The Journey to Jam – Afghanistan

cordoni1_290It didn’t feel like I had slept at all but my alarm bleeped obnoxiously…five a.m. I was so excited the night before that I’d stayed up late, plotting, planning and packing. Then of course there were those last minute e-mails and a special request to take a picture of Fred Siwaks art work once I’d reached my destination. That destination was the Minaret of Jam.

Seen only by a handful of westerners, it was discovered in the 1930’s or so and was said to have been built in 1194 A.D. I’m sorry to admit that I wasn’t that interested in the historical value but someone had said that the Minaret of Jam was rarely seen by civilized folk, difficult to get to and really neat looking. That met my criteria for an Afghanistan road trip.

cordoni4_290‘New to me’ is my catch all criteria when I’m just bored but this destination had all the makings of a once in a lifetime journey. The kids, my hired guns Manny and Havi, were rousing from their bunks while Don was already making coffee and Blaine was washing his face. Jim had locked himself in the bathroom, doing his morning ritual. I dragged across the linoleum floor half dead but inside my spirit was stirring slowly. The coffee aroma soon filled my nostrils and I knew that in just moments I’d be doing one of my favorite things… rolling.

A couple of British surveyors had pushed me to go along with them on this excursion and I wasn’t about to cheese out on them… those Brits are a ruthless crew in the banter department. By six in the morning we’d hit the road, east-bound out of Herat along the Hari Roud River; the road turned into fine powder the moment we approached the city limits. Soon we were covered in dust, the rising sun but a faint orange glow at our faces. By eight in the morning we were completely blinded by light and sand.

Minaret of Jam

Minaret of Jam

Peter was only mildly blinded in the lead truck while Don rolled the second. Nick (another Brit rolled in the third), and I ate the dust from all three in the rear.

But it was anything but miserable. The CD player was kickin’ on the Marley tunes and I was happy to be driving. We kept the pace quick at about 60 mph on the flat dirt surfaces. Manny and Javi thought I was crazy but I was only following my point man who had already been seasoned by the last few months in country. One of the other reasons we clip so quick is a fast moving target is a hard target and in the event that you hit a land mine, by the time it explodes it should blow up when the vehicle is almost over the point of full impact, meaning that the rear tires will get the blast instead of the front tires…hopefully.

Then again it just feels better to be hauling ass and if you do get shot or fragged, at least you are having fun in those last moments. The other factor is daylight itself: The last place you want to be at is on a dirt road in Afghanistan or even worse, on the edge of some cliff in Afghanistan with no light. There are no fancy-schmancy street lights or call boxes, and if you break down you’re looking at least a day’s foot travel between village stops.

Our first fuel stop was in Chesti-Sharif, a quaint village with a lot of Ismail Khan (IK) influence. IK was this Warlord who had just got canned from his seat as self-appointed Governor of Herat Province and was now just kicking it, probably brooding over how the Western world was encroaching on his playground.

Minaret of Jam

Minaret of Jam

No sooner had we left Chesti-Sharif with a full tank of petrol and a belly full of Zam-Zam (local fruit soda), we got a flat tire. Unluckily, we were on a steep incline of powder trail and very unstable, making tire changing an adventure in itself. Two more hours of hot transmission and more inclines, and another truck got a flat, on an incline of unstable cliff.

Three hours and two CD changes later, we reached the mouth of Jam Valley. Our next two hours would be spent driving through the Hari-Roud River and dodging fatal obstacles. The scene was breathtaking. It gave me a sense that I had made a good choice in pushing for this journey. I had been home only on a weekend since January and the time away was playing on me. I missed my wife and child and all the people in my home country. Between the violence, the reports and the military in general a deep depression had set in and I needed the change in venue. It was easy to justify a fact finding trip but in the end, I needed to get home and since that wasn’t possible, the road would have to do.

The Village of Jam

By the time I started to get road-weary through the cliff walls and rushing water it appeared, like a magic vision through the cliffs. We were losing day light fast; an orange hue had replaced searing sunlight and the colors of the cliffs and the sky were more pronounced… And so it appeared: A phallic staff 213 feet high peered through the cliffs like a reward. We had reached the Minaret of Jam.

The "Highway"

The “Highway”

The mountain walls encased its perimeter, blocking out all dust and sound except a hint of splashing river. My soul was soothed by the serenity. We made arrangements to sleep in a small bungalow some 100 yards from the base of the tower. The building had been built by a United Nations Unit and was now being run by a local who charged us 10 dollars per person per night. This of course included a chicken, slaughtered for dinner, and flat bread and tea for breakfast. A generator on the site was turned on in the evening, so electricity was available from 7:30 pm to about 10:00 P.M.… then it was lights out.

Pitch black on the ground with only the safety of a sixteen year-old, unarmed security guard, in an outdated soviet uniform as protection. We decided it was best to pull one hour shifts for the night just for piece of mind but even with a few automatic machine guns and night vision goggles, you realized that the cordoni8base camp was almost suitable as a training scenario for where not to stay to avoid risk of an ambush. Of course, everyone slept well throughout the evening as you could hear the snores emitting from the building. I myself grew quite cozy to the uncertainty and finished a book by flash light.

By morning we took a few more pictures and made for home. Of course the drive felt a silght more forgiving on the return but we still didn’t arrive until an hour after dark. Things to remember on future trips: All-terrain tires and extra batteries for the Thuraya phone. The journey was much more memorable than the destination making it a worthwhile adventure.

I give the Minaret of Jam an eight out of a possible ten points because the journey’s worth taking. We very well may take it again just to iron out kinks in the logistics. Some might call that crazy, but what do they know!?

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