in the London Review of Books, and is no doubt Pakistani propaganda.)

 

11 August  Peshawar

The UN flight to Faisabad was cancelled, but I am now so acclimatised to Asia that I didn’t mind. Rezwan didn’t show up for two hours and I just sat. I have even lost the urge to drink, but this may be because I bought a load of my old nemesis, valium. Later, however, I can only tolerate Rick after a drink, and I am considering ways to dump him or push him off a mountain. I find I prefer eating dinner alone, and then sleeping the sleep of the drugged.

 

13 August

I had forgotten how ghastly trying to do anything on the Indian subcontinent is – like making a phone call or printing out a letter. The letter was to AfghanAid to try and get me a seat on the UNOCHA flight. The mind boggles that anyone could get pleasure out of being in Peshawar. But some people enjoy playing football or disco dancing. Backpackers are masochists. And Rick is a backpacker, down to his repulsive ginger beard. While buying a salwar kameez I had a brilliant idea. I went to UNOCHA clutching my satellite phone, waved a letter on House of Commons writing paper and told the boss I was on confidential government business and said that Rick must go a week later and not know the reason why. I felt like Lt Pottinger playing the Great Game. Mr Jirwin entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of the thing and agreed. However, he said smiling, the plane was grounded in Islamabad awaiting a spare part from Denmark, so I went down to the Red Cross and blagged my way onto their free flight. In either case I will lose Rick in Afghanistan, although I will feel a bit guilty if he dies.

Rezwan says that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has declined because over-cultivation has caused the price to collapse.

I was looking at the product information sheet for the medicines, and discovered that 90% of the medicine is for acne. [I was taking a load of donated medicines to a hospital in Afghanistan which was doing operations without anaesthetics.]

I don’t feel comfortable in my salwar kameez, any more than I do eating with my fingers.

I had a row in Greens about drinking. They are appalled by the quantity I drink and don’t want me do it in the hall where mussulmen can see me. I won the argument yesterday but did not engage in it today. Instead I asked for a teapot and decanted the beer into that. It was the sort of hypocrisy that Muslims appreciate, so there was no further trouble – except that the waiter said accusingly ‘Another bottle’ every time he brought me a new one. I don’t actually want to drink, but I have to in order to deal with Rick. We have nothing to talk about.

 

14 August

Today Daud warned me about accepting food from strangers, as my mother once did. In this case, it is drugged and one wakes up elsewhere. I must ask where.

 

16 August  Faisabad

The flight almost touched the tops of the mountains as we flew from Kabul to Faisabad. The desert imperceptibly gave rise to outcrops of rocks, then hills, then mountains, until all I could see were mountains, stretching to the horizon and no doubt beyond. There were isolated lakes, some green and some aquamarine. But even in the most inhospitable valleys there were green cultivated patches. A completely unconquerable country. My neighbour said that in winter, covered in snow, the flight is absolutely spectacular. I saw the Panjshir Valley and wondered which of the passes Alexander had taken his troops through.

I met Shone Updike, an old Afghan hand and professional traveller, on the plane. Complete sod. He was wearing wraparound dark glasses and an open-necked shirt showing perfectly coiffed silver chest-hair. He had a rather attractive woman in tow. I said I wanted to go to the Wakhan Corridor, as I knew he was making a film there. He was discouraging. Like the people I met years ago in Herat, he wanted to stop people from going to his patch. He said that Massoud’s writ does not run in the Wakhan – I would probably get ripped off by porters, kidnapped and tortured to death. Only his considerable machismo and negotiating skill in Farsi prevents this from happening to him, apparently – ‘and I had to renegotiate with my guides every morning’. I asked him about the going rate for porters, and he tried to avoid telling me. He kept his wraparound dark glasses on all the time. He ostentatiously spoke French or Farsi whenever he could. After making my flesh creep, he left me sitting in the shade of an abandoned Russian plane and disappeared with an armed guard.

I am writing this at the airfield with two children and a soldier peering over my shoulder – obviously as fascinated by English writing as I am by Persian script. The airfield is scattered with jet engines – presumably the only part of a plane the Afghans can’t salvage. There is a row of wrecked buildings that must have formed a primitive arrivals hall.

In the end I sat for four hours at the airport. Oddly, it was almost completely silent. Towards evening, donkeys passed, carrying women dressed in blue burqas. Men walked behind, beating the donkeys with sticks. I passed the time exploring the wrecked tanks and photographing my companions. I inflated my airbed in the shadow of the plane and was quite happy to spend the night there. I was slightly disappointed when two men arrived to collect me on a motorbike. I rode pillion into Faisabad, with all my luggage tied on to me. It convinced me that this was the way to travel. Would Thesiger approve?

