Through the Heart of Afghanistan
With its centuries-old tradition of hospitality to travellers, few countries have inspired more passion through the ages than Afghanistan. This once-serene country was the home of the famous horsemen known as the “chopendoz,” those mounted daredevils who defied danger to play buz khazi.
Every Friday in
winter, the cavaliers known as chopendoz gather on the steppes of northern
Afghanistan to play buz khazi, an equestrian game wherein the ball is
substituted by an eighty pound calf carcass. The players must attempt to
take hold of the carcass, and eluding their pursuers during a lengthy
gallop, deposit it into the marked goal known as “the circle of justice.”
Considered one of the most dangerous equestrian sports known to man, the
notorious game was nearly a fatality of the Soviet occupation, who viewed
the proud chopendoz as rivals.
Buz khazi horsemen – Photo courtesy of Roland Michaud
Yet beginning with the communist coup d’état in the late 1970s, Afghanistan slid into a blood-soaked nightmare. The Soviets battled the mujahadeen – during which time an estimated ten million land mines were planted in the landscape. The country was then terrorized by the Taliban. Now a new conflict threatens to sweep away the current fragile peace.
While war raged, equestrian travel died. The old caravan trails were used by mujahadeen to elude Russian invaders. Horses were captured and ridden into battle. If any ferenghi (foreigner) was foolish enough to venture there, they did so quietly, quickly and almost always on foot. For nearly thirty years Afghanistan has been considered the horseman’s grave.
Though seldom reported in the West, the long battle between the Soviet
occupation forces and the mujahadeen had a strong equestrian element running
through it. Supplies were regularly funnelled into the war-torn country by
horse from Pakistan. Towards the end of the war, emboldened northern Afghans
mounted raids on Taliban-controlled tanks.
In this age of bloodshed, the names of Emile Trinkler and Ernest Fox – former Long Rider authors who had explored the vastness of Afghanistan – were lost and the road to equestrian adventure was closed, or so it seemed.
The Long Riders’ Guild is happy to report that despite the many documented dangers still existing in Afghanistan, two brave Long Riders have quietly ridden across the majority of the north-west corner of that country and thus have re-opened one of the most important equestrian travel routes in history.
Louis Meunier of France, and Hadji Shamsuddin of Maimana, have managed to ride nearly a thousand miles. As readers of The Long Riders’ Guild website may recall, Louis set out two months ago from Hadji Shamsuddin’s home in the northern city of Maimana.
To ride south to the destroyed Buddha at Bamiyan, travel west “through the heart of Afghanistan,” reach the faraway city of Herat, and then return north-east – without being killed or kidnapped – to Maimana.
An email just received by The Guild confirms that the intrepid Long Riders have now reached Herat !
Louis is carrying with him the classic equestrian travel book, “Through the Heart of Afghanistan.” Written by Dr. Emil Trinkler in the early 1920s, it recounts the mounted adventures of the young German geologist who rode through the centre of the country on his way to the fabled Khyber Pass.
written in German, Trinkler’s tale was translated into English by the Himalayan
explorer, Belford Featherstone, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. This
photo, taken by Trinkler, shows the ancient fortress in Herat, close to where
the modern Long Riders are currently resting their horses.
The ancient fort of Herat photographed by Emil Trinkler
Louis, who speaks fluent Farsi and spent a great deal of time in the country prior to setting out on this equestrian expedition, is accompanied by his friend, the Hazara tribesman and Afghan Long Rider, Hadji Shamsuddin. The Long Riders are riding across Afghanistan with three stallions, Mushki, Danesh and Chaitane.
Along their route the equestrian travellers were able to visit the semi-mythic “Minaret of Jam.”
The 65m-tall Minaret of Jam is a graceful, soaring structure, dating back to the 12th century. Covered in elaborate brickwork with a blue tile inscription at the top, it is the second-tallest brick minaret in the world.
An inscription on the minaret gives 1194 as the date of construction. It was built to commemorate the victory of an Afghan sultan over his Indian rival and was often known as the Victory Tower. Though once celebrated, the empire fell into oblivion and the minaret erected to recall this victory was itself forgotten for centuries by the outside world. It was rediscovered in 1957 by the Afghan Historic Society's president , and the French archaeologist . The minaret’s impact is heightened by its dramatic setting, a deep river valley between towering mountains in the heart of the Ghur province.
Unknown to the
West until the 1950s, the Minaret of Jam was the first site in Afghanistan to be
placed on the UNESCO World Heritage. It has survived earthquakes, wars, and the
havoc wreaked by Genghis Khan. Yet was damaged during the Soviet invasion in
Afghanistan and the subsequent civil war period.
Photo of the Minaret of Jam – courtesy of Unesco - Click on photo to enlarge
The last notable traveller to view the mysterious minaret was Dame Freya Stark FRGS. Born in Paris and educated in London, Stark (1893-1993) was a talented traveller and an inspired writer. In the late 1960s she reached the recently re-discovered Minaret of Jam by automobile. Her account, published in 1970, was the last visit to the lonely outpost undertaken by a major travel author before the country was swept up by years of warfare and cultural violations.
