Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
The Taliban charged us only $1 to get through the first roadblock. At the second, we paid two.
The author on the road outside Band-e Amir
Hann, our fearless leader
Officers guarding a security checkpoint
It was highway robbery, but that seemed unimportant. We were traveling in an unarmored Toyota minibus with bald tires and a faded red allah sticker on the back window. The men at the roadblocks had guns, so we gladly would've paid more.
But by the time we reached the next roadblock, the mood on the bus had soured. Everyone was edgy about the possibility of getting kidnapped. We were worn out from several days of hard travel on roads that were little more than cratered, ditch-ridden goat tracks. We were tired of lamb kabob.
At the third roadblock, a pink nylon rope was strung between two wooden posts. We stopped, and a sneering man in his forties with deeply lined brown skin slowly walked up to the vehicle. A younger man with a Kalashnikov sat under a tree by the road while a group of turbaned men stood a short distance away, one holding an automatic rifle and another a cell phone. The man spoke to our driver in Dari, and the driver, young and normally brash, replied quietly. The man turned and looked at us. His eyes were bright and cold and he made our driver nervous. Then he stepped back, untied the pink rope, and let it drop to the ground.
We continued up the road and entered a dusty, ramshackle village called Chisht-e Sharif. A U.S. military helicopter buzzed overhead. Pickup trucks loaded with Afghan National Army soldiers—wearing black masks and carrying weapons—sped down the road, heading in the direction we'd come from.
"You couldn't come to Afghanistan without seeing some Taliban, right?" asked our guide, a seventy-something Englishman named Geoff Hann. He had a ruddy complexion and thick eyebrows, and with a beard and skullcap he could pass for an Afghan. Hann had been leading tours through the country intermittently for more than 30 years, but now even he looked shaken.
I was on "vacation," part of a small tour group whose members had paid Hann, the owner of a UK-based company called Hinterland Travel, $3,700 for the pleasure of traveling in a war zone. His job was to make sure that the people who'd signed up stayed alive while moving through one of the most hazardous countries on earth. Hann operates in safer places, too, but he has a reputation as a specialist who can shepherd adventurous tourists through countries like Iraq and Afghanistan—places that other guides won't touch, no matter how much cash you slap down.
It was August 2010, and it would have been hard to think of a less desirable getaway spot than this Texas-size Central Asian nation. U.S. and NATO forces were engaged in a major offensive to crush a Taliban insurgency entrenched in Afghanistan's south and east but also blooming in the once peaceful north and west. The month before had been the most deadly for American troops since the Taliban's ouster in 2001 by the U.S. military and its Afghan allies, after several years of brutal fundamentalist rule. Suicide bombings were frequent, armed bandits stalked the country's roads, and kidnapping was now a commercial enterprise. The central government—shakily presided over from Kabul by U.S.-backed president Hamid Karzai—exerted little control outside major cities, and safety anywhere was tenuous at best. The U.S. State Department warned its citizens against traveling to Afghanistan, while the Lonely Planet guide to the country strenuously undersold its attractions. "Hundreds of what are now called 'illegally armed groups' operate freely," it read. "Kidnapping remains a threat.…Criminal groups have been known to sell hostages to the highest bidder, usually the insurgents." Increasingly, NGO workers, journalists, and a trickle of tourists—the only foreigners in the country aside from the military—were confined to cities and usually traveled in armored SUVs with armed guards.
The sundry security threats mocked the best-laid travel plans, so Hann's itineraries were strings of guesswork that he referred to as "theories." Ours had initially called for flying into Peshawar, Pakistan, then driving over the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, but NATO forces were using the Khyber to move resupply convoys, which made it irresistible to insurgents and impassable for us. Thus, prior to our group's arrival, Hann had notified all his clients that they would fly from Dubai into Kabul instead. The plan after that was to hire minibuses to carry us several hundred miles across central Afghanistan from Kabul to Herat, a city near the Iranian border, then dogleg up to Mazar-e Sharif, in the north, and finally return to Kabul, all without armor or armed security.
