Journey Through Afghanistan

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Herat Mosque

By Richard McGuire © 1999

In the 1970s, one of the most popular trips for young budget travellers was the overland route from Europe to India.

India and Nepal were the final destinations along what became known as "the hippie trail." But getting there entailed passing through a number of other countries of southern Europe and west central Asia – Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The least westernized of these, the most challenging, but at the same time the most rewarding country was Afghanistan. There travellers encountered a rich culture, proud but hospitable people and striking landscape.

The days of "Europe on $5 a Day" had come and gone in the 1960s, but it was still possible for adventure travellers, willing to rough it a bit, to journey from Europe to India on about $35 in transportation costs on local buses and trains. In the cheaper hotels, food and lodging could be had for about $2 a day or less.

Many a North American and European baby boomer was drawn to make the pilgrimage overland to India on a shoestring. For some it was a chance to experience the religions of the East as they searched for different values to fill the void left by 1960s secular materialism. For others, it was a chance to experience ancient Eastern cultures very different from their own. For some it was the thrill of adventure and self discovery in a beautiful but challenging environment. For others, it was cheap, abundant and often tolerated drugs – hashish and opiates – and a chance to live without responsibilities. For many, it was some or all of the above.

I made the overland journey twice – once in 1973 and a second time (both directions) in 1977-78. On my 1973 trip, I was disappointed that I could not visit Afghanistan. A coup d'état, in which the long-ruling Zahir Shah was overthrown by Mohammad Daud, had closed the border forcing me to take an alternate route through southern Iran and Pakistan's Baluchistan province. I was therefore all the more determined to see as much of Afghanistan as possible when I again made the overland trip in 1977.

Afghanistan was the least westernized country along the overland route. Turkey had been Europeanized early in the 20th century following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and under the rule of Kemal Ataturk, who abolished many of the outward signs of Islam, such as the fez, the veil, and the Arabic script. Iran, under the American-imposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and with significant oil wealth, seemed determined to emulate the West – often in superficial ways such as consumerism. Pakistan and India had endured centuries of British colonialism and therefore had adopted British-style bureaucracy and even the English language as a sort of lingua franca. Only Afghanistan seemed pretty much untouched by the West. Indeed, one was more likely to see products from the Soviet Union among the few available consumer products that weren't produced by local craftsmen.

Crossing the boundary between Iran and Afghanistan, one was acutely aware of crossing from West to East. Modern infrastructure disappeared. Dress changed. The standard of living dropped sharply. And yet I felt much more comfortable with the Afghani people. Despite Iran's adoption of western consumer culture – at least in the major cities – there seemed to be a hatred towards the West that came to a climax not long afterwards with the seizure of hostages at the American embassy. Islamic traditions were deeply engrained in Afghan culture, but there appeared to be more self assurance among the Afghanis toward outsiders. They had no colonial or neocolonial experience for which to be resentful. I was consciously aware that to them I could never be as good as an Afghani, but I didn't feel hated as I did in Iran. On the contrary, most Afghanis I encountered were open and even hospitable to western travellers – even while distrustful of our culture.

As a strongly Islamic country, Afghanistan's public face was overwhelmingly male. Travellers did not deal with or even encounter Afghani women. The head-to-toe covering that women wore – with only a small mesh for the eyes – was the most severe I've seen anywhere in the Islamic world. On the few occasions where you did encounter women, such as on inter-city buses, they were strictly segregated.

Physically, Afghanistan has a harsh environment, but a rugged beauty. Its desert climate was scorching and oppressive in the lowlands when I passed through in June, even though the temperature could be quite pleasant in the higher elevations. When I returned in January, it could be quite cold given the lack of modern heating. Yet the desert was by no means boring and flat. Rocky crag formations made it a rich landscape, and at times one saw snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush mountain range.

Buildings were typically single-storey constructions of mud bricks. In the countryside, it was not uncommon to see black tents of nomads. Crude irrigation brought lush green to some of the valleys, but the dominant colours were the tan-brown dried mud and sand of the desert and the deep blue skies.

Herat is the first city one encounters travelling from Iran. It was my favourite city of Afghanistan and a good introduction. Arriving from Iran, one first saw the ancient minarets of Herat on the edge of town. From the distance they looked like tall smoke stacks, but from close-up these rounded structures still bore many of their original blue tiles. The centre of the city was dominated by the ancient mud-walled citadel, Pai Hesar. Elsewhere in the centre, an attractive 800-year-old blue-tiled mosque provided another central focus. Its minarets appeared better maintained than the old ones on the edge of the city.

