[7th August]

7th August Hello all, Hope all is well. I am still alive, much to your collective relief I'm sure. In fact I'm doing surprisingly well at 2500 meters (that's ~8000 ft for those that don't venture out much), apart from the odd nosebleed due to the air pressure.

It has taken me 6 weeks of visa chasing and 4 days of travelling but I have finally arrived at Khorog in the Pamir Mountains -. This was all via Munich, Turkey and Dushanbe, (capital of Tajikistan). Life has been getting progressively more basic, though it is quite comfortable in Khorog.

Dushanbe consisted of classic Communist proletariat iconography and dank, oppressive hotels staffed by Olgas and Boris' straight out of the Cold War. Being an ex-Soviet republic and still part of the Federation, it is very Red and very Russian. But it is rediscovering its Persian/Turkic past, so think Turkey meets Poland and you are pretty much there.

Khorog however is an idyllic paradise, until you stop gazing at the mountains and look back down at the streets. Russian border guards, brandishing Kalashnikovs, are everywhere and they look *mean*. The poverty is also everywhere, though the people are much better off now than 8 yrs ago during the civil war. I have asked about 5 intelligent people what the war was about, but none are able to give me an answer. They only say, "nobody knows...it was madness".

Khorog is in a valley bordering Afghanistan and the Oxus River. It is surrounded completely by steep mountains and at nighttime the dark mountains snake around Khorog like a sleeping dragon guarding it's treasure - which of course it is. I had to bribe my way onto the flight from Dushanbe to Khorog but it was worth it. The flight was *through* the mountains, rather than over it and at many times we were no more than 50 feet from the mountains on every side. I could have jumped and probably survived. The plane was surreal - passengers having to stand at the back, aisles blocked by luggage and the pilots having to climb over us to get to the cockpit. Live chickens and squealing piglets wouldn't have been out of place. I didn't bother with the seatbelt - I figured if we go down, we're finished for sure.

The people are a strange race. They most all have grey, green or blue eyes and black or brown hair. Many of them are indistinguishable from Europeans even in dress and mannerisms. Of course there is the legend that they are descended from Alexander the Great's armies. The women are naturally beautiful, very proud and charmingly forward. Alas, I have work to do and little time for play. The guys are big drinkers and hang around in hordes, (I guess because the women are so feisty), but otherwise very well mannered and helpful. If you go up into the mountains you will see Marco Polo sheep, eagles, reclusive leopards and even a strange species of tiger. Rich hunters pay 25,000 US dollars for a government sporting license to shoot the sheep. The locals talk of 'Almasty', great hairy ape-men that live in the mountains and sometimes rape village women, who then give birth to bizarre crossbreeds that do not survive long. This Yeti legend is quite common in this part of the world and the Abominable Snowman of Nepal (??) lives, in Himalayan terms, only down the road. I'm sure they meet up for a drink every so often.

The night sky is so clear I can see planets, constellations and whole galaxies and it still blows me away every night. The little children are easily the cutest bundles of joy you ever saw and every garden sports an apple, apricot and cherry tree. The apricots are the finest in the world apparently.

There is no nightlife here and come 9 o'clock it gets dark and everyone snuggles up indoors. There is no English TV but I'm not bothered (2 English channels in Dushanbe and I got bored of both within 2 days). I have already finished John le Carre and have hit Jeffrey Archer with avengence. I have a nice rented apartment and an efficient housekeeper, all of which costs 120 US dollars per month. I have learnt enough Farsi not to cause offence. With pronunciation, just turn every 'a' to an 'o' and you are ok. There is no real Internet here, only email bursts via satellite phone.

Tomorrow I cross the border into Afghanistan and will not re-emerge until Friday or perhaps never at all ;) In this part of the world, Afghanistan is the badlands, the no-go area. It is the Harlem of Central Asia, which is saying something.

Regards, Zaeem

[19th August]

19th August Hello all, Greetings from the Pamirs - 'The Roof of the World'. I recently made my first venture into Afghanistan, which was an experience.