The journey would avoid the country's most deadly regions—the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand—but no part of Afghanistan was truly safe. In Kabul, there were kidnappers and suicide bombs. On the road, there were bandits, Taliban, jihadis, land mines, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In the northwest, there was the worst road in Afghanistan and a notoriously lawless town, Bala Murghab, teeming with insurgents. In the northeast, once considered generally secure, the Taliban had recently overrun a government checkpoint north of Kabul and beheaded six policemen. Even livestock was dangerous; in December 2009, the Taliban attacked British troops using a "donkey bomb."
Hann sells his Afghanistan tours as a chance to see the country's rugged outback while sleeping on dirty teahouse floors and tackling the country's roads in minibuses that buck like mechanical bulls. It's also an opportunity to gamble your life on his instincts and experience in order to be a tourist in a place that barely has any. There are no backpackers or bus-tour day-trippers in Afghanistan, and proximity to danger is the real essence of a Hann trip. His tour is a chance to court your own demise—a short walk on the Hindu Kush's dark side. If you were lucky, you would feel more alive at the end. If you weren't? It was best not to think about that.
FOR HANN, THE ROAD to this career started in 1970, when he drove a Volkswagen camper from Britain to Bombay, chasing after an errant wife living on an ashram—an impromptu cannonball run with an intact marriage as the prize. The wife came back—though Hann later left her and courted a woman he met on one of his tours—and the trip gave him a glimpse of a more exciting way of life. A native of Surrey who dropped out of school at 17, Hann had served in the Royal Air Force in the mid-1950s and then worked for several uneventful years as an electroplater at his father's company.
The wife-fetching mission aroused an appetite for untamed travel, and the timing was right. In the sixties and early seventies, Afghanistan, then a constitutional monarchy, was getting besieged by repurposed double-deckers and flagrantly painted VW Kombis ferrying unkempt Westerners from London to India and Nepal—the so-called Hippie Trail. In 1971, Hann started Hann Overland and guided "a handful of weirdos" in a 12-seat Land Rover from London to Bombay. Along the way, the group dodged bandits, got robbed in Turkey, and drove through the wilds of Afghanistan. "By the end of the trip," he told me, "we were all a bit rattled, but it was exciting."
Hann's company, which was primarily running Iraq tours, went under after the first Gulf war grounded flights to Baghdad. He launched Hinterland after the war ended in 1991, focusing mostly on Afghanistan and Iraq. But Hann has also led trips through a marquee list of danger zones, including Kashmir, Burma, and Pakistan. He's been jailed in India, interrogated by various security services, and smacked in the head with a rifle butt. He carries a commando knife and keeps a pistol stashed with a Pakistani rug dealer he calls "Mr. Ralph." During a now-legendary trip through Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion, Hann's group watched as a mob beat a man to death in Mosul; later, they were only a block away when a car bomb detonated outside the Turkish embassy in Baghdad. In 2007, Hann stumbled into a gun battle between two warring clans in Afghanistan, then negotiated an on-the-fly ceasefire and led his group, Moses-like, through the parted factions. Remarkably, none of his clients has been kidnapped or killed over the past 40 years, but Hann believes they'd better sign up with eyes wide open.
"People come on a trip like this of their own free will," he says. "If something happens to them, I'm very sorry—I do my best to make sure it doesn't. But if it does, then that's what happened. Anyone who says they didn't know is an idiot. It's on television every day." Though fiery and occasionally volatile, Hann is generally cautious, but he can become distracted, and he allows his clients to wander freely and alone in cities—something most Western companies and NGOs working in war zones would consider insanely risky. Obviously, Hann's tours attract adventurous travelers, but they're not adrenaline freaks or war junkies. Most are past middle age, unmarried, fairly mild-mannered, and childless. They carry passports sporting ink from countries like Syria, Pakistan, and Sudan—places that Westerners usually prefer to see as flickering images on a screen. Some are ticking off items on a bucket list, but many seem driven by a desire to see all the world's splendors and have simply been everywhere else. Afghanistan, to them, is the next logical frontier. The fact that it's dangerous is part of the appeal.
