The Minaret of Jam
In this blogposting…
* The World: A Truckshunter Geography - 1
Go on, I dare you…

Our Fantastic Summer Extravaganza takes place at 1100 this upcoming Wednesday 24 August at the Tanfield Railway.

I’ve been told that our train leaves at 1200 sharp.

Don’t miss it. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

With this posting, we begin our journey around the world, visiting each of its 193 (or thereabouts - nobody seems quite sure) independent states. We’ll be calling in on them in alphabetical order, which seems as good a method to use as any other, although it will make for a rather zigzag trip.

On our journey, we’re looking for the strange, the wayward and the unexpected, in typical truckshunter fashion. Yes, there’ll be a few of the bare facts you might find in geography textbooks. But, hopefully, as we travel we’ll uncover a treasure trove of surprises in each of the countries we visit.

Which is precisely what’s happened at our very first port of call...

Poor old Afghanistan has been a centre for conflict, death and war for much longer than you might think - almost since it came into being, in fact. And that’s because it lies foursquare on several of the ancient routes from east to west and south to north; routes - including the fabled Silk Road - used for hundreds of years to transport the exotic silks and spices of the east to the markets of Europe.

There’s no way that a country so placed was going to be left in peace by ‘the West’ and perhaps one of Afghanistan’s greatest and earliest misfortunes was to be taken over by the British in 1742.

History has shown that, for quite a few territories around the world, to be ‘mandated’ to the British often proved to be the eventual kiss of death. Our style seems to have been to rule some of our domains as if they were exotic and infinitely exploitable versions of Surrey or Buckinghamshire and then abandon them to sink into turmoil and unrest. India/Pakistan, Cyprus and Palestine have all suffered from the British way of doing things and Afghanistan has been at war almost constantly since the British finally left in 1913.


Is it even remotely possible, amidst all this past and present brutality and repression, to draw a beneficial, if sceptical, truckshunter eye over this benighted country? Is there anything to make us smile or make us wonder?

You shouldn’t be surprised to hear a resounding Yes, You Bet There Is.

For a start, Afghanistan was the birthplace of the carrot.

I’ll say that again. Afghanistan was the birthplace of the carrot.

It still grows wild all over the place there.  Oddly, in ancient times, it was only the leaves that were eaten, though.  People didn’t start eating the root until the Middle Ages.
 Born in Afghanistan
A warning must be issued, however, with this otherwise trivial item of botanical history, namely:  excessive carrot overindulgence can result in carotenoderma, a condition in which the nose turns orange.  Which wouldn’t do at all.

There may be another reason why you shouldn’t consume too many carrots in Afghanistan: the toilet problem.

Only 7% of homes possess a flushing toilet. And there are only 35 public toilets in Kabul (the capital city), of which a mere 5 are suitable for disabled persons ( - of whom there are a very great many, thanks to the war).

They have traffic-light difficulties there, too.

Kabul has only 14 sets of traffic-lights and none of them work. The local electricity authority refuses to provide the power, claiming that the Afghan Police (who are responsible for the lights) haven't paid their energy bill for years.

Bear in mind that the city has terrible traffic problems even without the traffic-light conundrum. Many drivers ignore traffic rules, have never taken a test, and either bought their licence with a bribe, or just don't have one.

Kabul partially redemms itself, however, by operating trolleybuses (of all things).
Incidentally, if you ever hear a BBC correspondent pronounce it as ka-bull, you have every right to contact the Corporation and complain very loudly indeed. I have it on impeccable authority that the correct pronunciation is much closer to English ‘cobble’.

Speaking of pronunciation, there are two national languages in Afghanistan - Dari (which is really a dialect of Farsi, the language of neighbouring Iran) and native Pashto. Here are the numbers from one to ten in Pashto, should you ever be in a position to need them:

yaw dwa dre tsalór pindzé shpag owé até ne les

I think shpag is a truly wonderful word for ‘six’.

And notice the eerie similarity between the Pashto numbers two, three, eight and nine to our own. Weird or what.

