At Large

Afghan Travelogue

The trip on the narrow mountain trails must be either on foot or astride a horse or donkey.

By 7.11.08

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One doesn't travel in Afghanistan for amusement, in spite of what the brochures might say. Taking a weekend trip in the mountains of southeast Paktika province is an exercise in overcoming a severe case of acrophobia combined with the pain of walking and riding from dawn to dusk. Oh yes, every now and then you eat something.

Once you get off the lowland roads and into the mountainous regions, life and travel becomes very different. To begin with, it is rare to see the otherwise ubiquitous tonga, that horse-drawn cart draped with bits of colorful cloth and beads that is the principal means of transportation for lowland farmers and traders.

The trip on the narrow mountain trails must be either on foot or astride a horse or donkey. One sits on a blanket; the rest of the animal is laden with goods, including crated live chickens. Transport is far too difficult in the mountains to waste carrying space with a conventional saddle.

It's quite a trick to sit on a horse with heavy bags slung front and rear as well as boxes piled on the rump. A short squat donkey actually gives a sense of greater stability as one follows the narrow paths high above the valley floor.

There are regular prayer stops every few hours, along with the ritual ablutions. Unintelligible to foreign ears, the prayers assume a particular appropriateness as the single file of horses and men make their way along ancient stone pathways winding precipitously on the side of the mountain.

In the Pashto-speaking area of Paktika, the usual garb is a flat hat, sort of a beret, called a pakol and a loose tunic with baggy trousers, the shawal kameez. To complete the ensemble there is a light blanket, a patou, to throw on as one ventures into the cooler elevations or use as a cover at night.

After several hours of a harrowing climb the trail widens enough to allow for a rest stop. Small cooking fires miraculously appear along with a hot meal that includes eggs fried in oil so thick they float -- a distinctly acquired taste. Flat bread is available to soak up the grease, if one wishes. Tea washes it all down. After this it's quickly back up on the horses and donkeys and away up the trail.

By nightfall, just in time for evening prayer, a fairly flat area appears that is large enough to contain a raised platform on which benches are arranged. This structure that is both a dining space and bedroom is known as a chaikaneh. Scalding, sweet green tea is served by an elderly "innkeeper." Some of the benches are actually jute rope cots that provide overnight sleeping accommodation for a bone-weary traveler.

Dinner, which is apparently included in the price of the "room," consists of freshly baked bread, more grease-drowned eggs -- this time mixed with some unknown vegetables. Of course, more tea rounds out the repast. The bread was baked by slapping a flat piece of dough on the outside of a very large inverted metal pot with the bottom cut out. A fire burned inside. Ben Franklin would have been proud.

A RUSTIC TEAHOUSE set for seemingly no reason in the vastness of an Afghan mountain range is not as illogical as it seems. Trails, some marked, others unmarked, crisscross the mountains and valleys of the country. Travelers have used these oft times obscure routes for centuries; a rare island of neutrality amidst endemic conflict has great value.

In fact, this inn was a sort of local motel for a village encountered several kilometers down the trail at a lower, more amenable elevation. Not a large village, just a collection of mud brick homes and some corrals for horses and donkeys. Yet it was ringed with a wall.

There might have been a time in the 19th century when redcoats would have tumbled out of what were mud brick barracks to man the wall against the wild Pathan, as the British called the Pashtun. A fight to the death down to the clash of cold steel...

Today a feast is laid out. Beside the usual greasy poached eggs were slabs of bread and bowls of mulberries and other fruit. Meat of some sort roasted over an open fire. Sweet tea poured from jugs. To finish were rolled candies resembling a gooey "Tootsie Roll" called nakal. This is not to be confused with a narcotic gum called naswar that the tribesmen chew on long marches to assuage hunger. It makes the uninitiated quite ill.

Foreign armies have come and gone in Afghanistan for hundreds of years, but little changes in the end other than the weapons used. The life and nourishment of the mountain tribal people remains essentially the same. They'll always love those yellow eggs swimming in huge gray globs of grease. These are tough people, quite hospitable in their way, but definitely not ready for tourism.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.