Not surprisingly, Hann has a few critics. One veteran Western traveler with extensive experience in Afghanistan—who asked not to be named—told me that what Hann does is irresponsible.
"There are a couple of companies in Kabul that I would trust to take people in Afghanistan," he said. "They are local, have established security procedures, work as fixers for journos, businesses, and NGOs, and they're completely plugged in. Hinterland is not.…Just because Hann has gotten away with it so far doesn't make these tours safe."
Hann knows he takes risks, of course, but he argues that the security situation is more nuanced than government travel bulletins and jumpy journalists would have you believe. He thinks it's possible to move through Afghanistan with the right combination of information and prudence, hopping to islands of safety like rocks in a river. On every trip, he's attempting to disprove the world's conventional wisdom about where humans should and shouldn't go. "I'm trying to do the impossible, which is to give people the freedom to move about in restricted areas," he says with conviction. "It's not easy. At the end of the day, they get the rough with the smooth."
"WE'VE ALREADY BEEN HERE too long," Hann had declared two days after we flew into Kabul and checked into the Spinzar Hotel, which had lazy guards with gleaming new Kalashnikovs at a checkpoint out front. He had rules about being a tourist, which made being a tourist difficult: You didn't stay anywhere long and you told no one where you were going. You avoided military trucks and UN vehicles, which was hard because they were everywhere.
On the morning of our third day, we packed into a white minibus to head north to Bamiyan, the site of some famous Buddhist ruins. There were reports of Taliban activity on the road ahead, but no one in the group seemed anxious. Sue Hynard, an executive assistant from London in her late fifties, had once been on a tour in Pakistan's Swat Valley when fighting broke out between the military and insurgents, and her attitude was pretty typical of the group.
"Tourists go on package tours to places like Torremolinos," she said, referring to the overdeveloped British-resort kennel in southern Spain. "We're travelers."
The others apparently felt the same way. Peter Haug, a 58-year-old professor of supply-chain management from Bellingham, Washington, had gotten lost in Bhutan's wilderness and been rescued by army troops. Cameron Rose, a tall, pale retired math teacher at England's Eton school, had made a midnight run with a sugar smuggler going from Lebanon into Syria. Kent Rausner, a 44-year-old Danish hotelier living in Thailand, had had a knife pulled on him in Dakar. The oldest person in our group was a tiny, 75-year-old Indian woman named Bithi Das, who walked with a cane and exuded Yoda-like tranquillity. She was going to Libya and Uzbekistan after this, and seemed to have a philosophical take about risk.
"I will die," she told me at one point. "We all will die. It's OK."
Spumes of dust were blowing into the air as we inched through Kabul's apocalyptic streets, and military convoys stopped traffic for blocks. Sue, Bithi, and Valerie Godsalve, a dyspeptic pathologist who'd flown in late from Saskatoon, Canada, were wearing veils. Peter, Cameron, Kent, and I wore shalwar kameez, the long tunic and baggy pants that U.S. soldiers call "man jammies." Afghans still stared when they saw us; they weren't used to seeing kuffar, or "nonbelievers," in unarmored minibuses.
An hour north of the city, the sky turned the color of pressed tin and rain began falling in thick drops that turned the road to mud. Abbas pulled up behind a long line of cars stopped in front of a torrent of water surging down from the mountains and across the road. It looked impassable, but an enterprising local had driven an orange backhoe into the washout and was using the bucket to carve out an improvised road—and charged 100 afghanis, or about $2, to let cars across.
We arrived so late that the only place to sleep was the police barracks. In the morning, I followed the group across a dry, dusty field to see the now destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas. These were once a premier attraction, but in 2001 the Taliban used anti-aircraft guns and dynamite to reduce both statues—carved into a tall sandstone cliff as early as the third century and standing 120 and 175 feet tall—into a fenced-off pile of dusty rubble. The cliff was honeycombed with grottoes inhabited 1,500 years ago by hermetic Buddhist monks, though many were now littered with bone shards and animal feces. I walked up a twisting staircase cut into the sandstone cliff and, at the top, looked out at nothing. To visit Bamiyan's Buddhas was to contemplate a void—appropriate, since the taller statue had represented sunyata, or emptiness.