The journey from Khorog in Tajikistan to Baharak in N.Afghanistan is approx. 350 km, but roads being non-existent, the trip took us close to 10 hrs. Taj and Afg is separated only by the Oxus river, but the difference could be a world away - Taj spent the last 70 yrs being 'modernised' by the Reds while Afg spent the last few decades being systematically annihilated, first by the Reds, then by themselves and whoever else was in the area. We crossed the border at Ishkashem, a barren wasteland consisting of very mean looking Russian Border Guards, bored Afghans and a few U.N food warehouses. The valley was wide and the wind whipped past the mountains into a constant, moaning gale that made the checkpoint a truly soul-less place. We didn't leave it too soon. The RBGs seemed happy enough though and I soon realised this was due to the quantities of vodka, fags and assorted fruits/food that was generously donated to the RGB goodwill fund.

Once in Afg, we said goodbye to decent roads and slowed to a 30 kph crawl. This was the 'good' road and lasted for only a 100 km. The rest of the road was barely a track and for a good 50 km we were thrown about the Toyota Landcruiser like a bucking bronco. We managed an average speed of 10 kph as we followed the Varduj river, a tributary of the Oxus. I sprained my neck twice. Having said that, the road, which is being built by the Brits is the only way into Afghan Badakhshan, short of a helicopter and it is a lifeline for the mountain dwellers. The one consolation of the ride was the landscape, which changed from desert to green valley as quickly as crossing a mountain spur. The wide, fertile valleys were magical places, where the river broke its bank so often that there was no real path for it and the water simply flowed a few inches deep across half a mile of emerald grass, willows and poplars. We passed about 7 cars during the 350 km trip and most of them were U.N and AfghanAid.

Luckily, Baharak and most of Afghan Badakhshan has been spared the Taliban. This is due to a combination of Ahmed Shah Massoud's Alliance force and the sheer inaccessibility of the mountains. But this has not stopped the dark forces of the Taliban from trying. They traditionally make their attempt around mid-August - after the harvest and before the winter. When, not if they would strike was the staple conversation for the locals. I heard yesterday, from the relative safety across the border that the Taliban launched the invasion and have pushed into Takkar, only a few days away from Baharak, the center of FOCUS operations in N.Afghanistan. FOCUS was also in Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban took it and the staff had to suffer looting of computers, radios, Jeeps and physical beatings at the hands of the Taliban. So Massoud's flimsy Northern Alliance faction and the Taliban religious seminary students are going to fight it out over Faizabad and the Panjsheer Valley. If Massoud fails, the Taliban will be free to swarm over the Hindu Kush and the Wakhan Corridor at their leisure, creating a refugee crisis in their wake. Here's my tip for travelling in the East - carry a digital camera with a screen. Actually I 'borrowed' the idea from Nick Danziger in his book 'Danziger's Travels' (which I strongly recommend). He was writing in the early 80's so his version was a Polaroid camera, but the principle is the same - there is nothing the locals enjoy more than having their picture taken and seeing the results instantly. It drives the kids totally nuts! In 5 seconds you can have 25 kids lined up quicker than a military parade. They make you feel like you've made a friend for life, for the price of a snap. It should be depressing, but I find it strangely refreshing. In any case I became an instant hit. I tried the same tactic later, back in Khorog and the effect was the same, despite any sense of 'modernisation'.

I was mobbed by more than 15 kids and had to back off for fear of breaking the camera. I don't know why the locals even in Taj love it and If anyone has any ideas please let me know. My attempts at getting the locals in Khorog into Trance and Jazz is finally paying off. They now select John Coltrane of their own volition and seem to appreciate the finer points of ambient dance. I am surprised as all they seemed to want to listen to before was a strange Russian/Euro House mixture that would make your skin crawl. In return, they have got me hopelessly hooked on Persian Gazzals - a kind of soft, devotional sung poetry. It really is a beautiful sound and I'm told the hot Gazzal chick of the moment is someone called Gagosh, or Gagoosh who lives in LA Try finding that on Amazon.com! Persian, or Farsi, itself is acoustically a cross between Japanese and French. I have started taking lessons and in it and I am progressing well. I can say important things like 'you're crazy!' and 'everybody's crazy!'.

I am teaching the locals how and when to say 'Bugger off!' and 'I don't give a monkeys!' and they in turn are progressing well. Ahh, truly a meeting of great civilisations! Always happy to do my bit.

