Category: Afghanistan

Adventurous then, impossible now: my journey along the Khyber Pass

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Edited version published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 10 December 2010

Striking the standard tourist pose on The Khyber Pass

I stifled a gulp and feigned casual abandon as I signed the consent form to enter the Khyber Pass.  The government of Pakistan was not to be held responsible for death or difficulties encountered along the way.  My guide beamed at me and said, “Now we collect the armed guard.”

Little did anyone know that the summer of 2007 would prove to be a comparably carefree one for the Khyber Agency, which had been ruled by fiercely independent Pathan tribes for centuries.  According to Ahmed Rashid, author of Descent into Chaos, the Pakistani Taliban had taken control of it by the following year.  Although it is believed that the Taliban is itself mostly comprised of Pathans, travellers ought to take note of one very important difference between the two groups: whilst the Pathans are exceptionally hospitable and enforce collective tribal punishments on those who commit crimes against travellers, the Taliban prefer to annihilate them.  And as the Khyber Pass is the most important supply route for NATO forces fighting in neighbouring Afghanistan, the Taliban attacks convoys and kidnaps commuters with brutal regularity.  Pakistan has attempted to clear the area by launching numerous military offensives, but justifiably condemned NATO air strikes for killing Pakistani troops.  All this combined has turned the ancient gateway between Pakistan and Afghanistan into one of the world’s most dangerous places.  Needless to say, the “Enter at your own risk” form no longer exists: the Khyber Pass is closed to travellers indefinitely.  From time to time, the government of Pakistan seals it off altogether.

I sweated in the battered red hatchback as it lay idle in front of the Khyber Guards police station.  To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with the vehicle.  When booking the trip the day before, I’d imagined traversing the route made legendary by the likes of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Marco Polo in something more sturdy and racy.  Tinted windows would have satisfied me, I thought grumpily.

My 15-year-old armed guard at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border

And when the guard appeared, I was somewhat taken aback by his appearance.  Despite possessing a thick beard, solemnity and an AK-47, his features were undeniably baby-faced.  Sensing my confusion, the guide informed me that our escort was 15 years old and had recently joined the service after his father was killed in action.  “How recently?” I wondered.  As the guard slid into the front seat without acknowledging our presence, his black woollen uniform made me wince.  The only concession to the scorching heat was a pair of open-toed leather sandals.  A garment resembling a sawn-off apron was fastened to his chest.  It contained three plump pouches, presumably containing bullets.  He barely spoke for the next five hours and I never saw him smile.  The only glimpse of his personality he afforded us was to accept a few tokes on a joint pre-rolled by the driver.  Fortunately, he seemed seasoned enough for it not to induce paranoia.

My travel companion and I were reminded of a few simple rules.  It would be pointless to request stops for photographs – such opportunities were few and pre-designated.  And while the car was moving, we were to refrain from drawing attention to ourselves (naturally).  Finally, as a male, Mark was warned against gazing in the direction of females, should any be wandering freely.  The Pathans are fiercely protective of their womenfolk and would shoot without warning if he were caught gawking.  “As Oscar Wilde said, ‘I can resist everything but temptation,’” I joked in dubious taste.

We chugged along to our first stop, the Khyber Gate, which marks the official border with the tribal lands from the rest of Pakistan.   A granite sign describes the area as “a beautiful and fertile valley surrounded by an unbroken girdle in the shape of a Roman amphitheatre.”  It was soon apparent that the Khyber Pass itself is anything but fertile and thus too stark to be beautiful.  Like much of Tibet, vegetation is sparse and exclusively limited to the base of grey and brown mountains.  Its inhabitants live in almost uniformly unpainted clay fortresses, with slit windows and protruding rifles.  Aside from an azure sky, the main source of colour was the plentiful cargo trucks, which were covered in hand-painted designs and every manner of truck-bling possible, including criss-crossed silver chains dangling from the bumper.  Our guide reeled off the most common forms of contraband freighted between the border: weapons, drugs, plane parts and counterfeit cash.

The Khyber Pass

We sped past the curiously named Khyber Model School seemingly just as the bell rang.  Smiling boys in blue punjabis ran out from underneath its arched sign as I frantically tried to capture the rare glimpse of “normal” life.  It’s unlikely that the school still stands today, as the Taliban have blown up the majority.

We made a hurried call to nature by a shallow stream that was 100 metres or so away from the disused Khyber Railway tunnel, which was built by the British for strategic reasons following World War I.  When we pulled over at the 1072 metre summit in Landi Kotal, the guard patiently handed over his semi-automatic weapon to us while we posed for photographs that would justify a raised eyebrow from Interpol.

