Sunday, 10 July 2011

Road to Jalalabad II

The 40-mile stretch, a breathtaking chasm of mountains and cliffs between Kabul and Jalalabad, claims so many lives so regularly that most people stopped counting long ago. Cars flip and flatten. Trucks soar to the valley floor. Buses collide.

On paper, the government of Afghanistan requires that drivers pass a test to get a license, but few people here seem to have one.Then there are the cars themselves, battered Toyota taxis and even Ladas from bygone Soviet days. A typical Afghan car has bald tires and squeaky brakes—not exactly ideal for zigging and zagging through the mountains.

The mayhem unfolds on one of the most bewitching stretches of scenery on all the earth. The gorge, in some places no more than a few hundred yards wide, is framed by vertical rock cliffs that soar more than 2,000 feet above the Kabul River below.

Over the centuries, countless invading forces passed through or near the gorge on their way to the Khyber Pass. Among them were a group of 17,000 British troops and civilians, who were massacred as they beat a retreat from Kabul at the end of the first Anglo-Afghan War in 1842. Dr. William Brydon, who rode into Jalalabad on a horse, was the only European to survive.

The Kabul-to-Jalalabad road was paved for the first time by the West German government in 1960. In the 1980s, it was obliterated during the insurrection against the Soviet invasion. In the decade that followed, when the Taliban and other armed groups fought to control the country, the road was blasted and the craters were so large that taxis would disappear for minutes at a time, only to reappear as they struggled to climb out.

It was a tough road, and it had its own dangers — stretches of roadway often collapsed or washed away — but speed was not among them. That changed in 2006, when a European Union-backed project finally smoothed the road all the way through. Now Afghans could finally drive as fast as they wanted.

The cars zoom at astonishing speeds and most of the time they make it. But perhaps the gravest threat, apart from speed of the cars, is the slowness of the trucks. The massive tractor-trailers that move cargo in and out of Pakistan are often overloaded by thousands of pounds. They cannot move fast; if they are climbing one of the gorge’s thousand-foot hills, they cannot move at all. They get stuck. They fall back. They fall over.

“The fighting with the Taliban lasts only for a day or two, but the crashes are every day,” said Juma Gul, who owns a fabric shop in Sarobi that looks directly out onto the highway. “It’s a kind of theatre. Sometimes, a car will fly by in the air.”

Edited from this article from the New York Times.

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