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The New York Times, April 9, 1882, p.4:

BY RAIL TO KANDAHAR

WORK YET TO BE DONE FOR THE ROAD'S COMPLETION.

FEATURES OF THE SELECTED ROUTE THROUGH THE NARI GORGE—DESOLATE PLACES AND MIGHTY CLIFFS—
OPENING THE FIRST AFGHAN RAILWAY BRIDGE.

    NARI BRIDGE, Northern Beluchistan, Feb. 28.—Our life on the border line between the Beluchi deserts and the Afghan mountains has a few little excitements to relieve the sameness. Recently I was inspecting the corpses of two Afghans who had been found hacked almost to pieces just outside our camp. Last night, after dinner, I went out with some of the officers to watch the progress of a fire which seemed very much like what Paddy would call "an accident done on purpose." My first news this moring was the announcement of a robbery; and now, by way of a change, I am assisting at the naming and féting of the first railway bridge opened in Afghanistan, or, rather, between it and its Beluchi neighbors.

    The English Ministry might gather one or two new ideas here from the delight with which every one hails the strengthening of a frontier fort, or the completion of a fresh link in that wonderful railroad which is still prophetically called "the Kandahar line." Evidently, the "peace at any price" policy has not many supporters in British India.
    To the newspaper politicians of London and Manchester, Russia's southward advance through Central Asia is merely a vague and half-mythical idea. To the men who have smelled powder on Afghan battle-fields and have found Russian gold and Russian weapons on the corpses of their enemies it is a palpable and ominous fact. Every man with whom I have talked for weeks past, from the Government agent on the Afghan border to the bluff old Captain of the ferry-boat across the Indus at Sukkur-Bunder, holds the same language: "Russia's coming, and we must be ready for her."

    For the present, indeed, the most important of all England's defensive appliances in this quarter, viz., the Kandahar Railway itself, has been brought to a stand-still, just when a few months would have sufficed to complete it, by the determination of the Liberal Government to reverse all the acts of its predecessor, good and bad alike. Still, much has already been done.
    The hideous deserts of Northern Beluchistan, which were strewn for many a mile with the whitening bones of men and beasts during the first advance upon Afghanistan in 1839, are now bridged over, and the new railway is complete from Ruk Junction, its meeting-point with the main line down the Indus Valley, as far as the Afghan frontier, a distance of 133 miles.

    The idea of carrying it on to Quettah, however, by the direct route up the Bolan Pass, if ever seriously entertained, has long since been abandoned. Had it been adhered to, the engineering difficulties of the work, great enough as it is, would have bordered upon the insurmountable. The chief drawback in crossing the Beluchi desert is the utter want of water, which, despite the sending out of huge iron tanks every day by train and the bringing of water by artificial channels from a hill-torrent dignified with the name of "Nari River," has delayed the one daily train for several hours more than once since my arrival here.
    But the work of carrying a railway through such a region as the Bolan Pass may well seem hopeless even to an age that has crossed the Rocky Mountains and tunneled Mont Cenis. Of the difficulties attending this task I shall have more to say next week, after I have ridden up the famous pass and seen it for myself. At present it may suffice to say a few words about the route actually adopted.

    In the first place, then, it must be remembered that neither the Bolan Pass itself nor its northern outwork, the British post of Quettah, are in Afghanistan at all. Both lie on the Beluchi side of the border, which is formed by a range of bare, rocky, desolate mountains—called, from the maurauding tribe that inhabits them, the Marri Hills—varying from 2,000 to 7,000 feet in height, and as intolerably hot in Summer as they are unbearably cold in Winter. Among these mountains the Bolan Pass winds north-westward for 56 miles, through a succession of gloomy gorges, alternating with wide, stony flats.
    About 24 miles beyond its mouth, upon a huge artificial mound in the centre of a plain, stands Quettah fort, 150 miles north-west of which, amid a level and well-watered country abounding in fruit, which appears a perfect paradise after the savages of the Kojuk Pass, lies the city of Kandahar.

    The route marked out, however, for the remaining section of the Kandahar Railway is that of the Nari Gorge, which, like the Bolan itself, takes its name from the river that has tunneled it out. Starting from the edge of the great desert, about 20 miles from the mouth of the sister pass, it runs almost due north through the Marri Hills for 12 or 14 miles, after which it makes a similar, though more gradual, curve round to the north-west.
    As far as Nasstak, to which point the embankment is already made, no very formidable difficulties are encountered, but between 20 and 30 miles further on lies a spot which, however precious to the artist or poet, would probably be denounced by any engineer in the strongest language at his commmand. This is the far-famed "Chapar Rift," which has no parallel in the world save the Swiss "Gorge du Trient," and one or two among the the most tremendous chasms of the Andes.

