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R-r-r-r-rota straighten up! — duty private shouts his head off as if he was bitten in the ass.
This morning sure starts like no other, yeah.

June 9th jumped at us with no prior notice. While we were joyfully drooling in our squared out racks the Sun had creeped out from behind a mountain. Yeah-yeah, now the Sun rises up from behind a mountain. You’re in Panjshir, dude.

Promptly after the command to “Straighten up” you’re washed, fed and instructed for the day. Instructions imply that right now there are sappers working on the Tooth. It’s rigged to the brim. So our sappers are conducting mining clearance works, then Hairetdinov’s group is moving there to gain foot and keep dushmans from occupying it. So they can’t open direct fire at regiment’s quarters.

Instructions are over, BTR is ready. We throw our duffle bags on top of it. It takes 2 men to throw one bag filled with all supplies entrusted to us. We tie and secure all our stuff and then sit on top of it. Now we look like a gypsy tabor on an eight-wheeled wagon.

— Does everyone have water? Flasks are full? — Hairetdiov turns around to us poking out from commander’s hatch. - OK, roll out then! - He hits BTR’s top with his gun's stock to bring message across and shouts into driver’s hatch: — Yo, drivee, drop us off at sarandoi’s post!

BTR coughs a couple times, then revs up, screeches it’s engines and starts rolling through thick afghan dust on it’s way to the post.

Upon arrival we slip off the armor, crush our backs with those heavy ass duffle bags, unbutton our shirts till the very end, lower our belts to make room for breathing, roll our sleeves up and become a bunch of unkempt apes. But it’s not because we disrespect Uniform Regulations. It’s because it’s very hot. Too hot. And to make it worse you’re carrying an enormously heavy bag. Your first instinct is to unbutton to provide at least minimal ventilation.

— OK gang! — Hairetdinov looks over our metamorphosed group. — I’m going first. Everyone else follows me step-in-step. Don’t fuck around. Don’t sit down without a command. Don’t leave the trail. Spare your water. Manchinski, you’re locking the group. You’re responsible for order. On me, forward march!

Under heavy weight of his backpack and a radio station Hairetdinov starts making heavy steps towards old bridge suspended over Panjshir river. We, bent in half under our own bags, start following him. Bag is above you, your face looks down, your eyes see a trail to put your feet on. This is all you can see, nothing else.

After a couple steps your gun starts getting in the way. If you throw it on top, it slips back down. If you hang it on your neck, it sways side to side, drags your head down and makes breathing harder. I ran cross in Kizil-Kum, I carried boxes full of ‘nades on my shoulder. But I never anticipated anything even remotely resembling this torture. And not only me. Everyone is walking bent like a candy cane trying to shove their guns on top. Guns slide back down. Then clank and fly up again. Only Gerasimovich walks as he was, with his SVD hung across his chest, putting his skinny arms with rolled sleeves against it.

We approach the river. We’re already fucked up, sweaty and tired. Not a single trace of morning shower. Breakfast made things only worse. I can’t decide whether I want to puke it out or just to shit my trousers. And that’s when the bridge gets in my sight. THIS BRIDGE for fuck’s sake!

Yo, brother! Everything you’ve ever experienced before in your life – you can forget all that now. It won’t be of any use here. Below the bridge water is roaring like a beast, rolling over enormous rocks. Bridge’s timber is old and scary. Most likely rotten. Boards are sloppily tied to some questionable cables with messy rope ends sticking all around them. And you with all your gear weigh almost 150kg (330lb). Oh yeah, and bridge sways and screeches. And literally stretches under our weight like a rubber band.
If there ever is a moment in life for your ass to let go and promptly dump all ballast, have no doubt – this is it! So go on. Dump it, right in your pants. Have no shy. Because this fucking bridge is going to pop right below you and you’re going to fall into the roaring ice cold water, your gear is going to fucking drown you just like Gerasim had drowned his Mu-Mu [A refrain to short story "Mumu" by Turgenev]. Go ahead, dump it! Time has come.