Surrounding these landmarks were many winding streets of the bazaars. They sold a mix of food, hardware and consumer products aimed at the local population, and crafts and clothing aimed at western travellers. Most were small shops, and in many production was hand-crafted on site, sometimes using centuries-old techniques. Buckets, shoes and rope were made from old tires. Welders did metal work. Sheep skins were made into leatherwork, often for tourists. Merchants in the bazaars were friendly, and though obviously eager to make sales, were less obnoxiously aggressive than those in other cities such as Istanbul. Afghanistan had a more relaxed pace of life. I frequently wandered through the bazaars, taking pictures and meeting people, sometimes stopping for tea, without feeling overly pressured to buy.

Contrary to the warnings westerners often heard not to photograph people of the Muslim faith, I found many of the men and children wanted to have their pictures taken. My camera was a novelty. My only problem was convincing my subjects not to pose rigidly, but to relax and be themselves.

In the early summer heat, the middle portion of the day was often too hot to do anything but relax in the shade at my hotel, one of the cheap budget accommodations that dotted the "hippie trail" to the East. My room was a fly and flea-infested dormitory shared with other western travellers. Some of my dorm mates sat around the hotel all day smoking hashish, seldom venturing into the town. I got better sleep at night sleeping on a frame and rope bed outside under the stars, so I used the dorm mainly as a place to leave my less valuable possessions. Typically I rose around 6 or 7 a.m. before it got too hot, then wandered the city until 11 a.m. when the extreme heat drove me into the hotel's shady courtyard to read or write or snooze until around 4 p.m. I spent several days in Herat, getting to know its streets and markets, and occasionally walking out to the minarets on the edge of town. On such walks, one often saw men with camels, sheep or goats. To the many children I encountered, I was a novelty.

Some aspects of Afghanistan were difficult to get used to. Levels of sanitation were abysmal. Many of the streets were skirted by open sewers. I often saw this filthy ditch water used to wet the sidewalks to keep the dust down. Sometimes I even saw it used to wash the fruit of vendors. There were flies everywhere – some said the flies respected the Iran-Afghan border, but I think this was more a consequence of better sanitation in Iran. Frequently I saw chunks of animal carcasses hanging on hooks in the markets and crawling black with flies.

Eating often was a major problem, especially in more out-of-the way places. Herat had several restaurants with good-quality Afghan food, but these were beyond the price range of real budget travellers except as an occasional splurge. The hippie hotels sold pseudo-western food of dubious quality made from local ingredients. The restaurants for the locals sold mainly greasy mutton kebabs and sometimes greasy rice. I tended to dine on flat bread (nan), yoghurt, and fruit such as apricots, finding little else to my liking. Some travellers told me the Afghanis have bellies of leather, and I tended to believe them. Unlike the food of other countries on the overland route, such as Turkey or India, which could be very enjoyable, eating was the most difficult part of the Afghanistan experience.

Toilets, where they existed, also took some getting used to. I was already familiar with Asian-style toilets – a small hole on the floor that you squatted over while trying not to slip from filthy little foot platforms. In Afghanistan, these seldom had plumbing of any kind. More often men simply squatted (even just to urinate) by a ditch. I never did figure out how women coped.

I had travelled across Turkey and Iran with several other young men I met in Istanbul – two Cockney Englishmen, John and Alan, and a German, Gerhardt. Travellers tended to form instant friendships with people they might never get to know in other circumstances. It was easier to deal with buses, trains and hotels when there were several of you, and you had company for the long bus and train rides. Often such friendships were formed where the "hippie trail" narrowed, with travellers then splitting to go their own directions when different trails fanned out, only to meet again later on the road.

For most travellers, the next stop after Herat was Kandahar in the south of Afghanistan, along a fairly good American-built road. I wanted a different Afghanistan experience, so instead decided to travel on my own via the northern route through Mazar-i-Sharif. There is safety in numbers, but I also find that travelling in groups with other westerners, one is less likely to meet the local people and get to know the culture.

The road from Herat to Mazar-i-Sharif was rough and mostly unpaved. It crossed several mid-sized ranges of craggy mountains, a few lush river valleys, and vast expanses of sparsely populated desert. It took several days of physically demanding and exhausting travel between such small towns as Qala-i-Nau, Bala Murghab, Maimana, and Shibarghan.

Travel was in little Russian-built jeep-like vehicles that seemed to go by the generic name of "motor." These had open backs with several hard benches. Passengers and baggage were packed as tightly as possible into the back. On the rough mountainous roads passengers and baggage swayed around. In the blazing heat and in intimately close proximity to your fellow passengers, the rides were extremely uncomfortable.

The "motors" were in poor shape and frequently broke down, often stranding passengers for hours in the blazing desert with no shade except to crawl under the vehicle while the drivers worked to fix it. One "motor" I rode had a leaking radiator, so the drivers had to stop at puddles wherever they saw them to fill the radiator. The passengers would fill an old oil can at these same puddles, passing it around to drink from – reinforcing my suspicion that the Afghanis have leather bellies. I preferred to drink warm tea that I carried in a Spanish wine skin.

