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I wasn't going to Afghanistan

by Christine Dimmock

September 2003

If I wasn't going to Afghanistan, what, then, am I doing wet to the waist, squatting beside an Afghan woman in a burqa on the flat rounded stones of a riverbed at dusk, somewhere in the Hindu Kush. The sun is quickly disappearing, a few solitary men can be seen kneeling in the half dark on improvised mats for evening prayer and the impious sounds of klaxon horns echo around the valley as an endless procession of luridly decorated trucks churns its way around the bend preceded by dusty headlight beams at crazy angles.

I share some naan bread with the woman. It's a comforting, gesture. In Dari, she leaves me in no doubt of her opinion of our taxi driver who has stalled the Corolla in river water deep enough to cover the seats. I wonder if my backpack is now floating in the boot. At the second attempt, a passing truck pulls the taxi from the water. I mentally toss around the options of how one would go about sleeping the night here. It doesn't bear thinking about. So I turn my attention to Gordon Sharpless, the reason I'm here in the first place.

Normally I go to Cambodia or Laos or Vietnam. I adore giggly Cambodians, electric green rice fields and ponds of pink waterlilies - but on reading Gordon's account of his visit to Afghanistan, I became obsessed. I read about a country of friendly people emerging from a long period of war, a country just like Cambodia in UNTAC times. Afghanistan is right next to Pakistan and Kashmir - some of the world's most dangerous places. I like to travel alone and women don't do that in Afghanistan. Friends said quizzically "Afghanistan? What's there? There was some doubt about whether I could get travel insurance. I booked the ticket anyway.

So now I'm here, heading for Mazar E Sharif via the alternate route, because in September, the Salang Tunnel is completely closed for the finishing touches to its refurbishment by the Turkish Govenrnment. It's a marathon journey. The road is unsurfaced and narrow, clinging precariously to mountainsides and used by hundreds of trucks, along with the Corolla taxis and Hi-Ace vans. There are monumental log-jams of vehicles which the Afghans patiently unravel. Vans drive into ditches and several trucks have overturned on hairpin bends. Fine choking dust permeates all.

We leave Kabul at 8am and spend the daylight hours following the detour west instead of driving north. My companions in the back seat are the Afghan woman and her twenty-something son who speaks a little English. At one point, the traffic jam is so bad that I'm invited to walk down the road and socialise with their relatives in a nearby field. This means I get to sit with a group of colourful, unveiled Hazara women and their children. They all want to be photographed. I wave smugly to the occupants of two large white UN Land Rovers. They're not supposed to leave their vehicles. Personally, I'm certain that security is better in my field.

The taxi stops for lunch at a chaikana in a stunning location beside a river. Men sit cross-legged on the carpet while food and chai is placed on a strip of plastic in front of them. They look out over the river. The Afghan woman and I are ushered into a room with high fabric walls. We can't see out and the men can't see in. Previously at chaikanas I've been treated as an honorary man and I can't believe that at the most beautiful one of all, I've been locked away. Resigned, I wave my camera hopefully at the Afgan woman. She obligingly folds back her burqa and carefully ties a pretty white headscarf in it's place, posing with poise and dignity. Her lined face shows strength and determination. I've captured the story of a life in a snapshot - a life I can only guess at despite my intellectual knowledge. I decline the offer to share the cooked chicken she and her son have brought with them for the long journey.

But back to the river, dusk and the broken down taxi in the Hindu Kush. Vehicles can somehow be fixed anywhere in Afghanistan and so it transpires. We pile back into the sodden seats and drive off. Water swirls around our feet. My companions unceremoniously pull the headrests out of the front seats and sit on them. I sit on the plastic garbage bag I use to keep my camera dry. It's dark now and the son goes to sleep on his mother's bosom. The mother goes to sleep on me, the front seat passenger reclines his seat into what was left of my personal space and closes his eyes. I notice the taxi driver checking out my reactions with a wry smile. No problem is my travel motto. No problem, no @#$% problem.

After a claustrophobic half-hour, I burst out "You can't all lie on me. Get off. I'm not strong enough to support the lot of you". The woman and her son grudgingly readjust their sleeping positions, the front seat passenger ignores me, and 5 minutes later, everyone falls back against me again. How many hours? How many hours can I possibly put up with this? This is their life.

Because the interior of the taxi is saturated, condensation covers all the windows and the driver peers through a small oval he has dried on the windscreen with the sleeve of his shalwaar kameez. I assume responsibility as the only other person in the vehicle awake, although it's unclear what difference this makes, because mercifully, I can't see the road. The sound of rushing water reminds me there's still a sheer drop on one side or the other. It's like driving across the surface of the moon without a map. All I can see through the small oval are clouds of dust, blinding truck headlights, giant boulders and menacing mountainside silhouettes. The ubiquitous abandoned Russian tanks are out there as well - enduring monuments to futility.

In the dark, late at night, we stop at a couple of checkpoints. Who or what is being checked and whether or not money is changing hands is unclear. I wonder whether this is a dangerous time to be a foreign woman travelling alone and huddle anonymously in my corner.

