NPR's Doug Roberts, en route from Mazar-e-Sherif to Kabul, in Afghanistan.
"Please open your seat belt," our driver says as we begin the eight-hour trip from Mazar-e-Sherif to Kabul.
Mazar is the largest city in northern Afghanistan, a melting pot of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pashtun and Hazara. It's also one of the more secure places in the country at present, and the center of now-booming trade with neighboring Uzbekistan, just a few miles farther north.
But there are rumors of trouble to the south of Mazar, and since only foreigners actually wear seat belts on Afghanistan's roads, I unbuckle mine as a precaution against prying eyes in the teeming streets of the city.
It wasn't the only precaution.
I'm dressed for the trip in Payraan and Tumbaan — more commonly known as Shalwar Kamiz — a pale blue cotton shirt that reaches my knees, and matching pants with a draw string. In sum, pajamas. A vest, a checkered headscarf and grubby sandals complete the outfit.
I feel as though I'm ready for Halloween, but the driver says I could pass for a Nooristani, an ancient people renown for their blue eyes that some believe are descendants of the army of Alexander the Great.
Once beyond the gate of Mazar, the two lane highway is straight and smooth. Traffic is relatively light, and the driver zips around trucks as we traverse a broad, treeless plain, with just enough vegetation to sustain flocks of sheep and goats. For a while, we drive alongside railroad tracks, newly extended from the Uzbek border into Mazar. Electricity and cell phone towers dot the countryside.
Gradually, the mountains close in, and the road slopes down into a gorge. There's a patch of green here astride a small river and then we emerge onto another plain. Larger splotches of green come into view as we head farther south. Among grape vines, fruit orchards and small wheat fields, there are cows and donkeys.
There are also police checkpoints at fairly regular intervals, with humps in the road to ensure that traffic slows. We aren't stopped. Slowing down is the only requirement at this stage of the journey. But by about the halfway point, security is noticeably enhanced. The police checkpoints include small blockhouses, with machine gun nests on the roofs and sandbags around the windows.
People in this area say Taliban fighters have recently begun sneaking up to the road at night, stopping cars, robbing some travelers and taking others away. These rumors clearly haven't escaped the notice of the Afghan government.
At the town of Pul-e-Khumri, the police give way to special agents of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), tough looking young gunmen in green fatigues and flak jackets. They demand identity documents from travelers and search many cars.
We pass a convoy of German troops from the NATO force here. Farther along, a German foot patrol moves through town to the apparent bemusement of the residents.
The main street of Pul-e-Khumri must rank among the worst of any provincial town in the world. There is literally no pavement, just rock and pebbles. Drivers must maneuver through a maze of pot-holes. It's a slow and back-wrenchiing drive.
The dismal state of main street prompts NPR's Quil Lawrence to suggest it might have emboldened the Taliban to move into the area, in the hope of capitalizing on popular discontent with the poor performance of the local government. The local authorities may just have had the same thought because at the southern end of town, a few dozen workmen are beginning to repair and tar at least part of the road.
A couple of hours later, we pass a convoy of U.S. troops at the entrance to the Salang Tunnel, which goes through the Hindu Kush. But by that time, the risky zone was long behind us. I couldn't help but wonder if the precautions were really necessary... But it was fun to dress-up!