After 2 months in the Greek Isles Liz and I decide to hitchhike to Istanbul, on the way to India. Liz is a Canadian I have been hanging around with. We have been staying in a house near the Athens airport with another couple, living on a diet of wine and hash. Our first ride is with a Bulgarian truck driver who drops us in Thessalonica. After selling our blood at the Red Cross and fighting off the touchy feely Turks in Istanbul we agree to go our separate ways. Despite our separation we see each other daily, at restaurants, hotels and embassies. Like Alice in Wonderland, the world seems to be growing and shrinking depending on which bottle you drink from. It’s been a strange trip and about to get stranger.
Istanbul was the beginning of the hippy trail to enlightenment via music, sex and a
diet of mind expanding drugs. The Pudding shop was the hippie headquarters of Istanbul and it
was on their bulletin board that I saw a message that led me to the “magic bus” headed to Afghanistan. The next day I found myself a seat on a comfortable and roomy new bus traveling across Turkey and Iran. I think it took a week and one of my few memories is tossing a Frisbee back and forth across an international border. Another is a frantic taxi ride with an aggressive Iranian hustler to a turquoise factory in Meshed. Of course I got to know everyone on the bus, all 15 of them, but I only remember one name, Tec who introduced me to the existential philosophy of George Gurdjieff, which I have yet to understand.
Afghanistan sits on an ancient trade route between China and the Middle East known as the “Silk Road”. It is totally landlocked, surrounded by Iran, Pakistan, China and 3 former Soviet Republics and has been invaded often but never conquered. In this cultural crossroad live many ethnic groups Pashtuns, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, and Turkmen, these groups are further divided by tribe and family thus loyalty is very complicated. To me these are only names, but to the locals it is very important and determines everything. Not so long ago most of them were nomadic and lived by strict codes. Pushtunwali is the name of the Pushtun code where dishonor demands revenge and blood feuds may last for generations. In this land of extremes from scorched desert in the south to frozen mountains in the north there are few opportunities and competition is fierce. Pushtuns have dominated since the eighteenth century, as the people settled in cities and became less tribal this has slowly changed but resistance and resentment continue to hamper cooperation and progress is slow.
Despite my first impressions Afghanistan ranks high on my list of beautiful exotic places. Like many I spent my first night in Islam Qu’ala, a no mans land just inside Afghanistan. It exists to fleece travelers stranded there after passing thru the Afghan Customs post in the late afternoon because onward transportation is poor and dangerous after dark. In the short time I spent there I was offered every kind of contraband you could think of countless times yet every request for basic comfort was denied. Nevertheless I soon fell under the spell of Herat’s rustic charm. It is a tree-lined oasis with covered arcades, dusty streets and open sewers. It lies in the extreme west about as far as you can get from Kabul the capitol adding to its relaxed appeal. My introduction to the Tonga, a horse drawn carriage and popular taxi in parts of Asia was in Herat. As I was walking down the road in a daydream, I became aware of an impending collision with an oncoming Tonga. As I scrambled out of the way my foot came down in the fetid sewer. Thinking nothing at the moment I continued to explore and enjoy this exotic new place.
The Afghans are piss poor but very proud people; they are resourceful and generally honorable. They are primarily farmers but smugglers have a long history, trading in everything from weapons to drugs. The tea stall is their social center with its steaming samovar from which teapots and teacups are filled. Customers gossip while cups are washed in a large tub of cold water, mixing backwash and saliva with nothing but the hot tea to sterilize the vessel. Enterprising 10 year old money changers handle fat wads of currency quoting rates in pounds, francs and dollars faster than a calculator. Others do a brisk business distributing tea to shopkeepers. Men and women have separate cultures; children follow their gender models and do most of the hard labor. The men are vain from their meticulous beards and kohl eye makeup to their skillfully manipulated turbans. The few women ever seen are covered head to toe in the chador, with a tiny screen the size of 2 band aids thru which they breathe, see and speak, god forbid they should want to eat or drink something.
When I got to Kabul the nightmare started, I realized I had a nasty case of dysentery, which was to plague me for several weeks and eventually cause me to return home. I would spend hours in the bathroom, squatting as sit down toilets had not yet reached Afghanistan. Leaving for short periods only to be summoned back by urgent spasms. As days passed into weeks fear of finding and using a public toilet kept me close to the relative comfort of my hotel. I tried everything from modern medicine to folk remedies like opium, a strong binder, but nothing stopped the diarrhea and I’m convinced something’s made it worse.
As my condition degenerated I decided I couldn’t leave without the one thing made in Afghanistan, a beautiful rug. When my new Afghan friend offered to help me I got caught in a classic con and never saw it coming. I chose a shop at random and everything seemed normal as we sat down for the obligatory tea, then things turned uncomfortable as the merchant seemed to sense something. As I began to make my selection “my friend” and the merchant became adversarial and this I took as normal price negotiation. Then on leaving the store with the new rug on his shoulder it was off to the Post Office, where he handed it over to his accomplice, who pretended to prepare it for shipping while extracting his commission in the form of postage fees. Needless to say I never saw that rug again.
I stayed in Kabul about a month, where one of my few luxuries was a hot shower. This involved paying “baksheesh” a bribe to the boy who had to carry a bundle of wood to the fifth floor where it was fed into a crude hot water heater. There was never enough time before the poorly vented room filled with smoke causing me to exit choking but clean. One of my biggest disappointments is not exploring the narrow streets and alleys on the hill just behind my hotel. They remained as vague and mysterious as the mountains that sometimes appeared in the distance. The Hindukush, Karakoram and the mighty Himalaya lay to the north and east through the Khyber Pass lay India my goal.
By mid April my situation seemed critical. I weighed my options, and staying In Kabul was not one of them. My return ticket on Pan Am was good from Rome, but with $50 to my name, I could not afford to fly there from Kabul and I was afraid I would not survive the horrendous overland trip, but if I could get to Istanbul there was a cheap flight from there. Afghanistan has no trains at all and half of Iran is rail less. From Teheran the train runs more or less direct with a ferry transfer across Lake Van in Turkey. The trains are slow, dirty and unpredictable but so much better than busses. So with much trepidation I started my ordeal by bus from Kabul to Kandahar, to Heart, to Tayebad, to Meshed, to Teheran each leg on an independent carrier on 5 consecutive days, sometimes driving 12 hours with only one stop.
In Teheran I found the weekly train to Istanbul was full so I decided to continue to Erzurum where the train ran daily. When I finally arrived in Istanbul it was midnight, 10 days after leaving Kabul, I was dirty and tired but happy. My ordeal had ended with a small miracle.