Ok, so my recent five week trip to Afghanistan wasn’t an official LUMC outing, but we did see some impressive mountains and white-water, which might interest some of you. The mountains of Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush, are the western extension of the Pamir, Karakoram and Himalaya and rise up to nearly 7,500 m. Areas, such as Nuristan and Badakhshan (where lapis lazuli is mined), were largely unexplored until the ‘50s and ‘60s, when explorers such as Wilfred Thesiger and Eric Newby became the first Westerners to enter some of the dead-end valleys since Alexander the Great and his armies over 2,300 years ago.
A trickle of hardy (some might say foolhardy) tourists are returning to Afghanistan after years of conflicts put the country out of bounds. Some of the older ones are reliving their trips (literal and metaphorical) from the ‘60s when Afghanistan was a popular stop on the hippy trail to India; many of the others are on overland journeys, across Asia – we met one Aussie who was cycling to Europe! Whilst not wishing to belittle the risks and problems facing Afghanistan, I think that the Western media tends to feed the public’s stereotypes of the country – suicide bombings, drugs, the oppression of women and bearded fanatics. I hope this short blog will give you an alternative picture of the country.
The breathtakingly beautiful landscape of Afghanistan sucks you in, and once there, some of the kindest people you’ll meet anywhere in the world make you want to return. For me, the definition of hospitality is when people scratching an existence from their flocks of sheep and goats share what little they have with you. Such generosity is typical of the Moslem world, in my experience, and almost always impossible to re-pay – they simply won’t accept anything in return.
So what activities could a LUMCer get up to out there? Well, the Minaret of Jam, where we worked in 2003 and 2005, is 65m tall – the spiral staircase up to the top gives you a great cardio work-out! Beside it are the remains of an 800 year old bridge.
Unfortunately, more recent bridges get washed away in the annual snow-melt floods, so you have the choice of attempting to ford the river in a 4WD or taking the ‘slide of death’.
And there are plenty of opportunities for ‘scree-scrambling’ on the slopes around the minaret, with majestic views if you make it to the top.
This year, however, we weren’t able to go to Jam, for a variety of tedious bureaucratic reasons which I won’t bore you. Stuck in Kabul for a month, we were itching for some fresh air (the city’s open sewers get pretty rank in 40 degree heat), so we drove up to the Salang Pass (ca 3400 m asl) one Friday. En route, we stopped for some delicious mulberries. . The 2.6 km long Salang Tunnel was opened in the 1964, a gift from the USSR; rather less altruistically, the Soviets used it as the main supply-route to Kabul following their invasion in 1979. The Salang was consequently the focus of some of the fiercest fighting during the war. Carcases of Soviet tanks litter the route and many of the valley sides are still being de-mined.
The tunnel is still the main artery feeding Kabul – overloaded trucks trundle backwards and forwards, although some drivers are a bit optimistic about what will fit through.
At the top of the pass, we stopped for tasty fried trout and took in the scenery before free-wheeling down to the village of Doshi. The north side of the pass is quite different from the south – much more humid, with lush rice paddies and irrigated wheat fields, ribbons of green lining the river in an otherwise barren landscape. Stalls of juicy peaches, pots of honey and kebabs smoking over hot coals dot the roadside villages – it’s quite an idyllic scene, until you come across the next overturned piece of military hardware and remember where you are.
Check out the project blog if you’re interested in what else we got up to:
Photos by DCT, apart from Fig. 2 (Ivan Cucco) and Figs. 6 & 9 (Dr Fiona Kidd)