Presumably, these numbers will be heard a very great deal during a game of the Afghan national sport - Buskasi or 'Goat-Grabbing', which is played on horseback. The general idea is for a player to grab the carcass of a headless goat or calf, get it clear of the other players and pitch it across a goal line or into a target circle or vat.

Which makes even bullfighting sound like flying kites.

Fortunately for the faint-hearted, kite-flying is popular, too.
Buskasi; the headless goat is in the possession of the player, far right

I’m told it was these same bloodthirsty horsemen who originally bred Afghan hounds, though I’m not sure why. When I was a teenager, we were given an Afghan hound by a policeman who found it impossible to control. It was called Zarack and was far more trouble than it was worth.
To give you a very general flavour of how Afghans see the world, here are some of their proverbs...
Don't stop a donkey that isn't yours (mind your own business)
He ran out from under a leaking roof and sat in the rain (out of the frying pan into the fire)
A wolf’s pup will grow into a wolf, even though it be raised among men (a leopard can’t change its spots)
It's the same donkey with a new saddle (clothes do not make the man)
He who can be killed by sugar should not be killed by poison (subtlety is better than force)
That which thunders does not rain (a dog’s bark is worse than its bite)
He hasn't time even to scratch his head (he is very busy)

The one about sugar and poison has a certain irony, given current circumstances.

Statistically, Afghanistan is not without esoteric interest, either.

For example, it has fewer cars per capita than any other country on Earth except Malawi.

It also has the highest percentage of male smokers in the entire world - 86%. (Britain comes in at number 105 with 27%.)

And there are fewer doctors in Afghanistan than almost anywhere else - 1 for every 5,000 people (compared to Britain’s 1 for every 500).

Also in extremely short supply are Jews. At the last census, there was only one.

And if the endless depressing news coverage from Afghanistan has given you the impression that it’s merely a vast and mountainous land of brown dust, or that its main exports are big dogs with long hair, opium, rugs, misery, fear, dysentery and death, then look again. There are vast and beautiful fertile valleys there; but for its dreadful conflict, Afghanistan could easily be one of the world’s leading growers and exporters of melons, grapes, apricots, pomegranates, dried fruit and nuts.

If all this has given you an urge to visit Afghanistan for, say, a long weekend in the sun, you should certainly make a point of seeing one of the region’s most important World Heritage Sites - the Minaret of Jam, which was featured on BBCtv’s Around The World in Eighty Treasures and is also on our very own list of 1,000 Buildings to See Before You Die.

Remember, though, that you may indeed die as a result of visiting it.

And if you do visit this unfortunate country, bear in mind while you are there that, until recently, it was considerably more joyless even than it is now.  To prove it, here is a list of some of the ‘unclean’ items banned by the old Taliban Ministry of Virtue and Prevention of Vice….

Pork, pig, pig oil, anything made from human hair, satellite dishes, cinematography and any equipment that produces the joy of music, pool tables, chess, masks, alcohol, tapes, computers, VCRs, television, anything that propagates sex and is full of music, wine, lobster, nail polish, fireworks, statues, sewing catalogues, pictures, Christmas cards.’

Which doesn’t really leave much.

And here are three final practical tips:

* Should you be called upon to sing the National Anthem, the first verse is…
This land is Afghanistan,
It is the pride of every Afghan
The land of peace, the land of sword,
Each of its sons is brave
* The currency is, rather unimaginatively, the afghani. There are 100 puls to each afghani. At present, one afghani is worth almost exactly one pound sterling - useful to know for bribery or ransom purposes.
* In Afghanistan it is illegal to play anything composed by Chopin on a banjo.

You think I made that last one up, don’t you?


My thanks to truckshunters Sid, Peter and Martin for much of the information I’ve used here. Well done, lads.

Readers may now wish to turn their attention to the next country on the list: Albania. Much closer to home, but just as strange.


Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com

1 comment:

Sid said...

Albania looks like fun...
The good people of that country nod their head for no, and shake it for yes. I'd never get used to that!