On one stretch of the journey between Qaisar and Maimana, late in an exhausting day, there were roughly 30 people jammed into the back of the "motor." Four of them were policemen escorting two prisoners shackled in handcuffs and leg cuffs. One of the policemen literally sat on my lap for lack of space elsewhere. Livestock such as chickens or goats were also sometimes passengers.

Except for mechanical problems, we made few stops. I began to suspect that in addition to having leather stomachs, the Afghanis also had iron bladders. Occasionally we did stop at tea houses. Tea is the main drink in Afghanistan, though unlike the countries influenced by the British Raj, it is drunk clear without milk. Although sugar was available, it was more common to drink tea without sugar, instead holding a hard candy in the mouth while sipping.

Communication was difficult for me in this northwestern isolated part of Afghanistan. I learned enough words of Dari (a Persian dialect) to ask for the basics, and I used a lot of sign language. Some people knew a few words of English, but few spoke it well, in contrast to the more heavily travelled towns along the "hippie trail" where English is common.

I frequently attracted large crowds of curious children. In one tea house I was evicted and thrown out into the street when a crowd of children followed me inside. They often tried out their few English words on me: "Meester, meester! Hello meester!" It was a novelty at first, but soon the lack of privacy became annoying. I could not chase them away. At one point I waved my hands madly as though going berserk and roared like a lion. This caused a few of the timid ones to drop their school bags and run in fear, but within seconds they returned, even more fascinated by this crazy foreigner. Bringing out my camera didn't work either – they just grinned and waved and tried to pose. I was surrounded by children until again it was time for the "motor" to leave.

The "motors" did not run on any fixed schedule, but rather waited until there were enough passengers to make the trip profitable. The drivers would never give you a time when they would leave, so you were forced to wait around, sometimes hours. In Qala-i-Nau I was awakened at my hotel by a driver at 6 a.m., only to wait around until afternoon for the "motor" to leave. I entertained myself watching village life – the people including young children wearing colourful traditional costumes.

In one of those scenes so typical of Afghan village life, I watched a group of men felling a tall poplar tree beside the road. There were no chain saws or even axes. One group dug around the roots of the tree, while another group pulled on a rope attached to the top of the tree. At one point the rope snapped, sending the men tumbling backwards. Finally the tree came down with a thud, lying completely across the main street, which had almost no traffic. Then, in the Afghani style of wasting nothing, herds of goats and sheep were brought out to strip the leaves from the fallen tree. I sat drinking tea and watching these timeless slices of life.

Such long waits were quite common. Some days later, travelling between Pule Khumri in the northeast and the spectacular ancient Buddhist town of Bamiyan, the "motor" came to an abrupt halt in the dark when it was noticed – fortunately in time – that the road was completely washed out and had fallen away into the river. After sleeping the night outside under the stars, I awoke at 5:30 a.m. with three old bearded Afghan men who were fellow passengers. None spoke any English, but it was made clear to me that the road would not be fixed anytime soon and our best hope was to climb the mountain around the landslide in the hopes of finding a vehicle on the other side. I hauled my backpack, and the hardy old men carried their belongings wrapped in rugs, as we scrambled up mountain trails over loose stones. We skirted the top of a steep rocky cliff with the fast-flowing mud-brown river straight below us where the road had been. Finally, after much scouting around, we descended by a dried river bed. Several times I nearly slipped while trying to keep up with these agile old men, who had removed their shoes for better traction on the rock.

Sure enough, there was indeed another "motor" waiting on the other side, but of course it was broken. I spent much of the day waiting and trying to escape the hot sun, searching out any shade I could find, and eventually was forced to crawl under the broken-down "motor." Slowly other Afghan travellers filtered out of the hills, and eventually in the late afternoon another "motor" came along to carry waiting passengers further up the road.

My visit to Mazar-i-Sharif was marred by serious illness. The mutton kebabs and other dubious food caught up with me and I was struck with severe dysentery. Although I made the effort to see the blue-tiled mosque and to visit the remaining earthen walls of the nearby city of Balkh, once controlled by Alexander the Great, I spent more time visiting the lavatory.

Bamiyan was a different story. Set on a fertile plateau, this town is noted for its huge Buddha figures carved into the side of a cliff more than 1,500 years ago. The Buddhas were literally defaced by Muslim conquerors many years ago, but they remained in good condition, preserved by the dry climate. In Bamiyan, I rejoined the "hippie trail" – or at least a branch of it – after many days travelling in the more isolated and less travelled parts of Afghanistan. In the high elevation, Bamiyan’s climate was more inviting. It made walking more pleasant, even though I was still struggling with illness. Along the cliffs, sometimes very high, were numerous man-made caves, once meditation cells for Buddhist monks. Some of the caves at the base of the cliff appeared to be lived in still, though often they had adobe additions.

