Google “Afghanistan” and what you’ll get is war, extremism, and religion. So when I was offered a chance to go there, I didn’t accept straight away. Should I believe the media and all that I see on TV? Or should I listen to the people I knew who had already been to Afghanistan, and who talked of amazing people, incredible mountains, and another world to see?
I read the security reports, the number of incidents having steadily increased year on year. I took in the security protocols, no walking in Kabul, curfews, off-limit locations. It all made for grim reading. Anyone with any sense would say ‘No, won’t go’.
But there’s a streak in me that wants to confront the things that are deemed dangerous.
Because when I do, the fear I often had turns out to be untrue. I think that’s what makes me love mountain running. Because when I start, I look up at the mountain and my stomach sinks at the thought of the pain of running upwards. And when I’m at the top, my nerves twitch madly as the mist comes down and I’m terrified of losing my way. And as I come down, I sweat about twisting an ankle or losing control as the ground falls away from my feet. But then I’m at the bottom, and I wonder what all the panic was for.
So I took the flight to Afghanistan and waited for the fear to set in. I arrived in Kabul and threw on my headscarf, hiding my female features below the cloth. I was driven quietly to the head office, where I slept, ate, and worked until the flight out to the provinces was arranged.
As we took off from Kabul the next day, I saw what I had come for. Mountains, magnificent snow capped mountains stretching out below us, a raw wilderness I had never seen before. We landed in Faizabad, a small town in the north east of Afghanistan, where I was to spend the next 2 weeks working. All around the town were perfect hills to run up and round and down. And behind, higher and more beautiful peaks still white from the winter snow.
I wanted to run them, but knew the strict security protocols. There are landmines up there. Too dangerous to go. But more than that, there was no way that a woman was allowed to go gallivanting on her own out in the Afghani hills. Driving along the streets, nearly all the women were hidden away under sky blue burkas. It was impossible to know who was who. Before I left, a colleague let me try hers out. It was impossible to see my feet. She told me that other women had poor eyesight from trying to look out of the netting. But if the family thinks that she should wear it, then she never leaves home without it.
My two weeks in Afghanistan reversed the years of negative press I have heard. I met incredible people, friendly, intelligent, committed, fun to be with. I saw their incredible land, cherry blossomed with fresh mountain air, clear rivers, and inspiring hills. And though the war still goes on, I found that many of my fears were unfounded.
One evening we were invited to dinner to the World Food Programme (WFP) compound. I spoke with another aid worker and soon conversation turned to how, if the war was not on, what an incredible adventure sporting country Afghanistan would be. She often rode horses into the outlying villages, and had seen how the trails were world-class for running. The rivers were perfect for white water rafting and kayaking. And I’d already seen trails from afar that looked perfect for mountain biking.
So though this time I was barred from the mountains, maybe one day I’ll come back not as an aid worker but a tourist, and get to enjoy the real Afghanistan.