Thor's Travel Notes


Memories of Afghanistan

...also see photographs of the trip

We fell from the granite pelvis of the Hindu Kush, a droplet of glass and steel on the arid skirt of hell. Behind us the giant mountain range lay motionless on this dusty edge of Asia, shimmering dry rock to the sky, unbounded to the east and to the west. Ahead stretched the parched flatlands of central Asia, a limitless nothingness which had no edge in our imaginations this side of Moscow.

I looked back in awe, wondering what accident in that hideous barrier had given us birth onto the plain of no life. For this truly was the abrupt partition of worlds. South, somewhere over those unthinkable mountains was the steaming monsoon world of South Asia with its tropical profusion and teeming millions. From here to an unmeasured bleak north you would find only scattered remnants of humanity, or life of any kind. A harsh world of fierce pride and careful conservation, where precious water came from dark places deep in the earth.

A single oblique shadow in the wall of rock hinted at a fracture, the defile through which we had emerged. Measuring that with a warrior's eye, you would have to say that two men with Kalashnikov's guarding the Salang Pass could do a good job of keeping an army at bay.( See And such seems to be the story of Afghanistan from the beginning of human time. Why any army would want to come here could only find an answer in the overheated egos of a Ghengiz Khan or Alexander the Great, a.k.a. conquering heroes determined to claim a spot in children's storybooks ( see But tales for tots could hardly hint at the tragedies of this spot. The very name, Hindu Kush -- Hindu killer -- told an awful saga of an ancient slave trade between India and Uzbekistan.

Personally, I would have happily paid double to a Coke vending machine. No such offers in sight. Through a fingerprinted window I could see occasional clusters of dun mud brick dwellings on a pebble plain, lifeless, not a hint of pasture anywhere. My god, where would the human soul find sustenance growing up in a place like this? Perhaps only in rich fields of imagination, or the milk and honey heaven of The Prophet's Q'ran. Were I to survive birth ( a 15% chance that I would not), as an Afghan man I could expect to live for forty-six hard years. My career options would run to herding a straggle of goats, or in a few towns, somehow getting to drive one of these hand painted buses that whined through the night. A little excitement, a challenge, a raid, a well-fought battle, might be welcome diversions, A rifle might be the most beautiful thing that I could aspire to own.

The bus was crowded with a sweaty but amiable rabble of humanity, dressed in an amazingly random mixture of garments, as if everyone had rushed into a charity shop and grabbed whatever fell to hand. I had learned that this was a kind of Afghani trademark. They tolerated me with resigned good humour, even if we were limited to sign language, and from time to time on these local buses I would find myself with a kid on one knee and someone's bundle of possessions, wrapped in a cotton cloth, on the other.

We were going to Mazar-e-Sharif (see . Well, they had good business going there -- families, relatives, maybe a carpet to sell. It was, after all, a kind of gateway to Uzbekistan and beyond. Although my brief memory of the area is of pitiless dry earth (there had been drought and famine) the nearby irrigation areas of the Balkh River are supposed to be some of Afghanistan's most fertile regions.

My only excuse for trekking 320 km to Mazar was that one of the two reasonable roads in Afghanistan led there. Someone had mentioned that the place was famous for its blue tiled mosque ( see ). No doubt I would look at the mosque, but I wasn't a collector of mosques. I belonged to a self-styled new species, "a traveler", (not, horror of horrors, a tourist. Much later I would understand that there have been travelers since the beginning of time, but youth must have its illusions). This was autumn 1971, so the crumpled Afghani bank notes in my pocket sported a portrait of one Zhahir Shah (see:
MohammadZahirShah.shtm ) , who was said to be king, and for a brief respite in its turbulent history, Afghanistan was more or less at peace.

Mazar-e-Sharif when we got to it was a small collection of dusty streets, mud walls to enclose private compounds, and old men sleeping in the shade on rope beds. Women, as everywhere in this country, were hardly to be seen, although occasional bat-like apparitions disappearing around some corner hinted that they were not altogether extinct. Children were about, but men clearly owned the public domain, and lounged with unhurried assurance, sucking pipes, holding slow discussions over cups of very sweet tea, sometimes pondering a chess board.

