There may be better ways to get from Taloqan to Kabul, but they don't take you through the Salang Tunnel. And it would have been a shame to miss it. Built in the 1960s, a decade later it served as the backbone of the vast Soviet military presence, connecting Kabul and the north of the country. In the late 1990s, the Northern Alliance decided to dynamite both ends of the tunnel to deny it to advancing Taliban forces. No vehicles have passed through it since.
Just a few weeks ago, this side of the Salang Pass was still controlled by the Taliban, and strictly off-limits to journalists. Now, the place is flooded with traffic, most of it on foot. After climbing over a massive pile of rubble and twisted shards of metal piping, we stopped to catch our breath (it would take a whole hour to get through the toughest part of the tunnel), and entered.
The daylight just disappeared. In its place was an eerie sight: a wobbly flow of small yellow lights bobbing up and down as far as you could see, as hundreds of people tried to make their way toward the light we had just left. It was impossible to see their faces, and the distortion of the lights made it hard to tell when, or if, we would run into them.
After being in the tunnel for a while, we began to hear the screaming. As entire families waded through the rubble, sometimes slipping where ice covered the track, small children and babies wailed in the darkness. I listened to one voice approaching, crying and snuffling in his mother's arms as he passed, and then listened again as they scrambled by me. I never saw the boy's face.
But there was more than just wailing. The tunnel was filled with the sound of coughing as people tried to hack away the phenomenal dust. Our porters kept motioning us to keep to the sides of the tunnel because the center areas had been mined and never cleared. For weeks now the Northern Alliance has been saying the tunnel will be opened for road traffic at any time. It will likely take weeks. Aside from the mines, there are several thousand pounds of debris that need to be cleared away. And every few feet, huge scraps of twisted metal that used to hold electric wiring hang down, swinging through the darkness.
Finally, a spot of white light appeared--the other side of the tunnel--and soon we were in broad daylight again, haggling with drivers and translators to get a cheap ride to Kabul. In addition to the $10 we paid each porter for the two-hour trek, we gave them our flashlights, which they promptly fought over. Eventually, we arrived in Kabul, and entering the NEWSWEEK house on "Street X" was like turning off a Western cowboy flick. The house had everything I hadn't had for the last three weeks--regular electricity, running hot water, a dinner table. A fireplace! It was wonderful and strange to come here. Last night we had banana fritters for dessert. This morning? Peanut butter.