    Imagine some primeval giant to have cloven a mountain sheer in twain from the summit to base with one stroke of a keen-edged sword, and you will still have only a very faint conception of this wonderful cleft, which sunders two mighty black cliffs, many hundreds of feet in height, with a gash barely five yards wide at the narrowest part, into the gloomy depths of which one solitary ray of sunlight struggles down once in the 24 hours through the barely visible opening far overhead.
    Thence the proposed route, bending still more to the west, reaches Bostan, from which a branch 21 miles long is to diverge southward to Quetta, while the main like goes forward to Kandahar.

    My expedition up the Nari Gorge was an unfortunate won, being undertaken in the teeth of one of those merciless dust-storms for which the plain of Sibi is as notorious as Lower Egypt itself. Amid the blinding clouds of hot, prickly sand I might well have imagined myself back in the Sahara or the Khiva Desert but for the unimpeachable evidence of the two neat steel rails along which my trolly (truck) rolled so smoothly, propelled by four gaunt, brown, bare-limbed natives, whose clothes (what little there was of them) had as many colors as a prism. Running behind the truck, two by two, in turn, they sent me at an amazing pace up the line, which, though not yet officially "opened," is already carrying "working trains" to the very entrance of the gorge.
    On arriving there I find a huge, gaunt camel ready saddled for my ride up the pass, and a military escort (no superfluous safeguard in this wild region) consisting of two sturdy troopers of the Scinde Horse, whose square, massive figures, curved swords, buff-colored coats, and stern, swarthy faces, framed in crimson turbans, might have suited the procession scene in the pantomime of "Bluebeard."

    And now comes a sudden and very singular illusion. Hitherto the panorama has been that of an Eastern desert in its sternest form, the parched, dusty soil, the dry water-courses, the stray clumps of wiry tamarisk, the bare gravelly ridges standing gauntly out in the blistering glare, the distant camels roving slowly along the sky-line, all combine to produce the same effect.
    But the moment I reach the entrance of the pass I find myself in the midst of a genuine sea-side landscape. There is the long, low reef of black broken rock jutting out into the wide sweep of water-worn pebbles. There are the tiny pools here and there, which seem to have been left by the receding tide. There is the background of sombre gray cliff, along the base of which stand half a dozen little box-shaped mud huts, quite enough like bathing machines at a distance to complete the illusion.
    And hark! What is that dull roar which begins to break the tomb-like silence as we advance up the gorge? On any Western pebble beach it would mean the coming in of the sea in its might; but a sudden turn round the elbow of a projecting crag gives it a widely different explanation. Before us rolls the stream of the Nari, still retaining some of its wonted power even after five months of drought, champing and grinding over the stones with a force sufficiently attested by the half-destroyed railway embankment on our right, over the side of which the rails hang, sleepers and all, like a loose watch chain.

    At the sight of the river my camel checks his speed for a moment, as if somewhat taken aback; but the bare-limbed, white-tubaned Kagawas who lead him jerks the cord impatiently and we go. The ordinary motion of a camel is supportable enough after a time, although at first it may be best realized by sitting on the top of an omnibus and letting a wheel break down every other minute. But when you have to ride him over slippery pebbles rolled about by the rush of a mountain torrent it is a very different matter. Half way through the ford my "ship of the desert" comes to a full stop, and shows and ominous inclination to lie down and have a roll in the water. But just as I am hesitating whether to jump off forthwith or stay still and take my chance, one of my native horsemen comes prancing up behind with such a noise and splashing that the startled camel flounders through to dry ground as fast as possible.

    Suddenly there starts up on our left a towering mass of cliff, which I have heard described too often not to recognize it at a glance. Were the ruins of some mighty cathedral draped in brown festoons of seaweed it would look just as this cliff looks now. But the hanging masses, whieh actualy seem to drip water, are all dry, burning stone, rising terrace above terrace hundreds of feet overhead. These terraces, however, instead of running straight, like those of the rocks around, curve themselves into the perfect semblence of colossal arches, perfect, at least all save the highest.
    There the spell is broken by the yawning chasm in the very centre of the magnificent curve, like that which one still sees in the arches of the Carmo Church at Lisbon, bearing silent testimony to the might of the great earthquake then rent them asunder long ago.

