April 2009    Northern Afghanistan

Spring Break college-style is somewhere in the blurry past, but I am pretty sure it did not include abstinence from alcohol and other pursuits, or 8 days and 800 miles in an unmarked microvan with two bearded Muslim men.  But parts of this country are amazing once out of the bigger cities, and what an epic trip it has been.   I even logged some miles hitch-hiking the country roads.

Shafiq the driver, Dr Gran and I headed north to secure a new contract in a series of towns bordering Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.    Most of Northern Afghanistan is a safe zone, occupied by less-fundamentalist ethnic groups who wore down the Soviets, regularly smashed the Taliban, and took no prisoners.   Broken military equipment litters the ground like cigarette butts.  Our journey got rougher, wilder and more remote,  the final day spent bouncing through what looked like a National Geographic layout for 6 hours, or about 120 miles.   Most of the time I stood up through the sunroof, taking in the sights.  The people are much more friendly and welcoming up here. I missed the camel-fights, but actually got onto the field to see Buzkashi, a brutal version of polo, using a headless goat instead of a ball. It is the national sport, of course.

The road dead-ends into the eastern mountain town of Feyzabad, a remote outpost of a few thousand locals and migrant workers, about 50 foreign-aid workers, and a very small German Army base, sporting a corrugated steel runway bolted down by the Soviets.  That is the only link to the outside world for six months of the year; avalanches block other routes. The 1,000,000 people scattered through the rest of this sprawling frontier, Badakhshan Province, are linked only by donkey paths, radiating outward from Feyzabad.  There is one hospital here serving them all, though a village may be several donkey-days away.

I had some paperwork and meetings scheduled, but it is such a walkable town that I sent my workers back to Kabul.  I would rather catch a flight out of here than face a 20-hour drive with snow forecast up in the mountain passes.   I walked out to the German base to secure a seat on the next bi-weekly flight out, weather permitting.  All the flags were at half-staff in recognition of an incident two days earlier and further west of here, where an Afghan soldier working inside a  US base gunned down four American troops, killing two of them.  I happened to be at that German field hospital right after the wounded Americans were flown in for treatment, but what I heard did not make the news: the Afghan pulled the trigger on this group because  they  were male and females together, jogging in shorts and t-shirts.  Though they were inside a secure American base and far from the eyes of any Afghan locals, this offended him greatly.  Killed were Navy Lt. Francis Toner, USMMA 2006, and Navy Lt. Florence Choe, a nurse who signed up days after September 11th 2001.  The barbarian then shot himself.

I walked out into the drizzle to make my way back into town, taking an indirect route along the muddy river, to check out some ruins along the way.   There was an overturned armored troop carrier down on the riverbank below, so I scrambled down to check it out.  Somebody knew the story of how it ended up here 20 years ago, but I never would.  All I could see were human bones all around it, inside, and piled up on a rock nearby.  Here were the remains of maybe a dozen of the 15,000 Russians killed in the ten-year war, left to the animals and the elements.

Onward.  I flagged down a ride with some Afghans headed into town, intending to offload at the guest house shared with some western non-profit workers.   The car was a sight – a battered old Toyota, tinted windows and bad music, and one flat spare tire, on a tiny beaten-to-hell spare-tire rim.   There was also an elaborate tissue box on the back dashboard, just like every NYC taxi.  Who knows how many miles he had driven this rocky, unpaved road with three good wheels.  No matter – he continued to drive like it was stolen, redlining the now-smoking motor, bashing and off-roading through the riverbed for a stretch where the road was blocked for new bridge construction.  We got stuck in the mud once or twice, aggressively roared past healthier vehicles through a muddy cow pasture, and finally stopped at a roadside shack to change the wheel.  The tire had slipped off the rim and was headed toward the axle.  Do they have a meth problem here?  Did I expect to get bored hitch-hiking Afghanistan?  We had no common language other than laughter, but he hailed another random driver to keep moving me along.

Back at the house an unusual message waited:  an Australian security contractor I recently met in Kabul called to request treatment and evacuation of a 6-year-old Afghan girl with serious burns.  The report was vague and I do not know how he had her information or why the US embassy was involved, but I called my boss in Kabul and that evac is going on right now.  There are only two of us in the company at this time, so it is inconvenient to be socked in waiting for a flight.  The road is closed again due to flooding and streams running across it;  flights are grounded due to low clouds and the airport is not equipped for instrument landings yet.

I finally corralled some internet access, but it is now day five, waiting for the weather to break.  Maybe tomorrow.

So much for short photo sets.   The sights here are pretty amazing, and the kids mob at the sight of a camera, much unlike the ones back in Kabul.

Big Northern Road Trip, 81 photos:

Feyzabad, 57 photos:


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2 Responses to “Badakhshan”

  1. ddotcom12 Says:

    i honestly thought you were joking about the headless goat game until i saw the photos. be safe.

  2. “Get Your Gear on.” « Housefly Says:

    […] I was well on the way to losing my mind, and self-medicating nicely just to get by. Other than that epic northern road trip, I hated every day in Afghanistan, but I do not regret the experience one bit.   I even miss the […]

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