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Reporter's Notebook:  Adventures in Traveling Afghanistan's Hindu Kush - 2001-12-24

Reporting from Afghanistan is treacherous, not only because of the high number of journalists killed, beaten and robbed, but also because of the difficulty of simply traveling in a country with so few roads and so many landmines. In this reporter's notebook, Irris Makler describes the difficult journey from the north of Afghanistan to Kabul through the soaring Hindu Kush mountain range in winter.

Our journey to Kabul began in Dashtiqala in northern Afghanistan. We knew the river here well; we had crossed it to watch the Taleban front lines for weeks. This time we were crossing after the Taleban had fled. But the first thing we noticed on arrival was that a Russian jeep exactly like ours was stuck in the middle of the river. Water was lapping at its roof, on which the driver standing barefoot.

I was traveling with a group from the American TV network NBC. We all agreed that we would need to be towed across. Just when we were wondering what vehicle could do it, an old Soviet T-54 tank chugged up on our left, like a scene from a Russian war movie except for the turbaned Afghan fighters sitting on top of it.

For $25, we were hauled across the river, between trucks, horses and camels.

It was a great beginning to an arduous, dangerous journey over goat tracks, in old vehicles that could barely endure the climb.

The path would often disappear in the dust that billowed up toward us and that was before the drivers started arguing about the best route to take in a desert strewn with landmines.

Our first stop was the town of Talaqan, which the Northern Alliance had just retaken. Music spilled out onto the streets for the first time since the Taleban conquered the town 15 months ago.

But for us there was less to celebrate - our favorite driver, Shah Mahmood, said he would have to turn back. His jeep wouldn't make the journey. We'd known him for more than two months, and felt we were losing a friend.

We had to find a new driver - and the going rate was $2,500 per car - more than 20 times the average annual salary in Afghanistan. The reason for the extortionate price was that we couldn't take the main road leading to Kabul - only a day's drive away - because it was too dangerous. There were still Taleban troops along this road.

So we had to go the long way through the Hindu Kush instead. We went in a convoy with other journalists. A four day journey lurching along goat tracks and, when necessary, fording rivers to avoid landmines.

The wreckage of a car that had miscalculated sat as a grim warning.

One night, on a hairpin turn, on a terrifyingly black and freezing path, our new jeep lost its drive shaft. Our new driver, Abdul, got out his tools, and lay on the cold ground for half an hour. As we jumped up and down to maintain body heat, Abdul emerged to say he'd fixed it - it would hold at least until our next stop, the town of Andorrob.

We slept in a guesthouse - one room with 50 other people. Actually, 50 men and one woman: me. There was nowhere to wash when they shook us awake at 4 a.m. so we could start driving again.

But the next day there was more engine trouble.

After more roadside panel beating, we were winding our way upward - past tiny mountain villages where all the inhabitants came out to watch us drive through. We were heading for the Hawak pass. At about 4,000 meters, it is slightly lower than the other two peaks of the Hindu Kush, which were already blocked by snow. Our drivers promised that the Hawak would be passable, and we had to take it on trust.

The scenery as we climbed was stunning. We were on the roof of the world, the sun gleaming on white peaks all around us. The air was cold as we took a photograph - a wonderful moment. Five minutes later our car lost its brake and clutch and rolled over.

NBC engineer Jim Bruton fixed a rope to the jeep's axle - and another jeep from the convoy pulled it upright. "That's better than expected," an NBC colleague said after the jeep stood again on its wheels, "now we have to open the hood, dry it out, we'll have to drain the generator for fuel for the rest of the drive if it can drive."

Italian journalists traveling in a large truck came and offered to take us, and our equipment. A kind offer, but as their truck reversed toward us, it became bogged down, its back wheel spinning in mud, ice and snow.

As the sun would soon set, we had to leave them on the path. Our jeep had started, and we now had to go find a vehicle snow chains to send back to free them. We did that, and, after all our difficulties, crossing the pass in the snow was dramatic.

As our drivers had promised, we made it. The Panjshir valley on the other side of the Hindu Kush was overwhelmingly beautiful, hairpin bends above a crystal river, rugged rock faces seeming to tumble all the way down to the water.

When Kabul was only eight hours away I spoke to an American colleague, a tough war correspondent, the veteran of many front lines. "I'm never going back up that path," he told me. "If that's all there is [if that is the only way out of the country], I'd rather take out Afghan citizenship and stay in Kabul."

All the members of our convoy made it to Kabul. But getting out? That's another, long, story.