The mosque stood apart from the crumbling mud compounds, startling as a piece of architecture in a town of no architecture. About it was a kind of no-man's land of beaten earth and a perimeter fence which I felt too abashed to penetrate, being perhaps the only infidel this side of the horizon. Surreptitiously, I took a quick photograph, a kind of compulsive signal to the world, universal to travelers and tourists, which like the evidence of a cocked dog's leg, says "I was there". There had been dire warnings about photography in Afghanistan, but as guilty as a spy from other worlds, I had invested in a tiny matchbox camera (getting film for the thing was a nightmare). Today, somewhere in a shed in Sydney, there are some curling black and white snaps which include that shot of the famed blue mosque, circa 1971.

Rumour had it that a road of sorts ran from Mazar-e-Sharif through to Herat on the Irani border. When I asked a little further though, the universal advice was to forget it. The road I had come down over the Hindu Kush from Kabul had been built by the Russians, solid concrete (to handle tanks ...). It must have cost them a mint, for the engineering was impressive, but the Great Game has never ceased here, and in the corridors of the Kremlin the investment would have been sold as Mother Russia's gateway to the southern Oceans. Such is the stuff of dreams. Not to be outdone, the Americans had built the other highway, much flimsier, south from Kabul to Kandahar From there, looping below the unforgiving peaks of central Afghanistan, it ran across the dunes to Herat in the west.

That was my second option, much further in kilometers than a jump from Mazar-e-Sharif along the northern desert track below the mountains. But that journey, they told me, would be a foolhardy gamble. It wasn't a real road, only treacherous, ambiguous wheel tracks in the dust, through remote valleys, owned by part-time bandits, and death to modern vehicles. I sighed, and bought a seat for the long trail back, back through that crack in the groin of the Hindu Kush, then the interminable climb up into the belly of the mountains again, and the long winding descent into the dry basin where the capital slept on the banks of a small, stony river bed.

Way up in the thin clear air, near the peak of the pass over the 4000 meter Hindu Kush, there was a small rest area where buses could cool their radiators, and the passengers stretch for a few short minutes. Here too was a spring in a little rocky valley, and a cafe selling kebabs and mutton stew with flat bread. It did a brisk trade. The aroma of the stew, and the sharp tang of tea were irresistible, but I hung back a while, unsure of etiquette or language in the charge of bundled bodies to the serving counter.

Presently a well dressed man signaled me to wait at one of the outdoor trestle tables. It was puzzling, for I had never seen him before, but I had learned by now that as a stranger in a strange land that the best rewards often came from a kind of friendly patience, accepting God's grace, as my Afghan companions would say, when a helping hand was offered. After a few minutes my new friend returned and introduced himself. He was, he said, a government officer from the Health Ministry, and he welcomed my honoured visit. He seemed to be an unassuming man, and I was pleased to make contact with anyone who could speak English. The gift he carried though left me dumfounded.

It was a tin of Danish bully beef, which he deftly proceeded to open. He knew, he explained, that a foreigner such as myself would find the local food intolerably primitive and unclean. He would therefore feel most privileged if I could accept this humble offering of European meat. Good grief. If he had actually purchased the bully beef it would have cost a week's Afghan salary. As it happens, I loathe tinned meat, but there was no escape. With expressions of infinite gratitude I got to work and sucked the stuff in through my teeth.

The face of the Hindu Kush to Afghanistan's heartland is as forbidding as it's sheer rocky back to central Asia. (See ) The road itself is a standing challenge to the hostility of the mountains. It zig zags down vast, treeless slopes, sometimes tunneling into solid rock. In many sections, where loose scree on the mountain sides is a constant threat to anything passing below, huge concrete platforms have been built above the road, winding like grey lace on the bodice of a petrified giantess. No doubt the platforms help to keep the road clear of snow as well. (For millennia war has devastated the Afghan landscape. An asset as strategic as the Salang Pass road could scarcely expect to escape. In 1998 it was dynamited by General Achmad Shah Massood (see ).

