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Afghanistan: The Other Side

Text: Andy Davidson • Photography: Alissa Potter

“Afghanistan’s dangerous. Don’t go. What are you thinking?” they said. As we approached the border and saw the heavily armed guards, we wondered if they were right.

I can’t look away from the staring soldier, clutching his AK-47, behind the fence. He tilts his head in confusion, slings his gun over his shoulder and flicks through a set of keys to unlock the barbed wire gate. He drags the gate open, points toward a small hut, and locks the gate behind us.

Six guards come out, their eyes examining us. Alissa sits quietly on the back of the Yamaha XT660R, covered in silk scarfs in the baking sun. She nervously pulls her sleeves tighter over her gloves. Sweat and heat builds inside her helmet, but she can’t take it off in front of them. The online warnings screamed that women should cover their entire body, not look at or talk directly to men, only communicate through a male partner, and never shake a man’s hand—under any circumstance.

We get off the XT, and the men approach. Our hearts pound as we stand helpless. “Welcome Afghanistan!” someone says. They stand in front of us with beaming smiles and outstretched hands. Is this a test? Alissa hesitantly lifts her hand and a guard shakes it with a gentle grasp before pulling us into the hut for tea.

It’s not unusual for us to spend hours at borders, but it’s never been like this. Four hours of laughing and joking fly by. We’re squashed up in a hut filled with guards, our helmets are off, and we’re drinking tea and sharing food. The online warnings couldn’t have been more wrong. They take turns shooting selfies with the bike and admiring its many battle scars. The hardest part is understanding the paperwork. A guard keeps stabbing at a blank piece of paper with his pencil and pointing at himself. As their English is extremely limited, it takes us a while to figure out that he wants to see his name, Kamil, written in English so that we remember him. We tell him we’ll never forget it.

Cowboys and Burqas

Eventually, we leave the border and start our ride to the main town of Sultan Eshkashim. It’s like riding through another world. Abandoned Soviet tanks line the road, acting as a bleak reminder of Afghanistan’s long history of war. Women float along like ghosts in their iconic blue burqas as children play in streams and men gallop past on horses, guns slapping against their backs as they ride.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the July/August 2020 back issue.