Caught in an Electric Storm on Koh e Mekh, Afghanistan
Updated August 2023, Caught in an Electric Storm on Koh e Mekh in Southern Bamyan, Afghanistan was originally published in February 2022
Before we arrived in the Waras District of Afghanistan’s Southern Bamyan Province neither Alishah nor I had heard of Koh e Mekh, let alone realized the wild adventure we’d depart on the following morning that included a military escort, being nearly struck by lightning, a massive hailstorm, and me almost breaking my hand. But alas, this is Afghanistan after all- which has never proved to be an uneventful experience.
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A Drive Across Bamyan
After having woken up inside a family’s guest room in Chehelburj we headed back to the town of Yakawlang to make the turn toward Southern Bamyan en route to Daykundi Province on our organized-on-the-fly adventure, pausing in Yakawlang to grab some of the most deliciously cooked kabob e murgh from a hole-in-the-wall chaikhana that we had frequented a couple of other times on the trip.
With no goal, no idea where we were all sleeping that night, a rough plan, and a loose idea of what dirt roads to take we set off from the chaikhana after lunch. The rough road gnarled through flaming red mountains over a mountain pass and past lime green pastures before reaching another pass that descended to Panjab Village where we stopped off for chai. Carrying on we eventually had to turn back to Panjab after realizing we were near to the border with Ghor Province.
This wrong turn set us back a bit, but it led to us rolling into a small town called Waras in the later afternoon, a couple of hours before sunset. We knew that we’d likely have to call it a night and find a place to stay in Waras, so we parked the van in the middle of Waras Bazaar and started asking where a chaikhana might be. We were quickly directed to a nondescript building, tucked in from the main Panjab-Qunaq Pass road.
Chaikhana Floor Nights in Waras
We went inside and sure enough, it was a little family-run chaikhana- exactly what we were looking for. After quickly slurping down a pot of chai sabz, Alishah and I set out to hike up the small mountain that backed the town of Waras for sunset. Partially because why not, but partially to scope out the nearby peaks to see if there was anything we might be interested in scaling.
We skidded down the scree goat trails back to Bazaar Waras – using those last moments of blue hour to reach the bottom of the valley, leaving the last part of the walk to the chaikhana to take place in complete darkness aside from the odd guy welding from an open garage or a set of headlights passing by.
Dinner with the Police
Getting back to the chaikhana I went to the room with a window that faced out onto the side road and Alishah and his brother went to the other room where all the men were- to keep our disguise, trying to fly under the radar.
Before long the door popped open and Alishah and his brother barreled into the room and plopped down on the velvety kurpachas across the carpet from me.
“We’ve met some police here in Waras. After asking for some information about mountains to climb nearby, they recommended one you’ll be interested in- it’s called Koh e Mekh.”
I was listening, curious to hear what was so interesting about it. It turns out it’s a funky-shaped mountain named after the hooked wooden dowel (mekh) that shepherds attach a rope to secure their donkeys to the ground to stop them from running away.
Pretty soon the young men working in the kitchen knocked at the door, coming in with a giant tray with birinj (rice) and beef and potato korma for dinner. Next, the two police officers came over plates in hand to join us for dinner and talk Koh e Mekh.
Both men explained that we needed a military escort to go up there- and not for our safety or anything, but for the paranoia of local villagers who surely wouldn’t let us go up there.
See the 40 Towers of Chehelburj in far west Bamyan
A Mineral Mountain
Koh e Mekh is thought to have an extensive reserve of sought-after gemstones and metals by locals and those that live in the villages nearby. And because of poor cultural etiquette with foreign miners in the past, people that live in these small villages do not trust outsiders skulking around their mountains that may be chock-full of rare earth metals and gems.
The main concern? That their mazars (shrines) will be destroyed.
On several occasions in Afghanistan, mining operations have destroyed local shrines and tombs to important religious figures. Even in more liberally-minded Bamyan, many of the residents are still deeply religious. So anytime anyone rolls in from out of town wanting to climb a mountain line Koh e Mekh, it raises eyebrows and creates potential hostility.
So we decided that at daybreak we’d start heading toward Band e Kusa, a dusty bazaar town near the military base where we’d pick up our escort and continue to Koh e Mekh.
