Afghanistan / Places We Go

The Road To Maimana

I took the picture below at breakfast the morning we departed Mazar-i-Sharif for Herat (By the way, the breakfast you see the gentlemen below consuming is the classic Afghan meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner – naan bread, meat cooked on a skewer and green tea to drink).

Now these guys look mean and hard, but a microsecond before I snapped this picture, they were laughing and joking with me. You see, adult Afghans generally feel compelled to look grim and tough in their pictures for some reason. It is absolutely not a reflection of their true nature though.  The reality is that they are among the most friendly and hospitable people I have ever met.

road-to-maimana

This is despite the fact that, out here, things are different. A depressing number of people seem to have accepted that they just might die a random, meaningless death; but far from letting this thought overpower their emotions and coping skills, it seems to have focused their attentions onto the most immediate concerns: will we eat tomorrow, can I increase my stature within the community, will my son get married and have enough children, and so on.  Some Westerners complain that the adults, especially the spinghiri, or “white beards,” are unbelievably selfish because they only care about money and power. I hope it’s not condescending to disagree, and see that thought process as a rational response to severe deprivation.

This part of Afghanistan is very remote. And to say that something in Afghanistan is remote really means something. There is absolutely no Western presence out here and no commercial traffic. The dirt road you see below is literally the only road in existence in this part of the world. And even it frequently disappeared into a labyrinth of tracks that crisscrossed broad swaths of desert. We fishtailed and churned our way through a dense fog of dust, along tire ruts at least 2 feet deep, causing the four-wheel-drive to jerk and buck like a rodeo bull. There were no road signs, and no other vehicles.

road-to-maimana

In fact, this Bedouin was the only other human we saw on the entire day’s drive to Maimana.

bedouin-afghanistan

And if that were not enough of a reminder that we were in the middle of nowhere, wild camels were the only wildlife we saw.

wild-camels-afghanistan

This camel sleeping in the road was so unaccustomed to vehicles that it couldn’t even be bothered to do more than lift its head to glare at us for disturbing his or her nap.

camel-afghanistan

The inside of the car, like everything else, is coated in a fine film of dust. Our hair becomes matted in moments. Nothing escapes the talcum-powder mist of sand that hangs in the air, not even in airtight containers. And, of course, it is hot. Before breakfast, the climate is Mediterranean. By midday, the ground ripples with a furnace-like intensity. Even the Taliban set down their AK-47s between the hours of 1pm and 4pm.

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We arrive in Maimana a little after 4 pm. One needs a permit to travel on the road past Maimana to Herat. So, we stop in to chat with the mayor of Maimana. He is surprised to see us, but is pleasant and provides us with tea. However, he is adamantly opposed to our continuing on to Herat. The mayor insists that the Taliban are in complete control of the area and says that we will be captured and beheaded if we attempt to get through. We thank him for his concern, but politely state that we still wish to continue to Herat. This time he gives us a flat “no”. To make his point, he picks up the radio on his desk and orders the soldiers manning the checkpoints on the route to Herat (still only one road to get there) to allow no Westerners through. OK, we’ve dealt with this before… This is Afghanistan after all. I gently inquire if there is perhaps a “small fee” or “tax” we can pay to simplify the process of obtaining permission to proceed. He politely (and surprisingly) declines my attempt to bribe him and explains that since the 21 South Koreans were abducted by the Taliban outside of Khandahar that the government is very concerned about bad publicity involving Westerners. So, no, we cannot proceed. No way.

Awww, fuck it… Time for a very long drive back. I somehow manage to pass out in the back of the four-wheel-drive for the duration of the return drive.

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11 thoughts on “The Road To Maimana

  1. Afghanistan seems a really interesting country. I’d like to explore it and to see with my eyes what you can find out there. I don’t believe all the bullshit that the news tell us. I still think that it is not a really safe place, but majority of the stuff we hear about this country aren’t true, or they are hype. Proud of for having gone there.

