Afghanistan Part I: Scariana

A bit delayed, I’ve decided to publish bits of my recent trip to Afghanistan. 

August 6th, 2013

Flight Istanbul-Kabul
Goodbye friends, hello war zone. It’s my first time intentionally flying into a place like this, but I don’t feel unsafe. Experience has taught me again and again that the majority of people are well-intentioned. That, or the majority don’t care enough about strangers to try and do them harm.

Plus I’ve had a number of friends working an living in this area for years. I’m going to be connected to someone who knows the lay of the land from touchdown to wheels up on my way out… I think. 

The Air Ariana flight has so far been uneventful. Only a few of my Istanbul-based journalist friends are poor enough to have to take Afghanistan’s national carrier, affectionately known as ‘Scariana’, over the more convenient Turkish Air or Emirates flights. But the plane is generic, in as good condition as many flights I’ve taken in the US. 

As far as I can tell, I’m one of only two Westerners on the plane. The other is a woman just shy of middle age wearing cargo pants and a long-sleeve T shirt. I wasn’t sure what was appropriate and so am dressed in linen trousers and a blue and white linen kaftan that hits just above my knees. I have a scarf for when I land, but for now there doesn’t seem to be any reason to wear it. Many of the women on the plane don’t have their heads covered, though they are conservatively dressed. There are only two female passengers wearing head-to-toe black abayas.

The passengers are probably 90% men. The flight attendants are mostly men in dapper pilot’s uniforms, but there are also three women flight attendants: one wearing an abaya, and two wearing slacks, collared shirts, vests, and an elegant scarf/hat combo that half covers their heads but certainly couldn’t be considered mosque appropriate. 

The two men in my row, Najeeb and Mohammed, are Afghani, from a northern province near Mazar-i-Sharif. They’re studying civil engineering at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul. Najeeb hopes to continue his studies with a master’s somewhere in Europe, but has no question that he’ll return to Afghanistan when he can – ‘it’s too beautiful to stay away.’ Their studies are in Turkish, but their English is decent – they said they have some French and German friends and so it’s easiest to communicate in English with them. They pointed out the Hazar Deniz (sea), which marks the border between Turkey and Iran, and we all remarked how gorgeously turquoise it was.

Much of the land we’re flying over is raw mountains. Occasionally, a road snakes around the side of one, or a green smear marks a river between the ranges. Very little of it is inhabited. About halfway into the flight, clouds have blocked sight of the ground except for occasional points where the mountains break over them, like islands in a bleached sea. These mountains must be gigantic.

Afghanistan sits at the nexus of so many civilizations, and it’s easy to notice this on the plane. Some of my fellow passengers are undoubtedly Turks. In a tribute to their relative Westernization, they’re the only ones on the plane with any fat. The rest are harder to identify. Both Najeeb and Mohammed are from the Hazari ethnic group, who are known (depending on who you talk to) for being relatively peaceful compared to the majority Pashto. (The Taliban are mostly Pashto). But they don’t look similar at all. Najeeb has the smooth, high cheekbones and fine features of an Iranian. Mohammed is stockier, with tough-looking skin and a dark complexion – he looks Mexican more than anything else. One woman has the pale skin and heart-shaped type of face I associate most closely with Georgia. Others look Mongolian or Chinese, with jet black hair and and dark eyes that narrow towards the tips.

Many years ago, perhaps even before September 11th, I came across a story about Afghanistan in National Geographic that featured a picture of a young girl with light eyes and hair. She had a slightly testy look, like a child who’s just been told she can’t have a McFlurry. I thought it was so strange that this western-looking girl actually lived in a country somewhere in the middle of Asia. 

I tore out the picture and put it on my wall, where she watched over my struggles with high school chemistry homework. My decade-plus fascination with this country began. And it’s time to return our seatbacks and tray tables to their upright and locked position.

later that evening
Arrival went smoothly. The woman who had been wearing cargo pants changed at some point mid-flight into a shalwar khameez. My headscarf is on. A bus ferries people from the terminal building to the parking lot, through a number of concrete barriers and switchbacks. Anyone trying to attack this airport would have a lot of battles to wage with blocks of concrete. 

Apparently I was supposed to get an ‘arrival card’ from some office at the airport. My friend instructs me that if customs gives me trouble on the way out I should just tell them that they had run out of cards for the day on the day I arrived. Oh, how I love senseless bureaucracy. 
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The fact that the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) chose the night of my arrival to stage a jailbreak in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, made me feel strangely welcome. I’ve never been much of an ‘escape to nature’ kind of person, so my decision to spend my summer vacation in the Pamir mountains of Badakhshan, the autonomous region of Tajikistan that borders Afghanistan and China, seemed slightly anachronistic. With 25 militant opposition leaders on the loose, though, surely my holiday wouldn’t end up being just a hike in the woods?

