MarySmith’sPlace – #AfghanistanAdventures53 Foreign(Non)Diplomacy

Afghanistan, December 1989: Bamiyan, Sheikh Ali & onwards to Wardak Province

We’d enjoyed our day of playing tourists with very hospitable and friendly mujahideen

We returned to the French clinic to find Ghulam Ali, huddled under his patou, looking more miserable than usual. The room we’d been allocated was like a fridge, the promised stove had not materialised. Ghulam Ali was bored and cold and thoroughly fed up. Jon went off in search of someone to help, and soon a bukhari was installed and we huddled in a circle around it drinking tea, waiting for the temperature to rise. 

Shortly after seven o’clock the cook appeared to inform us dinner was ready and, indicating Jon and me, told us to go to the house. I pointed to our fellow travellers and asked, ‘What about them?’ The cook explained food would be brought to the room for the Rahimy, Zahir and Ghulam Ali, but Jon and I were expected to eat with the kharijee – foreigners.

He trotted out. Minutes later he returned and said, this time, in English, ‘Dinner is ready. You go to house.’

I shook my head, ‘No, we all eat together, here.’

The great Buddha of Bamiyan

Looking ruffled, he departed and we sat in an uncomfortable silence. I didn’t know what the other three were thinking about their exclusion from the invitation. Rahimy broke the silence to say, ‘If you want to eat in the house, it’s all right. We don’t mind.’ His hurt expression belied his words.

Before I could reply, the cook shuffled in bearing a tray with three plates of food. Setting it down, he was about to leave, when I remarked, ‘We are five people – there are only three dishes here.’

‘Your dinner is in the house with the foreigners. They have meat.’ He was sounding agitated by our steadfast refusal to go to the house, unsure if we simply did not understand his English, or were being deliberately obstructive. I sat down and began to eat from one of the dishes and the cook went out, slamming the door. He soon returned, with another two dishes, which he dumped unceremoniously on the floor before, shaking his head at the crazy behaviour of foreigners, he departed. We had no meat on our plates.

No Afghan host would invite people to stay the night, and then expect to eat with only a chosen few. I tried to apologise, explaining that in some organisations the expatriates and the local people tended to live separately, but Rahimy’s only comment was, ‘Foreigners are not all the same then, are they?’ I agreed this was true.

By this time Zahir was gasping and wheezing. At first, we were afraid he was having an asthma attack but he shook his head at our concern. Finding the ridiculous situation quite farcical he was giggling helplessly. Once reassured the dreadful sound was laughter, the tension in the room eased instantly and soon we were all laughing together.

Later, the foreign doctor appeared. ‘We wondered if you would like to join us for a drink?’ His eyes slid over the Afghans, coming to rest on Jon. The invitation was, once again, only for us. I indicated our friends.

The doctor shrugged, ‘You can leave them on their own for an hour, can’t you?  We don’t let our Afghans use the house.’ We explained we travelled together as a team, sharing everything, and, even before the doctor had left the room, Zahir, deciding the peculiar hospitality of foreigners was too funny for words, dissolved once more into giggles.

Next morning, Rahimy went to beg, buy or steal fodder for the sheep and leaving Ghulam Ali with the doctors, who were happy to operate on his toe, if not to allow him in their home we departed for Sheikh Ali. We made it in three hours.

We climbed up the steep path to the house, the sheep bounding ahead, none the worse for its journey. Hassan and Zohra were in the midst of preparations to go on leave; their first holiday for three years. The sheep, while a welcome gift, had to be rehomed until their return. Zohra and I had little time to talk but I asked about baby Sadiq, whose life had still hung so much in the balance when I last saw him. ‘Oh, he grew. He’s at home now, and his twin brother also survived. Even the grandmother finally began to accept my strange ways were sometimes right.’

We said our goodbyes in the evening as the family were leaving at four am. My cold which had started in Bamiyan was much worse so I was grateful our departure would be at the more civilized time of eight. I crawled into my sleeping bag feeling utterly wretched, awaking in the night, feverish, my head and face gripped in a band of excruciating pain. Jon dosed me with painkillers which allowed me to doze again but I slept fitfully and in the morning was no better. Jon, diagnosing a sinus infection, gave me antibiotics and postponed our departure. I spent the day swaddled in my sleeping bag, obediently swallowing medicines and innumerable cups of tea, feeling much too ill to enjoy the luxury of a day in bed. 