In Faisabad I spent the night in the government guest-house, which is on an island in the middle of the river. I am sitting on the terrace at night. I can see no artificial light at all. There are more stars than I have ever seen before. As if I am seeing them in real life for the first time, previously having seen them only in a bad photo. The moving points of lights are not aeroplanes, but shooting stars. Occasionally an orange tracer shell from an anti-aircraft gun arcs silently upwards.

 

18 August

The only thing men do for fun here is take naswar. I asked Shafid, a turbaned old man who speaks some English, and who seems to have some sort of decorative function at the guest-house, what naswar is and he said: ‘It is part of narcotic. When you put it in your mouth, you will become like crazy man.’ He showed me how to cup it in the palm of your hand – and then expertly threw it underneath his raised tongue. It looked like ground tobacco and tasted revolting, but had no effect on me. Shafid said it was no good, and promised me dope (chas) for tonight.

All day, I sat on the terrace overlooking the river and watched life go on. In the morning, boys swam from the beach just below where I was sitting. In the afternoon, an old man collected buckets of water and carried them slowly away, balanced on a pole over his shoulders. Suddenly, there was a huge explosion fairly close by. At about tea time, the cook saw a man on the other side of the river, carrying a basket along the road, and yelled across to him. Ten minutes later he appeared, to sell the cook a load of fishes from his basket. They came speared on green sticks, which were stuck through their filleted bellies and mouths. It looked as if they had leaves sticking out of their arses.

In the evening I talked to the other people in the guest-house and the manager. They said that Faisabad was completely secure – because of its geographical situation and the three gun emplacements. The explosion I had heard was road building. The tracer I had seen was the soldiers testing their guns at their base in town.

Daud said that 80% of people were involved in opium cultivation. Each man has enough land to grow $100 of rice or $1,000 of opium – or twice as much if it is cut with chocolate, which is apparently widespread. It is the only cash crop there is.

The Taliban are, of course, still growing opium – whatever the UN say. If they didn’t, their economy would collapse, and they could not fund the conflict. But I wondered why Kofi Annan had recently said the Taliban were to be congratulated on eradicating opium production? Daud said that was all propaganda. And in any case, the UN workers did not go outside the towns in Taliban territory. They are too frightened.

But why did Kofi Annan say this? Daud said that Annan knew this was untrue, but it was a prelude to recognising the Taliban diplomatically.

If this happened, the government would fight on – as it had for the last twenty years. They had the support of ordinary people. The Taliban did not. This is demonstrated by the refugees. The Taliban murder people and burn their houses. The government territory is an island of freedom.

He said that the government could win – which even Massoud doesn’t claim – and that there would be a decisive campaign in the next couple of months. The Taliban will be kicked out, just as the Russians were. He said there was an anti-Taliban demonstration in Kandahar recently. Interesting if true, since Kandahar is their ethnic capital. There are Chechens and Saudis fighting in the Panjshir with the Taliban.

There is a Tajik staying here who is a middleman, bringing oil, soap, sugar and cement across the border at Ishkashim. I lent him my phone to call his wife, but the number he had was wrong.

The worst thing about travelling is the food. I am always hungry, but the food is disgusting. It was the same at my prep school. I developed a huge craving for sugar, and fantasised about stuffing my mouth with fudge. Today they tried soup, which was the water that the mutton had been boiled in. Large pools of grease on top. The conversation was dull. Probably because everyone felt they had to speak English. We ended by all staring at the food. One man here has been up the Wakhan twice with Médecins sans frontières, and he knows a number of guides who could take me there. I said that Shone on his travels in the Wakhan had created a whole media cult of personality. He snorted. I also told him that Shone had tried to put the frighteners on me and he laughed.

Later in the evening, they gave me a polite brush-off, saying, ‘If you want to go over there and write, please do’.

They showed me a photograph and tried to explain it in sign language, and I was reminded of people patronising their non-English guests by talking loudly and slowly. It struck me that one could not possibly write a travel book without speaking the language.

There is no proper telephone system, which gives an agreeable feeling of isolation. I heard the Tajik trying to make a phone call by turning a handle on the phone outside my room.

 

Saturday

The dope I smoked last night did not agree with me. I spent a disturbed night. I was then charged $200 for a car to Khawja Bahauddin.

We drove along the Kokcha river, finally crossing it at Pul I Begum, where the bridge is being reconstructed. I got out and walked down to the edge of the river valley. Everyone started shouting at me. It turned out the area was mined. I asked how deep the river was. It was fast flowing, confined in a narrow stone gorge. The engineer said 30 metres. I never know whether to believe what I am told here. After we crossed the Kokcha, the landscape changed. Before, the hills were rounded, cut by dry stream beds. After, it became rockier – the rounded hills broken by stratified rock outcrops that became whole jagged ranges. The car broke down again in the evening. I sat in a field as everything became suffused in a dusty haze.

