Monthly Archives: November 2014

Across the Bridge: My First Day in Afghanistan

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“I have not told half of what I saw” ~ Marco Polo, Explorer

I rode out of Samarkand, westwards towards Bukhara. I moved at an indifferent pace, as if something was calling me. My mind had been preoccupied for days with one thing. Afghanistan. It kept ringing in my head. I knew I had to go there. With the route to Iran blocked by visa restrictions, Afghanistan had become my new destiny. A slice of Silk Road obscurity like no other. Thoughts of it ate up most of my waking moments. Like a skipping record in the back of my mind the word rang on repeating cycles. I couldn’t shake it anymore as I read news reports and practiced speaking Dari in poorly lit rooms at night. Going to Bukhara would just prolong the inevitable. My curiosity peaked. I stopped my bike and consulted my map. Turning around, I headed Southeast towards Afghanistan.

First impressions of Afghanistan are ones of fascination and total confusion. It is decidedly the most unique country I have been to, for a myriad of reasons. After naviagting my way through questioning and searches by heavily armed Uzbeki customs agents, I made it to the other side. Upon crossing the ‘Friendship Bridge’ across the Amu-Darya River to Afghanistan, the view immediately changed. I was let into Afghanistan with barely a look by a joyful guard who just wondered at my bicycle with admiring eyes. All the advice I had been given and my general preconceptions were out the window. I was alone again. Alone in Afghanistan.

As my bicycle strode along the mud brick barbed wired walls, I felt a sense of adventure, fear, excitement and joy, like nowhere else I have felt in the world. I pedalled along trying to wipe the adrenaline enduced smile from my face. Though I was excited to finally have arrived, I was not taking the situation and my surroundings lightly. There is still a war being waged here, as the country fights back insurgency. Doing the proper research beforehand is essential and there are some places you just don’t go. It is no walk in the park. Infrastructure is limited and things can change quite quickly.

However, upon entering the country, the feelings I had were quite different than what I was made to believe. The demeanour of the men was of playful curiosity and resilience. Unveiled women walked by talking with friends, while some blustered along towards markets in the typical blue or white burqas (chaderis); the purposes of which are greatly misunderstood back home in the west. While some children played a game with an old battery and a crack in the road. This was not a backpacker trail to Southeast Asia or a gap year ‘adventure’ in Europe. This was the real thing.

After a few kilometres of riding I entered the nearest border town called Hairatan. I had an idea what I planned to do next, but thought I’d ask for some help. Stopping my bike I got off and in less than a minute I had drawn a gathering crowd of curious onlookers and gawkers. We both gawked. It was deemed unsafe for me to ride alone for the next 70km to the centre of my first destination, Mazar-I-Sharif. After a short haggle, my bike was strapped to the top of an old station wagon and gear tossed in the back. Climbing in with two men, two teenagers, the driver, a women in the back with a baby and all my stuff, it felt like any old road trip. We flitted quickly across flat scrubby desert landscape passing a tank going full speed in the afternoon sun. The people were curious about me and we laughed at the old man beside me who snorted snuff all the way to his stop and attempted to convince me to trade sweaters or lend him my glasses because of his bad eyesight. He held his snuff container like a jewel no one else could lay eyes upon.

Between enjoying the old man’s theatrics, a baby played with my toque in the back, I was asked by the teenagers for my Facebook and talked serious business with the guy beside me named Aziz. He appeared to be a hardworking man and complained of the lack of jobs in Afghanistan. He told me of the turmoil the Taliban and war has caused his country over the last thirteen years. Quoting, “Forty-eight countries have come to help Afghanistan, but it is no better, Canada too.” I could say nothing. What could I say? I immediately felt very small. The situation was no longer something I had seen on TV. This was a real person expressing a deep longing for peace and stability in lives of his family of eight. I got out in Mazar-I-Sharif, dizzied by the chaotic traffic bustling in all directions, loaded up my bike and threw myself into it, searching for a place to sleep.

I checked into the Aria Hotel. A quaint little hole in the wall on the edge of the beautifully famed pilgrimage Shrine of Hazrat Ali. It is the burial place of the Islamic prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law. While I peered up the stairs an old man shouted at a boy to get away from my bike as I went inside to find someone working there. I desperately wanted to be away from the street with my big bicycle. I met the manager of the hotel, quickly negotiated a price and we lifted my bike inside. At that moment, I met another man whom I hoped was not staying or working at the hotel. He was beady-eyed, unwashed, short and plainly unnerving man. Maybe this was all in my head. I later found out he was the caretaker nicknamed ‘Mr. Kung-Fu’ and would watch over me during my stay. Apparently, he takes his job very seriously and I actually felt nothing but safe under his care as he brought me a knife to cut open my pomegranates that afternoon. He would later take joy in hiding my shoes or knock at my door and run away. My room reeked of hashish and I could smell the communal washroom in wafts.

That first day I explored the bazaars, exchanged money on the street, purchased some suitable clothes and ate delicious Kabuli with a new companion I met at the hotel named Fawad. Kabuli is basically rice palao, with carrots and raisins served with grilled meat, accompanied by fresh veggies, brown beans, bread and obligatory chai. In Afghanistan eating with your hands is the norm and I quickly revived some of the sloppy techniques I had learned while traveling in Bangladesh. As night fell on the city and police trucks with machine gun instalments on the roof crawled by, I drank a fresh carrot juice from a vendor in the street. I watched as shopkeepers closed up with the scratch of metal doors. The evening call to prayer echoed like a falling siren washing across the city to the faithful. I took a final sip from my juice and returned to my hashish soaked sheets. I knew everything was going to be alright.

