Motorcycles, Mountains, and Militia

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Five months after my first visit to Kabul, I’m back on a motorcycle and ready to road trip to Panjshir.  I’m riding with a mixed group of expats and Afghans on their regular motorbike tour.  With security measures meaning that the routes they ride are rapidly becoming too dangerous, the road north into Panjshir remains relatively safe.  

Four bikes, six riders head out of town, stopping only to regroup at a petrol station to do a last chance health check.  We have two Chinese motorbikes, one Japanese, and a beautiful Triumph, all of them very old.  Two of the bikes have serious shocks and are ideal for the rough roads that make driving in Kabul an off-road adventure.

The group takes turns at the lead making sure that everyone stays together.  One hour into the ride we have our first breakdown.  Hamid’s bike.  We regroup by the side of the road, ironically across from a tiny Afghan police outpost.  Less than five minutes pass, and we’ve attracted quite the crowd.  The Afghans pose for photos and help tinker with the bikes.  Children are soon hanging out around the edges watching the scene created by the foreigners.  

The decision is made to leave Hamid’s bike and he will ride on the back of Andrea’s Triumph.  We continue on and I’m struck again by how beautiful this country is.   Surrounded by snow capped mountains, mountain bike worthy hills and the now vibrant green Shomali plain stretching out in front of them, this could be an adventure travel paradise.  Mountain biking, kayaking, hiking, mountaineering, yak trekking to nomade yurts, not to mention motorcycle touring.  

The back roads we are riding are deeply rutted, muddy from the recent rains, and require the drivers to pay close attention to the road.  There is no straight line, the bikes weave back and forth from one side of the road to the other, much like a mountain biker finding its line.  I’m riding behind Travis and while the bike is quite large, its not exactly meant for touring with two people.  There are two small pegs for my feet and no rail behind the seat to hold onto.  I am sitting above the shock which means that to keep myself from getting bucked off, I hold onto Travis with one hand and use my left to hold onto the fender behind me.  This gives me a little leverage to unweight over the large potholes and ruts. It proves a workout just to stay on. 

After twenty minutes navigating possibly the worst road of the trip, we pull into Bagram – a village which also ‘hosts’ Bagram Air Force Base.  Lining the streets are makeshift stalls, stores, repair shops with the usual chaos of people driving, walking, and biking in multiple directions.  We pull off the side of the road in front of a bologna stand, attracting quite a crowd. Kids and men gather round the look at the foreigners and their bikes.  I take off my helmet and Hamid laughs when he sees my face, he asks for my camera and takes a photo, showing me a face two shades darker from the dust and grime.  I laugh and can taste Afghanistan in my mouth thanks to the dust I’ve injested and the gritty film that coats my teeth.  We share a few pieces of bologna, a delicious fried dough, and a warm Pepsi and then I follow Travis and Hamid into the black market.  Here you can get military knock offs of all kinds; flak jackets, combat boots, etc.  Guns apparently are off limits, but its hard to believe there isn’t some dark corner in the back of one of the shops that you could purchase a weapon.  

The Triumph’s headlight doesn’t work, so we stop at a stall on the way out of Bagram.   As we wait, a swarm of twenty or more people gathers round to watch, but unlike in Kabul, its not the usual baksheesh plea for money, simple curiousity.  Fifteen minutes later a policeman comes by and throws a few small stones to break up the crowd and send everyone on their way.  The owner of the repair stall shows off his air rifle and fires a few shots.  The Triumph proves a difficult match for parts and electrical tape is pulled out to affix everything back together as a short term solution. 

Back on the road we hit motorcycle nirvana, road as smooth as a baby’s bottom, courtesy of the American military.  Travis opens up the bike and we fly down the road, only to regroup minutes later as the Triumph seems to be only operating on one cylinder now.  A little more roadside tinkering and the decision is to keep going and see what happens. 

Alas, stopping again in another village before reaching the entrance into Panjshir, the decision is made for Andreas and Hamid to turn back and head back to Kabul on the now ailing Triumph.  Running the bike on one cylinder with two riders is taking its toll.  Two bikes down.  

Four riders and two healthy bikes continue on towards the narrow river valley entrance that marks the beginning of Panjshir province.  This is the area where Faheem Dashty’s father had regaled me months earlier with tales of Massoud and his own part in blowing up roads to thwart the Taliban’s attempts to reach this Northern Alliance stronghold.   We are greeted at the guarded checkpoint and waved through.  

The goal was to ride to the other end of the valley and visit Massoud’s tomb, but the multiple bike delays have eaten up a lot of time.  We stop instead about halfway and get off the bikes to take a few photos and stretch the legs before turning around.  Again children stream out of the fields and houses to watch us.  A little boy riding a donkey proves a comedian in training.  He hams it up for the camera, and Travis lets him try on his helmet.  He parades around on his donkey with a huge grin, cracking jokes to the rest of the children.   Its like a sketch out of Monty Python and a fitting end for the ride.

We head out of the valley and make our way towards the main road back to Kabul with the setting sun casting a golden light as the scenery flashes by. We stop briefly to fill up the tanks with ‘fresh’ petrol, involving an ancient can of petrol and funnel.  Other than that the bikes remain healthy and our only stop is at a roadside stall to purchase drinks and get some blood back into our legs.  Travis calls Andreas to see how if he and Hamid made it back all right.  As is becoming expected, men walk over to have a look at the bikes and one brings out a warhead he apparently found somewhere in the fields behind us.  The tip of the dusty warhead is unscrewed, but that is hardly comforting.  Check please!  He poses with his prize find for a few photos and we’re off.  

Darkness falls as we get close to Kabul, I am grateful for the relatively smooth road that allows me to stash my hands in the pockets of Travis’ jacket to keep warm.   Cars clog the wide road but the bikes weave in and out of traffic and along the side of the road, passing neatly through the lines of day trippers heading home.   

Eight hours on the bike, I am dropped off at my guesthouse to the surprise and mirth of the security guards.  I thank Travis and say goodnight as walk through the gate to where a lukewarm shower awaits!

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