 

Sunday  Rustaq, Takhar province

After dusk, we stopped at a chai khana at Rustaq and I was accosted by a boy who spoke excellent English. He was called Nauser. He invited me to spend the night at his house. We sat in a room upstairs with five other men, all either obscure relatives or people he had just picked up. He was a really nice, clever boy, with absolutely no prospects in Afghanistan. I thought of adopting him and taking him and his family back to England, or giving them all my money. Or at least $1,000 of it.

One of the guests spoke some English. I asked him what he did. ‘I am liar,’ he said, proudly.

‘Oh,’ I said.

‘I graduated from law faculty at Kabul.’ He had much the same ambitions for improving himself through education as a westerner. I suppose I tend to sympathise with such middle-class people more than some of the other lunatics I’ve met here. I was sitting cross legged and clumsily knocked the chai over and cursed myself. But they all said: No, it’s good luck.

The only entertainment, apart from me, was a tiny TV – powered by a car battery and showing a Tajik soap opera, which none of them could understand. Suddenly there was a kiss. Nauser called to others in the next room. They rushed in and there was complete quiet until it was over.

We spoke of Ai Khanoum, the ancient Greek city about 30 miles away. It is almost certainly the Alexandria-on-the-Oxus of Arrian. Everyone was full of the fortunes that had been made there by the amateur excavations. Back in Oxford, Robin Lane Fox, the ancient historian, had told me about the excavations with anguish. A lot of French people had come out to buy antiquities. Two years ago, the entire local population was digging, looking especially for glass decorated with gold. Apparently, one such glass was sold for $80,000. There is no digging now because of the war. Although Massoud disapproved, the authorities were implicated: the boss of the whole thing was a local bureaucrat named Mamoor Hassan. He sent soldiers and his relatives along to dig. It may be possible to buy things in Khawja Bahauddin bazaar, but the best thing is to deal with Mamoor Hassan directly. I resolved to go and see him.

It is also possible to buy carpets in Khawja bazaar. There are bargains there. The population is so desperate they are selling off every scrap they can.

There are also people panning for gold at Ai Khanoum, where the Kokcha joins the Oxus. People use grain-threshing bowls to pan. Or, amazingly, cow skins – so the gold gets stuck to the hairs. I told them about the Golden Fleece. They said that, yes, fleeces were sometimes used. They did not know how much a gold panner made, but they were sure it was a lot. I was gripped. Surely there must be a way of making a pump and centrifuge that would do this automatically? I could spend a few months there and retire on the proceeds.

I asked about religion. Does anyone in Afghanistan not believe in God?

‘No, we all trust in God.’

Why?

‘I see sun and moon and water and seasons and night and day.’

Evolution?

He had to write the word down and look it up in his dictionary. I tried to explain.

‘But eyes, ears and nose is created by God.’

I tried to establish what the Farsi word for evolution meant. How do you use it?

‘We never use it.’

His mind jibbed at the notion we might be descended from monkeys.

‘No, no. God created monkeys and men separately.’

We talked about Christianity. I said Christians believed Jesus was both God and man. He was appalled.

‘You cannot see the great God. He does not eat or drink.’

He had a point. But the conversation did not go very far. I could not explain genes – probably because I do not understand them myself.

 

Sunday  Khawja Bahauddin

The car from Faisabad broke down three times, but I sat by the side of the road reading Anna Karenina. Several Afghans commented favourably on the portrait on the front of the Penguin edition. But Thesiger is right. There is no point in travelling in a car.

Went to the government guest-house. Gary Bowersox, a gem hunter whose 30th annual trip to the country this is, and a film crew are staying. All charming. They have been in Afghanistan for five weeks and are waiting for a helicopter to fly them to Dushanbe – and home. They are sitting outside my room now, planning a no-expense-spared dinner in their imagination.

We discussed opium production with Asim. He said it was inconceivable that the Taliban had eradicated opium production. When he worked for the Food & Agricultural Organisation, people made up reports – once even claiming to have surveyed the fields round Kabul the day a battle was raging. Production had decreased by 10% or so (he had the figures) – but this was only because they had massive supplies of the stuff in Kandahar. Since the ‘international community’ is obsessed with opium, the Taliban have learned to say what it wants to hear.

Khawja Bahauddin was a small village – until the end of last year, when Massoud had to evacuate Taloqan after a ferocious Taliban advance. The new town, all built in the last nine months, is planned on a rather grand scale – a large central square with boulevards leading off it. Rather like Paris or Washington, in fact.

