(Continued from part I) We arrived in the Khair Khana, dressed like westerners, and started talking to people we saw on the side of the road. They were helpful, and lent us a guide, to find the road over the mountain. While the person who guided us knew exactly where the road was, (in fact, he lived just short of the mountain pass on the road) he was absolutely ignorant of driving cars over the road.
We got to the base of the mountain, and one look up the road made me sick to my stomach. This road was a cast iron bitch, even looking at it from the start point. I am more than just a good driver. Extreme driving conditions are something I’ve trained and done for over 30 years, so if it has wheels, I can make it go in places most people would refuse. But this road was too narrow, and washed out in key places, and to make it worse, it was a polished marble substrate with thick marble dust from the local mines on top. Amazingly, sickeningly slick. And it was steep. With twists, turns, and parts where it appeared to just disappear into washouts.
At just that moment, and ancient Toyota station wagon came down the mountain from the pass, and the guide signaled me to quick dallying and get moving. Assuming if that Toyota could do it, I could, too, I gulped hard and started up the mountain. The second time I started to slide sideways off the road, I saw a slightly wider part of the road, with a wash out right behind it, and decided that it was time to stop and turn around. I saw that the wide spot led to someone’s garage, so figured I could do an easy three point turn, park it, and then we could walk the rest of the way up.
Just as I turned hard to do the first point, I lose all traction. I had the brakes on full, and even flipped it into reverse, in four wheel drive low. I felt that sick feeling as the car starts to slide forward, and just then my clutch fails and the engine stalls. I pop the emergency brake, and pray fervently as we continue to slide toward a sheer, several hundred foot drop off that passes through row after row of mountain side houses. I look over to Zok, whose eyes are big as saucers, and then back at Nawab and our local guide, who continue to chat animatedly, as if everything was normal.
And then, inexplicably, the car quits sliding forward. For a long count and a half, we sit there, like in the final scene from the original “Italian Job”, with a few pieces of marble sliding forward, and tumbling off the edge of the cliff, into the rows of houses below.
Zok jumps out of the car and grabs a large chunk of marble and puts it under my rear tire. Nawab and the “guide” look at us curiously, not even realizing how close to a fiery death we have just come. I sit there for a second, and then, with wobbly legs, slowly get out of the car, then collapse against it, as I have no strength to stand anymore. Zok and I eventually shake it off, and then hug, and talk loudly to each other without hearing what the other is saying, out of post stress hyperactivity.
Once we work up the courage, we back the car up into the Afghan’s driveway, park it and then walk the rest of the way up to the pass. On the way, we are stopped by the Police who man the checkpoint up there who are kind to us. We offer them water, and they give us a tour of that area, pointedly saying that it would be best if next time we should inform them of our desire to visit. We hit it off very well, and the police officer gives us very detailed information about the area.
We enthusiastically bid farewell, after taking the obligatory group pictures and promising to deliver them next time we were there. On the way down the mountain, we were stopped suddenly by a large group of Panjsheris, some of which were openly armed, and we were informed that the entire time we were there our presence was noted, and they tracked our every move. We were requested to contact the community leaders and police prior to returning. The “request” was in the form of a “if you don’t, we will deal with you in a permanent manner.”
On the way back to our place, we stopped at an Afghan Burgar restaurant and had burgar and Zhela (ice cream), which we ate with hunger born of having just survived certain death and then being confronted by police and an armed militia. The food tasted marvelous, by the way.
As an addendum, we did return to Khair Khana, several times, in fact, and we became welcome there as if it were a home away from home.