The last time I wrote one of these I was freezing my tweakers off in the arid steppelands of high Asia as a stringer for the cuddliest pink newspaper in the whole world. I have now been transferred to the fleshpots of Eastern Europe, the Ukraine, to be specific, and a warmer apartment.

Maybe some of you were glued to seats last week when my inaugural article on the submission of the Ukrainian 1998 budget to parliament splashed across the briefs column on page 4? And for those of you who have been waiting for a hard-edged look at Russian tariffs on Ukrainian sugar, fasten your seatbelts...

So in the meantime, allow me to confide in you all the wierdest thing that happened to me over the last 9 months, which is a trip to Afghanistan in May-June. I have actually been trying to forget a lot of what happened, but in retrospect some of it is pretty funny.

When I volunteered to go there, I must admit, I was hammered. It was May 26, I was having a dinner party in Almaty, had a lot to drink, the phone rang and it was my editor, and he said the Taliban have just captured Mazar-i-Sharif, which is the capital of the northern part of Afghanistan, and wanted to know if I should do story about it.

The Taliban are radical Moslems who have taken two-thirds of Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and for all I know, probably the US, and they are fighting the Northern Coalition which is backed by Iran, Russia, probably India, and some combination of central Asian states. The northern coalition consists of Uzbeks called "Jumbesh," Hazara Shias called "Wahdat" backed by Iran, and Tajiks called "Jamiat" backed by Iran and Russia.

The Taliban had cut a deal with a chunk of the Jumbesh led by someone named general Malik who were opposed to the leader of the Jumbesh named Dostum who had killed Rasoul Pahlavan, Malik's brother. Malik led a coup against Dostum, and invited a Taliban contingent into Mazar to help him, and then announced that he had joined the Taliban.

This all makes perfect sense.

I don't actually remember the conversation with my editor, but I spent the whole time trying to convince him to let me go there. I don't know if he could tell that my blood-alcohol level was way over the legal limit for planning trips to Afghanistan. All I needed was $1,500 to rent a satellite telephone, and maybe $2,000 for some other stuff because this was it, this was THE BIG STORY the war was over. And he finally says okay and I remember looking down and there are two phones.

So what's it like to wake up in the morning and realize that the night before, you said you would go to Afghanistan and if you don't go this afternoon everyone is going to think you're a pussy? Sorry to put it so bluntly but the newspaper business is very testosterone driven, and I had no intention of revealing my critical lack of this hormone to the foreign desk at the FT. I had been to Afghanistan once before, in March, and it wasn't actually that bad, and it was a great story. So I get the money, the visas, the satphone everything by 3:30 and I'm on the plane to Termez, which is on the Uzbek border with Afghanistan. From the Termez airport its a 20 minute trip to the bridge over the Oxus river to Heiraton, a former ship yard, and from there an hour to Mazar. But it seemed that one hour before I got there, the border had closed.

Darn.

So I spent the night in Termez, and had dinner with a guy from Medecins Sans Frontiers, and he's got his radio scanner along so that he can keep track of what's up in Mazar, and suddenly during dinner the scanner erupts with people shouting in French and it turns out that Malik's guys have blocked off all the side streets of Mazar and have begun to kill the entire Taliban garrison. Don't ask me why. The whole thing took 15 hours, and by dawn, 500 Taliban were dead. And so its at times like this that much soul searching takes place and its too bad about all those dead people, but HEY this is a page leader.

So the next day, some 70-odd UN people were to be evacuated from Mazar to Termez, where I got to interview them and put together a sensationalized account of their ordeal. Unfortunately, with the demise of the Taliban garrison in Mazar, there went the whole story about the war being over.

So the next day, I'm on the phone with another desk editor who is subbing for the first one, and tell him that I'm in Uzbekistan, and he tells me that he thought I was going to be in Afghanistan by now, and I explain that the border is closed and its in total chaos and the story is no longer there, and he says "oh" but he says it in this way that sounds to me like: "If you don't go to Tajikistan and sneak across the border from there, you're a pussy."

