Another Stroll in the Hindu Kush #4

This was originally published on BootsnAll

Travel Journal #4

THE TRIPLEGEM AFGHAN EXPEDITION-SUMMER 2005

12/August/2005 – Kabul, Afghanistan

Friday – the Islamic day of rest – I had breakfast at the Mustafa, naan,
omelet, hash browns and coffee. Breakfast at the Mustafa was eaten in
an open, marble-paved courtyard on the second floor. This was where we’d
had the barbecue the night before. There I ran into another tourist. He
was an Aussie named Peter Forwood; bald on top, with short grey hair and
beard, tall and lean. He was 52, three years younger than me. He was
riding his Harley around the world, and he’d been doing so for over nine
years. Thus he was pretty notorious in the biker community. He’d just
driven down from Tajikistan, so we traded traveler’s tall tales. During
breakfast, Jacque, the Vietnamese fellow, I’d spent the evening talking
to with Stephan, the German, in Peshawar, stops by to use the Internet
Cafe at the Mustafa. The guys are all looking for a cheap hotel and
Peter tells him about the Park Hotel, near the river. While this is
going on John Mock stops by, and we arrange to meet for lunch. He’s busy
all morning with the Aga Khan foundation arranging for their trek of the
Wakhan Corridor.

I finally have a chance to get out and cruise Chicken Street, but, being
Friday, my friend Sayed Naveed’s shop #273, Kanishka, is closed. I
catch-up on my email until John and Kim come back. We decide to go to
their luxurious NGO hotel for lunch in the garden under the grape vines.
I have a vege-burger and we talk about times old and new. I’ve known
John since the early ‘80s when we met in Gilgit, then went to Hunza
together. He had been co-leading a trek in Northern Pakistan with Hugh
Swift, who I knew from Kathmandu. I’d just come over the passes from
Chitral, and that’s where they were taking their group. Later, when he
was head of the Nepali Studies program for World College West in
Kathmandu we were all part of the local ex-pat scene. After I moved to
Japan and became a university professor, he got his PhD with honors from
Berkeley and began teaching Hindi/Urdu at the University of California,
Santa Cruz. Kim and he authored several of the Lonely Planet guidebooks,
including Trekking in the Karakorum and Hindu Kush. The year before
they’d received a Bill Tilman expedition grant from the Gore-Tex company
to become the first foreigners since Fran Shorr’s ‘Maro Polo, If You
can’ expedition in the 1950’s to cross the Pakistan border at the end of
the Wakhan Corridor. This year the Aga Khan Foundation was sponsoring
them to do another trek and explore the possibilities for tourism. They
would be leaving the next day for Faisabad.

John & Kim

John & Kim

Kabul 2005

Kabul 2005

At 6:00pm I walked the 3 klicks back to the Mustafa. It was quite a
pleasant stroll. I couldn’t believe that people actually considered such
a short stroll to be dangerous.

It was a hot, thirsty walk, so I stopped
in the bar at the Mustafa. Over a Happy-Hour Becks I got to talking with
Wais about the old days in Afghanistan, and what he thought about the
recent developments. As we talked Abdul, the manager, came in and told
me that some people were asking to see me. I excused myself and went out
to the courtyard-restaurant area and saw that it was the guys from
Peshawar along with a Chinese guy I had also met at the Afghan Consulate
in Peshawar.

We sat at a table under the stars in the marble courtyard and talked
about the Central Route to Herat, probably one of the most difficult
journeys in the world today. They were leaving on it the next day. We
drank green tea and talked of Afghanistan. I was hoping to do the same
journey, but by 4WD Land Cruiser. All I needed was two more people to go
in on it with me, that couldn’t be so hard, could it? They left early
because they had to catch a pre-dawn minibus to Bamiyan.

So I went back into the bar and had an adventure that became an oft-told
tale. Something I liked to call:

THE CHINESE BROTHEL SCENE

Black marble and maroon velvet, modern rock blasting from the speakers,
ivory balls clacking on the pool table, and an assortment of hard
characters all bellied up to the bar or leaning over the green baize;
they turned their heads as I walked in. I strolled up to the bar, asked
for a Beck and listened as Wais, his New Jersey accent making him sound
like a wise guy from the Sopranos, was showing his .45 to a
shaven-headed ex-marine ex-pat named Bryan. Bryan had his Russian
Makarov 9mm on the palm of his left hand comparing it to the .45. He
reminded me of my old friend, Eldon, from Kathmandu, the same intense,
almost over-the-top, energy and enthusiasm. He was a born entrepreneur
with his multiple deals being juggled like chainsaws and hand grenades
in the volatile, but lucrative, war zone boomtown that Kabul had become.

After the guns, we all started comparing knifes…not for size like some
sort of a macho-phallic contest, but for steel quality and blade
usability, like wine connoisseurs comparing vintages. Mine’s an
all-metal Spyderco folder with a wicked-looking serrated edge made from
AUS-6 stainless steel. We continued exchanging information for a while,
I talked of gems and carpets and antique beads, he mentioned real
estate, 4WD vehicles and special services; the hustle and connections…he
was a middle-man, could get anything, and was working on a deal to
contract security for a convoy of supply trucks headed from Kabul to
Kandahar. Our conversation was interrupted by a phone call.
Leaping-frogging the inefficient landlines, Afghanistan vaulted into the
21st century with several competing cell phone systems. A smile spread
across Bryan’s face; a smile usually seen on a child when he spies an
unguarded cookie jar.

