Monday, September 20, 2010

A short walk in Bamyan…

Jean-Louis (in his early forties) is an extraordinary human being that used to work for me long time ago, when he decided to quit US Corporate life and join the Belgian Corps Diplomatique in South East Asia. From Thailand to India to Afghanistan where he currently manages an NGO section, redesigning the new Afghan government rules and procedures. A born lover of all things nature, he used to travel on his bike long distances from Europe to Africa to the Far East and more. On a bike! I wouldn't last from our house to the center of Oudenaarde, the city I live these days (2 miles down the road). He travelled with his female partner tens of thousands of miles during long months! On a twin bike! That he actually built himself to the purpose.

Working in Kaboul during the last five years, he recently explored the Bamyan valley, west of the Afghan capital. All on his own. He grabbed the holiday opportunity of Eid, the end of the recent Muslim Ramadan, and there he was, flying a 'hip' Soviet made helicopter from Kabul to the Bamyan region first, bargaining a taxi next to bring him to the mountains that he was about to hike (an hour's cab drive, that is) and for the rest he relied upon his own (survival) experience to explore such desolate parts of the planet. I wish I was a webcam fixed on his shoulder to see what he saw... Forgot to mention, JL is an excellent writer too. So he described his trekking adventure in a 'newsletter' that he shared with friends and family.

I'm privileged to have been given his permission to blog that piece, for your reading pleasure:

A short walk in Bamyan…

‘Are you off for Eid as well?’, my boss queried as I shoved the travel authorization form under his nose.  ‘I’ll be the only one left here.’ ‘Your mistake’, I thought – but didn’t say so. ‘Bamyan? What are you going to do in Bamyan during Eid?’ ‘Trekking.’ ‘Trekking? Really?’ He sighed and signed.

For some reason, the regular flight had been cancelled and so there was no plane when I arrived at the airport. Who wants to go Bamyan just before Eid? Only me apparently, and then a woman who was working in Ghost, just next to Bamyan, who also wanted to holiday in Bamyan over Eid, but her NGO had not allowed her to drive the 379 km road from Chagcharan to Bamyan, and so she had been forced to fly to Kabul first. I guess she was as happy as I was to see that our carrier had hired an old ‘Hip’ helicopter in a sort of last-minute action designed to honor our booking.

Allow me to make a small digression on helicopters here. Helicopters are great. The ‘Hip’ is a NATO designation for the omnipresent Mi-17 transport helicopter: if you see a transport helicopter in Afghanistan, you can almost bet it’s a ‘Hip’. The ‘Hip’ troop transport helicopter is not to be confused with its very lean and very mean sister: the ‘Hind’ attack helicopter, which the Soviets used in ‘hunter-killer’ operations against the mujahedeen. Those who have read ‘The Afghan’ (Frederick Forsyth’s action-packed international thriller) or Muhammad Yousuf’s ‘The Bear Trap’ (a somewhat more real account of events) will imagine those scenes now.

The Russians had to design the ‘Hip’ as well as the ‘Hind’ helicopter for their war in Afghanistan because the ceiling of their Mi-8 helicopter – the Soviet Union’s war horse at the time – was limited to 4,500 m only. The ceiling of both the ‘Hip’ and the ‘Hind’ is a good chunk higher – 6,000 m – which is probably what one needs in Afghanistan.

Now, history is history of course, but it is interesting to note that the ‘Hind’ – in its current Mi-35 version – actually still ranks as one of the fastest and most powerful helicopter gunships in the world, even if it is said that, in 1986, a modified Westland Lynx helicopter finally managed to break the absolute record it had set in terms of speed back in 1978: 368 km per hour over a 15/25 km course (the Lynx apparently managed 401 km/h). However, the ‘Hind’ is still one of the fastest machines in the world and it’s surely not out of fashion. In fact, it is interesting to note that the Afghan Air Force got money from the US to buy six refurbished ‘Hind’ helicopters from the Czech Republic in 2008 and that, since May 2009, they’re actually being used to accompany the Afghan Air Force’s ‘Hip’ troop transporters which bring Taliban-fighting troops in the theater when and wherever needed now.

An Eid doll...
It is often strange to see how history – to some extent – tends to repeat itself here in Afghanistan, and so this is – to me at least – a case in point, although the Taliban haven’t come up with the Stinger reply as yet (one wonders why because those Korean-built copies should not be all that hard to get by).

Back to the ‘Hip’. The ‘Hip’ is not out of fashion either. It’s – quite simply – the world’s most popular transport helicopter. The Mi-17 factories in Kazan (yes, the little know Russian republic of Tatarstan still boasts the single largest helicopter factory in the world) and Udinsk, aka Udinsk (Siberia’s third largest city – but I am sorry I can’t answer the question why would want to produce helicopters there), produced more than 12,000 pieces of them. Its empty weight is 7,100 kg , and its two turboshaft engines deliver 2,250 horsepower each to ensure the bird can lift an additional 4 tons. Nevertheless, all of these impressive numbers did not prevent me from feeling slightly unnerved about the way the machine shook and rattled when we took off. I couldn’t help thinking that the UN’s white Mi-17s parked at the heliport a bit further were probably in better shape, but then the UN is the UN of course.

