Saturday, 12 January 2008

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, Kabul, Afghanistan)

Nita and I sat apart from the rest and tried to find a solution to this latest setback. There was only one answer: another truck, preferably in reasonable running order and piloted by someone a little less demoniacal. My wife felt it would be rather nice if only Hyatulla could appear at this stage, and I agreed, although it would have been hardly possible to load the scooter on to a virtually cylindrical petrol tanker. Nita's feminine mind did not regard that as an obstacle.

'If he does come he surely must have ropes and things,' she said, dismissing my glum reception of her idea. Even with ropes, the plan might just work for twenty miles along an English road, but to attempt carrying a motor-scooter on top of a slippery bowser across the rugged Afghan terrain seemed ludicrous and impossible.

Obstacles, however great they may appear, are made to be surmounted, and I would wager that our machine was the first Prima to arrive at Kabul sitting proudly and perfectly securely on top of a petrol tanker! For Hyatulla did, of course, arrive some sixteen hours later and promptly concurred with Nita's idea, thinking it to be most practicable. Enlisting the help of the disgruntled passengers from the other truck, once more we hoisted the scooter aloft and roped it down on top of the giant canister. I doubt if that alone would have worked, but Hyatulla had the brilliant idea of getting all the stranded passengers to make a human wall by cementing themselves around the machine. The truckless mechanic completed the stability by sitting astride our mount, so completing the tableau. The passengers grumbled about leaving all their luggage with the wreck, but the driver was left to guard it and reflect on the results of his folly until the mechanic could return from the capital with a new half-shaft. None of the party was particularly sympathetic. Indeed, the mechanic seemed delighted to forsake his career for a few days.

While the Mongol driver commenced his long and lonely guard, we were racing on towards the capital, secure and comfortable in the spacious cab of the tanker with the cluster of humanity clinging fiercely to the scooter behind us. It was miraculous that they and our machine stayed in place for we rolled and pitched with regular monotony over the uneven surface.

About three hours away from the scene of the breakdown, we saw for the first and only time in the whole of Afghanistan a tiny gem of fertility, a two-mile valley. It was at the end of a particularly strenuous climb through a precipitous mountain range, chocolate-coloured with bluish peaks, reflecting the last clear rays of the setting sun. We churned across the summit in low gear and suddenly, instead of the usual khaki vista, we beheld the vivid Irish-green of the valley. We would, said Hyatulla, stop at a chai house in the centre of the valley to drink some tea.

After being surrounded for so long by the ever-lasting brownish hues, we found the emerald-green beauty of the valley was almost painful to look upon. Apparently this phenomenon was caused by a subterranean river which ran just beneath the surface through the whole length of the valley. This unending water supply revealed what these hardy mountain people could do, given the opportunity. The cultivation was superb. Indeed, except for the dusty track, instead of tarmac road, we could easily have been in a Swiss farming community. The cattle, grazing contentedly, had a lush, sleek look in strong contrast to most Afghan cattle. There were neat maize fields and golden corn waved in the sunlight, surrounded by pleasant copses of water-soaked trees.

The village itself was a model, as though nothing but the best would suffice to go with the surrounding natural beauty. The huts were modest, but carefully thatched and kept in good repair. We rubbed our eyes and looked again. Hyatulla turned from the wheel and said, sadly, 'It is a pity that all of our country is not thus.' We nodded silently. 'But we are a very poor nation; poor, though independent. Perhaps if we were to surrender our freedom we could have valleys like this all over the country, and good roads to reach them-perhaps even a railway. But I do not think we would be as happy as we are now.'
All of which, of course, was very true. The Afghan is probably one of the poorest men in Asia, but he is also extremely proud of his freedom and a life devoid of bureaucracy.

Very much later that same night we arrived at the capital. So late in fact that there was nothing else we could do but stay with Hyatulla at his house until morning, when we would present ourselves at the British Embassy.

There was not a great deal to be seen on our arrival, for the hour was very late and the night moonless. We did notice there were bitumen roads in the city centre but that there was little electric lighting. The smell, common to all eastern cities, floated in through the truck windows. We thrust deeper into the labyrinth of huddled, unlit houses and bazaars, coming to rest eventually in an overcrowded dirty street, populated at that hour by a few mangy dogs that skulked away at our approach. It was not an inviting neighbourhood.

But Hyatulla was proud of his home, and though the exterior of the wood-and-mud building looked both rickety and shabby, rectangular in shape with a postage-stamp courtyard, having once ascended the narrow, creaking stairs and entered his apartment, we might have been in the house of a very wealthy man; as indeed we were.

Richly carpeted on both floors and walls, the room had an air of opulence. There were no visible fireplaces or windows, but the electric lighting was restful and adequate. Some of the rugs were superb pieces of craftsmanship, as were the masses of colourful silk cushions. The only furniture, a long, low table in the centre of the floor, was laden with bowls of fruit and nuts. This comfortable room, with its cooking annexe, impressed us as an example of Afghan gracious living.

