Alistair Caldicott

Through Afghanistan

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Through Afghanistan Prelude

Why travel across Afghanistan?

Even as I queued to be let across the Iranian border, I was still struggling to pinpoint exactly what had animated such an endeavour for myself. If you tell someone you are planning to go to Afghanistan, it certainly wakes them up. They choke, or recoil in disturbed horror, when you mention the name. Afghanistan is definitely not the sort of place that most sane thinking people would ever consider heading into. That's partly why I didn't tend to mention it beforehand. It was not, and is still not, an easy question to answer convincingly with conviction.

In 2001, a few weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks, I ran a marathon in New York. It gave the people of New York the opportunity to defiantly put two fingers up to the terrorists who had tried to destroy their city. After the wreckage of something so life destroying, I felt privileged to play a very tiny part in doing something incredibly life affirming.

A subsequent war was waged against the terrorists in Afghanistan. This was the total opposite, other end of the spectrum. As far removed as anyone could imagine from everything which people in the West regarded as civilised and developed.

Almost exactly four years on from New York, I also found myself at the opposite end of the spectrum, as I entered into Afghanistan. Travelling is all about meaningful contrasts, and they really did not come much more contrasting than this. New York had confounded my expectations in a positive way, and I just wondered if Afghanistan might do the same.

In a rather loose way, I wanted to go and see the country for myself. After leaving Iran, I also had some dates marked down for something in Pakistan, which I didn't want to miss. Funny as it might sound, I preferred not to dwell too much on the 'why' and preoccupy myself more with the 'how', which as it turned out, consumed quite a bit of time anyway. I intended to cross Afghanistan more in optimism than certainty.

At the early dawn of a relatively new century, Afghanistan had slipped into being a forgotten and used country. Suddenly, events elsewhere ensured that it could no longer be conveniently ignored. It was exposed to the world's glare once more. But how accurate and truthful was this glare? How far did it really penetrate into the country?

Afghanistan is not an easy country to understand straightaway, if ever at all. It is a curious enigma of a country. But, if we are honest, we have come to see it through some very narrow and far away binoculars. The country that you do not find on news reports also happens to be one endowed with its share of great natural beauty and hospitable people, both probably more striking than many other countries on earth.

It was still Afghanistan though. No one recommended going there. No one was supposed to go there on their own. In so many ways, Afghanistan has remained an unknown country and one of the least reached lands on earth.

'Providing you are full of both enthusiasm and daring, if above all you have plenty of time, if you possess a vehicle capable of standing up to the ultimate challenge, if you do not mind sleeping under relative conditions of comfort, basically if you are ready for anything. Chances are that once you are you will meet no living soul to offer succour. Proceed, therefore, knowing that you have been warned. I am reluctant to recommend this route without grave reservations.'

This was extremely helpful, relevant information, which I did not get around to reading until long after I had completed the journey it described, straight through the middle of Afghanistan. Sometimes, the only option is to travel blind.

Nancy Hatch Dupree, A Historical Guide to Afghanistan:

'Only the adventurous should set out to cross Afghanistan via the Central Route. Even these adventurous souls are entreated to make sure they have a hardy vehicle, or preferably two, hardy drivers...and, above all, an infinite enthusiasm for roughing it. This said, may I assure the properly prepared and equipped that the trip is highly rewarding and guaranteed to be memorable. Note, furthermore, that this route is normally only open from approximately June through October.'

It was the middle of November. There was no turning back.

The combination of the intimidating and the enthralling enticed me in, almost straight away. One way or another, I had to make my way through Central Afghanistan.

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