Miles on the clock: 22,280
It was on a clear, chilly morning that I pedaled out of Dushanbe (Tajikistan’s capital) and into a winding, rocky valley. The road climbed past affluent, half-built holiday homes with small swimming pools and neat, incongruously-green lawns. Fiery, molting trees lined the increasingly narrow valley which became gradually steeper. After thirty miles I had a picnic lunch and realised my iPod was plugged into a hotel power socket back in the city. I left my bike with a gaggle of village girls and within two hours had thumbed a ride into town, collected the iPod and hitched back to the village.
For forty minutes I sped up the sloping road, powered by fear-spiced adrenalin, and was physically shaking when I finally emerged into the ring of light at 3372m altitude. I layered-up with clothes for a descent through peaceful villages with elderly, velvet-cloaked men basking in the thin autumn sun. I was greeted with enthusiastic waves and toothless smiles by adults and astonished yelps by children.
A poster of Tajikistan’s dictatorial president Rahmon, mid false-smiled handshake with Hu Jintao, was plastered above the exit. From here it was all downhill to the arid plains of the country’s north. A murky grey-purple haze hovered on the horizon and narrow irrigation channels bordered by cotton fields stretched across the land. I realised I’d never seen a raw cotton plant before and was shocked that I previously had no idea what the source of such an important ubiquitous material even looked like. The harvest was over but the fields were sparsely dotted with little cloud-white puffs of late-blooming cotton sprouting from their buds.
Arriving at the Uzbek border on the last afternoon of my Tajik visa, I was curtly informed that this crossing was closed to foreigners. A thirty-mile northward sprint on a rutted gravel track running along the border brought me, panting, to an open crossing just before it closed for the day. Annoyingly, the following day I passed within a mile of the closed border.
The land was covered with cotton fields made possible by diverting water from its natural flow down the Jaxartes river to the tragically withered Aral Sea (formerly the world’s fourth largest lake; now only 15% of its 1950 volume). Donkey-drawn carts, stacked high with bulging sacks of cotton, ambled down the roadsides with drivers lounging on top, allowing their beasts to set their own leisurely pace. It became warm in the daytime and the mountains of Central Asia suddenly seemed very distant despite still being visible, floating above the dust haze.
Immortalised in literature, the city of Samarkand dates back over 2,500 years. Alexander the Great conquered it and it later flourished as a key Silk Road hub. However, as with much of Asia, it was flattened by the Mongols in the 13th century. 150 years later Timur (AKA Tamerlane) made Samarkand the intellectual and political capital of his rapidly-expanding empire. The grand epithet “The Jewel of Islam” is due to Samarkand’s remarkable architecture which attracts droves of visitors each year. Thankfully the tourist season was over when I checked into a peaceful B&B with a leafy courtyard.
The following morning I took a pre-dawn stroll around the sleeping city’s landmark Registan. The three grand medressas (Islamic universities) stand proudly around a south-facing courtyard and I watched with wonder as the azure domes flared into a vivid purple when struck by the red rising sun, then melted to their actual striking blue, not dissimilar to a cloud-purged sky. Inside each medressa is a further courtyard surrounded by the ascetic cells which once accommodated the students, professors and mullahs who lived there. Elaborate blue and green tilework covers the exteriors of the medressas’ and their grand, arched gateways. The small museum in the Tilla-Kari medressa displays many sepia prints of the city over the last 100 years before extensive restoration began. I was somehow sad to see that most of what stands today has been rebuilt in the last 15 years.
Selfishly, I found myself longing for the melancholy beauty of decaying ruins as at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complexes or Delhi’s Humayun tomb. Shining, newly-glazed tilework, however ornate, doesn’t have the same appeal to me as crumbling decay. What would we think if the Greeks repainted the Parthenon in the bright colours that once adorned it? I believe the obsession with the authenticity and age of historical buildings is a very western trait. The most common question I have overheard from western tourists at attractions all over Asia is “how old is this? And how old is this…” Perhaps, as a European, I have grown up spoiled by the relative longevity of historical buildings which haven’t had to compete with earthquakes and Mongolians. This fascination with genuine age seems not to be one shared by the average domestic Chinese tourist, for example, who obediently visits sections of the Great Wall built entirely since the 1980s and doesn’t complain about the plastic flowers glued to dead trees there either.
