Touring Scenic Afghanistan: Climbing in Kunar
By Roman Skaskiw
I don’t imagine too many people would vacation nowadays in Afghanistan, especially not in Kunar Province, but maybe. The most likely (and cheap) way for an American to get there is to be in the Army, or, as in my case, get called back to the Army after three years of civilian life for one more combat tour.
Bull Hill was the name of one of the observation posts overlooking my base. Usually, we changed guards on Fridays, because Fridays are the weekend in Islamic countries, and a good day to reorganize. There were generally fewer attacks.
Also, since we were a Provincial Reconstruction Team and did business with local government officials, tribal elders, contractors and other Afghan big shots, there wasn’t often reason to run missions on their weekend.
We had many base workers: a gardener, sweepers, mopers, the guy who painted signs, a tailor who’d sew anything you gave him, Sparky, who’d replace fuses, the carpenters, the baker who’d cook for locals (though we too could buy his flat bread with cinnamon for a buck), and more. Most of them stayed home on Friday.
Anyway, Bull Hill. Occasionally, I joined the soldiers making the climb to relieve last week’s guards. The first time hurt much worse that I had expected. It felt like my body was about to break – legs, back, lungs, the sweat burning my eyes. I’m no slouch. I was the second fastest runner in my unit, but Bull Hill almost put me to shame.
The second climb was already easier. I think something changed deep inside my muscles, bones, soul after the first agonizing ascent. My body said, “Holy crap,’ I’d better not let that happen again.” On the second, I finished in a respectable forty-nine minutes.
The PRT record was forty one – body armor and weapon required. What mattered was that I finished a few minutes ahead of my team sergeant, friend, and perennial rival. I’m glad for our rivalry. Were it not for him, I would probably have slept in.
The last of the soldiers made it up in about ninety minutes. Soldiers staying the week paid kids to carry up their packs. The kids beat each other for the opportunity, swing each other around by their colorful smocks, throw occasional punches. They wore flip flops, climbed like goats, and negotiated with you for the entire ascent.
Kid #1: “What’s your name?”
Me: (out of breath) “Roman.”
Kid #1: (shaking my hand) “You do business just with me. He no good guy. You business with me. My name John. You ask for John any time.”
Me: (climbing in silent agony)
Kid #1: “What you want? Man-jammy? Sexy movie? I bring you. You tell me and I bring.”
Me: “Nothing. Thanks.”
Kid #1: “Why nothing? You say last week you do business?”
Me: “No I didn’t.”
Kid #1: “Give me your watch.”
Me: “You want my watch?”
Kid #1: “I trade for you.”
Me: “I don’t want anything. Thanks.”
Kid #1: (Sulks away)
Kid #2: (taking my hand) “What’s your name?”
Kid #2: “My name Santos, you do business with me?” (Starts pushing me up the hill, which actually feels great, but is considered against the rules for those of us who time our ascents.)
Me: “No Push.”
Kid #2: “Why no push?”
Me: “Because I said so.”
Kid #2: “You want scarf? I bring you…”
Me: “No scarf.”
Kid #2: “You give dollar I bring you scarf.”
Me: (blinking the sweat from my eyes) “I don’t want scarf, sorry. I don’t want anything.”
Kid #2: (Muttering something in Pashto)
Kid #3: “Hey! What’s up man? (taking my hand and shaking it) You remember me last week? You say you have business with me?”
My third ascent was a little different. I paid a kid one dollar to lead me up. I picked one who was quiet and not elbowing his rivals to reach us as we stepped out the gate. Joe. I followed him, zig-zagging up the route.
The trails aren’t always apparent on the rocky slope, and it helps to have a guide. Forty-five minutes. When you hire one kid, the others leave you alone, mostly.
At Bull Hill, I asked for a Corona, but all they had were Gatorade and water and a local who made chai. He heated a picket pounder over the propane stove, and something exploded out from it, loud enough to ring my ears. I startled violently, as I was wont to do. Everybody laughed. “This my RPG [rocket-propelled grenade],” he said, showing his bad teeth.
“Chai guys are always a few sandwiches short of a picnic,” my team sergeant said. I looked at the gun emplacements, and scanned valleys I don’t usually see from lower elevation. I studied what our base looked like from above and waited for everybody else.
Down hurts too, just as bad, but it doesn’t last as long.
Roman Skaskiw served as an infantry officer with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was recently recalled for another tour in Afghanistan with the Kunar Province Provincial Reconstruction Team.
Read more GoNOMAD stories by Roman Skaskiw:
Read Roman Skazkiw’s essays in the Atlantic Monthly:
and the New York Times:
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