Okay, so maybe I should have gotten some therapy or something about this special complex about newspapers and testosterone, but at the time, it was a lot easier for me to try and sneak over the Afghan border from Tajikistan than deal with my insecurities in a rational and constructive way.

So go to Tajikistan with some French aid workers who have been evacuated. they are from something called Pharmeciens Sans Frontiers, which I think means Pharmacologists without borders, I remember being amused by this. In Dushanbe I walk into the Tajikistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and there's Suleiman Rashidov, the press secretary for the foreign ministry of Tajikstan, who is legendary among the foreign press corps of central Asia (5 people) for how corrupt he is. So I say that I'm the correspondent for the Financial Times, I've just arrived in Dushanbe and I need press accreditation. Let me emphasize that I looked like a vagrant, and I had no identification with me at the time. He says fine, that will be $300.

Press accreditation is essential to have in central Asia because no one knows what it is. Its a card with a stamp and your picture and some fancy writing some of which is in English, and you can use it to convince people that you are practically anything.

Let me digress to give you an example.

In the town of Kulyab, Tajikistan, there is a secret airbase which the Russians use to supply the Tajik Jamiat in Afghanistan, and probably to smuggle drugs back the other way. Monica, the BBC correspondent in Tashkent, did a special expose of this sometime in March.

Needless to say, when I arrived at the secret airbase to take photographs of it, the security guards who accosted me were not very happy, even after I explained that I was just a tourist. They seemed a bit torn between their cultural imperative to be hospitable to guests on the one hand, and the obvious need to arrest me, on the other, but when I sensed that the mood of the group was tilting decisively to the latter option, I produced my accreditation card, and waved it around and said that this gave me diplomatic immunity. They looked at it and said okay, and I went back to my hotel.

Back at the hotel, a representative from the local branch of the ministry of interior came to pay a visit and said that I didn't have permission to be in Kulyab, and that I would have to go. So out comes the accreditation card. This time, not only do I have diplomatic immunity, but the system of local travel permits (which actually applies to diplomats) doesn't apply to me, and I can travel anywhere I want. Martial law doesn't apply to me either. This man was obviously censoring the media, and I am going to call the foreign ministry in Dushanbe and lodge a complaint.

So he left and the next day, the UN hotel administrator told me that I was being summoned by the head of the local KGB. So I went there thinking, okay, the game's up, I'm going to be deported. But the KGB guy actually just wanted to apologize, because of what I said about calling Dushanbe and lodging a complaint, he wants to make sure that I don't accuse him of trying to censor the press, which actually wasn't what he was doing, he just wanted to make sure that I was safe. So he gets a promise from me not to tell the foreign ministry that he is anti-democracy, as Tajikistan is very concerned about its international reputation, and I am on my merry way. I eventually did get photos of the airbase which ran July 24th or 25th.

Anyway, the plan of sneaking over the border from Tajikistan into Afghanistan turned out to be a bit optimistic, because there are 20,000 Russian border guards stationed in Tajikistan to prevent just such an eventuality. This is what I discovered when I showed up at the Nizhne Pyanj border checkpoint, which is a bunch of quonset huts at a bend in the Oxus river, and across the river is this blank white desert, which is the Kunduz province of Afghanistan. The border had been closed for a week.

The Russian commandant, meanwhile, got a kick out of my accreditation card, and disputed my claim that it exempted me from all laws. I had to go back up to Dushanbe, a 6 hour drive, and get special permission from the Russian garrison commander there.

This is a whole other story which I won't go into, but anyway, the next day, I arrive again in Nizhne Pyanj, where the border guards set up the border, which was very impressive, because I had to take a tugboat across the river, and I got out and then the tugboat LEFT.

