Getting into Afghanistan is a lot like going to a movie premiere: you can’t just show up at the door and expect to get a balcony seat—no, to get into one of the world’s most desolate, troubled and undeveloped countries you need an invitation. I had secured an invite from a Kabul hotel, but my passport was being held hostage at the Afghan embassy in Delhi. Then everything happened at once. The tourist visa was ready, the plane was taking off, and 10 minutes before touchdown I decided that I would travel from the capital, Kabul, to the city of Herat near the Iranian border via a rutted, boulder-strewn road known as the Central Route.
Also called the Hazarajat, the Central Route begins on the outskirts of Kabul at dawn. The Afghan dust is rising with the cold spring sun, and both are filtering over a roadside lined with four wheel-drive Toyota mini-buses, burping diesel fumes and jockeying for passengers. My Lonely Planet Central Asia guidebook—which I luckily found two days earlier—calls the route through the Hindu Kush mountains and the lawless province of Ghor, “one of the most adventurous trips it’s possible to do in Afghanistan,” and offers the glib disclaimer: “the trip should not be taken lightly”. The road is passable from June to October. It’s the middle of May; the Taliban insurgency is warming up with the weather; and everyone I question in Kabul is adamant that the Central Route is a lost cause.
But here I am, stuffed into the back seat of a mini-bus and pulling into traffic. Our 15-year-old driver, Aziz (picture a young, Afghani Edward Norton), wastes no time cutting through an intersection and fleeing from a policeman bounding into oncoming traffic to stop us. Five minutes later the same policeman appears in our rear-view mirror, shouting and banging on the dashboard of a commandeered taxicab. Aziz jumps on the gas pedal and the busload of burkha-clad women, their screaming children, and one bemused American in the backseat are in a high-speed car chase through the suburbs of Kabul.
The foothills of the Hindu Kush rise abruptly 10 miles outside the capital. But far from admiring the snowcapped vistas, I watch the taxi bearing down upon us; then passing us; and now sliding to a stop in front of us while the policeman—blue with rage, screaming and smoking a cigarette simultaneously—climbs into the passenger seat of the bus, delivers a half dozen blows to the back of Aziz’s head before pocketing a fistful of Afghanis (the local, fluctuating currency) and speeding back to Kabul. It can only go downhill from here, I think, as we bump and scrape our way over the mountains and into the Bamiyan Valley just ahead of the setting sun.
A Unesco World Heritage site, the town of Bamiyan, sadly, is famous for what it lacks—namely, two fifth-century Buddhas dynamited by the Taliban in 2001. But rather than mourn their passing, the region is awash in archaeologists searching for a third, undiscovered Buddha. According to the travelogue of a seventh-century Buddhist monk, the Valley was also home to a ‘reclining Buddha’ at least three times the size of the 55m standing Buddha that now rests in pieces. “When we look at the records,” says Nader Rasoli, director-general of the Kabul Institute of Archaeology, “we must find it.”
But the problems facing archaeologists in Afghanistan are unique. The fledgling government has little money to devote to cultural projects, let alone security to prevent looting or illegal excavation at these sites. Moreover, 23 years of war and rebellion have left a countryside booby-trapped with landmines and unexploded ordnance. Yet, despite these hurdles, work continues in the Bamiyan Valley and throughout the country.
The next morning I continue my trip westward to the Band-e Amir lakes. A 70-year-old former mathematics professor sitting shotgun and speaking flawless English directs the driver to let me out in a village called Koykinak (say: quickyneck). The village is little more than a mosque and an elementary school. “Walk across the valley and head for the gap in the cliff,” the professor says. “Then?” I ask. “Then, ask the first villager you see the way to Band-e Amir,” he replies with a laugh, as the bus speeds through a river and around a bend, leaving me on the roadside with an audience of 40 schoolchildren. I wander down the valley, through the gap in the cliff, and, with directions from the first villager I meet, arrive at the bluest lake—no, the bluest anything—I’ve ever seen.
