Friday, 13 November 2009

The Road to Balkh

The road from Termez on the Oxus River to Balkh and then over the Hindu Kush to Kabul, has inspired great writers such as Robert Byron (The Road to Oxiana) Arnold Toynbee (Between Oxus and Jumna). Fitzroy Maclean (Eastern Approaches) and the two outstanding Great Game writers, Robert Keay and Peter Hopkirk. Even Eric Newby's 'A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' was motivated by Byron's earlier writings.

On the day the US and British forced launched their attack on Iraq, I was in the Mother of all cities, Balkh. It was also my birthday. March 21, 2003. I travelled with Ali Hassan Quoreshi and Zaman. Here is an extract from my diary and photos I have taken along that road over a 30 year period.

The entrance to The Salang tunnel as you see it coming from Mazar I Sharif, and the men who keep the road open. The Salang Pass (Persian: كتل سالنگ Kotal-e Sālang) (el. 3878 m.) is the major mountain pass connecting northern Afghanistan and Kabul province, with further connections to southern Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Salang River originates nearby and flows south.

The pass crosses the Hindu Kush but is now bypassed through the Salang tunnel, built by the Soviet Union in 1964, which runs underneath it at a height of about 3,400 m. It links Charikar and Kabul with Mazar I Sharif and Termez.

The potter and his family at Istalif. Photo: Bob McKerrow

A boy and his donkey on the roadside. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The Chamar valley in the Hindu Kush. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Mainly Uzbek soldiers at a Nowruz celebration in Mazar I Sharif. Photo: Bob McKerrow

A carpet repairer on the roadside. Photo: Bob McKerrow

At the Blue Mosque in Mazar I Sharif on Nowruz, the fertility pole is raised. Photo: Bob McKerrow

An hour and a half after leaving Kabul the road starts climbing up towards the Hindu Kush. Photo: Bob McKerrow

River Crossing

The game of Bushkashi celebrating Nowruz in Kabul. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Jewett's Tower at Jabal Seraj. In 1911 an American Engineer camne to Jebal Seraj to install Afghanistan's first hydro-electric plant for Amir Habibullah. A.C. Jewett stayed here eight years and built his home and published a book, An American Engineer in Afghanistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Trip from Mazar I Sharif to Kabul 21 March 2003

Had a very informative and interesting visit to Mazar I Sharif. We were due to fly back Saturday 22 March 2003 by Red Cross flight but due to bad weather, it was cancelled. Then, we found out early Sunday that the flight was going from Mazar to Peshawar, Pakistan, and not Kabul. Not wanting to get stuck in Peshawar with events happening in Iraq, Quoreshi and I drove from Mazar I Sharif to Kabul. It was a 13 and a half hour trip

The Afghan Red Crescent Society, supported by the Federation in the north are doing a superb job with 17 very well run Mother and Child Health Clinics.

We also travelled up to Hairaton, on the banks of the Oxus (Amu Daraya River), just near the border of Uzbekistan to visit one project. I marvelled at the history of this great river.

We also went to watch Buskashi, Afghanistan's version of rugby on horseback where they use a headless goat instead of a ball. Great spectacle to watch,

With the war intensifying in Iraq I was expecting some strong protests here but things have been quiet so far. It could flare up at any time.

Trip schedule

0845 Left Mazar with its the typical planted fields mixed with desert patches and blowing sand over the road up to Gowr e Mar, just before the turn-off to Hairaton. Passed a herd of camels grazing just after the turn-off.

0915 50 km. Arrived at Kulm (Tashqurghan) famed for its covered bazaar. I worked here in 1976 after the big Kulm earthquake.. The city has a delightful backdrop of rocky peaks. We are now into ancient Afghanistan with its dried mud houses and from the exterior, it could be the 10th Century . For the next few km the road closes in with villages hemmed in by mud walled as the road narrows to Tangi Tashqurghan, that spectacular gap in high mountain walls through which flows the Tashqurghan River.

0945 Talhuki (now in Samanghan province). There is a distinct lack of animals compared to previous visits to this area.. With 4 years of drought animals have died, been sold or eaten for survival.

0955 Arrived at the outskirts of Samanghan (Aibak) where the trees were blooming with walnut and almond flowers, a hue of pink and white.

For the past 10 km I’ve seen many bomb craters on the road or in nearby fields that were dropped by the American on the fleeing Taliban/suspected Al Quaida. From Alexander's coins on sale in local bazaars, to recent US bomb craters, history is etched into every footstep of this journey.

0957 110 km Arrived in Aibak.

From here you leave the Tashqurghan River and climb up to Kotali Robatak with Mt. Robatak on the left. Grand views of the lower Hindu Kush and across parts of Hazarajat are so striking..

1025 (147 km) Aikak, a small settlement where the road has been washed out by heavy rains in the past few days, is so typical of these old roadside villages.

1040 Enter Baghlan province and drive through Shismasher with either freshly dug or recently planted fields on either side of the road.. Some still being ploughed. This village is nestled in a semi circle of snow covered mountains, the nearest a mere 8 km away.

1220 Arrived at Doshi at the confluence of the Surkhab and Anderab rivers. Here the road branches to Bamiyan and Salang. On entering Doshi there is a delightful tree lined avenue with a disappearing perspective up to the massive heights of the Hindu Kush

From here we then followed the Anderab river up into Khenjan district small, high-walled villages. Pink blossoms gladden the eye on the harsh mud and rocky landscape.