We ate royally of piles of rice and chicken, and ultra-sweet candy. After the meal, conversation died; we were all, including Hyatulla, practically asleep as we sat. We lay down as we were and slept fitfully until first light.

Early next morning our friend drove us the eight miles out of the city to where the British Embassy stood, forbidding and aloof. We bade Hyatulla a temporary farewell, promising to meet him on the following Sunday evening to visit the international Kabul Festival.

While we were unloading the Prima from the tanker, with the aid of some loungers and passers-by, an immaculate Embassy clerk in drill-shorts passed through the gates with a sheaf of files under his arm. He took in the scene without a change of expression and wished us good morning as he passed. He represented to us a glorious breath of home. The sight of an Anglo-Saxon made us feel quite homesick and, weary though we were, it was only the thought of the enthusiastic welcome we hoped to receive within the high walls that kept us from falling asleep on the spot.

Ted Gamble, then British Consul at Kabul, was a veritable Genie with a Magic Lamp. He gave a warm and friendly greeting to the gaunt, dust-smeared creatures who had suddenly appeared to clutter his office. We were, he assured us, despite our hollow cheeks, remarkably healthy-looking considering our journey. He told us that the majority of travellers who reached the capital after overlanding from Persia were sent to hospital for a few weeks; indeed, the last European woman-a Belgian-had had to be flown swiftly to Bombay where she almost died from fever. We felt that a week or two in hospital between the sheets would not be unwelcome in our present state.

Our host was as perceptive as he was generous. Healthy we might have been, but we were both finding it extremely difficult to stay awake. True, we had slept a few hours the previous night, but with a heavy weariness, the culmination of a long spell in the rough. The tremendous relief at having reached Kabul after our gruelling fight with this rugged land was beginning to have its effect. Being a much-travelled man who had seen consular service in remote parts of South America, Ted Gamble knew exactly how we felt. He led us from his serene office, kept cool by a swishing fan, across a burning compound under some green, artificially reared trees, to where his own bungalow nestled in shady seclusion.

As we entered, a Pakistani manservant stepped quietly into the entrance hall and relieved us of our luggage. Ted showed us into a delightful room, complete with dazzling white sheets on a real bed, plus a glorious, fully equipped bathroom. He told us to use the place as we would our own and excused himself to get back to some more work, and to see if the resident mechanics could do anything about our battered scooter. We needed no further invitation. Dinner would be at eight, we were told, and in the meantime we would probably like to catch up on some sleep.

It has been said that luxury is comparative, and my wife and I will remember that first day in the Consul's modest little bungalow as one of the finest in our lives. To be able to have a really hot bath in an English bath-tub, followed by a snack to tide us over until dinner-time, then to slip between cool white sheets, with full stomachs, was unutterable bliss. In fact, we could scarcely acclimatize ourselves to the swift transition. From a world of snatched cat-naps in rocky river-beds; days and nights of driving across burning, desolate plains and hostile mountains; existing on water-melon and handfuls of rice or those rare, scrawny fowls, with the ever-present anxiety over the scooter, the terrain, the uncertain water supply, and the possibility of running into murderous hillmen; from all that, to every comfort that we needed, was almost too much for our minds to accept. As we stretched beneath the sheets, Nita said drowsily, 'I'm sure we'll wake up in a wadi; but the dream is perfect while it lasts.' We slept solidly for twenty-two hours.

On the third day we were able to sit up and take stock of our situation. The long sleep had worked wonders, and the understanding, long-suffering Ted dismissed our apologies for having monopolized his guest room for so long. He assured us again that we were less trouble than most.

The major problem was, of course, the scooter. The back-wheel bearing was completely smashed and the oil-seal useless. The prospect of renewing the latter was out of the question, but there was a faint chance that something might be modified to make a rough replica of the broken bearing; although, of course, one was not really much good without the other. As we could hardly take up permanent residence in Kabul, however, we had to become mobile again somehow.

The Embassy mechanics were our saviours. They were nearly all Pakistanis, mostly ex-members of the old British Indian Army, and masters of ingenuity. They ground down an old bearing from somewhere, replaced the tattered remnants of the oil-seal, packed the hub with high-melting-point grease, and pronounced our machine to be ready to tackle anything. On a short test run into the city the repair seemed effective, save for a prominent whine from the rear end. In the circumstances I could only ignore it. Our transport seemed to be roadworthy once more.

Not so our equipment. Everything in the pannier-bags was in a filthy state. A can of lubricating oil had burst and smothered our clothing, the tent, and various other items which did not take kindly to oil. The aluminium dixies had been battered to an almost unrecognizable mass of metal and our already diminutive pile of luggage was reduced still further; this time to the limit. We threw away the tattered pannier-bags and the steel frames with them. Everything now fitted into the one valise and we were consoled in that the rear wheel now had a considerably lighter burden.