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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Mazar to Tashkent

I won’t bother checking, but I think I recall writing something in my first post from Afghanistan to do with just the name Afghanistan and how it elicits all these images in people’s minds. It has a certain mysterious and untamed image and for some reason just the name seems to force pictures depicting these two somewhat abstract ideas. Sitting here thinking about it, I can’t help but wonder how for me these things are so strong when I have only be conscious of this country’s existence for perhaps ten years. Of course, the Soviets invaded this country before I was even born and perhaps those ten years that I missed would have given me a different view when I looked in from the outside.

I am very happy to have come to Afghanistan, pleased to have had the chance to come when I did. 

Leaving Kabul
In the 1960s what I am told is a massive tunnel was built in the Hindu Kush to link the northern section of the county with Kabul and parts south. Previously, to get from one side to the other one would have to cross over the mountains or go almost as far west as Herat. If one chose the later option, a desert on the north-west side had to be crossed. This massive tunnel is called the Salang Tunnel and from what I’ve heard is quite the experience. A rough road with potholes deep enough to almost swallow trucks passes through and breakdowns inside are common. Supposedly it is rare that anyone turns their engines off when traffic backs up and this coupled with poor ventilation makes for a potentially toxic mix. Unfortunately for me, the Salang is closed for 22 hours a day for construction at the moment, with only UN vehicles allowed to pass through in the two hours it is open. The alternatives are a two and a half to three day detour around the Salang or a flight. I chose the second option.

Usually I have little qualms about flying. Usually I fly on reputable airlines with aircraft I have confidence in. Ariana Airlines’ Boeing that I took from Herat only served to reinforce this. Sure it was a plane I would have had confidence in ten years ago, but not so much anymore, particularly when operated in Afghanistan. When I bought my ticket on a private outfit called Kam Air in Kabul to Mazar e Sharif, the response came with a smile on their side of the desk and a shudder on mine.

“Antonov 24.” He said.
“Russian airplanes no good. Scary.” I replied.
“No problem. Don’t worry sir. Flight will be okay. I promise.”
“No crashing?”
“No. Good plane.”
“I like Boeing. No Boeing to Mazar? Ariana flies Boeing to Mazar?”
“ No. Only Antonov.”
“Afghan airplanes scary.” I said, drawing nothing but laughter from his side.
I put my arms out, saying “Ariana. Herat to Kabul. Very scary”, then made a jet noise and tilted my arms wildly in both directions and said “Kabul has mountains. No good for flying.”
After the guy behind the desk and his mate next to him recovered from hysterics, they sat quietly and one asked: “Herat to Kabul is Boeing?”
“See, Boeing problem. Antonov good plane.” More laughter.
“Okay. I bring parachute.” I quipped, my grammar having descended to his level – normal for me when talking to people with less-than-perfect English.

I picked up my things and left. He had me. In a country that has seen war for a generation and is now left with the legacy of ten million silent killers laying inches below the ground in the countryside while killer traffic takes up the assault on urban areas, concern for air safety is far down the list of priorities. 

Monday morning I was off to the airport. The plane was late coming in.

Kabul International Airport is not exactly a sprawling place and so passengers are only let into the waiting area shortly before their flight is due to depart. The one large waiting area probably sat about 200 people or so, with space for more standing. The crowd that morning represented a broad cross-section of Afghan society, though surely not a broad cross-section of income levels.

A good number of aid-worker types were there, with about half leaving when one of the UNHAS (United Nations Humanitarian Air Service) flights was announced. Women in burqas sat quietly waiting, all with western-dressed men. The men played with their cell phones. Down my row of seats sat a few apparently well-off Kabuli women: a mother, her daughter, and another woman, maybe the mother’s sister. They all seemed to have all the accoutrement of the nouveau riche: manicures, flashy cell phones, Iranian-style gravity-defying hejabs, and gobs of makeup. The cynic in me got thinking. Where did they, or rather, their husbands get their money? Drugs…opium for sure. No, if they were in that they wouldn’t be flying Ariana with the masses. US military contracts…that must be it. Behind me, flies buzzed around and couldn’t be swatted away. After a few minutes of this I turned to see the culprit: an old man’s turban, obviously in need of cleaning. A move across the room was the only solution.