We crawled along this surreal landscape, in a dream that might have lasted forever, but finally the spirits of the place grew tired of our intrusion, and our vision morphed into a shallow upland valley. The approach to Kabul at dusk gave little hint of a nation's capital. Here and there at the foot of bald hills were twinkles of light (see
), but you would look in vain for any significant factories, warehouses, transport hubs, power grids, or bustling retail satellite towns. Instead, with night came silence, a stiffening blanket of still, cold air; an unpeopled landscape of dark shadows and bare gravel spaces.

At this distance of time, my memories of Kabul are fragmentary. The skyline was low, hardly ever more than two or three stories, and buildings, like the clothing of people on the streets, often seemed to be a haphazard amalgam of whatever had come to hand ( see ). Shops, in the Western sense of retail spaces with glass window fronts, were pretty rare, small, and had an air of pervasive neglect ( see a more recent scene: ). My watch had been stolen in Calcutta by a fleet-footed fellow who conned my into letting him "look at it", so when I saw a lone wind-up model in one of Kabul's grubby shop windows for US$9, there was an instant sale. ("Candida" from Switzerland, said the watch face, but it's timekeeping was always as accidental as its origins.. ). Like much of the world, most of Kabul's real business took place in the markets ( see ; also ). Apart from life necessities, there was an enthusiastic trade in antiques, which without suitable bribes were likely to be reclaimed as you left the country. National security may have been chancy, but there was an admirable heritage preservation law. Immediately the unwary foreigner's antiques were seized, they would find their way back to the market -- one of the country's few productive economic cycles.

My own resources were strictly at white trash survival level, which spared me the rip-off of thinking I had owned, say, a rare Afghani rug until some gent from customs at the Irani border flashed a brilliant smile and seized it ( see ). More within my economic range were the offerings of soft drinks on hand pulled carts. These drinks, true to the national style, came in a wonderful variety of bottles, with contents every colour of the rainbow. What went into the colouring is anybody's guess. The bottles of course were hand filled, probably with river water. After a timely warning I decided not to experiment further with this unique local attraction.

At least the cloudy cups of tea in little cafes had been boiled, so that was how I washed down the mutton kebabs and rice. For days I also toted an enormous plastic bag of cherries. They had cost some ridiculously low price, and it seemed churlish to insist on a more modest quantity. A chemist in Sydney had suggested that a few drops of iodine in water would wipe out most known bugs. In an ancient hand basin of a nameless flophouse I had duly treated the cherries with iodine, which added a slightly medical piquancy to their already sour tang.

Being neither a bona fide spy (matchbox camera notwithstanding), nor a soldier of fortune, nor an antiques thief with a fat wallet, there wasn't much reason to spend a lot of time in Kabul. Sooner or later, the long distance mover ceases to be charmed by addresses simply because they sound exotic. Anyway, my own inverse snobbery was probably a natural emotional defense. It was easy to be bemused by the "overland tour buses" which were beginning to forge routes between India and Western Europe.

Like bug-eyed monsters with one-way mirror glass windows, these things roared into places like Kabul, did their package tour adventure thing, and roared off in a cloud of dust. (The trade went into steep decline when Iran led a fashion in Islamic revolutions, and adventure buses were faced with more adventure than holidaying bank clerks were prepared to relish). Back in Australia I had innocently bought a ticket for one of these buses -- "Delhi to London" it grandly said. Luckily for my education, the vehicle never turned up. I blew my investment and became a "traveler" instead, on trucks, local buses, anything that moved. There was always transport of some kind to the next town. The reality dosage though was sometimes tough medicine.