Next morning, although my sinuses were still painful and my teeth and jaws ached – even my hair hurt – I decided I was fit to travel. After breakfast we set off for Arif’s clinic in Day Mirdad in Wardak Province, expecting to arrive by late afternoon.

The sky was grey and heavy with snow as we began climbing the pass leading out of the valley. We were soon driving through a snowy landscape, and progress became ever slower as we carefully followed in the tracks of the trucks, which had preceded us. Near the summit, we caught up with the tail of the convoy, inching its way upwards on the treacherous road.

The snow had come sooner than expected, catching the drivers unprepared. They had not yet fitted the huge, heavy chains which allow them to grip the road in snow and ice and several trucks had already stuck fast in the snow and mud. 

Jon and Rahimy went to provide some extra muscle power to dig out the trucks. I persuaded Zahir to stay with me in the jeep, afraid the bitterly cold air might start off his asthma, and thankful women were not expected to shovel snow.

We gazed out at a forlorn and mournful landscape in which, apart from ourselves, there was no sign of life.

MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanistanAdventures#52 legends, dragons & Genghis Khan

Bamiyan, Afghanistan, December 1989

Once on the main road, Jon tilted the passenger seat and dozed until I woke him to inform him I’d achieved fourth gear on the reasonably smooth road and the giddy-making speed of forty miles per hour.

We passed the turning to the Valley of the Dragon, named after the dragon-slaying feat of Hazrat Ali. It had been terrorizing the citizens of the area, wreaking havoc and devouring everything until the king made a deal with him. Providing the dragon was given sufficient sustenance each day, including, amongst other fodder, two camels and a virgin, he wouldn’t bother anyone.

Valley of the Dragon, near Bamiyan. Pic from Wikipedia

Understandably, many families were still upset by the way their daughters kept disappearing.  Given the task of destroying the dragon, Hazrat Ali, split it in two with his sword, Zulfiqar, leaving its dead body blocking the entrance to the valley. Blood and tears poured from its body and head. The illusion is retained by mineral springs trickling from the giant beast’s head, and the groans of the dragon can be heard at the place where Ali’s sword sliced the dragon.

It was late evening, and bitterly cold when we reached Bamiyan. At the hotel we were given a small back room to ourselves. Rahimy took the sheep for a short stroll down the street but couldn’t find fodder for it. It was singularly unimpressed by the dry nan it was offered and so went to bed hungry.

Shahr-i-Gholghola also known as City of Screams

There was a strong smell of sheep clinging to our bedding, but by then I was coming down with a heavy cold and was spared the worst of it. We huddled close together, under assorted layers of blankets and sleeping bags while we ate our kebabs. I was shivering when I snuggled into my sleeping bag, feeling wretched. Everyone else was equally cold and miserable, but in the morning we cheered up, after the hotel’s breakfast speciality. 

Our first task, before becoming tourists, was to find the clinic run by a French medical organisation. We hoped their doctors could operate on Ghulam Ali, thus sparing him the hardship of the long journey to Pakistan. There were two French doctors, one male, one female, on duty, and they invited us for coffee. A warm sun had banished the previous night’s cold and we sat in the garden admiring the late roses in bloom. A table was laden with goodies: breakfast cereals, jam, biscuits and drinking chocolate. Our hosts looked surprised when the three Afghans ignored the pot of tea, clearly brought for their benefit, and helped themselves to the instant coffee. 

On the summit of Shahr-i-Gholghola looking over the Bamiyan Valley

The doctors said they could perform the minor surgery on Ghulam Ali the following day which would allow him to return to his home before the road was closed by snow. When they heard we were staying in a hotel they invited us to spend the night in the clinic buildings. There was an empty room if we didn’t mind sharing it. We accepted gratefully, hoping it would be warmer than our room at the hotel. As Ghulam Ali was unable to walk far we left him sitting in the sunshine outside the room.

