Archive for the ‘Badakshan’ Category

Afghans on top

July 20, 2009

Afghan climbers have reached the top of Noshaq. They are the first Afghan’s to stand atop the country’s highest mountain, at 7,492 meters.

Hip hip, hooray!

That’s rather high, and I’m bloody impressed.


A picnic in Badakshan

July 3, 2008

It’s not all ceaseless self-sacrifices to do good for others. Shocking, I know, but there you have it. Occasionally we find time to enjoy ourselves. And when we do, we try and do it in style.

Like on this Friday picnic in Badakshan last month (now I’m back to the monotony of work in Kabul, I have to go back in time to find things to write about).

And this one, an alfresco breakfast of fresh yoghurt and cream with bread, purchased from some passing nomads:

Or sharing some mulburries with some local farmers:

 It can be tough out here.




Walking with my uncles

February 8, 2008


Today being a Friday, after a morning playing chess and drinking tea, I decided to go for a walk. The sun was shining and I felt the need to stretch my legs, maybe stroll down to the river, and enjoy that state of thoughtful peace that walking in a beautiful, tranquil place can bring. When I’d gone out of the compound before on foot I was assigned a guard to accompany me up the hill to the nearby shops. I was amused by this at the time but today wanted to be alone and hoped to avoid having to drag someone else along with me.

It wasn’t to be. When I said I was just popping out for a bit someone was summoned to go with me before I could make good my escape. Piqued, I decided if I couldn’t get out of my prison alone I may as well not bother at all. One of those silly acts of stubborn petulance I can do so well. I feel I can and do put up with a lot quite happily while working in Afghanistan, but the lack of basic freedom to move about when I see no good reason not to really gets to me.

The local manager tried explaining it to me: ‘security, you know…some people here…expatriates…I am responsible for your safety…’ I don’t buy it, not here, but felt suitable chided by the last point to settle down with a book instead. And his suggestion that the guard could follow twenty paces behind me cheered me up again.

I face the same thing when I’m in Chagcharan in Ghor. But being largely based there, time and necessity meant I have developed better coping strategies while there. The best of these involves colluding with my fellow expats, each telling their own staff that they are going to such and such an office, meeting up somewhere else and walking off into the hills instead.

And in Ghor I have my ‘uncles’ to contend with. ‘Kaka’ is an informal but respectful term of address, generally for those older than oneself but who don’t quite ‘merit’ a ‘sahib’. It is how I’ve come to think of the guards and drivers who gather round the gate when I walk out, wondering where I’m going and if it’s safe for me to do so. I love them for it, but at times their concern begins to feel oppressive. On special occasions – getting into a car with two unknown foreign women, or riding off on the back of a friend’s motorbike one night to go for a meal and a drink elsewhere – there can be four or five of my uncles peering out of the gate after me as I try to assure them there’s no problem and no, I won’t be back too late.

That motorbike ride was a memorable occasion. Whizzing along the deserted main road, scarves wrapped tightly around our heads trying to keep out the freezing night air, I felt unbelievably, joyously free. Maybe it was a little foolhardy, but no policeman pulled their occasional trick of jumping out of the dark screaming like a banshee and waving a gun around, and on the way back after a couple of rare cans of beer the air felt warmer the road smoother and I felt liberated.

Arriving back home though, as on the few occasions I’ve been out in the evening in Chagcharan, and I felt like a teenager again, getting back home too late and trying to hide the smell of alcohol on my breath. One of my uncles caught me. ‘Afghanistan, you know…it’s not so safe a country…’

In the end I gratefully accepted the company of a colleague to go for a walk today. It was less relaxing than I’d hoped, having to talk about sex and marriage in veiled terms and getting mobbed by kids as I took a photo of the river. Still, it was good to get out. As we slid our way back to the office, our conversation moved on from the German soldiers in town to had I ever been to Germany and did I need a visa to visit other European countries, and how it is nigh on impossible for Afghans to get one. ‘You see,’ my companion concluded as we got to the gate, ‘you say you are in a prison here. But we are prisoners in this country.’


Sex with burquas on

February 6, 2008


For the past week I’ve been in Badakshan, the province in the north east that seems to be sticking a finger up at China (the finger being the Wakhan, its borders drawn to ensure a buffer zone between imperial Russia and Britain). I can’t be bothered to think of suitable superlatives and haven’t taken many photos so suffice to say it’s very pretty here. Ah go on then, one quick sentence: spectacular, snow-covered mountains rising steeply up above a river of icy steel, with women in white and blue burquas and yellow and pink wellies skittering along its frozen edges like spinning tops.

The river is the Kokcha. It’s interesting to be in a new place although I feel slightly guilty for temporarily deserting the Hari Rud. I keep comparing Badakshan to Ghor, and Badakshan usually comes out better, though not always. I’ve been told that the women here are as beautiful as the landscape but unlike in Chagcharan, in Faizabad town the burqua is de rigueur.

There are three women in the office where I’m at, which is also our home. They take their burquas off when they arrive – revealing one to be beautiful indeed – and put them on again when they go. Asides from their modest presence during the day, this place is overtly masculine.

Sitting on the porch one day after work, one young man brought out the packaging of a mobile phone to show us the pretty woman on it. I’m not sure why, the ribaldry mostly in cackling Dari, but the joke climaxed with another man making the universal sign of wanking and calling another a ‘handman.’ It’s the first time I’ve encountered such an open sexual reference among Afghans.

Some of those who aren’t married (and some who are) say they have girlfriends, and I don’t think sex before marriage is uncommon, though it would seem like quite an achievement when un-related women are usually only seen in the confines of work, on cardboard boxes or under burquas.

The first time I entered an Afghan family’s house, the only female presence I saw was a fleeing hem line as I went through the front door. After that, whenever I got up to leave a room, someone would open the door ajar first and peer out to check that the coast was clear. It hasn’t been like that in every house, and it seems that in the houses of Shia Hazaras there is a much less strict segregation. But on that, as with so much, I am unsure. I just can’t imagine what it must be like to live constantly in such a suffocating, cloistered all-male environment. Maybe like growing up in fancy boys’ boarding school in England.

I can’t think what mentality such an environment must foster. God knows what it was like under the Taliban, but even now when I leave Afghanistan it is a relief to see a woman’s ankle (and that’s not me being lecherous – I cite this post to back me up). I suspect it doesn’t encourage a healthy attitude among men to women and sexual relations, but then nor does the soft porn of much advertising, television and fashion in the west, and I can’t see far enough into the lives of young Afghan men and women outside of work to judge.

I am tempted to start rambling on about Foucault’s History of Sexuality but it’s too darn cold to keep typing. Oh, and I do actually have some work to do. It’s about veterinary health care at the moment. Today I learnt what a burdizzo is used for. Go look it up.