With the fall of Afghanistan, I’ve been reflecting on my travel experiences there as a 23-year-old backpacker on the “Hippie Trail” from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Yesterday and today, it’s a poor yet formidable land that foreign powers misunderstand and insist on underestimating.
In this journal entry from 1978, stow away with me as I ride 500 miles across Afghanistan and explore the capital city of Kabul.
Tuesday, August 1, 1978: Herat to Kabul
At 4:00, we were woken up and it was dead night. No one should be awake at that hour but there I sat on the edge of my bed. We had a melon and caught our 5:00 Qaderi bus to Kabul.
The bus was organized, punctual, and we were moving. Dawn was cracking as those sleeping on the sidewalks began to stir. Our boisterous bus honked loudly as if it was psyching itself up for the 800-kilometer ride that lay ahead. The road was good and we kept a good speed, stopping only for a quick Coke all morning. The countryside was desolate, hot, and foreboding. A herd of camels, a stray nomad or cluster of quiet tents, a mud brick ruin melting like a sand castle after being hit by a wave, and the solitary electricity line accompanied the narrow, but well-paved, US and USSR-built road across the Afghanistan desert. It really was not a scenic ride, but I gained an appreciation for the vastness of this country of 10 million people by the time the 14-hour ride was over.
We had one short lunch stop where Gene and I had a Fanta and some peanuts and I got some use out of my zoom lens and then we raced on. This was the greatest ride. Our driver actually wanted to keep a good tempo. The countryside didn’t change all day. The same lazy, goofy camels and sleepy gray-brown mud castle towns kept passing with the stark dirt mountains jaggy in the background. We had three stops to pray to Mecca during the afternoon and just as darkness fell, we entered Kabul. Gene wasn’t feeling well so we took a cab to touristy “Chicken Street” and found the nicest hotel we could — the not too nice, but OK, Sina Hotel.
Gene went straight to sleep while I had a lousy dinner with a friendly student from Philadelphia who was here to study the language. I’m spoiled after our great Herat hotel.
Oh well, I’m in Kabul. Imagine that — so close to my dream — the Khyber Pass and India. I do believe I’m more than halfway around the world from Seattle. I’ll have to check a globe. I hope Gene’s better — and I’m still good — in the morning.
Wednesday, August 2, 1978: Kabul
It’s a mistake to go to bed without a watch. I slept ok but got up too early. Gene was in pretty sad shape so he stayed in bed. For breakfast I had a melon, a big carrot, and two boiled eggs and tea in the Sina Hotel courtyard. I was laid back from the start today because I knew we had two days in Kabul and there wasn’t much to get excited about. I talked with a German girl who was just recovering from an eight-day bout with “Tehran tummy” and who wanted to go home. Home is a very nice thought when you’re travelling to India. It’s even more heavenly when you’re sick.
Getting down to business, I walked to the Pakistan bus company and got tickets for over the Khyber Pass into Pakistan for Friday morning. Then, with several incredibly persistent shoeshine boys tailing me, I ducked into the Pakistani embassy and was happy to learn that Americans need no visas to travel through Pakistan. We were set. Wow — Khyber Pass, Pakistan, and then on to India!
Back at the hotel, I checked on Gene. He was feeling very rugged still. I brought him special magic tea and two boiled eggs and hung around for a while. His tendency was to fast and sleep it off.
It was quite hot now as I set out to cover Kabul, what an unenviable task. I had no map or information. I really couldn’t get oriented in this blobby, hodgepodge capital. The city is like a giant village sprawling out along several valleys that come together. It seems to love its sadly dried-up river, which is very little water with a wide and rocky bed. It was hot and dusty, shade was rare, and I felt very obvious being alone and wearing my shorts. Nevertheless, I walked and wandered covering a good part of Kabul.
I walked through some very seedy parts, searched in vain for the tourist information place, and caught a taxi to the Kabul Museum. It was a long ride and he fiercely resisted the 40 afghanis I paid him. He wanted 60. I thought 40 was very fair and finally, just to lose him, I paid 50. Then I found out that the museum I came to see was closed. Feeling a bit frustrated and down on the people who heckled and gathered around me, I hopped onto a crowded bus and rode it to its end which was just where I wanted to be. This was a busy place. The only real city in Afghanistan and it had quite a number of large buildings and fancy institutes. But the tribal chaos permeates everything. Around a modern department store there’s old men with donkey loads of tomatoes, little girls selling small limes, piles of honeydew melons with a guy sitting on top sleepily smoking hash.