The following email, sent by Louis, explains how he and Hadji Shamsuddin have not only seen the famous minaret, but have now reached the temporary safety of Herat.
I hope you are well and sound.
It is with great pleasure that I write you from Herat. We got here yesterday after 19 days of ride from Bamiyan, and a total of 36 days on the road, 48 horse shoes, 540 kilograms of barley, and 1406 kilometres.
From Bamiyan, we retraced our hoofprints for one and a half days to enter the valley of Lal Wa Sarjangal. The name evokes the spirit of the forest (jangal), and indeed there were lots of trees. Actually I had never seen so many in Afghanistan. There we caught up with the very source of the River Hari-Rud. This was the heart of Hazarajat. The landscape was really beautiful and riding was a real pleasure. We were sleeping in empty and deserted mosques most of the time. For Eid [the end of Ramadan], we just had a small plate of rice. The weather was cold, with rain and snow on the route. At this time of the year people are working on the land to make ready for next year's wheat crop. We walked a week in this valley, coming out around the city of Daulatyar.
From there we still followed the river, but the track gets a bit wider. The Hari-Rud river gets really muddy at this point and no longer deserves its name of "clean river". After that we reached Chagcharan, the capital city of Ghur Province, where we gave the horses a rest.
Then we had to leave the riverbed for 3 days to go up north into the cold hills. In the village of Barakhana a spell was cast on my stallion, Mushki. In the morning I discovered that knots were tied in his hair: According to local belief, the knots came about because at night a jinn, or more precisely a naked woman with very long hair, would ride the horse and thus make him very tired during the day. The next day, I had a mullah uncast the spell by breathing on the hair and untying the knots.
Photograph of Mullah Khodadad cancelling the jinn's spell – Courtesy of Louis Meunier.
Click on photo to enlarge.
With the jinn under control, we caught up again with the Hari-Rud river. It was then that we reached the minaret of Jam. It is a beautiful piece of art. It was once the centre of the Ghorid empire. It is still standing but leaning dangerously.
Long Riders Louis
and Hadji Shamsuddin,
with their three Afghan stallions,
– Courtesy of Louis
From this point
we set out along the main trail towards the ancient city of Herat. Along the
way we met a lot of koochis, the nomads of Afghanistan. They live under black
woollen tents with their animals. As the road grew bigger, we saw more motor
traffic. Most of the time we had to spend the night in truck stop hotels, where
sleep is barely possible. The weather warmed up every day until we rode into the
dream city of Herat. Upon arriving there we were lucky enough to be greeted by a
famous local veterinary, who offered his garden as a temporary home for the
horses! Great! We are visiting them twice a day with their food.
We all need a good rest. Horses are well but tired. They have always had proper and sufficient food. But I had an outbreak of malaria two days ago and I am in no shape to ride on immediately! Insh’Allah, we shall leave for Maimana on Tuesday, November 22nd.
Actually we cannot follow the main road out of Herat on through Bala Murghab and Gormanch. This area is under Taliban control and is famous for robberies and killings. It is so dangerous that even Afghan nationals don't go there. Instead Hadji Shamsuddin and I will ride north to Qala-i-now, and then head in a south-easterly direction towards the town of Qadis. From there we will find the Murghab river and follow it back home to Maimana. If all goes well, we should be riding for another two weeks.
One thing I do want to comment on is that even with all of the recent warfare, I don't think things have changed much in the back country of Afghanistan since Trinkler's time. People still live the same way, except for the use of the motorbike and sometimes, but rarely, television. I shall reread Trinkler’s book again, after the ride is completed, when I will have a little more perspective.
I am happy to report that I am having a great time. I feel this is a unique experience. I am learning a lot about the country, its culture, and of course about riding. I am writing down lots of notes about our route and my personal impressions.
One thing I noticed which might be of importance to other Long Riders is that except for Herat the entire area we have been through since Bamiyan has very little horse culture left intact. Indeed, horses have almost disappeared from the countryside as they were stolen during the fighting.
After the Soviets withdrew,
northern Afghan tribes, especially the Turkomen, staged mounted raids on their
Then, about four years ago at the end of the Taliban war, motorbikes were imported into the country. They have now largely replaced our equine friends. When we go back to Turkistan, the northern part of Afghanistan, we will again find people with great horse knowledge.
But it is weird to be a horse traveller here in this new century and I always
face the same questions. Why do you go by horse? Do you travel by horse to sell
them? What do you have in your saddle bags? While many people have travelled
across this country out of necessity because of the fighting and wars, it is
still considered very strange to be a Long Rider here.
We wish you all the best,
Zenda bashi, be alive,
Rasta nabashi, never be tired,
Louis & Hadji Shamsuddin – Long Riders
The map on the right shows
the route Emil Trinkler took on his 1920s journey across Afghanistan.
Louis and Hadji Shamsuddin are now re-riding much of Trinkler's route "through
the heart of Afghanistan."
Click here to go to Louis's page on our website.
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