Rahimy let the sheep out for some exercise and fresh air. Finding food for her was still proving difficult but a man, who seemed remarkably unsurprised at the sight of a sheep being driven around in a Toyota by foreigners, kindly shared the fodder he’d just bought for his own five sheep. 

The first visitor attraction on our itinerary was the giant Buddha. I’ve already written about the visit HERE.

From there we drove through what had been Bamiyan’s ‘new’ city, built in pre-revolution times. The Government offices, hospital and tourist hotel, all of which must have been incredibly ugly edifices of concrete, had been bombed out of existence. We gazed up at the summit of Shahr-i-Gholghola, the ancient mountain citadel of Bamiyan. A mujahid yelled an invitation for us to climb up.  

Defending the city

We followed a well-defined path which twisted and turned as it rose steeply towards the top.  Just off the path some areas were roped off, like valuable exhibits in a stately house and, thinking one of them looked suitable to be used as a loo, well hidden from view, I was about to step off the path over the rope when Rahimy gave a shout of alarm. “Those are mined areas,” he explained. I decided to wait.

Three mujahideen welcomed us, as we rounded the final bend and, delighted in their role of tour guides, proceeded to show us around. We scrambled about on the earthworks, in between and over sandbags, all the while being given a detailed account of the battle which had forced the Russian troops to flee. Apart from the path up which we had climbed there was no other route to the summit, and seeing the awesome, sheer drop it was easy to imagine that whoever held that position must have felt reasonably safe.

Earthworks and foxholes, all part of the defence system

We stood drinking in the tremendous view of the fertile Bamiyan valley below us, until our guides led us to inspect the rubbish tip which was full of empty tin cans left by the Russian soldiers. The mujahideen spoke with such dismay and disgust about this environmental vandalism he gave the impression he thought the invaders should have had the decency to take their rubbish with them, or at least bury it deep in the mountain. 

Over tea, Mukhtar, the self-appointed spokesman, told us tales of another invader of long, ago: Genghis Khan. He and his army had surrounded the citadel of Bamiyan but the besieged inhabitants, despite dwindling food supplies, refused to surrender. The wife of the ruler, however, realising defeat was an eventual certainty and, not wishing to share the fate of her husband and his people when it happened, decided to negotiate with Genghis Khan.            

Slipping out of the palace one night, she secretly met with the Mongolian warlord, telling him of a secret water supply to the citadel and where its flow could be stopped. Once the water supply had been cut Bamiyan soon fell. Genghis, who was always hardest on those who withstood his forces for longest, ordered that every man, woman and child be slaughtered.  The king’s wife was suitably rewarded by Genghis – he had her publicly executed for her treacherous behaviour towards her own people.

MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanAdventures #34: in which we do not star in a Japanese documentary

Autumn 1989

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As we had time to kill before our departure, we ordered more tea. Khudadad was becoming increasingly chatty as his confidence in speaking English grew and he told me how the mujahideen had succeeded in defeating the Russian troops who were positioned on Shar-i-Gholghola. This was the site of the original citadel, overlooking the Bamiyan valley. It had once been besieged and destroyed by the infamous Ghengis Khan.

Bamiyan has always been an important city in Afghanistan’s history and was once a major stopping place on a subsidiary of the old Silk Route. Khudadad was just expounding his views on the equal fiendishness of both Genghis Khan and the Soviets, when a great clattering of feet on the wooden stairs made us look nervously towards the door.

It burst open and a dozen mujahideen, bandoliers of bullets strapped around their chests, AK 47s clutched in their fists poured in. When they stacked their guns against a support pillar in the middle of the room and sat, down my immediate panic abated. We weren’t about to be arrested. They nodded in our direction, and after making the customary greetings Khudadad, suggested we move to another room. Before we could do so, more clattering sounded on the stairs and through the doorway appeared, I guessed from his air of authority, the Commander and his Second-in Command. They were followed by – a Japanese film crew. I stared in disbelief, ignoring Khudadad’s whispered appeals that we leave.

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Two of the crew were soon busily engaged in setting up their equipment while the third, clearly the director, surveyed the room, studiously refusing to catch my eye. He suddenly pointed to our baggage, ‘Get this stuff out of here!’