For a second I feel like none of this is happening to me. I seems to me that I’m looking at some movie unreal in its absurdity and simply empathizing with all these poor dudes crossing that bridge. It’s not me who’s walking there. Nor my buddies are. It’s just director of this movie made it so well that he managed to immerse me to feel like I’m one of them. It’s not me who’s terrified. It’s them. I’m just watching this movie…

After bridge movie ends, Marishtan movie begins.

We’re crossing some stone fences, move through some terraced wheat fields. You can’t feel your shoulders at all. There is only never ending pulling pain instead of them. Dry hot air rushes out of your longs rattling and whistling only to immediately rush back in again. It feels like there is no oxygen in this air at all. It feels like you’re having a plastic bag wrapped around your head and breathing same air in and out. Hot sticky sweat streams down all over your forehead. It clogs your eyebrows and burns your eyes. It’s impossible to wipe it off your face because it’s too dirty and sticky. Just like molten Vaseline. Your mouth is full of dust. Your legs stomp over hot slag straight out of a blast furnace. And the blast furnace is frying you alive from the sky above. Me and my 10 buddies are carrying all this blazing hot furnace on our backs along with all of the Afghan sky.

Oh, yeah, by the way. There are mines in Marishtan. Because it’s a gateway to Khisarak ravine. If Shuravi are going to go kick Khisarack’s dushmans’ asses, they will have to pass through Marishtan. So dushmans had thoroughly mined the fuck out of it. We know they where preparing for Panjshir’s assault and were planting vast mine fields. But obviously they never reported on what, where and how many did they plant. So one can forget about any mine field maps. There are no maps. This is why we move step-in-step, to avoid unnecessary casualties. After all, low casualties are better than mass casualties. But if you’re going to be the lucky one to pull the mine ticket, I assure you, this is going to be yet another one of those magical moments that will give you a roller coaster of nastiest emotions.

While still in Marishtan, Hairetdinov commands: “Break!” He is barely starting to sit down when all of our knees are already bent. In a split second we clang our bones to the ground wherever we were caught by that command. Oleg is the only one who somehow manages to drop his ass in the shadow. I guess it’s some kind of a law: apple drops down and Gerasimovich – in the shadow.

— You, Gerasimovich! Stay on trail, never go wandering around! I once had a case on that hill, tha-a-a-a-t small black one — he points to a nearby land bump — I’ve been there a month ago. I’m a lucky bastard. I was leading the group, 2 sappers were tailing behind me. Now I’m lucky so I pass the spot and then behind me it goes BOOOM! One of those dudes lost one leg till here and broke the other. The bad part is he was carrying a bunch of blasting caps in his pocket, around 300 of ‘em. And they went off. He’s shouting to me “Comrad praporshik, are my balls OK? I feel burning down there.” I say “Yes, they’re fine” while I can’t see shit in there! What the fuck I was supposed to answer? It’s all minced and oozing with blood… So don’t wander around!
— Got It! — Bender responds while freeing his shoulders from bag straps — I’m on a limestone plate here. — And then deviously smiles and whispers to the side so Hairetdinov doesn’t hear him — And I have no blasting caps on me today.
My dirty sweaty face widens up with a dumb grin.
I’m not going to claim that I know what one has in mind. But I clearly remember Oleg often say “fools are lucky”. And then explain that you must always rely on your brain rather than some random luck. And here we have a newly met prapor who drops the “luck” bomb. In front of Oleg. If not for prapor’s straps, I bet I know what Oleg would’ve said to him. But Oleg is a smart ass so he puts on a sly smile and jokes about those detonators. Jokes subtly so that prapor doesn’t hear it.
Bender is a year older than me and 2 years older than the other guys. Because Party gave him 2 years of drafting delay so he could graduate from technikum. These 2 years gave him an opportunity to gain, I don’t know… some substance I guess. We, other guys, still seem to jump through life like silly puppies. But he managed to man up and get wiser. He stands out from our rabble. He’s cool and smart. But average Joe can’t stand labeling his comrade as smart. For average Joe Oleg is a “smartass” [in Russian "smartass" (хитрожопый) has negative connotation and is mostly used as an insult. Noting it so next section makes more sense]. We did call Oleg like that within our group. I emphasize this because I will use this term a lot as we go (because we actually used it as we spoke) so it’s important to note that it’s not an offense. It’s almost a compliment. “Smartass” – is not offensive. “Smartass” – is a mark of dignity!

