Matthew Leeming

Diary - 12 October 2002

The writer goes in search of Alexander the Great, but only finds Withnail and I

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On the trail of genetic traces of Alexander's soldiers in Afghanistan, I arrived in Badakhshan, the country's most remote and beautiful province that abuts China. I went to see my old friends at the government guest house, which is set on an island in the middle of the Kokcha river. We sat on a terrace with the river roaring 20 feet below us. Night fell quickly, and I looked up at more stars than I have ever seen before in my life; it was as if my sight had been miraculously restored. Occasionally, an orange tracer shell arced silently upwards as government soldiers tested their guns. The only thing to do for fun here is to take naswar. I asked Shafid, a turbaned old man who seems to have some sort of decorative function, what it was, and he said, 'It is part of narcotic. When you put it in your mouth, you will become like crazy man.' He showed me how to cup it in the palm of your hand and throw it underneath a raised tongue. It looked like ground tobacco and tasted revolting, and had no effect on me. Shafid said it was no good and went to fetch dope (chas) instead. When I gave him a packet of Rizla papers, his eyes nearly popped out of his head; he claimed never to have seen this invention before. I doubt this, because he proceeded to roll a Brobdingnagian spliff, jabbering at me in Farsi. I think he said, 'This is called a Kandahar Carrot.' With truly Afghan hospitality, he insisted that I take bigger and bigger puffs. After a bit, and with great difficulty, I went to get my Walkman and lay down on the pathway staring up at the stars and listening to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations. Heaven must be a bit like this.

At vast expense, I hired a pickup to Alexandria-on-the-Oxus. At dusk, we stopped at a chai khana (tea house) at Rustaq and I was accosted by a boy who spoke excellent English. He was called Nauser. He invited me to spend the night at his house. We sat in a room upstairs with five men, all either obscure relatives or people he had just befriended. I was sitting cross-legged and clumsily knocked the chai over, cursing myself. But they all said, 'No, no; it's good luck.' The only entertainment, apart from me, was a tiny black-and-white television, powered by a car battery and showing a Tajik soap opera, which none of them could understand. Suddenly, there was an on-screen kiss. Nauser called to others in the next room. They rushed in and there was complete quiet until it was over.

Four days of travel later, I hitched a lift on a lorry and spent the morning ascending the Anjuman Pass that links Badakhshan to the Panjshir Valley at 15,000 feet. We followed the river upwards until it became a stream, still the same beautiful aquamarine, with waterfalls white like ice. Just before the pass proper, there is a marshy lake, which is the source of the Anjuman river. Here the aquamarine deepens to a green-turquoise. The pass itself is spectacular. To get a better view, I joined my fellow passengers riding shotgun, like presidential bodyguards, on the running-boards, leaping on and off to push when we got stuck. At the top, I took a picture of the lake, the road winding up to it, and on either side massive mountain ranges stretching beyond the horizon. I was standing on the watershed between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, between the Oxus and the Indus river systems. It was very hot, and the sky was the light-blue of the lapis lazuli mined in the Blue Mountain, very close by.

On the way down the other side, I had the usual futile conversation with the passengers. Could they come and live with me in England? No, I said firmly, that was illegal. Was I married? Why not? Was it really true that in England men could go with men? 'Yes,' I said, 'and with animals, too.' One boy said that he had seen women with women on Tajik TV, which is obviously the sort of corruption the Taleban were out to stop - and quite rightly. Tajik TV seems to be the source of all the lubricious excitement available here. Then we got on to religion and evolution, my views on which offended them so much that I had to get back in the car. The only novelty was that one boy said triumphantly, 'Why does it say