Khudadad instantly leapt to his feet but I caught his sleeve, tugging him back. ‘If he wants our stuff moved he can get the muj to do it. There are enough of them and we were here first,’ I whispered. I glared at the director who caught my eye just long enough to glare back at me. We were both furious, with a totally illogical anger, at finding ourselves, thousands of miles from our respective homes, in a place we each felt the other had no right to be. I suspect we had both been enjoying the ego-boosting excitement that we were the only foreigners doing what we were doing in Afghanistan.

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There he was, on what would surely be depicted for his Japanese viewers as a dangerous assignment, filming the battle weary mujahideen, in one of the most remote areas of Afghanistan. And he finds a foreign woman, with heaps of luggage, installed in his chosen location, casually drinking tea. I, of course, had been enjoying the almost certain knowledge no other foreign woman was travelling around as I was, hitching lifts from commanders and mujahideen and truck drivers. We were both put out. It was ridiculous. We might have had so much to talk about, stories to share, but the instinctive hostility was obviously felt on both sides.

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The Commander ordered his men to move the bags out of camera shot. I detected a flicker of a smile when he shot me a swift glance. Khudadad was twittering at my side, anxious to move but, for once, I chose to disagree with his advice. I wanted to watch what was going on. He subsided miserably against the wall surveying the scene morosely.

Platters of rice and kebabs were placed before the mujahideen and the cameraman zoomed in to film the heroes of the jihad shovelling rice into their mouths. Khudadad pressed himself further against the wall. ‘I am afraid they will film me,’ he whispered.

I laughed, ‘Don’t worry, no one in Japan knows you. Anyway, they won’t film you – you’re not exactly dressed for the part – no Kalash.’ The Commander grinned, and I realised he understood English, had a sense of humour and seemed more interested in us than in the film making process.

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The aroma from the kebabs made my mouth water. I reminded Khudadad we’d have to leave soon and, maybe we should also eat. The cook was apologetic. No kebabs were left. When plates of boring rice were put before us, the watchful Commander obligingly sent over a share of their kebabs.

He then began to address Khudadad in Dari, asking the usual questions about me – who was I, what was I, where was I going and why? When he heard I was working for a leprosy programme he switched to English to include me in the conversation. I shot a triumphant look at the film director with whom he spoke only through a translator – one up to me, I thought.  ‘You are most welcome here. We are happy you want to help our people, especially those with leprosy – a terrible disease. Are you going to Lal sar Jangal?  I know of the clinic there.’

I was surprised and impressed he knew of the clinic in Lal; that he knew something about and was sympathetic to leprosy patients was astonishing. Most people showed only fear and ignorance of the disease. The Commander, despite interruptions from the film crew who wanted to get back to work, continued to question me about the disease, its treatment and the number of people in Hazara Jat who suffered from it. He also talked about the need for more doctors and health services in the area, especially Yakolang, and asked if we could expand our programme to that area.

I was happy to tell him we were hoping to open a clinic in Yakolang, which is between Bamiyan and Lal, in the near future.

A shout from below made Khudadad leap to his feet, saying, ‘Our truck is leaving, we must go.’  He shouted for the bill but the young Commander interrupted him, ‘You are our guests. We do not allow guests to pay. I hope we shall meet again.’  I gave my thanks and said goodbye, thinking gleefully, if childishly, the Japanese director was going to have to foot the bill for our lunch.

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Goodbye to Buddha for now

 

MarySmith’sPlace -The Buddha of Bamiyan Afghanistan Adventures#33

Bamiyan, Autumn 1989

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The view from my window

 

 

A murmur of male voices penetrated my subconscious in the morning. A row of men wearing expressions of ill-concealed curiosity gazed in the direction of my sleeping bag. A ferocious glare from Khudadad had them gathering up their belongings and murmuring goodbyes as they hurriedly left the room. The cook, in a grease spattered apron, was busy at his stove, for some reason situated on the veranda overlooking the street. Breakfast smelt good.

