2009 TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant

Author: Jake Stringer


It was 2006 and I was in Afghanistan visiting an Afghan-Canadian friend I had met some years previously in Thailand. I wanted to go to Bamiyan to see where the Buddhas used to be and to visit the nearby lakes, Bande Amir. Bamiyan proved to be a difficult destination to reach. The main road was in such poor condition that it could not be used. The less direct route was just about passable but I had trouble locating public transport. That was how I ended up with a guide/fixer who could speak no English. At the time I was introduced to him I was impatient to get out of Kabul and see more of the country. Through a translator Mamnoon promised that he could get me to Bamiyan and take me to all the places I wanted to see. This seemed plausible since he was a Hazara from the Bamiyan area, and anyway I could see no other way to get there. I took him on.

I say this to make it sound reasonable that I ended up travelling across the interior of Afghanistan as a lone Western tourist with a ‘guide’ who could speak no English. It was not a reasonable thing to do and the full unreasonableness of it would come home to me over the course of the trip.

It started well enough. We found a minibus going to Bamiyan. The other passengers seemed bemused to see me but friendly. On the road out of Kabul someone in the bus spoke to Mamnoon and he handed me a cloth to cover my head. Through hand signals it was explained that a bomb had recently been exploded along this road. The bombs were placed at the roadside and detonated by remote control: my fellow passengers felt, quite reasonably, that my blond hair might as well have a target painted on it. I wore the headcloth for a couple of hours until we were judged to be out of the danger zone.

The road to Bamiyan was bumpy and lonely and spectacular. We stopped a couple of times for food: invariably fatty mutton kebab with naan or Kabuli biryani. When we arrived the problems with a non-English-speaking guide immediately began to make themselves felt. The price of the bus was twice what I had understood it to be. It might have been a genuine misunderstand or it might have been a scam. Then there was a problem with the planned accommodation. We ended up staying not at the hotel I had been recommended but at another hotel. It featured the slightly pleasing novelty of having no washroom, instead relying on the public bathhouse across the street, but it was not the hotel I would have chosen. When I tried to explain this to Mamnoon he nodded and showed me to my room.

The public bathhouse consisted of concrete cubicles and a wood-fired boiler that piped water into the cubicles, each of which had a tap and a bucket. In Kabul I had been having cold showers so the hot water felt luxurious and I washed myself at a leisurely pace. Afterwards I tried to go for a walk along the main street to have a look at the niches where the Buddhas had sat among the Buddhist monasteries carved into the cliff face. Mamnoon attempted to stop me. We should do it tomorrow, he signalled. I signalled that I wanted to go for a walk anyway so might as well head towards the ex-Buddhas even if I didn’t get there. He couldn’t understand why I wanted to go wandering around as the sun was setting. The non-verbal discussion continued in slightly strained tones (and it turns out sign language does have tones) as we walked up the dusty main road through Bamiyan. This ‘conversation’ set the pattern for a lot of our interaction over the next few days. I discovered that I had hired a guide who didn’t understand the concept of tourism but who also wasn’t willing to let me go off on my own, since he felt responsible for my safety.

Though it had been explained what in the Bamiyan area I wanted to see by translators in Kabul Mamnoon had now conveniently forgotten a few of the places and it proved impossible to get him to take me there. But his company had its advantages too: when we wandered around the freshly-built village next to the ancient monasteries in the cliffs we met a man he knew. We were invited to have lunch with the man and his wife in their mudbrick home. The elderly couple were friendly and hospitable, though after failing to communicate with me I think they may have been puzzled by my selection of a non-English-speaking guide. The food consisted of a huge mound of rice hollowed out in the middle like a volcano, the crater filled with oil flavoured with caramelised onions. It was basic food but delicious and this was the only time I visited a village home in Afghanistan.

Mamnoon also managed to find public transport to Bande Amir, the Blue Lakes. I had been assured that no such public transport existed so I was grateful to him for finding it – though my gratitude was to become somewhat eclipsed by later events.  The Blue Lakes are blue lakes. They are very blue and are surrounded by vertical cliff faces with little or no vegetation upon them, set in a desert-like landscape of almost lunar desolation. There are three main lakes on different levels and each flows into the other in a series of waterfalls over rock worn smooth by water. It is a truly spectacular landscape and for the first time in Afghanistan I saw Afghan tourists.

At the foot of the lakes I found a restaurant owned by a man who had been doing business in that spot so long he remembered the hippies of the seventies and still spoke a little English. I shocked his small nephew by answering his inquiry about which religion I followed with “None”. The uncle, translating for us, laughed at  the boy’s shock and explained to him that this was a common answer from Westerners.