In the three days I stayed in the city I wandered, alone and pensive, around the various sights, soaking up their splendour and chatting with my steadily improving Russian to anyone who approached. The Bibi-Khanym mosque was built by Timur’s Chinese wife (of the same name) as a surprise for her husband while he was away on a military campaign in the 14th century. At the time is was among the world’s largest mosques and its imposing twenty-yard high gate hints at its former glory before toppled by an earthquake.
Timur’s mausoleum is a less ostentatious structure and houses the remains of the emperor along with his teacher and four of his progeny. Over the six monochrome tombstones, in their dimly-lit chamber, stands a six yard tall wooden pole with, I was told, Timur’s horse’s tail dangling from its end. His armies marched under the standard of a horse’s tail.
Back on the road I watched the aftermath of the cotton harvest as the now-budless, waist-high plants were uprooted and stacked onto carts for storage and, eventually, winter fuel. On two occasions villagers asked me if I was a Sikh and, on another, if I was a Turk. With hair (uncut for a year) tied into a topknot, a bushy copper-red beard and sun-ruddied cheeks, I had become used to leaving a wake of surprised stares, unsubtle titters and openly scornful sniggers. In Europe this I would have considered this unacceptably rude but somehow here it only amused me; almost much as I amused them.
Riding slowly onwards to Bukhara; more irritating shouts and whistles – a gauntlet of gormless yells; cloudless skies and crisp air; the end of the cotton fields and the start of the Kyzylkum desert; the mercury sinks again.
The religious heart of secular Uzbekistan, Bukhara is one of the three khanates that caused Tsarist Russia difficulties when she swept across Central Asia in the 19th century. The city became infamous for its murderous, despotic Emirs but was finally subdued in 1868 and absorbed as a Russian protectorate. Again, with the tourist season over, I felt I had the run of the peaceful city. With its mud-brown walls and traditional houses, it has remained relatively faithful to traditional architecture and looks much as a I expect it did 100 years ago.
I visited several Timurid medressas (all with architecture and brightly-coloured tilework comparative to Samarkand) and the spectacular 47m high Kalon minaret which has stood for 850 years, surviving the Mongol ‘Year Zero’ as Genghis Khan (who raised little more than a tent…and, apparently, a crop of over 1,000 children) was impressed and left it standing. I strolled through the Old Jewish Quarter’s winding alleys and noticed a weather worn Star of David carved into a gnarled wooden door. A relic from a time of prosperous co-existence.
The Ark - with its vast, sloping mud walls – was closed for restoration work when I visited but I stood on the recently-concreted courtyard and wondered how those two men, so far from home, must have felt in their final moments before execution in front of a large crowd. How would I react in a similar situation? Of course, I’d like to think there would be a stiff upper-lip but trickles down my cheeks and inner legs are a more realistic vision. I looked into the gloomy dungeon and shuddered at the thought of even a single night’s incarceration there. Bukhara is an ancient and holy city which received many pilgrims in its heyday but coming to this grimy pit was my pilgrimage.
The morning I left was -7°C and I wrapped up before tracing the fringe of the desert southeastwards. White-topped mountains were again visible ahead. Occasional single-humped camels grazed on thorny scrub and distant natural gas wells had roaring flames dancing atop towering chimneys.
As I approached the mountains the flat desert buckled into low, dusty hills with more imposing obstacles swelling behind them. Three men, sitting at breakfast in the morning sun, waved me over to join them. I gratefully tucked into some soup with bread but declined the vodka. They eagerly worked their way through to a second bottle, toasting my health with each glass and growing gradually more comical. When I left, they were trying to pour their glassfuls of the cheap, shudder-inducing liquor into each other’s glasses without being noticed.
My idea to visit Afghanistan was cultivated a couple of months earlier when I learned that a couple of northern cities were deemed ‘safe’ and that visas are easily obtainable. Curiosity led me to reason that, with the imminent withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops, there’s a chance the security situation will decay and now might be my last chance to visit in relative safety for many years.
The prospect of entering Afghanistan had vaguely hung ahead of me for two months and I’d managed to think about it rationally or not at all but, camped on wasteland near the border, my mind finally ran free with pointless hypotheticals that kept me awake much of the night. I had decided not to tell my family I was going as I knew they would only worry so I told one friend, giving him a date on which to ‘raise the alarm’ if I hadn’t contacted again.