Through an inch deep layer of oil I recognised a fried egg, under which was a kind of meat stew layered with slices of fried tomatoes. Scooping up some of this mess with a piece of fresh, warm nan I tasted cautiously. It was delicious. Cholesterol and calorie laden as any cooked breakfast should be, by the time I had mopped clean the dish with a final piece of nan, I felt that there would be no need to eat anything else all day.

Khudadad was going out to arrange transport. ‘Is there any chance of seeing the Buddha before we move on today?’ I asked hopefully.

He grinned, ‘Look out the window!’ Directly opposite was the Buddha, all 175 feet of him, and he left me gazing in awe at the giant figure.

A few weeks later, on my return journey, I was able to spend more time viewing the statues. Our little group of tourists comprised, Jon, Rahimy who was coming to Pakistan to be trained as a laboratory technician and Zahir, a leprosy patient coming for treatment and possible reconstructive surgery on his badly deformed face.

General consensus dates the larger, and later, Buddha from sometime in the fifth century. The drapes on the figure would once have been red, the hands and feet gilded. Nothing was left of the face or the hands and only a few very faint traces of red remained.

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The oil drums and the volley ball net give some sense of the scale of the statue

The site was now a major base for the mujahideen. Near the feet of the Buddha a net for volley ball had been erected. We are asked to take photos of the fighters but despite their outward appearance of casual welcome, they would not allow us any closer. The caves encircling the feet of the Buddha which were perhaps once used by the priests, or visited by pilgrims, were now ammunition stores, bomb shelters, living accommodation – as were the caves stretching along the sandstone cliff face between the two Buddhas. It was difficult to visualise the scene of long ago, when the monasteries would have been filled with robed monks and pilgrims from India, China and other far off lands mingled to pray and seek enlightenment and peace at the feet of the Buddha.

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Happy to have their photographs taken but were not going to let us explore the large Buddha

It was sad to think of the countless battles and invasions the Buddha had witnessed and withstood. Even, it seemed, the notorious Genghis Khan – not averse to laying waste to all that he encountered – had drawn the line at destroying the magnificent figures. I wrote in my diary that evening, ‘If ever Afghanistan is again at peace, her doors opened once more to travellers and tourists, one of her greatest treasures, surely one of the wonders of the world, may well have been destroyed. What centuries of war and weather and vandals and thieves have not succeeded in doing the mujahideen look set to achieve in a few short years.’

Only, it was not the mujahideen who destroyed the statues but, some years later, the Taliban, who deliberately blew them up, reducing them to rubble.

The smaller Buddha, at the far end of the bazaar, still very impressive at a height of 120 feet had been sculpted earlier, towards the end of the third or early fourth century. As we started to cross the fields toward the cliff face, a blood curdling shriek stopped us in our tracks.

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Small Buddha. The second opening from top left is as far as I climbed.

It was the mujahideen halt call, a terrifying sound. A sound you did not ignore.  We halted. High above the Buddha we could make out a tiny figure, gesticulating wildly. It started running, and within a few minutes had miraculously scrambled down the seemingly sheer cliff face, and was heading towards us. He didn’t appear to be pointing his Kalashnikov at anyone in particular but we didn’t dare move. With a sweep of his arm in the direction we had been heading, this small, wiry mujahid told us we were about to walk across a mine filed.

If we wanted to see the Buddha, we should follow him. Somewhat shaken, we followed closely in his footsteps, along a barely discernible path, until we were once more on safe territory – gazing up at the unperturbable, if battered, face of the Buddha. Our guide beckoned us from the doorway, ‘You can go inside if you like.’  We liked.

At first the steps were broad and shallow but as we climbed higher they became steeper and narrower. Huge windows were cut in the rock every few feet. They made me nervous, as there was no protective barrier across the yawning gaps, and it would be all too easy to topple straight out – and down.

About three quarters of the way up a doorway led out onto a wide veranda which contained several niches where presumably smaller figures had once stood. A few patches of colour remained of the paintings on the rock walls, but we could not decipher what they had depicted.  Rahimy, Zahir and I decided to wait on the veranda for Jon and the mujahid to complete the climb to the top. Climbing up was easy enough, apart from those gaping windows, but I knew I’d have problems coming back down again, without any handrail to help in negotiating the narrow steps with their sharp turns. Rahimy admitted to having no head for heights, and we were both concerned about Zahir. His asthmatic wheezing was alarming although he assured us he was all right. Partly the problem was caused because, having no nose he had to breathe though his mouth at all times and a heavy head cold was not easing the situation.

