Another Stroll in the Hindu Kush #3
11/August/2005 – Peshawar to Kabul
I awoke early, had my usual Paki breakfast then went down to the Rose
Hotel office to meet Prince. It was a small taxi that drove around to
the Khyber Agency office to pick-up the armed guard. While waiting for
the guard I watch some small boys herding goats…in downtown
Peshawar…then we were off to Torkham. It was a bit hazy, but it felt
great to be heading back into the good ol’ Khyber Pass. Not much had
changed since the first time I came through in the autumn of 1972. When
we stopped to put water in the radiator I got out and took some photos.
The guard was nice enough to lend me his AK-47 for a classic shot in the
Khyber Pass. Little did I realize at the time that this would be the
recurrent theme for the whole trip.
For me it echoed an earlier picture
I still had framed on my office wall back at the University, – a younger
‘me’ carrying an AK during the Afghan war with the Soviets twenty years
before, taken when I was buying rough lapis from Massoud’s Muj for my
gem business in Kathmandu.
I walked across the Afghan border at 10:30. I was surprised to see
computers and digital photos being taken on the Pak side of the
border…this was new. On the Af side you could barely even find the
office where you had to sign in with a ballpoint pen and get your blurry
green entry stamp. I had no trouble finding a shared Toyota Corolla taxi
to Kabul. I bargain for a bit and got the front seat for 600afs, about
$10. The back was filled with a Tadjik from the Panjshir and two
Pakistani Pathans from the Tribal areas.
The road to Jalalabad was much worse than 3 years before. There were
many ‘Diversions’ – long, bumpy, dusty detours around construction work
to widen the old two-lane blacktop. We stopped for lunch in Jalalabad.
On the drive we came upon several American roadblocks, I noticed a
couple of new American bases outside of town, the one with the
helicopters coming and going that was manned by soldiers with beards and
semi-Afghan outfits…US Special Forces, no doubt.
Three years before, the Khord Kabul – The Kabul Gorge, infamous site of
the British massacre of 1841 – was one of the worst roads I had ever
ridden on. This year it was smooth, newly laid blacktop. After that the
road got seriously bad! When we came out on the plains at the top of the
gorge there was another major ‘Diversion’. This time way out of our way
through narrow mountain passes; unpaved, dusty, twisty, windy,
nasty…roll-up the window to keep out the dust and the greenhouse effect
kicks in and its 55 degrees centigrade, roll down the window and our
lungs were filled with choking dust, even through a scarf. We
encountered wrecked, overturned trucks strew down the steep gorges all
along the way. Hour after hour of what seemed like hell. Little did I
know that this was mild compared to what awaited me on the back way to
Herat from Mazar-i-Sharif.
We finally arrived at ‘Bagrami’ a large mini-bus and taxi stop outside
of Kabul. I shared a local taxi into town with the Tadjik man who had
ridden with us to Kabul from the border …200 afs – 1/3rd the price of
the entire trip from Torkham. I was really relieved to roll up to the
Mustafa Hotel in Shar-i-Nau, near the bottom of Chicken Street. The same
hotel had been there during the 1970’s, but we had never bothered to
stay, it had been too expensive for our pilgrim’s budget, and besides,
it didn’t even have a garden. Now it was the best mid-range hotel in
town, frequented by freelance journalists, and NGO workers, and military
contractors. I was given my $15/night room on the lower floor. Luckily I
had made that reservation, or they would have charged me $20 a night. I
had $15/night rooms there every time I returned to Kabul. It became much
like a home base for exploring the country. The atmosphere at the hotel
seemed to reflect the situation in Afghanistan perfectly, and I grew
quite fond of the place.
I had a hot shower to wash off the dust, then went to the bar…yes, the
infamous Mustafa Bar; an equal mix of a California Hell’s Angel’s bar, a
Wild West Saloon straight out of Deadwood or Tombstone, and the Star
Wars Cantina in Mos Eisley where Luke first meets Han [Han shot first!].
I had a Becks Beer to wash down the dust. Then I had another, it was
Happy Hour and beers were $2.00 each – cheaper than Japan! I spoke with
a few folks, but, being a War Zone, most were reluctant to talk…who
could know what ‘Alphabet Soup’ organizations had eavesdroppers posted
around? I learned quickly to listen, nod, and smile enigmatically. I did
meet Wais, the son of the original owner from the ‘70s. He grew up in
Europe and New Jersey, but had been back in Kabul since Taliban times.
He was a really cool guy loaded with plenty of exotic stories. He wore a
Colt .45 automatic on each hip – under his shirt. As I looked around I
noticed that I was almost the only one there without a pistol. Then I
saw the pile of machine guns all stashed behind the bar when folks came
in. It was the Wild West, for sure.
They invited me to a barbecue! In Afghanistan! I raised my eyebrows in
appreciation of the ingenuity. Several military contractors lived at the
hotel and their main job was flying supplies to the US forward bases
near the Pakistani border. Just like in Viet Nam, the US soldiers had
all the comforts of home, and some of those comforts happen to ‘fall off
the back of the truck’, as it were. So we had a barbecue with frozen
crab legs, steaks, ribs, cheesecakes, etc. It was a regular, weekly
occurrence…right after the weekly supply flight for some coincidence.
It had been a long, hot, dusty day…the beer was mellowing me, so, after
I emailed my friends John and Kim to tell them where I was…I’d try to
call them in the morning… I decided to call it an early night.