Most of the buildings are made from mud brick. The soil is very hard, like semi-fired clay. When it is ground up and mixed with water, it forms a solid that is almost a rock. It made me realise how quickly Alexander could have erected his cities in this part of the world. In Afghanistan alone, he founded nine in the three years that he was campaigning here. Only two of which have been found. The builders have obviously plundered Ai Khanoum for decorative effects – Doric and Corinthian capitals mark the centre of traffic islands all over the town. Where did the marble come from?

I wanted to go to Ai Khanoum, but Asim forbade me. There is fighting at the front line, but the front line is fluid. Each side can gain and lose 20 km per battle, sometimes bringing Khawja Bahauddin into range. Their artillery can shell 12 km; their rockets 21. I can hear the guns, but they are not frightening – just noises off. The odds of being hit are remote.

I went to visit the clinic to deliver the drugs. By chance they were going to their field hospital in the next town. I went with them. We passed about 50 tanks drawn up in a camp. I caught my first glimpse of the Oxus and the mountain of Ai Khanoum that I had come all this way to see.

 

Monday

The noises off are louder. Apparently there is an offensive under way. During the morning, Massoud’s forces captured nine Taliban positions.

With official blessing now, I went off to visit Ai Khanoum. My plans for carpet and jewel businesses have evaporated – because of already existing efficient markets. Now I am more interested in the opportunities for profit with Mamoor Hassan – notorious everywhere for being behind the sale of looted antiquities. My shady guide found him and we sat in the garden by a dirty stream with a defunct water-wheel. His servants sliced up several large melons which I ate greedily. The noise of gunfire was very close now, and our meeting was cut short by news that a rocket had hit the local bazaar. He told me to come back in a week or two and he would have a beauty parade of antiquities.

I visited the hospital. A whole family occupied one ward – actually a small bedroom. The husband had a broken leg. Their one-year-old child had a shell wound in its back which luckily had not penetrated the chest. The mother had a broken arm. In other rooms, there were cases of appendicitis and cerebral malaria. Each patient had a family member with them, fanning them or cooking. Médecins sans frontières and the Red Cross had promised help, but it did not materialise. I nearly cried – or did I just want to as evidence of compassion? I promised things, but experience had made them sceptical.

We drove in a hot jeep. The flood plain of the Oxus is extremely fertile, a wide green valley of trees and crops. One of the doctors said it used to be a ‘forest’ until the refugees cut it down for firewood. The floor of the valley is 50 feet below the level of the mud plain on which the city is built, and falls away in sheer cliffs, cut in places by V-shaped fissures. It reminded me of the Nile valley, but with the demarcation even more marked.

I heard Gary on the phone to Tajikistan trying to get on a flight. ‘Of course it’s possible! Everything’s possible!’ he shouted. Yes, I said, that’s what travelling has taught me in business – it’s possible if you’re pushy. ‘And pay,’ added Gary.

He said that he had met a man in New York who had financed an excavation at Ghazni, which had found part of a head of Alexander. It is now with the NYPD – undergoing reconstruction by the people who reconstruct the heads of rotted murder victims. Were it genuine, it would be the only life portrait of him in the world.

There is a guide here called John who is becoming a pain in the arse. He wants to come with me to the Panjshir. He claims he has control over Massoud’s helicopters; an uncle specialising in antiquities; and he produced cards showing who he’d translated for. Finally, he tried sympathy, saying he had not seen his family for some time.

 

Jerm

Gary described Jerm as a Shangri La (bit of a cliché in this part of the world). Its setting is good – a fertile strip contrasting with the arid hills, which is quite typical of Afghanistan. But my idea of Shangri La is the Mamounia – a luxury hotel in Marrakesh. I felt rather depressed, not having taken pills yesterday. But I got up at 6.30 and had chai. Outside it was bitterly cold and everyone was wrapped in their patous. Then the sun rapidly warmed the air. Sunlight descended the mountains opposite and people discarded them. The patou is really perfectly designed for the climate.

The car worked after a mere half hour tinkering with the oil pump. We set off, retracing our journey of two days ago, along the glacial valley. It was like a geology lesson: the river had made the flood plain fertile, yet every few miles there was a huge pile-up of terminal moraine – enormous boulders, larger than houses, arranged by a shift in slow motion 10,000 years ago.

We stopped at a truly picturesque chai khana that Qhudai had spoken about. We were shaded by a mulberry tree and the carpet was edged by an irrigation canal and a flower bed. We ate Badakhshani melons, which are famous. I imagine that comparing one’s beloved’s breasts to the melons of Badakhshan is a trope of Persian poetry. You don’t get them in the Panjshir, but when I said I would take the seeds back to England, Gary said he’d tried that and they wouldn’t grow.

