Alistair Caldicott

Through Afghanistan

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Chapter 1 of Through Afghanistan

A soldier with a big black beard, and an even bigger gun, marched on to my bus and shouted some orders. We were only a few hundred metres inside Afghanistan, after leaving the Iranian border post behind us. There was no turning back now. All around me, outside the windows, a swirling sea of humanity and vehicles surged towards our bus. It felt personal.

Entire families, with all their belongings in bundles, sacks and carts, sometimes with babies wrapped in the middle of it all, plodded the other way around the restive crowd, towards Iran. Why were so many people going in the opposite direction to me, I wondered.

The soldier wanted the bus to be filled with people from the surging crowd. I lowered my hat and my head down as discreetly as I could, so as not to attract any unwanted attention from the stream of people trickling past me onto the bus. Then we accelerated off on the open and relatively well tarmacked road east towards Herat. Another 1460 km would take you all the way to Kabul, in theory at least. It felt guiltily like I was committing an act of international trespassing.

Sat near the front of the bus, I had been with a hard core of these passengers since leaving the Iranian city of Mashhad earlier the same day. After the soldier's departure (I assumed he was a soldier), the atmosphere on board became lighter and more jolly. The driver was back in full, ranting vocal flow. This surprised me because I did not think we would see him again. He had been arrested at the border by Iranian soldiers for boldly attempting to smuggle several large containers of petrol into Afghanistan. A loud argument had ensued and he had been marched off. But that was behind us now.

His voluble ranting started to affect his driving. The bus was tearing along at great speed. It nervously flirted with the dusty verges a couple of times. He was driving like a lunatic, but that was nothing particularly new to me. Having barely escaped the outskirts of Eslam Kala, the border town, we swerved violently to narrowly avoid swiping an unseen motorbike off the road.

For the first time, I had a proper look out of the windows. It was flat, scrubby desert. An appearance of emptiness, strongly suggestive of people having left. Within minutes, I glimpsed an intriguing looking mud brick mini-citadel. Many more mud brick villages, tidy with rounded roofs, followed. On the other side of the road, smooth, sturdy moguls of desert sand rose up. I saw a lonely man desperately trying to control a huge herd of goats towards what looked like the middle of nowhere. For the first time, I sensed this country, Afghanistan, might just serve up some magical surprises.

In one village, the bus stopped to let off a local man. He brushed past me, a large gun slung casually over his right shoulder swinging behind him. I had not even noticed him get on. What kind of country was I entering into? A country where people owned guns, like we owned mobile phones. Where exactly had all these weapons come from?

The driver's chatter died down slightly and his driving became more subdued. It allowed me to take in some of my surroundings. Afghanistan is commonly held up as being a poor, virtually destroyed and dangerous country. When you first enter, you half-expect to encounter some sort of wasteland. This was not the case at all.

A river appeared. Green, fertile plains were lit up by fluorescent flashes of colour from local village women. On the other side of the road, camels grazed on open pastures. Donkeys did the same. Beyond, the sand hills got higher. It was a magnificent slideshow of scenic images. Expect the unexpected in Afghanistan.

An hour or so later, the striking minarets of Herat gave me the slap-in-the-face sensation of finding myself somewhere so totally different from what I had come across before. The next slap in the face was seeing women in blue burkas, which, to my eyes, made the Iranian black chadors seem liberating Western. This was the first time I had seen women wearing burkas in the flesh, except there was definitely no flesh to be seen.

The road petered out and became a dirt track. It seemed there were no roads in Herat, only these dusty dirt tracks, which were scattered with the late afternoon jumbled sprawl of street stalls doing the final business of the day. The traffic was a total free for all. It was too much for my bus to go any further. I was deposited here, and courteously passed into the hands of a wonderful, beaming man with a brown, weathered face, which sat on top of a long white beard. He wore a smart grey waist jacket and an oversized cream turban. He looked like what I always imagined an Afghan warlord would look like. But he was my taxi driver.

Never mind some of the battered, old Iranian Paykans which were built in the 1960's and held Iran together. This vehicle must have hailed form the 1940's. Its interior was coated with decades' worth of layered dust. I did not have time to count all the cobweb cracks of the front windscreen.

Nonetheless, it spluttered into life. The driver reversed up and turned. He managed to chunter the car straight into three lanes of oncoming traffic. A pathetically weak excuse for a horn limply bleated out, optimistically telling the other vehicles to get out of the way. Remarkably, it worked. But then I discovered our vehicle had about as much acceleration as Pavarotti getting out of the bath.

We came to a junction. There was a Toyota Land cruiser on one side and a donkey cart on the other. This man delivered me to the front door of the Marco Polo hotel, where I heaved my dust layered backpack into reception. The first thing I saw was a sign, which read,


I checked my Kalashnikov in, then checked myself in.

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