“Have you eaten? Do you like fried dim sum? I know a Chinese Brothel
that serves great dim sum, wanna come?”

Chinese Brothel? Go out to Dinner in the middle of the night? Wasn’t
there a shoot-on-sight-curfew or something? Not to mention the lurking
kidnappers, and rabid bandit gangs roving the post-apocalyptic nightmare
landscape! This was obviously a trick question. Was it a test for the
newbie? No, it had to be more, and it sounded like dangerous fun. Sure,
I could huddle in my room at night and read, but this was Kabul, and no
one ever comes here if they want to live forever.

He noticed my hesitation and raised his eyebrows and tilted his head,
“Come on, I’ll call my driver, but I need more back up for this….”

Josh leaned over the bar. “Chinese food? Ya need more back up? …I can
go.” He said enthusiastically. Josh was a 30-ish American, bearded and
one of the bartenders at the Mustafa. He’d been in country for a few
years, first as Air Force Intelligence, now a freelance security
consultant…maybe. Nobody could know what anyone was completely up to or
who they really worked for.

“What a minute while I go up to my room and get my gun.”

I followed Bryan out of the bar, as we waited for Josh he called his
driver.

“I’ll come along,” I spoke casually, “ It sounds like fun, but what’s
going on?”

“I’ve seen this Brit around town for a while, and the rumor is that he’s
good. This is my first chance to throw some business his way. I need a
bid on a security contract for that truck convoy. I’ve seen him with
Chinese hookers before, so I invited him to meet us at a place I know.”

Just then Josh came down the stairs with a well worn, Soviet-era
Kalashnikov hanging from a ballistic nylon strap over his shoulder.

**************

ADVICE FOR FIRST TIME VISITORS TO AFGHANISTAN: Never get into a car at
night with heavily armed strangers, either local or foreign!

**************

Bryan’s Afghan driver was waiting outside in a gray Toyota Corolla. I
salaamed and gave him a short greeting in Dari, just to point out that I
wasn’t a normal tourist. I got into the back seat with Josh. Bryan
chambered a round in his Makarov and flicked on the safety before
jamming it into his waistband and getting into the shotgun seat. He
spoke to his driver in decent Dari, and off we bounced into the Kabul
night.

The streets were eerily deserted at night. We passed the occasional
armored car and several official land cruisers. Daytime traffic was
horrendous, but nighttime was spooky with long angular shadows.
Eventually we came to a quiet neighborhood and the words Shanghai
Restaurant in red above a solid metal gate. Bryan got out and spoke to a
speak-easy-styled slit in the inset door. The scrape of metal on concrete
tore the night as the small door slid open. We looked around nervously
then filed through the dark.

Inside there was an old-styled, thick mud walled Afghan house with a
garden. An attractive Chinese mama-san led us to glass-topped rattan
tables and cushioned chairs on a patio between the back of the house and
the garden. Languid Chinese women in heavy make-up and skimpy outfits
seemed to materialize as we passed through the house and were already
beginning to parse us into couples by the time we sat down and made
ready to order.

Bryan ordered the fried dim sum for all, Josh and I had cold green tea
and Bryan had a beer. Our British guest arrived before the food. Though
middle-aged and slightly overweight, he still walked with spring in his
step and his eyes were everywhere. Everything about him screamed
commando and SAS. He had the cold, gunfighter’s eyes I knew so well from
the Muj commanders in the 80s. Killer’s eyes. Introductions were made,
and another beer ordered. The prerequisite gun, knife and flashlight
seminar then took place. Ex-Military men in an active war zone tend to
place a high regard on the quality of their equipment. Sharing reviews
and first-hand experience takes the same place as prosaic chatting about
the weather as an icebreaker. The Brit carried a Glock 22 and offered to
provide others to any who might need them. Interestingly enough,
everyone had a SureFire flashlight, including me. I guess it has the
best reputation in military circles.

Bryan was a war zone entrepreneur, a Milo Minderbinder, if you will, but
the Brit was a Merc, pure and simple. He was a professional who worked
both Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously, and who exclusively used
ex-British Gurkhas from Nepal for his main security force. I’d lived in
Nepal for over 10 years so I was quite familiar with Ghurkas. During the
Raj, the British Gurkhas were the only soldiers who were a match for the
wild border Pathans.

It was one of the more bizarre evenings of my life. The food was good,
the ladies beautiful, the night pleasant, and the conversation
informative. I learned several ways in which to assassinate Hamid
Karzai, why Gurkhas make the best security men, the proper way to
organize a convoy though ‘Indian Country’, and much more. The ladies
attending Josh and myself were polite and never too forward with their
caresses. They could tell right away that we weren’t going to be
customers, though the two ladies of the evening with The Brit and Bryan
were encouraged to become quite friendly. I listened attentively with
only minimal talking. As the night wore on I could tell from the way
that the business talk was developing that the Brit had the mistaken
impression that I was somehow involved, an impression that Bryan
obviously implied without being overt, so I understood the true reason
for my presence…Josh, with his AK, obviously looked like the bodyguard
and, since I’m older than the others, I looked like one of the
principles behind the convoy deal. It gave Bryan a stronger position
from which to deal.

After a few hours Bryan called his driver to take Josh and me back to
the Mustafa. The others would probably stay the night after concluding
their business. I had a last beer before hitting the sack. It had been
quite a first day back in Afghanistan.

Some More Miscellaneous Kabul Photos:

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