Both the policemen were quite excited for us, dialing the military to request someone to escort us the following day as we all scraped up the last bit of korma.
After dinner, the men all returned to the other chaikhana room that had been established as a boys’ dorm. I unrolled my sleeping bag on a kurpacha in the room for the night.
The next morning we all woke as the sun began to shine through the chaikhana windows, having a quick breakfast before hitting the road around 8 am. By 9, we had arrived at the military base where we picked up our military escort, a cheerful man who hopped in the van with us with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder.
His name was Anwar and he had been working at the particular base near the provincial border for a while. He quickly directed us off the main gravel road and down a rough dirt path toward the village under Koh e Mekh.
As we arrived in the village, about an hour after leaving the military base, greeted by several locals as our van ground to a halt. You could tell there was a general sense of curiosity as to what we’re doing out there (it’s quite remote) with us being quickly asked to join for some chai.
After explaining our plans to summit Koh e Mekh, we were wished a safe journey and brought to the start of the path leading up.
Climbing Koh e Mekh
807 m+ | 807 m-
We began the trek under a sunny sky as we started from the village and past a mazar on a path that quickly began meandering up the base of Koh e Mekh. The trail cut through arid rock dotted with desert plants for the lower 1/3 of the mountain.
Anwar walked confidently, seeming to know the mountain like the back of his hand. It was clear he had been here before.
By about 2/3 of the way up, the scenery becomes more barren and the trail disappeared at times as we navigated up rock faces to the top- nothing more difficult than a basic scramble.
As we inched closer to the top ridgeline the I noticed the clouds began to multiply- but still, nothing I thought much of. By this point, Alishah, who’s essentially a mountain goat, wanted to take photos as Anwar and I made the final push to the top, so he took off toward the second summit. Koh e Mekh, in a sense, has two summits, a first one, a ridgeline, and then a second summit a little over 100 meters away.
The Electric Storm Begins
As Anwar and I reached the first summit, I could hear a buzzing sound, like a cicada, coming off of Anwar. I had assumed it was likely a radio or some other electronic on him catching some static and continued.
Continuing on the ridgeline I suddenly felt like I had walked through a spider web, with the threads of the web running across my face and hands- a truly odd sensation given that we had been on top of the ridgeline for a while so the chances of walking through a spiderweb at face level was pretty much zero. As we pushed on, the feeling became more intense, and the buzzing coming off of Anwar even louder. At this point, I was pulling at my face and flicking my hands around, not being able to tolerate the feeling (not painful, just annoying).
Check out this video below to hear what it sounded like
Next, I heard Alishah yell down at us from the second summit. He said he thought it was an electric storm. That was about the time with all my flailing around that I noted the buzzing coming off of the two rings I had on. A moment later we saw a strike of lightning in the distance and knew we had to get down immediately.
Alishah began running back down the ridgeline toward us, as Anwar and I quickly started to descend. By this point, the wind was picking up and rain was starting to fall.
Climbing Down Koh e Mekh in a Lightning Storm
The weather became more intense, with the rain turning to large hail, gusts of wind pelting us with the flying ice, and lightning striking all around us. Eventually, we did have to take refuge under an overhanging cliff to get out of the menacing hail. We waited out the storm for a little while until the hail lessened up slightly before continuing our trek back to the bottom.
As we dropped elevation, the hail turned into rain, making the path down a mess, covered with slippery mud that I inevitably slipped in. Covered in mud and drenched to the point you could wring the water from our clothes, we arrived back to the village about six hours later. A crowd of curious onlookers greeted us as we made it to the bottom, of course, offering chai.
After some chai and a change of clothes, we departed from the base of Koh e Mekh, making a beeline to the military base to drop poor Anwar off so he could wrap up his day at work after an adventure he had no idea would turn into us nearly getting struck by lightning. Anwar had suggested we drive further south to the dusty bazaar town of Band e Kusa for the night to find a place to stay.
On arrival in Band e Kusa, we right away found a roadside chaikhana that put us up for the night, giving us a room to crash in by the kitchen where we could thaw out from the earlier hailstorm.
This story actually took place in June 2021.
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