01.01.2004

On the Road to Discovery

While the war against terror in Afghanistan has reverberatedaround the world, it holds particular poignancy forNOVA writer and photographer Chris Scott. Here he shareshis treasured impressions of an ancient land once partof the overland trail from Europe to Australia.

I entered Afghanistan in a dust storm. So I was neversure where Iran ended and my adventures began in theland of the Afs - the free men, the untamable men.

Borders are like that. Borders exist mainly in themind, yours or someone else's. Borders are made forgoing beyond. It's just that, sometimes, we don't knowwe have until an understanding dawns that somethinghas ended and something else has begun.

There was a philosophy widely marketed in the 1980sthat included in its cute catch-phrases: "Wherever yougo, there you are." And while there is truth in this- travel cannot be used to escape yourself (althoughit is often useful to escape others) - I have alwaysbelieved that the external journey of discovery canhelp and mirror the internal one. By moving beyond ourphysical comfort zone, we can transcend the bordersof our psychic comfort zones too.

And so, in a spirit of internal and external discovery,I set out on what is now called the "hippy trail", overlandfrom Europe to South East Asia and on to Australia.There was no "trail". These were the days before LonelyPlanet. We travelled from town to town by whatever transportwas available. We found our way by trial and error,aided by luck and our own innocence.

This was 1975 - a rare period of peace and opennessin Afghanistan. It is a savage and beautiful land ofextremes - hot dry deserts and icy mountain ranges -sparsely populated by peoples who are themselves capableof extremes of savagery and beauty. A land where peoplecare lovingly for songbirds, but the national sport"buskhazi" is a form of rugby played on horseback witha live goat used as the "ball". It rarely survives thegame and a number of players frequently suffer the samefate. A land without natural resources, whose peoplepossess an infinite and enduring resourcefulness. wheretin cans are recycled into coffee pots and old tyresinto pairs of shoes. Even then, a land of warlike people,where many men carried guns in the street (althoughin those days more muskets than Kalashnikovs), but wherethe traveller found an oasis of peace between the paranoidpolice state of the Shah's Iran and the manic madnessof Pakistan.

Few people spoke English and one soon learned to communicatewithout words. Gestures and looks can at times be moremeaningful and more honest. Smiles can carry you miles.

Afghanistan is one of those places on the planet,like Nepal, which you may leave but which will neverleave you. As you enter them, they enter you and subtlychange you forever. I can't pretend that in the fewweeks I was there I arrived at a meaningful understandingof the place or its people. But I acquired an enduringliking and respect for both. All I can do is share someimpressions , filtered through the mists of time andthe mists of that time - the smoke of the pollen forwhich Afghanistan, and Mazar E Sharif in particular,was justly famous.

I entered Afghanistan in a dust storm. and dust wasa constant theme of my time there. The two customs postswere 10 kilometres apart. The desert is anyway a fineplace for a border, a line drawn in sand. Only the busesand the trucks (and not all of them) took the road andstopped at the customs post. The locals, on foot, onhorse or on camel took the paths that had been usedfor thousands of years, by Iskandar (Alexander) andby Genghis. This is where both the tarmac and the 20thcentury end and ancient Asia really begins.

By the time we had finished with customs, not yethaving learned the ritual of baksheesh, the bus hadlong gone. Buses timed their journeys to arrive in daylight.At night, the police posts on the roads were abandonedand travellers took their chances with the bandits.We hitched a ride on a laggardly truck, stopped fora meal at a fortified village, by the light of a singlekerosene lamp, and late in the night arrived in Herat.

"I have sat here and watched so many Westerners gothat way (towards India) - they have fine clothes andmoney. And some months later, I see the same peoplecome back. Their clothes are rags and they have no money."This was Mahmood, who ran a "hotel" in Herat. "But whenan Afghan travels, he leaves home with nothing and hecomes back a rich man." It seemed slightly obscene totry to explain to a poor man (although rich by localstandards) that part of the point of our travel wasto transcend attachment to materialism.

Of Herat, I remember the sweetness of pomegranatesand the freshness of the naan bread from the undergroundtandoor ovens - bread that after a few hours would behard as wood. The street sounds of clip-clopping hoovesand the jangle of harness. Learning the ways of thetea shops with a choice of black or green tea, servedwith a lump of hard sugar that was held in the mouthas you drank the tea over it. Each tea shop had smallcages of singing birds. The five minarets - all thatthe British had left of the great mosque, one hundredyears before.

