BETTER LATE THAN NEVER? OR NOT?
Trip Start ??? 06, 2001
10Trip End ??? 07, 2001
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I would have loved to experience any of these times in this country,so I was disappointed to travel there,belatedly,only last year.
To be potentially putting your life in danger for little more than sight seeing,in a country that has seen so much,is to me,galling and frustrating.
In today's post 9/11 world,all Islamic countries have to be visited with caution,but this one sounded potentially disastrous,even if the most significant battles have passed into history.There is still a low level insurgency,predominately in the South,as well as in Eastern border regions with Pakistan,and also a threat of suicide bombings and kidnapping throughout the country.Therefore,I was taking a risk,even visiting the regions most solidly controlled by the government and coalition forces,for little chance of seeing any real action
I spent some time in Peshawar,trying to ascertain the facts and the level of risk.
The UK foreign office web site advice seemed ridiculously exagerrated in it's presentation of the dangers,recommending that nobody at all should travel without a driver,translator,and bodyguards.
Local Pakistanis and Afghanis had mixed views.Some said that the people here were wonderful,and I would find only hospitality.Others that this was not a good time to visit,and some even offered their escort services for approximately $50 per day.They were certainly not trained bodyguards however,and would not have offered much protection if we walked into trouble.
In the end,I became tired of tying myself in knots over it,gave my bank balance a rest,and set out unaccompanied,and on public transport,deciding to test out the truth of the British Government's precautionary information.
Except,that is,for the initial ride from Peshawar to the border,which must be done with an armed guard through the tribal territories of Pakistan.This necessity is only symbolic,but for the second time in a week,having already been on the Khyber Pass tour,I presented myself at the appropriate office,received my free permit,and accompanied by my hired driver for 800 PKR,collected the guard and headed off westwards
We went to the border direct this time,and within one hour or so I was making the long walk between the two border controls,with over eager youngsters wheeling my baggage on trolleys,alongside.They seemed to have misunderstood how much I was intending to pay,and were disappointed with the 250 PKR I gave them(£2-20).I would have thought this was good money in these parts,and certainly what was agreed in advance.There was little choice but to agree to their services,as a crowd of them pestered me aggressively and fought each other for the right to be my porter,as soon as I dismounted from the taxi.
Three plainclothes Americans with walkie talkies,some kind of special forces,were seated in the Afghan border office where my visa was stamped.It was approved in seconds,and we trundled on to find transport to Jalalabad.The youngsters were keen to encourage me into a Corolla for a "special" price,but I wanted to go cheaper by minibus.It did not take long to find,and left immediately,as I was the last passenger.The vehicle was pleasingly spacious,and each person had a proper seat with leg room.This was already a big improvement on being crammed into minibuses like sardines in Pakistan.I couldn't prevent a silly mad grin from creeping over my face as we set off,and made our first few miles into Afghanistan.Happy to be underway at last,and satisfied at achieving an ambition to visit this country,mixed with relief that so far this seemed fairly safe,and almost luxurious compared to what I had become used to in the previous 4 months in Iran and Pakistan.I tried to guage the danger levels from the reaction of the other passengers,several well built middle aged bearded men wearing shalwar kameez,to a foreigner in their midst,but they avoided eye contact,and were quietly non committal throughout
One of the concerns of travelling into Afganistan this way was the fact that the first port of call was a Pashtun city,and the Pashtun were the main supporters of the Taliban.However the current Afghan President,Hamid Karzai is also Pashtun and most folk around here are "on-side" as far as the coalition are concerned.A nerve wracking introduction to this nation,all the same.I took no chances.As soon as the minibus stopped in Jalalabad,I stepped straight into a rickshaw,and asked to be taken to the Spinghar hotel,where all western people seem to stay when in town.The hotel has large grounds,with a gatekeeper outside,and the rickshaw was given permission to drive me through impressive gardens,to the entrance.A world away from the city...a legacy of the days of Empire.We passed a sign in the foyer,saying "No Weapons",and I checked in to my unreserved room,sharing a bathroom with an adjacent room.At $20,this was a little more than I would normally pay,but a sensible starting point for this adventure.A picture of Ahmed Shah Massoud,the Tajik former Northern Alliance commander,stared down at us from a wall mounted clock face.I was quite surprised to see this in a Pashtun town,but it became increasingly clear that the people here had chosen their current allegiance pragmatically.