Regards, Zaeem

[25th August]

25th August My stomach has been suffering under the stress of the local diet and I have been very drained the last few days.

I was invited to a birthday party by the local FOCUS team, which was held even higher up in the mountains in the Khorog Botanical Gardens. I was offered/forced some Tajik wine for the toast. It was made from apricot I think and was sweet and strong and was drunk from a shot glass. I figure they saved the bigger glasses for pure vodka, perhaps? The toasts and the wine rolled by and I quite began to enjoy myself. We were joined by some Russian Border Guards, whom FOCUS likes to keep sweet for obvious reasons. They really got the place going. The standard Tajik toast lasted for about 3-4 minutes with the toaster hardly pausing for breath. It was all in increadibly monotonous Russian and ran along the lines of '..may good luck cross your path, may you be blessed with many honest friends...' etc etc. The burly RBGs were tickled to hear me cry 'Nazdarovye!!' (cheers in Russian) after a toast and they returned in strong accents and without any intended humour, 'Chin, Chin!'. I had to stifle my grin. I never realised the British Raj stretched this far.

The Tajiks regaled me with proud facts after a few more shots of wine. Apparently their Botanical Gardens is the highest one in the world. I didn't know anyone was keeping track of these things, but it was obviously important to them. Can somebody check that in the Guiness Book please? For all I know they could have just been humoring the 'New Foreigner'. Just down the road is also the worlds highest airport, where the planes have to keep their engines running after landing. The air is so thin that if they switch their engines off they can't start them again and the airport is full of ancient, stranded planes that made that same mistake.

Talking of thin air, I am starting to feel the lack of oxygen in the shortness of my breath. It's not that I mind so much, but the Tajiks spend all day smoking these rancid, home-grown cigarettes and seem to get around fine. It just isn't fair. Am I really that unfit? You'll be glad to hear that I think I am finally making inroads on that cuddly belt of fat around my waist we have all grown to know and love. A daily diet of water, melon and cabbage really works wonders, girls - well for the body if not for the soul.

I shouldn't really call the locals Tajiks. They are quite offended by this and tell me they are actually Shugni. Rather ominously, they say the difference with the Tajiks is like the difference between the Chechens and the Russians (the locals being like the proud, underdog Chechens of course). I asked them what was so different in the two cultures and one chap said indignantly 'The Tajiks show off the matrimonial bedsheets after the first wedding night, but we don't!' I wondered aloud if perhaps there was a reason for this lack of openness in the matrimonial linen? The chap roared out like a grizzly bear in knowing laughter, while the girl who had joined us scowled at me and sulked. I guess saucy jokes are appreciated (and despised) the same wherever you go. You see what years on the Merrill Lynch trading floor does to you!

I have given up on shopping. For a start there isn't much to buy and when I do go for the kill it is usually me who gets stitched up like a kipper. My cockney negotiating skills are being sorely tested and I am also running out of hard currency. The guys laughed when I told them I will soon have to dip into my USD travellers cheques. Oh how they laughed. Apparently the nearest place to change them is Osh, about a full days drive away in Khyrgyzstan. They started to tell tales of westerners (probably Americans ;) ) who came with nothing but their Visa credit cards, expecting to be able to use them in Khorog. I wasn't sure I liked being compared to the credit card crew, but was glad to be such valued entertainment to the locals. Anything for cross-cultural relations, I say.

There are quite a few expats and aid agencies in Khorog. I sense a lot of competition between FOCUS, Medicins Sans Frontiers and the Red Cross among others. In a sense we're all doing similar things so there is room for comparison and hence competition, but it all seems rather childish. We zoom around town in our specially modified Toyota LandCruisers feeling very important, looking each other up and down on our way to high level meetings and sometimes I think we loose sight of the real reason why we're here in the first place. The expats generally tend to avoid each other if they can help it and eye each other warily from a distance. There is a real Lawrence of Arabia complex. They build a world of exotic orientalism around them and get quite miffed when fresh westerners arrive and accidentally pierce this bubble. I suppose they are making an effort to blend with the local culture though - most speak Russian and/or Farsi - rather than hanging out in colonial bars telling golfing anecdotes. Funny, but the last time I remember being eyed up and down so suspiciously was during my first days in the City. The more things change...

