The worst thing about visiting Afghanistan is flying clapped-out Ariana Airlines. When a rare group of tourists flew in last month from the UK, their luggage was left behind on a transit stop in Dubai to make room for a trader’s goods—thanks (according to well-informed Kabul gossip) to an "easily persuaded" Dubai cargo handling agent. When they went home last weekend, the landing gear jammed on their Scariana (as it’s known) Airbus 300. After circling for 90 minutes to burn surplus fuel, they returned to Kabul and a twisted front wheel slewed their Air India hand-me-down aircraft across the runway. When I flew Ariana from Delhi to join the group last month, there was a tremendous juddering noise as we reached cruising height. Inexplicably, the pilot said he’d lowered the undercarriage as it was too hot! It’s a pity Kabul’s ferocious-looking American iasf security troops (the Americans look much more tense and nervous than the Germans or Swedes) can’t tackle such problems instead of cluttering up the city’s famous tourist destination of Chicken Street.
Not that there are many tourists. The group of 30 I joined were bound for a charity trek up the Panjshir Valley to the 14,000-ft-high Anjuman Pass in the Hindu Kush, northeast of Kabul. The 95-mile-long valley was the stronghold of Ahmed Shah Masood, the mujahideen icon and Northern Alliance defence minister who was assassinated two days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US.