Travel Through Afghanistan on a Harley-Davidson

By Peter Forwood

Afghanistan on a Harley (9/8/05 - 23/8/05)
Distance 1485 km (435280 km to 436765 km)

This is part of the eleventh section of my around the world trip.
Complete Trip Overview & Map

Coming from Tajikistan

9/8/05 Two small boats pushed and pulled the vehicle ferry, two trucks, two cars, and a motorcycle, across the river. My fare, $US 20.00, ten for me, ten for the motorcycle. The sun scorching through my hat and radiating off the metal deck as we waited in over 40 degrees to be cleared to leave the barge. A dusty kilometre had me at the check post for immigration and customs where I waited a few minutes till afternoon prayer was finished and the immigration officer politely stamped my passport and I headed out of this dilapidated border post towards Kunduz 60 km south. I was surprised by an asphalt road all the way, across the flat dusty desert, with camels and donkeys carting fodder from the little grass and bushes that grow there into the small settlements that dot the region. Again the midday heat oppressive under my black helmet as I saw goats resting in the shadeMaking ice cream. freezing milk inside the drum rotated in a bath of ice. of the new electrical posts, the only shade. Each village had a sign, an aid agency, helping with housing or agriculture, different village, different aid agency. Closer to Kunduz, irrigation occurs, not only water for plants but for boys swimming and playing in the canals. It was to be quite some time before I saw a woman, and then it was under the Burka, the all encompassing robe that covers the face, and the eyes see only through a cloth mesh. I decided to stay in Kunduz for the night having been advised not to travel into the evening. I had also been advised not to wander off the road, even to toilet, as over 100 injuries a month still occur due to exploding mines and shells.

10/8/05 There is so much new and different here that the decision to stay another day was easy. I had enjoyed local made ice cream yesterday, made by rotating, by hand, large steel tubs, back and forth, in a bath of ice. The ice cream freezing to the insides of the drum. Dinner was brought to me sitting outside the hotel. Breakfast this morning was relaxedly sitting on a raised platform, sipping sweet tea, eating flat bread, and kebabs (meat and pieces of fat from the fat tailed sheep). I, as much as the locals are to me, am a novelty. Polite smiles everywhere, people happy to have their photo taken, prohibited under Taliban, enormous opportunities for character photos.An anonymous burka begging in the restaurant However there is an underlying tension. I have seen three street arguments, one resulting in a blow. Armed police and military patrol the streets and my hotel has an armed guard protecting the vehicles at night. Television, also banned under the Taliban, is now in most restaurants, belly dancers or sports the common theme. There is surprisingly, a lot of English spoken, and I was guided to change money, easy at almost any shop, (people wanting cash dollars to buy imported goods), and the internet, by a friendly English speaking local. My guide informed me that women were not allowed in the streets under the Taliban unless they had an emergency, eg medical, but even now only about 5 per cent of people I have seen are women, and of those 90 per cent still use the burka, the others, almost exclusively older ladies, might have a head scarf or chador. I sat outside the restaurant, and feeling quite inconspicuous, took many photographs of passers-by, and without exception those noticing me photographing them were comfortable with being photographed. A stroll through the market streets revealed no women shopkeepers or workers. It is less than four years since the Taliban fell and things moveBuying grapes slowly in traditional societies, and more slowly in rural areas, but the women here seem to be taking a slow pace to their freedoms.