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A seated Buddha statue on the cliff face

Jon went on, returning like a jelly, shaking from head to foot. His legs could barely hold him and he had to rest for a while. He said he’d been doing well, until on the way down his legs had suddenly started to tremble and gone on trembling, especially whenever he passed one of the yawning openings. Needless to say, the mujahid had climbed up and down as though he did it as a matter of course every day – which he probably did. He now pointed us in a direction which was mine free, bid us farewell and was back on his cliff top perch before we had even reached half way to the jeep.

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Caves, which were monks’ cells or pilgrims’ rooms, later became refuge for people whose homes were destroyed in the fighting.  

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Ancient burial sites

Khudadad returned with the news all trucks heading  towards Lal sar Jangal and beyond had left at four o’clock that morning. Of course, they had. However, he’d found a driver willing to take us to Yakolang, roughly half way to Lal, from where he assured me it would be easy to find another truck to Lal. We were to be ready to leave around lunch time.

MarySmith’sPlace – On the road again: Afghan Adventures#32

Autumn 1989. Thanks to comments from new visitors to the blog not everyone knows when my first trip to Afghanistan took place. I’ll try to remember to put a date at the start of each post.

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I was immersed in the clinic statistics one day when Hassan burst in.  ‘I have found transport, but the people are leaving immediately. Are you ready?’

I was ready. Khudadad was ready and grabbed my bags as we hurried down the steep mountain path behind Hassan to where an open-topped jeep was parked. It was bursting at the seams with mujahideen, all, naturally, clutching their AK-47s like so many security blankets.  Hassan introduced the large, black bearded man behind the wheel, ‘This is my very good friend, Commander Husseini.’ The Commander looked remarkably like Sayed, only bigger – and fiercer. He gave us a brief nod, and we were on our way.

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Small hamlets of flat roofed, mud built houses hugged the steep slopes of the mountains and orchards of apricot, almond and mulberry trees dotted the valley. The open topped jeep afforded a wonderful view as we snaked up the pass. At least, it did for the first ten minutes. Dark clouds loomed overhead and a stiff breeze made me pull my chaddar more snugly around me. The higher we climbed the less able I was to hide my shivering. Khudadad asked where my jacket was. I glanced round at the stony-faced mujahideen perched on top of our luggage.

‘It’s in my bag. Don’t bother about it; once we are over the pass I’ll be fine.’ I did not relish having to ask the mujahideen, the surliest group so far encountered, to move. Khudadad had no such reservations. After telling the Commander to stop he evicted the muj., before ferreting amongst the baggage and bits of what looked like bomb making equipment, but were probably spare parts for the jeep, until he unearthed my jacket. I wriggled around trying to get it on without allowing my chaddar to slip immodestly, the mujahideen scrambled back into their places, expressions, if possible, even more surly.

At the summit of the pass a heavy downpour of sleet-laden rain, viciously stinging our faces, drenched us within moments. Wishing I wore contact lenses, I attempted to wipe my rain spattered glasses for the hundredth time on a chaddar which had become a sodden rag.   ‘Where are the blankets?’ demanded Khudadad. I nodded towards the back of the jeep.

‘You can’t ask them to get out again,’ I protested. He could. This time his ferreting produced a large blanket which he proceeded to wrap solicitously around my shoulders, reserving part of it for his own use. I suggested he offer the end of it to the soaking wet muj at his side; he stoically refused Khudadad’s offer. Despite my shivers, I could not help but smile at the sight we must have presented.  Khudadad and I huddled together soaking wet, blue with cold, wrapped in a big, fluffy yellow blanket, across which strutted a handsome blue peacock, while around us a dozen grim faced freedom fighters steadfastly ignored both the rain and their unorthodox travelling companions.

