The 1970's was the golden age of overland travel. The world was far from an ideal place, but one could go in relative safety to exotic off-the beaten track destinations. Many of these places soon became war zones and closed to most overland travelers. The Hippie Trail from Istanbul to Kathmandu was the most traveled. Afghanistan was the most primitive and exotic part of the journey.
November 1973, I arrived in Afghanistan a few weeks after the end of the Yom Kippur War. The country had been at peace for several decades, an unusually quiet period in its long history. Nomads carried a variety of vintage weapons, but it was possible to camp safely in the countryside. Fortified mud walls in isolated villages and farms with defensive walls were in disrepair. Word of the war had recently penetrated the public consciousness. The war was over, yet people still wanted to go fight. Someone was at war with Muslims, and they wanted in on it.
Six years later, in Mexico City, I watched the news of the Soviet invasion on TV. My first thought: the Russians are going to have trouble big-time, these guys like to fight. The rest is history.
Afghanistan was indeed different. Iran was almost modern, except for the rural areas, but Afghanistan was hundreds of years behind. Going from Iran to Afghanistan was to go from the modern world to the Middle Ages.
The political situation at the time was tense. The king had traveled to Italy in July for eye treatment. While he is out of the country, his cousin deposed him in a bloodless coup. The King's forty-year, mostly peaceful reign, came to an end.
Herat was the first major city coming from Iran. The ancient minarets were the first thing a traveler encounters on the edge of town. Herat was made entirely of mud bricks. An ancient citadel and an 800-year-old mosque dominated the city center. The town had electricity from 6 to 10 PM only. Everything shut down after dark.
Herat was famous for hippie gear. I bought a fur hat and a leather belt pouch at a shop catering to travelers. Sheepskin vests and boots were cheap; however, uncured sheepskin tends to smell after wearing it for a few days. The shop had some great fake antique pistols and rifles, but I figured I would have trouble getting them home, much less across the border.
Herat was one of the last pre-industrial cities. Walking around Herat was like being back in biblical times. Butcher shops displayed meat in the open air. Not unusual to see the rear haunches of a camel hanging in front of the stall. I even got to drive one of the two-wheeled horse carts they use for taxis. The only sign in English I saw was one showing the way to the local brothel. Can’t imagine what that would be like.
Kandahar was midway to Kabul. The first stop in was at a small bakery on the main road. They had great brownies, a real treat after weeks on the road. Some of the best brownies ever. Since it was the 70's, I still wonder if the taste had been enhanced by some local product. Even today, when I hear Kandahar mentioned on the news, I think of brownies. Not much to see, shopped for food, and went to the post office to buy stamps and aerograms.
There was almost no traffic on the roads. They had very good main highways, built by the US and the Soviets but very few vehicles. On the road to Kabul, we stopped at an old fortress built by Alexander the Great. It was still being used by the Afghan Army. Later, the US Army occupied the fort and used it as a communications site.
In Kabul, I rode a bus to the museum which was six miles outside of town. The bus fare was only two cents. The bus was an old German city bus and still had the German advertisements and destination signs. No problem in a country where few people could read. Women sat in the front and men in the rear, with an iron bar separating the sections.
In my book there is a guy selling milkshakes on Chicken Street in Kabul. He actually existed. I had a banana shake and it was a real treat. Chicken Street was the place to be. Had a meal in a restaurant there, not sure if the meat was camel or goat, but it was okay.
Afghanistan in 1973 was a far different place than today. My first disco experience was in Kabul. It was a sorry excuse for a disco, about as tame as you could imagine. Only the music was authentic. Not a place to meet the ladies, there were none, unless you brought you own. My next disco was in Spain. Much better.
Most of the signs in Afghanistan were in English and a lot of people spoke English, which made things a lot easier. The main foreign influence was Russia, but you never saw any signs in Russian. The Soviet embassy compound outside of Kabul was huge. The American embassy was, by comparison, nothing to write home about. Kabul was a strange city because one could see just about everything possible on the streets. People would drive herds of sheep, turkeys, donkeys, and whatever down the main streets all over town.
Bamian was noted for its huge Buddha statues carved into the rocks almost 2000 years ago. They were defaced by the Muslim conquers, but had been preserved by the dry climate. The Taliban blew them up in 2001.
Of all the natural wonders of Afghanistan, the lakes at Bandi-Amir are perhaps the most outstanding. They are located in a high valley northwest of Bamian in Central Afghanistan. The series of five clear blue lakes were formed by the flow of water over a succession of natural dams that were built-up by mineral salts in the water that flows over the tops of the dams. The water was so clear that, even from on top of the high cliff, you could see large fish swimming. It was very cold. The springs, high up in the cliffs, were frozen. Rented a horse from a kid for about twenty-five cents.
I never got up to Salang Pass, but could see the approaches from the road below. The idea of a ski run in Afghanistan fascinated me.
I liked Afghanistan. The people were different, sometimes scary, but they had character. The typical Afghan had his way of life and did not seem to be interested in changing. They lived life on their own terms. Today, I have no desire to return. It breaks my heart to see what has happened, but I am not surprised.
Many of the locations visited on my travels are included in my latest novel, The Iranian Intercept. Herat, Kandahar, and Kabul, to name a few.