Alistair Caldicott

Through Afghanistan

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Chapter 4 - Jam Today and Snow Tomorrow

It was 5 am. Zahir already had his first cigarette wedged into his mouth, and was waiting for us to load up.

'Harakat! Harakat!' he implored to his bleary-eyed, confused comrades. Lets move!

I felt totally disorientated waking up in a chilly, dark and strange place. Having reluctantly dragged myself out of my warm sleeping bag, I started to count down the minutes to the first comforting flickers of daylight. A heavy fog was suffocating us. Before long, we were once again rocking and rolling into motion, thumping and bumping up improbably tight mountain bends in near darkness. The track clung tenuously, but tenaciously, to the edge of the mountains.

Misty mountain passes slowly revealed themselves ahead of us, in the murky light. Or were we revving our way through actual clouds themselves? It was hard to tell. The terrain brooded gloomily. It had rained heavily overnight and a steady, continuous drizzle still lingered. The downhill sections were treacherously muddy and slippery. As we swerved around tight corners, rocks and boulders crashed and clattered away noisily down steep slopes into water far below. Occasionally, I thought we had ran aground on some of the larger slabs of rock, as Zahir crunched the gears down.

More and more overspill run-off water crossed our path at irregular intervals. Then it all seemed to merge together in one condensed bottleneck of fury. In a vertical gash of the rock, we were actually driving at full pelt down a full flowing river. Zahir concentrated furiously. We all did.

I leant forward in constant anticipation of my first glimpse of the fabled Minaret of Jam. This strange, fabled object, 65 metres high, supposedly the second highest of its kind in the entire world. How unlikely that it would appear in an environment like this.

We plunged and slid, with a minimum of control, down steep mountain tracks, which just gave up and yielded to full, fast flowing water. This was almost white water rafting in a motor vehicle, which was now finally living up to it Super Off Roader name. Although, I did wonder what use the bumper bars on the front would ever be on such terrain. Maybe they contained a hidden emergency life raft.

The river narrowed. Its flow accelerated. It seemed infuriated by its own narrowing, and demanded our attention. The tumbling torrent of water grew in volume to the point where we had to raise our voices just to be heard in conversation. We were being squeezed tighter and tighter against these dauntingly high walls with fewer and fewer inches to spare.

Zahir even moderated the aggression of his driving, but only by a small amount. The local man sitting in the front next to him, who always seemed to have cheerful features, whatever our predicament, nervously braced himself. He grasped his Pakul woollen cap and rolled it down tightly, in the hope it might offer extra protection.

Then in the middle of nowhere, where our rushing river, the Hari Rud, converged with another river, the river Jam, out of nowhere, it emerged. This really was the Minaret of Jam, once believed to have been the second highest tower in the whole world, implausibly soaring upwards in front of us on the banks of another faster, wider river. Strangely, for something so sizeable in such barren surroundings, it disguised itself superbly, and almost blended into the terrain surrounding it.

A big grey and white dog leapt at our vehicle to angrily greet us with snarling barks. A small blue stop sign on a crooked stick represented the only real intrusion of modernity to control would-be visitors. Although, it had the air of somewhere that had gone a very long time without any visitors at all. I had to go back a significant distance to fit the entirety of the minaret into one photo, and also to absorb the unlikely setting. How could something as magnificent and tall as this be situated in surroundings so seemingly hostile to human habitation?

It was such a solitary object. On the outside, in Arabic, some chapters of the Koran had been inscribed gracefully. It had an octagonal base, made from slabs of baked brick. Glazed, light blue tiles half way up added a dash of much needed colour.

The others were climbing up the side of it to clamber inside. When I did the same, I followed a narrow spiral staircase, which wound its way right to the very top. There was something of an Aladdin's Cave of promised treasure about it inside. The bricks were loose. It was an uncomfortable climb, and arduous too at over sixty metres high, but there was always the promise of something gratifying at the end. It was to be a micro chasm of the journey through the country as a whole.

My climb inside the Minaret of Jam was also made challenging by missing bricks at regular intervals, bricks which had probably been removed to be smuggled on, I guessed. It gave me a sense of why the minaret was in imminent danger of collapsing. From the outside, it looked magnificent. From the inside, it was crumbling badly.

But the Minaret of Jam hinted at something extra hidden away, which gave me pause for consideration, as I perched somewhat uncomfortably at the highest point I could reach inside the tower. It required a lot of hard imagination, but there was the slightest sniff of lost former glory, and the perceptible sense of a lost dynasty and culture, which existed hundreds of years ago.

I wondered how many other unexplored treasures were waiting to be discovered in this fractured jewel of a country.

This place was not really somewhere that outsiders have come to, or indeed, do travel to today. The journey we had covered from Herat to here was only first knowingly covered by a foreigner, a Frenchman, just under fifty years ago. You were not supposed to reach it easily. And, having seen first hand how tightly the mountains protectively encircled this lonely monument, I realised why.