We spent the night at what Qhudai described as a hotel, though I wouldn’t. After dinner, everyone except Qhudai prostrated themselves in prayer. One continued his devotions longer than others. Did the others snigger? Qhudai is an individualist in a sea of conformism. I felt alienated and depressed, and wished I was back in Oxford. Hall would have just begun – and afterwards I could go and get drunk.

After dinner, I talked to a carpet dealer who was travelling from Mazar-I-Sharif to Peshawar. For one large kilim, he would pay 40 million Afghanis in Mazar; get 70 million in Faisabad;  and 4,000 rupees in Peshawar. He paid a levy at the roadblock on the front line, and from time to time at other places. The prices in Faisabad fluctuated to take account of changing power on the ground.

Several hours before we stopped at Jangal, we encountered an enormous and completely flat plain. On all sides were mountains of a size I had not yet seen in Afghanistan. Gary said we were near Ishkashim, and this was the beginning of the Wakhan Corridor through the Pamirs, the original ‘Roof of the World’. I said: ‘This is what I came to see, and I’m not disappointed.’

We had lunch at Baharak – a disgusting, smelly, noisy town.

 

20 August  Khawja Bahauddin

I returned from Ai Khanoum to find that Gary had been forbidden by Massoud’s odious sidekick to travel on the helicopter to Dushanbe. Now he wished to return to Faisabad to take the UN flight to Peshawar. I wanted to travel with him and take up his kind offer of inheriting his guide – who seemed excellent. We drove over the extraordinary country I had already noticed on the way down. Gary, who had been in Vietnam, said, ‘Good country for tanks’. At the top, I saw one of the sights I had come all this way to see – the hills of the Tajik border, the Oxus S-bending and glinting in the evening sun, the mountain of Ai Khanoum. We were driving through a village when two boys, one carrying a rifle, tried to flag us down. The driver ignored him and we sped past.

Then I heard two shots fired. ‘Oh shit,’ I said.

The driver slewed to a halt and reversed. Qhudai leapt out and started assaulting them. It was their way of requesting that we stop.

In Faisabad, we learned the Taliban had forbidden all flights to their territory from then going on to Faisabad – because of the fighting I had heard in Khawja Bahauddin. The government had reciprocated by banning all flights. Gary was unfazed – this is his thirty-first year in Afghanistan.

The drive degenerated. Much of the route was either under water, or was itself a river valley. Because we were travelling at the end of the day, the river – fed by melting glaciers that freeze at night – was at its strongest. The driver was subnormal and invariably took the wrong route. The path usually followed the cliff edge. And the boy – one of the worst jobs in the world – ran in front of us along the ledges in bare feet, testing our way when it was underwater. Then disaster. He turned right when he should have turned left in the river. The front right-hand wheel disappeared down a pothole. Water flooded through the passenger door. Soon Gary’s legs were under water. Qhudai showed great presence of mind by immediately leaping out. I, rather heroically I thought, balanced on the running board, leaning outwards to counterbalance as if I were crewing a sailing boat.

An hour later, as light was failing, the engine stopped – as we were driving through a fair sized waterfall. The driver had driven straight for a boulder. The flow of the river was immense and there seemed a genuine risk that the water would tip us over. For the first time since I had met him, Gary seemed alarmed and told me to get out quick. Getting to the bank was a trial. Amazingly (and this is the sort of thing that is an unacknowledged argument for the existence of God) there was a chai khana 50 yards away and a pickup arrived. I sat shivering on the bank, watching the driver attach our jeep to a pathetic piece of nylon cord, which of course snapped as soon as he started to pull. By this time, a large crowd from the chai khana had gathered to watch our driver’s display of incompetence.

 

21 August

A truly terrible day. After the disasters of yesterday, Gary set off early on a horse. ‘See you in London!’ I shouted. ‘We’ll have a slap-up lunch at the Savoy Grill.’ He is taking, because of force majeure, the same exit route I will take – out of poverty. Jangal is a collection of chai khanas that are part stone and part plastic. Not a romantic place, and in the early morning sunlight, surrounded by scree-covered mountains, it was a desolate one. As we drove off, I saw that the valley was littered with the skeletons and bodies of animals. There was one horse with its mouth set in a grinning rictus and a large hole in its stomach.

