The big adventure continued before daylight. We packed and lugged our bags out of our rooms and found the whole guesthouse surrounded by really fierce looking security forces, all there to make sure we left on time. We had a new driver and van. God alone knows what he made of it all. Oddly we weren’t escorted out of town and 45 minutes into the journey the van broke a spring in a mountain pass and we had to return to Chaghcharan to change the vehicle and get a new driver. No police. No army. We weren’t stopped by anyone.
This part of the trip is inherently more dangerous because we needed to pass through real Talib villages and also dodge the wannabees and robbers who disguised themselves as Talib. We were warned not to take photos and draw attention to ourselves, yet something went wrong. A man on a motorbike drove past us and stopped beside a group of three men, also on motorbikes. After a quick discussion they all chased after the van and stopped us, demanding to know from the driver what we were doing. We all kept our heads well down and the women all covered their faces with our large shawls. The militia men were finally convinced by our co-driver that we were simply travellers on our way to Herat, and we were allowed to go on our way. From then on, every motorbike that passed us was a threat and we spent most of the next few hours avoiding eye contact with passers-by. This was particularly difficult in small villages where they had erected toll barriers to elicit “donations” for the Taliban but our driver paid up quickly at each stop and luckily we weren’t challenged again.
We finally arrived at the glorious Minaret of Jam after driving down one of the most beautiful gorges I have ever seen. It’s truly spectacular – high towering rocks above us, a fierce blue river and green, lush shrubs. Pictures of the 12th century minaret don’t even start to show how spectacular it is. 65 metres high, largely intact, it was part of a Ghorid settlement and only rediscovered in the middle of the 20th century. Few travellers have seen it (less than 3,000 since its rediscovery) and the recent UNESCO funded Cambridge University dig had to be abandoned because of security concerns. The Taliban have threatened to blow it up.
We walked across the white rapids, watched by a large audience of workers (though I have no idea what, where or why they were there because there was no sign of any work being done) who were amazed that we were there. The workers asked to have their photos taken with the single women. As a married woman, I was ignored because it would have been disrespectful to my husband to show interest in me.
The Ghorid settlement has had very little archaeological work done on it and is mainly uncharted. It’s known for finely made blue lapis coloured pottery, which is very rare. G explored the opposite embankment and reported that there were signs of looting amongst the old houses, with large holes being dug beside the walls.
After an argument with a so called “custodian” who showed up and demanded entrance money (negotiated down to $5 from $10 each) we drove onto Chisht-e Sharif (alt: Chesht).