Well, of course not. But all in all the trip was surprisingly normal. Go to sleep, wake up, eat breakfast, freak out about how beautiful the scenery is. Eat some goat, avoid buying illegal rubies, and inadvertently hire a bloodthirsty member of the Kyrgyz nouveau riche to bribe your way across the border. It’s surprising how normal it all can seem when you’re in Central Asia.

I don’t have time to write down half the stories I’d love to tell but here are, at least, some pictures. The top of this post shows Joe, the friend who joined me on this trip, starting off on a hike from the village of Bulunkul, a frontier town of mud brick houses, yurts, and a surprisingly good volleyball team (the village children put my years of practice on the beach court in Frankfort, MI to shame). 

Just above is a picture of yours truly looking into Afghanistan from the remains of a 12th century fortress built to defend the Pamiris on the north side of the Oxus river from – well, whoever.

The Oxus, which runs from the Tibet most of the way to the Aral Sea along the borders of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, was one of the things that drew me to this region. A favorite professor of mine loved to point out how rivers are the great highways of civilization, carving passageways through otherwise impossible landscapes and linking each settlement with the next, progressively, until you reach the ultimate equalizer (the sea). Ancient Oxiana, the area which surrounds the Oxus, was the site of some of Alexander the Great’s greatest triumphs. His success over the Bactrians makes him the last (and likely also the first) western invader to win a land war in Afghanistan. The Oxus was also the corridor Marco Polo used on his way from Venice to the court of Kublai Khan and back. He presumably passed by – maybe even stayed in – the fort in the picture.

Today, the Wakhan valley which surrounds the Oxus is best known as a drug smuggling route and a mountain biking destination for those who wish they had been born in the fifties so they could be real hippies. For years it was too isolated and unsexy to attract much humanitarian aid, despite the fact that it is one of the poorest parts of the world. Its sole benefactor was the Aga Khan, a Swiss millionaire who also happens to be the spiritual leader of the Isamaili sect of Islam. The Aga Khan Development Network has established microlending programs, provided health care and training, and built schools to promote the economic development of the Pamir region. We met the children pictured above on the way back from the fortress, while they were playing in the yard by an Aga Khan school.

Our last stop before passing into Kyrgyzstan was Karakul, a salty turquoise lake that was formed by a meteor some 5 million years ago. Two girls we met on the outskirts of the village demanded I take their picture doing cartwheels and asked me to send it to them when it was developed – though the best address they could provide was ‘Anipa, Karakul, Tajikistan.’ They then followed us to the shores of the lake, whispering conspiratorially. I think they were wondering why my toenails were [painted] black. Will they now grow up thinking white women have gangrenous toenails? I hope not.

Our next destination was Osh, the biggest city in southern Kyrgyzstan. Osh was the site of bloody riots in June between the ethnic Uzbek majority and nationalist Kyrgyz. It was my first visit to a place so recently touched by violence, and I was unsettled by how little had been cleaned up or repaired. A pair of Poles I met in Dushanbe raved about the bazaar at Osh – the ‘best in Central Asia.’ Today more than half of the market lies in ruins, bombed out and pocked with bullets. Life goes on, of course, as the picture above illustrates. It’s hard to say where blame lies for inciting the ethnic conflict that erupted here in the spring – but apparently there is a video on youtube in which the ousted President’s son discusses with someone in the government how much to pay the mercenaries they are hiring to go down and kill anyone they can to try and undermine the current regime (they settled on $1500 a day).

The remains of the market in Osh

Most disturbingly, noone in this region thinks the violence is over. International Crisis Group issued their latest policy alert on the threat level in Kyrgyzstan and I happen to agree with it completely. A Pamiri student we picked up on our way out of Badakhshan asked how long we intended to stay in Osh and was glad when we told him we’d only be there a day or two. ‘Don’t come back in the next few weeks,’ he warned us. ‘Our driver is talking about how many Uzbeks he’s going to kill after Ramadan.’

It is a chilling thing to hand over money to someone who aspires to kill others and probably has already – but there was no way to get out of paying the price we agreed on at the start of our ride into Kyrgyzstan. I considered, for the first time, my responsibility in choosing a place like this to travel – a decision that put me in the position of needing to rely on people I found morally reprehensible to get around. It is a decision which conflict journalists must make every day. Does the knowledge one gains, and is able to share, make it worth it?

Getting there: As of this writing, there are two flights a week in and out of Dushanbe on Turkish Airlines. As the stablest capital in the region, it’s probably the best place to fly in and out of. 

