Sunday, 16 December 2007

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, Herat to Shind-Dan, Afghanistan)

(After arriving in Herat) Our first need was money, and changing a traveller's cheque proved to be a bit troublesome. The bank, a long, low white building with an armed warrior standing guard at the door, offered us advice never heard in England.

'Don't change your money here, you'll get a far better exchange in the market.'

This proved an excellent tip. The banks in Afghanistan are poor establishments and the manager told me that no one entrusted his money to other people, preferring to bury it somewhere safely.

So, armed with a fistful of the currency-afghani-we pottered off along the dusty streets to look for accommodation. The scene was much the same as usual: parched, undernourished trees; thin, overworked horses dragging tinkling tongas; the ubiquitous turbaned crowd. There was an hotel, but it was difficult to find. We drank much tea at innumerable chai houses before we gained accurate directions and eventual access to the traveller's rest.

On the edge of the town stood the hotel of Herat, a huge place, a cross between a fortress and a palace. Through imposing gates and laid-out gardens we drove, ravenously hungry now that our anxieties were temporarily over and looking forward to sleeping for a night in a comfortable bed. The place looked very impressive and we were in high spirits.

But the whole establishment was merely a facade. The vaulted, echoing corridors and huge reception rooms were sparsely furnished and empty of guests. There was one other visitor, a Pakistani traveller. We were given a room which contained, simply, two bare beds. No mattresses, indeed no furniture of any kind save these two forlorn iron bedsteads. That we did not mind so much; we were self-contained so far as sleeping was concerned. But food: the visions of chicken and piles of rice began to fade, and soon died altogether. There was no food whatsoever in the hotel.

The mock hostelry appeared to be staffed by two young men. One, with lanky hair and a matching moustache, drooped wearily against the wall and tried to explain; the younger stood back a pace, gazed vacantly into the middle distance, and industriously picked his nose. By six 0' clock that evening it was all too clear that we would get nothing to eat until the following lunch-time. All food had to be ordered at least eight hours ahead. A fatalistic outlook is more than necessary in the Middle East, but it was almost impossible on this occasion not to explode with exasperation.

Back in our room, Nita was sitting listlessly on the sagging bedsprings, completely fatigued and hungry to the point of weakness. I told her the news and it was the last straw. She burst into tears and flung herself across the bed. The tremendous strain of the past days, the lack of nourishment, and the thought of what was yet to come were more than she could bear; now we were without food for another long period. It was miraculous that she had not folded up before. I raved and ranted up and down the room cursing the expedition, the scooter, the Afghans and their accursed, blistered land and the whole of Asia in general. I was very close to tears myself.

Telling Nita to try to sleep, I stormed out of the hotel determined to get food from somewhere. 'Surely,' I told myself, 'these damned people must eat at some time or the other.' After roaming half-around Herat I managed to get hold of a packet of biscuits (tea biscuits imported from England) and a can of tomato soup. Not much, but better than nothing. When I got back, Nita had recovered in part from her despondency and had assembled our cooking equipment and made the room look as inviting as possible.

Over the soup, into which we dipped the sweet biscuits, I looked closely at my wife for the first time in days. Beneath the dark tan she looked drawn and thin and her eyes were large. This malnutrition was getting beyond a joke. For my part, I was noticeably weaker and found it a great effort to lift our valise, or even manipulate the scooter. Since leaving home, our health had improved steadily, reaching its peak in eastern Turkey. From Teheran, however, we had begun to deteriorate; particularly Nita, who had suffered the debilitation of 'Teheran Tummy'. The ghastly track on which we were driving and the anxiety of the journey all added to our troubles both physically and mentally. We started one of those alluring' never again' discussions, which alleviated some of the strain. Yet curiously, we had known before we started that it was to be an extremely tough undertaking. We had experienced heat and deserts and anxiety in Africa; it was nothing new. What struck us as so strange was the fact that we had been aware that there would be times of great emotional stress and real hardship, yet we had started unhesitatingly. The road to the horizon is inviting enough to overshadow all the pot-holes along the way.

It is sometimes necessary to plumb the depths in order to reach the heights. On any expedition of a modest nature, the rise and fall is frequent; luck has a pretty big role. In Afghanistan and in Herat particularly, we experienced utter misery and elation in the space of one short day. Somehow we lasted through a long foodless night, kept awake by the howl of pariah dogs and the protestations of our stomachs, and we kept our self-control through an interminable morning, tormented by the savoury smells floating from the kitchen of that gaunt mausoleum.

At noon, our hunger was appeased with enormous bowls of rice and what I think must have been three or four small chickens, with many side dishes. Eating slowly, we gradually increased our intake, until, after an hour and a half of practically conversationless feeding, we withdrew, heavy and replete. And so our fortune turned.

We met Hyatulla at the petrol pump, where, after many flourishes of our British passport, the reluctant and militant keeper (attendant would be a gross misnomer) grudgingly gave us two gallons of the precious, rationed liquid. Hyatulla was the driver-owner of a brand-new petrol tanker, bound for Kabul. Rotund, jovial, about thirty years old, he possessed an instantly likeable open face, olive-tanned under a well-fitting astrakhan cap. From the moment of meeting this modern hillman, most of our worries vanished. Fortunately for us he took it on himself to become our host, guide, and protector. It was very dangerous, he informed us, to travel alone through the mountains and deserts to Kabul. We would do better to go in convoy with him; that way we would never lose the track and most of our baggage he would carry in the cab beside him. It sounded very attractive. We would be able to throw our less heavily laden scooter around more easily, keep up a higher speed, and perhaps spend many more miles in an upright position. Nita politely but firmly refused a seat in the tanker, preferring the wilderness to the possible amorous advances of a hot-blooded Afghan. Her initial fears and my uneasiness regarding such a possibility were soon allayed. Hyatulla was a gentleman.

We spent the rest of that blistering day languishing in the hotel that provided cool shade if little else, while our new-found friend completed his business. Then, as the sun set and the sting went out of the air, we set off; probably the most unusual motor convoy ever to leave Herat: a long pencil-shaped silver tanker, followed at a respectful distance by a buzzing scooter carrying two people very anxious not to lose sight of the rapidly moving dust cloud ahead. This, apart from resolving into a patch of dancing, hazy light as darkness fell, did not reveal itself again as something tangible until, having covered seventy-eight miles, we stopped at a thatched chai house in the village of Shind-Dan.

Put like that it sounds easy, smooth, and uneventful. But those seventy-eight miles were a nerve-racking ordeal. It would almost certainly have been easier to have kept up a twenty-mile average around a ploughed field. Somehow we managed to keep our marker in sight and amazingly our scooter covered the distance at the fierce pace without disintegrating. The prospect of another hundred miles repeat performance after a half-hour break was not over-appealing. Beating the clouds of dust from our clothing we stamped in front of the cosy charcoal fire where the samovar was steaming, stretching audibly, while I tried to straighten my reluctant arms from a handlebars position. There would have to be a change of tactics.

Fortunately, Hyatulla had among his other qualities the gift of observation. He told us that, as he was in no hurry to reach the capital, we should be travelling slower on the next lap. We accepted this statement graciously and blessed him silently for being the perfect host that he was.