Having done Iran, we carry on east towards the Afghan border. First it’s passport control where our visas from the Afghan Embassy on the corner of Exhibition Road are checked – mine is only for one week. Further on is the customs post with all this strung out over a distance of 20 miles after which it is a still a couple of miles to the actual boundary where we enter the mountainous (then) Kingdom of Afghanistan. This manages to be the most beautiful, wildest, most memorable and most unsanitary country we visit.
On the Afghan side of the border, a zealous customs official in a grubby old jacket and baggy white trousers writes in my Her Britannic Majesty’s passport that I have actually imported a cheap Halina 35X Super camera and an even cheaper transistor radio – no doubt saving me a huge sum in import duty. Anussorn’s lovely Leica outfit with its assortment of lenses is completely ignored.
First proper stop in Afghanistan is the western city of Herat where we end up camping inside the garden of what was once a very grand house. A couple of other tourist groups on the hippy trail to India, are camping in the garden. The staff, all in baggy trousers are very anxious to please and we eventually understand that we are being offered the opportunity of a bath. My brain cannot remember when I last had a bath or shower (probably in Teheran) so we all accept this kind offer and the guy rushes off. Seems to take ages, but as we have other travellers to talk to, we don’t mind.
After 90 minutes, we are proudly told our baths are ready so we excuse ourselves and go into the main building. The reason for the long preparation time is apparent as soon as I walk into my very own bathroom. The bathtub is a sort of sad grey colour with very little white enamel left and the tank with the hot water heated by logs is at one end of it. This rusty, originally galvanised monstrosity pops, crackles and hisses like some angry dinosaur. Having stripped off, my nose tells me I really do need a bath so I turn on the taps. The colour of the hot liquid spluttering out reminds me of a hospital visit where I am asked to give a urine sample. A steady stream of black rust particles accumulates in the bottom of the tub. My bath is now half full of yellow liquid and I seriously consider if the bath will make me any cleaner. The water smells strongly of rust too. On balance, I decide that I probably will be cleaner afterwards than now so I get in but do not feel like luxuriating in the hot water for very long. It is one of the occasions when I am definitely glad we did not have any ladies for company.
The rust smell lingers as I rejoin our travelling companions in the garden near our tent. A second Land Rover is there driven by an English guy and two English ladies, both journalists. Unlike ours, their Land Rover is fitted with heavy duty springs and a huge roof rack but the weight of their baggage has created a permanent tilt. Ours by contrast, with ordinary springs and 4 guys’ baggage looks perfectly level and normal. We take a couple of days driving around Herat where the pavements are raised above street level with a concrete-lined drain about 18 inches wide separating the two.
Many streetside shops sell trunks and chests of all sizes made with beer cans it seems, but we decide not to buy although they are not expensive.
Good roads, no traffic
Cross roads are manned by Mongol-looking policemen on raised concrete traffic islands who raise their arm to stop non-existent traffic, proudly direct us where our indicator lights show and as we drive past, smile and wave at us. Somewhere Dave manages to fall down one of the drains and limps back to the Land Rover. By the roadside, I notice a man selling nicely trimmed small spring lettuces glistening with the water they have just been washed in. What water does he use? The water from the drain down which Dave just fell. We do not buy any fresh vegetables.
One day while filling the Land Rover with the smelly sulfurous Afghan petrol, Dave comes back to the Land Rover telling us to drive away quickly. Going to pay for our petrol he hands over some large Afghani notes. The smiling attendant hands back some smaller Afghani notes as change – then some more, and some more until there seem to be more in small notes than what he had handed over in the first place. Illiteracy is not a surprise in a poor country but innumeracy certainly is, so off we drive.
Here and several other times during the trip, Anussorn and Dave dismantle and clean the carburettor and fuel system to remove the gunge (and even water) that accumulates from low grade petrol we get.
Suits You Sir!
Another day, we decide to buy some Afghan shirts as they are thin and cool for the weather which is getting warmer – it is early March. I decide to buy off the peg and manage to find one that fits. Our tailor offers Dave and Anussorn individually fitted ones so Dave stands still while the tailor dances around him making a huge show of writing down his measurements in Pushto script on a scrap of paper. Next day when we go to see these individually made shirts, the fit is for some mushroom-shaped person bearing no relation to its purchaser at all. Dave cannot get into the shirt without ripping it but eventually takes it after the smooth compliments of the tailor.
The shirt shop is next to a photographer and since I may need some more photos for visas, decide to get my photo taken. The image is taken on a piece of 120 roll film sandwiched between two sheets of glass in an ancient half-frame camera with a black cape, all on an ancient wooden tripod. I sit on a high wooden stool while this is done and notice a small beauty kit in the corner of the studio comprising an old trilby hat and a greasy green plastic comb. The photo has stood the test of time very well – better than its subject.
Our next stop is Kandahar in the south of Afghanistan and again we camp in a huge garden of a colonial style bungalow and talk to other travellers. As I am expecting to go back into employment with NCR in Greenford, I try to make sense of a basic computer programming book that explains Fortran a now vintage computer programming language. I try to get my head round discrete and continuous numbers but the issues of Playboy are more interesting and reading these in the Land Rover, makes some of the local guys stare open-mouthed.