And on the other side there are four Afghans, sitting by a metal truck container, and it turns out that they have been sent to meet me. When I was in Dushanbe I had met with the Afghan defense attaché, who represents Jamiat and told him that I would be coming, which was good, because otherwise, I would have been completely stuck. We drive to Kunduz, and I meet the governor of the province which is controlled by Jamiat. Before the Taliban, the Jamiat had been the Islamic fundamentalist movement of Afghanistan and so their people are bearded, know the Koran, and are very polite. It turned out that the governor had studied in Egypt for a bit an so had I so we chat about that, and then he tells his account of the last week, because the Taliban had also taken Kunduz, and then evacuated after the Mazar garrison had all been killed, and we walk around the town a bit. He tells me that the Taliban had actually just bribed their way into Kunduz, and very little fighting had taken place. This article came out the first Saturday in June, if anyone is interested.

The drive from Kunduz to Mazar was a bit tense, once it became clear that nobody was controlling the roads. The first time I had been to Afghanistan was in March, and had been a breeze, because the roads between the towns were under control. This time, bands of armed men would wave the car down and there would be a lot of animated conversation between them and the taxi driver, who would use the word "Khariji" a lot which means foreigner. And they would let us through.

Afghanistan, once you get out of the blank white desert which is the first 100km in the north, is unimaginably beautiful. On the way to Mazar is the city of Taschkurgan which is located right at the entrance to a pass through the Hindu Kush mountains. It looks like one of those oil paintings from the 19th century of impossibly beautiful mountain scenery and sunlight and maidens playing by a waterfall, only without the maidens.

On my way through Taschkurgan, my taxi was stopped by police, who told me to go to the governor's house which is a giant 18th century fort. It turned out that the local commander wanted to talk to me, which in retrospect, was probably because he was bored. His name was Da'ud Azizi, and he was Uzbek, from "Jumbesh." While the Jamiat guys are all former Islamic fundamentalists, the Jumbesh guys are all former Soviet-trained Afghan army people, speak Russian, wear fatigues, drink like fish, and have the same haircut.

So we sat in the aerie of this castle and drank tea and Da'ud wanted to talk about the realpolitik of Afghanistan, and made me promise not to attribute any of what he said to him, which made it utterly useless. He said Afghanistan is essentially a proxy war between Pakistan and Iran, and that the US was orchestrating the Taliban moves, while Saudi Arabia funds everything. I have absolutely no idea if any of this is true, though the Taliban are indeed very well funded.

In Mazar, unfortunately, there was no story, except that life was back to normal in a very disconcerting way only a few days after 500 people were slaughtered in the streets. The Mazar Hotel, the main stopover for foreign press, had not very sentimentally tripled its rates after an ammunition truck exploded in front of its only competitor, the atrar hotel, during the fighting, and the UN guest house was looted.

I got to interview general Malik, who had since traded his conservative Islamic garb for a red Versace sportcoat and Hawaiian flower tie, which accentuated a lack-of-gravitas problem he has. I also got to interview the Hizb-i-Wahdat commander, who helped me to construct elaborate conspiracy theories about what had happened and why. By the way, if any of you Saisketeers who have made it this far happen to know anything about why, for example, the US ambassador to Uzbekistan left his post immediately after this Taliban offensive, and whether this was connected to a trip he made to Termez immediately before the Taliban offensive, pls drop me a line.

The rest of the trip consisted of me and the BBC guy and the Reuters guy, who had all wound up in Mazar as well, spent a week following Malik's army around the north as they systematically wiped out isolated pockets of hapless Taliban. Somewhere in there, the trip stopped being any fun, and the newspaper was not taking any more than 300 word briefs about 'liberated" Afghan cities and corpses. When a jeep load of soldiers stole my computer at gunpoint, I decided it was time to head back north.

Of course, it really wasn't as simple as clicking my heels together and saying take me back to Aunt Em.

The road back to the Tajik border through Kunduz had been taken by Taliban after they got pushed out of this place called Pol-i-Khomri.

The Uzbek border was still closed, meanwhile. I didn't quite believe that the Uzbek border police would refuse entry to a dehydrated, scared to death white guy who obviously shouldn't have been on the other side of the border in the first place.

But they did. So I tried to out via Turkmenistan, which was another day's journey, and found that my taxi driver would not drive through the town of Shebarghan, which is on the way, because he's from the wrong clan. And there's no other way to get to Turkmenistan, and their border was shut anyway.