A day later, we set out west across the spine of the Hindu Kush toward Band-e Amir, a glittering string of topaz-colored lakes set high amid cliff-studded mountains. Backhoes and yellow bulldozers were scraping the road, part of a USAID project attempting to smooth Afghanistan's expanses for exports other than opium. It was early afternoon when we reached the first lake, where cars filled a dirt parking lot. In 2009, the Afghan government had declared this area the country's first national park. Hotels and restaurants were planned. Locals were dissuaded from using hand grenades to fish. During the dedication, Karl Eikenberry, a former Army lieutenant general and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, had ridden a swan paddleboat—one of the site's main attractions—around one of the lakes, grinning like a schoolboy.
Now, women in burkas watched from shore while their husbands paddled around. Families ate picnics on blankets and boys jumped into the cold water in their underwear. Peter, Sue, and I climbed into a red boat with flaking paint, quickly trailed by a small swan-boat flotilla of curious Afghans. Two boys in a yellow boat approached first, one smiling widely and showing teeth like a tumbledown fencerow.
Another boat approached, filled with three men in their thirties wearing light-colored tunics. From a distance, they'd been pointing and laughing at the infidels in the swan boat. "Excuse me, where are you from?" shouted one, giggling with his friends. Another pulled out a digital camera and began taking pictures of us.
"America and England," Peter said, smiling. I'd nicknamed him Operation American Caress, because he waved at every scowling Afghan on the road, though often as not they just stared. "What is your job?" Abdullah, the older boy, asked.
"We are tourists," I said. He looked surprised.
"In Band-e Amir, security is very good," one of the men said proudly.
"Is there anything like this in America?" Abdullah asked.
"America is Los Angeles and California and Mexico and Chicago!" one of the older men yelled giddily.
"You are very friendly and kind men!" one of the older men yelled, and then they paddled away, laughing like children.
WE DROVE ALL THE NEXT DAY, crossed the 11,000-foot Shahtu Pass, and then stopped for the night at a teahouse with an ill-tempered donkey in the back. Cameron unrolled an air mattress as large as an airplane's evacuation slide. Valerie surreptitiously tortured her hair into a helmet of pink rollers. Bithi snored in the corner, a surprisingly baritone rumble. Later, Hann, who had been outside talking on a sat phone, walked into the room. "There's been a really bad killing," he said, announcing that the Taliban had shot and killed ten members of a medical team, including six Americans, near the northeast border with Tajikistan.
It was possible sometimes to forget that the sawtooth mountains and apple orchards flashing past the minibus windows were in Afghanistan at all, but the perils now seemed very real again. No one slept well.
We woke up at dawn and drove west, now somewhere in the middle of the country. Soviet personnel carriers, stripped to their frames, rusted in the scraggly grass; yellow-eyed herding dogs loped after the minibus. We stopped for lunch in a teahouse with posters of grim-faced legislative candidates tacked to the wall, and Hann asked the owner, a delicate-featured man named Jarwald, about the road ahead.
"In Bala Murghab, is the Taliban there or is it just badmash?" he asked, using a word for bandits.
"They aren't here in this province," Jarwald said. "The other provinces—the Taliban are there. Around Chaghcharan, the security is very good. After that, it may be some problems for you."
"Are they your sons?" Bithi asked, indicating a group of Afghan men sitting impassively against a wall, listening to our conversation.
"No, they are my friends," Jarwald said, chuckling. "He is older than me." Jarwald was one of the Hazara Shia, a group ill-treated by the fundamentalist Pashtun Taliban, who consider them heretical Muslims. President Karzai, also a Pashtun, seemed to ignore them. Jarwald said he would support Karzai going forward if, and only if, he paved the road.
"You can't build a road unless there's security and unless there's money," Hann said.
"Sometimes one before the other."
