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Afghanistan: When the Lee Enfield was Leveled, 1976

March 30, 2010

Descending the Cairo Side a novel of the traveling life

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Photos by Steve Routhier

1) The valley where I stayed during my weeks in the Band-i-Mir mountains

I ended up alone in Band-i-Mir after my friends returned to civilization.  Not exactly alone, as in bivouacked in a mountain tent, but rather as the only traveler residing at the now-forgotten Kuchi Hotel.  I spent my days talking with the owner and hiking in the mountains.  Sometimes I would depart at dawn and return at sunset, tramping the countryside always looking for a view that would top the previous scenes I had the pleasure, luck, and honor to glimpse.

One fine day I decided to trek a different direction into the mountains from the grandly named Kuchi.  I took a bit of water in an old coke bottle, a shoulder bag, cigarettes and matches, so I could relax for a smoke and also in case the temperature turned cold.  As I have said elsewhere, a peculiar low brush grows in these high desert landscapes of Afghanistan, and one has to only pull a couple of them from the ground, touch a match to a twig, and, poof! instant conflagration.  The Afghanis taught me how to use this bush, a useful safeguard against hypothermia if one is stranded away from the warmth of a house.  Perhaps the plant contains a natural resin or oil; I have never encountered anything like it elsewhere.

I climbed into the hills  just after sunrise.  The air was crystalline in clarity and the world glowed with hues of pink and amber like a painting from the French impressionist school.  As I gained altitude the temperature dropped, but as the sun rose higher the weather turned warmer, and soon I became toasty enough to strip to a tee-shirt and wrap my sweater and jacket around my waist.

2) The terrain into which I trekked on the fateful day

I carried on to the top of the nearest peak, following ravines that twisted and turned like a crazy maze.  In the shadows I quickly cooled but trudged ever higher.  I wanted to see what I could see.  You never know when a more beautiful vista will appear over the edge of the next ridgeline.

The ascent from the valley floor was roughly 4000 ft. or perhaps 1300 meters .  On top lay another plateau, similar to the one I found when I climbed the cliffs on the far side of the canyon.  And the view was worth the effort.  In one direction lay the Hundu Kush, snow-covered peaks marching to infinity.  On the other lay more desert and waves of rolling mountains.  I sat for hours, not meditating, not fussing with my few possessions or thinking, but just being.  Here and now.  The experience was sublime.

Later in the day a bitter wind rose and I lit a fire from one of those ubiquitous bushes to stay warm.  I felt alone, yet realized I was in the company of every Westerner who had ever passed through these parts, from Alexander’s Greeks to the British.  I reflected that the latest foreigners to take a fancy to Afghanistan seemed to be the Russians.  One encountered them in virtually every town and city.  They claimed to be advisers and technicians, but today we know better of course.  I suppose the Americans in Afghanistan now preach to the populace with similar rhetoric, how “we’re here to help.”  As Ronald Reagan, of whom I have never been a fan, once said, the worst words a person a person can hear are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”  The cliché is universal in application around areas of the Earth that have been wooed and invaded.

The afternoon waned and I realized the time had come to begin my descent back to the Kuchi, far below and invisible from these heights.  The way would be clear; I had to follow any set of ravines and paths that led to the principal valley and would surely come out somewhere within an hour or two’s walk of home.

2) Another scene from the area of the trek

I made my way down, not too quickly, for I was still enjoying my stroll.  There wasn’t much to see, but from a geological perspective these kinds of arroyos hold a certain charm.  From time to time I would stop and bend over to pick up a rock.  Occasionally I put one in my shoulder bag to carry as a souvenir, although rock collections can become wearisome to drag about South Asia.

Still lost in my aimless mind-train, I turned a corner in the path and was startled to see, some distance ahead of me, a tribesman.  No telling what he was doing up here in this remote mountain range.  Perhaps he was hunting goats or other wildlife that roamed the high abodes.

I saw quickly that he was armed.  But this did not give me any initial unease; most men in this part of the world traveled with their weapons, not so much to kill things but as sign of status.