I was at the border crossing when it opened and was thoroughly searched for an hour before leaving Uzbekistan. I then rode across the “Friendship Bridge” which the Soviets built and over which they withdrew in 1989. The Afghan immigration official briefly raised an eyebrow but waved me through without any search.
A couple of people waved me over but I was guarded and sheepishly cycled on as fast as possible; a stranger with low-awareness and zero language in a high-risk country. I admit that, throbbing with adrenalin, I was afraid and wondered if coming had been a mistake. There was, however, no choice but to ride the sixty miles to Mazar-e-Sharif. I covered my head to avoid unwanted attention.
Within a few miles I was in desert proper on a road snaking south between 5-10 yard high dunes. The empty stretches of road, walled in by sand, eased my mind slightly and I regained control of my thoughts which had been running riot since the sleepless night before. A fierce easterly wind whipped up and began buffeting my flank. I leaned sideways into it and nearly fell over every time a truck shot past, momentarily removing my supporting gale. In the afternoon I reached the turning onto Afghanistan’s main northern artery and was blown rapidly west with little exertion. A military convoy of five massive armoured vehicles displaying Swedish flags passed me. The helmeted, white faces in the high, bullet-proof windscreens spotted me andshook their heads in stern disapproval.
Relaxing further, I sat down and enjoyed watching the raw and busy life of the city rushing all around me. Street children selling plastic bags; jewellers haggling over the price of colourful stone necklaces; men pushing wheelbarrows of rubble to and from roadworks; moneychangers sat on stools on the pavement with small glass cabinets displaying various currencies. I realised that, despite ongoing war in the south and nationwide problems, this is a country in many ways like any other with people going about their daily lives. Several people approached me and addressed me in decent English. A carpet seller called Sadaek sat me down in his shop and gave me tea. He’d never heard of a cycle tourist before and was fascinated. He asked why I’d come to Afghanistan and I had only to look at the scenes around me to find an answer.
Nasir arrived and greeted me in the Afghan custom of a hug and a kiss on the right cheek. He is a 22 year-old journalist and was dressed in the western fashion. We walked fifteen minutes to the Barg-e-Sabz guesthouse which is owned by another couple of cousins who generously keep a room free for any foreign couchsurfers who come to Mazar. In the room I was greeted by a jovial Masood (who runs security for the American consulate) and Stefano (an Italian tourist who arrived in a car the previous day). We drank tea and chatted for a while.
Our kind hosts left for the evening and we ordered in food from a nearby restaurant. Stefano had been roaming around Asia as a magician in a small travelling circus until he met an English couple in Kyrgyzstan who had driven their Seat Inca (a small white van that a London plumber might typically drive) from the UK and were fed up with it. They charged Stefano with the task of taking the car and finding somewhere to deposit it where it would be needed and appreciated. He took the tired van through the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan and into the Wakhan Corridor in northeast Afghanistan where he got stuck for twelve days in a border town before returning to Tajikistan and then onto Mazar-e-Sharif where Masood had helped him arrange to give the Seat to a girls’ school.
I waited with the car while Masood and Stefano disappeared to run some errands. My phone rang as the friendly little mechanic finished. We were late for the school, there was no time to wash the car and I would have to drive it to the school and meet them there. I hadn’t driven a car in two and a half years. The clutch was exhausted and the roads manic but I somehow managed to get the thing into the school and stall in front of a crowd assembled to greet it. I was just a hanger-on and felt a embarrassed and ridiculous.
The Fatima Balkhi School for Girls was closed by the Taliban when they took power of Mazar in 1997 as educating women was not on their agenda. Being a large empty building, it was then used by them as a base. In 2001 the National Army bombed the school (along with many of its occupants) and, rebuilt a couple of years ago, it is now educating 6,000 students. We were welcomed with a heart-warming (if tonally awful) song from ten young girls in pink and black dresses before being ushered into the school office for polite formalities. Stefano and I were unkempt, poorly dressed and felt awkward sitting opposite the immaculately groomed governors and city officials with their three-piece suits and neat, gray beards. Masood translated and pleasant things were said all round before we went outside and the keys were officially handed over in front of the shamefully dirty car. Press photo opportunity finally over, Stefano then performed a short magic show to the girls delight and we made our exit. To our amusement, we made the evening’s local news.
Nasir was amused by what he overheard people saying of my scruffy appearance: “I thought foreigners were rich but this one looks like he can’t afford shampoo and rats have nibbled his shoes!” We visited two of Nasir’s photographer friends, both called Qais, in their little basement studio and drank tea while one showed us his beautiful prints. He sells his work to AFP (Agence France-Presse) and his photo of a recently-raped 5-year-old girl in her hospital bed was Time magazine’s photo of the month. Many of his photos were from a government orphanage just outside Mazar and we all decided to make a visit there the following day so Stefano could do a show for the children and Qais could take more photos.
The Balkh Orphanage was one of a little crop of buildings in the desert. There were 20 children there when we arrived with 70 more at school. We were shown around the simple facilities, spoke with the disinterested female director and shook hands with each of the eager kids who echoed “what is your name? What is your name?” Stefano amazed them with his conjuring and then Nasir translated while a few of the children spoke about how they came to be in the orphanage. We heard horrific stories. I listened to an 8-year-old boy stolidly describe how he watched the Taliban cut the throats of his parents and oldest brother before being placed in a medressa for indoctrination by the very people who orphaned him.
Stefano flew to Iran and I spent a few days simply wandering around the town and talking with anyone who approached me. I brought an Afghan headscarf and kept my obviously-European face and hair covered much of the time. Most people were incredibly friendly but I received a few overtly threatening stares, usually from middle-aged men with thick black beards and one with coal-black eyeliner – a typically Taliban affectation, originally worn to protect the eyes from bright sun. One man told me, in halting English, that his greatest desire was to sleep with a foreign woman; any foreign women: “foreigners fucked my country so I want to fuck one of them”.
Another young man, Zabi, who had worked as a translator for the Norwegian troops (during interrogations of captive Taliban fighters among other situations), confided his belief in cautious undertones that ‘religion is cancer’. He liked the Zoroastrian (an ancient religion born in Afghanistan) morality of ‘good words, good thoughts, good deeds’. He spoke of being deeply disturbed by seeing a woman stoned to death ‘in the name of Islam’ when he was a child. The Norwegian troops withdrew a month earlier. He hopes to emigrate in their wake.
It wasn’t safe after dark so I stayed in the room at night and, one evening, watched Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian”. The film’s not-so-subtle satire of false prophets, and believing in things because one wants something to believe in, had extra resonance under the circumstances.
Miro, a Croatian tourist I had met in Kyrgyzstan, arrived and we visited the nearby city of Balkh with Nasir. It’s under fifteen miles away but is not thought of as ‘safe’ in the same way as Mazar and Nasir was visibly on edge the whole time we were there. Afghanistan’s oldest city, Balkh dates back over 6,000 years. Zarathustra (AKA Zoroaster), the prophet of Zoroastrianism – a mystical fire-worshipping religion, is thought to have been born here around 600BC. It is also where Alexander the Great married his Persian Queen Roxana.
The city has an amazing circular layout when viewed from overhead (have a look on Google maps) and the impressive earthen city walls, still grand but much decayed, run for six miles around the city. In the centre (where Nasir was particularly jumpy) we saw a couple of crumbling shrines under UNESCO restoration and the tomb of Rabi’a Balkhi; the first and most revered female Persian poet. According to legend, Balkhi fell in love with a slave and resultantly was imprisoned by her brother who obligingly cut her throat first. She wrote her last poem on the wall in her own blood.
Last stop was the Noh Gombad mosque which was a Zoroastrian Fire Temple until Buddhism arrived and it was converted. Centuries later, after the military conquest of Islam, it finally became a mosque.
That evening Nasir resumed being his normal relaxed self as we sat with Masood and their two cousins, Farod and Walid (who own the guesthouse), eating kebabs and drinking smuggled Uzbek vodka with pomegranate juice. My hosts had been indescribably kind during my time in Mazar and I struggled to adequately thank them.
After being told by countless people that the road to Herat passes through Taliban-controlled territory and is unsafe, even for Afghans, I decided to do the sensible thing and fly there. The airport is small and only sees a couple of flights a week. I was frisked several times but the baggage checks were laughable. There were no x-ray scanners and, in the confusion, I ended up with two knives and plenty of matches in my hand luggage. My unboxed, fully-assembled bike was put on the plane without argument and I gazed out of the window for the 45 minute flight. The plane followed the divide between dusty desert plains stretching north to the Kazakh steppe and the snow-covered mountains that cover much of Afghanistan.
