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Afghanistan The peaceful country that I knew
By Bizzie Frost
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 14 - 07 - 2010

Afghanistan has had a turbulent history with many different rulers, and certainly for the past thirty years, any news about Afghanistan has tended to be largely bad. However, for several years prior to the Russian invasion in 1979, the country was at peace and I was very fortunate to have spent three magical weeks there during that interlude. At the time, the Afghan Prince Daoud Khan was the President. He had overthrown his cousin, the King Zahir Shah in 1973, and had established Afghanistan as a Republic.
My journey to Afghanistan came about by chance. I had been studying in London and had always wanted to travel home to Kenya overland. However, travel through Africa at that time was fraught with problems. The alternative was to follow the “hippie trail” to India: it was 1976, and this was a well-established route which ran from London through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. My plan was to eventually take a boat from Bombay to Mombasa. In Afghanistan, most travelers took the southern route to Kandahar, and on to Kabul.
To me, the very word “Afghanistan” was captivating and romantic: everything about the country was “cool” in those days, especially the embroidered Afghan sheepskin coats (a “must have” item which I could not afford at the time), the elegant Afghan hounds, the remoteness of the country, and an element of danger thrown in because of allegedly hostile tribes in the faraway Hindu Kush mountains. In those days there were no “Lonely Planet” or “Rough Guide” books, or Internet; the only available production which dealt specifically with the Hippie Trail was the BIT Travel Guide, otherwise known as the “Bible of the East”. I bought my copy and invited a girl friend, Alexandra Stubbs, to join me on the trip. We set off on April 10, 1976, both 22 years old, with huge backpacks that ensured that we were completely self contained, complete with our tent and sleeping bags and tiny cooking stove.
We were traveling by coach, train, and hitch-hiking – a mode of transport that was deemed “safe” in those days. As the miles rumbled by, I read the passages relating to Afghanistan in our little BIT travel book over and over again. There were two paragraphs that particularly appealed to me: one suggested taking less traveled route through the Hindu Kush mountains and northern Afghanistan, along the Russian border, but you needed police permission to do this (most travelers took the southern route via Kandahar to Kabul); the other suggested procuring horses in Herat and riding through the heart of central Afghanistan all the way to Kabul, and then selling the horses once there. That was the idea that appealed to me the most, but we did not have enough time to do that. We therefore set our hearts on obtaining police permission to take the road less traveled: the northern route.
We arrived at the Afghani border on May 18 and our first impression was the impudence and informality of the officials. When we handed in our passports, the officer flirtatiously expressed his appreciation at the arrival of two young women and promptly began to show our photos to all the other men in the office, and then pretended he was not going to give our passports back. We were then given a cup of tea and told to “wait”. Two hours later, an unpleasant Immigration officer told us we could not enter the country because we did not have enough money (in keeping with Hippy Trail travelers, we had set off from London with a very limited budget, and Allie had £40 left of her initial £100, and I had £70 of my £150). We needed to have $250 each to enter Afghanistan. Because so many young foreigners in Kabul had become destitute from drugs and had to be repatriated by their Embassies, the Afghan authorities had begun to impose restrictions on conditions of entry into the country.
It was too late to return to Meshad and although we were very upset, our best option was to keep calm. In the end, the border patrol officials were friendly and hospitable. They invited us to join them for a meal, accompanied by lots of music and merriment, and said we could sleep in one of the offices.
The concrete floor made for the hardest bed I have ever slept on, the room was uncomfortably hot, and we were pestered by flies. Then just as we were dozing off, there was a knock on the door. It was Ramlal, the Customs Officer. He had a large knife in his hand and handing it to me said: “Keep this with you. If anyone tries to get into this room to trouble you, use this.”
We slept surprisingly well, and after a breakfast of tea and cake, Ramlal took our passports away. He soon returned them, and now with a slip of his pen, our finances had improved: Allie now had £140 and I had £170. The grumpy immigration official looked surprised at the improved state of our finances, but to our immense relief he stamped our passports. We were allowed into Afghanistan.
A German couple in a VW Combi van (very typical of the Hippy Trail!) gave us a lift to Herat. This 2,700-year-old town lies in the fertile valley of the River Hari and is on the ancient Silk Road from Europe to Asia. Knowing its recent history under the Taliban, it is ironic that this picturesque little town was traditionally known for its culture. In 1976, it was still an unsophisticated, low-level town made almost entirely of brown mud buildings – as we approached, it was difficult to distinguish it from the surrounding countryside, it was so well camouflaged.
There was a surprising amount of greenery and trees growing around the town, and although there was a steady stream of motorised traffic, the main transport was the horse and carriage, decorated with a profusion of bright red pom-poms. In the center of the town was the very beautiful Friday Mosque, covered with ornate and predominantly blue and yellow ceramic tiles made in the town's own factory. We also spotted our first Afghan woman, cloaked in her burka with the gauze strip across her eyes. We had never seen women completely covered up like that before.
On our bus journey from central Turkey to Erzurum, we had met a young man who was half Afghani, half Russian. His brother, Kabir, worked at the Tourist Office in Herat, so that was our first stop. He promised to help get us the police permission we needed to travel to Mazar-i-Sharif via the northern route.