I checked out a fancy hotel and sat in the cool bar sipping a Coke and eating a nice girl’s bread and then I walked up to the top of “Afghan store,” the closest thing to a Western department store, and found a nice restaurant with a beautiful view of ugly Kabul.
An old man had me sit with him and he said, “I am professor so and so. What is your name and fame?” He was very excited to have a meal with an American but I’m afraid I wasn’t really in the proper mood and I wasn’t very talkative. He told me he would never forget his meal with “Mr. Rick”. I taught him the do-re-me scale and what a radish was. That was the only thing on my plate that stumped him. He left and I finished my meal under the silent stares of the other diners and then I headed home.
The evidence of the recent revolution is everywhere. Our bus was checked (for guns I assume) upon entering Kabul, copies of the headlines on the day of the change are seen posted, there’s an 11:00 curfew and soldiers are everywhere with poised bayonets. On the street I saw what was left of a tank, blown to bits and left as a reminder that the old regime was dead.
Later we ventured into our cozy little Sina Hotel courtyard for the mild dinner. I worked on a honeydew melon, we both had boiled eggs, and tea. Gene had some of Sina’s special sick man’s tea. The rest of the evening was lazy and dull. I wasn’t looking forward to another day in Kabul but there was no earlier bus and this would be better for Gene.
Thursday, August 3, 1978: Kabul
Today was malaria pill day and the end of our third week on the road. We were at the doorstep of India, most of our work was behind, and most of the adventure was ahead. Our health was tenuous at best but both of us were determined that nothing would stop us now. I swallowed my super vitamin with zinc pills with black tea and had toast and eggs before going out for a walk. I had no big plans for today — just to pass the time and enjoy myself.
I walked down “Chicken Street”, the touristic high-pressure point of Afghanistan, oblivious to the countless “Come into my shop mister, just look”s and realizing that out of all the junk everyone’s trying to see, there was nothing I really wanted.
I dropped by the American center to do a little reading and escape the noon sun and later I got Gene to join me. That was about the first time he’d been out of the hotel in nearly two days. We just relaxed and read old news. The latest Time magazine was censored by the new government here. They censor any issue with articles about the USSR. That has left us with old news to read. It’s just not the same, but it’s better than nothing. Reading American magazines on the road is like going to an American movie on the road — it brings you home for as long as you’re immersed in it.
After laying around the hotel for a while, I put on Gene’s baggy, white Afghan pants, grabbed my camera, and caught a bus to the edge of town. It’s kind of nice not knowing or caring where you’re going. I just got on any old bus, paid one afghani, and rode it for as long as I wanted — which was the end of the line. The bus driver invited me for tea, I accepted, and the gang gathered around to stare. Boy, I must really be a strange looking dude to these people — they can stare endlessly. Last night I wrote a poem called “Afghan Eyes” about a little girl who stared at me for five hours on our bus ride from Herat.
I put on my zoom lens and wandered into a group of tents where an entire community was living. It’s really a pity they were camera-shy. I managed to find plenty of Afghans, however, who were dying to have their picture taken and I did my best to accommodate them. Hopping back on a bus, I was soon back in the touristy world of “Chicken Street.”
Gene was tired of being cooped up and he finally had an appetite. I was having a little loose-bowel trouble myself and, after taking several alternate turns each on the toilet, we walked slowly down the street to find dinner.
The “Steak House” caught my eye when we first came to Kabul, and now we would try it out. I wasn’t counting on anything fantastic — just hoping. Actually, I got a very good steak and vegetable dinner for less than a dollar, complete with soup and a pot of tea. That hit both of our spots wonderfully. After the meal, we did a little money changing — getting rid of our Iranian and Turkish money and getting 50 Pakistani rupees.
We felt better after that good meal and went back home. I spent the evening in the courtyard catching up in this journal, repairing a strap on my pack, and enjoying tea and a Fleetwood Mac tape. It will be very good to be on the move again tomorrow.
Being so rich (even as a lowly backpacker) and so white in this poor and struggling corner of our world puts me in a strange bind as a traveler that I wish I could change. It’s kind of sad, but I realized today that I tend to build a wall between me and any potential friends in this beyond-Europe part of the world. In Europe I love to talk with people and make friends. That’s even a primary reason for my travels there, but here there’s something in the way. I think a lot of it is suspicion, lack of understanding, and fatigue. Also, most of the people who I encounter around here who speak English, seem to speak it only to make money off the tourist. I wish I spoke the local language, but I don’t.
(This is journal entry #4 of a five-part series. Stay tuned for another excerpt tomorrow, as 23-year-old me travels from Kabul over the fabled Khyber Pass to Pakistan.)