I cycled into the centre of Herat (Afghanistan’s cultural capital) and, while looking for a cheap hotel, met an English student called Matiullah. He wasted no time in offering me floor space in the small room he shared with two art students and I didn’t hesitate to accept. Mati and his roommates are all from a city called Ghazni, located between Kabul and Kandahar.
In the morning I accompanied him to Herat University. He insisted that I fully cover my head and face on the way there and was convinced that I was unsafe to wander the streets alone. I sat in on a literature class in which 55 students crushed into an undersized room (boisterous boys on the left, largely-silent girls to the right) and listened to the teacher (addressed as “teacher”) read a synopsis of Beowulf in imperfect English. The class had the feel of a secondary school rather than a university and culminated with me being coaxed into reading and explaining a couple of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The police had been to the room asking questions about me while we were out and this heightened Mati’s discomfort. He wouldn’t let me go to the communal toilet without covering up for fear of other inhabitants in the complex spotting me. I offered to go to a hotel but he wouldn’t hear of it. When we went in or out, he would charge ahead of me without waiting so as not to potentially be seen with the infidel.
The next day we visited the 15th century Ark which houses the new German-funded national museum. The mostly-bloody history of Afghanistan was well presented and I read about war after war, including the three fought with the British in the 19th century. The curator made an exception and gave us free reign to explore the restored citadel so we clambered over its battlements enjoying the best possible views of the city.
When I returned to the room (as instructed, after dark and 30 minutes after Mati), my hosts were visibly awkward. The police had been again. They didn’t believe I was a tourist and I had to leave the room. Oddly they didn’t care to see my passport or even talk to me. I told my new friends not to worry and we enjoyed a nice home-cooked meal of aubergine soup together before I said a heartfelt thanks and checked into a grubby nearby hotel.
The road passed occasional crumbling caravanserai (Silk Road coaching inns) out in the desert and there were regular police surveillance posts. The friendly guards at one of these sat me down with a rice lunch before posing for photos in front of their huge, mounted gun and making me fire off a round from one of their AK-47s. I walked deep among some mounds in the desert before putting up my tent for my last night in Afghanistan.
In the morning I packed up quickly and pedalled quickly, reaching the border at lunchtime. The immigration officer invited me to drink tea and we sat for half an hour. This was a representative final conversation with an Afghan: he was charming, he was friendly, he wanted to emigrate.
“Where are you going?
“Are you going to Israel?”
“Have you ever been to Israel?”
“Then what country is this stamp from?”
“Where is that?”
“Next to India.”
“What country is this visa for?”
“Where is that?”
“There is no country in Asia with that name!”
“Yes there is.”
“I am an Asian man and I know there is not!”
“I am an educated man and I know there is. (pointing to a world map on the wall) Look! It is here.”
“Are you Israeli?”
“When was your last visit to Israel?”
“I have never been to Israel.”
“Ok…it is finished.”
And that was that. I was allowed through and rode on into the desert.
Shortly afterwards, leaning against a wall eating biscuits and watching cars whizz by, I finally relaxed fully. I pulled the scarf off my head, my shoulders sagged to a normal level and I heaved a deep sigh of relief. A driver pulled over and forced a bag of fruit and a bottle of juice on me. It was great to be back in Iran, a land of absurdly kind people.
There are positives though. I met wonderful, enlightened people and there is a currently a small economic boom in the country. But, how much longer will foreign countries continue to pump huge sums of money into Afghanistan if, as many predict, it slides back into civil war after the planned 2014 withdrawal of ISAF troops? I sincerely hope such a state of affairs doesn’t come to pass and I am certainly not an authority on the situation. However, I fear that my reasoning that this may have been my last chance to visit in safety for many years may have been accurate. As long as people are successfully preaching hate, under the guise of religion or otherwise, progress will remain treacle-slow.
Temporarily putting these admittedly-pessimistic thoughts out of mind, I sped into Mashhad on a gorgeous afternoon, slapping my thigh to Huey Lewis & The News. I found my way to the small, family-run hostel I’d stayed at when passing through the city just over two years before. Vali, the owner, recognised me and greeted me with an enthusiastic hug and triple kiss. My 2-year, 17-country, 14,000-mile loop around Asia had come to a close. Now I look to the Middle East and Africa.