During the day, the carpet factories would lay theirproducts in the streets, for the trucks, camels anddonkeys to make into instant antiques. They knew itwould not rain. In the evenings, flocks of white doves,each flock the property of someone rich, would roamthe sunset sky. Afghans "loved" birds so much that itseemed there were no free birds in the country. Afterdark, the doors were barred and you did not wander casuallyout - the streets belonged to the packs of dogs whowould howl and fight the night away.

The Taliban did not invent the Burqha. I did not seea single female face in Herat. Women were all coveredfrom head to foot, with the occasional flash of a goldstiletto or a cracked bare heel. I remember wild lookingmen, turbaned and carrying guns, with bandoliers ofbullets across their chests and knives at their waists,walking hand in hand along the street, smiling intoeach other's eyes. Many had young male companions. Tosodomise a man's son was a much lesser sin than to seducehis daughter. Although my companion, she with the longblonde hair and unmasked features, felt lost in a maleworld, she was not harassed. The people, in sharp contrastto those of neighbouring lands, were courteous, kindand interested in where we were from and why we hadcome.

Most adults, however, could not read or write. Thisdid not much affect their daily life. And on the rareoccasions when it was necessary, there were the manyscribes, sitting cross-legged in the street behind lowwooden desks, to write a letter or record an agreementfor the sale of a donkey or a daughter.

We took the southern route through the desert to Kandahar,on the edge of the Dast e Margh , the Desert of Death, now the centre of the Talibs. It was a warm and relaxedcity. I bought a traditional suit, the baggy pants andknee length embroidered shirt, long enough so that onecould squat in the open field toilets without losingdecorum. There were no trees for modesty. I rememberfeeling obscurely pleased as I was greeted with "Hello,Sufi" as I walked down a village street in my blackoutfit and traveller's beard.

In a village teashop, as honoured guests, we wereoffered a dog fight (we refused). There we saw the finenew houses built with international aid to domesticateand therefore tame the Kuchis, the traditional nomadgypsies, whose women do not wear a veil and who cameand went with lofty disdain for concepts such as bordersand governments. The Kuchi came down in winter, fromthe mountain pastures, stabled their flocks in the newhouses and pitched their own tents outside. In springthey packed up, set free their flocks and once againtook to their ancient ways.

The only road continued up to Kabul, an ancient cityin a high basin, whose surrounding barren peaks werecovered in medieval mud brick houses. a city withoutrunning water or electricity and with open sewers runningdown the streets. A journey further back in time. Inthe relative sophistication of Chicken Street, I sawthe notice in the hotel "Warm shower: 2 Afs." Beinglong dusty, I paid and was given two pieces of wood!You had to guard the water as it warmed, so no one elsewould take your bath. Wood came from far away and wassold by the kilo.

In those days, Kabul still had a camel market andthe trucks in the transport centre were brightly paintedand decorated with mosaics of mirrors and fringes. Internally,most transport off the main "highway" was by smallertrucks, Russian-made and assembled in Kabul. Often theycarried loads bigger than themselves, with people clingingto the sides. I rode for six hours up the precariousmountain trails to Bamiyan, standing in a cloud of ourown dust on the tailgate of a tiny Russian truck - thetruck bed was filled with women and so I was not allowedinside.

Bamiyan is now infamous as the place where the Talibanblew up the giant statues of buddhas, carved 50 metreshigh into the living rock of the cliffs that line thevalley. You could climb up through layers of ancientcave dwellings and stand (no disrespect intended) onthe buddha's head, to watch the sun setting on the snowpeaks of the Hindu Kush that lined the horizon. I askedwhy the buddhas' faces were missing: "Genghis" was thesimple reply. The great Khan and his Mongol horde hadpassed through the valley some 600 years before. Atnight the doors and windows were barred, as the wolvescame down from the mountains. We went on, in an infrequenttruck, ever higher up into frozen lakes of Band e Amir.Such a startling blue expanse in the barren, brown beautyof the high mountains.

The road from Kabul to the Khyber pass runs (ratherdangerously) down a beautiful valley, the scene of manya massacre of invading armies, down, down, stoppingonly for prayers (men one side of the bus, women theother) to the plains of Jalalabad. Sitting in a teashop, I feel a tap on my shoulder. It is a heavily armedpoliceman. My heart sinks. He smiles and nods and handsme a large smoking joint.

Beyond Jalalabad lies another border to be crossed,on and up the Khyber pass towards other discoveries.Much of what I experienced in Afghanistan is now goneforever, like the buddhas of Bamiyan. I am only gratefulfor what I was able to discover there when I could,about the place and the people and about myself. Asalaamaleikum.

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