Shut your damn phone off!
After another half-hour of listening to the polyphonic ring tones from the cell-phones of fat Afghan men, my flight was announced. Once on board, there it was again: one of those damn ring tones. I was sitting near the front of the plane and peered outside where the propeller obscured some of the view. My eyes scanned the wing and engine, looking for bailing twine or duct tape, but to great surprise, none of either. A minute or two before takeoff the pilot emerged from the cockpit in a poorly fitting uniform and flashing a golden smile. He was Russian for sure, on account of the dental work.

The flight to Mazar was over the mountains for almost the entire way – when the mountains finally gave way to the plains beyond, we landed. Mazar is not at the same altitude as Kabul; the heat and humidity was oppressive as soon as the cabin door opened. I was able to find a place to stay without too much difficulty, though was turned away from two places I tried on account of being a foreigner. To say I was a bit on edge may be an understatement: I was walking around the centre city in western clothes with all my gear, I heard Arabic spoken behind me and turned quickly, my surprised look obviously startling to the two Arab men behind me. In the centre of Mazar there is an important shrine so it maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked to hear Arabic as the shrine no doubt draws pilgrims to it. I changed into shalwar kameez as soon as I got into my room in order to better blend in. Later that day a young boy kept insisting I was in the army, asking if I was American – a sign to make myself scarce.

The Road to Tajikistan
The following day I got moving towards the Tajik border. I left Mazar around 7.30am and reached Konduz, east of Mazar, by about 1pm. By 3pm I was on the border with the last hour of the hour and a half trip through a desert with minefields marked the whole way on either side of the road. A river marks the border between the two countries. Aside from one of the customs agents wanting me to give him a CD that I had already burned some files to (and would therefore be useless to him), I got out of Afghanistan without any real hassles.

I fully expected some requests for bribes to meet me on the Tajik side with both Tajiks and Russians serving there. The Russians came in during the Tajik civil war to be peacekeepers and are still around to try to keep Afghanistan’s opium out Russia. The Russians were a motley crue of fat and out-of-shape conscripts. It was painfully obviously that none of them wanted to be sweating their lives away in what is quite literally the middle of nowhere. As I said the Afghan side is heavily mined, and on the Tajik side there is an exclusion zone where nobody lives or farms for about 20km. To my surprise, none of them as much as suggested I give them anything.

Beyond the customs checkpoint lay the den of the taxi sharks’ cartel. A $60 quote for a car to Dushanbe turned into a $5 ride to the first town once I started walking. It is a good thing they didn’t call my bluff or I would still be out there walking. After another hard round of bargaining in that first town I got a taxi the rest of the way for $15. A Mercedes in fact.

Afghanistan vs. Tajikistan
The differences between Tajikistan and Afghanistan are immediately apparent. Aside from the obvious like the language on advertisements and signs, the Soviets seem to have had some success in their irrigation programs in Tajikistan whereas in Afghanistan if there ever were irrigation projects in the north, they are long gone. I have heard that there is good pre-soviet irrigation in the south near Kandahar but I wasn’t going to go down to that hornet’s nest to find out. The infrastructure in Tajikistan is better all around, there is less garbage strewn around, and, of course there aren’t carcasses of tanks and APCs everywhere. The people in Tajikistan don’t have the same number of seemingly preventable and easily correctable ailments and conditions as Afghans do. For example, whereas dermatological problems seem to be widespread in Afghanistan, they are less so in Tajikistan. Clubbed feet are very common in Afghanistan, as are similar types of deformities; the impact of Soviet medicine is quite obvious.