Wherever we had stopped on our journey, we had been offered tea and, at the risk of offending people, we always drank it – although we were always wary of where the often murky water had come from. For the first two days in Herat, Allie was very sick. We were sure this was the result of dodgy water, and it was time to book into a clean and comfortable hotel. About six storeys high, it was one of the biggest buildings in Herat. While I was out exploring the town and souqs, and buying leather belts and bags, and traditional Afghani dresses for myself and friends, the old Afghan room servant on our floor looked after Allie as though she was his daughter. Whenever I arrived back, he would give me a full report on her condition, covering not just what she had had to eat and drink, but also a nurse-like report on her frequent visits to the bathroom. He also dictated to us what she was allowed to eat and drink, and prepared food for her.
On my walks around the town, through unpaved streets with mud walls on either side protecting the privacy of the mud brick houses behind them, I met two children who insisted that I come into their home. They were obviously very excited to find a foreign, unveiled lady in their street.
They took me through a door in the wall and we arrived at the house via two courtyards: one for the cows and one for the family. Inside Western households, there are separate rooms for bedrooms, but here, the rooms functioned as lounge, dining room and bedroom. There were rugs on the floor, and mattresses were rolled away against the walls for use later. The family invited me to return for lunch the following day.
It was interesting to see the contrast between mysterious burka-clad women of the street, and the relaxed, unveiled women in the home environment. With music as the only form of communication, we spent the time together singing and dancing and listening to music.
On that same day, we had another evening of music when Kabir took us to a small restaurant in the main street. While the guests sat on rugs on the floor, leaning against cushions, they were entertained in the dimly lit room by a small band of three instruments: the rebab, tambour and drum. In those days, Herat's electricity came from a large generator, not from proper mains electricity, so not everyone was connected.
Kabir had managed to secure our police permit to travel along the northern route and had booked the two front seats of a mid-size Russian built truck to take us on the first sectors to Qala-i-Naw and Maimana. While we had reasonably comfortable seats beside the driver, some 28 passengers sat on hard benches in the back of the open truck.
We were the only women, and the only westerners on board. Having grown up in Kenya, I had seen some very bad roads, but as we climbed up into the Hindu Kush mountains, I saw a boulder-strewn track ahead that was much worse than anything I had ever seen before. The buses coming the other way made all the passengers get out and walk the bad sections, sometimes for a couple of miles, and several times, the passengers in the back of our truck were also told to get out and walk. From an account of this in my diary: “The mud, the ruts, driving through rivers, edging our way along escarpments, at one point driving through quite thick cloud, but the views were fantastic. We saw lots of camels, nomad camps, sheep, horses, donkeys and women and groups riding camels and horses. All the towns and villages are made out of mud, some look almost like forts.”
Although we had expected a night-stop, our driver had other plans and wanted to continue through the night. However, we met a bus coming the other way and we were advised to go back to the nearest village, Qala-i-Naw, as a river up ahead was flooded.
Once again, we experienced the kindness of the Afghanis: once the truck was parked and all the passengers had disappeared into the village for the night, our driver found some mattresses for us, brought us some food and tea, and then covered the truck with the tarpaulin creating a comfortable room for us for the night. There was no electricity in the village and we only had our torches for light. It was a very dark night and we were a long way from home in a remote part of Afghanistan – and yet, we did not feel afraid. Our journey had taken us 12 hours to do 160 kms at an average of just over 13 kph!
We were up at 5 A.M. to continue to Maimana, with the road as bad as the first section. It was a tough journey from the point of view that I now had the badly upset stomach that had plagued Allie in Herat, although fortunately, I did not actually feel ill. On several occasions, I had to ask the driver to make “comfort stops” – although in the whole of Afghanistan, there was no such thing as a decent “comfort stop”!
After a night in Maimana, some other passengers had booked the front seats to Sergebad, and we were relegated to the benches in the dusty open back of the truck. The road was much better, and now traversed vast grassy plains, the colour of ripe, golden wheat. It is here that the Afghani horsemen play their wild sport of “Buzkashi”. It involves two teams trying to get possession of the beheaded and disembowelled carcass of a calf, or goat.
The Buzkashi field can be anything up to three kilometers long, and the game can last for several days. Although it is a team game, the glory goes to the individual who can eventually throw what remains of the carcass into the pre-drawn circle.
It was on this section of exposed, flat plain without a single bush or tree in site, that nature called and we had to ask the driver to stop for an emergency “comfort stop”. Realizing our problem, one of the Afghans unwrapped the generous swathes of his turban and handed us the large piece of fabric to hold up as a screen. Unlike a British group who would all have looked the other way however, the Afghans all stared in our direction to see how we got on!
Despite getting covered in dust, our experience in the back of the truck was exhilarating and very social. Regardless of the language barrier, our all-male Afghan companions were keen to know where we were from and where we were going to, and taught us some Farsi words. Once in Sergebad, they found a taxi to take us the rest of the way to Mazar-i-Sharif. According to my diary, this was less luxurious than it sounds: “The taxi was almost worse than the truck because although it was a beautiful old car, there were four in the back and four in the front, and the radio was on full blast.
The reception was so poor that all you heard was a horrible high-pitched squeak and whine! We were delivered to the Aria Hotel which was like walking into Buckingham Palace! It was 50 Afghanis each (about 50p) and is lovely and clean and cool. Supper was there ready for us, as if they had been expecting us, and was really delicious – soup and rice, some potato and meat dish, salad and chai. When we asked for the bill, they said it was on the house!”


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