Khudadad was full of apologies for the fact the truck was very old, and indeed I had reservations about its ability to take us very far. It resembled something made out of a rusty meccano set. There was no back seat as there had been in the Kamaz and I was delighted to be perched up front, assured of an excellent view.
The driver took his place, his conductor squeezing in between him and the door. Khudadad sat next to me. It was a little cramped with four of us in the small cab then, just as we began to pull away another man opened the passenger door and pulled himself up beside Khudadad. I couldn’t slide any further over without sitting on the driver’s lap but, somehow, the man managed to hoist himself in. Now so little space he couldn’t shut the door properly and had to travel with his head, shoulders and one arm out the window, holding the door closed with his other hand.
Khudadad muttered and moaned by my side, apologising profusely for the discomfort. I was thankful we were not travelling on Jaghoray’s roads with their potholes and rocks every other yard; this road was the best I had experienced since arriving in Afghanistan, straight, almost smooth even. The occasional bump, therefore, was disconcerting as the five of us would suddenly fly roof-wards in unison like a troupe of acrobats performing a circus trick. I was worried the man hanging out the window might be decapitated.
After the first half hour I lost all interest in the passing scenery as I tried to find a way to change the position of my cramping limbs without everyone in the cab having to do the same. It made me think of the children’s song, “There were Ten in the Bed” when each time they all rolled over one fell out. Khudadad continued to apologise and I continued to lie, I’m sure by then unconvincingly, that I was perfectly happy and enjoying the journey. I wished he would shut up, allowing me to be miserably uncomfortable in silence.
When the driver pulled up at a small, makeshift chaikhana I had to force protesting limbs into action. Khudadad ordered tea but, leaving it untouched, excused himself and went outside. Minutes later, a totally transformed Khudadad beckoned me from the doorway. He was grinning from ear to ear. Eager to see what had brought about this dramatic change of mood I hurried after him. He had found a big, shiny, lovely Mercedes truck whose driver was willing to take us to Yakolang.
The difference between this super luxurious vehicle and the rattling old boneshaker in which we had been travelling was unbelievable. The cab was spacious with comfortable seats and there were two full length bunks behind. Khudadad was so pleased with himself that he couldn’t stop grinning. But when I endorsed his praise of the vehicle he commented, ‘I am sorry this is not the latest model. It is even better.’ He really was a bit of a glass half empty kind of a guy.
A rather elderly mujahid travelling in the truck was at first rather surly at having to give up his place for us but Khudadad was so obviously delighted by the change of transport and by his own cleverness in finding it that his infectious good humour soon had the older man smiling and chatting. I stretched out on the bottom bunk, pillowed my head on my handbag and, wishing we could always travel by Mercedes truck, fell fast asleep and did not wake until we reached Yakolang.
It was late, nine thirty, extremely cold, and there was no room at the inn. The driver and his mates kept me company while Khudadad searched for accommodation, eventually returning to say he had secured a room in a still to be completed hotel.
It was a building site. Our room was an empty, concrete shell with no glass in the tiny window. It looked onto a central compound, around which similar rooms had been, or were in the process of being built. It was bleak and cheerless and bitterly cold. Pulling a blanket round my shoulders I squatted close to the small kerosene lamp the landlord had provided. Khudadad went out in search of food.
He returned five minutes later, rather shaken, ‘The mujahideen here don’t like people to use a torch in the night. They just threatened to shoot me. I’m sorry I have to take the kerosene lamp.’ He disappeared again. I sat in the dark, listening intently but as I heard no shots ring out I assumed he’d been allowed to continue on his foraging expedition. He reported back glumly that there was no food left but the landlord had agreed to cook rice for us.
It took about an hour for the rice to appear, plain, boiled and accompanied by some very cold, hard nan. Freshly baked nan is one of the most delicious foods on earth but within a few hours it seems to undergo some kind of chemical change after which it resembles and tastes like something one would use for repairing shoes. I was too cold and tired to eat much of the unappetising fare but was very grateful for the tea which helped warm me sufficiently to think about preparing for bed.
It was cold enough to make Khudadad abandon our cross country hike to find a ‘loo’ and point to a place just outside the compound which I discovered next morning was completely exposed to public view on all sides. Despite the thickness of my sleeping bag the chill from the concrete floor forced me to search in a trunk to find another blanket to provide some insulation. I was beginning to worry, not least because the mountains ahead were already snow-capped, about how much colder it would be in Lal, which Khudadad said we’d reach tomorrow. He forgot to say Insh’Allah.