Saturday, 8 December 2007

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, Afghanistan)

Pumice mountains, somnolent and brooding, almost animate in their opposition to our progress, surrounded us on every side. They were a perfect heat trap which engulfed us on the last miles of Persia and over the border into Afghanistan. Two days on the track and we were already thinking longingly of the piles of rice left untouched in the hospitable haven of Meshed. For two days now we had eaten nothing but water-melon; refreshing, cool, but far from satisfying as a food.

Our hunger, however, was but a secondary consideration. There we were, two very small figures with an equally diminutive machine, on the threshold of one of the most wild, remote regions on earth. The prospect was frightening, yet fascinating.

The very first Afghan to whom we spoke emphasized that this stretch of our journey would not only be a battle with nature. Tall, heavily bearded and squinting at us with eyes tightly narrowed against the glare of sun and sand, he dropped his official tone once all the passport and paper-work was completed. He spoke passable English.

'You must be careful between towns,' he said, fixing us with a steady eye. 'We have some trouble with criminals.'

'What sort of trouble?' I asked, more casually than I felt.

'Oh, trucks being ambushed, drivers murdered; but usually it is only when the freight is worth pillaging.'

To Nita and me that was cold comfort. He added for good measure, 'It always comes in spurts. We might go three or four months with no trouble, then suddenly there are a whole series of incidents; like this month when we have had three hold-ups already. You will probably be all right, they would have little use for what you are carrying, except perhaps your rifle.'

I glanced at my gun sticking out conspicuously, temptingly, from the baggage. I laughed, somewhat nervously, uncertain whether to break the weapon down and hide it, or keep it out of the case, loaded and ready for instant action.

'Well,' I said, with a hollow cheerfulness, 'let's hope that St Christopher will keep along with us to Kabul.'

'St Christopher?' queried our brigand-like customs official. 'There are three of you?'

'No, two--and I hope we stay that way.'

'Oh, I see, a figure of speech, ha, ha,' he laughed, secure in his mud fortress, surrounded by friends and ammunition. 'Well, have a good journey.'

The shimmering, parched landscape, utterly still, completely silent, swallowed us at once. In five minutes we were in barren desolation. The ribbon of rough track before us looked hostile and formidable. I began to wish we had gone by some other route. The frontier village, Islam Killah-which Nita thought a most unfriendly name-fell behind us and with it the last security of people and the comparative safety of Persia. We began our midget assault on the wild mountains.

The track-if one could call it by so flattering a name-to Herat tried both ourselves and the machine to the absolute maximum. It was a nightmare. We were incessantly bogged down in thick sand, and hurled violently from the scooter innumerable times by the barely definable track when it suddenly splintered into deep fissures caused through erosion and savage floods.

By all the laws of nature, the scooter should have disintegrated at least a dozen times on the way to Herat. We were burnt black by the sun during the day and lay huddled and shivering in our sleeping-bags during the night, almost frozen by the rarefied, high-altitude atmosphere. For hours on end we picked our way along river-beds, riding between boulders and constantly paddling with our feet to stay upright; average speed, ten miles an hour. Into Rahzanak, an impoverished village, we fell exhausted and hungry to the point of starvation.

Since the ample feeding of Meshed five days previously, we had eaten nothing but melon and grapes. Lean, hawk-faced tribesmen, all armed to the teeth, strode about or squatted in groups under the shade of dusty, scarred trees, noisily sucking tea or puffing communal hubble-bubble pipes. There were no women to be seen. I managed to cadge a bowl of rice and a miserable scraggy chicken and we fell wolfishly on to this poor fare. It took an hour to eat; with our digestion in a normal condition, we could have finished it in ten minutes. It was fortunate that I had enough petrol to get us to the town of Herat, for there was none in the village.

We pushed on well before dark and camped about twenty miles farther on in a wadi. We would dearly have loved to continue through the night. The warning of the frontier guard and the appearance of the Afghans in the village of Rahzanak kept the warning of bandits fresh in our minds. But night driving was impossible. As it was there was really no track, just odd signs and tyre ruts pointing the general direction of the route. Almost impossible to trace at times during the day, it would have been fatal to try after dark. Once lost, one could die of thirst, or go mad in the heat of the ensuing days, or fall foul perhaps of some wandering band of hillmen. No, tempting though it was-for in such a predicament movement soothes the nerves and shortens the period of potential danger-we just had to wait impatiently for the dawn.

On the third morning, all the tension flooded from us as the city of Herat suddenly appeared on the horizon. I now had some idea of how American frontiersmen must have felt as the safety of the stockade loomed ahead.