11/8/05 Kabul is about 350 km. About, as my repaired speedometer drive wheel broke along the way. The new asphalt road initially across desert plains of high mud walled family compounds, most being repaired or extended  skywards in the dry season. Larger settlements existed along waterways, where irrigation ditches funnelled the snow melt rivers to potatoes, beans, corn, or fruit trees. The 3300 metre high Salang Pass through a 6 km tunnel at the top had areas cordoned off with red and white stones, and signs showing the mined areas. The sheep and goats grazing the mountain summer pastures are however colour blind to the warnings. This was the main access road for the Russians and saw much fighting against Afghan resistance movements. The sides of the road are also littered with tanks and military equipment. I was surprised at the volume of traffic. Trucks, busses and left and right hand drive Japanese cars, has been, models. The driving generally was bad, almost everyone new to the experience, and with a high speed road the general rule for many, particularly share taxi's, was to drive as fast as the car and road would allow.Shoe repair man working at his shop on the pavement Consequently towns had inserted speed humps to slow vehicles, hundreds of them. The first ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) personnel I saw was at an accident, a taxi, always overloaded, crumpled against a massive 4x4, no seat belts, likely no survivors. ISAF seemed to be just ensuring the crowd didn't get out of control. Kabul is a busy, dusty, thriving city in a bowl surrounded by mountains. I haven't seen a native tree, only planted ones. The houses run up the mountains, built of the same coloured earth, covered in the same dust they disappear into the haze. I finally found the Park Hotel, the third I had looked at in traffic jammed downtown, with motorcycle parking, and like most things here, without the soft touch and cleanliness of a woman's hand, it is drab, rooms and bathrooms uncleaned and no maintenance, and the one sheet on the bed is probably no cleaner than when the last man slept on it.  

12/8/05 Women in Kabul are less conservative than in the country areas. About half don't wear the burka, a head scarf, showing varying amounts of hair though is still essential.The treeless, mono coloured, mud brick housed hills of Kabul High heels, lace stockings (seen only below the ankle), and nail polish appearing. Some will walk alone, but still a long way from a mini skirt, if that is actually desired? Older men have the traditional fist length beard, and turban with the loose flowing pants and top. Younger men wear anything from the above to full western dress, any combination seems acceptable. Cigarettes are rarely smoked, crushed tobacco is held under the tongue, spitting is common. I visited the old 1970's area of Kabul, part of the hippy trail, Chicken St and the Mustafa Hotel. Chicken Street is a fairly dead place on a Friday holiday, half the shops are shut, those that are open sell the same products of 35 years ago, carpets, jewellery and semi historical artefacts, although the chicken shops are now gone, but the street kids are about trying their luck at begging, selling books or newspapers or even offering to be your security for a fee. There were a few group tourists but most of the business is reportedly from NGO's and international forces. It is easy to compare the differences that war has caused here as opposed to Khao San Rd in Bangkok, that has continued to grow year on year since its 1970's beginnings. I am not sure if the Mustafa Hotel is the same, a quite modern hotel, still attracting the westerners and locals alike. One of the few placesPutting up posters for the upcoming elections a beer can be had on a Friday, internet and expensive western meals.

13/8/05 Afghan hygiene is not that great, probably on a par with India or Pakistan. I paid the price of being too casual, enjoying the fresh fruits and kebabs, probably not thoroughly cooked, and spent from late yesterday evening throughout today on my bed only  leaving it for a squat on the eastern style toilet. The electricity in the city is not consistent, power was off from 8 am till 1 pm, at other times it might be off for an hour or two, almost all small shops have a generator. These days as soon as I realize I have a bad case of travellers diarrhoea I start on antibiotics. The symptoms are usually gone then in 24 to 36 hours, sometimes less. Particularly travelling alone there is no desire to try to fight it off only to find after a couple of days that I am dehydrated, not improving and perhaps need hospitalization and a drip.

14/8/05 Weak, but with the symptoms gone, today was light duties. I may have met "The Bookseller of Kabul" at his bookstore, a book I have recently read. I didn't ask if it was him as it would have been impolite. The work by the Norwegian writer brought considerable criticism for him.A small looking Harley beneith the 55 metre high niche where the taliban destroyed the Buddha He spoke good English, was of a similar age and certainly had the quick mind to be the same man. We discussed the book abstractly, and whilst he denied having read it, he certainly had a great knowledge of its background. He was pleased to hear my view that the writer seemed to take a particular feminist angle and that I considered it inappropriate to write such a book after being invited to live in his home. I purchased a couple of western novels, reprints from Pakistan, at a discount, which he told me he has never before given.? The rest of the day was spent at the Mustafa Hotel, photographers, journalists, NGO's and one other tourist.

