MAZAR-E-SHARIF — Afghanistan's tectonics are active and violent; the country's bellicose history echoes the tremors of its crust. At 1 in the morning, my bed wobbles as though some enormous beast underneath is shifting in its sleep.
Earthquake. How fitting, I think: This is the night before I hit the road that leads southeast to Baghlan province and then north to Kunduz -- the road that has recently seen clashes between NATO and the Taliban, as well as kidnappings, extortions, and robberies by the Taliban, by the anti-government militia of the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and by ordinary -- but just as potentially deadly -- roadside thugs. Last week, five U.N. workers were kidnapped on this road; four German soldiers died in a firefight with the Taliban, along with three Afghan policemen. NATO airstrikes killed 29 insurgents and wounded 52, according to Afghan police officials.
At 5 in the morning, I bid farewell to my hostess, a portly matriarch with a gold stud in her right nostril. She nods back, and as I step off her tiled porch she throws some water in my direction from a red plastic pitcher, for good luck. The fierce-looking Pashtun driver everyone calls Qaqa Satar (qaqa means "uncle" in Dari) is wiping the rearview mirror of a hired sedan with the sleeve of his salwar kameez; Ramesh, my interpreter, and I pile into the car. We drive off into the giant, tangerine sun quivering on the eastern edge of the pink mountain ridge.
I spent several days doing research about the road. A security officer for a Western relief agency in Kabul told me flat-out not to take it. An Afghan colleague in Kunduz told me the road is safe from 8 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon (why 2:30, and not, say, 3, or 2:15?) and that Taliban fighters kidnap at least one person from the road each night. I spoke with a driver who travels from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kunduz every other day -- he dismissed stories of kidnappings, but told me that armed gangs pretending to be Taliban do set up checkpoints and rob travelers at gunpoint after dark.
His friend elbowed him out of the way to promise me that the road is absolutely safe, no trouble whatsoever. He drummed loudly on the hood of my hired car and yelled that he could guarantee my safe arrival in Kunduz "100 percent," for $100.
In the end, I have no idea what to expect. The sun rises and it is hot. We ride past copper mountains touched with a downy patina of tender spring grass, mostly in silence. The northern mesas of the Hindu Kush are lavender in the morning light.
To follow Anna's path through Afghanistan, check out this Google map.
Mazar-e-Sharif to Samangan
The Afghan countryside has barely changed since my first visit here in 2001. The same tired donkeys with their noses in the blood-red wild poppies. The same shepherds squatting beside outcroppings of ancient rock. The only visible change to the rural landscape are cell-phone towers and the repaved two-lane tarmac, which in 2001 and 2002 was so scooped out by decades of aerial bombardment it was barely navigable. The smooth road delights Qaqa Satar, who goes 80 miles per hour, swerving in and out of traffic to pass a slow-moving convoy of heavy Afghan army trucks. Oncoming Mercedes 18-wheelers painted turquoise and fuchsia blink their lights, then honk. If we die on this road, I think, it will be in a head-on collision.
I once drove on this road during a locust invasion. It was in 2002. The pavement was slick with crushed grasshoppers, and their delicate shells shattered against the windshield with a crunch, like potato chips.
Samangan to Pul-e-Khumri
At a roadside market in Samangan we buy two loaves of nan for a dollar.
The bread is warm, crusty in the middle where the baker pressed it into a flower pattern and sprinkled it with thyme and salt. Fog licks at the velvet hills and the gutted hulls of old Soviet tanks. Were they abandoned by the retreating Soviet Army in 1989? Were they the tanks of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary mujahideen leader, the Taliban had blown up in 1997? Were they Taliban tanks, destroyed in 2001 by U.S. warplanes? Their rusting metal is silent, their tracks are gone, and grass peeks through their turrets.