Mamnoon and I walked up the steep slope on one edge of the lower lake to see the view over the lakes from the clifftop. When we stopped for a break I sat overlooking the blue waters, thinking what a spectacular place it was and wondering how I could describe it to people back home.

We got back to the car park in plenty of time for the minibus to another town we had planned to visit, back in those heady days of translators in Kabul. Mamnoon suggested we go for a walk around the foot of the lake. I signalled that we might miss the bus but he waved away my objection. So we went for a walk around the foot of the lake, had a look at the waterfall and the fish in the blue waters, and arrived back at the car park just in time to see the bus disappearing. That bus was, it turned out, the last bus to anywhere from the lakes that evening. I strongly suspected that Mamnoon had made us miss it on purpose, perhaps because he hadn’t wanted to go to the other town on our itinerary. It was, of course, impossible to verify this theory, since it is difficult to ask probing questions in sign language.

It turned out there was a hotel at the lakes, if we were willing to stretch the definition of a hotel slightly. The room we were shown had a mud floor, a few sleeping mats and a door without a lock that opened onto the road. When a frog hopped out from under one of the mats the teenage boy who was acting as receptionist and salesman hastily moved the mat to cover it up again. The room was damp and unhygienic, had no bathroom, either inside or outside, and was manifestly insecure in a region of the country that may or may not have had functioning law and order – such information was difficult to obtain from a non-English-speaking guide. Thanks to the services of Mamnoon I had no option but to stay there. I felt angry that he had put me in such a position and barely spoke (or signed) to him for the rest of the evening.

I had dinner with the restaurateur who spoke English and then Mamnoon and I sat around in a communal room next to our bedroom with a few men who also seemed to be visitors. There was, we now discovered, a large window without glass or bars in the mudbrick wall between this room and our bedroom. When we retreated to bed – early, since there was nothing to do and we had an early start in the morning – Mamnoon moved my mat from beneath this window and put his mat in its place. When I feebly attempted to wedge the door shut with a stick and a brick he nodded approvingly. I was still pointedly ignoring him, not yet reconciled either to the situation he had put me in or to his failures as a guide, so I tried to pretend I hadn’t seen him.

I lay down and after some time I slept. A little later I woke. I tried to go to sleep again but couldn’t do so because of a noise within the room. It took me a moment to identify the problem. It was now two in the morning and Mamnoon was playing a game on his mobile phone – one of those games that emits a constant stream of beeps. I sat up, and in a very restrained fashion, suggested that he might want to occupy himself with some other activity, perhaps even sleeping. I lay down again. Mamnoon continued playing his game. I sat up and suggested, more strongly this time, that he might want to stop. He continued to play. Finally, the stresses and tensions of the day catching up with me, I said loudly “Will you stop playing the fucking game. I want to sleep.” He understood my tone clearly enough and stopped the game. I lay down and went to sleep.

We rose at five in the morning to get the first bus back to Bamiyan. On the bus I reintroduced myself to a Pakistani tourist we had met briefly the night before. He spoke some English and when he asked if I had slept well I explained that I had not, and pointed towards Mamnoon as the cause. The tourist and Mamnoon spoke together in Farsi for a couple of minutes, then the tourist turned back to me and explained that Mamnoon had overheard some men talking the previous night in the communal room adjoining our bedroom. He was convinced that they had spoken of killing and robbing me as I slept. He had sat up all night in order to fight off any would-be murderous bandits and had played his mobile phone games to keep himself awake.

It was a noble gesture, I now saw, but I was tired and irritable and it all seemed a little paranoid to me. Was it likely? I asked the Pakistani. Had he really overheard a plot to kill me? The man shrugged. To him Afghanistan was a wild land, even if he was willing to come here as a tourist: anything was possible. Then again, he admitted, many Afghans can be a little oversuspicious as a result of years of having much of which to be suspicious – really, who knew?

We ate a breakfast of stale bread and fermented butter at a roadside cafe on the rolling grass uplands between the lakes and Bamiyan and twelve hours later we were back in Kabul. There I found myself paying still more money to Mamnoon for unforseen expenses incurred. But as I sat in the taxi heading back to my friend’s house I felt a little ashamed of my annoyance with him. He had been doing a job he did not understand for an incomprehensible and ungrateful foreigner, and had done what he thought was right. I began to think about how I would write the tale of my trip to Bamiyan, and wondered whether the readers would prefer the character of Jake or of Mamnoon.