As Afghanistan fell, I was thinking about my travel experiences there as a 23-year-old traveler on the “hippy route” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Yesterday and today, it is a poor but formidable land, which foreign powers misunderstand and insist on underestimating.
In this daily entry from 1978, hide with me on the bus from Mashhad, IranAnd To Herat, the leading city in western Afghanistan.
Saturday 29 July 1978: Mashhad in Herat
My Spanish friend woke me up at 5:45. I think I would have slept all morning if he hadn’t come in. We took the road to the station, and I searched faintly for breakfast. A pint of milk and a small cake worked well and we were on our way.
Here was the beginning of a new world. Afghans look Asian and Mongolian compared to Iranians and Afghans, and their twine-wrapped bundles of belongings filled the bus stop. Our bus left at 7:20 and was full of western travelers – the most we’ve seen since the Istanbul-Tehran buses.
Jane and I were quiet and weak. I kind of sat there, the hot wind blowing on my face and my hair running around, hoping that the kilometers would pass and I knew I was diving away from Europe.
At 10:30 we reached the deserted Iranian-Afghan border. What a place! Just stuck in the middle of nowhere. We gave up our passports and entered the building. Interesting museum with a message that greeted us. In many of the glass cases were the stories and hiding places of several doomed drug traffickers. The reading was interesting – who smuggled what and where and was sent to prison. I have this horrible fear that someone is going to plant some steroids in my backpack and I will frame. It wouldn’t be fun at all.
We passed through Iranian customs fairly easily, then walked through a windy, windy desert of no-man’s-land to a place bordered by abandoned, dismantled Volkswagen vans full of locals in orange minibuses. We just stopped. The wind and heat were violent. The barren plain stretched in every direction and I said to Jane, “This is Afghanistan.” We found the shade in a wrecked Volkswagen truck and peeled a small apple. Then a bus came and we piled in. Stopped in for a quick passport check, I couldn’t believe it was that easy. Not so.
After a few minutes our bus stopped to the search yard and we got off its cargo to sit and wait for the bank to open and the doctor’s office.
And here I am sitting. The time is right for nothing but catching up in the magazine, which I finally did, and thinking. As I clean the big ants off me and protect my eyes from sand and flying stuff, I wonder what all the fun things I can do. I think of friends back home, my parents at leisure on their yacht in the cool, fresh green of British ColumbiaAnd And the fun I could have in Europe. I’m glad I’m finally doing this, but I’m really looking forward to the end of it all. I hope to have good health, no hassles and a good trip back to Europe.
The funny little bank was opened and to change my 100 franc note I had to make three signatures, write the serial number of the bill and ask several times for the correct change. I went out with 775 Afghanis.
The next few hours tried my patience as we moved from one dusty office to another and took care of everything so we could enter Afghanistan. The “luggage” was more than just a quick peek, our photography certificates checked, the police and customs officers checked, we had a fanta, then finally everyone packed back into the orange bus and we were on our way – or so we thought.
After about 100 yards there was a police search and most of the Polish travelers missed the bus and had to go through more routine procedures. Then we headed to a dusty patch of arid Afghanistan.
The countryside was dry and barren, propped up by bleak brown mountains and now and then broken by a group of mud huts, some old ruins, or a flock of goats or sheep. It is always good to enter a new country. So far this summer I have only discovered two new species. But everything that awaits us is as new as possible.
Just when it seemed like we were getting somewhere, a dispute broke out at the front of the bus. The Afghans decided to double the price of the ride from 50 to 100 Afghanis. The American tourists were stubborn and we refused. A ruthless Afghan pulled out a knife as the driver turned and headed back to the Iranian border. You could say they took us over a barrel.
a commotion broke outAnd Everyone was trying to solve the problem. A nice Pakistani but commander urged us to pay but we all thought if we paid there would be nothing to stop them from doing the same trick again. We waived – we gave them 60 Afghanis now and paid the rest on arrival in Herat. After that episode we were all on edge and I think if they had tried to get more money, they would have been in a lot of trouble from their mundane bus loads of stumped travelers.
