Afghanistan – 1953
Snow and wind were lashing against my face as I sat on top of an oil tanker, the usual mode of travel in Afghanistan.
I was completely surrounded by Afghans, all of whom carried rifles and bandoliers of cartridges. We were crushed in together like a tin of sardines. My feet rested upon a rail that ran the length of the vehicle – the only method of holding on as the tanker lurched and swayed.
I had left behind the capital, Kabul, and was now slowly snaking around the continuous hairpin bends through the Hindu Kush, the tallest mountains in the world. This was to be my means of travel for the next month.
Sometimes, the vehicle stopped on a steep hill right beside a ravine that plunged down for thousands of feet. This stop was for calls of nature. A young boy hopped off, carrying a gigantic mallet which was shoved under one of the rear wheels to stop the truck rolling backwards, the vehicle having no brakes.
Many times, we arrived at a river. There were no bridges anywhere, so everyone had to climb down from the vehicle and help push the tanker across. Very often, we were waist-deep in swirling ice-cold water. The Afghans thought all this was great fun and shrieked with laughter.
In the evenings, we often approached a settlement that was only dimly lit up by oil lamps. I learned to follow the crowd and ended up in a caravanserai, which is a place where travellers can sleep. Invariably, I was invited to join a circle of Afghans, and was soon seated on a richly embroidered carpet that covered the floor. Sometimes, women were included. They were completely covered from head to toe. Very often, I heard laughter coming from them and I knew they were talking about me, as I was something of a novelty. You don’t need to know a language to sense what is going on around you.
In no time at all, huge metal plates were placed in the centre of the group. These contained enormous piles of rice, covered in saffron. Totally unknown to me, small portions of of roasted Camel and Goat were hidden underneath. The general idea was to push your right hand into the food and grab as much as possible, lift to your mouth and swallow quickly. Because I was unaccustomed to this method, I usually had very little to eat, as I dropped most of my food. But it’s amazing how quickly you learn! Yellow tea finished the meal. This was served in cups without handles. The Afghans are very poor and couldn’t afford real sugar. Instead, a sweetener was passed around and popped into your mouth. Somehow, the Afghans managed to keep this ‘lolly’ in their mouths whilst they drank endless cups of tea. Mine usually vanished after one cup.
Next, it was time for smoking. A hubble-bubble water pipe was passed around. The Afghans took it in turns to suck on a long flexible tube. The water at the bottom of the pipe gurgled and red embers glowed. A small capsule of opium was placed in the embers and, in no time at all, everyone was soon in a world of make-believe.
When the guests wanted to sleep, everyone gathered in a circle with their feet pointing towards a red-hot charcoal brazier. There was no chimney and soon the caravanserai was covered in a blanket of smoke, causing endless coughing and spitting in all directions. At first, I was concerned about bedbugs, for all around was the sound of throat clearing and determined scratching which made it almost impossible to sleep.
Very often, on this journey, the vehicle broke down and I was left stranded in the middle of nowhere. Then I resorted to just striding off in the direction I hoped was my destination. Trying to find my way was so difficult, there being no signposts in any language.
Walking along one day, I came to a fork in the road – a mind-boggling decision Which one to take?
Some tribesmen from a local village came along and I repeated endlessly Mazar-i-Sharif and pointed to the left and to the right and tried to shake my head as though I was puzzled. The name I called out was the next large town. I might as well have been in outer space. They simply had no idea what I was on about. Apart from which, these tribesmen only knew the next village a few kilometres away and they themselves had never been beyond that. They were not able to comprehend a large town. In situations like, this I made a quick decision and headed off in the direction I thought best.
On occasion, I walked for days at a time with no vehicles coming along. At night, I pulled up at a village and was usually accommodated by the headman of the village, there being no such thing as hostels or hotels for travellers. In the evening, the whole village came to see this strange foreigner. The most amusing part was that they could not understand why I didn’t speak their language and this really confused them. They touched and pulled at my clothes. Usually, I was able to purchase a form of bread and tea, nothing more, these people being that poor.
