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Published: June 27th 2013
The bright sun beat down onto the metal bridge that reverberated every time I planted my foot. Each laboured step weighted by my two backpacks took me closer to Tajik border post, where a fluttering flag stood atop a simple rectangular metal shed. Surrounding me were bare white rocks scattered across an equally pale ground that glared brightly into my eyes.
I glanced to my left and my attention was arrested by the stupendous peaks of the Hindu Kush, where mountains in excess of 7000 metres cut through the cloudless blue sky. Apart from the breeze, everything was eerily quiet – it truly felt I was crossing a border at the outmost edge of civilisation.
I arrived at the Tajik building via a short flight of metal stairs, where commenced a detailed search through my baggage for prohibited items. This process was overseen by several border guards with spare time on this quiet crossing. With the search completed, I repacked my bags and proceeded to the passport officer in the next room. He scrutinised my passport, copying down the necessary details as there were no electronic scanners. After a prolonged wait, he grimly stamped my exit from the country,
which coincided with arrival of a young solider with freshly made tea. The customs official offered me a cup and we stood together sipping tea as if to commemorate my departure from Tajikistan.
I strode from the building towards a similar one only 100 metres away, but with an Afghan flag flying from its roof. I could feel the excitement rise within me – it was exhilarating. I recall a recent comment by fellow blogger, Anastasia78
, who said that I had an adrenalin addiction – perhaps she is correct.
Entering customs saw a more thorough baggage search – clothes, books, my cross from Almaty’s Zenkov Cathedral, computer, camera – all was laid out for the cluster of security people to see. Everything though was cordial and the Afghan border guards were welcoming and enthusiastic about my arrival. For the second time in thirty minutes, I repacked my bags and moved to face a friendly and talkative passport control officer. He was slightly confused about my origin:
“Where you come from?” he spoke in slow, deliberate English.
“Australia” was my reply.
I produced my
passport and pointed to the kangaroo on the cover. “Kangaroo, Australia!” I stated.
“Ah, Australia!” he said in realisation
A laminated map sat against the wall, so I pointed to Australia and identified the cities – Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney...
“Sydney!” he exclaimed.
Sydney and kangaroos – the two most identifiable Australian icons; guaranteed to distinguish my origin as being from the Antipodes rather than Europe.
Another period of waiting ensued as documents were filled and details checked. The thud of stamp against paper informed me that the process was concluded, and after a shake of the hand I departed.
A baby-faced soldier led me through a narrow fenced corridor towards a metal gate, which he swung open as I approached. Nodding in thanks, my foot stepped on Afghan soil and my fist punched the air in triumphal excitement – I had entered Afghanistan!
Awaiting me was Hameed, my young blue-eyed guide for much of this journey. We entered a battered vehicle complete with cracked windscreen, and my first experience of Afghan roads showed their condition was far worse than those in Tajikistan. We were physically shaken around the cabin as our transport
jumped across the rough surface.
Shortly after my arrival, the sun disappeared behind threatening clouds that brought a bitter wind blowing from the mountains, so I hurried to the guesthouse which held fine views of Ishkashim and its surrounds. That evening was particularly cold and I hoped this was not a precursor of the week’s weather. Thankfully, the following morning saw brilliant blue skies, puffy white clouds and a fresh layer of snow on the nearby peaks. Though being the first days of summer, it was still cold enough to bring snow.
Such better weather allowed a prolonged visit to Ishkashim, the entry point for all travel into the Wakhan Corridor, where I would travel the following day. It is rare for a place to be exactly as one’s imaginings, but Ishkashim was one of those places. The town is a loose collection of flat-roofed buildings sprayed across the countryside, but the sole semblance of a main street hosts the bazaar, the only market of note for hours in any direction. Running through two main streets and several smaller side ones, they are lined by square shops, many with flimsy canopies to protect them from the elements, but
the dust from the dirt streets was a constant annoyance, kicked up by frequent winds or occasional vehicle. After lunch prayers shopkeepers would water the street section in front of them with buckets to provide some respite.
The bazaar was filled with men wearing loose fitting earthy coloured, black or white garments with a variety of headwear. Shopkeepers would recline on the floor or sit on plastic chairs in their stalls, usually totally covered with their wares. Consuming tea was a common pursuit, and adjacent stall owners would gather in the roomiest shop to share a drink and conversation. Another popular pursuit was chess and a variation of checkers called shatran
As with any destination, you can approach a place as an observer or a participant. Whilst watching a game of shatran
by the side of the street, I was invited to challenge the champion, a man called Boba. Thus came the pivotal moment of this portion of travel – whether one decides to interact and immerse or withdraw and witness. Since my usual approach is to immerse in a destination, I agreed, and the crowd voiced their approval upon taking my position at the board. As the
game progressed, the audience grew to a considerable size, with some suggesting moves, and most laughing in response to my exclamations when Boba’s unforseen move saw one or more of my pieces removed from the board.
As expected, I easily lost the game, but I won in other ways, for gradually these strangers surrounding me were friends and for the remainder of my time in Ishkashim, I was frequently invited to share a tea and learn Afghan Persian (known as Dari
). Afghanistan for me now became very different from what is portrayed in the mainstream media. There was no violence or danger here, but instead welcoming eyes and faces promised plenty of hospitality, laughter and tea.
