visitors since 4 oct 2008

Travelling North: Salang Pass to Mazar-i-Sharif

The northern regions of Afghanistan are the safest areas in the country. A majority of the population in these provinces are Tajik or Hazara and they do not now and never have supported the Taliban or any other religious based armed opposition group. We routinely travel in the north without body armor or rifles and have, on occasion, left the side arms at home out of respect for the local leaders and populace. All my trips into the north have terminated in the fabled city of Mazar-i-Shariff where our main client JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) has an office and several programs.

The trip north starts by crossing the Shamali Plain (Shamali means “windy” in Dari) which saw much fighting during the Soviet invasion in the 80′s. As a point of interest, the main road from Kabul to Bagram airbase used by our armed forces today was built by the Soviets so they could stay out of the Shamali plain as much as possible. The Soviets fought hard and often all along the main road to the north. After the Northern Alliance and our SF teams drove out the Taliban in 2001 there has been no fighting or attacks on the international or Afghan military on the plain or anywhere else along the route to Mazar-i-Shariff.

In 2005 an American army convoy did get into an accident at the Kabul end of the plain and, for reasons that have never been explained, opened fire on an unruly crowd that gathered at the accident site sparking an entire day of rioting in Kabul. Unruly and agitated crowds are a staple at Afghan traffic accidents they have a lot here and they tend to be gruesome given the speeds at which Afghans drive and their propensity for stuffing extra women and children in car trunks or on roof racks. Firing into the crowd that day and I saw it live on local TV was again a symptom of the big base big army mentality that infected our efforts here as soon as the regular army took over the fight. The solider I saw unleash his 50 cal into the Afghan crowd at point blank range was scared. He was scared because he did not understand Afghanistan or its people and he thought the crowd was after him and his fellow soldiers. This was four years after we first set foot in the country. Today, some seven years into the fight, a majority of the soldiers are just as clueless about the Afghan people and their customs as the knucklehead on the machinegun that day. But I digress.

Halfway across the plain is the town of Istalif which is famous for its pottery. With a little haggling and good humor you can buy any of these pieces for just one dollar although after haggling and completing the sale I always give a tip too haggling is fun but a couple extra dollars to me is nothing to the Afghans it is great and good fortune. Besides the Afghans love and respect foreigners who are both of good humor and fair.

After getting through the Shamali you have to climb up the Salang Pass, which is 12,723 feet up into the Hindu Kush Mountains making it one of the highest roads in the world. Here is a view going up the pass and looking back towards Kabul.

The Soviet Union built a tunnel through the pass back in the 60′s it is 2.6 kilometers long and scary. The road bed is pitted and often filled with slush, the evacuation fan system stopped working decades ago, it is dark, and the Afghans have no ability to deal with vehicle accidents or any serious injuries. In 1982 an explosion in the tunnel caused the Soviets to block both ends as they thought there was an attack in progress. Those trapped inside kept their vehicles running to avoid freezing, the resulting buildup of carbon monoxide and smoke killed as many as 700 Soviet troops and over 2,000 Afghans.

Once you’re through the Salang tunnel it is a steep drop down into the valley floor where one can find the best fresh fish in Afghanistan. Here is my favorite seasonal fish stand seen from the road above:

Like I said it is a step grade down the north side of the Salang.

Enjoying fine Afghan dining al fresco

The guys sitting behind me are truck drivers who wandered over just in case I ate like an Afghan which is to say they wanted to see if I automatically share my food and drink. I have been here long enough to understand these cultural norms so the three of us tucked into the excellent fish and engaged in conversations that mix elementary Dari, American slang, and sign language.

The drive from the Salang Pass to Mazar is very pleasant. The largest city along the route is Puli Khumri which has very little international presence but also has very few AOG (armed opposition group) incidents. One of the more interesting aspects of driving around the country is how the industrious locals use whatever materials are available to get the job done. This next picture not only demonstrates that point but also is the best use for old Soviet BTR’s that I have ever seen.

From Puli Khumri it is about three hours of pleasant driving through one small hamlet after another. It is not a good idea to move off the main road in areas where there are no villages or towns. Every natural chokepoint has an old Soviet command post and the terrain around them which could still be seeded with anti-personnel mines. Most of these areas have been cleared but the sign below provides a warning that remains applicable today to the smart traveler.

This old CP was demolished as part of the reconstruction effort back in 2007 but the art deco work is interesting. There used to be lots of little posts like this around the north a few years back but most are long gone now.

The Afghanistan state-controlled media back in the Soviet days refered to the Soviet soldiers as Quay Dhost which means “friendly forces”. For armed security guys like me rolling up to Afghan police checkpoints and after some smiles and the traditional greeting saying you are Quay Dhost will earn you an instant look of disbelief followed by a big belly laugh. Afghans love jokes and funny foreigners.

Mazar-i-Sharif is a small city famous for the Blue Mosque which is supposed to contain the remains of Hazrat Ali, who was a son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. Islamic scholars believe the real grave of Ali is in the Imam Mosque in Najaf Iraq.

I have read and also heard from the locals that the Mosque was buried to prevent its sacking by Genghis Khan in 1220 and not uncovered until the 1480′s. I have no idea how the locals could have done that back then but I also don’t know how the Egyptian Pyramids were built either so maybe it’s a true story. For us foreigners this is as close as we can get to the Mosque which is fine because the real treat is checking out the Kala Jangi fortress which was the scene of a big fight back on 25 November 2001.

There is also work and in Mazar that means looking after Ms Tani san of JICA who runs the women empowerment program. We don’t show pictures of our clients in the blog but here is one of Tani san issuing a critique to one of her woman’s groups who have been slacking off on keeping the cows and barn that the people of Japan provided them clean and functional.


While she is in the villages the police guard and I hang out with the senior males sometimes we sit in cool verandas and sip tea, other times we sit out in the closest field. The life of an independent international security operative often looks like this:

The eggplant we are eating with the nan (bread) is absolutely delicious, greasy as the day is long but delicious. The company is not bad either this is a good way to sharpen up the language skills as my hosts normally do not speak any English. Next stop will be the Fortress but it deserves a post of its own.

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    3 comments to Travelling North: Salang Pass to Mazar-i-Sharif

    • OldBlue

      I can’t believe that this is the first time that I have seen your blog. Great stuff! Excellent pictures, great writing, great observations. I agree with so much of what you wrote on your “about” page and I’ve enjoyed the little I have read to this point.

      Having returned to the states in April, and having spent most days outside the wire, I agree with you that most of the big Army doesn’t understand what goes on out in the villages.

      When I was there, the called the bad guys “ACM” or Anti-Coalition Militias. I really miss Afghanistan. Great, friendly people. I worked with the ANP, mostly in Kapisa (Tag Ab Valley a good portion of that time.) I spent a little time in J-bad and some more time in very southern Nuristan/Northern Laghman.

      Again, great stuff. Keep it up! Your ability to get out among the people is excellent.

    • Zee

      If you get a moment, could you write me a message? I would like to ask you a question about how to get clean water in a country mentioned.

    • terence harvey

      really enjoyed