Disaster at 11.45. We had hired a car. The driver, for no apparent reason, turned the engine off, opened the bonnet and removed the rotor arm. Qhudai said that it would not take long. I decided to walk on and let the car catch up. I walked along, thinking how right Thesiger was to insist on travel by foot and horse. Travelling by car is like watching a time-lapse film of a flower opening. Inside the metal box, you are an intruder, not a participant, in the landscape. And the slow progress was what helped make Thesiger a great photographer. In a car, a photo requires a lightning decision and a thump on the driver’s back. On foot, the decision can be made more slowly and correctly.

As I hit a slight incline, my mood changed. Do I have a heart condition or am I just very unfit? After half an hour I turned round. The driver was not able to reassemble the rotor arm. Mending cars is a male status thing, as it is on council estates in England. Over the next three hours, virtually all the engine components were removed using their minimalist tool kit. Whenever I sidled up, they grinned encouragingly and said ‘Ten minutes’. At 4.30, I insisted that the driver walk to the next village, described as one hour’s walk, to get transport. The sun went down at 6.30 and the air chilled rapidly. We sat in the car shivering. At 8.30 I announced I was going to sleep in the road because I had no confidence in the driver.

My air bed was now punctured. The wind from the Pamirs cut through the sleeping bag and sounded as if I were in a jet. At 12.30 – thirteen hours after the breakdown – I was woken by a huge lorry. The door handle was higher than my head. I sat in the cab until, a mere ten minutes later, one of the lorry men mended the engine. It then took a further two hours to drive to the village (I had been told it took fifteen minutes) where we poked our heads into various full chai khanas. Eventually we found one that I collapsed in at 3.15, to have a series of bizarre nightmares.

 

23 August  Road to lapis mines

The valley is beautiful. It is harvest time and there are threshing floors in every village. The road to the Anjuman pass is lovely. The river is aquamarine and rapids most of the way. I could imagine why the hippies came.

I was woken at 5 a.m. in the chai khana by the sound of Qhudai wanking furiously next to me. Is this normal in Afghanistan? He hasn’t seen his wife for five weeks. But what did he do with the residue?

The mines were disappointing. It takes four hours to climb up. The tunnel of the No 1 mine goes in 100 metres and has been worked for 7,000 years. We know that because lapis has been found in graves that old. The patch up to the mine is littered with poor-quality light coloured lapis. But I liked the white, porcellaneous rock, similar to that used in the Taj Mahal. People had made decorative walls with river-worn rocks. Qhudai said you can buy it in the Namak Bazaar in Peshawar. I thought of doing a bathroom in it. Qhudai said that it was impossible to extract it commercially here because the Pakistanis forbade the import of any machinery – their policy is to reduce Afghanistan to the Stone Age.

A lot of shops here, but I can’t imagine who their customers are. According to Qhudai, the government had recently taken over the mines and production had plummeted.

The houses are made of rocks and some are rejected lumps of lapis. Gary had bought a table apparently made of one large lump of lapis for $6,000 in Peshawar. He sold it for $80,000 in the US. Qhudai wants to start a business exporting lapis boxes to England.

The afternoon’s journey was beautiful. Really, I should be riding either shotgun, as the boys do, or in the back. I took advantage of a puncture to walk ahead and rounded a cliff to see the valley of Skarzeh 1,000 feet below me. It was astonishingly fertile. The river had split into a number of smaller streams and the resulting islands were covered in small bushes. It looked African. We are getting into Panjshir country, having crossed the Anjuman pass.

We spent the night in a squalid chai khana. I was writing my diary and as usual men came to peer over my shoulder, as if I were a particularly gifted chimpanzee or a small child in a special school. One wrote his name in English characters. I asked how he learned to do this. ‘I spent two years training to be a doctor in Kabul. Now I’m an assistant driver.’ He laughed and counted to ten. Then he wrote the English alphabet in my diary. I began to get fed up with him.

Another man came up and wrote in my diary Delphic aphorisms. Truisms and clichés seem universal, but some of them I had never heard:

Do good and have good

No knowledge without college

Better alone than evil company

The muezzin started and a boy produced his English textbook. It had been published in Qetta in 1910. It included one of Fitzgerald’s translations of Omar Khayyam. I read it, wishing that I had brought a book of poetry. There was also an utterly pointless Mullah Nasruddin story.

I said: ‘What do you think of the Taliban?’ ‘I don’t remember,’ he replied diplomatically, to the laughter of the crowd.

Skarzeh has a very grand house owned by the local commander. It is financed by a levy on the lapis trade by Commander Malek, who has also paid for a hydroelectric generator. Everyone here is either a farmer or involved in the lapis trade to Pakistan.

Qhudai prayed tonight. The driver was conspicuously devout and banged his head on the ground. They looked as if they were doing yoga. I tried to get a photograph of one praying with the crescent moon over the mountains behind.

The Anjuman streams are apparently becoming dirty as the glaciers melt. Ten years ago they were clear.