Now here it is important to know that Uzbekistan wants to issue a eurobond, and part of that effort includes being nice to the Financial Times, so that they will write nice things about Uzbekistan and ignore the fact that the place is sliding into the macro-economic toilet because it is run by incompetent kleptomaniacs.

So the last scene of this is in the middle of the bridge between Temez and Heiraton and I am making some extremely animated satellite phone calls to the Foreign Ministry press office and threatening on behalf of the entire bond market that it will be centuries before they even get a credit rating, and waving my Uzbek press accreditation and claiming that I am like Boutros Boutros Ghali.

Anyway, I think it will be some time before I go back there.

In the neglected spirit of this Page as a forum for opinion, a few thoughts on the recent demise of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the resurrection of Diana, Princess of Hearts. My opinions have been met with a range of reactions. I'm curious to see how they compare to anything y'all might have to offer.

What is the nature of the tragedy? Certainly three deaths and two motherless sons count. But the hysteria with which the accident was met, the frenzied attacks on the media, and the media's dubious responses have left me feeling that there is a greater bad which recent events have unveiled. A bad for which there is no solution.

What sparked the revolution-like fervor in Great Britain to worship her in death? I've heard assertions that she was a force of good. Her work with charities (as opposed to her charity work) has been frequently cited. Surely, given the relatively scant attention paid to the passing of Mother Teresa, good works are not enough to explain this.

No, I think Diana was famous for being famous, and not famous for being a Samaritan. The charity promo work was part of a beguiling deal to wed Charles, get loads of (then) tax-free income, wear all the designer dresses you wanted and, well, become a queen. Diana was not as self-serving as all that, however: she was sucked into it by the institution of British royalty. By 1981 the monarchy was dying. All institutions fight for survival, regardless of the merits of its members, and the monarchy seized on the media as a tool. Throw a glamorous wedding with a fairy tale princess, what a brilliant idea! Suddenly the monarchy was once again in vogue.

Diana learned the hard way that you can not control the media. You can manipulate it at times--and she became a master of that--but you can not tame it. The royals and Di used the media to bolster their social status and perks by turning themselves into celebrities. In a media and information-saturated world, it was easy to culture and feed a growing demand for glamorous photographs. The public--the same public now witlessly inundating a cemetery with flowers and giving the nest egg to charities--grew addicted. They didn't want just wedding shots sanctioned by the Palace. The public is like a vampire, because it had to be fed with her life, and now its feasting on her blood.

It was hypocritical for Diana to plead for privacy whilst using the media to fight her personal battles. It seems after she "returned" to public eye, it was for the sake of her charities, for which she should be commended. But I suspect such a mature, if somewhat resigned view--that she would be hounded no matter what, so why not give worthy causes some press--came late.

This does not excuse the papparazzi. They're scum. The editors can say, Well, we just supply a demand. That's like Oliver North saying he was just following orders. But it takes two to tango, baby, and the monarchy invited them in.

My concern is the public reaction. People seem truly addicted to the gossip and the photos of ephemeral figures, people who don't DO things but just ARE. Even for those of us who try to ignore it, or at least claim to ignore it, the tidbits of the royals' bedrooms are known and sometimes discussed. Is pop culture--television, junk food, Disney, sports, fashion--is it a poison? Was Di killed by the information age?

Or is pop culture--or culture, period--like technology. Nuclear power can be a great good or a horrendous evil--it depends on what humans do with it. We are responsible, individually, for how we use pop culture, for the magazines we buy and the videos we watch. I'm exposed: I listen to the Spice Girls while I run a treadmill in my bullshit gym and read the gossip about XYZ in the newspaper. Sometimes I can turn it off. The mobs weeping in front of Buckingham Palace can't. They're addicted, and maybe because for many of them, there's no substitute. There's nothing else but the junk they consume. And I have to wonder what that bodes for all of us, if they are in the majority.