I was pleased to pick up a bargain at the Afghan border.  For less than five dollars I’d acquired a complete set of Taliban-issued currency.  One of the notes featured charging warriors on horseback; the others were mostly agricultural scenes.  I bought the expired currency from a green-eyed Afghan teenager who spoke excellent English.  We sat cross-legged against a wall decorated with love-heart graffiti as I gazed longingly at the view of Afghanistan.

“Some day,” I muttered to myself, before hopping back into the rust bucket.

Fortress homes

I  was surprised when our guide announced that we were stopping for a traditional Pathan lunch.  Mark and I were ushered up a flight of steps above a carvanserai, or roadside inn.  I accumulated about 20 stares in half as many seconds, before the door was shut swiftly behind me.  The room was bare aside from a stack of blankets.  When Mark peered out of the slit window for a view of other houses with slit windows, he was promptly told to move away.  We sat on charpoys in hungry silence before a plate of chabli kebabs and flatbread arrived.  The meat reminded me of my mother’s homemade rissoles – it was curious to be reminded of Australia at a time when I’d never felt so far from it.

A red pillar perched on the final bend bodes travellers a farewell from the Khyber Rifles, an irregular corps of militia recruited from the tribes of the Khyber Agency.  The other side of the pillar read, “Raised Nov 1878.”  Later, when studying my photos, I noticed that the pillar’s margin contained not one etching of graffiti, but two, by some joker called “Wasim.” I smiled at the seemingly limitless nature of human cheekiness.

Khyber Model School

And so it seemed that our trip had passed without incident.  I tapped my feet along to the blaring Urdu pop cassette while eagerly anticipating a trip to an internet café where I would share my photographs via email attachments (oblivious as I was to the greater pride afforded by Facebook).  But then our guide announced that we were making a stop, and before providing a reason, he’d leapt out of the car and into a crowded bazaar.  I was chewing my fingernails within seconds.  Perhaps it was this ungainly habit that caught the attention of a wild-eyed man, who strode over for a closer look.  His hair was unkempt and he was sweating profusely – he was either high or disturbed – or both.  He stabbed a finger in the air and began shouting, which resulted in a crowd forming around the car.  The guard seemed mysteriously unmoved.  The terms of the consent form flashed through my mind – this time I couldn’t stifle the gulp.  I almost cried with relief when the guide re-emerged to shoo away the crowd with a guilty grin.  We drove back to his office in Peshawar in huffy silence.

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Holiday in Afghanistan

The following interview appeared on The Comment Factory’s  website in September 2009.

‘Holiday in Afghanistan’  

By Jessica Mudditt

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In the winter of 2009 an Australian primary school teacher dared to visit Afghanistan as a tourist.  In this interview, Nick Buckley, 29, provides a glimpse of the other side of Afghanistan – a country still celebrating lavish weddings, and where men get drunk and watch Chuck Norris films.

This is not to say it’s a picture of calm or frivolity Nick presents – some of his experiences were downright terrifying, as he is the first to admit.  Yet in speaking about his visit as an ordinary punter, Nick allows us to gain a fuller picture of a country that is almost always discussed in military terms.

I interviewed Nick before he left and shortly after he returned.

INTERVIEW ONE: PRIOR TO DEPARTURE

Jessica: When did you first have the idea of going to Afghanistan?

Nick: It was about eight years ago, when I started reading books on the region.  I had been reading a book about India and there was something in it about the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s major ethnic group.  And so I started reading books about them.

Jessica: How are you going to stay safe?

pic2Nick: I’ll have to keep a fairly low profile and try to blend in.  But you never really can blend in, can you?  I’ll wear the shalwar kameez [traditional dress] I bought in Pakistan on a previous trip.  I’m also growing a beard but it’s taking longer than I hoped.  I’ve never had facial hair beyond a day and a half so I had no idea of the amount of time it takes to grow.

Jessica: Safely assuming there’s no backpacker scene, where will you stay?

Nick: I have a contact in Melbourne who worked for an NGO in Afghanistan – she put me in touch with a couple of New Zealanders she worked with.  They now have their own security company and I’ll stay with them in an apartment in Kabul.

Jessica: How safe – or rather, unsafe – is Afghanistan at the moment?

Nick: My contact brought over her laptop to show me a ‘safety map’ she made when working there in 2007.  Red means really bad, orange is getting bad, and green is relatively safe.  In 2007, the bottom half was red and the top half was green with some orange patches.  Now it’s basically red everywhere with orange in some places.

My contact told me that if I’m recognised as a Westerner by the wrong person, I’ll be taken to the nearest kidnapper and sold to the highest bidder.

Jessica: Is your girlfriend really worried about you?

