Afghanistan

Afghanistan currency:
£1 = 174 Afghanis (Afs)

2nd November 1968
Once past the chain we then came on to a tarmac road. Robert was delighted with this and promptly celebrated by putting his foot down accelerating up to over 60 MPH. All of a sudden the border loomed out of the darkness and he was able to demonstrate to us all what we had missed on the Iranian side. This time it was the turn of the Afghan border guard to nearly become part of the road. The poor man stood there fixed to the spot as the van barrelled along towards him with all four wheels locked in an emergency stop. He didn't know whether to stand, run or pray, (and I dare say after we had gone he probably had to run, but to the toilet.) The van halted only inches in front of him.

He checked our passports with amazing calmness, then let us through. A few miles down the road there was a building with a compound outside. This was the Islam Qala frontier station. There was a sign outside the office in a number of languages advising us that the frontier would be closing at 2100. We though our luck was in because it was just before 2100 as we all trooped into the office. The officer started the long process of writing everything down in the ledger. He was just about to stamp my passport when he stopped with his arm in mid-air and put the rubber stamp down. It had just turned 2100 and the border post was now closed for an hour. Nothing we could say would persuade him to stamp the passport and finish the job, so we went across to the hotel that was part of the complex hoping to get something to eat. Although the hotel served meals, the prices were so high we decided to just have a cup of tea, which tasted horrible. It had a somewhat perfumed flavour about it which is aparently the way they make it in Afghanistan.

While we all sat in the hotel and waited for the frontier to open, another car arrived. It was a rather old black Mercedes being driven by two Pakistani men. They had two Americans as passengers who were only going as far as Herat even though the Pakistanis were going all the way to Kabul. They agreed to give us a lift from Herat to Kabul and we arranged to meet at 7am next day.

At 2200 we all went back to the frontier post but it had not yet opened, so we all started singing "why are we waiting". They probably didn't understand what we were singing but they still managed to get the hint and soon opened up. The passport control officer carefully wrote all our details down in a large ledger. One of the questions he asked was, "what is your father's name". Louis, who was feeling in a mischievous mood replied, "Aristotle". Deciding to continue with the joke when I was asked I replied, "Daddy". The officer carefully wrote these names down in the Farsi script, and after stamping our passports we moved on to the customs officer. He entered the details of my camera into my passport just to make sure I didn't sell it while I was in Afghanistan.

With all the formalities over and done with, we were now officially in Afghanistan. We got back into the van and headed off along the tarmac road at a fair speed. After travelling through Eastern Iran along the dirt roads it was a pleasure to be back on tarmac roads again. When we had gone about 10 miles from the frontier a police car stopped us. We hadn't seen any other car on the road since the frontier, so just where this police car came from was a mystery. William and Sandra quickly gathered up their hashish, and fearing arrest, threw it out of the window before the car had come to a stop.

The policemen walked over to the van and stood one on each side and looked into the van. After what seemed like and eternity one of the policeman started to talk in broken English and asked Robert if he had any hashish. The look of innocence on their faces when all four of them said "no" just had to be seen to be believed. The policeman looked at them sternly, shone their torches into the back of the van and said, "you want to buy some? Cheap!" All four of them then bought some hashish from the police, paying with Iranian rials. I don't know if it was because they wanted some, or if it was out of sheer relief at not being arrested. Hashish is quite legal in Afghanistan and can be bought freely throughout the country. They obviously panicked at being stopped, and I suppose that in their panic some doubt must have crept into their minds as to whether they had got their facts right. I wouldn't be surprised if these two policemen had a good business going and they probably went back down the road afterwards to recover the stuff that was thrown out so that they could sell it to the next tourist car.

There was a story going around at the time about the road system in Afghanistan. What little traffic there is consists mainly of trucks and buses with only an occasional car. During the mid 60s the American and Soviet Union foreign aid departments fought a pitched battle along the roads of Afghanistan. Each country built good quality roads between various cities and towns to gain favour. This road building war left Afghanistan with one of the best road systems in the Middle East, to cope with the lowest volume of traffic. About once every 100 km or so there is a toll gate. The tolls collected presumably go towards the maintenance of the road. The total cost of the tolls payable between the Iran and Pakistan borders amount to less than £1 sterling.

The American sections were designed for trucks, buses and cars, and were very smooth to drive along. By contrast, the Soviet built sections were not quite as smooth to travel along and were obviously built for heavier things like tanks and troop carriers. No doubt this was a bit of long term planning from the Soviets in preparation for their "invasion" during the 70s

Half an hour after being stopped by the police we came across some Germans who had run out of petrol. Robert carried a spare can and sold some of the petrol to them to get them going, charging them well over the odds for the amount he let them have. Approximately 50 km further on they had to pay a toll of 30 Afs. Not having changed any money yet they had to pay in rials. Forty-five minutes later and we arrived in Herat. It was well after midnight and everything was closed for the night. We had trouble finding a hotel and spent over an hour before getting a room in the Hotel Jami for 33 Afs each. It was a lovely room although we were too tired to really appreciate it. The hotel owner agreed to wake us up at 6am in time for our lift. It was freezing cold and we were glad to finally get into bed at 1.30am.

Right on time at 6am the hotel staff banged on the door. We both turned over and went back to sleep again for another half an hour before Louis suddenly woke up. He threw on some clothes and dashed out of the hotel to get to the meeting place to claim our lift from the Pakistanis while I packed the bags. He returned at 7.15 to tell me that they hadn't turned up.

Not having changed any money yet we tried to pay the hotel bill in US dollars without any success. Fortunately there was an English traveller who was headed for Iran who was also checking out at the same time. He sold us his last 174 Afs for £1, enabling us to pay the bill.

We then walked to the meeting place and arrived there at the same time as the Pakistanis, who had overslept. We all went to a tea house for a bit of breakfast and while they sat and waited for us, I went to find somewhere to change some more money. On the way back I had the pleasure of wishing a good morning to Bluey, the Sundowners driver. He was in the process of jacking up the bus to change a flat tyre and for some reason or other he wasn't in a very happy mood. I decided not to stop and talk to him.

Back at the car we had to rearrange the contents of the boot to get our packs to fit in. It was a difficult job but we did it in the end. Despite our plans for an early start, it was after 9.30 before we eventually set out. Our destination for the day was to be the city of Kandahar. The route was through the desert and there was very little to be seen except the monotonous flat scrub as far as we could see. The road was straight, with an occasional bit of tumbleweed blowing across our path. Occasionally we would see a truck or a bus travelling in the opposite direction, but nothing else going the same way as us. We could see small whirlwinds forming in the desert, occasionally blowing across the road ahead of us. On one occasion one of them blew across the road in front of the car and we passed right through it. It was not very powerful and it only buffeted the car a little as we drove along.

For lunch we stopped at a rest house with a swimming pool. The swimming pool is worth commenting about because it was the last thing that we would have expected in this part of the world. Despite all the mod-cons of the rest house, it was a very inexpensive lunch.

Later in the month was the road race from London to Sydney passing through Afghanistan the same route as we were travelling. During the day we saw the occasional rally cars going the other way heading back to London ready for the start after having practised for their forthcoming race.

As the journey progressed the driver noticed that he was running very low on diesel so he left the road to find a small village where we were lucky enough to find a diesel fuel pump. There was no electricity in the village so the diesel had to be pumped by hand. There was a large handle on the front of the pump that we took turns to rock back and forth. Eventually the tank was filled at a cost of just 100 afs, and the driver made it plain that we had to pay for.

When we arrived in Kandahar at 6pm it was already dark. The Pakistanis helped us to find a hotel for the night, but before they would let us take our packs out of the boot they demanded that we pay them for the lift. We pointed out that they hadn't told us they expected payment before we got in, and that we had already paid a lot more than half of the fuel cost for the journey. They refused to give us our bags until we had paid them and so we threatened to go to the police. Eventually after some arguing they threw our bags out into the road and drove off at speed.

We decided that it would be wise not to check into the hotel where we had been dropped off in case they decided to come looking for us. They had been in quite a temper and we decided to err on the side of caution and look elsewhere. We didn't have much luck in finding a hotel room because most of them had been filled before it got dark. Eventually we managed to get two beds without blankets in a partitioned section of the Hotel Pashtunian for 18 afs each.

For supper we found a typical Afghan restaurant where everybody sat with crossed legs on the floor. We had to eat our meals from a tray placed in front of us. The meal consisted of a plate of rice with a piece of fatty meat in the middle of it costing just 10 afs each. Somebody came around and offered us some special Afghan sauce for an extra 2 afs, and we decided to give it a try. It was a black watery substance and I didn't like the taste too much. When we had finished eating and started to walk back to the hotel we felt a bit strange. It wasn't until we mentioned it to somebody else that we found out that the special Afghan sauce was made from cannabis resin (hashish).

Back at the hotel we spoke to 2 Afghans who were going to Kabul the next day in a jeep. We asked them for a lift and they agreed if we could be ready to leave at 7am. Unfortunately the next morning when they knocked on our door at 7am we were still in bed. Even though we managed to get dressed and be downstairs within 5 minutes, they had gone without us.

We decided to catch the bus to Kabul and after making enquiries at the bus company office we found that the last bus was due to leave at 7.50am. We decided to go and have some breakfast in the same restaurant that we had eaten in the night before. This time we decided not to have the special sauce, but to restrict ourselves to some tea and a bit of bread.

Ten minutes later we walked back to the office to find that the bus was ready to go. We only just had time to buy our tickets and get on board before it left at 7.20. At the edge of the city the driver filled up the tanks. Most unusually for a bus it ran on petrol and not diesel. When we had been travelling for about two hours the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. Everybody got off and all the men went to the toilet at the side of the road. The Afghan women dressed in their tent like clothes were not able to go, and presumably had to wait until lunchtime for an opportunity to relieve themselves.

It wasn't until after 1 o-clock before we stopped for lunch. The bus turned off the main road and drove for a few miles until we reached a small village. The driver dropped everybody off and drove the empty bus away. We bought some bread and fruit and ate it as we walked around looking at the village. We came across our bus driver who was draining petrol out of the fuel tank and selling it to somebody.

The bus came back and picked everybody up again at 2 o-clock. No sooner had we got back on to the main road when we had a puncture and everybody had to get off again. All the male passengers helped to jack up the bus, and then scramble up onto the roof for to get down one of the spare wheels. They tried to pass the wheel down to me but it was too heavy and I fell over as soon as it was handed to me. The Afghans, who were all much stronger, laughed at me as I lay in the road. One of them then picked up the tyre and carried it over to the driver to put on the bus. When they inspected the punctured tyre they found that the cause of the puncture was a horse-shoe that had become embedded in the tread. Another Afghan passed the punctured tyre up to the roof and within a few minutes we were all back on the bus and heading for Kabul.

We arrived at the bus station in Kabul at 4.30pm and then had to get another bus to the centre of the city where we started to look for a hotel. While walking around we met the Pakistanis and not surprisingly weren't very friendly when we asked them if they could recommend a hotel. They told us that they didn't know of any and walked off. We looked around for an hour and a half more before eventually finding a room in Hotel Benazir only to discover that they were staying in the same hotel.

The hotel room had 3 beds and we agreed a price of 220 afs between us for 4 nights. Just down the corridor was a clean toilet, (rarity in these parts) and showers. The beds were comfortable so we decided to have a rest before going out to eat at about 8pm. What we didn't know was that everything closes down at 8 in Kabul, and everywhere we went was either closed or just closing. Because we were not able to get anything to eat we had to return to the hotel where the owner offered to make us some tea. With the tea we had the remains of the bread we had bought for lunch, and the last of our processed cheese. We used our blackboard to block off a hole in the window and settled down to bed at 9pm. I could feel a cold coming on and was glad to be getting into bed.

It had taken us exactly one month since leaving England to get to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan having covered 6620 miles including the diversion to Isfahan and Shiraz.

The next morning after a late start we decided to look for a bank to change some more money. Our first stop was the tourist office, where we bought a map of Kabul. We came across the English people we had met in Isfahan and they showed us the way to the post office where the Post Restante facility was. I'm glad they did because we would have had a hell of a job finding it without their help. There was a long queue for the poste restante counter and it was made up entirely of backpackers. Some of them were dressed like real hippies complete with flowers, long hair and of course - Afghan coats. I had one letter and Louis had five more from Michelle, his girl friend. Also bought some stamps, and sent home my completed rolls of film. I was using Kodachrome slide film and posted directly to the processing laboratory in Hemel Hempstead. After processing they would send the slides to my parents address, so it would be a few years before I would be able to see them.

The AA had advised us that although we didn't need visas for Pakistan or India, we still needed to get a permit to cross the frontier by road. The AA also advised us to get our road permits at the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul because they would issue them straight away. If we applied for them in Pakistan we would have to wait a few days for them to be approved. Unfortunately before they could be issued we had to supply an exact date for crossing the frontier. At this stage we couldn't give them a date and so we couldn't get the permits.

After the Pakistan Embassy we tried to find a bank that would allow us to change some sterling travellers cheques into sterling cash. We had been told that it was possible to do so in Kabul and with sterling cash we would be able to buy money on the black market in Pakistan and India at substantially better rates than the bank. Over the next day or two we tried a number of banks but it was starting to look like we were on a wild goose chase. We were eventually pointed in the direction of a bank that would and headed around there to arrive just in time to see it close for the day.

While walking back we came across one of the London to Sydney rally cars that was parked in the square in the centre of the city. An Australian called Jack Murray was driving it. We later found out that he was quite famous in Australia, having once thrown firecrackers out of his car at a checkpoint he had gained the nickname of 'Gellignite' Jack Murray. He was going to partner Paddy Hopkirk in the race but for the moment he was driving along the route to acquaint himself with it. He was also making a film of the race in advance because it wouldn't be possible to do so during the race. In 1968 satellite communication was only in its infancy and the instant world-wide news television technology that we now take for granted just did not exist, so some of the "news" footage had to be prepared in advance. He invited us to join him for a drink at the Taj Mahal Hotel if we were in Bombay on the 29th.

We spent the next few days looking around Kabul. We hadn't expected it to be much more than a shanty town in the middle of the desert but the reality was a pleasant surprise to both of us. It was not quite up to the standards of European cities, but it was still quite modern and clean on one side of the Kabul River. On the other side of the river was the older part containing a typical souk market. It was in the souk that we bought some fruit for our lunch. Having finished all the cheese we brought from England we tried to find some more. We managed to buy some white hard cheese that tasted awful. It seems that cheese of any kind is not very common in Afghanistan.

On November 5th, which was bonfire night at home, by some coincidence they were also letting fireworks off in Kabul that night. Though we never found out the exact reason, in later years I found out about the Indian festival of Diwali which is around this time of the year. Diwali is the festival of light and they always set off lots of fireworks at night, so I can only presume that it must have been the Indian community celebrating.

On another night we decided to take advantage of the clean bathroom to have a shower. We had to pay extra for the hot water and decided to be smart by just paying for one of us to have a shower and swapping over half way through. The hotel porter was obviously wise to us and after Loius handed the bathroom over to me I started to shower. Just as I was covered head to foot in soap the hot water was switched off leaving me no option but to rinse myself down in cold water. It was coming on to winter and Kabul was high in the mountains so the cold water was really icy. This didn't help my cold!

On our last day in Kabul we went with some Americans to the U.S. Embassy to find out the results of the presidential elections and were told that Richard Nixon had won. Outside we met some English people who had driven out to visit friend who was working in Kabul. We were sitting in their car talking to them when hundreds of students from Kabul University descended on us from nowhere. They were carrying banners and shouting slogans, presumably directed at the U.S. Embassy and some of them were even fighting with the police. I don't know what it was about but thankfully they left us alone. I'm glad they were not anti-British because sitting in a car bearing GB plates and British number plates we would have found it difficult to hide.

By now my cold was starting to effect me, so I decided to head back to the hotel for a sleep. Louis came in a few hours later with some tea and bread. The Afghan cheese we had bought in the market tasted awful, so we tried to improve it by mixing it with some margarine before spreading it on the bread. It still tasted vile and so we threw it away. Rather than going out that night we decided to have our evening meals sent up from the restaurant downstairs. For just 20 afs they sent up a delicious meal consisting of 8 kebabs with rice, raisins, potato, meatballs and bread. (No special sauce tonight thanks). After we had finished eating we spent the rest of the evening in the room writing letters. I fell asleep early although Louis carried on writing until well after midnight.

Friday 8th November 1968 we got up early, in fact 6.30 am. We had some tea sent up to the room and drank it while we packed our bags. On our way out we paid the hotel bill at the agreed price (220 Afs) before heading out to make our way to Pakistan. We had intended to catch a bus to the Jalalabad and we were on our way to the bus station when we came across the Sundowners bus being given a tow to get it started. Once again Bluey started to tell us how we wouldn't stand a chance getting through to Pakistan, while we pointed out to him how wrong he had been so far. We had even managed to reach Kabul before he did. This time we offered him the equivalent of the bus fare to give us a lift to Jalalabad and after a bit of haggling we agreed to pay him $2 US for a lift to Peshawar in Pakistan. The first instalment was a payment of 62 Afs that he asked us to pay to the lorry driver who had just given him a tow start. The other dollar we paid to him. Wethen climbed on board the Sundowners bus, settled back ino the comfort of the soft seats, and introduced ourselves to the other passengers. They were mostly Australians heading home but there were also a few Brits, Americans, Canadians and Kiwis. Everybody was very friendly and they all welcomed us on board and made us feel at home. We heard some stories about their trip so far, including how Bluey had managed to reverse the bus into the Anzac memorial statue at Galipoli when all the Aussies went to pay their respects to those who lost their lives in the first world war battle.

The road from Kabul to the border was winding with many hairpin bends. There were some spectacular sights as the road twisted its way through the Khurd Kabul and the Jagdalak mountain passes and on down to Jalalabad, some 96 miles from Kabul. As the bus descended the climate became warmer. Kabul is almost 6000 feet above sea level and quite cool at this time of year. Jalalabad is only 1900 feet above sea level and has a much warmer climate.

We reached the border shortly after midday and Bluey took all the passports to be stamped out of Afghanistan. These took about half an hour and during this time we amused ourselves by playing catch, using oranges picked straight from a tree as balls. This continued until we were stopped from picking any more "balls" by one of the border guards.

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