It’s ten in the morning and I’m flying in to Kabul again. The sun is bright on the western peaks of the Hindu Kush, a harsh monochromatic light of snow and shadow tinged with the absorbed pale blue of the sky. I try to remember the number of times I’ve made this flight – from that first one in October 2011, nearly two and a half years ago. This is my 10th trip, I think – but I shall have to check the visa stamps in my passport to be sure.
The landscape changes and yet stays the same. From the sere brown peaks of summer and fall, the thin ribbons of green along the glittering streams and rivers of spring, to this wasteland which rivals Aiyuittuq. If you’ve ever been to the far north, where the mountains of Baffin Island stretch inhospitably below, then you’ve seen this landscape. It’s a feral place, and one wonders how people can possibly survive here. But they do, as they do on Baffin, as they do in all the other parts of our world that some call uninhabitable and others home.
There’s one major difference on this flight. It’s less than half full, people stretched out across three seats, sleeping. This Airbus 320 has the capacity to carry 150 passengers but I’ve just walked to the back of the plane and there are only 62 people. Of these only 8 are women, and only three of these look like they are Afghan. There are a couple of soldiers returning from leave, French Army I believe, and a handful of older men. But most of the passengers look to be in their 20s and 30s, younger men coming home from working abroad perhaps, clutching carrier bags from the duty free shops at Frankfurt and Istanbul. Their carry-on bags are filled to overhead bin stuffing capacity but because there are so many empty seats, everything fits for a change.
It’s not like my last trip, before Christmas, when the flight was packed. Although that was after our 30 hour unanticipated stop-over in Istanbul, so there were two flights loaded on to a bigger plane. As we enter final approach we swing down over the eastern side of the Kabul bowl, that ring of mountains which surround the city.
A few minutes later we are coming over Kabul itself, and my view of the Hindu Kush is suddenly obscured by a thick black cloud of smog. The trouble with a mountain bowl at altitude is that you sometimes get a temperature inversion, where cold air rolling down from the surrounding mountains gets trapped, and so doesn’t rise up through the warmer air above. The pollution of the city is then kept more or less at ground level. As we landed I noticed that the clear air of the mountains was now a pale brown colour, a haze which obscured the details on the buildings as we passed.
At Kabul International Airport the entry formalities went smoothly. The people who issue the Foreigner Registration Cards weren’t there, so I’ll have to go to the Ministry building and do that. The x-ray machines were working, and this time nobody wanted to examine my bags. The lack of a 20 kg bag of laundry salts probably helped. I caught the free bus over to the car park. The bus is free, but to carry your bag on to (and later, off) the bus costs 50 Afs, about one US dollar. DK is waiting for me beyond the last security check, and we greet each other with an embrace. As we walk to the car he chatters about his family, his wife just had twins two weeks ago, they are all well, now he has nine children to look after. Well eight really, as his eldest daughter is married and he is a grandfather to her son.
As we drive into Kabul we chatter about the people we know, the work of the project, the upcoming elections. There are nine candidates running for president and many of them have banners hanging from the lamp-posts and power poles, or posted on billboards. Sometimes the photograph is of a single stern face, gazing out, but often all three members of the slate are represented, the one who would be president and his two nominees for vice president. I see one woman is represented.
There’s some snow on the ground still, and men digging shovels in to the drifts and then spreading the snow out on to the road to melt. The traffic lights are working, and we wait patiently for the green. The traffic is not bad, for Kabul, and we’re soon at the house. Someone has brought naan bread, and there’s fresh chai sabz, and everyone comes out of their office to say hello. I’m back in Kabul – again.