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Shahr-i-Zuhuk, the sandstone mountain stronghold, looked menacing under its mantle of black cloud as we passed, branching off onto the Bamiyan road. After about an hour, Husseini pulled up beside a small stream and everyone climbed out. I was hopeful it might be a tea stop but Khudadad explained with a heavy sigh, ‘They want to pray. I have to pray too.’   He left the jeep reluctantly. It was the first time I had known him pray on our journey, and to do so in such appalling weather conditions indicated just how much a man of influence and importance was our Commander Husseini.

As the men washed in freezing water before spreading their patous as prayer mats on the cold, wet ground I was thankful no such pious devotion was required of me. The rain had stopped but, with the approach of evening, the temperature was falling, the leaden sky remained threatening, and I was chilled to the bone. It was the first time I had been cold in months, an unpleasant warning that winter was on the way.

Commander Husseini assured me that we would soon be in Bamiyan and the sun suddenly broke through the clouds for a few, brief minutes as though to encourage us. In the deepening dusk the commander pointed out the many, many graves whose fluttering flags indicated that here lay some of Afghanistan’s martyred heroes. I remembered the reverent hush which had descended on our jeep one day in Jaghoray when Gul Agha had shown me the site of one martyr’s grave. Here, there were countless and I realised the men with whom I was travelling had really fought against the Soviet troops, who’d held Bamiyan until shortly before their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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The smaller of the two Buddha statues carved into the cliffs at Bamiyan.

Before darkness fell I was able to catch a glimpse of one of the giant Buddha statues in the cliff and a series of caves. The journey had taken five, rather than the anticipated three hours, and my excitement at seeing the Buddha was tempered with thoughts of finding somewhere warm and dry. Khudadad directed Commander Husseini to stop outside what, he assured me, was the best hotel in town.

I followed him up a flight of steep, narrow, stairs, asking, ‘Is this the hotel I’ve heard about from Jon? The one with kebabs and a toilet with a door?’

Khudadad laughed, ‘Very good kebabs.’ He stood aside to let me enter a large, empty room.   A boy hurried in with a gas lamp which he was about to suspend from a hook in the ceiling until I indicated that I preferred the only source of heat on the floor beside me. I was shivering violently. The boy immediately handed me his patou and I pulled it round my shoulders. The heavy woollen shawl soon helped to overcome my shivers and I was grateful for the boy’s concern.

Khudadad and I cupped glasses of tea in our numb fingers, sipping thankfully at the reviving brew. By the time I had drunk my second glass I was warm enough to start thinking of other matters. ‘This IS the hotel with the toilet isn’t it?’ Smothering a sigh, he picked up a torch, pulled his patou more firmly round his shoulders and led the way back down the stairs. At the far end of a very muddy yard the dark shape of a small outbuilding was just discernible.  Taking the torch, I picked my way carefully through the mud, skirting puddles. The building had not one, but three loos – a five star establishment, indeed.

I pulled open the first door and recoiled at the sight of copious mounds of excreta deposited around the hole. Hastily shutting the door, I tried the second, then the third, which had clearly, and quite recently, been occupied by someone with severe diarrhoea. Returning to the second toilet I attempted to find two turd free spots for my feet while concentrating on hanging on to the torch and my hand bag, unfastening the string of my shalwar, ensuring they did not drop too fast into the shit and keeping my chaddar above ankle height. Finally, torch clenched between my teeth, hand bag slung around my neck, I completed the task – resolving never to utter a word of complaint at Khudadad’s marathon hikes in the great outdoors ever again.

The kebabs were, indeed, very good and well fed and warm again I unrolled my sleeping bag. As we settled for the night Khudadad told me not to worry if I heard things – gunfire, soldiers marching – as it would be the mujahideen carrying out night exercises. ‘Just practising,’ he assured me.

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I was glad of the warning when, lying awake long after Khudadad began snoring gently I heard the menacing ring of the night patrol marching through the town. However, it was not that which kept me awake – but a flea in my sleeping bag. As it feasted, I scratched until finally, I had to drag myself out of my warm cocoon to grope in the dark for the Stingeze.  This revolting substance, whose main ingredient is ammonia, had been a real find in Sangi Masha bazaar, the only thing to bring instant relief. It did mean, though, by the time I was finally able to sleep, I smelt strongly of wet nappy.

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