15/8/05 "There is no truth, just opinion, and to believe there is a truth closes the mind to alternatives, with the possibility of fundamentalism". Two roads lead to Bamiyan. The southern road a few years ago was preferred but now it is considered dangerous. The road to the north, which I took, retraces my arrival route for the first 75 km, then heads left for the 160 km of rough stony road to Bamiyan. Afghanistan is heavily populated with mobile people. The roads are busy, even this one which with a few sadistic days journey could have you across the country to Herat. I was the fastest movingMorning view over Banda-e Amir, with its natural dam wall vehicle on the road but could only manage to average 25 km/hr plus stops, taking eight hours total from Kabul. Again the road followed small rivers with any flat land cultivated with irrigated snow melt. Bamiyan is a one street town and I was welcomed by the ISAF soldiers from New Zealand driving their Hummer, decked out with all the military hardware. The light on the two enormous Buddha Niches, one 38 metres high the other 55 metres, was perfect and I rode the motorcycle to their bases for a photograph. The Buddha themselves, having survived for 1500 years since their construction in the 6th century, only to be totally destroyed by the Taliban just four years ago, just months before their government was overthrown. Conservation work is being done on the remnants, very little, the rubble is being removed.

16/8/05 Four backpackers were staying at my hotel. Travellers having just visited India, Pakistan and now teamed up for Afghanistan, were the only tourists I saw in town. We agreed to charter a car to the lakes of Band-e Amir, just 75 km, two hours thirty minutes away. These lakes are natural, the dam wall is formed by the evaporation and depositing of minerals, slowly building to over ten metre high and holding back large bodies of water in the gorge. The water, a deep blue colour in stark contrast to the barren mountains.Stark contrast of desert mountains and bright blue lake A pilgrimage site, slowly a local tourist place and a couple of westerners. This year there are more facilities and we stayed the night in a flat roofed mud brick room, sleeping on mats on the floor. At 2900 metres the season is short, less than three months and the air cold, crisp and clear. Locals were out with their donkeys collecting summer grasses for fuel and stock feed over winter.

17/8/05 There are a series of five lakes, a boat runs to the second one where it is a short walk to view the others. Each is different, shallow sandy shore for swimming, shrubbery growing along the banks or suddenly deep behind the wall, each incredibly beautiful. The boat ferries local tourists for a days picnic and swim. By lunch time I had headed back towards Bamiyan, the others having decided to stay a few more days before moving towards Herat. ISAF and aid agencies play a low key role in that I don't see them other than at work. They are not in the towns or restaurants thus having a low profile and not accidentally offending locals values. 

18/8/05Morning desert scenery central Afghanistan Something in this country I find difficult art the stares. Even in areas where I would have expected enough tourists to have watered down the novelty locals take long looks at me, and would be considered by us as being an impolite length of time to look. I walked over to the Buddha niches, surrounded by caves, a newer town exists where some people still live in caves or at the base of the cliff, another ruins of mud brick houses and the more modern town, still of mud brick all show an incredibly long history in this valley and part of the old silk road. 

19/8/05 The road out the same as the road in, 6 hours early morning, past the couple of dozen tank carcasses that litter the roadside giving testament to mans destruction of himself. Once back on the highway I headed north towards Mazar-e Sharif. I have often wondered what would happen if the vehicle coming the other way couldn't negotiate the corner and ended up on my side of the road facing me as I leaned into the corner. Well today I found out. A taxi with five people were heading straight for me, on my side of the road, as I stood the bike up in the corner to avoid it,The changing faces of Afghanistans women veering towards the edge of the road, its mirror smashed into the fairing, and its side hit the back end of the motorcycle ripping open the fibreglass pannier. A glancing blow, I skidded to a halt on the thankfully wide roadside amongst rocks. The car did not stop. After a few seconds to recompose and restart the motorcycle I pursued the car. Apologies and asking for forgiveness from the driver was not sufficient as I figured I was within 20 cm of being dead had I hit him head on. Another vehicle escorted us to the police station where over a lengthy three hours, revisiting the accident scene, seeing the debris on my side of the road and the skid marks put the car driver completely in the wrong with damages of $US 100.00 to be paid for my damages. The driver did not have the money. The police officer in charge and another official offered to pay me, the driver would have to reimburse them. By now it was dark and I was offered a place in the police compound to camp the night. The car driver had to remain also at the police compound with the car while his friends tried to find the money. The $US 100.00 will not go close to paying for the damages, a new pannier, but is more than most people here, including the police officer, earn in two months. I was pleased with the way the policeFeeding the white pidgeons at the Shrine of Hazrat-Ali handled the matter but have mixed feelings regarding the damage or whether the car driver could pay the compensation. Had he stopped after the accident or been more honest in the dealings with the police rather than trying to lie, I may have been more conciliatory.

