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Crossing Afghanistan

Pothole by Pothole

View Sydney to London 1964 on Ozac's travel map.

===Ozac 2011===

I’ll never forget the lavatory at the Maiwand Hotel in Kabul. Opening the door I was surprised to find, not a cubicle, but a room about 4 metres square, empty except for a bucket of water, some sheets of paper and a small pile of pebbles up one end, near an opening in the floor about 20 cms in diameter. I knew what the hole, the water and the paper were for, but wasn’t so sure about the pebbles. I peered through the circle in the floor, which seemed to be a source of daylight in the dim room, and found myself looking down a deep shaft, not unlike a lift well, to a huge pile of shit about 25 metres below, illuminated through an open doorway to the outside adjacent to it. A strong draught of cold air chilled my nether regions as I squatted over the hole, being as quick as I could, but it wasn’t until I had used the paper and tried to dispose of it in the usual way that I realized what the pebbles were for. The paper stayed there, floating on the updraught, obstinately refusing to descend, until I had carefully placed a pebble in the centre of it, and then down it went. All mod cons at the Maiwand in Kabul!

Thursday 19-11-1964 and Friday 20-11-1964

Kabul is a weird town with feeble attempts at modernity. Much of the place seems to be falling apart. There are four or five new buildings, probably erected with foreign aid, and an ‘instant’ city park has recently been laid in the centre of town, in total contrast to everything around it. The streets are terribly dusty, with smelly open drains everywhere that people throw their rubbish into as well as wash in, and the Kabul River which runs through the city seems little more than an open sewer. Still, it is an interesting place, which evokes all the wildness of Central Asia, especially round the bazaars and in the camel market on the edge of town.

A Street in Kabul

A Street in Kabul

The Camel Market

The Camel Market

The people are not in the least inquisitive, so that is quite a change. Someone at the Maiwand said Kabul reminded them a bit of a Siberian town; it could easily be similar - Russian vehicles in the streets, people with Mongolian features and everybody wrapped up.

For the first time we are experiencing real cold, and the temperature here drops below freezing point at night, icing up all the water, but no snow as yet. I have been told that this is likely to be the worst winter ever, but I think I have enough warm clothes to last me through it. We got a great rate for the dollar on the black market, almost double, so we have both bought Afghan sheepskin jackets and fur caps, just to be sure.

The food here is OK, and cheap. I like the bread, which is unleavened and baked in large slabs about 2 ft by 3ft. It is delicious wrapped around kebabs which are roasted on a spit over a small fire on the footpath. The tea served in blue china pots in the ‘chaikhanas’ is terribly sweet though, as they half fill your glass with sugar to start with. The second glass is usually alright, but then the third inevitably tastes bitter.

===Ozac 2011===

These days, 3500 year old Kabul has nearly three million inhabitants and must be a very different city from the rather drab and dusty town we found in 1964, when there were only 250,000 residents, although the satellite view reveals many features I remember. Parts of the old city are in ruins, testimony to the successive wars that have raged across the country in the last forty years, but the central Maiwand Boulevard stands out, with the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in the centre of the intersection with Nadir Pashtu Street. I am unable to locate the small city park I noted; it probably disappeared long ago; most of the greenery seems to be in the newer sections of town. We wandered a lot around the bazaar area between Maiwand, the nearby Pul-e Khishti Mosque, with its large blue dome, and the Kabul River, and I daresay that area has never changed.

Market street  near Pul-e Khishti Mosque

Market street near Pul-e Khishti Mosque

The Kabul River

The Kabul River

In 1964 Afghanistan was still a monarchy, ruled by Mohammad Zahir Shah, who had been on the throne since 1933. It had recently become a constitutional monarchy however, and this was a period of relative peace in the country, with borders to neighbouring states open and a process of modernization well underway. Russia and the United States, both trying to outdo each other in buying influence in Central Asia, were funding different sections of the ‘Ring Road’, a series of highways linking the principal cities and towns of Afghanistan, but although this major project was quite advanced, not much of it was complete at the time we passed through Kabul and crossed the country by the southern route as winter approached in late November. The old roads we travelled on were invariably appalling and the next nine days proved to be the most arduous of the entire trip.

Saturday 21-11-1964 to Tuesday 24-11-1964

The ride down to Kandahar, by a wreck of a bus, took two days, or overnight at least. It wasn’t really a bus at all, just an ancient Russian lorry in which wooden benches had been installed from one side to the other, with no aisle, in order to cram in as many passengers as possible. Several more rode on the roof with the luggage. It was a hell of a trip, and after leaving the sealed road, the bus vibrated like a pneumatic drill as it travelled along a corrugated track for hours on end, often within sight of the new highway being constructed with American aid funds. The shaking was so bad that it was funny to begin with, until I thought my ribcage would collapse. I did my best to cushion the pounding with my sleeping bag, but every pothole meant another bone-cracking jolt and it was just a terrible ordeal. Relief came only a couple of times, for short periods, when we made prayer stops and everyone climbed over one another to get out and then laid prayer mats facing Mecca. We spent Saturday night in an adobe tea house in an old caravanserai. It is the first such place we have stayed in - very atmospheric and really quite terrific. We sat on richly coloured carpets near a warm stove and were served an oily mutton stew by the bustling proprietor. A hookah pipe began to circulate round the room. Then we rolled out our sleeping bags by the mud walls and I was quickly asleep. We moved on to Kandahar Sunday morning - hours more of jolting, rattling and vibrating - until finally we got here and checked into the Ahmed Shari Hotel, where I have been down with dysentery ever since. This will be the third night we have spent here. I have hardly left the room except for the inevitable trip down the corridor, and I am sick to death at the moment of travelling, of Afghanistan, of Kandahar, and above all this room, which is white and vaulted and reminds me of a family tomb. I guess we must definitely push off to Herat tomorrow, but I am dreading the thought if my bowels have not settled by then.