— Belay that! Drink from the creek! — Hairetdinov’s call pulls me back to reality. Someone started opening his flask. Everyone in the group is heavily gasping for air. Hairetdinov is proudly sitting on the ground, backed up against his radio station. Only short muscle cramps under his pants are giving away that he also had a rough today.

— No biggie, lads! It’s always like that. First everyone falls. Then breathes. Then they drink water… if there is any. Then they smoke. And if a soldier is smoking – it means he managed through the day alive.
Couple minutes later we do really get our breaths back on track. Someone unpacks his cigarettes. For some “strange” reason I decide it’s not the best time for tobacco right now.

My decision proves right. Because shortly we get up, pack on those enormous bags and start scaling local orchard terraces that are stacked on top of each other like books on a table. These orchards are surrounded by rosehips. We poke our faces into them while we scale over stone fences, we crawl through these spiky bushes. Our hearts are bashing into our rib cages, heavily beating in our temples and limbs like cavalry squadron beats ground with their hoofs. Those terraces keep coming at us from green seas of vegetation. We still keep scaling those orchards and walls, climb those fences. All landmarks that we have seen before the river, they’re all mixed up into one never ending whirlpool. Sheds and houses appearing from nowhere, another previously unseen creek emerges on our way up.

Couple hours later we finally reach the last house. Big garden surrounds it from all sides, behind it is the way up on top of the mountain. From here on it’s only a clayey bald mountain. Up there it becomes steeper and big rocks and cliffs emerge scattered all over it. And at the top it’s crowned with solid basalt ridge. You can clearly see how rains and wind erosion washed and winded out clay and ran it down the slope. Along with rocks. You can see those rocks piling up along Khisarak’s banks all way long till where it meets up with Panjshir. They all got washed away from the top. And all that remains on top are immovable cliffs and basalt plates that form the ridge.

We take another break in this garden. Trees here are enormous. Foliage is thick, you can’t even see a bit of sky through it so it’s the perfect place to hide from scorching sun. Everyone drops their bags down and falls under branches next to us. We need to cool off a bit.

There is a ton of stuff lying around the garden: empty tin cans, dusty rags, some colored paper wrappers. Someone has definitely been here. But we decide not to check who has been here and why. What if local bacha holds a grudge? What if he hid a little mine in one of these doorways? We need no such adventures here, no we don’t. So we lie, breathe and gaze. There are no mines yet that get triggered with gaze. So you can look around free of charge. And there are things to look at.

Nature!.. Legendary Panjshir’s nature once again. Enormous fruit trees with lush treetops. Shadow. Khisarak river is murmuring down below. Terraces full of wheat, vineyards. This house with it’s beautiful garden. It’s something insanely beautiful. Some kind of a miracle spiced up with a bit of medieval savagery. As far as beauty, savagery and miracle are at all compatible.

We start our ascent to that bald slope. Our trail starts over tamped clay. It wiggles left and right then it runs through a huge spherical rock that is sunk into the slope. It’s gigantic and we scale it for quite some time. All of my worst experiences in Marishtan feel like kindergarten by now. Scaling this scorching basalt REALLY SUCKS ASS!!! Khishlack was hot and muggy but at least it had shadow. You could find creeks full of ice cold water from time to time. But here, on top of this blazing hot flatiron… I don’t know how to describe this horror that we got our selves into leaving shadow of that sweet garden. It’s horrible! It’s hell. I should’ve smashed my head full speed against a poisoned wall when I was a child. I guess that’s what I would’ve done, unless my homeland didn’t desperately need me to protect it. While I was blowing bubbles out of my runny nose enjoying my serene childhood, someone was scaling a rock like this with a bag like this crushing his back. Now it’s my turn.