I spent several days at Bamiyan, recovering from the difficult journey, and enjoying its beauty and magical atmosphere. But I was anxious to journey on to the deep blue lakes at Bandi Amir. At a high elevation, the journey there afforded views of the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains. Travel was in one of the same "motors" that were common in western Afghanistan, but this time my fellow passengers were virtually all westerners rather than Afghanis. Climbing steep hills, at times some of the passengers had to get out and walk so the vehicle could handle the grade.

Bandi Amir was a village of mud buildings that seemed to exist almost solely for tourists, apart from a few nomads in the area. Nonetheless, with its deep lapis lakes set against the desert mountains, it is one of the true natural beauty spots of the world. Some of its several lakes were formed by natural dams. The lakes teemed with abundant fish. I took several hikes, building up strength for the final push to Pakistan and India.

Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, lacked the charm of Herat and Kandahar (the latter I visited returning west in January 1978). A small city, Kabul was fairly quiet, without the hustle and bustle of such larger cities on the overland route as Istanbul, Teheran, or Delhi. Western travellers tended to congregate around Chicken Street, noted for its cheap hotels, tea and pie shops, and other shops aimed at travellers. Kabul’s downtown was spread out and seemed to lack a focus. A very impoverished-looking district was built on the side of a hill, but most of the city was on flat land below. Again I explored the bazaars, amazed at the myriad of items from beds to tire shoes being hand manufactured in the streets.

Several of the travellers I met told hard-luck stories of losing or having passports or money stolen. One couple, an Englishman and French woman, told me the man had spent time in jail for losing his passport. She got little sympathy from the British or French embassies. Another Frenchman I met was walking barefoot in Kabul. When I warned him about parasites one can contract that way, he didn't care. After a long ordeal resulting from losing his money and passport, he was on his way back to France that afternoon. His plane ticket and some money had arrived, loaned by his parents who were anxious for him to return home as quickly as possible. Others were less lucky. I sometimes encountered travellers whose funds had run out and who were reduced to begging or selling their blood for money to continue.

I made the journey from Kabul to the Khyber Pass, which separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, travelling by local bus. The bus descended the steep Kabul gorge, passing many graphically displayed vehicle wrecks, serving as reminders of the hazardous road. Much lower down, the city of Jalalabad was insufferably hot. There I caught a bus to Torkham on the border. Once we were past the guard posts on the edge of Jalalabad, the driver's assistant let me ride on the roof – by far the most comfortable place to ride in the heat. Some of the Afghani men also chose to ride up there where you feel the hot blast-furnace air, but at least there is a breeze. From the roof, I could see the country and village life, the turbaned tribesmen and colorfully dressed tribal women, who wore veils, but thankfully not the heavy shrouds worn by women elsewhere in Afghanistan.

Half a year later, after spending time in India and Nepal, I returned to Afghanistan, this time travelling north from Quetta in Pakistan to Kandahar in Afghanistan's south. In January, the climate was crisply cool, but at least the sun was bright. I enjoyed laid-back Kandahar. Its bazaars were more geared to local needs than to travellers. Orange trees bore fruit. This and a final brief visit to Herat were my last chances to relax before making the long overland trip across Asia and Europe through the depths of winter, and then back to North America.

I was barely back in Canada a couple months when I learned of the coup d'état in April 1978 when the communists took power. The following year, the Soviet Union invaded and the country descended into a bitter and brutal civil war.

Some newspaper pundits wrote of how Afghanistan was no match for its powerful Soviet neighbour, but I knew otherwise. I had seen the tough, proud and determined Afghan people and their infinite endurance in the harshest of environments. I knew of their history, how conquerors had come and gone, but the people never really succumbed. Of how they resisted and drove off the British a century earlier. I knew something these pundits didn’t know – that the Afghanis would fight to the last man if necessary. Of course in the end it was the Soviet Union that collapsed instead – no doubt at least in part a consequence of its Afghanistan debacle. What I didn’t bargain on was that the killing would continue, this time, sadly, with Afghan murdering Afghan.

I have often thought since about this beautiful country and wondered how many of the people I met are still alive, and how many have been forced into exile. I’ve wondered about splendors of Herat and how much of it has been reduced to ruins. Thankfully I had a chance to visit Afghanistan and experience it in a more innocent time. It is a memory I will always cherish.

Young Boy

A Fierce People

In the Bazaar

Making Bricks

Friendly People

Importance of Prayer


Another Breakdown

Mud Buildings

Camel on a Leash

Children at Play

Nothing Wasted

Buddhist Remnants

In the Hindu Kush

A Full Load and More

Blue Lakes of Bandi Amir

Travel Buddies

Building a Bed

Fresh-Baked Bread

Proud Father

Land of Children

Second Hand Store

Through the Khyber in Comfort

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© 1977, 1978, 1999 Richard McGuire
Last revised
March 10, 2010