Jarwald conferred with his friends for a moment. "They want to fight after that because the government haven't any attention for us," he said. "They want to enjoy the Taliban." By which he meant join them.
"What's your duty here?" Jarwald asked Hann.
"I bring tourists to Afghanistan," he said.
The Afghan men said something to Jarwald and they all laughed. "They are saying we can arrest you, so the government make our roads," Jarwald said.
We laughed nervously. The bill arrived and Hann bickered with the waiter about it, which seemed imprudent. Men like Jarwald were Hann's main source of information about security conditions. Though Hann's Web site claims otherwise, he had performed no real intelligence gathering—checking Afghan news sites or e-mailing local sources—before arriving in-country. Instead, he chatted with waiters and taxi drivers once he was on the ground, forging ahead or retreating depending on what they told him. But since most Afghans don't speak English and Hann speaks almost no Dari or Pashto, this process often involved a questionably effective game of charades.
We drove along a winding dirt road until late in the day, then pulled into Chaghcharan, a dusty traders' settlement on a wind-swept plateau. Hann disliked the town intensely and said it was filled with hustlers. At dusk, after languishing in a cramped room for several hours, I asked Bithi if she wanted to take a walk. She hadn't moved much since Kabul and wasn't eating or drinking enough. We went down a narrow alley and onto a wide, half-paved road. Mud-brick buildings lined the street, and the town's small shops were mostly shuttered. A group of young men stood on the street corner, staring as we walked past. I didn't like the way they watched us, but Bithi seemed unafraid.
"I took a trip to Kashmir," she said, holding my arm as we shuffled along. "A pilgrimage Indians take to a mountain called Amarnath. This is where Shiva shared the secret of creation with his wife, Parvati, but two white doves overheard and so now they are reborn again and again."
She kept talking as we passed several men working on the road. It had grown dark; wind whipped grit through the air. I suggested we go back to the teahouse. We crossed the street and walked by a dark-skinned man with a red turban and bloodshot eyes. I said "Salaam," but he only glared. Up ahead, the young men were still at the corner. Three dirty boys with stained tunics followed behind us, one clutching a plastic pistol. Bithi was quiet for a moment, and I asked if she was afraid of dying. She had had heart surgery six months before, knee surgery before that, and took 20 pills every day. Her body had become a kind of cage, and she was ready to be done with it.
"If God told me I would die tomorrow, I would be happy," she said.
THE NEXT AFTERNOON we passed through the Taliban roadblocks. The last one rattled Hann and the driver and everybody else. Valerie soon began emitting breathy yelps whenever we went over bumps. Cameron had grown thin-skinned. Earlier in the day, at the Minaret of Jam, a 213-foot tower covered in elaborate script next to the Hari River, he had unloaded on the driver for swiping an empty plastic water bottle. "You can't just take people's things!" he screamed. "This belongs to me!" It was a low point in Westerner-Afghan relations, and it seemed like a bad omen.
A few hours later, we were drinking greasy green tea in a town several miles past the Taliban roadblocks, and the group was mutinous. Hann wanted to stay on the road another night, but the group wanted instead to press on to Herat, a major city close to the border with Iran. It was a long day's drive, but there were beds, non-lamb meals, and, presumably, fewer Taliban. Hann got in the minibus, muttering darkly.
The hills soon flattened out, and we drove into the sun-blasted western half of Afghanistan. Nomads' black domed tents lined the road. A current of air like an opened oven door—Afghans call it the Wind of 120 Days—buffeted the minibus. Cameron, Sue, and Peter had struck up a lively, semigeriatric conversation about ailments, but I suggested that our first Taliban encounter warranted further comment.
"I've not particularly enjoyed the road or the roadblocks," Sue said. "The rest of it's been lovely. I think if my parents were alive, I probably wouldn't have come."
"I've never taken into account anything to do with dependents, because it's never been an issue," Cameron added. "Even when Mother was alive. I leave my will on the study table, but I do that when I go to the Antarctic. I really need to get it done professionally now."
