Around-the-world cyclist Charlie Walker takes a dangerous diversion into one of the world's most troubled regions
My idea to visit Afghanistan was cultivated a couple of months earlier when I learned that a couple of northern cities were deemed ‘safe’ and that visas are easily obtainable. Curiosity led me to reason that, with the imminent withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops, there’s a chance the security situation will decay and now might be my last chance to visit in relative safety for many years.
The prospect of entering Afghanistan had vaguely hung ahead of me for two months and I’d managed to think about it rationally, or not at all. Camped on wasteland near the border, however, my mind finally ran free with pointless hypotheticals that kept me awake much of the night. I had decided not to tell my family I was going as I knew they would only worry. But I did tell one friend, giving him a date on which to ‘raise the alarm’ if I hadn’t contacted him again.
I was at the border crossing when it opened and was thoroughly searched for an hour before leaving Uzbekistan. I then rode across the “Friendship Bridge” which the Soviets built and over which they withdrew in 1989. The Afghan immigration official briefly raised an eyebrow but waved me through without any search.
Things are instantly different south of the river. The road is channeled between two high walls of sandbags topped with menacing razor wire and I was spilled out into the small border town. The writing was all in the Persian script, every man wore facial hair and a shalwar kameez (loose pyjama-like trousers with a long tunic) and the women drifted along the roadside in pastel blue burqas, viewing an obscured world through a loose mesh. Somehow, everything was dusty compared to the Uzbek side.
A couple of people waved me over but I remained guarded and sheepishly cycled on as fast as possible; a stranger with low-awareness and zero language in a high-risk country. I admit that, throbbing with adrenalin, I was afraid and wondered if coming had been a mistake. There was, however, no choice but to ride the 60 miles to Mazar-e-Sharif. I covered my head to avoid unwanted attention.
Within a few miles I was in desert proper on a road snaking south between five to ten metre high dunes. The empty stretches of road, walled in by sand, eased my mind slightly and I regained control of my thoughts, which had been running riot since the sleepless night before. A fierce easterly wind whipped up and began buffeting my flank. I leaned sideways into it and nearly fell over every time a truck shot past, momentarily removing my supporting gale. By afternoon I reached the turning onto Afghanistan’s main northern artery and was blown rapidly west with little exertion. A military convoy of five massive armoured vehicles displaying Swedish flags passed me. The helmeted, white faces in the high, bullet-proof windscreens spotted me and shook their heads in stern disapproval.
The road ran directly to the city centre and terminated at the shrine of Hezrat Ali (the murdered cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed). I leaned my bike against a wall on a street corner and within a couple of minutes had changed money and bought an Afghan SIM card. I had used Couchsurfing (a worldwide online community of travellers and hosts) for the first time and been invited by cousins Masood and Nasir to stay with them during my stay in Mazar. I called Masood who told me to wait where I was and that Nasir would be along to meet me shortly.
Relaxing further, I sat down and enjoyed watching the raw and busy life of the city rushing all around me. Street children selling plastic bags; jewellers haggling over the price of colourful stone necklaces; men pushing wheelbarrows of rubble to and from roadworks; moneychangers sat on stools on the pavement with small glass cabinets displaying various currencies.
I realised that, despite ongoing war in the south and nationwide problems, this is a country in many ways like any other, with people going about their daily lives. Several people approached me and addressed me in decent English. A carpet seller called Sadaek sat me down in his shop and gave me tea. He’d never heard of a cycle tourist before and was fascinated. He asked why I’d come to Afghanistan. I only had to look at the scenes around me to find an answer.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.