A few days ago I went to a traditional Pamiri wedding. It was easily the most fun I've had since I came. About 200 guests crammed into the only restaurant in town and some even had to be seated in the stairwell, don't ask me how. The evening was hosted by the owner of the restaurant, who was also a professional comedian and a high school teacher when he could find the time. He kept us entertained with lots of dirty jokes, which retained their humor even when translated. A true pro. He was careful though to avoid eye contact with the resident Mullah, who seemed a harmless fellow, if a bit stiff, tucked away in a corner blinking through the thickest glasses I've ever seen. Then came the traditional Tajik dancing. The electricity and hence sound system gave out half way through and the compare had to rustle up a band from somewhere. We had a hand drum, an accordion, a snake-charmers pipe and a singer. The result was magic. The crowd really got in the mood and I had a good old knees up. Then the music changed suddenly from Tajik to Pamiri. This has a slow, Voodoo-like drum beat, coupled with the Indian snake-charmers pipe forming a hypnotic melody on top. The dancing changed as well. It is very hard to describe the Pamiri dance, but I can say that it held me in absolute awe. A man and woman would dance around each other, while play flirting. The guy would wave his arm about as if it was a fencing foil and would seem to stumble and then swoop along the floor back up to the woman and do a few mad twirls in between. The woman would hold her head and neck straight and twist her wrists and forearms around to form complex patterns in the air, all the while playing off against the mans 'advances'. The lyrics were taken from medieval mystical Sufi love poetry (Hafiz of Sheraz if your interested) and the combination produced a most sublime effect. I was soon forced out of my trance when the electricity returned, but ultimately privileged to have been able to share the moment.

Partying is all the Pamiri Tajiks seem to do with their evenings. Any chance they get they're off hitting the dance floor of the local restaurant whirling and twirling like there's no tomorrow. An expat had a leaving party a couple of days ago and I was 'forced' along - the guys nicked my ruck sack and stuffed it with bootleg vodka. I wasn't feeling well at all and didn't really enjoy it. This time all the whirling of the Pamiri dance just made me nauseous. I was told to drink a bowl of neat vodka and salt by the local gynaecologist to kill off the offending bacteria in my dodgy tummy. This prescription was seconded by a young English chap sitting opposite, who has been here for over 5 years and for this reason alone I obliged. I sipped the vodka to cheers and backslaps from the guys, who by the way are a filthy lot. All they talk about is taking this bit of skirt to bed or having a go at another bit of skirt. The guys are all married, of course. I took to showing them my middle finger a lot after they suggested what I should do to a number of local girls, but judging by their howls of drunken laughter I think I only encouraged them. But, they are a bunch of characters and I'll tell you more about them some other time.

I will be hitting Afghanistan again on Monday for a few days, running the gauntlet with the Taliban, so wish me luck.

Regards, Zaeem

[10th September]

10 September Hello all, Thanks a lot for the emails of support. It can be very isolating here and the emails bring welcome news. Time for update 4.

I have been in Afghanistan for 2 weeks, caught up with the refugee crisis and reporting from the front line of the fighting. I'm sorry this email will not be as funny or entertaining as the others, but quite honestly, after the last 2 weeks I don't think I have any humour left in me.

I had originally planned to spend a couple of days in the FOCUS office just across the border to train the staff in project planning, finance and database skills. When I got there, a FOCUS director phoned and requested that since I was the only FOCUS expat around I should attend the govnt refugee coordinating meeting in Faizabad (FZ) the next morning and represent FOCUS. Quite daunting, but I had to do my bit so at 4 am the next day I left for FZ, my original plans totally out of the window. The UN meeting was quite intense. I had to bluff my way in planning for the refugees with the govnt, WFP, UNICEF, ACTED and ORA representatives, none of whom knew that I had never done this sort of thing before.

