RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We go now to the donkeys who are helping Afghanistan pull off this election. Eight hundred of these sturdy creatures are playing a key role in today's voting. In rural areas where the roads are sometimes nonexistent, fold-up polling booths, ballot boxes and the ballets themselves were delivered on the backs of donkeys.

NPR photographer David Gilkey has traveled along with them and is observing today the Afghan voting process high up in the Hindu Kush in the far, far north of the country. Hello, David.

DAVID GILKEY: Hi, how are you?

MONTAGNE: You're pretty far out there. You're so far, there are people who might not even know who the president is.

GILKEY: That is exactly true. I was at a polling station this morning where that was certainly debatable with some of the older people coming to vote. They weren't sure what they should be doing. But they had their voter registration cards, and they were going to cast their ballot.

MONTAGNE: And, David, I'm looking at some of those photos that you've already sent that are on our Web site. Wow, they really show a people in the midst of a very wild part of the country. Describe a little of what you've been seeing there today.

GILKEY: What happens is, is from Fayzabad, the capital of Badakhshan province, the ballots are put on four-wheel drive trucks and driven up into four-wheel drive roads in every given direction in the north. And what happens is the donkeys are brought down from the villages - and these can be three, four days away - and the ballots and all the election materials are packed onto these donkeys and sent up into the mountains where they need them.

MONTAGNE: David, take us back to this trip, and even where you're standing now, and tell us exactly how remote and difficult the terrain is that these people are living in and trying to vote in.

GILKEY: Well, the biggest problem this year was they had an incredible amount of rain this winter. Well, it was snow, followed by the melt-off. And then in the spring they had an incredible amount of rain. And it literally obliterated the roads up here. So, what any progress that was sort of made with being able to get to these remote regions over sort of the last five years with road building was erased. So, there's a lot heavier use of the four-wheel drives, the donkeys and the helicopters this year due to the damage to the road system here.

MONTAGNE: David, I'm looking here at one of your photographs, and it looks like three donkeys crossing along with the people who are tending to them, big boxes of ballots on their backs and ballot boxes on a very rickety-looking wooden bridge across a raging river. Does this photograph show what they're up against trying to get these materials to would-be voters up there?

GILKEY: It gets worse than that. In a lot of places, they haven't rebuilt the bridges, and so they're having to, you know, go down into these - into, you know, essentially the water and goes miles out of the way to get the donkeys across. It's not only that. It's the trucks that are delivering the material are getting stuck, and it's an incredible effort.

And it started about two weeks ago in getting this material out to the places where it would be possible to conduct the election.

MONTAGNE: And what then is the mood among the voters where you are? It just seems like such an effort to make this happen. How are they feeling? And are they getting to the polls?

GILKEY: Well, I mean, this is sort of the biggest event every five years here. And, you know, this morning, I got up and I walked down - it was an animal clinic that was built a few years ago turned into a polling place. And, I mean, people were queuing up at six o'clock in the morning. They were thrilled. I mean, everybody was sort of sitting around the front of this polling place talking and having tea and waiting their turn to get into vote. It was really exciting.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much. And we'll be talking to you later in the day and probably as the donkeys go back down.

GILKEY: Okay, Renee. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And to see David Gilkey's photographs from Afghanistan, including those donkeys at work, go to the new npr.org.

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