This rock had tiny steps chiseled at it's steepest part. They where subpar but still made our life a bit easier. It helped us move easier. Well, easier… We now move faster but stress and strain are also higher. My knees start trembling. As we reach the line where rock meets up with clay again, Hairetdinov lands his ass on hot basalt. A break. Better do it on a rock. One can’t plant a mine in a rock.

I repeat after prapor and land my ass, lean my back against my bag and stretch my trembling legs. I need some air and to get my mind off things. I start doing deep breaths and scanning the surroundings. While we were ascending the only thing I was watching was the trail. Firstly, in order to not get blown up and secondly, because I was so bent over by the weight I was almost raking the clay with my nose. Yes, I know one is supposed to constantly look around and move from cover to cover. But I just can’t do it today. I will practice it, I promise. Later. If I survive this fucking ascent to Dragon’s Tooth with all the heat. But today I only make a 100 meters (33ft) haul staring at dirt, then I fall, look around… and can’t get my bearings at all. Because these are mountains, there are vast elevation changes. Something that was upside-down for me some time ago now looks downside-up. And my ability to orientate myself in space goes bananas.

While we sit I intensely consume oxygen and examine my surroundings.

Khishlack is below us now. Rooftops of three-story houses made out of yellow clay form terraces and randomly align with each other like children’s wooden alphabet cubes. Fences made out of raw clay and sometimes rocks weave into strangely looking labyrinths of narrow streets threading through vineyards and fruit gardens. Aryks systems, small windows, absurdly high fences, narrow doorways, thick crooked trees, gigantic rocks – all of this melts together forming unbelievably beautiful picture.

After short break we get up and start beating boots again. Now trail winds over a clay mountain. Further up it leads us up to gray sandy-loam soil. My pearls clutch now because it’s a lot easier to hide a mine in this soil. But no matter how tight or loose you hold your ass – you will march along anyways. Even over this sandy-loam soil. Because you are a soldier and soldiers never chicken out. Even better, you’re not you. It’s just a scary movie you’re watching.

Trail leads us up to a small flat area along the slope of the mountain. There are a couple small pits filled with water. We make a break, prapor orders us to refill our water supplies. But first to sanitize it with Pantosept [Halazone]. Misha Burilov dives into his pocket and mistakenly drags out a shot of Promedolum.

— Not this, this one you shoot up your ass when your head gets blown away. — explains Hairetdinov.
Burilov in a strike of enlightenment dumps a whole 10-pill pack of Panosept into a puddle. Pills slowly drown and settle on the floor. No hiss or visible dissipation happens so Burilov shoves his hand into the puddle and starts steering it like tea. Clouds of dirt swirl up and turn clean puddle into a gray sand soup.
— Excellent fucking job mister sanitizer! — says Oleg and jokingly kicks Misha’s ass with his boot and goes to a nearby puddle. Drinks some water, refills his flask. Frees his shoulders from his shirt and starts pouring handfuls of water over his neck and back. Mampel finally gets up and approaches Oleg.

— Bandera, move a bit!
Oleg straightens up and stares surprised at Mampel:
— Are you dumb? There are plenty of puddles. Choose any one you like and use it.
— Yeah, and what if there are mines?
— Am I a fucking mine roller to you?!
— Rise up! - Hairetdinov stands on his feet, puts his bag on. — Move out.
That’s it. Rise up and move out. How can I explain what “rise up” feels to a soldier? It’s not some simple “get up” or “stand up”. It’s “pull your ass up and scale that rocky mountain. Scale it and fucking die from heat and overload”.

We’re soldiers. We rise and go. Hero is not one who rushes forward knowing no fear. He’s not a hero. His place is in asylum. Real hero is one who is completely aware of what he’s doing. One who rises and does what needs to be done. Even if he’s terrified he still does what he’s ought to. Even if it’s hard. If it’s painful. You have a Homeland. Homeland has to have it’s soldiers. Today it’s us.

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