 

Saturday

I woke up completely covered with bright red bites from bed bugs. My left leg looks like an illustration from a textbook of tropical diseases. I fear my sleeping bag is infested and will have to be dumped. I did not complain to the management because I was anxious to leave and avoid the company of the ex-doctor who had pestered me for medicine. In the end, I had got so exasperated I gave him two antidepressants. An hour later he was complaining of vague but alarming symptoms. He wanted a sample of what he had eaten to take to the hospital. I felt guilty. It might cause difficulties for me if he died in the night. I gave him some laxative pills and went to sleep giggling at my own cleverness, like Mr Toad.

 

Sunday  Panjshir

The day was spent in a car. We left early. It’s a long journey to Bazarak. We spent the morning ascending the Anjuman pass – following the river upwards until it became a stream, still the same beautiful aquamarine, with waterfalls whitened like ice. Just before the pass proper, there is a marshy lake, which is the source of the Anjuman itself. Here the aquamarine deepens to a green-turquoise.

The pass was spectacular. To get a better view, I joined the boys riding shotgun, like presidential bodyguards, on the running boards, leaping on and off to push and plant stones under the wheels when we got stuck. At the top I took a picture of the lake, the road winding up to it, and on either side ragged ranges stretching away. The sky was the light blue of the rejected lapis from the mines.

I had the usual futile conversation with the boys. Could they come and visit and live with me in England. No, I said firmly, it was illegal. Was I married? Why not? Was it true that in England men could go with men. Yes, I said, and with animals too. One boy said he had seen women with women on Tajik TV, which is obviously the sort of corruption the Taliban are out to stop. Quite right. Tajik TV is the source of all the lubricious excitement available here.

Then we got on to religion and evolution, which offended them so much I had to get back in the car. The only novelty was that one boy said, ‘Why does it say In God We Trust on American coins?’ triumphantly, as if he had discovered a previously unacknowledged argument for the existence of God. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Something to do with the Freemasons, probably.’

After the pass, we joined the Parian valley. There was a petrol dump for Massoud’s tanks. Beyond that, a pile of what Qhudai said were Scud missiles, which I photographed for MI6. No one seemed to mind. The Russians only made it up this far once. It was harvest time and the grass was being scythed and laid on the ground in abstract patterns. It was then stored as hay on the roofs of the houses, adding another green-brown storey.

 

Monday

We arrived late last night at the government guest-house. The driver had wanted to stop in his village, Khenj, the source of emeralds.

Emeralds were discovered there before the Russian war, when a man walking had found one on the ground. I asked who owned the mines. They belonged to the village. What happens, I asked, if new people move into the village: do they get a share? People don’t move. It was very prosperous. But Qhudai had excited me with descriptions of the government guest-house.

‘There are baths.’

‘But is there hot water?’ I asked.

‘Maybe.’

I knew that meant ‘no’.

We stopped in the dark to buy grapes. The night was very hot and the shop was brightly lit with pressure lamps. I suddenly remembered why I had come.

There were no lights on at the guest-house. I wondered if there was anyone there. Qhudai disappeared for a long time, then reappeared with a tall old man who held a pressure lantern emitting harsh white light. I was led inside and into a bedroom with its own bathroom.

It had been decorated in the Harrods/Abu Dhabi style. Chandeliers made of scalloped glass, smoky mirrors, Rococo chairs upholstered in rose patterned damask. Only the rugs were beautiful. But it was an improvement on the chai khana at Skarzeh.

I was woken by a shrieking sound like a motorcycle accelerating very fast, but getting no further away. It was a few minutes before I realised that it was the sound of a helicopter starting up. The guest house was opposite the main landing strip for the Panjshir. They are expecting President Rabbani here today. I went down to the guardhouse by the bridge, which leads to the airstrip. There was a small crowd of people holding hands, embracing and kissing foreheads. It could have been an English airport scene, except they were all men and presumably were flying off to battle.

The Panjshir is a sponger’s paradise. I walked down to the next village and was invited to join five men eating grapes beside a stream, and then for tea in a mulberry orchard. The grass was cropped close as a lawn by the livestock. There was an old man with a strangely high-pitched voice and lots of children. Although he was 80, the children did not respect him. Furious, he had to get up and throw a stick at them. There was a cock fight. Three men of working age were sitting there, and I wondered why they were not harvesting. Probably the women were doing it. But it is an extraordinarily agreeable life sitting under a mulberry tree in a warm climate.

There are exoskeletons of tanks and other detritus of war – like Normandy after D Day. One tank formed the foundation of a house. Another had been incorporated into a wall. Children climbed all over them and crops grew round them. Shell cases had been used as endings for beams.

