Unhappy Trails: A Trek Through the Mountains To the Taliban Front Is a Chilling Experience

The Washington Post, 2001.
Keith describes his chilling journey on horseback through Afghanistan’s dangerous Anjuman Mountains to get to the front lines of the war between the Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance.

The Washington Post
November 10, 2001
ANJUMAN MOUNTAINS—The snow and ice were driving down hard, like daggers on our exposed faces. The temperature had dropped below freezing, and icicles were forming on our eyebrows and noses. But our 12-horse team forged ahead, guided through the blinding blizzard by Afghan trackers on foot.
The passengers on horseback — three cousins in the jewelry business, a relief agency worker and three foreign journalists on their way to a war — were hunched against the cold and the snow, beneath hoods and gloves and parkas.The Afghan guides walked alongside in tennis shoes, without gloves, wearing old army jackets and Afghan scarves.
“This way!” called the lead guide, who located the path up the mountainside. “Chu! Chu!” the riders and trackers shouted out to the horses — “Go!” in the local language.
The horses had a hard time finding their footing in the deep snow. They stayed mostly in single file, sometimes slipping on steep descents. The inexperienced riders struggled to stay on. Of all the dumb things reporters have done to get to a story, this definitely was one of the dumbest.
At one river crossing, a chocolate-colored horse named Qumait, who had been showing signs of fatigue for most of the day-long trip, finally slipped and fell in the river — taking his load of backpacks, sleeping bags, satellite telephones and laptop computers with him. The horse survived; the water-soaked gear fared less well.
This journey through Afghanistan’s Anjuman Pass, northeast of Kabul, into the Panjshir Valley is difficult in the best of times. The crossing is by way of narrow, rock-strewn, crater-marked roads snaking along mountainsides, with sharp turns skirting sheer drops of several thousand feet.
But come the winter’s first snow, the trek becomes all but impossible — except by horseback, and with the experienced guidance of Afghanistan’s tough Anjuman horsemen, who make the eight-hour crossing as a matter of routine.
Hasty planning for the trip began in the darkness of a Wednesday night, in a mud hut in the snow at the base of a mountain in the town of Anjuman. The original plan was to travel by car, a sturdy Russian-made jeep with four-wheel drive and chains on the tires.
But after a gallant effort in a heavy snowfall, the jeep was forced back, and the passengers ended up with two dozen other stranded travelers in a dingy mountain redoubt, in a haze of cigarette smoke and steam from hot tea sweetened with sugar, eyes stinging from the fumes of a kerosene lamp and an ancient furnace used to cook rice.
A skinny, hunched boy in rags had the job of feeding twigs and weeds into the furnace. Mahmoud Habibi, a 25-year-old Afghan gem trader who lives in Peshawar, Pakistan, was traveling with his cousins Saib and Mustafa.
Mohammed Naim’s reason for being there was his job as a logistics officer for a French relief agency called ACTED (the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development).
Then there were the three journalists — this correspondent, a Washington Post photographer and an Italian photojournalist. Our destination was Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley — a trip home for the cousins, back to the office for the relief worker, and for the journalists an excursion to the front lines of the war between Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance. None in this group could be called an experienced rider before the trip.
At least two in the group had never been on a horse before. “The Anjuman people always ride horses,” said Mahmoud, whose excellent English made him the unofficial translator for the stranded foreign journalists. “Me, I’m afraid of horses.”
Mahmoud had made the trip before, in easier times, by passing directly from the Pakistani border through the Taliban-controlled part of Afghanistan. But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and the American retaliatory bombing of Afghanistan, the usual route had become more difficult.
“The Taliban considers the Panjshir people their enemy,” Mahmoud said. “In the Taliban mind, they think the Panjshir people have joined with the Americans.”
With the Taliban blocking one path, and an early snowfall closing off the Anjuman Pass to vehicles, Mahmoud said he saw the horse trek as the only option.
First came the bargaining. The lead horseman was Mohammed Sharif, tall, wiry, wearing an oversize army jacket. He was only 23, but had been riding through the mountains for 15 years. He agreed to a price of for each horse, including an extra horse for the journalists’ equipment.
That done, the group hunched in a circle, and by the light of the kerosene lantern traced the route on a map laid out on dusty carpets.