Nick: No, she’s been supportive.  I’m pretty lucky to have her.  She’s fairly well travelled herself – she just came back from a four month trip through West Africa – from Morocco, all the way to Nigeria, through some fairly hairy countries.  She’s not scared of going to Afghanistan – she’d be up to it.  But the idea of travelling as a woman in that part of the world doesn’t appeal to her.

Jessica: Are there any particular dangers during winter?

Nick: During winter the Taliban put down their arms and sort of… have a holiday.  [Muted laughter]  So the risk of bombings is relatively low.  But winter is still a dangerous time to visit.  There’s a lot of banditry because there’s not a lot of food around.  So the risk of being kidnapped is very high.

Jessica: What are the costs of this trip like?

Nick: They’re fairly high.  Accommodation is very expensive, for that part of the world anyway. It’s $10 minimum per night and for anything decent, $30 upwards.  But I’ll be staying with the Kiwis and I’ll pay my share of the board.

However street food and public transport is really cheap – though public transport is a quite risky.  I’ve heard stories of bus drivers driving ‘desirable people’ to the closest kidnapper, who then sells them to the highest bidder.

Jessica: Are you scared?

Nick: No, I’m not actually.  It’s a funny thing – I was watching one of those foreign correspondent shows last week.  It was about Guatemala – which is in a similar situation to Afghanistan in terms of the banditry.  I was sitting there watching it and I found myself getting nervous.  But that was because I know nothing about Guatemala and so I felt totally vulnerable.

The reason I’m not nervous about going to Afghanistan is because I feel like I know that part of that world from previous trips and I have done loads of reading.

I feel as ready as I can be and I’m excited.

Jessica: Have fun Nick.

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INTERVIEW 2: AFTER AFGHANISTAN

Jessica: So, what was it like?

Nick: It’s a fucking crazy country so it was a pretty action-packed trip.  Usually when I’m writing travel emails I have to think hard of stuff to say.  In Afghanistan I’d be on the internet for two hours because so many things happened in one day.

Jessica: Let’s start at the beginning.

Nick: The Afghan guys who picked me up from the airport told me we were going straight to a wedding.  They also told me straight-off that it was really important for me not to talk in public.  They said they had guns but would prefer to avoid a shoot-out if there was an attempted kidnapping.  Now I know this sounds pretty grim, so I hasten to add that I met a lot of foreigners there who communicate with locals on a daily basis.  These guys just didn’t want me to take any chances.

Jessica: What’s an Afghan wedding like?

Nick: The room was the size of a huge basketball court – I think there were around 1000 guests.  It was a real mixture of people – some were wearing jeans, others were in traditional dress.  It was segregated – a wooden screen divided the room.  The young kids were peeping through at the women.

Jessica: What sort of entertainment was provided?

Nick: There was a cool Afghan band with a keyboard player and a singer.  The singer was really good.  After a set he said: “Here is my SMS – vote for me on Afghan Idol!”  It was hilarious.

Jessica: Would it be correct to assume there wasn’t any alcohol?

Nick: None was served, but one of the Afghan guys I was with was absolutely smashed.  He was talking loudly and inappropriately and people were turning their heads to stare.  My friend Habib told him to pull himself together.  After that he disappeared, but before he did, he walked into a curtain – thinking it was a door – and fell over.  At 3am Habib got a call from the drunk guy saying he’d gone out the back and fallen asleep in the kitchen.  He wanted to be picked up!

Jessica: What else did you do?

Nick: I visited the infamous Kabul Zoo.  I managed to slide through for the Afghan admission price that was less than a tenth of the foreigner price!  The animals are kept in tiny concrete cages but I was told they are a vast improvement on what was in place during the civil war and Taliban days.

There was a classic sign on the bear cage depicting a caged human being taunted by animals. The meaning clearly went over the head of three young men who were hurling pieces of ice at the sleeping lions.  Afghanis are somehow the most caring and most ruthless people on earth… at the same time.

Jessica: Was it hard to maintain your energy with danger all around?

Nick: Yes and no.  I was lucky to have a really secure place in Kabul, in a good suburb.  I could relax when I was inside.  It was actually the suburb where the house in ‘The Kite Runner’ was set and the house was absolutely enormous.  There were cleaners, cooks, a gym and 24 hour electricity.  There were military checkpoints on every street corner, and two police boom gates on the tiny 100m street.

Jessica: What’s the story of the guy you stayed with?

Nick: He’s a tough guy and he’s been in the military for 20 years.  The job he has is incredibly dangerous.  He owns a company which transports important people around Afghanistan, usually in an armoured vehicle with at least three people.  The important person sits in the middle of the backseat, with two shooters on either side.  There is usually an Afghan driver, because they know the roads best, and someone monitoring the radio.

