On Journey Part Five

The next part of my overland journey took me across three borders. Iran – Afghanistan – Pakistan – India. Deeper into cultures that were far different from western ideologies. And one where as a western woman I needed to keep my wits about me. To state that at this point I was beginning to regret not buying an airline ticket direct to Australia would be an understatement.


Whilst Afghanistan was on the Hippie Trail there was not much information available about the country. The only thing I knew was that there was only one actual road through from the west to the east via Kandahar in the south.

After spending hours at the border we all arrived safely in Herat. Alexander the Great once occupied the country’s third-largest city. Enormous defensive walls and earthworks remained from ancient times. Destroyed in the early 13th century by Genghis Khan, it was later rebuilt.

Herat is famous for its hand-blown blue glass. Artisans can be seen creating delicate works of art in the shop across from the Friday Mosque with its fabulous mosaic tiling, though for some reason we never got to see it.

I found it a disquieting place. There were very few women outdoors in the dusty, streets and I felt exposed and constantly stared at despite covering myself up. It wasn’t a place I wanted to remain in any longer than necessary. Jon and I found a room with twin rope based beds (instead of mattresses) that were shorter than European beds, but surprisingly comfortable (and no bed bugs!) and then we went out to find out about transport through to Kabul, the country’s capital. We discovered that there was really only one bus company on the 1,400-kilometre Kabul-Herat route, the Wardak Bus Company.

Something that really caught my eye were the brightly decorated trucks. Reminiscent of Romany caravans these are highly decorative, brightly painted and very attractive and unusual. I don’t think we will get a lift in them though.

At 8 a.m the following morning we set off via Kandahar, the nation’s second largest city. We were supposed to go all the way to Kabul with only a brief stop and change of driver in Kandahar, but to our non-amazement the driver called a halt. We were then forced, naturally, to stay for a night in the Khyber hotel, which no doubt paid Wardak a commission. Not surprisingly we (as in the foreigners) were very angry with this, but there was little we could do. There was no other place open that we could stay in and anyway, if we did not stay here, our onward tickets would become invalidated. Needless to say the price of a room was not included in the ticket. I was getting quite used to all the scams being practised by now to relieve us of our money.

We left for Kabul at 7 a.m after a breakfast of stale bread and water. The road surface improved, but the traffic was crazy! The drivers zoomed along in the middle of the road, probably because the middle of the road had fewer potholes. This gave them an excuse to play chicken with those travelling in the opposite direction. Seeing your vehicle hurtling itself along the road towards another large vehicle is quite disconcerting. I hadn’t planned on dying here.

Unfortunately our driver lost one such encounter. We suffered minor damage (I and several other passengers were covered in shattered glass from a window which was caved in by the opposition’s wing mirror) and plenty of verbal abuse was exchanged as the two drivers climbed out of their vehicles and faced each other. I thought at one point the two drivers were going to start throwing punches, and vaguely wondered which of the passengers would drive the buses if there were serious injuries inflicted. A lesson to be learned: travel in the aisle seat.

A little further along the road we were forced to a halt by armed bandits blocking the road. They were dressed completely in black with turban style headgear that covered much of their faces. As the bus groaned to a stop, several more bandits came slithering down the barren hillside beside the road and came on board carrying Kalashnikovs (or some kind of automatic rifle) and those evil looking sabres. I avoided eye contact with them, I didn’t want to be bartered over again, and I had a feeling that what these men wanted, they simply took. I am only glad to report that whoever or whatever it was they were looking for was not on our bus. Finally, after much poking and prodding and searching under seats, we were waved on our way. I didn’t realise how tense the atmosphere was until I heard the collective sigh of relief as the bus continued on its creaking journey.

Three thousand year-old Kabul is set atop a plateau nearly 6,000-ft/1,825m high in the Hindu Kush Mountains. We arrived at 4 p.m after another long day of travel and found comfortable rooms in the Atlantis Hotel. Later we went out to explore the immediate area along with Diane and Graham. We had a couple of beers that night with our friends and finally were able to relax.

Kabul is a city that is much larger than Herat and Kandahar and grander too, as across a very narrow river we discovered a more luxurious suburb where we happened to come across a hotel with a large chess set in the gardens. Sitting in the sunshine and watching the gentle game unfold whilst sipping thick Turkish coffee in glasses was the height of luxury after the last week.

Again there are very few women on the streets and most of those that are outside are covered from top to toe in beige chadaree with only their eyes showing through and even those have a meshed panel in front (burka ). It is of course still Ramadan. Diane and I make sure we are well covered in jeans and long sleeved loose tops, before going onto the streets, and even wearing a scarf wrapped around our heads (we both have very long hair). This does not prevent the male population from staring at us and occasionally touching us, but oddly we feel less threatened here than in Tehran or Herat.

Still we are careful not to be on our own.

Counting the Cost in Camels

Iranian / Afghani border @ Maschhad / Herat – November 1973

Having failed to reach the border in time (it closed at 6 pm) we found ourselves spending the night in a huge warehouse on the outskirts of Maschhad, Iran. I was amused to see an Australian couple roll out their rather large and lovely Persian carpet to sleep on. Goodness knows whether they ever managed to get it back to Oz.

Early in the morning we caught a bus to the border where we had to walk through no man’s land to the other side where we could catch an Afghan bus to Herat. It took hours to get through the border. The bored Afghani border guards were very keen to have some fun by offering to buy some of the females amongst us with anything from cash to camels!

Although in my head I knew (well hoped) that these border officials would not do anything illegal, I have to confess to being slightly worried at their comments. When half a dozen men with thick beards and black piercing eyes surround you, you begin to feel uncomfortable. When these same men are holding Kalashnikovs and sabres in sheaths at their sides you start to feel even more vulnerable and when one of them grins at you and strokes your hair with the end of his machine gun, you become decidedly jumpy. If he really fancied you for a ‘wife’ what could any of the dozen or so westerners actually do to prevent him?

Smiling inanely at the guards (I did not wish to offend) I handed over my precious blue British passport to be stamped. The man behind the desk looked at me for what seemed like hours studying my face and then the photograph. I tried not to feel embarrassed, but could feel the heat rising from my cheeks. He spoke aside to his colleagues who also looked at me and grinned fiercely. I have no idea what they were saying, but I knew I was blushing. Suddenly the main guy pointed at me and said,

Thirty five camels

his face breaking into a huge grin showing black and broken teeth amongst the mass of facial hair. Was he really suggesting that my travelling friend sold me in exchange for nasty, smelly, spitting camels?

My friend coughed nervously. He shook his head before glancing at me to gauge my reaction. I frowned – was I being undersold? Was he even serious?

Fifty camels then, a very good deal

I raised my eyebrows. How far was he prepared to go? The guard closest to me stroked my hair once again, grinning mindlessly and I was beginning to wish I had covered it as it seemed to be attracting too much attention. I was definitely not keen on this machine gun at my temple.

Eventually sensing my discomfort the main man stamped and handed me my passport back. Still grinning he asked my companion if he would accept the fifty camels. Uncertain of giving the right answer and not wanting to cause offence to me or the guards, he kept his gaze on the floor and muttered that he really didn’t need any camels. I held my tongue even though I was starting to feel quite annoyed. Eventually, roaring with laughter at our embarrassment, the guard shook his head and beckoned us to leave the room which we did in haste.

To this day I still wonder whether fifty camels was an insult or an honour.