One evening, an uproar started. Don’t ask me why I kept it with me, but I had an alarm clock tucked away in my rucksack. I was in a very dark mud hut with only weak oil lamps, when all of a sudden my alarm clock went off. Well…! You should have seen them scatter! They thought the devil had arrived! It took ages before they gained courage to come back in again.
I pulled the alarm clock out and demonstrated how it worked. There was no more peace that night. Taking turns, they wound up the clock and listened to the ringing sound. They were delighted and laughed and grinned and were so happy. Thus I became their friend for life. Next morning, I gave the alarm clock to the headman. No doubt, they soon wore it out. Everyone in the village accompanied me down the road for a short distance and waved goodbye.
Another time, I came across some real nomads who lived like Bedouins. I was invited to join their camel train and spent two days with them and slept in a large tent with all the men, women and children. These people were very hospitable and made a great fuss of me. The evening was the worst though, because the Chieftain read the Koran to everyone, hour after hour. I say read, but this was not strictly true. The Koran is written in Arabic, and never in any other language. Therefore, he was not really reading from the book, just reciting from memory what he had been taught.
Every couple of sentences, he repeated the phrase, “La, la. Ill lah lah,” or so it sounded to me. This is now firmly embedded in my mind. Translated, it means, “God is Great”. Whenever I meet a Moslem these days I repeat that phrase and they always laugh and say, “You have been reading the Koran.”
Evenually, I arrived in Mazar-i-Sharif, which is only twenty miles from the Russian border. I gathered the Afghans did not like the Russians. Very often, on various trucks, they shook their fists towards the border and muttered something under their breath. Here, I saw the first of many mosques, covered in beautiful sapphire blue tiles, enriched with a style of calligraphy, which told the story of the Koran.
One day, I was invited to join some students, one of whom could speak a little English. They decided to take me to see an Afghan sport called ‘Buse-catchee’. Dozens of fierce-looking warriors were mounted on horses with no saddles. The whole idea is to claim control of a goat. The goat is publicly decapitated and with the blood still streaming from its neck, is left on the ground. The tribesmen commence circling, waiting eagerly for the game to start. Suddenly, a cry is heard and they are off. One of the horsemen grabbed the goat from the ground and with one hand lifted it onto the neck of his horse. It was no small animal, and he rode furiously, whilst all the others gave chase, yelling and shouting. Then they started attacking him, using long whips with which they lashed his hands, trying to make him drop his prize. After what seemed a long while, the goat was seized by another horseman, and so it went on for over two hours. I never really understood the point of this game. The riders came off the sports arena with their hands cut to ribbons. No doubt, it was a form of bravery. The Afghans are certainly courageous as the British found out, and later the Russians. Over the centuries, many armies have swept through this land. Starting with the Persians and Alexander the Great, but none ever conquered or even subdued these proud people.
One of the unusual Afghan lifestyles is to take a public bath. When there are no signs and you cannot make yourself understood, it is so difficult. They are normally situated in a building that looks like all the others. One I visited, had rows of stone walls on which to sit. At the entrance, you had to take most of your clothing off and leave it with an attendant. I was very worried about leaving my possessions and wondered if I would ever see them again. I had made a policy of wearing a waterproof money belt which was next to my skin and never ever left me. The attendant carried buckets of steaming hot water and placed them beside me. Following the locals, I observed they used a soup-style ladle and poured this water over themselves. My first attempt made me leap up in agony and I thought my skin would peel off. Once I adjusted to the steam and heat, I found it quite relaxing, and it was good to get clean again.
I arrived in Herat, which is on the border with Iran. I soon discovered that I could not cross into Iran. One of those periodic hate-episodes with the British was going on. Regretfully, I was forced to retrace my steps through southern Afghanistan. This was a strong contrast with the north, because it was all desert and baking hot. During this trip, I never saw another European.
Later, I was to travel by Arab Dhow, which is another story.