We stopped at an abandoned cafe with a well and a group of locals skinning still warm goats. There was a sign that read “Hotel” and I was expecting the worst. Many people are notorious for “highly recommending” certain hotels. This was just an innocent tea stop, and it provided me and Jenny with our first good look at Afghanistan. The leaking well provided everyone with cold, dirty water. I got sucked into it, and it cooled really well. We shared a 25-cent watermelon that was devoured by my weak, hungry body. I felt like I really offended myself by not eating so much. For two days, I forgot any real meals and just drank a pop and sucked on the watermelon. I decided from now on to eat well and stay in good hotels for my mental and physical health and to keep my spirits high.
The tea house was exactly the picture I got of a tea house in Afghanistan. Old men in traditional clothes, who seemed to be working hard but doing nothing but sitting lazy, sitting on carpets on the floor drinking tea and smoking weed. The room filled with smoke and their dark glass eyes smiled. A few of us tourists joined in and I stood on top of melon peels looking out the window as if I was watching a documentary on TV. Word spread – our driver was ecstatic and the crew would be absolutely calm. What a strange community. I guess when you’re physically too far away, give up – sit in the shade and eat watermelon and drink teaAnd And smoking weed.
Returning to the hot bus, we arrived in Herat and blew upAnd “You know, this place looks really nice.” We have definitely been in a new and different culture, and Jane and I enjoyed it. I punched him on the shoulder and saidAnd Well, our journey begins now!
Herat was, as stated in our guide’s minimal information, “hard not to like”. very greenAnd As far as cities go in this part of the worldAnd And with so many parks, I immediately fell in love with Herat. Tired of cheap holes, I pressed into a first class hotel. We found Dili.
Muwafak Hotel, the most luxurious hotel in downtown Herat, was just what we needed. Central location, swimming pools, clean restaurantsAnd And free of all the scammers who suffer from cheap hotels, this will make us feel human again. I feel a little soft, but I like where I can leave my things without worrying and walk around barefoot and have an easy peace when I need it. Our double cost only 200 afghanis ($5) and we were prepared to spend more.
We had a Sprite and drove around this central square in Herat stopping at a small clothing store where Jenny and I might get some local clothes so we could go to “authentic” for the rest of the trip. Loose domestic clothes make more senseAnd They will also be fun souvenirs. Jane ended up buying a piece of weed for $1 from the man. We’ll wait and see what we do with it.
Now we’re ready to clean up and have a feast. Nice cold shower and a very enjoyable and successful time sitting on the real toilet (you don’t appreciate life’s little things like a toilet to sit on so you don’t have to). As I got out of the shower, I thought, “Wow, the diarrhea I had yesterday was just a quick little punishment for bragging about the way I’ve been traveling with hard stools for two months, and now I’m a new guy.”
Downstairs we ordered the two local specialties they serve on Saturday and noticed that the menu had a small note on each page. Since the popular revolution, all prices have been reduced by 10 afghanis. This makes each meal only 50 afghanis ($1.25) for soup, bread, rice, meat and cold water. We were thirsty and cold water attacked our discipline like a forbidden fruit. We gave it up and it was good. I can’t help but feel “suspicious” about it like I always do when I drink questionable water, but that hasn’t diminished its initial goodness. The black and green teas in good sized pots ended the meal well and I can’t believe how wonderfully everything turned out.
The people here are great, soldiers and police are on the streets in the wake of the recent revolution. Taxis decorated with flowers, drawn by horses, roam the streets. We stood on the refreshing balcony under the stars and thought the only thing that was no different about this place were the constellations.
My hair is thin, there is a/c in the hall, and a bug screen on our open window. The lamp is on, my teeth are clean, my stomach is full, I feel healthy (and I hope I can expect to be tomorrow) and I think I’m going to bed early tonight. It’s so important to live a good life and enjoy yourself, and without going through periods of misery and discomfort, you can’t really tell what it is to enjoy.