Upon arrival, I waved my co-passenger goodbye – she disappeared in a car of her NGO – and I walked down to Bamyan’s main bazaar and taxi stand, where I tried to haggle the price down for a ride to somewhere near the Koh-e Baba range.

The Koh-e Baba mountains dominate the view south from the Bamyan valley. Anyone who has strolled around there will agree that they are quite some distance walking, so anything I could cut down I wanted to.

The taxi driver started at one hundred dollars and – for some reason I didn’t get really – all the other drivers seemed to agree that was the only exact and just price really. ‘Laken Koh-e Baba unja ast !’ (But Koh-e Baba is just there!), I tried to point out – but to no avail. Unfortunately, a plain-clothes policeman from the NDS had noticed me and so he started meddling as well. As his questions were becoming more and more irrelevant – I had showed him my passport, visa, work permit and NGO card already, so there was nothing more I could do for him really – I suddenly felt I had no choice but to settle for an outrageous 30 US dollar and so off we went. The 20 km dirt road to a little village called Alibeg was quite bad indeed. Still, the one-hour drive obviously wasn’t worth the money and so the driver was all smiles when I paid the agreed price and started walking.

The jagged Koh-e Baba peaks – all close to 5,000 m, above or just below – were about 15 km away from Alibeg. An energetic two-hour walk – I was really glad to be out of the office – through alpine meadows – or their Afghan equivalent at least – brought me 1000 m closer to them, in vertical elevation that is. By now, it was getting late and so I threw off my back-pack and pitched my tent.

After a night full of bad work-related dreams (the effect of the altitude I guess), I started the rougher bit and, about one hour later, I arrived at a little glacial lake. It was fed by, and marked the start of, a huge glacial moraine. I walked around a bit, a bit daunted by the sight of the terrain, but so I had no choice but to start clambering – not easy with a 20 kg backpack, if not more because, besides tent, sleeping bag, food and other essentials, I also carried six liters of water as well.

Alibeg was already way beyond the treeline. Now I had reached the snowline. One can Google the following definition of a glacial moraine: ‘a mass of earth and rock debris carried by an advancing glacier, or left by it at its front and side edges as it retreats.’ It was obvious we were talking a glacier in retreat here. Nevertheless, it was damn tough to get through, if only because of all the deep crevasses. At irregular intervals, I could also clearly hear the noise of underground streams fed by the huge masses of snow and ice around and underneath. Nothing to worry about it, but so my walk had – obviously – become a real mountain walk: these weren’t hills anymore. After three hours, I finally arrived at the center of a cirque.

Those of you who do hike from time to time will know what I mean. Others should Google ‘cirque’ now: a cirque is a ‘semicircular hollow with steep walls formed by glacial erosion on mountains.’ It’s usually the head of a valley, so the end of it all really. I looked around: the steep walls were close to being vertical, and I was amazed at the masses of ice and snow which defied the law of gravity by managing to cling to them. There was plenty of ice and snow that had been somewhat less defiant also: the huge concave masses of snow at the bottom of those huge rock and snow faces made it pretty clear to me that avalanches were very frequent here – perhaps not in this season but surely in the spring and summer.

The reality of what I had slowly started to think while trying to make my way up here started to fully sink in: this approach to the Koh-e Baba peaks was not feasible – not now and not for me at least. I could – perhaps – set up camp here, and then back down and try to climb up sideways again, without luggage, but I felt uncomfortable with leaving my gear behind. More importantly, I reminded myself of the fact that I don’t have any real climbing experience and that– when everything was said and done – I was out on my own and so I should not invite any mishap – read: accident.

I looked around and up and down repeatedly: the jagged peaks were only another 500 – or 750 meter maximum – higher up, but these walls could not be scaled and they were topped by what looked like razor-sharp edges. Damn it! So close! 

I struggled about fifteen minutes with all the existential questions which arise when a man sets a goal for himself but then finds himself confronted with insurmountable obstacles which he should have anticipated but didn’t. Then I turned back.

trekking Afghanistan BamyanWhen I arrived back at the glacial lake, I felt exhausted, and I realized I was probably less in shape, and less well acclimatized, then I thought I was –which helped me to finally convince myself that I should give up. I had another three days left, and the important thing was to spend them well. I knew that the mountain range north of Bamyan, behind the Buddha niches, was much and much ‘friendlier’: 4000 to 4400 m only, and not as jagged as the Koh-e Baba range. I had done a number of stiff  one-day walks up and down there already – and I had always wanted to spend some more time there, and so why wouldn’t I do that? It would be less heroic than climbing the Father of Mountains (which is what Koh-e Baba means literally), but also fun for sure. The alternative was to try to find another approach, but there was really no guarantee it would work somewhere else. I realized I would simply need more time to explore the approaches somewhat better, and that would take time – a lot of time, which I didn’t have.

I dozed off on what – without any doubt – was the highest patch of grassy land miles around. My dreams that night were much better (nothing work-related this time at least).