We reached Herat at dusk. It was a cosmopolitan city with roadside shops selling red velvet dresses and knockoff cell phones. In the morning, we walked through the Musalla Complex, a 15th-century compound of minarets, mosques, and madrassas that had been devastated over time by British dynamite, Soviet artillery, and earthquakes. A remaining minaret was held upright by steel block and tackle airlifted from Kabul and installed by a UNESCO crew that included the same Italian who'd stabilized the Leaning Tower of Pisa a few years ago. Hann, who had a weakness for Afghan carpets, added another to the already extensive collection he'd amassed since Kabul. We visited Gazar Gah, a Sufi shrine where men prayed on red rugs beneath a green ilex tree. Males passed on one side of the tree, females on the other. The Afghans snickered at Peter for walking the wrong way. We were infidels in a Muslim holy place and I stuffed 100 afghanis into a donation box.
Later, Hann arrived at dinner preoccupied. The plan had been to drive north the next day from Herat to Mazar-e Sharif via a town called Maimana. Maimana was considered safe, but south of it was Bala Murghab, riddled with insurgents and bandits. Last year, the military had turned Hann's group back. The local police had also made Lonely Planet writer Paul Clammer sleep in their compound after the Taliban attacked an NGO office in town the day before he arrived.
"They were very kind, made us tea and gave us beds outside," Clammer had told me. "At midnight, we were awoken by the sound of much automatic gunfire, and the sky lit up with tracers."
Now, Hann said at the table, we had to decide if we wanted to drive through this. He'd been trying to hire a driver all afternoon, but he'd been rebuffed everywhere. "I said they had no testicles," he said. "I personally think it's safe enough to go, but they were telling me it's too dangerous. Bala Murghab is nasty. It's full of crooks, bandits, smugglers, and Taliban. I'm disappointed."
Hann laid out two options. He had a driver willing to take us to a town south of Bala Murghab, but once there we'd have to hire another driver to get to Maimana. We might get lucky. We might also get killed. The iffiest stretch of road was about 40 miles long, an island of danger—what Afghans sometimes called a yagistan, or lawless place—in an already choppy sea. We could probably make it, but the decision to go would be a deeply existential one. Or, Hann said, we could catch a short flight to Kabul and then another to Mazar-e Sharif—lifted above Afghanistan's perils by a credit card.
"I quite like the sound of that," Sue said. "Everybody seems to be saying it's not a good idea."
"It's silly to say at my age, but I say go with the flow of the country you're experiencing," Cameron said. He looked as relaxed and happy as I'd seen him on the trip. "Fine by me," Peter said, turning his attention back to a pretty Spanish woman who'd joined us for dinner.
"I would sneak up there and do it," Hann said, "but if the locals say the risk is too great, then it's really irresponsible for us to go. There's risks, and there's risks."
WE TOOK THE FLIGHT. In Mazar-e Sharif, which felt like the frontier town that it was, we quickly located a seedy expat café serving green $4 cans of Tuborg beer, likely trucked in illegally from Uzbekistan. A large TV blared CNN. A worn-looking blonde, a Western man with a shaved head, and a Maori security contractor with an oily perm and tattooed forearms were drinking at another table. They blew plumes of smoke and talked about an aid project. Our group had been reduced by two: Kent had flown back to Thailand from Kabul to run his two hotels. Valerie's camera was stolen in Herat and she'd flown back to Saskatoon without a word to anyone.
Hann hired two taxis the next morning and we drove to Haji Piyada, a stucco mosque that is the oldest in Afghanistan and now sits covered by what looks like an enormous protective carport. The building's caretaker, a bent-legged man with a long scar across his jaw, squatted in the dirt. Two Afghan policemen sat under a rough-looking shack by a stream. A field of marijuana plants grew nearby. We walked quietly through the mosque, and I asked Bithi what she thought of the journey.
"There is rise and fall of terrorists all the time," she said. "It's a kind of adventure to see one of the Taliban."
"What would you say if you met one?" I asked.