In the Afghan case, at least the major intercity buses were not a bad deal. Perhaps because they live close to the margin, Afghanis are resourceful people. Their remanufactured and copied weapons are legendary - precision instruments crafted in village forges with infinite care. Some of the same skills seemed to find their way into keeping vehicles on the road. For US $2 in 1971, you could have yourself a through ticket from Kabul to Herat via Kandahar That's a twenty-two hour trip on a fairly fast road. The buses may have had a ragtag collection of passengers, but as bits of machinery they looked like direct exports from the Mercedes production line in Germany. In fact, at some time in an earlier life, they had probably made that migration, but close inspection might well find, say, a wonderfully remanufactured transaxle here, an engine with various ingenious improvisations there, or a body that had gestated from some unlikely shed in a nondescript backstreet. I didn't mind ( see ).

The more prosaic problems of transport came down to simple communication. English was a rare code in this part of the world, usually only the prized tool of a few small-time entrepreneurs with big ambitions. Everything written was in artistic, incomprehensible Persian script. Even numbers were not our familiar, so-called "Arabic numerals", but genuinely Arabic numerals, different creatures altogether. (In central Kabul there were a few optimistic signs in funny English, clearly painted by fellows who found Latin script as bizarre as I found the Persian). Necessity always finds a way.

Somehow I learned that buses going south could be located on a certain street down by the river. They all looked the same to me, but a cheerful, burly man, shrewd enough to guess the general trajectory of foreigners with backpacks, pushed me onto to one that was about to head out of town. It was early morning, my knowledge of Afghanistan's geography was hazy, and I had no notion at that time that I was in for a twenty-two hour version of the Afghan Express. In short, a typical dumb tourist unlikely to attract more than pity; (this is the sort of place where some other visitors have had more complex motives; for example, see ).

My late addition to the bus excluded the luxury of choosing a seat. Things were pretty crowded, with large bundles that hadn't made it onto the roof cluttering the aisles. Only by someone's wordless good grace was a child booted off the edge of an aisle seat to make way for the foreigner. It wasn't long of course before I had to show the grace of allowing the child back onto my knee, which eventually went numb. What memory does he keep today, I wonder, of my bony hospitality?

This was no situation for furtive matchbox camera photography. To the untrained eye, peering around a bobbing garden of turbans, catching hints through dust smeared bus windows, one bit of parched earth looks much like another bit of parched earth. After a few hours of this you go into a semi-coma, a sort of mental survival crouch, knowing that sooner or later it all has to come to an end.

Kandahar was dinner. I recall a cafe on a crossroads, a torturous unwinding of compressed muscles, a gulped plate of something. There were mud walls with hints of orchards behind them. Somewhere perhaps there was a credible town, or maybe not (see ; also
; also ). The statistics say there are a couple of hundred thousand people living here somewhere in settlements going back to the 4th Century BC, and fought over countless times since. Hidden away, maybe, were rambling villas, richly caparisoned with tapestries and hand-knotted carpets, or maybe not. Or perhaps the real wealth of this culture lived in oral myths and fireside stories, and haunting music ( see ). Whatever. I was too knotted up and strung out to care, just thinking of the long night desert run ahead, through to Herat. Kandahar ( a.k.a. Qandahar ) would have to wait for a visit in one of my next lives, hopefully before it was flattened by the carnage of yet another war.

The country between Kandahar and Herat is sparsely populated, even by Afghani standards. That is, much of it is a moonscape of rolling sand dunes. Seeing it by moonlight was probably a stoke of good luck, and I have reason to retain one particularly vivid image. Late in the night we pulled into a truck stop, a spacious acre or so of gravel with a tumble-down cafe and some other anonymous sheds. It was made striking by heavy shadows, a flickering fire, bright spaces of moonlit earth. Personal needs though were rather urgent at this moment, and I searched in despair for something resembling a toilet. My nose led me to the dark entrance of a lean-to, and I made one cautious step inside. Mistake. Almost retching, I staggered back.

There was only one possible alternative, and it had to be quicker than the bus driver could gulp down his tea. The dunes seemed strangely pristine, untouched by human contamination. They must have been twenty meters high here, and ran like immense ocean waves in serried ranks. I climbed over the peak of the first one, and immediately seemed to be the only man in the world, extraordinarily exposed in the moonlight, but utterly alone. A few meters below the crest of the dune, I carefully took off my trousers and folded them beside me, squatted and did what had to be done. Then suddenly I was not alone.