The scene was tranquil: a bed of warm light covering Victoria Park like 55,000 lightning bugs at peace. The crowd, gathered to commemorate those killed at Tiananmen Square eight years ago, was somber. The protest organizers were resolute. Most of the frenetic activity came from journalists looking for an angle. Yet there was a sense of desperation in Hong Kong that night, a feeling that this act of defiance--in the face of both Beijing and its lackey, chief-executive-designate Tung Chee Hua--might be the last.

Speakers insisted otherwise. They said there will be yet another rally on 4 June 1998, nowithstanding Hong Kong's transfer of soveriegnty to the People's Republic of China. They said that their democracy movement will become incorporated into the Chinese democracy movement and they would now have the opportunity to change China from within. In the long run they're probably right. Absorbing Hong Kong will be like injecting a virus into China and everybody hopes it will lead to the peaceful demise of the current regime. But to what extent a democracy rally to remember Tiananmen will be tolerated next year is unknown.

Indeed, the challenges to both Beijing and Hong Kong's democracy movement have already materialized, with less than one month before the big hangover--er, handover. Tung's bid to clip Hong Konger's right to protest and organize has been well documented in the papers. Martin Lee, leader of the Democratic Party--Hong Kong's largest party and Tung's main antagonist these days--has vowed protests during the handover.

I have been asked by people who don't live here about the prospects for Hong Kong. I don't have a crystal ball. The only observation I am comfortable making is that Hong Kong's fate will be directly affected by the internal politics of Beijing's senior rulers. If Jiang Zemin is able to consolidate his hold on power it is likely that he will feel less threatened by an uppity Hong Kong. That is probably not in the cards; I read regularly about Communist left-wing attacks on the reforms of Deng Xiaping--which translates into an attack on Jiang. And with a major leadership shift expected at the Party Congress in October--held every five years--you can bet Jiang will not tolerate boat-rocking.

There is a positive spin on the handover. First, the local Chinese who comprise something like 97% of the population have cause to celebrate the removal of British power. Second, civil liberties aside, China is interested in the magic which makes Hong Kong tick. China doesn't need just another city, not with over a billion people. China needs Hong Kong, needs its spice and ability to amass wealth--"One country, two systems". So China is not going to go around screwing with the system. And even if China is frightened of open protest in Hong Kong, it will soon learn that Hong Kong's wealth is dependent upon the free flow of information as well as a laissez-faire attitude. Ultimately China will become more like Hong Kong than vice versa and everyone will get rich, stability will reign and there will be improved buying opportunities for foreignors.

That's the idea. It could even work. But there will be bumps on the way. As brave as last night's protest leaders sounded, they could end up like their colleagues in China's democracy movement: jailed or exiled. No one believes China will go around with tanks rounding up dissidents chanting anti-Li Peng slogans in Central. But when push comes to shove the Beijing establishment will go to great lengths to protect its power, even if that means suffering world condemnation for a Hong Kong crackdown. The local press has more or less censored itself already. The only media company to continue to criticize Beijing, the Apple Daily, has been unable to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange despite soaring profits because no banks will touch it. Hong Kong's transparent legal system could easily fall prey to powerful mainland "princelings" with the right connections. Corruption is the greatest and most imminent concern.

A grey area is probable. Beijing knows it must tread carefully and has pledged endlessly not to meddle with Hong Kong's financial system, its foreign reserves or its local fiscal policy. But China is a big, clumsy oaf and is bound to make errors. The thousands of foreign journalists descending upon the colony for scenes of violence and mayhem will be disappointed. Although Tung is no democrat he has been forced to modify his civil liberties proposals. There will be new constraints but there is no infrastructure being prepared for a police state. The new government is dominated by tycoons who don't understand civil liberties but do understand business. The burning issue these days is whether Hong Kong needs an industrial policy to remain competitive. It is these more mundane decisions, in the face of growing competition in Asia, which is likely to affect most Hong Kongers.

In the meantime the handover itself promises to be a real drinkfest. If anyone feels like jetting in I've got a spare pull-out sofa. "One system, two parties."