I did see a few unveiled women, but one old crone quickly turned her back on me as if I had exposed myself to her. On the whole, I felt like a convicted child abuser let out on a council estate.

 

Monday 27 August

A few days ago, when I took a picture of a child in a chai khana, a man complained to Qhudai that I had also photographed a woman in the background. Qhudai told him not to be ridiculous, but he said 30% of people (men, presumably) in Badakhshan would welcome an austere Taliban government. He told me he had seen a copy of Gary’s book in Kabul with all the pictures of human beings cut out. The Taliban are now talking about destroying the mosque at Mazar because it is a Shiite shrine.

In the afternoon, I walked the other way up the valley. Each village was more picturesque than the last. It struck me that Alexander would have seemed no different from the Russians or Ghengiz Khan to the inhabitants of villages like this. The children kept coming up and extending hands blackened with filth. They seemed to have no fear of strangers. Grapes are grown on frames over otherwise uncultivable river banks. I wonder when they were last used to make wine, as they are in Kalash territory.

The guest-house is kept by Massoud’s uncle. It is built on the site of a house belonging to the king’s secretary. There is a spring above and some ornamental trees that survived the war. Guns boomed upstream, which is odd, as the frontline is downstream. Qhudai said that he had been woken by a burst of Kalashnikov fire during the night.

Qhudai is in the thick of a family row about a legitimised rape or marriage. This has been resolved, apparently, by his seventeen-year-old cousin being ‘given’ (his word) to his 34-year-old brother as a bride. The girl had no say in this.

I wish Qhudai’s village didn’t look so suburban to my eyes. All it needs is a garden gnome. I saw one or two children with completely English features. There is obviously a gene here that has given rise to the Alexander myth.

I sat by the waterfall for an hour or so, while Qhudai joined a family conference. He sent down tea, then white mulberries that looked like maggots. I got very bored and watched small boys throwing stones at animals.

As the sun went down, I thought with self-pity of a hot bath and a strong drink.

We walked up to the top of the village and Qhudai talked about the Russian war, in which he had been a mujahid.

‘At the beginning of the war we had no arms, just guns [sounded like muskets] and we made mines. We came down at night and set them for the tanks. The shuravi [Russians] came up the main valley many times with 20,000 men, helicopters and jets. The whole village went up the mountain side and hid in a cave that goes back 10 metres. At night we came down to collect water and also went down to the valley with RPGs [Rocket Propelled Grenades]. I killed three shuravi here with my Kalashnikov and then [laughing] two of Hekmatyar’s men in Kabul.’

I spent the night at the village schoolmaster’s house. I had to leave the house several times in the night because of incipient dysentery – contracted, according to Qhudai, through eating unwashed grapes, which means that I ingested chemicals. The living quarters were above the animals and smelt strange. They were paranoid about me seeing any of their women. I successfully ingratiated myself with the family by letting them use my satellite phone to call a member of their family in Tehran. There was a lot of excitement and I even saw a couple of females peeping round the door. Normally they had to go to Kabul to use a telephone.

Qhudai stayed in his village to discuss preparations for his brother’s forthcoming rape of his cousin.

Back at the guest-house, I found the staff glued to a Pakistani singing competition that was really a beauty parade. The only criterion for watching TV – an exclusively male activity – is whether there are any pretty girls in it. ‘Are you married?’ asked the boss. ‘You have friend?’ I began wondering whether they would buy pornography. Are there Pakistani porn mags? There may be a business opportunity here.

As we drove to Kenji, we passed a donkey caravan. I stared stupidly at the beardless man on the lead donkey, a blue scarf wrapped casually round his head. We had passed before I realised he was a westerner, no doubt a travel writer, exquisitely and sensitively responding to his surroundings, while I was cooped up in a car. We arrived in Kenji and immediately had a huge row with the driver about money. I was sitting on the stoop of a shop when someone quite deliberately flicked water over me from an upstairs bathroom. We moved to the chai khana, where the row continued with a silent, though appreciative, audience.

Qhudai said he met a man who had been on the hijacked Ariane airliner. The man had claimed asylum in England, but elected to return to Afghanistan because he couldn’t stand the sight of all the unveiled women in England.

‘The best travellers are illiterate and do not bore us with their reminiscences.’ (Chatwin) Found Shakespeare’s biography of him. People who lie seem to get more fame than those who don’t. Chatwin and van der Post became celebrities, yet Thesiger was unknown for years.

Had a terrifying experience of dehydration when my mind packed up and I could not hold a thought for longer than half a second.  The dysentery continues. There is a girl here who has had it for three weeks. Other backpackers and students come and go.

I hate travelling.

 

 

 

 

 


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