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  4. I had similar experiences with this trip in December 2007. I used public bus from Mazar-e-Sharif to Maimana, it started at 6 a.m. not so far from Ali’s Shrine, we stopped for a meal in Andkhoy and arrived at Maimana in the afternoon. That time the road was paved between Mazar and Andkhoy but construction was to be continued according to plans. During the journey I saw some Iranian and Turkmen trucks because it was the connecting route between Iran, Turkmenistan and Mazar. First they entered from Iran to Turkmenistan and then crossed the Afghan-Turkmen border near Andkhoy and drove to Mazar to avoid the dangerous part of the route between Maimana and Herat. Some locals on the bus warned me that the road was dangerous after Maimana, but I was very determined to pass through so I went to the bus station in Maimana and wanted to buy a ticket to Herat. The “station” was in a small street and the bus was a little microbus. The driver and his collegues invited me to their “office” and explained me that they couldn’t take me because Bala Morgab, a town inhabited by Pashtuns which lies between Maimana and Herat was under Taliban control and they would kidnap or kill not only me but the driver too if they let me using their bus. I tried to persuade them offering to cover my face during the journey making it more difficoult to realize me as a Westerner but the driver showed me what Talibans do when they stop the car: pushed me to the wall and touched my body to check what I was carrying. So I was refused and the next day returned to Mazar. Two Westerner doctors tarvelling with their car had also been murdered that road a few years before. I had another interesting experience that evening in Maimana with Wiki, a local guy who invited me to his home with his friend and after smoking hashish and drinking vodka he wanted to fuck me (citing him: Kristof, you are so beautiful, 2 men will massage your body tonight) what I refused and prepaired my backpack to leave but he became agressive and wanted to detain me but after a few minutes they let me leaving. It wasn’t too late only about 9-10 p.m. but took me half an hour to find somebody in the empty and dark streets of Maimana to ask where I could find a chaihana to sleep. I faced 10 surprised guys wearing turbans and pakols when I opened the door and a few minutes later a policeman followed me to the chaihana (teahouse where anybody can sleep for small money while travelling) because he saw me getting in while warming their hands with his collegues at an open fire in the middle of the street and asked my documents. He stood inside for about 20 minutes after checking me and was watcing from a short distance what I was doing like I was an UFO. Next morning when I woke up asked where toilet was but the owner directed me to the public park where it was realized that I was not the only one who used it for that purpose… The bus back to Mazar started at 5-6 a.m. and while I was waiting it to leave, Wiki, the guy who wanted to massage my beautiful body the previous night got on the bus and told me that he was very angry with me because of leaving them and I could be very sad that I missed a great party where he was fighting with his friend after smoking and drinking a lot. I was really very disappointed:)

    • Kristof, I don’t know how I overlooked your story back when you posted it, but it is a good one and I thank you for sharing it. Ha, it’s a very Afghan story…

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  6. Just a short comment. I did the Mazar to Herat road in 2005 with no problems; one shared taxi from Mazar to Maimana, and I even drove for a bit when the driver got too stoned. Then a two-day mini-bus ride with an overnight in Bala Murghab. There I slept outside, in a small park in front of the chaihana, with some Afghans from the Minibus. Made it to Herat the next day. In 2006 I did it the reverse way. I was traveling with Paul Clammer, and we were researching the Lonely Planet Afghan Guide. After three days in Herat, recovering from a week’s travel through the Central Route and Minaret of Jam, we left Herat in a Minibus for Bala Murgab. That was probably the last year you could get through. We were shot at once on the road, then, in Bala Murghab , the Taliban had dumped three NGO workers body’s the the town square the morning of the day we arrived, so we had to stay inside the police fortress for the night…they used us as bait and when the Taliban attacked about 12:30 am, they were waiting in ambush and the Police killed three and drove them off. When we crossed the border with the provence where Maimana is located and had to show our papers, the Uzbek Police captain was really pissed to find us out there. He put a police private on the bus with us and made sure we reported to the Police station in Maimana. We got chewed out again, but had no problem getting a local minibus to Mazar the next day. When I was in Mazar in 2012 even going to Balkh was considered dangerous.

    So it goes…

    Happy Trails

    • It’s interesting to me how fluid the safe areas in Afghanistan are. Actually, fluid may not be the right word since the accessible areas seem to be steadily shrinking rather than simply shifting around. I hadn’t heard that Balkh is sporty to visit now, but I am not surprised… I know that many places, such as Kunduz, where I wandered around freely in 2008 are out of bounds now.

      Ha, if this keeps up, the only safe places left will be Bamiyan and the center of Kabul.

      • Hey Justin…well, I’ve been going to Afghanistan since 1972 and there have never been any ‘safe’ areas, just some places safer than others!

        Balkh is still visitable, but too many Pathans in the area, and I was warned by an Afghan friend in Mazar to only go in the middle of the day. It was fine in 2006. Since then the US military and too many spooks have spoiled it for us extreme tourists.

        I was walking all over Kabul in 2012, back streets, old bazaar, etc., and Herat was even more fun then. I might go back this summer, but I want to wait and see what happens during the elections in April.

        I used to take the road to Bamiyan, but that was out of the question in 2012…now they have a regular flight, though.

        I’m in Japan right now, but I’ll be in Nepal for Tibetan New Year in March.

        Happy Trails,

        Steve

      • Ha, well, I use the word “safe” in a relative sense… Although, as I often tell people, there are plenty of places in the States where I feel far more uncomfortable walking around than I ever felt (with a couple of notable exceptions) in Somalia or Afghanistan or Syria or any other places like that.

        Having been exploring Afghanistan since 1972, you must have seen some remarkable changes over the years. I have the impression that the 1960s and early 1970s were something of a golden age for Afghanistan.

        Interesting about the road to Bamiyan… We drove when we went in 2008. There was one road that was ill advised, but the slightly longer road was fine. And we were told that the danger on the other road came not from the Taliban, but more pedestrian criminals that were notorious for carjackings and robbery along the dodgy route. Things change quickly in Afghanistan though and so I’m not sure what the source of the danger is now (Taliban or bandits).

        Yes, it will be interesting to see how things unfold after the election. I don’t think you and I will be the only ones watching that… If Kabul or Herat ever become off limits, then things would have to be really bad in Afghanistan.

        I know that nowhere is perfect, but being based in Japan sounds quite nice…

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