One of my drivers in Kabul this visit has been Habibe. A kind man who practices his English as I respond in Dari, he is always smiling and we share stilted stories as we practice each other’s language about our children and family. He enthusiastically agreed to drive me to Mazar i Sharif when it became clear I couldn’t go by plane. The one condition being that his 70 year old father- in- law come along as ‘protection’. Mahmahdoud aka “John”, looks to weigh in at about 100 pounds, if that, and like many his age, he is missing several teeth, and his eyesight is poor. I’m not sure who’s protecting whom on this road trip, but having a respected elder in the car can’t be a bad thing if we find ourselves in a spot of trouble.
It will take us eight or nine hours to get to Mazar, assuming that Salang Pass is not snowed in. I become a little apprehensive when Habibe asks me for the first time to please pull my scarf futher forward, entirely covering my hair and creating a hooded shadow to hide my fair features behind. The signal that this road trip is not like the family road trips out to the Grand Canyon. There will be no roadside picnics and corny photo ops. My main concern is not bandits, or the Taliban, it’s the car. We are travelling in the same car that broke down three times in one day last week, and while Habibe assures me its travel worthy, I have my doubts.
We leave Kabul on the road towards Panjshir and as its my fourth time taking this road out of Kabul now, it feels familiar and I recognize landmarks and villages as we pass by. Snow covered mountains on the left, smaller rolling hills to the right lead us out onto the Shomali Plain. We go straight through the large roundabout that leads to Bagram on the right where I saw my first heavy duty hummer and tank convoy roll through last visit. On to the small village that splits off to Panjshir – with the white house overlooking the road where Massoud used to stay. We pass a jeep whose inside is filled beyond capacity with Afghan men, hanging on the back are three more, and as we pass I notice one more sitting on the hood like some sort of comical hood ornament.
On our left the river is raging and we follow the river for the next forty kilometers as we climb the switchbacks leading to Salang Pass. These mountains are part of the Hindu Kush and this road is a major trucking route. Heavily bejeweled trucks clog the roadways in both directions. These trucks are most typically red or green with elaborately detailed painting covering every possible surface, often including the wheel rims. As the landscape turns completely white with snow, we follow these trucks into a series of tunnels that aim to protect the narrow roadway from avalanches and heavy snowfall. They are all unlit, but many have natural light coming through at regular intervals, all but the last, and longest. Its like entering a deep cavern, the walls and road are wet and large craters hopscotch across the road creating yet another obstacle to safe driving in addition to the complete darkness. Many Afghan cars have very dim lights, many motorbikes have none – so often you don’t see another car until you are right on top of it. Majority rules here much like on the streets of Kabul – whichever team has the most cars spread out across the width of the tunnel wins.
We emerge unscathed on the other side to some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve seen. As we descend the switchbacks, cars of burqa’d women and Afghan men stop for impromptu picnics and it kills me that I can’t join them. “John” needs a bathroom break and we pull to the side of the road and he pulls his brown shawl around him for a little privacy as he does his business in the snow. When he returns he tells Habibe that if I need to go I can borrow his shawl. I think he just says that to all the infidel girls he plays bodyguard for!
The snow recedes above us and the mountains that surround us are covered in lush grass and wildflowers. The river continues to rage along beside us on the left and the landscape is dotted with sheepherders, red poppies, and the occasional horse. The game trails that crisscross this area scream for lengthy trail running and mountain biking – I wonder how badly landmined this area is and if I could perhaps arrange a little excursion in future visits with my bike.
Eventually I’m sitting with my legs crossed, contemplating John’s offer of his shawl. The hunt is on for a bathroom, and the one village large enough to have one, Pul e Khumri, Habibe deems too unsafe for a stop. And so, 20 minutes later, on the smooth road to Samagran I find myself squatting in the rain behind a crumbling mud wall off the side of the road in a field of poppies.
As we get closer to Mazar the landscape flattens out dramatically into empty plains, reminiscient of my home state of North Dakota. Amazingly the car has made it 9 full hours to Mazar and as we enter the city and drive past the famous Blue Mosque, I realize that my phone has stopped working. It was fully charged this morning so there is absolutely no reason for this. but here I am in the middle of nowhere with no communication link. Not a pleasant thought, and I fight the urge to panic. I tell Habibe where I am staying and figure I can sort it all out from there. Little did I know that the excitement would only just be beginning.