SYNOPSIS: 13 HOURS IN TRANSIT FROM KABUL TO MAZAR-E-SHARIF. CROSSING THE SALANG PASS THROUGH THE TUNNEL FROM HELL. DRIVING THROUGH BEAUTIFUL LANDSCAPES AND PASSING TIME WITH INTERESTING POLITICAL CONVERSATIONS.
400 kilometers at a predicted 10 hours prepared me for a bad road. But what was ahead of us were 13 hours that surpassed anything I could have drummed up in my wildest dreams. Not all of it was bad; the first two hours and the last three were comparatively fine. But in between, I felt if there was hell anywhere, this would be a convincing taste of it. We took the same road North we had taken two days earlier when we visited Charikar. That time, I had noticed the beginning (or rather the tail end) of trucks lining the road. Now the full picture became clear. And I warn you – this blog is about little more than road conditions and how Mubin and I passed time with mock interviews.
For miles on either side of the Salang Pass trucks were lining up for the signal to go. The pass is in such dismal condition that it necessitates one-way traffic. However, buses and passenger cars seem to be exempt from the rule and allowed to go through at any time which creates for two way traffic anyhow.
But let me back up: The Salang Pass is a tunnel built by the Russians in the 1960’s to cross a 3360-some meter mountain range and to connect a very isolated part of Afghanistan with the rest of the country. The mountains pretty much divide the Eastern half of the country in two halves, the North and the South. Coming from Kabul you head North and after Charikar serpentine your way up into a beautiful landscape. Fast mountain streams collect into one larger river. There are mud-brick mountain villages tucked into the cliffs and the area is lush with green. The snow-capped peaks loom in the distance and the rocks are rugged and rough. Once in a while you pass through a short man-made tunnel which helps to protect the road from the melting ice and snow which gushes down above the road and drops into the valley. Road conditions in the tunnels are bad since some of the melting water seeps through the tunnels nonetheless. It creates puddles, craters, slush, and loose debris and makes for a road with big differences in level. A narrow stone strip at the edges remains intact that once indicated the road level; what is in between has turned to mud pie interspersed with hardened and rising gravel mountains. If there ever were grooves, they have long been obscured. From the back-seat passenger’s perspective, you are thrown from left to right and occasionally and unexpectedly up into the air, hitting the roof of the car; buckling up is reducing the harm a bit and highly recommended even though it is unusual in this country. And I hate to say this, but I can’t imagine how this trip would have been if Neil had still been with us in the back row of the car. We had a 4WD and room, but just enough for two, to survive this unharmed.
This all must sound somewhat familiar from my description of the road between Khiva and Bukhara (Day 7-Uzbekistan) and there are similarities. But now add the tunnel effect: The closer you get to the pass, the shorter the intervals between the tunnels and the longer the tunnels. If this were one-way, single-lane traffic it would be bad. But it is two lane traffic and two ways. The 4WD and passenger cars are impatient with the slower trucks and pass at all times. More than once we got into a tunnel and then stuck in the middle facing upcoming cars with cars piling up behind us as well. We were in the wrong lane with no escape, now what? Traffic comes to a standstill and one lane has to agree to back up! People get out of the car, shouting, directing traffic backwards, ten cars or more at any given times! Car by car tries to maneuver back in this bumpy road and squeezes sideways between the spaces left hopefully between the trucks, which are at a standstill most of the time anyhow. You back up just long enough to let oncoming traffic through and then the race past the trucks starts again until you get stuck again; pure madness!
The longer tunnels, including the 3 km long pass no longer have windows (like the short one I photographed). The tunnels are so dark that picture-taking was impossible. No windows means no air. And in this country cars still fill up with lead-containing fuels. Picture the congestion, smell the exhaust, hear the honking and shouting, and add the cries of the occasional herd of goats (!!!) into the mix and the occasional car that got stuck in the mud and needs to be pushed out, you can picture the absolute chaos, tunnel after tunnel! The air was so bad that I created a face cover from my head-scarf, to little avail. When I saw that some people crossed this pass on foot with their herds, I could not imagine how they would walk nearly three kilometers (the length of the final pass) in these conditions. Of course, the animals panicked amidst all this honking and bumping and slowed traffic even further. This was absolute hell and it lasted for hours. Between the tunnels I tried to breathe – my eyes were itching, my head burning, my lungs felt as if they had collapsed. But you could hardly dare to open the windows because in between the tunnels there was dust; clouds of it drifting into your vehicle. There simply was no escaping this nightmare.