As you may remember from my last email, the Taliban had started their invasion of the last remaining provinces of Afghanistan, held by Massoud's & Rabbani's Northern Alliance. They attacked Taloqan, the main city of the province of Takkar, next to Badakshan, which is where I was. The refugees fled to Kishem, just across the provincial border in Afghan Badakhshan. At the meeting, I had pledged FOCUS' assistance in Kishem. Quite honestly, the other NGO's didn't seem to care that much about the crises. I wondered why they were there in the first place. In any case, I made a personal pledge to Syed Tariq, the head of Rabbani's Military Council, regarding a distribution of tonnes of wheat, oil and powdered milk, so the next day I made plans with the local staff and soon after I hit the road again for Kishem. Before I left I met with some of the refugees who had made it as far as FZ. I spoke with them at length about their plight. Some had walked for 5 days over the harsh mountains, in order to avoid Taliban checkpoints. This was further motivation, if any was needed.

The road from the Tajik border to FZ was terrible, but bearable. In any case, it was being constantly improved by Afghanaid and FOCUS. The road from FZ to Kishem was beyond terrible and getting worse. It was little more than a series of deep potholes connected by mounds of dust and large boulders and it lasted for about 130 km. It followed the Kookcha River through the forbidding mountains, the baking sun bearing down on us for over 5 hours as we picked our way, averaging little more than 10 kph. At many points the Land Cruiser would be at 45 degrees on its side and I would stare down at the raging torrents 200 ft below wondering if we would tilt just slightly more and plummet to our deaths. I learnt how to pray on this, the Devils own road.

When we got to Kishem we met immediately with the relevant authorities and in each case, as the only expat I represented the FOCUS team and explained our plans. We met with the local military chief - commander Attai. He was a powerful and feared warlord, but was always very calm and courteous. He only once snapped at an underling who then cowered like a beaten dog from the scene. Anyway, he was very nice to us and put us up in a spare room in his HQ. The HQ itself was riddled with bullet holes - a constant reminder of the war that was only a few kilometres away. The commander sat us down with the district commander and the mayor of Kishem, and we worked out a distribution strategy. We also met with the govnt people registering the refugees. They proved to be incompetent, uncaring and more than slightly corrupt. We challenged their useless lists of families and their head decided to hide from us henceforth.

We slept 6 to a small room on the floor. We ate in the local, filthy restaurants surrounded by a thousand flies at all times. We washed in the local river (if at all). I grew a beard and became sick again. The heat was intense and the filth overbearing. I lost all sense of time in what became a delirious haze interspersed with moments of lucidity. We stayed for 4 days, monitoring, meeting and reporting. I was sick, tired and frustrated as we tried to formulate an equitable plan to distribute food in such a chaotic environment. The refugees were becoming desperate as I pleaded with head office for the food aid we had promised. All the while the situation became more and more hostile. I was surrounded by crowds of refugees everywhere I went, demanding action. At one point, a respectable young man approached us and timidly handed us a note. The translation was something along the lines of ..."the UN treats Afghanistan like a boy treats a girl - constantly playing and teasing with no commitment". I was slightly confused until I realised the young man thought we were the UN! At that point the note became slightly chilling as it took on a challenging aspect. Then we got the call from head office. It was not the go ahead to distribute food, as we had hoped for, but instead an order to evacuate Kishem and return to Bahorak - head office had become fearful of our safety in such a hostile environment. We were devastated, but there was nothing we could do but pack our bags. We met with the local commander again and I explained the situation. He said he hoped we would be back soon, but we both knew that that was unlikely. I could not look him in the eyes. I felt like a traitor.

We travelled back to FZ, this time over the mountains, which was like driving through a cement quarry. Back in FZ we waited a few days on standby for further orders. Then we heard news that Taloqan had fallen to the Taliban. There would be a flood of refugees to Kishem, but it was now too dangerous to stay even in FZ, let alone Kishem, which was 90 km from the front lines. There was also rumour that Pakistani soldiers, supporting the Taliban were heading into Afghan Badakhshan from the south, which would have cut off our escape route and leaving us trapped. So we packed up again and made for the border, passing convoys of Northern Alliance troops going south, which confirmed stories of the Pakistani troops.

I am now back in safety in Khorog, Tajikistan. We crossed the border yesterday and to be honest I was glad to be back. I was sick of being tired and tired of being sick. On the other hand, I couldn't get Kishem out of my head. I had stayed only for 4 days but I had made friends there - Jean and Anna, the exhausted French MSF expats, Towfan, the English Afghan who had lived all his life up in Moscow and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, commander Attai who had such hope in our presence and the children of Kishem who didn't have a clue why their world was being torn apart. And I thought about them; that's because I proved to be too useless to do anything else.