    Onward, ever onward, through the scorching heat and the blinding glare—through pebbly fords, up steep, crumbling banks, over rattling heaps of gravel, between huge overhanging rocks. Everywhere the same burning sunshine, the same utter lonliness, the same savage desolation, the same ghostly silence, amid which the trampling of horse-hoofs sounds strangely loud and unearthly. Upon every feature of that grim panorama lies the brand of a barbarism which has never felt the touch of civilization. The presence of these gaunt, shaggy-haired, wild-eyed figures that go striding past in tattered goat-skins, with soiled white turbans twisted round the red sugar-loaf cap of the Afghan, is hardly needed to tell us, more plainly than any words, that we are in Afghanistan.

    "Well, I think you've had barbarism enough for one day," says the hearty voice of good Mr. Vansittart, the Executive Engineer of the district, when I relate my adventures that evening; "so now we'll give you some civilization by way of a change. My wife's to open that new bridge of ours on the branch line to Pir Chowki next Saturday, and Mr. Coggan, the contractor, whom you met the other day, is going to give a champagne breakfast in honor of the occasion. We'll run a special train out, and you can come with us and write an account of it."
    Such a spectacle as a champagne breakfast in the Beluchi desert in honor of the opening of a railway bridge is not to be missed. A reporter might "observe among the company assembled" almost every officer on the Sibi station, as well as a clergyman from Jacobabad, (the border town of India on this side,) homeward bound after the ceremony.

    The red brick piers and strong iron girders of the bridge look queer enough over a dusty ravine without a drop of water in it; but those who know how many trucks lie buried below, engulfed by the river in flood-time, cannot think its strength superfluous. Both parapets are adorned with gay flags, which stand out very jauntily against the dull, brassy yellow of the surrounding desert, while Mrs. Vansittart's charming face, as she drives the last rivet and breaks the champagne-bottle upon the parapet, makes a very picturesque centre to the tableau.
    Our subsequent meal, too, though eaten in the shade of a three-roomed cottage of straw and mud, is as merry as the showiest dinner ever served at Delmonico's or the Trois Frères Provençaux.

    And when our good host, Mr. Coggan, rises with a jovial smile on his bold, sunburned face to thank us for our toast in his own name and that of "the great firm," adding that the bridge which has been christened by an English lady will always be "a bridge of bridges to him," the hearty English cheers which answer him, rolling over the silent waste like a peal of distant thunder, do one's heart good to listen to.
[unsigned, but written by DAVID KER.]
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Afghanistan map, from the CIA World Factbook

    The Republic of Afghanistan, Asia, is bordered by Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and Turkmenistan, and has short borders with Uzbekistan and China. The area of Afghanistan is 251,825 square miles (652,225 square kilometers), slightly smaller than Texas.
    The capital of Afghanistan is Kabul. The estimated population of Afghanistan for July, 2008 is 32,738,376.
    Languages spoken in Afghanistan are Afghan Persian (Dari, 50%), Pashto (35%), Turkic languages (Uzbek, Turkmen..., 11%), and 30 minor languages, with much bilingualism.

    Ahmad Shah DURRANI unified the Pashtun tribes and founded Afghanistan in 1747. The country served as a buffer between the British and Russian empires until it won independence from notional British control in 1919.
    A brief experiment in democracy ended in a 1973 coup and a 1978 Communist counter-coup. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to support the tottering Afghan Communist regime, touching off a long and destructive war.

    The USSR withdrew in 1989 under relentless pressure by internationally supported anti-Communist mujahedin rebels. Subsequently, a series of civil wars saw Kabul finally fall in 1996 to the Taliban, a hardline Pakistani-sponsored movement that emerged in 1994 to end the country's civil war and anarchy.

    Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, a US, Allied, and anti-Taliban Northern Alliance military action toppled the Taliban for sheltering Osama BIN LADIN. The UN-sponsored Bonn Conference in 2001 established a process for political reconstruction that included the adoption of a new constitution and a presidential election in 2004, and National Assembly elections in 2005.
    In December 2004, Hamid KARZAI became the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan and the National Assembly was inaugurated the following December. Despite gains toward building a stable central government, a resurgent Taliban and continuing provincial instability - particularly in the south and the east - remain serious challenges for the Afghan Government.
        The CIA World Factbook: Afghanistan

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  Free Books on Afghanistan (.pdfs)

Afghanistan Hamilton 1906
Life of Abdur Rahman Khan 1900
The Ameer Abdur Rahman Wheeler 1895
Kandahar in 1879 Messurier 1880
The Races of Afghanistan Bellew 1880
Afghanistan and the Afghans Bellew 1879
Mission to Kandahar Lumsden 1860
History of the Afghans Ferrier 1858
History of the War in Afghanistan Kaye 1851
Cabool: Journey To and Residence In Burnes 1843
A Visit to Ghuzni, Kabul & Afghanistan Vigne 1843
An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul Elphinstone 1819
A Journey from Bengal to England Forster 1798

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Afghanistan: Soviet Invasion in Perspective 1985

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The New York Times, October 21, 1878:

RUSSIA AND AFGHANISTAN

ENGLAND'S ARCH ENEMY PLOTTING FOR SUPREMACY

A GENERAL FEELING THAT RUSSIA IS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE AFGHANISTAN TROUBLES—
A DESPERATE STRUGGLE IMMINENT—BELIEF THAT RUSSIA AND ENGLAND WILL COME TO BLOWS—
THE CHARACTER OF THE FIGHTING-GROUND


        London, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 1878
    ...we are hourly expecting to hear that the first shot of the third Afghan war has been fired... both armies are on the march. Shere Ali must have mobilized his troops long ago, for his warriors already occupy important strategic points in force... If the Anglo-Italian soldiers are better equipped than in the last war, it is clear that Shere Ali has a more powerful army, better defenses, and the advantage of Russian advisers—military, diplomatic, and scientific... every day brings England and Russia nearer the bloody collision which shall settle the question of European supremacy in the East. In this "nineteenth century," which is supposed to be the watchword of progress, it is sad to reflect that a proved civilizing power like England, and such a nation as Russia, whose ambition is supposed to run in the same direction, should contemplate with equanimity the bare possibility of war...

RUSSIA BEHIND THE AFGHANS

    The Judy cartoon which represents the Ameer as a puppet squaring up in fighting attitude, with Gortschakoff working the arms beneath the puppet's cloak, represents the general English view of the situation in Afghanistan...
    ...the war flotilla of the Czar in the sea of Aral has lately been much augmented. The Russians are also fortifying the Kashgar frontier. During the last 20 years they have been slowly but surely working their way to the domination of Cabul, Candahar, and Herat, which if they could once encompass, then, indeed, would they be in a position to threaten India...
    The Exchange Gazette, a paper of some influence in St. Petersburg, is of the opinion that the problem of whether Russia can protect herself "against England's pretensions in the East can only be solved in Afghanistan... Afghanistan is the most important strategical point in the whole territory involved in the Eastern dispute, and there we can oppose England most advantageously with every hope of success. We can oblige England to throw her entire resources into a war with Afghanistan—to play the Empire of India nad the question of her political rank on one card—whereas war in Afghanistan would require hardly any effort on our part..."

THE CHARACTER OF THE FIGHTING GROUND

    Among the latest intelligence is the announcement that under the authority of the supreme Government, the troops of the Cashmere Maharajah have occupied the Baroghil and Karambar Passes north-west of Cashmere. According to the gazeteers the first-mentioned pass is 1,200 feet high, the lowest of the depressions leading over the Hindu Kush from the basin of the Oxus into the Indus. It is 360 miles from the Baroghil Pass to the capital of Cashmere, and the road is closed during six months of the year by snow. The Karambar Pass is but little known or used, though in th case of war it would be of great importance as one of the gateways accessible from the direction of the Russian frontier.
    It is said that the Afghan troops are already in the Khyber Pass, well posted, as they easily may be, for they have not only there the fortress of Ali-Musjid, built on a lofty prominence, but the sides of the mountains are full of caves, which can be turned to good account as rifle pits, or for the manipulation of small cannon. Ali-Musjid is a formidable fortress. It has been recently strengthened in guns and men.
    The British troops, according to the last reliable news, were at Jamrood, five miles from the entrance to the Khyber Pass, which has to be well entered before Ali-Musjid comes in sight. The intermediate natural fortresses of tall perpendicular rock shelter the Khyberees in mountain holes and caves and rocky nooks. The British will have to reconnoitre with care before entering... The first shots are expected to be fired here...

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