1240 Reached Khenjan where there is a checkpoint. The landscape gets steeper with small, well irrigated wheat fields..

1250 (264 km) climbed up to Walian another small and pretty village. It is surprising how high they plant the wheat fields here..

1255 (267 km) one reaches the first of three new bridges built by the Government of Uzbekistan
The second bridge at 1258 and next at 1303. These strong and smart looking bridges have done much to improve the road and passage of heavy vehicles.

Passed Char Zah the steep roadsides lined with neat rock walls, with old tanks and APC’s littering the road side (Photo above). Good to see stunted pines thriving in the harsh alpine environment, leaving some semblance of bio diversity in the alpine regions.

At about 1330 about 6 km from the tunnel a large volume of vehicles decide to play ‘Machina Bushkashi’ as an undisciplined bunch of drivers try to pass each others with wheels literally hanging over precipices to get ahead of the other car.. Hundreds of trucks lined one side of the road waiting to get through the tunnel.

The author reading from Eric Newby's ' A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' to some local lads in the Panjsher valley. Photo: Ian Clarke.

1338 Made very little progress and now stuck in traffic. I was bursting for a pee and ventured slightly off the road to relieve myself when I saw a red rock. “Mines,” shouted an Afghan in English. The red painted rock indicated the spot where the mines had been cleared too.

1346 Moved a hundred metres or so and then stopped again.

1420 Nearing the first portal

1445 After a lot of stops and starts, through and out of the first portal.

The next hour the ‘machina bushkashi’ continued as the traffic in one direction kept trying to pass one an other, often three abreast for no gain. A real dog eats dog madness interspersed with halts.

1515 Away again, and another 100 metre gained. The car in front of us got stuck in a gaping hole which we managed to avoid.

1530 We got stuck at the second portal close to the entrance to the Salang Tunnel (on the northern side) at 3,800 metres for about 3 hours surrounded by deep snow. A beautiful place to get stuck and we enjoyed the awesome mountain scenery and the very fresh air. A complete stranger in another car shared his dried mulberries with us and then as always, Afghan hospitality is there every time you turn. It was nice to get out and talk to people in the middle of this mountain madness as cars and buses tried the impossible to pass cars that were two and sometimes three abreast, causing even a greater jam.

At 1615 the sun set behind the Hindu Kush and there was a few moments of tranquility as the evening cold starts gnawing at your bones.. Quoreshi and I seemed the only foreigners in a crowd of over 800 Afghans in buses trucks, taxis and cars.

Then it was announced by ACTED road men that a truck and convoy were coming with a dead body from the southern side, despite the road being open only in our direction. Imagine the scene of cars and buses and trucks some three abreast, having to maneuver themselves into a single lane to let a northbound convoy through. I felt there was a need for a mountain giant to appear with a barrel of oil and a crow bar, and to pour oil over all the vehicles and prise them out one by one and stack them in an orderly line. Much to my amazement, a giant wasn’t called for somehow, the vehicles slithered and maneuvered themselves in such a way that the convoy carrying the dead body managed to crawl by.

Looking down from the Salang Pass at the road which winds up from Kabul. Photo: Bob McKerrow

After about half an hour we took off our chains and joined in a race, something like a rally car race, as all and sundry raced for Jebal Seraj and distant Kabul., passing Walang and Salang villages. Looking back over my shoulder I marvelled at the view, the star studded sky and a trail of cars and bus headlights snaking down from the skyline of the Hindu Kush.

2015 Once at Jebal Seraj, after consultation with ICRC through Younis, we decided to head for Kabul as many other cars were doing the same.

What has changed in Kabul is the rainbow colour lights you see miles ahead which illuminates and indicate the many new gas stations.

Passed three checkpoints, the final one being at Khair Khanna as we entered Kabul at 2130. At this checkpoint there was a huge illuminated portrait of Ahmed Shah Massoud, watching over Kabul and its twinkling lights.

Arrived at our House in Wazi Akbar Khan just after 2200 hours.

Another way to cross the Hindu Kush is via the Khotali Anjuman which takes you from the Panjsher valley to the Anjuman valley. Crossing the pass in 1995 with Ian Clarke. Photo: Bob McKerrow

For further reading I recommend The Road to Balkh by Nancy Nancy Hatch Dupree. Afghan Tourist Organisation, 1967


Marja said...

Thanks for taking us along on a trip through this amazing country. I had no idea of its beauty. I love the architecture as well. Also a land which I wouldn't easily visit, because of the problems of course especially the extemists. I have met lots of nice Islamic people especially Turkish so that's not the problem. The ones coming from the inland however are more extremists. In Holland there are many shelters full of woman who are victems of honour killings But I am off track
Just had a discussion with somebody about this so it was still lingering in my mind
Hope you have a great day

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Thanks for your comments Marja. I have been priviliged to visit most corners of Afghanistan and I enjoy writing, and posting photos about it. Fundamentalism, extremism; we have them in all religions. It is not the individual, but the crooked leaders who use uneducated people for their own purposes.

Enjoy the weekend. Bob

Unknown said...

On ya Bob,

Always great to read some first hand stories.

Hope all is well with you.


Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

gidday Jamie

how is married life ? Onya bike mate. You could be a world champion. Bob

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

gidday Jamie

how is married life ? Onya bike mate. You could be a world champion. Bob

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