"As-Salamu Alaykum," she said, smiling a little wickedly. It's an Islamic greeting that means "Peace be upon you."
One of the policemen approached Bithi and spoke to her in Hindi. He was young-looking and wore a jaunty white scarf with his green uniform.
"He says the Taliban's attitude is to kill no matter who it is," she translated. "They want to have the pride that they have killed someone. They are very near, 10 to 15 kilometers." As we were leaving, she handed the proprietor 100 afghanis, which Hann protested was too much.
The next morning, Hann hired a rickety minibus to take us west to Andkhoy, a town near the border with Turkmenistan. Our driver was an Uzbek named Abdullah, and he drank black tea and smoked cheap cigarettes during the holy month, which made me trust him. Hann had never been to Andkhoy before, but he'd heard they had good carpets. From there we would drive to a village called Daulatabad, then return to Mazar-e Sharif through the Dasht-e Leili desert. This was the last, and potentially worst, leg of the trip. A one-eyed taxi driver had warned Hann that Daulatabad was teeming with Taliban.
On the outskirts of Mazar, a graveyard of T-62 Russian tanks and Katyusha rocket launchers sat by the road. Goats lounged in the shade of a gas pipeline. Off to the right, a road led to Qala-e Jangi, a sprawling 19th-century military fortress and the site of a seven-day prison uprising led by the Taliban in November 2001. Earlier, Peter and I had taken a side trip there, tried unsuccessfully to bribe the guard to let us in, and were then passed off to Jeff and Stan, two cops from Texas who were helping train Afghan police at a nearby military base. "Maaannn," Stan had said, looking concerned when I told him we were tourists.
"Y'all be careful. It's like the fucking Wild West out there," Jeff said, scribbling our names on the back of a business card in case something happened.
At midday, we drove into Daulatabad, a small village with tree-lined streets crowded with donkey carts and kaleidoscopically painted, three-wheeled rickshaws. Abdullah parked on a side street. The plan was to quickly explore the town, then return to the bus. I followed Hann, Sue, Peter, and Cameron into a market of crowded stalls selling tools, shoes, and scraps of cloth. A young boy led a camel caravan through the street. Another boy laughed at my shalwar kameez and called me farangi, or "foreigner." I trailed Hann down an alley and into a courtyard filled with wood. Afghan men, squatting in the dirt, turned and stared.
"I think we better go back," Hann said, after walking quickly through the courtyard. Back at the minibus, a crowd had gathered around the vehicle and Abdullah was discussing our route through the desert with several men. "Too dangerous, not safe, Taliban," one of them said.
Hann had climbed into the passenger seat and turned around to look at us. "Who's up for going through the desert?" he asked. "He says that it's not a problem for him but could be a problem for us."
"I think it's up to the driver," Sue said.
"We go back to Andkhoy then," Peter said.
"I was trying to find rare carpets just to have a look, but nobody seems to know where they are," Hann muttered. He looked unhappy to be retreating again.
Tactically, our vacation had begun to feel similar to a military raid—rush in and rush out—and it was both exhilarating and unsatisfying. You were trying to be a tourist in a place that didn't allow for it. You could strike up a conversation with a shopkeeper, but he might be a Taliban informant. You could wander down some beckoning side street, but you might not be seen again. It was the central paradox of a Hann trip: we were in Afghanistan, but the country still felt just out of reach.
ON MY LAST DAY in Afghanistan, I ate runny eggs and stale naan with weak tea for breakfast at Kabul's Spinzar Hotel. Hann and I were setting out for Ghazni, a notoriously dangerous town on a notoriously dangerous road between Kabul and Kandahar. In July 2007, the Taliban had kidnapped 23 South Korean volunteers on this road, two of whom were later executed. The month before we arrived, two U.S. Navy sailors had been found dead after a mysterious, unsanctioned drive in the area.
Hann's itinerary had called for an optional half-day trip to Ghazni at the tour's end, but he canceled it because the security risk was too high. I wanted to see more of the country—and perhaps indulge some darker urge, too—and he had agreed to take me, provided I absolved him of responsibility. It was a potential suicide run with no point, but we found a taxi driver willing to do it for 4,000 afghanis, or about $90. If we were killed, sensible people would say we'd gotten what we deserved. When I asked Hann to assess the danger level, he said, "Fairly high."