The next morning I walked down. A well-trodden path brought me to an ingenious system of irrigation canals which greened the entire girth of a wonderfully quiet and peaceful valley downstream. The village people were surprised to see me, and keen to engage in conversation while – at the same time – keeping a polite distance, which I appreciated because it was a nice contrast to the kind of curious crowds which somewhat more adventurous tourists usually have to endure in South Asia. The women were – as usual – extremely shy, but the children showed off their fanciful Eid costumes. They really looked like dolls, strangely at odds with the rural environment, with the black kohl lining their eyes and their hands fully henna-ed.

It was still Eid and, because I wanted to respect local customs and not offend anyone, I sneaked into a field near Bamyan to fuel up without anyone seeing me: dried soup mixed with cold water as a starter, bread with canned tuna as main course, and I mixed water again – this time with Gatorade powder – as desert. All damn primitive (I only take the trouble of bringing a stove when in a group) but it sure does the trick of a quick re-start when needed.

Indeed, I didn’t feel like camping in the midst of civilization – which is where I was, as evident from the towering Buddha niches – and so that meant I had to cover another 10 or 15 km or so before I could pitch my tent again. I thought of buying bottled water in one of the shops but just ended up filling my big water bag from a water pump. I threw the required number of iodine tables in, and off I was.

The valley on the right hand side of the Buddha niches brings one to the Khwaja Ghor gorge, after walking through another nice green valley. That gorge brings one up to like 3200 m or so. I spent another restful night, at a altitude which was much lower than the previous two nights. That obviously did wonders in terms of acclimatization, because the next morning I was up, in no time really, on the 4000 m high whitish plateau which overlooks the Bamyan valley from the north, even if the last climb involved a rough clambering up scree slopes – but it was all nothing compared to the effort it had taken me to get across the glacial moraine I had been struggling with the day before. Part of it was the terrain, but I also felt the altitude didn’t bother me anymore.

The highest peak in the range north of Bamyan is only 4401 m, so – to my chagrin (men always want to impress by setting stupid goals, don’t they?) – it is lower than Europe’s highest mountain (Mont Blanc is 4810 m), and much and much easier to climb.

All peaks here north of the Bamyan valley have a very gentle slope, except for two or three rougher ones. You actually can’t see them from the Bamyan valley bed: the small 4000 m plateau hides them for the observer below, and the 4401 peak is separated from the plateau by a huge canyon. I knew that, and so my objective now was just to head west and go for the second highest peak in the range, which is anything between 4300 and 4400 m (its slope is so gentle that the map doesn’t mark a precise summit point).

It only took me an hour or so to reach the top, where I was surprised to find the remnants of three heavy machine-gun posts, one on each side of the mountain, as well as a small Russian field gun, which looked over the canyon I had not wanted to cross. I suddenly realized how strategic this location was: the position dominated all of the mountain passes and valleys around it and – for a short while – I suddenly shivered at the thought that its approach might have been mined. However, it was obvious that the routes I took were used by shepherds as well and so I was not all that worried.

I enjoyed the 360° view for at least half an hour and then collected some of the larger caliber bullet cases that were lying around. Too bad one can’t take them out of the country as a souvenir: I tried it two times but they don’t pass the X-ray scan at the airport in Kabul. The officials who operate the scanners there seem to have developed a very sharp eye for that.

Despite the fact that I tried to re-assure myself that shepherds probably also used the very same routes I was using, and that the rocky ground would make it very hard – if not impossible – for anyone to bury mines underneath, my heart did beat somewhat faster as I made my way down. I pitched my tent about 1000 m below, on a tiny patch of grass near a small spring. I felt good: it had been a beautiful day.

The next day I walked through the Dara-e Yakhi valley, which took me down from the main range. The main obstacle was dogs: the scattered mud houses down the valley are defended by huge fighting dogs while their owners are working in the fields – or what goes for them: it is obviously not easy to eke out an existence here. My walking sticks proved to be useful deterrence weapons in the Afghan dog fights I had to go through. Fortunately, like in a real Afghan dog fight, it never actually developed into a bloody scene: the only question was which side would back off first. I was glad when I had passed that stretch though: I’ve had many encounters with dogs in remote Himalayan areas but I must admit that I’ve never encountered anything that resembles those huge Afghan monsters.

Three km north of Aq Robat, a prosperous rural village about 30 km northwest from Bamyan, I hit the road again but, as expected, I met with little traffic – none at all actually. I groaned, as I didn’t feel like walking all of the way back. Fortunately, after two hours, I entered the Dara-e Sabzuk valley through a gorge and, as I went down along the steep road, a 22-year old Bamyan Radio journalist on his motorbike stopped and started chatting, as he wanted to practice his English. He offered to take me to Bamyan and, although I felt somewhat guilty over-loading his rickety Iranian 125 cc machine, I took the offer.

‘So, how was it?’, my boss asked. ‘Nice’, I told him, ‘but I didn’t manage Koh-e Baba, and so’ll need to go back at some point in time.’


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