A stretch of about 25 miles took us 4 hours and what took us 4 hours will take some of the trucks up to two days! But then, before the tunnel was built, this hike would take you several days, if not weeks all the way through the desert via Herat. Or you would have to cross the mountains by foot going for days through the freezing snow. All is relative. But I was thinking how much time and energy could be saved by just a few traffic lights (given they would have to be obeyed), or by putting some of the useless armed guards to good use as traffic police, or by just fixing some of this road. I saw only one traffic light at the entrance of the pass which was long broken… And I saw how people had to take traffic regulations into their own hands, for better or worse. And I saw trucks leaning so badly into the road one set of wheels up on that stone strip, the other deeply stuck in the mud bumping up and down, that I felt lucky that none had tipped over and that we got out of this alive!
The only thing I can think about now is how to get out of a repeat of this nightmare. Could I fly back, please?! I asked Mubin and he claimed that flights would be canceled too often and that he could not separate himself from me. I think he is just making excuses but I am not going to fight it. Just the thought of the return trip makes me sick. Perhaps, I should take it as retribution for all my sins.
Along the better stretches of the way, Mubin and I played a game of interviewing each other on mock Afghan or American TV with a water-bottle microphone. I asked him questions about Islam, politics, family, and women. He interviewed me about language. He is eager to improve his English and has dubbed me “my kind teacher”. Mubin is an enthusiastic Muslim and a born evangelist. He constantly talks about paradise, God and his wonderful religion and would love to convert me. He is educated in his religion, has read the Koran multiple times, and sees how the Taliban and other extremists are using it for jihad. For him, all the invitations and permissions to violence contained in the Koran can be interpreted away. Jihad to him translates at best into protecting his family and me from any harm. If the world would be full of people like him, there would be no need to invade Afghanistan or Iraq or have any war on Terrorism. But even he realizes that there are still too many people who don’t see it his way.
For a while Mubin was reading the Koran out loud. He can do this like a real mullah, in a singing voice and in Arabic. It is truly beautiful to listen to, and it created an almost mystical atmosphere, driving through the rolling hills and the pastures on the North side of the pass into the evening sun to the tunes of the Koran.
At one point, a US army convoy came the other way. It is only the second one I have seen. No US army personnel is visible anywhere, either. His reaction was interesting and came from a deeply and widely held conviction: Look at this, he exclaimed. All of this equipment, all of this technology! And they cannot fight the Taliban?! You know, they are working with the Taliban. We all know it.
That was a surprise reaction for me. I followed it up with one of my “interviews”. How do you see the Americans in comparison with the Russians? Despite the bloodshed the Russians created with their invasion, it was shocking to me to hear that Mubin felt that in general and without hesitation the population would favor the Russians. They built roads, the pass we just crossed, schools, housing and infrastructure. What did the Americans build? Nothing or too little. There is no tangible evidence for anything positive the Americans brought. The feeling instead is that they are colluding with the Taliban after all and that all they want is to expand their sphere of power into Russia and China from here!
In contrast, for hours after the mountain crossing we passed through villages and went over bridges with bright stenciled letters saying: MDC-Funded by Germany. MDC, I think is an organization affiliated with cleaning up landmines. All the bridges, houses, government buildings and even stores with this sign stenciled on proudly proclaimed the contribution Germany has made to rebuilding Afghanistan. Even the many illiterate people will understand the significance of this sign. Germans have a fabulous reputation in Afghanistan even though I am sure their monetary contribution and their loss of lives in this war does not even come close to the Americans. But the public image differs!
I saw none of that promotion of the public face for the Americans. In Pakistan, I had a thought years ago: If the US government had just given every household a generator, they would have endeared themselves forever in the hearts of the population. If the American soldiers here in Afghanistan could just be seen repairing the Salang Pass! If they could just put a big sign at the entrance of this so significant pass proclaiming their contribution, they would achieve something invaluable and lasting and reach the general population where they understand it. Instead, they are now hiding in their military bases and are driving around in preposterously equipped vehicles. The Americans were welcomed with great hope years ago. All of this enthusiasm has vaporized and worse, turned into conspiracy theories and accusations. Why is this going so wrong?!
After all this hell, we reached Mazar-e-Sharif. Night turns into day without fail and a nightmare into a memory. So it goes. And tomorrow will be another day in this very complex and tested country.