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The Road from Pakistan to Afghanistan


To Afghanistan now and a story about travel. The road east from Kabul to the Pakistani border is a crucial supply line. These days, parts of it are closed for repairs, so travelers have to take to the hills along a treacherous unpaved route. It's a perilous journey, but as NPR's Philip Reeves found out, that doesn't deter Afghanistan's notoriously daring drivers.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Some people's personalities can be altered by traveling just a few miles from home. Zalmay(ph) is one of them. He's a big man with large expressive eyes beneath formidable black brows and a large expressive grin beneath a formidable black beard. Such features are not uncommon among his kind, the Pashtuns of Afghanistan. In Kabul, where he works as a driver for foreign journalists, he seems a quiet man, somewhat detached and bored. He seldom speaks as he fights his way through the worsening traffic jams in the capital. Travel a few dozens miles out of the city, though, and Zalmay changes.

Not long ago, I set off with him eastward towards the city of Jalalabad. Our journey would take us alongside the foothills of the Himalayas and towards the Khyber Pass and Pakistan.

(Soundbite of vehicle noise)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Over the ages, this route has been used by armies of traders and invaders, by adventurers, spies and drug runners. As they retreated from Kabul in the mid-19th century, thousands of British soldiers and their families traveled hopefully down this road only to run into Afghan tribesmen who killed all but one of them. These days, the route's one of Kabul's lifelines, used daily by hundreds of trucks filled with supplies.

(Soundbite of traffic)

REEVES: As we set off, Zalmay had a gleam in his eye. Our destination was a village northwest of Jalalabad. The map showed it was a mere 80 miles from Kabul, but we both knew the journey would take at least five hours and would be extremely uncomfortable.

There's a reason for this. The main road's been falling apart for years, not least because it was churned up by the tracks of Russian tracks during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It's now being repaired by Chinese contractors, one of the more important infrastructure projects by Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai as he struggles to rebuild his nation. That means the traffic, including the multitude of trucks heading for Kabul, is diverted along a separate road through the hills. The word `road' is perhaps an exaggeration; it's a winding band of mud, rocks and potholes which, with a little rain, quickly turn slippery.

(Soundbite of vehicle noise)

REEVES: That's all that separates you from plunging to certain death in the gullies below. Yet this didn't deter the drivers of huge trucks laden with C containers, or of the gas tankers, or the men behind the wheels of the brilliantly painted Pakistani trucks carrying wood and cattle and chickens, nor did it bother the taxis and many buses and the SUVs with darkened windows, plying this otherwise deserted landscape.

Nor did it deter Zalmay. Zalmay wears his beard long. My Afghan friends say this is considered the sign of a man who's contemplative, something of a sage. In Kabul, Zalmay does seem like that, but not up in these hills. Here Zalmay behaved as if he was at the races.

(Soundbite of vehicle noise; horns beeping)

REEVES: He passed other vehicles on blind corners. He chuckled gleefully as he swerved around truck after truck. He angrily honked his horn as the traffic knotted itself in needless jams, and laughed loudly when people indignantly hooted back. And so did everyone else. High in these stark and empty hills, they played a game of chicken, a favorite in this part of the world, in which you drive straight at one another at high speed, veering away only at the last moment.

It took us five hours to reach our destination and another five to get back. When we finally returned to the capital, the sun was slipping behind the mountains. Only then did the light in Zalmay's eyes begin to fade. He became subdued and contemplative, returning anew to behavior befitting his beard. Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.