Band-e Amir (Dam of the King) is actually a series of five lakes separated with natural dams formed by sulphur deposits. Locals credit this strange geological phenomenon to the prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali. A crumbling mud-and-straw mosque dedicated to Ali sits on the shore of the largest lake, Band-e Haibat (Dam of Awe). Next to the mosque are three unmarked hotels /restaurants offering fresh fish for dinner and the bare minimum of lodging for about $4 per night. Over dinner on my second night at Band-e Amir, I am told that the Central Route is indeed open—wet and slow... but open.
I hike back to the road, catch a ride to Yawkawlang, and pay 10 dollars extra to get another bus moving that afternoon. From Yawkawlang the Toyota mini-bus is put to the test: bogging down in muddy flats, fording rivers, and scraping along rocky mountain passes. At one point we pick up peasant farmers without fare for the ride. The driver, a man named Amin who has just returned to Afghanistan after fleeing to Iran and Turkey during the Taliban regime, points a finger heavenward, saying, “This is for God.” His charity doesn’t go unrewarded. At least five times the men and I are called upon to push the struggling van out of sinkholes and mud pits.
Coughing up dust and covered in grey Afghan mud we arrive in the town of Lal Sarjang 24 hours later. If not exactly the geographical centre of Afghanistan, Lal is definitely the halfway point on the Central Route. It’s three days back to Kabul and three days ahead to Herat. After a one-day layover searching for passengers, we set out through the province of Ghor. The bus breaks down and a cold night is spent on the roadside near the town of Chaghcheran. Two days of steady driving later we reach the mountain village of Garmo. Garmo is the turn-off point for the Minaret of Jam, the second Unesco World Heritage site along the Central Route.
The American poet William Carlos Williams once wrote, “I have discovered that most of/ the beauties of travel are due to/ the strange hours we keep to see them.” Because I am travelling with a busload of locals who have no desire to spend half a day sightseeing, the driver and I wake at the ‘strange hour’ of 2am. We climb out of Garmo to a ridge above the Hari Rud river, and dive into a side canyon until the road and river literally merge into one. Guidebooks gush about the joy of seeing the minaret first appear amidst the steep canyon walls at the convergence of the Hari Rud and Jam Rud rivers.
We arrive in the 4am blackness and almost bump into the 65m-tall pillar. The driver and one curious passenger who has come along for the ride, walk down to the river, wash themselves and kneel near the mysterious minaret (no one knows exactly why it was built here). From a hillside I watch as the two men offer early morning prayers and I wait for the sun to rise just enough to give me light for one photo. Returning to Garmo at 7am, the other nine passengers are finishing breakfast and packing up for the last day on the road.
We reach Herat as the late afternoon sun is setting behind the four tipping minarets of the ruins of Baiqara’s madrassa. Eight hundred kilometres in eight days. Covered in dirt and dust, the travellers—some pushing on to Iran, some returning home to Herat for the first time in years—hug goodbye at the bus depot. Dirty and thirsty, I look for a shower and a beer—and not necessarily in that order. A day later, after a quiet stroll around the city and a stop at Sultan Hamidy’s glass shop near the Friday Mosque, I catch a flight back to Kabul—travelling the same 800km in 45 minutes. I look down on the rivers, the lakes, and those barren mountains. But you know it’s funny, from this high up I can’t really see a thing.
Getting there: Indian Airlines have flights from Delhi to Kabul. Remember to contact the airline or your agent in Kabul for confirmation on your return flight.
Getting around: On foot is the best way to explore the markets, mosques, and museums of Kabul and Herat. However, the one-two punch of suffocating dust and sloppy mud make an ageing Toyota Corolla taxicab, or even a horse-drawn rickshaw, a welcome sight. Outside of Kabul the cheapest and safest method of travel is the privately-owned KamAir (www.flykamair.com), or the state-run Ariana Afghan Airlines (www.flyariana.com). Both offer daily service from Kabul to Herat, Kandahar and Mazar-e Sharif. For a closer look at the countryside and its people, a Toyota Hiace mini-bus is the most adventurous method of travel along the Central Route. Arrive early at the bus depot (anywhere along an arterial road) as night driving is a rarity, and an early start is a must.
This article is from our Story Bank. It was first published in November, 2015.