Also, check out this amazing video on the faces and beauty of Afghanistan. It really is like nowhere else. If you are having trouble viewing the video click here: Afghanistan – Touchdown in Flight

(See pictures from my first day below)

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The Golden Road: Back on Two Wheels

For lust of knowing what should not be known. We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.” ~ James Elroy Flecker, The Golden Journey to Samarkand

I sit branded by wind and sun in the golden land of Samarkand. In a courtyard, in a dank guesthouse where travelers have came and gone for years. I sip warm chai on raised carpet platforms. Tea flakes bubble and float to the bottom of saucer cups as they have for centuries. In the piercing shadow of the Registan I reflect on the wonder that this city holds. The history, the people, the sheer depth of complexity that has went into it’s fashioning over the frenzied times of past, present, and the glory days of ancient lore. At the disputable heart of the ancient Silk Road, Samarkand’s beauty is something more than alluring for any intrepid adventurer. Captivating the hearts and minds of those from all corners of the globe. The ancient Madrassas, Mosques, Bazaars, and observatories, are but a testament to a time of great power and wonder.

The road has changed these days. It is much more defined. However, in a police state, like Uzbekistan, passage is still highly regulated. Police weild batons and command cars off the road for inspection and expected bribes. In a country ruled by a dictator hellbent on growing cotton in dry landscapes where little rainfall occurs, they are draining the Aral Sea. Their children won’t thank him. Ludicrous bureaucracy and restrictions on tourists and citizens, alike, make this place feel like nowhere else. Follow the rules. But still, have a good time.

Crossing the border at Osh, Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan was not as simple as one might hope. After arriving in the early morning I spent the next few hours careening my bicycle to the front of the line and eventually being sent through as an honoured tourist. After more checks, paperwork, questioning and rifling through my pictures and vitamins I was set free. The open road to country number three. Well somewhat open. In Uzbekistan one must register in certified hotel each day, or pay unknown consequences upon exiting Uzbekistan. A difficult task for any cyclist hoping to cover long stretches of flat terrain on minimal budgets. But, I do my best.

On the road to Samarkand I visited interesting cities like Andijan, with more than accommodating citizens. Soviet hotels with less charm then windows. I’m not about to get into the news of recent history in Andijan, but have a look about what happened not long ago. ‘HERE’ Then onto Kokand, with Madrassas and a Khan’s palace completely devoid of any tourist. Weathered women blowing burning scented spices onto my bike to bless my journey at an ancient cemetery. I snacked on delicious skewers of meat called, Shashlak with yoghurt and sipped tea every step of the way, while fending off other people on the roadside for invitations to join them as I meandered along pretending not to understand them. If I stopped for everyone who called me, I would still be a few days back. It is the ‘off season’ now and tourists become more nominal than usual in these parts.

I made it over the snowcapped mountains to the sprawling capital of Tashkent. I bunked in shared dormitories with snoring men at a dumpy train station hotel. One keeping me up all night asking me questions through a voice translator on his phone. I guess the ear plugs and my grunts after days of cycling was not a hint. Onto non-descript towns with names like Gulinstan, that appeared to have no purpose, no centre and no work for anyone, other than shuttling people about in vans or attending the local ‘circus’. Tank convoys passing nonchalantly on the main road. When finally after days of riding on broken knees with no breaks I made it to the glorious Samarkand. Only halfway complete the trip through Uzbekistan. To the bustling market bazaars I gawked and ate delicious Shwarma’s among old buildings with dill garlic sauce running down my hands. I ate in the cool afternoons and explored to my hearts content.

From here it is on to another ancient city of Bukhara, then Southeast to Afghanistan. The trip I am on after my brief return to Canada has brought me in contact to even greater kindness and rejuvenated my batteries. Seeing my beautiful girlfriend, visiting with family and rediscovering Canada with close friends was a truly amazing experience. It makes me appreciate the journey I am on that much more. To have the love and support of everyone all over feels in a word, amazing!

Now I wake each day again not knowing. I go out into clear mornings with an open heart and wondering mind. I know not where I will sleep that night or who I will meet that day. Problems come and evaporate with new horizons. It is the closest thing I can get to the caravans of the Old Silk Road. That feeling of truly not knowing, in a land so ancient and full of pride. Under the sun and trampled earth we crawl.

“No human, nor any living, survives long under the eternal sky. The most beautiful women, the most learned men, even Mohammed, who heard Allah’s own voice, all did wither and die. All is temporary. The sky outlives everything. Even suffering. ~ Bowa Johar, Balti Poet

Nothing more true can be said. All is temporary. We are only here for a moment, so make the best of it.  If your looking for a new book check out Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, on his amazing feats and discovery in the northern mountain range of Pakistan’s Baltistan area. A fanastic tale of determination and compassion.

***Updates on the school in China are in! Full details of successes with the new school and plans for fundraising for a new school in India to come very soon. To onwards travel, the ancient road and hope.

To donate to the next project: ‘CLICK HERE’

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