“When Allah had made the rest of the world, He saw that there was a lot of rubbish left over, bits and pieces and things that did not fit anywhere else. He collected them all together and threw them down on to the earth. That was AFGHANISTAN!”
- A Wise old Afghan Mujahed
After leaving Band-e amir the comfort level dropped dramatically! No more decent roads, or comfortable rides. From then on we crammed into already tightly packed vehicles (of all kinds) and had to share space with chickens, luggage and the rest of the people who had been waiting as long for their ride, as we had for ours. Saying that travel was slow in that part of the country doesn’t paint a clear enough picture. The roads are coated with about a foot of powdery dust. Huge pot holes and stones in the road are the norm. Of course there’s no air conditioning, so everyone opens the windows, allowing a tidal wave of dirt and dust to constantly drench us! We all had our turbans undone and wrapped around our faces, covering our nose and mouth, but that just made it difficult to breath. Before too long, it looked as if we all had dirty (hehe) blond hair. Dirt and dust covered everything, our faces, mouths, the inside of our noses, our arms, backpacks and the whole interior of the jeeps, or whatever we were driving in at the time!
All of that paled in comparison to the pain and discomfort we felt from sitting on bad, or no seats, having our knee’s dig into the seat in front of us (sharp metal bars many times) and going air born with every bump, hole or stone in the road! Sometimes we couldn’t move our legs for six to eight hours at a time and we could never stretch them. We had all been traveling in Asia for a while at that point (well over a year) and had been on countless chicken buses, with little to no leg room, but with the heat, the dirt and the long stretches of driving with nothing to look forward to (no cold drinks at the next stop and no showers at night) and the pain of being stuck in some advanced Yoga position, with metal digging into your knees and people puking out the windows, nothing had prepared us for this test of endurance (since, that’s kind of what it turned into).
So, there’s the background info, now I can fill you all in on where we went after Band-e Amir, and now you know all about our happy times driving there.
We finally talked a driver into taking the four of us to the next village, Yakawlang. The mini-van was already full, but we knew if we didn’t catch this ride now, we’d have to wait a week until the next Friday, when all the Afghan tourists come to the lake, to get our next chance. So, we all did our Yoga in order to fit inside of the vehicle and were baptized for the first time (Oh no…. but not the last!) in our lives… with dirt! Still though, we were excited to move on to a new and different village and we were still in Afghanistan, so we knew that anything could happen at any moment. Upon our arrival at Yakawlang, I (since I was getting sicker) sat with the backpacks, while all of my friends split up to see what, if anything was in this village, but primarily to find a ChaiKhana. Those same routines would be repeated over the next few days as we kept arriving in new villages, with someone different standing watch over our foreign looking backpacks.
Meanwhile, while my friends were gone, word had quickly spread throughout the village that some weird looking whitey’s had arrived. Within minutes, it seemed every male in the village, young and old had come out to see the “whitey’s”. They formed a huge circle around me and since they don’t understand the “comfortable space” between two strangers, that we all take for granted in this part of the world, they got “all up in my Grill!” They were innocently curious though, but it didn’t take them long to come to the conclusion (since I had a Taliban worthy beard at that point) that I looked like a homeless-hippie-terrorist! Anyway, my friends had to push people out of the way like they were in a mosh pit, in order to tell me that the head man (police/political head) wanted to talk to all of us before we stayed or moved on.
So, we met the boss man and he tried his hardest to look more important and powerful than we all suspected he really was, but he was nice and respectful to us. Sharing a pot of tea with us he just wanted to know who we were and what we were doing there. When I told him I was American he just couldn’t understand why I didn’t hire a car in Kabul, since I was rich! In his defense, from Yakawlang westward to Herat, buses are non-existent and flying coaches (mini-vans) are few and very far between. There aren’t many backpackers on a budget here and no one just shows up in some village and waits for the next flying coach to come along. Almost every tourist rents a private car, or sticks to the main roads between Kabul and Mazar-E Sharif, or the okay road from Kabul to Bamiyan and a bit further maybe to Band-e Amir. So waiting hours, sometimes days for a ride turned out to be part of the Afghan backpacking experience. Both of these processes too (meeting the head dude and waiting for a ride) would end up repeating themselves again and again, every time we arrived at a new village. And so it was that in every mud hut, village or town from Band-e Amir westward to Herat, (well, actually Yakawlang, Panjab, La’lva Sar Jangal, Gardani Garmab Pass and Chaghcharan) an Australian, Chinese/Canadian, German and American traveling together, all beat up, sick, skinny, dirty and smelly, met the power drunk man in charge of each his own territory and impressed upon them the superior cleanliness of the developed world.