Around a curve at the foot of the dune came an old man leading a donkey. How could I disappear? There was no way. It was too late for that. Surely he would have the sense not to see me. Ah, I hadn't counted on Afghan desert courtesy. Another human being in the trackless waste is not to be ignored. Calmly the old man plodded on for fifty meters, until standing directly below me in the trough he turned and bowed slightly. "A salam a'lekum" he seemed to utter gravely. Ahem. "A salam a'lekum" I stuttered, hoping the mangled Arabic had some faint meaning in his own language. Then, honour satisfied, the ancient gentleman turned back to his donkey and plodded on.

Herat has a glorious history, if glory is what comes with empires. Now on the western margin of Afghanistan, it was in earlier times a part of Persia (Iran; see ). Repeatedly destroyed by conquerors (a.k.a. ravening warlords) from Alexander the Great to Ghengiz Khan to Tamerlane, in the 1400s it was rebuilt as a centre of the Tamarid empire which stretched from China to Iraq (see ; also Little of this was evident in the crumbling town that I found.

The avenues of trees in Herat were a welcome sign of oasis water somewhere below, and the clip-clopping donkey carts were quaint. History though spoke only through the mounds of dried mud and rubble that had been a famed citadel, and mosques which alone seemed spared from destruction in this land. I found lodging in a modest, sun-baked hotel run by a pleasant fellow with big plans for the coming tourist trade. He gave me a brochure, or rather a white card printed in erratic English. "Mr Ahmad's Hotel", it said, "Every comfort. Hot and warm water. Afghan perfect guides will help you." Inconsiderately, I asked to try the hot water. Wait I was told. An unfortunate boy was summoned to carry buckets to a shallow tank on the roof. The water would be hot, Mr. Ahmed assured me, in a couple of hours.

Still dragging my half-finished plastic bag of sour cherries, and the matchbox camera, I set off to see the sights. There wasn't a whole lot to see, but I was intrigued to stumble across Afghanistan's adaptation of the photographer's trade. He had set up business in a street stall, with a small display of black and white photographs showing fierce gentlemen with liquid eyes looking straight into the camera. It was the machine itself which drew my attention however.

My only memory of anything like it came from comedy spoofs out of the silent movie era : a huge box on a heavy wooden tripod, and sheathed in a black shroud beneath which the the photographer practised his dark art. This monstrosity was an entire photo studio in a box. When the exposed wet plate was deftly removed, it was immediately plunged into a dish of developer below. Then, by a process which remains mysterious to me, a contact print was made on the spot. Eat your heart our Polaroid. The photographer's helper was a girl in baggy white pajamas, who must have been close to age when she would have to disappear forever beneath a burkah. I snapped her, my only Afghani pinup, striding by her master's technological marvel.

Here in Herat we were within a stone's throw of the Irani border, so it occurred to me to double check the visa I'd lined up to get in Delhi. Catastrophe. No passport. Now the whole pleasure of coming to the ends of the earth lies in knowing that you have a way out, while all the poor suckers around you have to stay and suffer being exotic. The prospect of a long term sojourn, possibly in somebody's jail until a suitable bribe could be rustled up ... well, left a kind of weak feeling in the pit of the stomach.

Mine host, the hotel patron, was most solicitous. Was there any way to telephone the doss house I had left in Kabul? He gave me one of those crooked smiles you reserve aping for the court idiot. And just suppose, overcoming miscommunication in a stew of languages, and the loopy static of a quasi-phone system, I did get through .... who in their right mind would put a passport into the Afghani postal system? To post a letter, he explained patiently in broken English, you had to watch while the clerk canceled the stamp with heavy ink, for the stamp was worth a month of his salary. A free floating passport in the last refuge of every desperado ... ha, ha, ha. Yeah, well, um, ha ha. Numbly I recounted my Afghani bank notes, and went to find the happy agent who could sell me a 48 hour round bus trip ticket to Kabul.


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* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Memories of Afghanistan"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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