The Minaret of Jam was virtually unknown to the west until the 1950's. Somehow, it has survived several earthquakes as well as the threat of water erosion from the two converging rivers. It was believed to have been the tallest tower in the world at the time of its construction.

Swirls of mist teased and tickled the slender constricted slit of pale blue river far below. The darkness and rubble inside the Minaret of Jam tower made the beginnings of my inched descent frequently perilous, as I clambered down. What was even more perilous, however, was me taking the wrong staircase back down to the bottom and finding it was completely bricked in. I had become stuck.

I could hear noises on the outside, but they couldn't hear my noises for the roar of the river. Inside, there was only an uneasy and musty silence. A secret tunnel was rumoured to have led from the base of the minaret, underneath the river, and up to the palace, which was on the top of the mountain. But I did not have the inclination to start such an expedition, so I retraced my steps back up to eventually navigate the correct way out into daylight again.

We had spent an hour or so looking around the Minaret of Jam, when a man from the only nearby building belatedly came out, and tried to charge us money for taking photos. A wooden UNESCO sign rested very casually against a fence. They definitely weren't use to having visitors here.

For some reason, my mind flashed back to being drowned in a sea of throttling tourist humanity at a selection of Egypt's famous tourist attractions. Travel was all about experiencing contrasts, and that was about as far down the other end of the spectrum as I could think of.

A motorbike was wobbling precariously, in a desperate attempt to scrape across the most rudimentary looking of wooden bridges, which just skimmed over the raging river water. The bridge wobbled nervously under the strain. I did not have time to witness the outcome. Zahir wanted to get behind the wheel again.

'Harakat! Harakat!' he implored again. Lets move!

Refreshed by the exercise and fresh air, the journey continued. We went out as we had come in. We climbed and climbed, following narrow slits, which bisected craggy scree slopes brimming with black slab-sized boulders. Driving up through the rivers was nothing new. It made a change from driving down them. Under the Ghorid empire, camel trains also had to take this same route, so steep and narrow were the natural ravines. Causeways of wooden planks were laid over the narrowing river to make the passage smoother.

We did not have camels, we had a Super Off Roader and a crazy driver. Zahir was energised again, shouting furiously at wandering donkeys to get out of our way. In truth, we were not travelling much quicker than they were. We staggered over rogue boulders and potholed dents. It was almost as if they had all been constructed deliberately to test the driver's skills. He passed the test with theatrical and noisy aplomb.

The rain turned to snow, which arrowed into us, heavier and heavier. The snow was preceded by some hard sleet and hail. The temperature plunged even lower. I remembered that my bag was the top one on the roof, and was probably soaked through by now. The man in the front seat had his traditional roll down hat well and truly unrolled down over his ears by now, but he still managed to keep smiling.

In places the road, or track, just gave up altogether. So Zahir came up with the wonderfully inspiring idea of driving through a boggy river instead. By now, there was a substantial coating of snow on the ground. I reserved judgement for a while, bowing to his experience. But, as our vehicle revved up for the twelfth or thirteenth time in deep mud, I started to have major doubts.

In fact, things got a lot worse. We had gone far too far off road, and were embedded at a 45 degree angle in deep mud, half in the river and half out. It didn't look good. We were in stuck in mud, and I realised I had come to be stuck in one of the world's most inaccessible countries.

All weight had to be removed from the vehicle. We did our best to push hard from behind in efforts to free it. My Finnish friend, wearing white trousers, collected a considerable amount of black mud, as it splayed out from under the wheel.

Nothing moved. We were still stuck. Plenty of vocal willing and heavy engine revving made no difference. A lot of digging ensued. We all went off to find large boulders to place under the wheels. I had totally forgotten the danger of land mines, as I stumbled through the snow, looking for big rocks to insert under the mud-splattered vehicle. It was degenerating into one big, cold, muddy mess.

A hostile sense of vastness instilled itself. It was hard to think of anywhere further removed from everything we would have been used to in the west. Not for nothing, did mountains make up three quarters of Afghanistan.

The mountains behind us were once named Paropamisus by the Greeks. The name came from a Persian word, meaning 'peaks over which eagles cannot fly'. Aristotle once thought that, from these mountains you would be able to see the eastern edge of the earth. It was always seen as a critical natural frontier. Several feet of snow was the norm in winter, when temperatures sunk down to minus thirty and snow blizzards made navigation a guessing game.

Ultimately, these mountains would continue, in one form or another, for hundreds of miles eastwards, into the dizzy heights of the Hindu Kush, which translated as Hindu Killer, then the mighty Himalayas and finally, the elevated plains of Tibet, far, far away.

I had seen places around the world before, which might have got stuck a couple of decades in the past, but this was more like centuries than decades. In reality, if you went by the traditional Afghan solar calendar, which I had earlier seen in Herat, and which had been readopted by the new government, the year was officially 1385. So, in a manner of speaking, we were officially back in the fourteenth century.