When I got back I heard something about a historic meeting of world leaders at the UN in New York. I even saw the pictures of the smiles and the handshakes and the pompous diplomatic protocol. Very impressive images of the Americans & the Russians who had bankrolled and fed the destruction of so many lives in Afghanistan and the Pakistanis and the Saudis and who insist on propping up such an evil, bloodthirsty regime as the Taliban. I could rant further about what I think of these pathetic cretins, but I guess I'm reminded of what Bogart says at the end of Casablanca - what I say and do really doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Regards, Zaeem

[23rd September]

23 September Hello all,

Only a brief update from the Pamir Mountains this time, as I'll be returning to London pretty soon.

The refugee problem in Afghanistan that I was monitoring has escalated. The dreaded Taliban have managed to outflank the Northern Alliance with a deft two-pronged manoeuvre via N.Pakistan. They have cut off the Wakhan Corridor, next to China, and are pushing to cut Zeebok & the supply route of Gen. Ahmed Shah Massoud - Afghanistan's last hope for a democratic, free future.

Jeez, I sound like I'm narrating Star Wars! Sorry, no Princess Leah and no cuddly Ewoks, just plain blood and guts and starving families. :( More worryingly, the Taliban militia are on the outskirts of the town of Kishem, which as you will remember, was where I was a couple of weeks ago re. the refugees. Our people there can actually hear the heavy guns blasting away in the distance - about 15 km away. Good thing I got out when I did, I guess?

There was a possibility today of travelling, via a tricky Zeebok, to Faizabad and maybe on to Kishem. To be honest, I jumped at the chance, since I did promise the refugees there that I would return with something tangible, but I was requested to stay behind and monitor the reporting channels. Maybe this was a good thing…the guys that went are Pakistani citizens and would be treated relatively well by the Taliban in case of interception. I, as a clean-shaven westerner, however, would likely have been beaten quite soundly about the head and body upon capture. It's happened to FOCUS staff before by the Taliban and it can happen again.

On a lighter note, my Farsi is coming along well (I can speak whole sentences!) and I learnt the Russian alphabet in an afternoon the other day, but only because it's a lot of fun, in a geeky sort of way, and I had nothing better to do. My project management workshops have been a big hit and staff from other aid agencies have started attending and requesting advice - like I'm an expert or something! ;) Also, the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) community have finally woken up to the refugee problem in Kishem and have mobilised a decent response - a 50kg bag of wheat per family. I'd like to think I had something to do with it and in a roundabout way I guess I managed to force a few hands with my planning and pushing and general political shenanigans.

The local military commander offered to marry me off in his wife's village (further) up in the mountains the other day. He thought I would be a good match for the girls there for some reason and I feel it had a lot to do with the fact that I admitted to being familiar with the works of Rumi and Omar Khayyam, (a couple of local mystics from the middle ages). Don't ask how I got into this sticky situation. Regardless, he was the commander and we had to oblige/humour him. In fact he went as far as making me his adopted son…until I told him I could only recite verses of Rumi's poetry and not Omar Khayyam's. This was (clearly?) a real faux pas as mysticism and related literature is very much alive in the mountains where 1000 year old works of certain Sufi mystics are kept as sacred texts by most households. It was all very confusing. I was then relegated to an honoured guest and thus avoided trekking to Bartang village to find a wife. Phew.

The locals are gearing up for my leaving party. The best offer so far has been a modest country house with slaughtered sheep thrown in and lots of entrancing Pamiri music. How can I refuse? Actually I think it will be quite a bittersweet affair with my new Russian Border Guard pals, the staff at FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance and the other NGO's as well as assorted Pamiri mountain folk I've befriended along the way. Real salt-of-the-earth. It's a shame the Afghans can't be there, but they'll be lucky to leave their province, let alone cross the border. Still, we said our goodbye's in Afghan Badakhshan, where they presented my with a hefty chunk of Lapis Lazuli - a local semi-precious stone - for my meagre efforts.

Anyway, look forward to seeing you all (including the US contingent that emailed) very soon in dreary, grey London. I love it really;)

Regards, Zaeem