Before I had any time to reflect on the intricacies of Afghani social comportment, he calmly leveled the rifle directly at my chest.  Even from 75 meters or so I recognized it as a Lee Enfield, the same old 303 rifle that I personally had used for target shooting while in the cadet corps of my high school.  Very accurate and effective at long range, not that I was very far from the would-be shooter.

The Afghani’s expression was inscrutable; I had no way of knowing what he might be thinking.  His eyes lined up with sight of the weapon and he did not look at me directly.  Certainly he could kill me here and no one would ever be the wiser.  He was older than I, dressed in a version of the traditional shalwar khameez, and wore a white turban.  I could tell he was not Hazari,who make up a sizable part of Band-Mir’s population,  but otherwise he carried no distinguishing marks of a recognizable tribe.

I considered my options, although it’s impossible to say how long I stood there, transfixed.  And transfixed I was.  A sudden movement would have invite troubled.  My heart beat wildly in my chest and I realized that I was only a few seconds away from hyperventilating.

I debated my choices and came to two conclusions, as the tribesman stood motionless with the front of my torso in his sights.  I could laugh or cry.  Not a very sophisticated deductive analysis, but that’s was all I came up with.  I understood immediately that if I acted without honor that this test, for that is what it was, would end poorly.

So pleading for mercy was not an option.  Instead of melting down and losing my cool and groveling at the guy’s feet, I burst into laughter, waving my arms and guffawing like a clown at a toddler’s birthday party.  I didn’t point a finger directly at the man, since that is considered rude in this part of the world, but I laughed and crowed and howled like a man in a dizzy state of joy.

Slowly the Afghani lowered the rifle.  Now he gazed directly at me for the first time, as if considering his next move.  Finally he placed his weapon carefully on the ground and bounded toward me at full speed, a wide grin on his face.  Reaching my position he talked animatedly and with good nature.  He dug into his tattered shoulder bag and produced a loaf of nan, the delicious Afghani bread.  Tearing it into two equal pieces, he gave me one and began to eat.

With an effort I copied his movements, congratulating him in English on his dress, his choice of rifle, his great country and god and all manner of nonsense.  He answered in his language and we had a pleasant chat, neither of us comprehending a word the other said.  We devoured the bread quickly.  I tried to keep my dignity intact.

After a few minutes we parted company, each taking a different route.  I still had an hour to finish walking out of the mountains, and it dawned on me that the Afghani had given me a test of manhood and/or wanted to rate my macho quotient.

Apparently I passed the examination.  By now I was sweating profusely despite the sun, which still beat down on the bare rock.  Finally I made it back to the Kuchi Hotel and collapsed in relief.  I never did tell the owner what happened; for some reason I thought incident was a private affair.

I stayed for another week in Band-i-Mir.  Winter was fast approaching and soon the track to Bamiyan would close for the season.  The hotel owner made me one last offer.  Normally I have no regrets about anything I have done while traveling, but this is one of the few occasions where I wish I’d made a different choice.

The owner told me I had two options to avoid being stranded in Band-i-Mir.  Number one, journey by truck down the hill to Bamiyan and from there to my next destination.  But he had another proposition that was entirely different.  Evidently he was going to make an overland trek to Pakistan, through the mountains and far from any official route.  This trip was to be accomplished by horseback.  He told me I was welcome to join him on the journey, which would take more than a month and involve slogging through heavy snows.  Why he wanted to go to Pakistan without crossing a legal border he left unsaid.  But he assured me that once in Pakistan I could go to a police station and get myself a legal visa without any problem.

I dislike winter in general, and, truth be told, the idea of such a trip brought out my inner fears.  So I declined the offer.  Soon thereafter I hopped on a truck away and headed away from the sacred lakes of Band-i-Mir and back to the main road system.  To this day I wish I had embarked on that trek with the Afghani hotel owner.  The adventure would have been first class but in the end I allowed my rational senses to get the better of me.

Perhaps that Lee Enfield aimed at my chest was all I ever needed anyway.

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