The path we were attempting to drive over also used to be known as Shotor Khun, which meant 'camel's blood'. Men who had attempted this route in years gone by, worried about their camels getting nosebleeds from the high altitudes, which rose to fourteen thousand feet. Never mind camels, it was still proving challenging enough getting a motor vehicle over it in the twenty first century. Or was it the fourteenth century?

After an hour or so of this effort to achieve motion again, the vehicle finally escaped. It was a great relief. We were all getting our breath back. I noticed my Finnish friend's beard was now more black than Scandinavian blond with mud. Then we watched in disbelief.

Instead of reversing back up to the main track, Zahir had continued his kamikaze route further along the river. All too predictably, he came to a halt again in the muddy bog. This time, it looked deeper and more severe. Zahir paused briefly to simultaneously admire and curse the mess he had just driven into, before commencing some furious digging underneath the vehicle. It was only at this point, that I noticed the scuffed open-toed black sandals he was wearing.

It had all been merry fun for the first hour, but the prospect of going through the same rigmarole again, scrabbling away with cold and wet snow still driving into us, diminished the fun novelty of it all. It might have been time to pray. Could we not give the AA a ring, perhaps? Or hitch a ride on one of the donkeys?

So once again, half of the river bed was excavated, and a small quarry of large boulders was gathered up. The engine was revved to the point of being painful to listen to. Even more black mud was sprayed and splattered everywhere. Until, to greatly relieved claps and cheers, we were free. In unison, each one of us pleaded, 'Stay away from the river, Zahir!'

He didn't of course. But there was plenty more off-piste action to come, and his eyes lit up greatly at this prospect. There was more mud, more sliding. Santtu's beard got blacker and more matted, neither of which troubled him in the remotest. It was best to treat it all as some sort of fun game.

The road was no longer perilous. It was merely dangerous. You just never knew what might around the next corner, if you stayed in one piece to reach it first, that was. As much as the roads were treacherous, the scenery was sweeping out superlatives inside my head, for its own stunning magnificence. Perhaps the best thing about it, was that no twenty minutes of driving was ever the same, both outside the car and inside it too.

Still it was not quite to everyone's enjoyment, as I looked across at my companions.

'I am shitting to my pants.' Sandtu exclaimed. 'These roads are not so good for my arse.'

I was taking several photos, so Zahir pulled over, and we all took a well deserved rest in more benign weather conditions. The driver himself just slumped flat out onto the soft, muddy sand, with the trademark cigarette in his mouth. The appearance of the sun was extremely welcome. I needed to thaw my hands and feet, and basked in its warmth like an amphibian. He pointed at each of us, motioned the digging action from earlier in the muddy bog, and said, 'Az Khod! Az Khod!' It meant 'One of us!'

We were soon drowning in music again and could only communicate by shouting. 'Yossi Yossi!' was the familiar impetus for lunging surges of acceleration. For a bit of fun, I decided to enter into the spirit of things and sing along, which generated much merriment. It also ensured that nothing else but 'Yossi Yossi!'would be played again for the rest of the entire journey.

Zahir had his sunglasses back on again. The theatrical driving rollercoaster continued. His spirit of optimism infected everyone once again. In very sudden and dramatically disruptive ways, the driving rhythm would quicken up, it would slacken, then urgently quicken up again. The driver and I exchanged mischievous glances and laughed, like we had known each other for years. It felt like we had.

The mountains were still high, and the air outside was still cold, but we were on the descent downwards through winding gorges. The atmosphere inside the Super Off Roader, which felt like a second home by now, lightened tremendously, to the point of near celebration, as the destination became closer.

It was a pleasant surprise to arrive somewhere before daylight had been smothered. After following the river around some more tight hairpin bends, the settlement of Chakhcheran lay ahead of us on the south bank of the Hari Rud. After all the little villages and mini-settlements, this was like a big city metropolis.

Although there was only one main battered and broken track through the town.

And it was here on the outskirts, that our thrill-a-minute journey in the hands of Zahir came to an end. He dropped us off at a house on the outskirts. The residents were adolescent males, but they were positively delighted to see us. It was welcome sanctuary. Boys insisted on carrying our bags and taking our coats, once we were safely ensconced inside their cosily warm residence. There were no women in sight.

Zahir, the man with the manic grin, who had nerves of steel and the laugh of a hyena, would have to say goodbye here. He got a deserved round of applause. As Zahir left us, presumably relishing the immediate prospect of a return drive, he requested that we write a reference for him in English, which he could take back to Herat. So I scraped together a piece of paper and a pen and wrote,

'Zahir has driven like a King for us. He is a very good driver, especially on bad roads, of which there were many. He is also very good at keeping his passengers entertained.'

He could not understand a word of it, of course, but to look at his expression of gratitude, you would never have known. We were sad to see him depart and I think the feeling was mutual.

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