By the time we got to Lal (La’lva Sar Jangal), Sue the Chinese/Canadian, was ready to give up. Not only did he get food poisoning (or something just like it), but he was also being eaten alive from bed bugs and flea’s, so adding the baptism of dirt, the bland food (the same everywhere… never want cotton seed oil again!!) and the terrible roads, didn’t help much! The rest of us were sore, and running very low on Afghans. To boost our moral level we finally found a well that wasn’t surrounded with woman (not that WE cared) and we each washed up there. Not a shower, but damn it was nice. The woman were beautiful in this part of the country too. The only time we would get a glimpse was while they were washing dishes or clothes at the wells. They didn’t wear Burkha’s in that part of the country and usually didn’t even cover their faces. Their eye’s were beautiful and their hair style only added to their beauty . They braided their hair, wrapped it around their head and clipped it across their forehead and their clothing had, what I can only describe as a Tibetan style to it.
Gardani Garmab Pass (they just say Garmab) was our next stop, it was only three hours (125 Kilometers) away and 100 Afghans each. It wasn’t very far, but it was so hard to find any ride westward that we got all excited and we always clung to the hope that we would catch a direct ride to Herat at the next village. A bigger than normal crowd formed instantly in Garmab and they were right up in our faces again, they were so close to us that we couldn’t even bend over to fix our sandals. Within minutes a young cop broke through the crowd saying that he just received a phone call from La’l (the head dude that we checked in with there). The kid cop (no older than 15) told us “you are very dangerous, you must leave now!”, I think he meant that the town was dangerous? Anyway, without hesitating, we all told him “Yes! We’re very dangerous, kick us out now! Get us a ride to Herat!!!” We told him to ask a nearby truck driver (who was leaving anyway) to take us and we would sit on the roof, but the driver wanted too much money and riding on the roof in Afghanistan wouldn’t be fun! We were kidding around for a while after that about us being such bad asses that we got kicked out of a town in Afghanistan!!
The next day would be our lucky day, we found a driver willing to take us the rest of the way to Herat! Praise be to Allah! We were all relieved about the ride, no more waiting for hours or days, plus after we paid I had only 50 Afghans to my name (one dollar) and just 9 days left on my visa, great timing! Our moods quickly changed when it came time to find a seat and saw that there were already 12 people, plus their luggage inside the tiny vehicle! This was gonna be Bad! We had a broken seat, no cushion under us and metal bars (from the seats in front of us) digging into our knees, and we weren’t even moving yet! We ended up driving 7 hours the first day, 15 the second and 5 the third! I will speak no more of my dark feelings in that vehicle! The one bright spot from that whole drive came when we passed a jeep that had a flat tire and no jack. Our driver, knowing that it could be a long time before another car comes along, did exactly what he should have, he stopped to help change the tire. We all ran out of the Van and stretched and kissed the dirt, we were so thankful to change positions! One by one we looked around and noticed a field with a few farmers close by. Then, almost all at once we noticed that it wasn’t just some regular field, it was an Poppy field! We all ran towards it, looking for red rocks (land mines), but didn’t see any. We had a close look at the Poppy plants and the farmer had a huge smile on his face (way too happy to be working in the sun all day…). We took pictures with the Poppies and the farmers, closely examined the plants and we could see where the farmers cut the poppy to let a soft tar like fluid run out. That (I think) is pure Opium and after they process it, it becomes the devil…Heroin! I wish we had more time there, but as soon as we arrived at the field, our driver was yelling to us to come back. We made him wait a couple of minutes, acting like we didn’t hear him, but making sure he didn’t try to drive away with out us, not that we couldn’t run faster than he was driving though.
In a nut shell, that was how we got from Band-E Amir to Herat. The landscape got greener and greener the closer we came to Herat and the people that only a couple of hundred kilometers east looked Tajik or Uzbek (almost Mongolian looking), now looked more and more like what I expected Afghani’s to look like. That was the end of three of the hardest days traveling I think I’ve ever had (starting back in Garmab), being as sick as I was (running behind a building after every stop, looking for a suitable place to make a toilet) and not being able to eat didn’t help much either, the lack of water and dyheria resulted in me becoming dehydrated as well! Lots of fun! Still though, when we finally rolled up onto smooth pavement for the first time in over two weeks, we would have welcomed any city, no matter how dirty, with open arms. But, it didn’t take us long to realize that Herat was anything but dirty. It was almost clean and it managed to maintain it’s charm and an identity in a country that was almost totally destroyed by constant (30 years) war, that was a sweet surprise.
Then I slept…