Men with big guns and small fluffy pets: Herat, day one

(Before we begin: Happy Birthday Andrew Quilty – may your next twelve months be as fun, stimulating and eye opening as these last few weeks have been)

Half way up the hill and I can hardly make out the features of the children playing off the path below us.

It’s a cool day in Herat – Google tells us it’s below zero, which feels a bit excessive – but we’re making fast work of a steep high slope to the north of the city’s outskirts and I’m hot.

Rather than assume my eyesight is actually as bad as it is, I adopt the I-can’t-see-them, so-they-can’t-see-me attitude as justification to pull off my headscarf. Herat is at least a few notches more conservative than Kabul, but I’m feeling disinclined to tow the apparel line; I’ve been itching all week to get out of Kabul and be free to walk through grass and rocks and clear air, and today we’ve found just the spot to do it. Hejab will not hold me back (OK I’m being overly dramatic, a head scarf never stopped anyone get up a hill, but it’s nice once in a while to pretend I’m somewhere other than an Islamic state).

I’m making a beeline for an incomplete and apparently abandoned house perched on the high saddle of the hill. As I crest the peak, blithely relishing in my momentary freedom, a shadow moves behind a far plastic covered window, putting paid to my reverie. Scarf goes back on, stat.

There’s someone up here, I call down to Andrew and our two local friends who’ve been guides and translators par excellence for us all day.

Ah yeah there’s a soldier on the roof, comes AQ’s reply.

I spin round. Shit. So there is. Where on earth did he come from? An Afghan dude in camouflage saunters down to meet us on what would otherwise have been the driveway.

I’m uneasy but our local friends make their introductions and all seems right with the world.

To be fair, it’s probably not every day that a bolshy white girl barrels up the hill to their front door proclaiming aloud to no-one in particular “My god, wouldn’t this be just The Most Amazing place to live. Imagine what you could do with it, I mean, would you just look at those views” – all the while thinking about an alternate universe where it’s the British House & Garden international feature home of 2014 and I’m it’s owner.

We wander for a bit, drinking in the landscape and Herat’s city laid out before us, still unclear about exactly what the building was meant to be used for. Speaking of bolshy, our local friend did mention something about it apparently being a Russian outpost at one stage. Its window panes are empty of glass, no internal work has been done and in the tradition of all good Middle Eastern-slash-southern Asian construction areas, there is still mile upon mile of steel rebars sticking out from what should have been the otherwise flat, sealed roof.

The other thing AQ noticed sticking out from the roofline was a pair of tiny blonde fur ball faces: two month old pups being raised, we later found out, by the soldier to be fighting dogs. For now, though, we shall give them the very un-fight-worthy names of Fluff-1 and Fluff-2. To say I was enamoured would do my state of being an injustice. Quick as a shot we’d got permission to scoot up the concrete ramp that would under other circumstances have been finished off as a rather steep staircase, and land ourselves on the roof with the dogs.   

They had the run of the place – with a tiny shelter in one corner lined with sheep’s wool, and a giant bowl of what looked like boiled potato, tomato and black olives (really, dogs eat olives?) for sustenance. Already their ears and tails had been clipped short to minimise damage during future fights. Down below, at what would otherwise have constituted the front door, lay a full grown version of the pups – I wasn’t sure if it was mother or father dog, but I had no intention of getting close enough to find out. 

We took our leave (me empty handed despite seriously considering putting one of the pups in my pocket) and headed back down the hill.

To the right we could see the small tomb like cave where the hash addicts hang out, via which we made a quick trip on the way up, and a long detour around on the way down.

To our left, there’s movement over the ridge.

It’s a white guy in full US military kit carrying a rather large gun.

Ah right. That’s um, unusual, no?

I had a momentary flash of the ol’ WTF and a raised heart rate, until I saw the other fourteen of his mates carrying up the rear. Why that made me feel better, not worse, is beyond me.

One by one the trudged over the hill and down past the humungous empty swimming pool complex three quarters of the way down the hill. As Andrew noted, it’s nice to see they had as much trouble keeping their footing on the loose ground as we did (only difference being that when one of us slipped and hit the deck, we weren’t carrying a loaded M16).

We concluded that it must have been a routine perimeter patrol, what with the US embassy temporarily housed in the city’s only five star hotel about 2 kilometres away down the slope. In any event, it gave us an excuse to bolt over to the swimming pool and pace its length, watching them watching us.

I made some ludicrous attempt to speak a little louder in the hope they heard my Australian accent before they saw my head emerge above the pool parapet.

Andrew went one step further and issued a ringing “cooee” in their direction, before proclaiming in a more-than-usually pronounced occer accent that we were indeed friend, not foe. Frankly, they must have thought we were all total twats, but the episode certainly made our decent down the hill a damn sight more fun.

And now we both feel like we’re really in a war zone. None of this suicide bombing stuff going on down the road from our Kabul hotel – oh no, that won’t do it. It’s the 15 US service men slipping on gravel down a hill outside Herat. I knew we were waiting for something.

Traversing the edge of what would have been a garden at the House on the Hill, above Herat – photos courtesy of AQ this weekend (my phone is lost to the gods and my camera battery is flat as a tack. Me and electronics: an unproductive relationship)

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Fluff 1. Nuff said. 

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Shadows cast on the inside of the empty swimming pool we were using as our watching post as the US military patrolled past. It was a truly incredible spot for a swimming pool, with amazing expansive views. Clearly that’s why it was empty and disused. Not too much fun allowed in Afghanistan, folks.

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Wow, US camouflage kit really works, right?

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