20/8/05 I felt more cautious and nervous heading out this morning for two reasons, the traffic, but also because I was heading for Mazar-e Sharif, where the driver and his friends lived, unsure of their positions in that community or feelings towards me. The driver and car were still being held at the police station awaiting funds to reimburse the police officer. Back on the lowlands the morning rapidly became hot. There is a total lack of shade in the country, low 40's and no natural shade makes resting roadside a business transaction, purchasing a drink. The road was good till the last few km's where it is not finished, hot and dusty I arrived to a hot and dusty city. The area was Alexander the Greats Central Asian capital, was on the silk road, Jenghis Khan destroyed the region on his rampages and Marco Polo passed through on his journey of discovery. There is little left to see for all this history. Mazar-e SharifOutdoor evening prayers at Shrine of Hazrat-Ali itself dates to the 15th century when a mullah reportedly discovered the tomb of Ali, son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed, a tomb now the centre of a grand mosque, and a worshiping place for all Muslims. The city itself is currently stable but has recently been fought over by warlords wanting to increase their control of the region. I visited the mosque once the heat had gone from the day.

21/8/05 Had a quiet day in the heat. The Mosque is surrounded by shady trees, grass and seats where people rest in the middle of the city. Like pilgrimage sites the world over it draws a disproportionate number of beggars. Low key, most are amputees, non intrusive. White pigeons in thousands enjoy a free feed from the worshipers. An outdoor mosque, the faithful can easily be observed praying. Blue tiles adorn all buildings together with flashing lights in the evening. Again, not only was photography unobtrusive but I had many requests to take peoples photos. I only hope this level of acceptance to tourists continues as their numbers increase.

22/8/05 An uneventful ride back to Kunduz early in the morning. Afghanistan, safe or not?A couple of well equiped New Zealand ISAF personel in Bamiyan I saw the peace keeping force, ISAF, on my return to Kunduz, in Bamiyan and in Kabul. The police and military all carry rifles. But in the areas I visited there was not one negative reaction from anybody, public or officials. Encounters ranged from blank stares of interest to over enthusiastic welcoming. I parked the motorcycle in the street for two nights whilst in Mazar-e Sharif, was told it would be OK and it was. An armed security guard was employed at the hotel in Kunduz, and the bike was inside the hotel parking in Kabul. Whilst things are tense between Afghanis, I saw many street arguments, a couple of people being taken away by police, I never once, even with the motorcycle accident, felt my dealings would result in anything more than a discussion. Now seems a great opportunity to visit a country that has been closed to tourism for so many years and could just as easily close again for as many more. 

23/8/05 Hoping the vehicle ferry to Tajikistan might run more than once a day I was at the Afghan border post at 9 am, opening time. Again easy paperwork. Whilst ferries took passengers all morning it wasn't till 2 pm that I could hitch a ride for the motorcycle on a returning barge that had delivered sugar out of Tajikistan. The cross border trade is still small, the bags of sugar unloaded on one side by hand and reloaded onto trucks, again by hand, in Afghanistan. The regular vehicle barge not leaving Tajikistan till after 2 pm, or Afghanistan till after 3 pm for its return.

Move with me to Tajikistan