Riding with the Kabul Knights


Written by Marriane Harris
01 Wednesday 01st October 2008

Me and Karin (both Australian photography students) had just arrived in Kabul to do volunteer teaching. It didn’t take us long to encounter the Kabul Knights Motorcycle Club, a small but determined group of international motorcycle fanatics.

When they offered to take us on a five-hour trip to the Salang Pass the next morning it seemed like an offer too thrilling to refuse. We could ride on the back of their bikes along with two Irish girls had already joined the party. This was the way to see "the real Afghanistan", apparently.

The rallying point was the garden of one of the club member’s villa. Their bikes were 200cc Chinese Aktars, upholstered with Afghan rug seating. Club members were wearing matching red helmets.

The guards at the compound regarded us with mild amusement which quickly changed to polite, stifled hilarity when they heard that our destination was Salang. Suddenly we wondered what exactly we had got ourselves into. The route we were taking had been the setting for some of the most ferocious battles between the Afghans and the occupying Soviet communist army during the 1980s.

Simran cruises over one of the many bridges that connect the Jalabad Road.

We wheeled out of the villa gates into the utter mayhem that is Kabul traffic. It was Friday, the Muslim holiday, but the so-called ‘day of rest’ actually makes for extra traffic on the bustling streets of Kabul.

Our first stop was for petrol; our second was for the first breakdown. One of our leaders had a flat tyre and we hadn’t even left city limits. Men emerged from everywhere with advice on how to repair the tyre.  After 30 years of war, improvisation comes naturally to the Afghans – and so does generosity. With a little help from our new-found friends we repaired the tyre and headed out of Kabul and into the Shamali Plains.

Juicy grape vines lined the dusty roads. Once upon a time, before the emergence of the Taliban, there was a vibrant wine industry in Afghanistan. It was strange to think that we were biking through the remains of it.

US Military Convoy pass between revision mirrors

Our first official stop was the town of Charikar, 5,200 feet above sea level. This place has seen its share of war and it is known by some as ‘bandit’s lair’.  In the 1840s it was the home to one of Britain’s most ill-advised and disastrous battles. Legend has it that the Afghans spared just one soldier out of a whole garrison, a surgeon named William Brydon, in order that he return to Kabul to report to his officers what had happened. In 2001 Charikar became the last stronghold of the Taliban before their defeat at the hands of American forces. 

Outside Charikar sits an immense military graveyard. The carcasses of old vehicles and Soviet tanks snake across the landscape. There are hundreds of them – and the dirt they sit on is still littered with landmines. Twenty kilometres away, near the ancient city of Bagram, there is a US Air Base. The hazardous terrain, the extremes of weather and the nature of local politics make Afghanistan a place that forbids military domination.  

Cruising Down to Bagram Airport along the Shomali Plains.

Bagram, our next visit, sits at the junction of the Gohrband and Panjshir Valleys and was a link in the Silk Road between India and Kabul; it is one of the great cities of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and treasures unearthed there originated from Han-China, Egypt, Syria and the distant Mediterranean, 5,000 kms away. Bagram is so ancient that no one really knows when it was first settled. However, it is known that in the mid 500s BC, the Persian king Cyrus the Great destroyed it - so that should give you an indication. These days MREs (meals ready to eat) are on offer at the local market; streams of helicopters and planes roar overhead and I am told that there is a trade in computers that have been disused by the military. 

Experienced rider Jason does donuts/burnouts on his bike.

Next we came to Ulang. This is the gateway to what was known as the most dangerous and difficult road to travel on by all of the invaders who have travelled this route. Suddenly it felt as if we might be in Tibet or Mongolia. Houses are at one with the environment; built into the steep terrain of the mountains. The most overwhelming impression is the colour of the sky - the most brilliant blue I have ever seen. We were now on the edge of the Hindu Kush, the mountain range that goes from Afghanistan to Pakistan. It was all staggeringly beautiful.  

As we stopped for a photo opportunity and looked back at the road behind us I noticed lines of extremely tall decorated trucks, called jingli, that were slowly hauling massive logs from somewhere in the Himalayas. Deforestation is fast taking place in Afghanistan.

All along the Salang Pass there are tunnels built by the Soviets. The Salang Tunnel is the most famous and is considered a marvel in Soviet engineering. This was the final stage in our journey and it was pretty scary. It is 3km long and it lacks proper lighting – exacerbated somewhat by years of exhaust deposits that line the road. The tunnel opened in 1964 and was an Afghan–Soviet Union venture to save travelling time.

An Afghan man is happy to serve foriegners petrol from his station.

I reckon I was the least scared of my party in the tunnel. My helmet was too big for me and everything looked pretty black anyway. As we left the tunnel and embraced daylight once again, the rest of my party were looking pretty ill. The first thing we saw is a Soviet tank on its side in a ditch. It can seem as if war is everywhere.

Massou rides past a petrol station on the Sarobi plains.

We were at our final stop, a chai shop that we entered by passing a frozen ice sculpture containing old plastic bags and rubbish. The scenery was stunning and we relaxed, took some photos and drank some tea. It was time to go home. It had been a remarkable journey.

Marianne is volunteering with the Aina photo agency www.ainaphoto.org, a photojournalism school for Afghan students.

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