Jessica: What were the ex-pats like?

Nick: Everybody I met was there for work and few showed any interest in the culture or language.  Some spoke about the people and the situation in a derogatory way.  They seemed bitter and burnt out.

Jessica: Was there any nightlife?

Nick: I went to an ex-pat bar – now that was an experience.  The security was unbelievable.  The unmarked bar was tucked away down a quiet street with boom-gates, and to enter you had to show ID to Kalashnikov-clad guards who unlocked an armoured door.  The door led to another security checkpoint and eventually into a six metre walled bar.  This place would be an absolute goldmine for any would-be kidnappers, so it’s no surprise that security is so tight.

I also spent an evening in a charming rural mud-brick house with a friend of Habib’s.  We ate, drank vodka and watched a bad Chuck Norris action film – you know the type – when America saves the world from the bad guys. Watching it inevitably turned into a discussion about why the ‘war on terror’ has gone wrong.  Mohamed, who owned the house, said that he feels like a slave in his own country.  He complained of American soldiers barging into peoples’ homes without respecting the customs, demanding all vehicles stop and wait by the side of the road when a convoy passes, and the fact that they are generally trigger-happy.  And of course there are the careless air-strikes that result in the deaths of civilians – what the west calls “collateral damage.”

Jessica: Were there any annoyances?

Nick: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Kabul has the worst traffic in the world.  It’s not so much the volume – though there is plenty of that – but rather the aggressive, reckless way that Afghans drive. When talking about the dangers of Afghanistan, people tend to think of suicide bombs, robbery and kidnappings, but I believe the number one danger is the traffic.

Jessica: Did you have any scrapes?

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Nick: We had an accident while trying to dodge knee-deep potholes in heavy snow.  When Habib jumped out and began shouting in the middle of a roundabout, I suddenly remembered my contact’s parting words – a common kidnapping tactic is to crash into the target car.  As it turned out it was a legitimate accident, but it gave me the shivers.

Jessica: What was your scariest experience?

Nick: Landing in Kabul. I honestly thought I was going to die.  The plane was a 1972, ex-Air India 727 relic that was probably better placed in a museum than the tarmac. The plane came down on one wheel, bounced, and started to spin around.  The pilot eventually regained control but it took a kilometre to slow down.  We had to take off again to land properly and I thought we were going to run out of runway.

Jessica: Sounds pretty horrible…

Nick: Oh and there was also two earthquakes in two days.  The first had a magnitude of 5.8 and the next one was 6.  The epicentre was about 300km north of Kabul, in the Hindu Kush mountains, but they still packed enough punch to shake the house violently and many Kabulis ran onto the streets.  Considering the construction standards (or lack of) it’s hardly surprising. When the first one happened I thought a bomb had gone off.

Jessica: Did you manage to get out of Kabul?

Nick: I went on a stunning overnight trip to the decidedly dodgy city of Jalalabad, which is near the Pakistan border.  The region is extremely dangerous but as it is the ‘real Afghanistan’ I was so desperate to see, I couldn’t pass up the offer.

The mountain road to Jalalabad passes just 5km from Tora Bora, which is Osama’s last known hideout.  It is known Taliban country so I was keeping a low profile.  Before we even made it half-way we’d passed three incinerated trucks.  They had been rocketed by the Taliban.

Jessica: Sounds scary.

What were your impressions of the Afghan people?

Nick: They are amazing people, with amazing hospitality, and they put their life on the line for you.  I was welcomed with open arms.

But Afghans take an ‘inshallah’  [‘God willing’] attitude to life.  They believe it is God’s will if they die.  It is as though they are immune to danger.

Jessica: Did you blend in alright?

Nick: I walked around the bazaar buying souvenirs and nobody seemed to notice.

Jessica: How did you buy things without talking and giving yourself away?

Nick: I went with one of my Afghan friends and I let him do the talking.  I would catch his eye when I saw something I liked.  He would then nod at me, duck into the shop, barter, and come out, mumbling the amount under his breath.  If I was happy with the price, my friend would go back inside and buy it.

Jessica: Would you return to Afghanistan?

Nick: Yes.  I’d really like to see the north and visit the areas bordering Tajikistan and Pakistan.  But at the moment there’s not a lot of point to travelling because everything is so restricted.

Jessica: Would you consider a holiday in Iraq?

Nick: No.  I met an American guy who works in Iraq and was looking to extend his company in Afghanistan.  He said being in Afghanistan was like being on holiday.

Jessica: Well I’m glad that you had a nice holiday in Afghanistan.