The group set off in late morning. A light snow was falling, but the sun was shining bright. The group began the slow ascent into the mountains up the snow-covered path, the guides in front, climbing past vehicles abandoned the day before. Somewhere before the mountain’s summit, the snow started falling harder and the temperature dropped.
Soon the scene was a blinding white, and it was impossible to tell where the mountains ended and the sky began. The horses seemed to grow exhausted trudging through the deepening snow.
Qumait, the designated luggage-horse, seemed off-balance and fell several times on the slippery inclines. The horsemen responded with a few cracks of the whip across his hindquarters to get him on his feet, but then decided to lighten his load by shifting some of it to the other horses.
At one point, even the experienced Anjuman guides became disoriented in what was now certainly a blizzard. Two ran ahead to find the right path, and the others helped guide the horses down the steepest slopes. Khazil, an aging but determined steed, lost his footing and fell sharply forward, legs buckling; the reporter on his back clung on for dear life.
Finally, four shivering hours later, the cold and tired riders reached what all hoped was the final destination — a tent at the mountain’s base used as a way station by the ACTED relief group. The tent offered warm respite from the bitter wind and snow outside.
The riders took hot tea while the horses dumped their snouts into their feed bags. But there was no car. A vehicle that was supposed to meet the group to take us on to the next town had not arrived. But don’t worry, said the horsemen. Another village was just a half-hour ride away, and there we could spend the night.
With little choice, and darkness threatening, we mounted the horses again. As we set off again, our clothes were already soaked through from the snow and ice; our jeans, for all intents and purposes, were frozen to the piles of blankets that formed our saddles.
Then came the second storm. This time snow mixed with hail, pounding our faces and heads. Thirty minutes stretched into an hour, then two, then three. We were climbing again into the mountains, with darkness all around and no village in sight.
Perhaps the horseman, so accustomed to the trek, had a different sense of the time this leg would take. Maybe they didn’t want to discourage their weary riders. Whatever the reason, they had deceived us — we were in for another cold, brutal, four-hour march.
Said, one of the cousins, wrapped his black-and-white Afghan scarf around his face and eyes. He couldn’t see, but just let the horse keep walking and prayed it would follow the path.
“I’ve been doing this [trip] for seven years,” he said later. This night, he said, “was the second-worst of all. It was very, very cold.”
Cold and dangerous. There was the danger of simply falling off the horse from exhaustion, and being stranded at 14,000 feet in freezing conditions. There was the danger that the horse might miss a step in the blinding sleet and snow, and send himself and his rider hurtling down a half-mile drop. And then there were the wolves, baying in the distance.
Mustafa Habibi, a blue-and-red knit cap pulled over his eyes, slowed his horse to warn the foreigners about the predators on the mountainside. But he spoke in his native Dari; the foreigners could not understand.
Khazil pushed on, head down, mane lashed by the wind, seemingly oblivious to the terrified reporter clinging to his back. “Come on, old boy, you can make it!” Was I talking to the horse, or to myself?
It was well after 8 p.m. when we arrived at our destination, a mud hut in a tiny village called Kurpetab, in the Paryan district. We were dazed and wet; the Post photographer was shivering uncontrollably. Our legs were stiff and numb from the eight-hour ordeal. Mustafa slid off his horse and fell directly onto his back in a mound of snow.
But the Panjshir Valley stretched out before us. We had made it across the mountains and lived to tell the tale. Of course that left the question of how to get out again.
For the journalists, that means plotting an early exit, or risk getting trapped by the snow until next spring’s thaw.
There are occasional Northern Alliance helicopter flights into the Panjshir, but there is also a waiting list of more than 190 reporters looking for seats on chopper flights heading out.
ACTED has workers with picks and shovels trying to open the Anjuman Pass so that relief supplies can flow for a few more weeks. But aid officials concede that once the real winter snows set in, the pass will likely be closed to traffic until next year.
Mahmoud, the gem trader riding a horse for the first time, knows he’ll never make another pack trip over the mountains. “No, no, no, I won’t go back that way,” he said, shaking off the cold in front of the mud hut’s fire. “I was very, very afraid, and it was very dangerous. This is my valley, but I was very afraid.”
He added, “If I have to, I’d rather go back by the Taliban way!”