Such warmth increased further for the Afghans are partial to being photographed, so after securing some lovely portraits, I offered to give copies of the photographs to the relevant subjects. Distributing these photos on my last day saw even more offers for tea and invites to people’s homes.
Hameed assisted in obtaining my permit for the Wakhan Corridor, which involved visits to the local government office, obtaining authorisations from the police and military and finally sitting on the floor in a
room with the official who controlled the final approval. Hameed was excellent during this time, and after a prolonged translated conversation that included discussion on Islam’s superiority over Christianity (that I handled with the adroitness of a seasoned diplomat) my permit was approved.
During these wanderings, one noticed the minimal presence of women, and all those sighted in the bazaar were fully covered in a usually metallic-blue burqa
. The absence of women perusing the bazaar could be attributed to some husbands forbidding their wives from going out in public. Women never walked alone, but always in pairs or group, and if women were in the presence of men, they always walked behind. One particularly striking scene was a family of three I sighted in the bazaaer – a man and his two teenage children. The man and teenage son walked in front, and the short daughter, covered in a small burqa
, trudged along, head lowered, at the rear.
It is impossible to imagine life under the burqa
, but conservative in dress does not mean conservative in attitude. Women talking amongst themselves and with shopkeepers were animated and forthright. Once when standing next to an apparently teenage girl in
the street, I heard the unmistakable chewing and popping sound of someone blowing bubble gum from underneath their veil. My later brief encounters with females revealed an inner determination and strength – it was a pity that I was unable to engage in a deeper conversation with any of them.
Though the burqa
intended to enforce modesty, it does not lessen a woman’s allure as a conversation with a young man revealed:
“What do you think of Afghan women?” I was asked.
“I don’t know because I cannot see them and have not met any,” was my reply
“They are beautiful!” was his response as our eyes turned to observe two burqa
covered women glide by.
“See, they are beautiful!” he exclaimed, thus demonstrating that men consider that the burqa
exudes feminineness and beauty.
A more noticeable presence is the military and police, and they are highly regarded. It was difficult to identify the police due to them wearing standard civilian clothes, thus I always (and probably incorrectly) assumed that any gun-wielding man striding down the street was a police officer. The military were easily identifiable by their beige and brown patterned uniforms, and
their numbers were significant.
But what of the mujahedeen
and the Taliban? One young lad told me, “We don’t like mujhadeen
or Taliban. We like peace, we like freedom." Yet, a police officer stated in simple English “mujahedeen
, good; Taliban, bad.” mainly because the mujahedeen
fight against the Taliban, who are despised by everyone I met in this area. This is probably because an immensely popular Badakhshan Province mujahedeen
leader, Mr Najnudin, was assassinated by them – and his picture adorns many vehicles and shops as a tribute.
The relationship between the various ethnic, political and armed groups in Afghanistan is very complex, and deserving of far more explanation than the cursory treatment in this blog. However, my brief time identified the impossible task television news has of explaining how incidents in Afghanistan relate to the intricate dynamics of the country in a 90 second news segment.
Though Ishkashim is peaceful, being Afghanistan, one can be assured that troubled areas are not far away. I was often told that travelling west to Faizabad was perilous, and it was from west of Ishkashim that I met an interesting Afghan man who was running from the Taliban, and for
a good reason – he was Christian.
We met in a room surrounded by his Muslim friends. With tea on hand, and squatting on the floor adjacent to an open window that provided the only light, he surmised his life via Hameed:
“You know Taliban?” he questioned.
“Of course I know Taliban”, was my response
“Taliban,” he spat the word whilst raising a finger to his neck and mimicking a slicing motion.
“I run. They follow me. I keep running, they keep following,” he spoke with an eagerness, his eyes never leaving mine.
“But you are safe here,” I proposed
“No, they are always chasing me” was his emphatic answer, and he repeated the neck-cutting gesture. “I want to leave Afghanistan. It is not safe for me.”
The air hang heavy as the room reflected the tone of the conversation. The man continued, “I want a new life.”
An extended pause prefaced the next statement “Can you help me?”
I knew this question was coming, as it has often been asked by others who seek an Australian visa as they search for a better and wealthier lifestyle. However, this was
Street scene on a cool day - Ishkashim, Afghanistan
The photography store is on the left behind the motorcycle.
the first time someone’s reason was not monetary, but survival.
“I do not live in Australia anymore,” was my response. The expression on his face lowered. “But I spend a lot of time in Dubai. I know that Afghans work there. Perhaps I can find some information for you?”
“Yes,” his voice now sounded brighter.
“I cannot promise you a job, but I can promise information,” I offered.
“Okay,” he nodded in approval.
Shortly after, I requested his photograph to which he consented. With a dull light illuminating the left side of his face, I snapped several pictures. Upon reviewing the images I gasped, for without translated language to distract me, I could examine his face and observed a powerful image of an emotional man consumed by fear and hopelessness. I gazed up at him, and he was awaiting my verdict of his photo, “Good” came feebly from my mouth, but my answer should have been “Bad” for the image potently conveyed the visceral impact of violent intolerance, something for which the Taliban is renowned. It is such a terrible and tragic pity that the kindly, hospitable people of Afghanistan must be torn asunder by
the pursuit of power.
I cannot publish this image in order to protect his identity. However, if he secures a passage to safer shores, I wish to retake his photograph to see that sadness in his eyes succeeded by joy, and the gaze of fear replaced with a look of hope.
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