I kept on the rickshaw driver for added security,and invited him to show me the city.I soon regretted the generous hourly rate of payment that I had agreed.It transpired that the main sites were very close,with a park adjacent to the hotel grounds,and the old Royal tombs from the early 1900's,immediately opposite.The shopping centre was also within 1/4 mile.We soon attracted a crowd,thankfully friendly,although they included one or two who expected a tip.When we hit the shopping area,I paid the last of them to go away! About 50 Afghani(50 pence)..cheap at the price,as he seemed adamant that I should take him for lunch or pay his bus fare home,even though we had travelled a very short distance from where we had met.
I wasn't alone for long.As I photographed a man taking passport pictures with a large tripod-mounted pinhole camera,I was surrounded by another friendly crowd,and invited into a shop for tea.As we sat there,a convoy of American tanks went by,their vehicles in beige camouflage,and the soldiers wearing perspex face visors for protection.Wanting to appear cool about this,and presuming that this would be a common sight around the country over the next few weeks,I didn't even get up from the floor to take a photograph,and craned my neck to watch them go by from inside the shop.
The enterprise in which I was being entertained seemed to have too many employees,and too little business,as a family of half a dozen men sold wedding paraphernalia to occasional customers.They told me that there were many such shops in the city,and their prime central location seemed somewhat wasted on this low income business.Talk drifted to their desire to get visas for the UK,and also their attempt to make something from my presence.Eventually I was encouraged to visit the local mosque with one of the family,but it was a long way,and the looks of the locals became increasingly menacing as we approached.When one man shouted at me that they didn't want any cameras down there,we turned back,and I returned to my hotel.I didn't feel like handing over the expected tip,after nearly being walked into trouble.As we reached the road outside the hotel,an elderly bearded native in a shalwar kameez,was laying cassette tape in a long line along the gutter for thirty yards.Another local man told me "He's a mad man..." when I asked why he was doing this,and explained that this nonsensical litterbugging happens often in Britain as well.Those who do it in the UK are undoubtedly insane,but I wondered if here,it was a Taliban thing.Their pride and embarrasment prevented them from explaining,to a foreign visitor who had already experienced a considerable dose of their complex hospitality code called Pashtunwali.
On departure the following morning,I took a rickshaw direct to the bus station.As I loaded my baggage into the back compartment of another minibus,three NATO helicopters from the ISAF mission flew noisily overhead.The locals seemed more curious of my reaction to this,than I was of their's.We just shrugged at each other and got on with the day.
We passed through a series of gorges,past a reservoir,up hill and yond dale,making a brief stop in Sarobi. This was because the police were charging people to use the new road,and our driver got out and left us to negotiate,before being redirected around the block and up a back alley by an official who had clearly taken a bribe to allow us use of the better road at a lower rate.
We finally arrived in the eastern suburbs of Kabul,This area is a large industrial estate.Some of the premises have been taken over as military bases by both local and ISAF forces,or by aid agencies.We overtook a small 3 man foot patrol of British soldiers,and then hit the city for real,stopping at Abdul Haq Square.In the middle of the traffic island here is a tribute to the politician and former Mujahideen commander,who returned to Afghanistan in 2001 to rally coalition support,only to be surrounded by the Taliban and hanged,before the help that he had radioed for arrived.
Here,I took leave of the minibus and with the help of the driver,flagged down a taxi,which drove me to the Spinzar Hotel.I was still finding it hard to believe that this second most famous war zone was safe for foreigners,and I hurriedly picked up my bags one more time and crossed the road to the hotel.Everybody in the area seemed all smiles,however,and the reception did not seem particularly taken aback by my arrival,as I paid my $17 for the first night,although their unarmed security guard did search my baggage on entry,for the first and last time during my stay.I began to change my mindset and did not see the government controlled parts of the country as remotely hostile,again.Common sense was clearly the only necessary precaution,and civilians were unlikely to be attacked.Proceed with caution,would be my advice to anyone travelling the same way,but there appeared to be no need to take this to extremes.