Sunday, 27 January 2008

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, To Pakistan, Afghanistan)

Our peace of mind, as we chugged along the solitary sand-rutted track once more, already unsettled by Ted's tale of mysterious disappearance, was shattered completely when, about a mile ahead in the early morning sunlight, there was a reflected flash. We soon came upon what appeared to be yet another all too common Afghanistan 'incident': a vehicle spattered with still-wet blood and torn from front to rear by ragged bullet holes. The driver-dead or alive-was missing, along with all the merchandise, whatever it might have been, and, strangely, the bench seat from the cabin. Nita and I stared incredulously at this mute scene of violence, and, for a moment, almost expected someone to appear from the surrounding hills and tell us laughingly that it was all a joke. But our refusal to accept the truth was fleeting. As realization grew, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled and my bowels suddenly weakened.

We glanced uneasily around us, but the rocky, deeply shadowed mountains were deserted and silent. They were now transformed from serene landmarks to sinister harbourers of danger. At that moment I was sorely tempted to turn back to Kabul, barely forty miles behind us.

Logic, however, prevailed. Perhaps there was a legitimate reason for a shot-up truck, smothered in blood and completely empty, being deserted right in the middle of the track forty miles from anywhere. I consoled myself by thinking that the murderers were probably miles from the scene of the crime anyway. I hoped they weren't making for the Pakistan border.

We made excellent time to the next village. There I tried to find some responsible person, on the low, thatched verandas where the men lounged, to tell what we had seen. There was no policeman, but an old chap with a biblical beard was pushed forward from the knot of onlookers who gazed steadily at the scooter and at us. I asked the old man if he spoke English and he said he did, but when I started to relate the truck incident only a few miles from his village, he suddenly found the English language all too difficult. He bowed politely and walked away while I was still talking. So it's like that, I thought. I took the hint, and we mounted the scooter once again and pushed on.

At the last house disappeared behind us, our day was really made: the wretched clicking noise started again from the back wheel.

Just before midday, with the memory of the morning thankfully misted a little, we approached another village. It was one of those indeterminate settlements, half skin tents and half partly completed huts. There was the usual conglomeration of humanity, all the men bearing the regal, faintly contemptuous air that is typical of almost every Afghan male. A partly nomadic clan, these were not so particular about hiding their women as the non-wanderers.

We arrived in the middle of a shooting contest. Some of the bloods were dashing about on camels shooting at empty petrol tins which were scattered about the plain. They were remarkably good shots. One of the older men proudly produced a petrol can with three holes neatly patterned in the centre, miming clearly enough for me to understand that he had achieved this from the back of a moving camel. I was at once impressed and sobered. We would not stand a dog's chance if some of these trigger-happy tribesmen decided to pick us off. No wonder these men-or at least their fathers-had given the British Indian Army such a headache a few years ago. We salaamed respectfully all round, filled our water bottle, and departed to a symphony of rifle fire.

The clicking was getting worse again and ahead, towering into the evening sky, was the last obstacle between us and Pakistan: the gigantic Lattaband Pass, a vast, rocky escarpment stretching, it seemed, up to the very clouds, with a rugged track that wound in an endless and frightening series of hairpins up and up, to the roof of the world. Our poor little scooter, protesting audibly, plodded on in first gear for anything up to half an hour at a time. It was nothing short of miraculous that the tiny engine should keep going under such appalling conditions.

But, for the second time, the expiring bearing could take only just so much punishment. By now the rear wheel was sloppy again and badly affecting the steering-a serious state of affairs, seeing that the narrow, boulder-strewn track was edged on one side with jagged walls and on the other by a sheer drop into nothingness. Already the light was tricky and it was difficult to distinguish between solid ground and crumbling edges.

After fifteen miles of climbing, the track levelled out, and for a brief respite we found ourselves in a remote mountain village. The inhabitants seemed friendlier than the plainsmen and were most hospitable. They gave us bowls of curried chicken, refusing to take payment but accepting cigarettes politely.

While I refuelled from our two-gallon reserve can, an ancient lorry loaded with grapes for Pakistan groaned its way up the mountain and rested to cool off in the middle of the village. The driver, a turbaned, laughing character with a lantern jaw (whom we promptly tagged Tommy Trinder), sauntered over to inspect the scooter. We chatted, by signs, and when I eventually explained our bearing trouble, which I did with a practical demonstration, he was horrified. Certainly the crunching noises seemed, if anything, worse with the machine on its stand. He was so appalled, in fact, that he insisted on transporting the scooter and us over the rest of the Lattaband-apparently we had hardly entered the wretched mountains-through the Khyber Pass and down into Peshawar, where with any luck we should be able to get new parts. Well, I'd heard that one before, but Peshawar would certainly be a possibility. We were in no position, or indeed mood, to decline this generous offer. Nita, still unable to forget the morning incident, was overjoyed.

Within a short while about fifteen bearded warriors, heaving, shouting, and gesticulating, hoisted the Prima aloft again and settled it in comparative safety between the crates of grapes-those tiny, piplcss, delicious grapes that are one of the chief exports of Afghanistan.

As we sat, crammed once more into a driving cab, somewhat bewildered at our good fortune and lurching forward into the night, I wondered idly how we would get the scooter back to ground level. Nita had ceased to worry about anything and, despite the manner in which our Moslem Tommy Trinder flung the top-heavy truck round blind hairpin bends, was already sound asleep.

The grape lorry rumbled through the night, stopping only twice at isolated villages for chai and petrol. Through the windscreen we watched yet another dawn lighting up the narrow gullies and defiles through which we were travelling. By eight a.m. we had reached the village of Torkham and the Pakistan frontier. The Afghan interlude was over.

A little way up the road, beyond the movable barrier, was the almost unbelievable sight of tarmac. The Afghan frontier guards were courteous and pleasant. Formalities were (for Asia) quickly completed and, still in the grape lorry, we trundled through the barrier an hour and a half later, to be welcomed with tea and the English language. The Pakistanis were almost too kind to Nita and myself, but unnecessarily brusque with our Afghan friend. However, that is the way of nations. We got away before midday and started our assault on the Khyber.

The Khyber Pass, scene of so many turbulent skirmishes and one-time practical training ground for the British Army, was disappointing. A wonderfully engineered tarmac road, well graded, detracted from the rugged atmosphere one had expected. True, there were numerous forts standing sentinel on every strategic peak, but the pass was much wider than we had thought and did not seem ideal ambush country. It was hard to visualize wild Afridis and Pathans sniping from the craggy, heat-blistered peaks.

We stopped, almost on the very crest of the pass, to let the old truck cool down a little. From this vantage point we gazed back (something I rarely do) in the direction whence we had come. Afghanistan lay silent and brooding under a mauve haze. A land of mountain and deserts, of hardy, tough people and, even today, a land of adventure. It is still, for the traveller, an odds-on-chance-of-survival country. Worth challenging, we thought.