Afghanistan 2012 Day 8: Chaghcharan and the opium fields.

Road to Herat

Road to Herat

Everyone was walking dead this morning due to the god forsaken time we had to leave to travel to Chaghcharan, along the old Silk Road, avoiding the main roads. The sun finally rose 2 hours after we’d left and we discovered that we were traveling a very different part of our journey. The plateau we were now on was massive.




Road to Herat

Road to Herat

It was sparsely populated with fortified houses harking back to medieval times. Women turned away from the van as we passed so that we could not see their faces. Hamid was very cautious and didn’t want to stop anywhere because a lot of the villages are Talib.



The Road to Herat tt (37)The plateau was full of pika, the cutest little rodent you’ll ever see, sunning themselves on the rocks. I’ve seen them before in Mongolia and you shouldn’t really go near them because they can carry plague. I wondered if the Afghan ones were the same. We saw about a dozen eagles, falcons and kestrels and surprised a large fox returning home from his evening hunt.


The Road to Herat Kuchi Caravan tt (1)

The Road to Herat Kuchi Caravan

We were then very lucky to see hundreds of Kuchi (alt: Kochi) matriarchal nomads with their black tents and over a hundred brightly adorned camels, heading slowly towards Herat, following the same migration route they’ve covered for centuries. There were thousands of goats and sheep and we would have loved to stop to talk and take photos but Hamid refused. It’s so rare to see a traditional camel train because most journeys are done by truck now and we were all pretty pissed off to have lost an amazing photo opportunity.

Road to Herat

Road to Herat

Our road took us through mountain streams and we played dodge with the beautiful Hari Rud River. The villages along the valley grow small, pink opium poppies amongst their main crops and G said he’d never seen so many fields planted up before. It must be a good income for the villagers because many of the houses have satellite dishes and expensive cars but you’d never guess it to look at the actual people. They were poorly dressed and the children were ragged. UNICEF is present in some of the villages and the new wells and houses are dated 2010, so there’s an obvious Government initiative going on here.

There were also groups of large dogs, similar to the Anatolian, with docked ears to make it easier for them to fight. Some chased after the van but most sat watching us go by. I wouldn’t rate our chances if we got out of the van.

The river moved from a wide plateau to a narrow white water gorge, then back to wide, flat banks.

Chaghcharan tt (1)

Chaghcharan petrol station

Chaghcharan is a hell hole. It’s the centre of Afghanistan and ISEF and a lot of the NGOs are based here in order to stop the various different feuding tribes who trade here from killing each other. Fights regularly break out and Afghan troops patrol the streets.
We had hoped to stay in the new “Kabul Hotel”. G checked it out while we waited in the van and our hopes were dashed. There was only one filthy bathroom for the whole hotel and they didn’t serve any food, so we decamped to the traditional chaikana and hired two family rooms. Our rooms were dusty and falling apart. There was a large hole in the ceiling where we could see the sky and glass was missing from the windows. On the plus side, the communal toilet block in the street had an attendant on site who kept it relatively clean compared to yesterdays’ horror. We had to tip him before we could use it and none of us had any small notes, so the man was going to make a small fortune from us. No one cared.

G then brought the owner of tomorrow’s van to meet us because he wanted to ensure that we wouldn’t jeopardize the safety of his driver. It’s going to cost G $600 to hire the vehicle, which is an absolute fortune here. However, it means that we will get to see the Minaret of Jam, despite some very obvious security issues.

P then became embroiled in a bizarre UN issue. He had been standing at his window to smoke a cigarette and the guard in the sentry post opposite started to gesticulate at him.He then put his rifle down and came across the street, which made P think that he’d somehow posed some sort of security threat in the soldier’s mind. A few minutes later a softly spoken man came into P’s room and explained that he was from the UN and that he’d been asked to tell P that he couldn’t smoke in public during Ramadan. He then warned P that the town was very volatile due to recent tribal fighting and that he should be very careful.

Later that afternoon a plain clothes policeman turned up and asked for our visa and passport details because “we are responsible for you”. He was charming and spoke excellent English but G was not impressed as the man was unable to provide any formal id. G then insisted that the man’s superior officer attended to verify who he was. The man who arrived next was also from the secret police and he wrote everything down on a scrap of paper.

The big adventure came after dinner of mutton and rice. As the public toilet was now locked up, S, A and I decided to brave it and use the back of the building, just like the local women were doing. Several men followed us, so we tried to find another secluded spot but everywhere we went men were hanging out of windows to watch us. As we walked into the wood yard to crouch down behind the trucks a young man threw a firecracker at us (big flash, loud bang and lots of smoke) and then legged it. Realizing that this would cause another fuss, we abandoned our attempt and P came downstairs to escort us back to the chaikana. Just as we got there, a large group of men started shouting aggressively (we later found out that they were police) but we ignored them and went back to our rooms.

Our men then said they’d accompany us downstairs and make sure we could go to the bathroom in peace but before we got the chance the police and army turned up because they’d received a report that someone had fired at us. We women were all told to go back to our room, while G argued with the security men who wanted to put us in protective custody and tried to reassure them that we were ok. Eventually it all calmed down and we were allowed to go for our loo break closely followed by our menfolk (though by now all the Afghan men had disappeared when the security forces showed up).

A guard was left in our guesthouse corridor. Half an hour later more police and army arrived with senior officers who insisted that they had to look at all of the women (why?). The officers then talked to our men for ages outside our room (women were not allowed to join in, despite the fact that we were the only ones who had been at “the incident”) while we tried to get some sleep. We were disturbed later by someone banging on our door and then they moved onto G and P’s room to restart the conversation about our safety. The compromise was that 2 police officers were left to guard us and we agreed to leave by 4am. The army doubled their guard in their base opposite the guesthouse.

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