Sunday, 30 December 2007

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, Kandahar and onwards, Afghanistan)

For the next two days we skirted another vast mountain range, running south of the sandstone ridges, passing occasionally through bare, scorched villages: Khurmalik, Kala-i-Kirta, Dilaram. We slept beside the scooter, dog-tired and barely able to unroll the sleeping-bags. To the south of us the heat rolled in endless blistering waves from the uninhabited and terrible Dasht-iĀ¬Margo desert, enveloping us in an almost unbearable cloak. To keep moving was the only antidote to the fierce air; but even moving alleviated only a little of the discomfort and our clothes were constantly saturated with sweat. I could feel it running down my back and my forearms glistened until they became coated with the thick dust that we had by now learned to live with. We would ride for three hours, dismount, stiff andmsoaked in our own moisture, only to move off again after a brief rest to seek out and hold that precious breeze that was self-created. Through this inhospitable country we followed the indentations of Hyatulla's truck, anxious to put this hated stretch behind us with all speed.

On the fringe of the savage Dasht-i-Margo, the burning inland desert, I felt for the first time impatient of our friend's strict adherence to his religion. Until now the frequent prayer interludes had been welcome periods of rest from the severe strain of driving, but in the endless hell of sand and heat we began to dread the five stops each day, which left us gasping in the hundred or so degrees; shadeless, save for the shelter of the truck. Indeed, I began to wonder whether the fuel encased in the roasting tanker would explode before its destination was reached. When, therefore, we arrived at ancient Kandahar-scene of the fantastic march from Rawalpindi by Lord Roberts and his army-and Hyatulla told us, with crestfallen expression, that one of his truck springs had broken, we felt that perhaps this was a blessing in disguise.

Kandahar offered us a spider-infested rest-house, with a decrepit shower-bath constructed from old petrol cans, minus door, over which I stood guard while Nita washed away some of the fine dust. Brushed and clean, we went back to the town centre where our friend was busily searching for a replacement leaf-spring. We held a conference and discovered that Hyatulla was likely to be at least three days before resuming the journey. That settled it; we would push on to Kabul alone.

The first day out of Kandahar we made very good time. We travelled slowly but kept at it, and the tortuous miles fell in a mounting number behind us. When we pitched camp eighty-five miles nearer our objective we were in high spirits. The desert had given way to more mountains and the climate was infinitely more bearable. It was still very hot, but there was scenery other than the accursed sand flats, and even an odd patch of parched vegetation which thrust up here and there from the rocky landscape. We had only seen one other vehicle, a Russian lorry, which overtook us in the early part of the morning. As dusk turned rapidly to darkness we ate frugally and hastily, anxious only to crawl into our waiting sleeping-bags.

The next morning, still jubilant, we set off as the sun rose. My high spirits did not last very long, however, for, from the back of our overworked mount, an odd 'clicking' noise was apparent above the exhaust note. I hoped fervently that it was merely a piece of stone caught in the tyre tread, hitting a part of the frame. As yet it was not urgent in its repetition, but it was a warning not to be ignored, although on the stony road between Kandahar and Kabul, in the desolation of Afghanistan, there was little to be done. I had a horrible suspicion that it was the rear-wheel bearing cracking up, which later proved to be the case. There was no spare bearing or oil-seal with which to replace the broken parts. We would just have to keep going and trust to luck that the abused components would not disintegrate before we reached some repair facilities. Nita, whose ear was not attuned to mechanical peculiarities, rode blissfully unaware that at any moment we might be rendered totally immobile.

I glanced around at the sandstone mountains, bare and silent; at the ball of molten fire that hung in the leaden sky above; at the rugged rock-strewn track ahead; and hoped.

Wishing we had stayed with Hyatulla, I mentally calculated our food and water supplies and concluded that they would not last more than a day. Quickly my joviality evaporated. A maimed machine, food and water dangerously low, and as yet endless miles to traverse before the capital could be reached. Although we had the whole of the sun-drenched world to ourselves, which we normally loved, at that moment we would gladly have exchanged it all for a city.

The following day our lonely journey was broken. On the horizon wisps of smoke rose vertically into the breathless evening sky, and we found a party of nomadic tribesmen, surrounded by their camels and goats and all the comforting gregariousness of their kin. The men, lean and leathery, owned magnificent horses: high-spirited, jittery beasts, bright of eye and glossy of coat, despite the parched earth.