At places like this we swap stories with other travellers. While Europeans are heading east to India, there is a steady stream of Kiwis and Aussies on their way to Europe to do their Grand Tour. The Vietnam War is still raging and one Aussie shows us his passport “Not Valid for North Vietnam”. Australia has sent troops there.
Kiwis describe their country as like nineteenth century England. Import duty on cars is high so old British cars still run long after they would have been scrapped in UK.
Other topics are health scare stories. Where someone has been really ill and they don’t trust the local doctors, some have dosed themselves up with painkillers and got a plane out. Hard up hippies have sometimes sold blood to raise some cash but from Turkey, we hear horror stories of blood-drained bodies being found in ditches later.
Drugs are another regular topic but best not to be careless, so we just listen.
Leaving Kandahar, the roads are clear so we do not have to stop and sleep in the car like in Turkey and this particular section of road is the highest on the whole trip. The Land Rover takes it all in its stride, and a very cold overnight drive gets us to capital city Kabul in about 14 hours.
The AA notes warn tourists about dressing properly in a strict Muslim country. No short skirts please where some western ladies have had acid thrown at their bare legs. The money market in Afghanistan is unregulated and you can get more or less the same rate from the banks as from a bureau de change. Talking to some locals and to some tourists informs us that the best rate is from a guy who is also the Wilkinson Sword agent. We drive to his office and climb up some creaking wooden stairs. His office is full of bulging suitcases stacked to the ceiling with packets of razor blades. The owner with turban, full black beard and cloak, sits in an old Victorian wooden high chair from which business is conducted very efficiently:
“What have you got?”
“Cash or travellers’ cheques?”
“American Express” and the rate quoted is indeed the best in Kabul.
We are there for less than 5 minutes.
In the days before the internet and no addresses booked in advance, easiest way of getting news from home is Poste Restante where mail is kept for a while until collected by the addressee. Kabul Main Post Office is one of several we use en route but my letter from home is not comforting where Dad’s comments almost make me think “they nearly got you that time!”
The main roads in Afghanistan are very good having been built by the West Germans, Russians and Americans but they serve as trailer parks too. Lorry trailers covered in black tarpaulins seem to be parked all around Kabul and other large towns, propped up by logs to save the springs and with the wheels wedged. From the dust on them, some of them seem to have been there for weeks.
Footware to last a Lifetime
Besides the usual tourist stuff at markets, are sandals made from old tyres. Think of your average flip flop but with the sole made from a piece of an old lorry tyre – still slightly curved, and with the thongs held in by three nails. The sole part is over an inch thick and look as if they would last a lifetime.
In Kabul, we run into Mike from California and his Thai partner. They met at UCLA and are now doing a grand tour. He has a Masters Degree in Medicine and has done research into parasites which migrate from the stomach into the chest cavity. He tells us about Bamiyan with its huge faceless Buddha statue. It is west of Kabul but the roads are terrible. First day, the route is blocked by snow so we have to turn back. Second day by a different but longer route gets us there. The scenery in the interior is breathtaking and the image of a Max Parrish blue sky reflected in the paddy fields with their iridescent green shoots coming through all set against the red mountains is one I will never forget.
Mike and partner visited Iraq a few weeks before and found it the scariest place on their travels with men with machine guns on every corner. N.B. This was the period when Saddam Hussein was effectively Deputy Prime Minister before becoming President in 1979.
Many of the towns we pass are fortified. We stop somewhere to go for a walk but the altitude makes us short of breath. This is the Hindu Kush meaning “killer of Hindus”. Stopping for tea chai and food is easy but at one place, the cafe staff are not happy about serving a mixed party. At Bamiyan are some other tourists and we pay an outrageous price to stay in yurts – definitely a tourist trap. Next day we climb up through the labyrinth of caves near the statue and are gradually able to see it from higher and higher up the valley side. The face has been cut off but the rest of the statue with its depiction of the flowing robe and two huge feet, is in good condition.
We visit another famous hill fort but I am too lazy to climb several hundred feet so I stay with the Land Rover. From there we decide to drive back to Kabul in one day and make it in the dark. Later we stay with a Sufi chap in a suburb of Kabul. He is a very interesting guy and proudly shows us some books he is studying on psycholinguistics. I try reading one but it seems gibberish.
Another party of overlanders is staying in another part of the house but one of them is a sickly yellow colour from hepatitis. They have no money and are selling off parts of the Land Rover to stay alive. Both headlights have already been sold. One evening they return and the sick one hobbles in slowly on two crutches.
Our host has another Sufi guest also from the UK. He is a 22 year old mod from Bletchley but unlike any of us, is married with a young baby. One day he decides to leave them to be a Sufi in Afghanistan – their reaction? “they got a bit uptight about it” as he puts it. He has been there two months and returning to the UK does not seem to be on his mind.
Three weeks in Afghanistan and my extended visa is running out, so it is time to move on to West Pakistan and India. Sometimes seen in old B&W films from the 30s, the final check point actually has an old black Bakelite telephone with a wind up handle. My passport is checked but no one is interested in the Halina camera or transistor radio.