Getting around: The Central Asia Lonely Planet is a great resource, but you really want to connect with travelers on the ground as soon as possible. Visit the hostels even if you don’t stay in them in order to get a sense of what roads are best. There is a daily flight to Khorog, the base for exploring the Wakhan Valley and the rest of Badakhshan, but you can’t make reservations and it is canceled in the case of bad weather. If you don’t catch the flight it will be an 18 hour ride in a 4WD. From Khorog to Osh, we hired a local driver, who wasn’t hard to find, for 25 cents/mile, or a total of about $250 for four days on the road to Murghab, the northernmost town in Tajikistan. His name was Ali but we called him Mr Bennett because he had four daughters. He arranged all our housing with friends of his along the way. 

On the road from Murghab to Osh – Joe’s smile is a bit forced

 From Murghab, we hired the aforementioned bloodthirsty Kyrgyz man with the help of a 12 year old who seemed to run our guest house (and was the only one who spoke English). He took us over the border to Osh for about $100, which covered the cigarette boxes which smoothed our way with the border guards.

The road through Kyrgyzstan

From Osh, we took a series of shared taxis back to Khojand, also known as ‘furthest Alexandria’ – the last city that Alexander the Great founded, if not the furthest east he traveled. From Khojand we took a flight (booked on the day of) back to Dushanbe to get our flight out.

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Noel Novelties

Oh, for the warm and fuzzy. The familiar texture of a flowery canvas couch with the cushions all chewed up by the family dog. The thinning oriental rug under sock feet. The sinus-widening scent of fresh pine broiling under plastic lights. A new book read in an old LL Bean vest, made back when they still used goose down for the filling.

Such are the familiar comforts of a New England Christmas, as shown in the picture my mother cruelly sent from our living room earlier today. I’m sitting in my new apartment, watching a thunderstorm over Asia, and worrying about the rain seeping in from under the door to the balcony, which is rotting the floorboards. Is this what they call growing up?

Two consolations: my brother Robert will be coming over to join me for the holidays, assuming he escapes the Snowpocalypse which has shut down the mid-Atlantic coast of the US; and I received my first Christmas present. A friend, back from Kabul, brought over the rather unique Bottle Burqa. Cheeky symbol of women’s liberation? You could call it that. Culturally insensitive? Probably. Sitting in pride of place on the living room table? Check.

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It snowed yesterday morning. Since I moved away from Boston in part to escape winter, this was a discouraging development. To make matters worse, I live in a beautiful high-ceilinged old apartment with gorgeous picture windows that retains about as much heat as a ventilation shaft. I’m too cheap to turn on the gas, which can run to about $200 a month (to give a sense of scale, that’s just under the amount I pay for rent), and the only clothes I have were packed with China’s tropical heat in mind. I wrote my roommate, who’s currently in Kabul, to see if she had any suggestions for avoiding hypothermia.

‘Let’s look into electric heaters? Isn’t that what other poor people do?’

And, in a separate email: ‘its so hot here. im so glad i brought that sleepingbag.’

Kabul: temptation rears its ugly head, yet again (see ‘The Detroit-Kabul Connection‘).

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The Detroit-Kabul connection

I’m beginning to settle into the school where I’ll be teaching for the next month. It feels very remote, so naturally my first instinct is to get online. I find I can open very few of the pages that result from my search for ‘Uighur uprising.’ Facebook and Blogspot have been completely blocked (as have YouTube and Myspace). For the foreseeable future, then, I’m going to be exploiting friends’ good will to post these thoughts.
But more on China later. In a trend I foresee continuing, I want to backtrack a few days and an ocean.
On Tuesday, I drove from northern Michigan to Detroit with Jon, a friend of my brother’s who spent four months teaching accounting at Kabul University. (He too kept a blog, and I’m hoping I manage to keep this one as interesting as his).

Like any delusional idealist who studied post-conflict development in college, I’ve thought it might be interesting to look for work in Afghanistan. I heartily agree with the new philosophy governing (at least in theory) the latest troop surge. The language (Dari, a dialect of Farsi) is nowhere near as intimidating as Arabic. Three other friends who have worked there as civilians rave about the beauty and dynamism of the country. And, cheesy as it seems, I like to think that I could help build things there, and that I could put my education to good use.

I pestered Jon with questions for most of the four hour drive to Detroit. The news isn’t good. 

Kabul is, unsurprisingly, a disaster after thirty-odd years of intense conflict, starting with the Soviet invasion in 1979. Bombed-out buildings, no underground sewage, the kind of poverty that makes you ashamed to be human and not devoting all your efforts to changing things… To top it off, plants not far outside the city process sewage by burning it, giving the air high fecal content. I never thought I would hear about something that made the smog in China sound appealing.
Towards the end of our drive, we passed a gigantic factory on the outskirts of Detroit. Rivers of rust trickled down the side of the building as if it were the victim of a drive-by shooting. With the sun catching the edges of glass in the broken windows, it looked somehow splendid in all its catastrophe.
‘That,’ said Jon, ‘that is what Kabul looks like.’

I guess the news isn’t good in Detroit either.

Still, I think I might like Kabul. Feces notwishtanding.
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