It was late by the time we got to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. After getting quite lost I found acceptable (but overpriced) accommodation for the night. The following day I took some time to explore Dushanbe and found it quite pleasant but typically Soviet in design. Wide avenues lined by gargantuan concrete structures seem to have been en vogue for Soviet planners for decades. Thankfully the centre city has a good number of older looking Soviet buildings, mostly government offices. Given the history of the city I would guess most of these would have been built shortly after the war and now the outside of all of them seem to be in good repair with fresh paint. The plaster logos of the Communist Party remain on the facades, never too far from new symbols for a new state.

Tourists in Tajikistan?
To my great surprise I ran into some other tourists in Dushanbe on my first full day. These three poles were in Tajikistan to go trekking in the Pamirs, home to some of the tallest mountains in the world outside of the Himalayas. I new the Pamirs were a popular spot, particularly for people from the former communist block, but I just never expected to see any of them. They had just finished arranging their permits and visa for Russia for their return home and were leaving the following day. That night they were able to show me to a cheap place to stay that I had read about in a guestbook in Tehran but had deemed the directions to be too incomplete to search for. This new place was cheaper but still bad value. By mid-way through my second day in Dushanbe, it fast became boring, particularly after finding a massive construction site where a museum I wanted to look at once stood. One policeman was particularly amusing, instead of just asking for money, he asked for vodka. When I refused to give him anything, he tried to stop me from taking a photo of a massive monument of Ismail Somoni, the newly minted national hero of the Tajik state. I snapped my photos with a grin then laughed at him when he tried to whistle down some kids on bikes.

Thursday I took an all-day trip north to Khojand in a shared Volga taxi. Stalin took cookie cutters when drawing and redrawing the borders here in Central Asia and so the borders make little sense. The Tajiks were forced to carve this road through the mountains recently because there was no road route to link the northern and southern parts of the country together. Under the Soviets, road routes via Uzbekistan could be used instead. When we got to Khojand at around 8pm I was invited to stay with one of the guys who I shared the taxi with. He spoke little English; I speak no Russian and only a few words in Tajik.

We had no common language and so I was left wondering what time we would be leaving his brother’s beach-side bar and restaurant until we finally picked up and went around 12:30. In the meantime too-loud Russian techno music blared in this place that seemed to be eerily reminiscent of a middle-school dance.

Friday morning we went back to the same bar and restaurant. In the daylight I could see why people go there and why Russians would fly all the way down here from Moscow for a week-long vacation. The clear blue lake was ringed by a series of small but nice beaches. Once we finally got moving again we got back to Khojand and I was able to take a quick look around and snap some photos before heading for the border with my visa about to expire.

I am now in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. My first impression is that it is a police state. There are three policemen in my little hotel!
 In the next few weeks I’ll see if this holds true.

Mazar e Sharif, Afghanistan. Women in the characteristic white burqas of Mazar pass in front of the shrine in the centre of the city.

Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Is this normal for Dushanbe? An old man walks with a rather sorry looking bear on a chain.

West of Khojand, Tajikistan. Gasoline is still a little scarce and places to fill up are few. Most people fill up from tanker trucks like this one.

On the Afghan side of the Afghan-Tajik Border. Outside of Kabul the carcasses of Soviet tanks and APCs seem to be everywhere, including outside the customs checkpoint here.

Khojand, Tajikistan. Lenin still stands high over this city and the oblast or region is still called Leninobad. In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan I saw his stutue being removed in August 2003. In Uzbekistan where I sit now, I have yet to see any communist-era statues.

Mazar e Sharif, Afghanistan. Watermelon seems to be the only fruit available in Mazar. There aren't too many vegetables either.

On the Dushanbe-Khojand Road, Tajikistan.

Hey, nice and very interesting blog entry i'd say, i found you on the VirtualTorist.com, my name is htere T-Moor, i am myself from Uzbekistan, just wanted to say hi and wish u good ;uck in your journey throught the "Stans"
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