“Badakhshan? It’s no problem.” Our security team was very pleased. Even when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, those hardened fighters did not make it to the furthest reaches in the north-east, the remote corner where the majestic Hindu Kush meets the soaring Pamir mountains. Our journey began as any Afghan journey should, sitting cross-legged on a carpeted floor, eating a Badakhshani breakfast — Shir Chai, a hearty brew of tea and milk, salt and walnut and enormous yellow biscuits as round, and I have to say, as hard as a saucer.
Ramin, an Afghan friend, peered at me. You are going to Shahr-e Bozorg? And then, raising a quizzical eyebrow, he asked, is there a road to Shahr-e Bozorg?
Ramin focused on his biscuit and barely suppressed a smile. Never mind, I thought, we are prepared. We set out from the regional capital Faizabad in the best four-wheel drive vehicle we could find with our driver, Azizullah, an intense young man with short cropped hair.
Faizabad itself felt pretty remote, one paved road through the centre of a bustling market, a few hours of electricity a day, a bit of running water.
‘And what about spare tyres?” asked Melanie, the producer. Unfortunately Azizullah had had a puncture the night before. There was one spare left. But never mind that, worry was soon eclipsed as we took to the so-called road, a bumpy track clinging to the mountainside, sweeping around blind corners, climbing higher and higher along hairpin curves.
We insisted Azizullah must honk the horn each time we rounded a bend, right on the edge of the precipice. We hurtled along, to the tune of our little mountain symphony, our loud gasps and sharp intakes of breath followed by Azizullah’s honking. Then, a new sound, the rumbling of a tyre — another flat tyre not an hour outside the capital. Now we had no spares left.
Azizullah was not fazed. In the middle of nowhere, there emerged, like an oasis in the desert, an assortment of stalls, tarpaulin stretched across sticks of wood with mechanics busy inside, young men preparing tea with Turkish biscuits wrapped in bright foil.
They soon made sure we had another spare, and peace of mind to fully absorb the breathtaking vistas, undulating mountains, a dappled carpet of camel brown and rusty red, flecked with gnarled pistachio trees and goats grazing on the scrubland.
And donkeys, everywhere, carrying white-bearded men, bundles of wheat, or women covered in burkas.
I remembered the story of how 6,000 donkeys had been pressed into service carrying ballot boxes in the last round of elections back in August. And the story of journalists who came to cover that quaint donkey story and ended up getting stuck in Badakhshan and missing the elections. It was to be four more bone-jarring hours before we reached Shahr-e Bozorg. Remote? It certainly felt it.
That night, we dropped off to sleep on thick mats laid out on the floor of a house in the village. But as the cock crowed at first light, someone shouted: “Fire! Fire!” A gas canister had exploded.
Huge plumes of acrid black smoke were rapidly engulfing our mud bungalow. We scrambled out the windows. All of the village soon converged on the house, swinging buckets of water.
And even when we had retreated to a hillside ledge, young Afghans were still rushing inside the smoking house, fishing out whatever they could find to help these poor foreign guests, including, in full view of gawking bystanders, well, bits of clothing best kept out of public view. Our embarrassed Afghan colleague Shoaib, determined to defend our honour, started denying that certain garments dangling in the air had anything to do with us.
We felt terrible for our Afghan hosts but they brushed aside the incident. God had been kind. He kept all of us alive. More driving, to another village so remote, that all the village elders turned out to honour their rare visitors. But we could not stay long. “After all,” I said knowingly to one man, “the roads are so bad here.”
He looked at me blankly and I realised he did not understand what I meant. It was all just part of life here, so they bid us goodbye with the gift of a goat. Driving back, another breakdown, we ran smack into what cameraman Tony called animal rush hour, flocks of sheep, goats and cows all jostling for space on the dirt tracks, struggling like us to get home before dark.
Finally, driving back into the capital Faizabad, we felt a wash of relief. Just a minor earthquake that night and a cancelled flight in the morning. We were stranded for two more days. But by now we were as hardened as Badakhshani biscuits and as stoic as the Afghans who call this place home. Much to the relief of editors in London, we made it to Kabul in time for news that a second round of the presidential elections would soon be held. The donkeys in Badakhshan are back in business again. — © BBC News/Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate