THE FAR HORIZONS
CHAPTER FOUR: AFGHANISTAN
During the final days of the coach trip I had been sharing a seat with a dark-haired young lady named Margaret who planned to journey on to Japan. She also had ambitions to write plays which gave us another common interest, and when we left the red bus and the Overlanders behind we travelled on together.
We were to stay together for the next six weeks through Afghanistan, India and Nepal.
There was no bus service of any kind across the Persian- Afghan frontier, and so we had no choice but to hitch lifts with the large, high-backed trucks that occasionally jolted past. The sides were always eight to ten feet high, and it was hard work manhandling our luggage up and down the steel-rung ladders that were usually situated just behind the cab. I had a rucksack but Margaret had a suitcase, and our sleeping bags formed extra bundles. The road was again a crude dirt track, and eventually became nothing but a crazily looping switchback of dips and galleys and ruts.
We got two lifts during the morning, but for most of the afternoon we were stuck in a small mud town where we were the center of attraction for a solemn circle of staring children. The adults stared too, but from a more polite distance. We sat there for a couple of hours waiting for a truck to pass, and then we were pleasantly surprised by a smiling young woman in red-spotted black chedora who brought us a tray with small glasses of tea and sugar from the house opposite. When we took the tray back and thanked her she insisted upon filling the glasses twice more.
The air became chilly towards nightfall, and still the road was empty of traffic. Margaret and I were both prepared to start thumbing either way, towards Afghanistan or back to the bus, but when we did stop another truck it was again continuing east. We heaved our gear into the back and then climbed into the wide cab, which was quite a crush as the driver and his mate already carried a third Afghani passenger. Margaret told me later that all through the ride the driver was trying to casually wriggle his elbow inside her blouse as he juggled the wheel back and forth between his hands, but that was one of the things that any girl would have to expect and endure.
The miles rattled by in clouds of dust as darkness thickened over the desert, and then finally some scattered lights appeared ahead. This was the small town of Turbat where the truck had to stop and we drove down a side road into an empty back alley. The Afghani passenger got out and said goodbye, but our driver and his mate indicated that they would be driving on to the next town if we cared to wait. I was dubious about continuing with them now that it was dark, but it was only six o'clock and lifts were scarce. Margaret was prepared to take the risk and so we stayed.
For two hours we sat and waited in the cab. The driver vanished but his mate stayed with us, and the mud street remained silent and deserted. Finally I got out and went to buy a couple of flat pancakes of unleavened bread from small bakery just down the road. I was barely gone a minute, but even in that time the Arab in the truck had grabbed hold of Margaret and forcibly tried to kiss her. When I got back she was pressed up against the cab door as far away from him as she could get.
I suppose I should have done something heroic like hauling him out of the cab and punching him on the nose, but he behaved himself the instant I returned, so those dramatics were not really necessary. Also it was a black, lonely alley where he might have had friends on call but I most certainly could expect none. Discretion seemed the better part of valor, and so we simply unloaded our luggage and walked off to find the lighted center of Turbat.
We found a tea house and ate a meal of kebabs, rice and grilled tomatoes, and all the while we were anxiously watched by a scruffy, brown-toothed little man who had popped up from nowhere and apparently owned a hotel. We needed a room for the night and when he insisted that it was only the equivalent of two shillings we allowed him to carry Margaret's suitcase and show us the way. The hotel (?) was reached through a high wall and a small courtyard, and we were offered a small, blue-washed room with rickety doors that was bare except for some faded strips of carpet on the floor. We thought at first that this was our two-bob’s-worth, but then with a proud flourish the little man brought in two ancient, flat-boarded wooden beds and placed them side by side. Then came a mattress and blankets that looked reasonably clean, although we preferred to use our own sleeping bags anyway. It was good enough, for we were ex-overlanders and could make ourselves comfortable practically anywhere.
The washing facilities were primitive, just a tap and a tin can in the courtyard, but there was plenty of water and that was all we needed. Before we retired I sat up a while to write up my endless diary, but before long a grizzled face beneath a brown turban appeared at the pane of glass in the flimsy door and indicated that the light bulb must be turned out. Clearly two shillings didn't entitle us to any great amount of electricity.
We awoke the next morning still alive and not murdered, and made a brisk, early start, although it didn't do us much good because there was no traffic. We had to move along three times in our efforts to avoid the circles of staring faces that formed around us, and eventually we had carried our gear right out or town. Still nothing went past except a herd of cows.
Margaret sat on her suitcase and read a book, and I wandered off to inspect a brick-baking kiln nearby. There was a deep pit underneath where a steady supply or straw was being forked into the furnace and from the top of the kiln rose dense clouds of thick black smoke. The turbaned workmen were quite happy to show me around, but I couldn't stay long because Margaret had again attracted an audience of staring youths.
Finally we had a stroke of pure luck, for in the early afternoon a Ford Dormobile came along with London-Delhi scrawled all over it and two English couples inside. Their names were Norman and Di, and Len and Aggie. They gave us a lift into Herat, the first major city inside Afghanistan, and proved excellent company.
There was a long delay when we at last reached the Persian frontier town, for we had to find our way to three widely scattered offices. The first was the police post, the second was the customs post, and finally the security police. The latter turned out to be an unmarked window in a building almost outside of town, with what looked like a tiled kitchen inside.
However, no matter how unlikely the premises might be, it was still necessary for the details from our passports to be copied in ritual fashion into massive, officious ledgers. Here we also met a solitary little Frenchman travelling in a small car who was running around completely bewildered like a character out of a cartoon film. He spoke neither Persian nor English, but with Margaret translating into French for him he somehow muddled through. Later we saw his battered little car making its way back from the Afghani side so obviously he failed to muddle through there, and we all felt rather sorry for him.
There was a long stretch of no-man's land between the two frontier posts, with two check-points in between. The first was an army building filled with khaki-clad Persian soldiers, and then after that came a chain across the vaguely-defined road, which was guarded by a single, Mongolian-looking Afghani with a rifle. At the Afghani frontier post there were two offices which had to be visited, and again every detail in our passports and visas had to be entered into one of those dreary ledgers. Then we were able to carry on into Afghanistan.
The road was still an unmade track across the hilly and, if possible, worse than it had been in Persia. It performed some crazy fun-fair antics, twisting left and right and on two occasions it was again washed out by running streams where we had to splash our way through. It was soon dark again and we never knew what hazard to expect next to rear up in front of our dancing headlights. Also there were quite a lot of diverging tracks with no guiding signs whatsoever, and Len and Norman could only follow the ones that looked most used and hope that we would eventually find Herat. The Dormobile dipped and rolled like a small boat on a wild sea, and considering the state of that road I reflected that Janet must have been mad to intend bringing the overloaded bus over it with an already broken spring.
After some eighty miles of this kind of travelling we finally rolled into a small mud village, the first sign of life since the border. A lonely policeman huddled in a greatcoat assured us that we were nearly at Herat, and by honking loudly on the horn we were able to wake up the owner of the local petrol pump. When we drove on again a faint glow of lights appeared ahead, and soon we were passing through an empty avenue of trees with mud walls behind them.
We passed through what we thought were the suburbs, and then got lost in a vast park. We eventually emerged on the smooth, tarmac road to Kandahar and realized that we had missed Herat. Those mud suburbs were the city, the third largest in Afghanistan. We went back and found a lighted restaurant, and as we were all starving we made that our first stop.
A tall, turbaned Afghani led us in to his primitive kitchen to see what food was available, and we made our selection from greasy black pans simmering on top of crude brick kilns. Then we sat down to plates of golden rice and raisins, and small dishes of meat and spinach, all washed down by tea from highly colorful little china pots. This was to become our steady diet throughout Afghanistan and it was much better than I had been led to expect. In fact, I didn't have a single bad day with dysentery until we reached Pakistan much later.
There was a large room behind the restaurant, supported by high, spindly poles and curtained off by a large colored blanket. We had caught a glimpse beyond the curtain when we had inspected the kitchen, and saw that the room was filled with a big crowd of men watching some musicians on a raised stand, and after our meal we asked if we might join the audience.
Our arrival caused more interest than the paid performers, but after a while the dark, turban-shadowed faces turned away from us and began to watch the stage again. It was strange, off-key music, plucked out or what looked like a collection of war clubs and misshapen mandolins, each with up to twenty strings. The pinging and twanging was punctuated by an irregular thud, thud, thud, on a skin drum, and at first it seemed to lack any kind of rhythm. The singing that accompanied it was a high-pitched recitation, and probably story-telling. Gradually it became possible to detect a pattern in the music, alternating between soft and loud, and fast and slow, and emphasizing the dramatic points of the singer's story. At one point a small boy of about eleven years sang in a high shrill voice and was loudly applauded.
At the back of the room was a rough stall loaded with melons, pomegranate, nuts and raisins, and most of the audience were casually spitting their pips and shells on to the dirt floor. There was also a very strong smell of hashish, and several of the dark, hook-nosed faces looked blissfully happy as they nodded in time to the music.
When the concert was over we started searching for a hotel but they all seemed to be full up. Then we were guided out to the posh-looking Park Hotel on the Kandahar road, and although we were initially told that that was full also we were finally allowed to occupy a spacious upstairs lounge. It had five large sofas spaced around the walls and as I still had my bed we were all quite comfortable.
The next day Margaret and I wandered happily all around Herat, which surprisingly unfolded in daylight as quite a fascinating little city. There was a fine blue and gold tiled mosque, built on a similar style to the Persian architecture we had previously seen, with a wide, stone-paved courtyard and tall, white-arched cloisters on every side. Beyond the mosque the main road was lined with arched, cave-like shops which seemed to sell nothing but second-hand clothes. The pavements outside were lined with more huge, colorful piles of clothing, and we learned that they were all sent from America. The thought conjured up a mental image of bands of dedicated housewives in Boston or Philadelphia all earnestly conducting and Old-clothes- for-poor-Afghanis campaign.
The people in the streets were as interesting as their surroundings. The men were all tall and fiercely-bearded, with bulky white turbans that trailed one end loosely down their backs. Mostly they wore long tailed shirts outside their baggy trousers, with waistcoats or jackets, but some of them seemed to be simply wrapped in voluminous lengths of blanket. The women were even more sinister, like shrouded zombies gliding past in their all-enveloping chadors. The garment started in the form of a close skull cap and helmet, and then flared out from the neck into a tightly-pleated robe that draped right down to the ankles. Some of them looked quite expensive in blue, green or grey, and their only means of seeing out was through a fine mesh slit that kept even the eyes of the wearer hidden. The only way to tell the young from the old was to note their speed of movement, and whether or not the brown hands were smooth or wrinkled.
The children, especially the little girls, all had cheeky faces and beautiful big brown eyes. The girls were bolder than the boys and the only ones to take any notice of us. The older ones watched us pass but they did not follow gather round to stare, which made a very pleasant change. In fact I found the Afghanis the most polite and dignified of all the eastern races.
The dirt-streets were also plentifully supplied with donkeys, and with brightly-painted, horse-drawn carriages trotting briskly up and down. The only motor vehicles we saw were heavy trucks, and they too were always gorgeously painted, usually with Walt Disney cartoon characters or gay flowers. The psychedelic craze which hit England’s extroverts much later was nothing new, the Afghani lorry drivers had been indulging in the same for years.
Herat also boasted a great ruined fortress of brown brick walls and half fallen towers, which sprawled on top of a flat hill in the center of the town. It had a dominant air of crumbled glory which drew me like a magnet, but as we approached an Afghani soldier in a green uniform and a flat-peaked cap waved us vigorously away. As he was waving a rifle with a fixed bayonet we were not inclined to argue. We were told that in the past the fort had been sacked by the hordes of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, but everywhere in this part of Asia had been raped and ravaged by those two gentlemen so the fact was no real distinction.
Heart’s final and most compelling landmark was a group of six colossal, ruined mosque towers rising well over a hundred feet high on the outskirts of the town. It was a long dusty walk to reach them, but apart from a vaguely-offered statement that they were over a thousand years old nobody seemed able to tell us much about their history. Four of them formed a vast square, and might have enclosed a now-vanished mosque. All of them had broken tops, and so possibly they were decapitated by good old Genghis Khan.
The remaining two towers were situated in some carefully tended pine-shaded gardens nearby and here there was also a small ruined mosque. There we met some friendly Afghani students who indicated that the nearer tower could be climbed, and so immediately I had to have a go. Perhaps it's because I'm only five-foot-three-inches tall but I can never resist the opportunity to scramble up a tower or a hill, or anything that offers a bird’s-eye view. In this case there was a ten-foot struggle over the shoulder of the tower base, and then a shaky steel ladder with most of the bottom rungs missing before reaching an opening some twenty feet higher. On my first attempt a small avalanche of brickwork came away in my hand and almost brained the helpful Afghanis who were giving me a shove up.
The second attempt fared better and I made the foot of the ladder which swayed dangerously as I climbed. I had too large an audience to turn back so I went on until I could haul myself inside the tower.
One of the Afghanis joined me, and we climbed what had once been a spiral staircase to the top. Now it was broken and crumbled, and nothing more than a winding, upward slope of loose rubble. After the first bend it was a blind scramble all the way, for the interior of the tower was in pitch darkness except for an occasional slit in the wall. As we neared the top there was a lot of excited squeaking and fluttering above our heads, and at any moment I expected to be combing bats out of my hair. However, they were only birds, and as we emerged into daylight they flew away shrieking.
There was a superb view from the top, all over the dusk- shrouded city of Herat, and way out to the north where a grim barrier of dark purple mountains hid the Soviet border. The sun was low to the west but still glaring bright, and everywhere there were bronze and golden patterns of sunset and shadow.
Far, far below were the tree tops of the park and the decaying dome of the ruined mosque, and at the foot of the tower Margaret and the remaining students looked to be about twelve inches tall.
I came down reluctantly and the descent was more nerve-wracking than the climb up. Most of the way I slipped and slithered through the pitch blackness, using my hands and heels as brakes. I managed to avoid shooting straight out of the hole through the tower wall at the bottom, and descending the swaying outside ladder seemed much safer by comparison.
Much later I used that ruined tower and the fortress at Herat for the final scenes of my novel Strikefast, which was one of several thrillers inspired by my journeys.
Our new friends from the Dormobile had also spent the day in Herat, and when they moved on they were good enough to offer us another lift to Kandahar. In Afghanistan the main roads circle the great mass of the central mountains, and Kandahar hangs like a pendant on the chain between Herat and Kabul. It was an excellent stretch of road for three hundred and fifty miles, constructed by the Russians, while the next three hundred and fifty miles circling up from Kandahar to Kabul was equally superb but constructed by the Americans.
Afghanistan is an independent monarchy sandwiched between Communism and the West, and both sides compete for favor and influence. The modern conquerors hope to advance with theodolites and slide rules, instead of crude and blood-stained swords.
The landscape was harsh, with endless red hills and long flat plains, and wild barriers of red-purple mountains filling all horizons. Traffic was scarce, and throughout the day I counted ten trucks, two cars, one pushbike, and a man on horseback. We also passed two cranky old buses, each one over- flowing with wild-looking, turbaned Afghanis who were bursting out of the windows, perched up on the roof, and even hanging grimly on to the ladders at the back. On the roadside we saw only a few camels, occasional low, black nomad tents, and a few very poor villages.
Len was able to drive at a smooth, average speed of fifty-five all through the day and it was early evening when we drove into Kandahar. Night had fallen and that first glimpse was exciting as we passed through a bazaar area of tiny, cubbyhole shops, where strange, muffled figures moved through the shadows, or squatted in the dim light of small oil lamps. It was all dark and smokey, and sinister.
The Dormobile went on the next morning, but Margaret and I stayed to see Afghanistan's second largest city. We lost ourselves in an endless, sprawling maze of dirt streets and cramped, spicy little shops that were even busier than in Herat.
The people were the same, the men ranging in appearance from biblical prophets to ferocious brigands, and the women passing silently by like hidden ghosts in their shrouds. Away from the main streets and the bazaars the mud brown walls were high and close and the side streets were arched tunnels leading into darkness. There was a strange atmosphere that was mostly wood smoke from unseen fires, but partly fine dust rising from beneath our feet, and all mixed with a host of bizarre, conflicting smells. Kandahar was a timeless part of Asia, although it lacked the charm of smaller Herat. The people were friendly, and we were invited into several of the tiny shops to squat down, talk, and sip tea, and the shopkeepers insisted upon feeding us with grapes and pomegranates.
When we left for Kabul we travelled on one of those rattling local buses, which left at six in the morning. Fortunately Margaret was a more reliable early riser than I am and we managed to get up and get down to the bus station with our luggage only just in time. The bus was crowded and our fellow-passengers were a fearsome looking lot who all spat on the floor.
The landscape was rugged and unchanging, although the monotony of desert and mountain was now broken more frequently by the sight of herds of camels and more groups of nomads clustered round their black canvas tents. We were heading north east and although the day was bright and sunny the air became colder as the altitude increased. The bus stopped at the crude but colorful little town of Ghazni for lunch and here there was ice on the puddles. During the last lap of the road from Ghazni to Kabul the mountains came steadily closer, blacker and higher, and there was snow upon the peaks.
We found another cheap hotel in Kabul and stayed there for several days. The city is built upon the banks of the Kabul River, and is crushed into the shape of a figure 8 by two bulging shoulders of mountain. The northward valley beyond was very beautiful, dressed with spinney’s of silver-barked trees and the bronze and gold colors of autumn, and the far skyline was the mighty, snow-peaked barrier of the Hindu Kush. By day the skies were blue and the light at this altitude seemed exceptionally soft and brilliant, and although the nights were bitterly cold there was usually a superb smokey-red sunset. It was rather a pity that the Kabul River was merely a wide, half dry gulley which was used by the local population as a communal, outdoor lavatory.
The main streets were paved, and the facing buildings fairly modern concrete blocks, but it was only necessary to turn up any side street to be surrounded by mud brown walls and over- hanging beams. The bazaars were Asian and there were hawkers everywhere squatting over flat baskets of grapes or pears or nuts. The air was always filled with the smoke from wood fires and the braziers of the kebab stalls. A few western suits mingled with the general ragged Afghani wardrobe, and there were even women who were not imprisoned inside the medieval chador.
The dark faces in the swarming crowds showed a more varied mixture of racial traits, Indian, Mongolian, and Russian, as well as the regal, hawk-nosed Afghanis. In the main avenues there was a fair amount of honking, motorized traffic, but donkeys, handcarts and camels were still as common.
We had some fine reunions in Kabul in the Khyber restaurant. Norman and Di, and Len and Aggie, had arrived there before us; and after a couple of days our familiar old dirt-stained red and yellow bus rolled up filled with bleary-eyed Overlanders. They had been stuck for three days in Meshed where the brakes had been repaired and the broken spring welded, and then completed the journey in an overcrowded rush. The whole party was now definitely split into pro-Janet and anti-Janet camps, and Margaret and I were not sorry that we had left.
Kabul was the final destination for the bus trip. Here the coach was sold and all the equipment auctioned away. The organizers and a small few who had only come for the ride flew home to England via Tashkent, while the majority continued on in small groups towards Australia. Before we left I watched the auction being held and that was a sight in itself. The coach was mobbed by a huge crowd of grasping Afghanis, all waving their money and eagerly buying up everything. The stoves and camp beds went like hot cakes, plastic buckets were snapped up, and Margaret sold an old torch with no battery. Nothing was rejected, and one of the girls was frantically trying to retrieve a pair of panties which someone else had mistakenly sold to a fierce old Afghani warrior. Why he wanted them I don't know, but he certainly had no intentions of relinquishing his prize. The whole scene was pandemonium, and it was impossible to get within twenty yards of the bus.
While we were in Kabul we changed our money in the bazaars where there was a thriving black market, and so we were able to afford a couple of sheepskin coats, which were really a necessity. When I returned to England I saw the same coats offered in Oxford Street for twenty guineas, but in the huddled little shops of Kabul the full length coats were only five pounds, and the hip-length coats only two-pounds-ten. I bought a dark brown hip-length coat with a black astrakhan collar, which made me look rather like a Russian Cossack; and Margaret, after trying on every coat in every shop, finally bought the first one she had seen which was green with a thick fur fringe.
Finally we left for Peshawar in another local bus which took us through the dramatic gorge of the Khyber Pass, the invasion route for practically every army that has ever marched across Asia. From Alexander the Great to the Kipling soldiers of Queen Victoria they have all fought their way through the Khyber Pass. Some swept east, and some swept west, and the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan swept just about everywhere.
The road plunged first into the rocky chasm of the Kabul Gorge, and on either side sheer walls of savage, purple-black rock soared up to shut out the sky. The bus followed a crazy series of hideous, twisting hairpin bends, and far below the river frothed and tumbled. It was wild and magnificent, and without a doubt the most breath-taking road I have ever travelled.
The road came out of the gorge and crossed flat, fertile valleys, ringed with lofty, snow-brushed mountains. The Kabul River kept us company, breaking up into channels and sandbanks and sometimes vividly blue lakes. The light was again sunny and clear with no heat haze, and autumn was still King.
Late in the afternoon we had to stop for the usual frontier delay, and then the road climbed steeply up between jagged brown mountains through the Khyber Pass. The pass was wide and sprawling and the road began to tie itself in knots again, twisting, looping and doubling back upon itself. Just below the road was a narrow dirt track that was casually signposted for camels only. The bus descended in a rush, swaying alarmingly from side to side with the luggage bouncing and crashing about on the roof, and then the road led down into the greener plains of Pakistan.