Mercifully, unexpectedly, we stop for the night. I can't believe my luck knowing that often the vehicles continue on with the same driver at the wheel for 19 hours or more. Stiff, wet and cold, I stagger to a room above a chaikana with the Afghan woman and her son. Hot green tea appears along with two thin mattresses and a pillow. Luxury! I ask for my backpack from the boot of the taxi but for some unknown reason, I can't have it. Now I'm determined to go to the toilet. The son pretends he doesn't understand, but after a session with the phrase book, he gives in and we all troop downstairs and across the road to two unsavoury rooms with hessian bags for doors. My knees obligingly hold out long enough to prevent a disaster, the mud floor doesn't collapse into the pit, I don't drop my torch down the hole or step in anything revolting. No problem. Blissful sleep beckons.

Back upstairs, I take off my headscarf, wind it around my freezing feet and sleep on the carpet with the mattress on top of me as a blanket. The Afghans have kindly insisted I have the only pillow. During the night, two small groups of men attempt to enter the room (presumably to sleep). The son doesn't even stir, but the mother sends them packing in no uncertain terms, though the room could sleep about 50 people.

Long before dawn I am gently awoken and herded back into the wet taxi. When the sun rises, we're out of the mountains on a sealed road approaching the steppes. The taxi stops. Afghans never tell you about changes to your travel plans until they happen. This taxi is going to Kunduz, not Mazar E Sharif, so I need to change to a new taxi here.

Ah. No problem. I am seated in the front seat of the new taxi, because of course, a woman can't sit next to the young Afghan men in the back. After stopping to change a disintegrating tyre, we settle in to enjoy the long drive across open steppe country. It's different - different in a beautiful way. They stop to buy me a bag of grapes, carefully washed three times in water from the nearest irrigation ditch. At the next stop, Kholm, the road to Ruske (Russia) is pointed out to me. One of the young men goes into a roadside stall and returns with a bottle of vodka which they unveil with cheeky smiles. (Alcohol deprived foreigners take note).

Our next stop is for more fruit. Real fruit - peaches bursting with flavour and juice, miniature pears and best of all, figs. The figs come packaged in an appealing way nestled inside what looks like a solid wreath made from fresh leafy branches. As we drive, I delve inside pulling out more and more figs to share.

Arriving in Mazar, the three young men quickly disappear and we circumnavigate the Shrine of Hazarat Ali looking for my hotel. The taxi driver stops to ask an ISAF soldier parked in a jeep. In perfect English, he answers "I don't speak English". After a second drive around the shrine, we discover he was parked right next to the hotel, which has an unmarked entrance in an alley. Relaxing at last in my room, I pull out another fig and wonder just what I've been putting in my mouth. This fig is adorned with a large white bird dropping. I spend the next two days confined to bed.

At the hotel, I'm reunited with some younger English friends who made the marathon road trip a couple of days earlier. My principal activity in Mazar revolves around getting back to Kabul by plane. None of us wants to tackle that road, those drivers, the trucks and all that dust again so soon. As all the internal flights in Afghanistan are fully booked, getting a seat requires patience and perserverence. In fact, I only get one because Tim sacrifices his reservation for me. (Two days later I meet him in Chicken Street and learn that he went to visit the Turks, did some fast talking and was allowed to travel through the Salang Tunnel in a jeep with an escort).

At the Mazar airport, we wait for an interminable time, first inside and later outside. Eventually the reason for the delay becomes apparent as a dark grey Hercules lands, disgorging some uniformed men who are quickly driven away in waiting vehicles. The highlight of the day is watching the Hercules take off again because it banks at an impossible angle with the nearby mountains as a spectacular backdrop. A week later, safe at home, I learn that a girls' school was torched and there was fighting between the men of rival warlords just north of Mazar while I was there. Security is a relative word in Afghanistan - relative to whether or not one encounters a problem!!

Footnote: Information for women travellers

Travelling as a middle aged woman in Asia is usually a liberating experience. In Afghanistan, I was treated as a third gender and looked after. In cities, I walked freely alone around bazaars and public areas, although I passed on the alleyways. In Kabul when I headed off to walk up the hill which can be seen from the front of the Mustafa Hotel, two Afghan men advised me against it, so I turned back. When I sat in the taxi for the marathon journey to Mazar, several people came along to make sure I knew what I was letting myself in for.

"The toilet" remains a challenge on the road. Afghan women just don't go. I learned that an interrogatory cough is used to enquire whether the toilet is occupied or not and a loud cough indicates that it is. The sudden appearance of an Afghan man still fiddling with the pants of his shalwaar kameez indicates that he's realised a woman is inexplicably approaching. On one occasion I was constantly urged to hurry up, but the taxi wasn't ready to leave - they just wanted to get the woman out of the toilet.

A friendly smile and good manners were always appreciated, since the Afghans themselves indulge in warm and prolonged greeting rituals with friends and family. An exaggerated refusal to make eye contact accounted for the odd individual who would walk persistently beside me. When I stopped in the street for some reason - usually to photograph something specific - a crowd of men would quickly form necessitating some rapid photographic work and a moving on. Otherwise they may have decided that I was not just an entertaining foreigner, but, in fact "Nine parts of desire".

On one occasion I had the experience of walking along a busy Kabul street with a confident, modern young Afghan woman who wore a headscarf but no burqa. I was used to being stared at, but the intensity and nature of the staring undergone by this woman left me in no doubt as to why the majority of the female population still cover up completely. This may well apply to young Western women walking alone as I didn't actually see any - except in Chicken Street!

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