Wednesday 25-11-1964

Still in Kandahar - I guess maybe I have been a bit harsh on Afghanistan, but I have a bad case of the Kandahar Craps, so what can I expect. I am not going to travel in this condition, so we will have to stay yet another night in the ‘vault’ and hopefully catch the bus in the morning. Looking out the window at this godforsaken place everything is either brown or grey - flat roofed mud houses and grey rocky mountains. And almost every vehicle that goes past is battered beyond belief, just like me.

View from the 'vault', with 'bus' passing

View from the 'vault', with 'bus' passing

The only fortunate thing which has arisen out of this sickness is the fact that I have finally completed a full reading of Dr. Zhivago. I am quite pleased with myself for having done this, as on the first attempt I stopped at the part where Yuri and his family arrive at Varykino. I found no hurdle this time at all, and enjoyed the book right through, especially the latter half. It is quite the most profound work I have ever read, but even now I feel I have only gone just below the surface and have not truly absorbed the soul of the work, except for a few short sections. It is written in a poetical style, quite unrealistic at times, but it leaves a very real and deep impression, more of the condition of one group of people than the whole Russian peoples. I feel I shall have to read it again and again in the future if I wish to get full value out of this most high work.

Thursday 26-11-64 and Friday 27-11-1964

From Kandahar to Herat, via Farah - We left the hotel quite early and picked up the Herat bus. It was a much better bus than the Kabul Kandahar one, and since we had heard that the road was sealed all the way we expected a fairly good ride. What foolish thoughts! We were in for another two day trip through Hell. The way we went, through Farah, where we spent the night on the floor of a government hotel, was sealed for only about 70 miles of the 400 mile journey. We were sitting in the very back seat, and it was more of a battering ride than the previous one, if that is possible. We finished it in 33 hours, at least 20 of which were spent on the roads, and I am a mass of aching bones. It was the most agonizing two days of the trip so far, both physically and mentally, for the constant yet irregular vibrations of the bus and the stupidity of a few of the passengers nearly drove me insane. The scenery was monotonously bleak and desolate and the air so full of dust that most of the time you could see no mountains. Only occasionally did one appear out of the haze.



It was just two days of intense ordeal, when travelling is nothing but torture. I hope things pick up soon. I am getting just a bit fed up. We found a quite comfortable hotel in Herat, and checked in for the night. We met two fellow Australians, Mel and Peter, who are on their way home after several years abroad. They picked up my spirits a little with their stories of England and said that from here on, things are fine. So we will be off again tomorrow for the Iranian border.

Saturday 28-11-1964

What a bloody confused and wasted day, absolutely nothing was accomplished from beginning to end. We tried to get a lift by truck in the morning, and though it seemed as if we had been successful, the truck suddenly drove off and left us. We went round to customs to try for another. No luck. Finally decided that the only way was to get the 3 o’clock bus to the border. So we did, but it broke down about 20 miles out, so we spent the night in a small hotel out in the middle of nowhere again.



Wasted time, nothing to do, see, or read. We have two more days to get to the border, so that is OK, but I am just busting to get to Teheran. I have not had a really decent meal since Delhi or a bath since Kandahar or a change of clothes since Thal.

Sunday 29-11-1964

We finally got underway again about 3pm this afternoon after a 24 hour delay. Our early relief at being on the move again was short lived however, as the ride up to the border became progressively worse when the evening approached and the temperature dropped. One of the passenger windows in the bus was missing, and we gallantly agreed to exchange seats with the two women who were sitting there, one with a small child, so that they could get out of the icy wind blowing in. I rugged up with everything I had available, but nothing was enough, and as evening turned into night the wind chill became worse and worse. By the time we reached Islam Qala, well after dark, I was truly numb. I have never been so cold. I had to find some heat or I would die. I got out of the bus, left the backpack, staggered into the immigration office, ignoring the officials, and running down a corridor looking for anything warm, finally found a room with a hurricane lamp burning on a desk. For the next twenty minutes I stood there inches from the glass, refusing to move, stomping and rubbing my hands and gradually starting to unfreeze. Then we had to go through a slow process of immigration and customs by lamplight before loading our bags onto the Iranian bus, which was waiting. Compared to what we had just been travelling on it was amazing. Iranian buses are luxury Mercedes Benz models, with real cushioned seats. After quibbling about the fare (our first taste of Iranian honesty; wanted 300 R instead of 150) we went to find a place. We discovered on board two Americans guys whom we have run into constantly since Kabul. They are travelling on motorcycles, but it had become much too cold for them, so the bikes were on the roof and they were inside. This bus would go to Taybad tonight and head for Mashad tomorrow. Border checks, vaccination checks, and American passport problems later (the Yanks had theirs in their luggage, and we were all involved in a great confusion for half an hour), we were finally in Iran and in warm comfortable seats. This did not last too long however, as we were shortly in Taybad where the bus was unloaded and Iranian immigration and customs authorities were going to go through their business there and then, at 10 pm . Fortunately we were led into a warm, separate room, where things were most informal, but I felt sorry for the local bods on the bus, who were personally searched, and had everything in their luggage closely scrutinized. We still had the Police and Security to check with on the morrow, but the four of us managed to get a room in the one and only hotel available and all went to very welcome bed.

Posted by Ozac 01:00 Archived in Afghanistan Tagged kabul herat kandahar

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