I love being in Lal. Just strolling around town on a cold wintry day is a joy, air so thin and crisp it could give you a paper cut.
Lal wa Sarjangle district is in the far east of Ghor province. Its double barrelled name comes from the two main valleys, Lal and Sarjangle, that run through the mountainous region, together forming the source of the hari rud. At this time of year these rivers are little more than ice-encrusted streams. Boarded in places by lines of tall, bare tress, they irrigate about ten percent of the farm land once the winter snow melts. Stripes of fertile earth surrounded by barren hills; barren, but still somehow farmed.
A few hours before we left Lal it started to snow. I’d been sitting inside, dozing off in an over-heated room. For a second or two I thought the glass of green tea I was holding was a glass of green ginger wine; christmas clearly on my mind. Then the first snow of winter, the first time in the five months I’ve been in Afghanistan there hasn’t been glaring sunshine. I walked outside marvelling at it all: at the snow, the immense calm, at my simply being here, at the beauty of it.
Starkly beautiful is how I’ve usually ended up describing Ghor to people, but that has always seemed inadequate. Normally the bare hills are blanched a uniform dun colour by an over-bearing sun. Driving up the Sarjangle valley on the way here, in a softer shadowy light, many of the hills closing in on us were flushed a soft red. By ore no doubt, but it didn’t seem overly fanciful to think of them as stained by blood.
It is the beauty of a consumptive waif I thought then, going on Tolstoy’s description of the consumptive Nikolai Levin and his deathly, luminescent pallor. A description that is perhaps apt also for the grinding rural poverty we drove past, in a country with one of the highest TB rates in the world.
Driving back the same way a few days later and the landscape was barely recognisable. I’ve wanted to see it transformed by snow. It was not a heavy fall, barely settling as we left Lal, but I still felt a slight sense of relief to be getting out in time. As we wound up the track, quickly turned from dust to mud, to the high pass to the Sarjangle valley the snow was lying more solidly, with North facing slopes already covered. By the time we crossed over the watershed – over 3000 meters – the valley below us was white. Trees and bushes took on a new life with white buds appearing on them. Men and women struggled on horses and motorbikes through the snow. Small children stood outside in thin clothing. The land softened to the eye, people’s lives made harsher.
The hours down the valley passed in silent reverie. The river gaining momentum as we descended, mountains appearing above us from the clouds as newly developed black and white photographs. By the time we reached Dawlatyar the snow was only a dusting on the hill tops, the last of the day’s sun breaking through in front of us on the western horizon.