At first I thought our reception was going to be hostile. The men glared suspiciously at the scooter and at us. They were, of course, all heavily armed. We pulled up, warily, and dismounted, smiling brightly and eyeing with undisguised envy a huge joint of meat which was roasting over an open fire. A number of ragged though healthy-looking children stared unwinkingly at us and retired behind their mothers; one or two burst into tears. But we continued to smile and approached confidently, despite the growls of huge, fiercesome Afghan dogs.

An old man rose from beside a cooking fire and approached us. He ignored Nita, and stared hard at me for a long moment. The rest of the tribe made no movement, simply hanging on the old man's actions. I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable, with those two gimlet black eyes boring into mine, and had almost capitulated in the game of nerves when he slowly raised his right hand. I shook it eagerly and heaved a mighty sigh of relief.

After the old man had greeted us, the scene changed miraculously. The women bustled about their work and smiled in friendly fashion at Nita, scarcely bothering to replace their veils, which constantly fell away from their faces as they bent over their cooking pots; they were, however, careful to keep their backs turned to me. The menfolk crowded around, smiling and appraising everything concerning our unorthodox expedition.

Regarding the circle of bearded faces with the kohl-smeared eyes, I felt it would have been difficult to assemble a more villainous, murderous-looking bunch. But I have long since learned not to judge by appearance alone. They offered us some of the choicest cuts from a freshly killed beast, and for the second time in our lives we drank camel's milk from a gourd. As neither party could understand the other's language we talked in mime, showing our appreciation of the welcome food by rubbing our stomachs. They in turn imitated us astride the scooter, and mimicked the sound of our engine with surprising accuracy. Everyone laughed, as the humorist of the tribe excelled in his entertainment and went scarlet in the face imitating the tortured sound of an over-revved engine. They implied, with much pointing to the far horizon and with hands cupped to ears, that they had heard us long before we had seen the smoke from their fires.

We finally increased our popularity by giving short pillion rides to some of the younger lads. While we were manoeuvring for the twentieth time between the camels and goats, one passenger, waving exultantly to his brothers, let go with both hands and fell into the dust. I almost expected a hail of bullets from the quick-tempered tribesmen, but an almighty cheer rang out and they laughed uproariously at their companion's mishap. Apart from a few abrasions he was unhurt and, if anything, more friendly towards us from that moment than were the others.

We camped that night between a couple of smelly camels, with our gear huddled around us as a precaution against the many goats who devoured anything within reach.

As is the custom with all nomadic tribes, their day started well before dawn and long before the sun rose they had broken camp and the women were tying the last bundles on to the horses and camels, while the men crowded around a communal hookah, smoking gravely and intently. The young lad who had been thrown from the scooter on the previous evening pressed a piece of well-roasted goat-meat into my hand as we said our formal goodbyes. We watched our entertaining and colourful hosts disappearing obliquely from the main track, a little self-contained hand, bound for some remote corner of this cragged country. Tough as nails, the women as well as the men, it was a mystery how they ever wrested a living from this barren, scorched earth.

The 'clicking' noise of the machine grew steadily worse; even Nita remarked on the irritating, persistent noise. When the speedometer needle crept past the 35 m.p.h. mark the clatter was horribly pronounced. The hours went by and at 30 m.p.h. we negotiated the rock-strewn track, conscious all the time of the fierce sun striking down from almost overhead. We spoke little during those hours, our mouths parched and muscles aching, yet almost frantic to reach Kabul as quickly as possible.

Briefly stopping for food I gulped down my share of meat, smoking, pacing up and down the while, quite unable to sit and relax, anxious only to remount the scooter and put more and more of those arid miles behind us. I felt that if we could only complete the stretch with all possible haste we could do it before the back wheel collapsed. Any motorist will know the feeling. The commonsense side of my sun-dazzled brain said slowly, slowly, but my throttle hand was working independently and the whole time our speed range was right on the edge of the danger mark.

At three o'clock that afternoon I realized, to my horror, that even travelling at 30 m.p.h. the 'click-clacking' was becoming louder. There was a respite of a few miles and the hateful metallic tapping began again. At five o'clock we had, seemingly, the whole of Afghanistan to ourselves and a vehicle that was out of action. Molten grease, oozing from an almost red-hot rear hub, ran in depressing rivulets through the thick alkali dust, in visible, final revolt against the beating it had taken.

The worst had happened. The big question mark that had hovered over our heads from the beginning of the adventure had resolved itself. We had broken down in the middle of Afghanistan.