We wove through Kabul's backstreets and alleys and passed two dogs fucking, which I took as a good sign. Then we drove by a humble-jumble of rocks in the middle of the road, a grave, which I took as a bad sign. I sat low in the taxi's backseat, wearing a shalwar kameez and a checkered scarf over my head. Hann sat up front, wearing a white skullcap, black vest, and several weeks' worth of beard. At the edge of the city, we were flagged off the road at a police checkpoint.
"We're tourists," I told the officer, showing him Hann's camera, which was small and pink and looked like a teenage girl's.
"You should not be on this road. It is too dangerous," the officer said. He said something to the driver, and I thought he would make us turn back, but we were let through.
We picked up the Kabul-Kandahar highway, a long, straight two-lane road that ran southwest through flat, sandy plains and low foothills. I could feel the city's protective grip, thin as it was, slipping away. A man in a black vest and turban stood under a billboard watching the traffic. A military helicopter flew overhead. The driver looked nervous and began driving too slow. He pointed behind us and said, "Kabul, Kabul." Hann ignored him and stabbed his finger in the direction ahead and said, "Ghazni, Ghazni." Then the driver pulled over to the side of the road and stopped.
"This is not good, mate," Hann said, looking around anxiously.
The driver popped the hood, got out, and fiddled with the engine. The sun was almost directly overhead now, the car sweltering. A minute ticked by, and another. Cars raced by. An Afghan police compound stood off the road several hundred yards ahead. I wondered if they would mistake us for insurgents and start shooting. I was furious at the driver for stopping here, for risking our lives.
He got back in the taxi and turned the key, but the engine quit. He turned it again, we lurched forward, and the engine quit again. He said something unintelligible except for the word "Taliban." He was faking engine trouble, I suspected. We were making him a target and he wanted to be rid of us.
"Bullshit," Hann yelled. "He's a fucking prick. He's not getting paid, either. We're only 50 K from Ghazni. He shouldn't have taken us if that's how he felt."
It was reckless to sit on the road, and I suggested we go back. Hann relented. The taxi's engine caught after a few tries and we swung around in the road and retreated toward Kabul. Then the driver abruptly slowed again. I looked up and saw a cloud of white smoke next to the road a few hundred yards ahead—what looked like an IED or land-mine explosion, though there'd been no sound. The cars around us slowed to a crawl and we drove down the highway in a loose, hesitant convoy. Our driver chewed on the collar of his shalwar kameez.
Near the smoke, a dead goat lay in the road with its insides strewn across the asphalt. A minute later, three SUVs, filled with turbaned men carrying Kalashnikovs and an RPG, suddenly turned around ahead of us and went speeding past. A small unit of Afghan police was standing in the road ahead with AK-47's at the ready. They had a pickup-mounted .50-caliber machine gun pointed in our direction. Their faces looked anxious, and they seemed prepared to fight. We were slipping toward something chaotic and lethal. I did not want to die in an Afghan taxi on this road. We were no longer tourists.
We sped through the roadblock and, after a few miles, the driver seemed to relax. The car's engine improved, and soon we approached the crumbling perimeter mud wall and shack-covered hills that marked the city's edges. White kites made of plastic bags flew in the air. A red archway over the road read WELCOME.
Hann was quiet and looked out the window. At a roundabout, a seemingly endless military convoy of American Humvees and heavily armored MRAPs rumbled past, the battered minibuses and sedans snarled around it in a tightening knot. My head hurt and my stomach burned. I wanted to get off the road, to board a wobbly 707 and leave Afghanistan behind. We got out of the taxi near the Spinzar, and Hann paid the driver 1,000 Afghanis. The driver protested, waving the bills indignantly in the air, and I thought Hann was going to punch him. I slipped him a few hundred more, but it still didn't seem like nearly enough.