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Remembering Afghanistan

A crumbling citadel dominates the skyline of Herat, a famous and prosperous city in the Middle Ages. Pony carts were still commonly used when this picture was taken in 1963.
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This will not be the usual travel article, because it took place almost 40 years ago in 1963 Afghanistan, when there was a king, peace and stability. It bothers me that so much of the current media coverage seems to minimize the culture and has failed to show what friendly, honest, hospitable people the Afghans are.

For a few years it was possible to drive from Europe to India, and four of us took a VW bus from London to Nepal. Our method of travel, our uniqueness, and the Afghans’ natural hospitality gave us a wonderful opportunity to meet the people. I reviewed my journal recently to refresh my impressions of what I remembered as a wonderful place.



We entered Afghanistan from Mashaad in northeastern Iran and went via Herat, Ferah, Kandahar, Ghazni, Kabul, Jallalabad and the Kyber Pass to Peshawar in Pakistan. Most of the 900 miles was unpaved. As I wrote in my journal:




“Herat is a terrific place. The people are dressed in bright colors and are really friendly. The kids are bright-eyed, friendly and nice looking. The town is a bustle of activity. Everything is very colorful, including decorated bicycles and camels. The taxis are two-wheeled horse carts, wildly decorated, and the horses are festooned in all the colors imaginable. The open trucks for carrying goods and people are painted with scenes of mountains, castles and waterfalls.

“Herat was famous and affluent in the Middle Ages, on the route to Samarkand and Cathay. A crumbling citadel now dominates the market square. The 13th century mosque is beautiful, with ornate tile work. We visited a school taught by an old, white-bearded fellow. All the kids wore bright smiles.”

A few miles out of Herat the top bolt of one shock sheared off. To keep it from continually banging on the rough 700 miles to Kabul (the only place for repairs), we decided to remove it. It required a wrench we didn’t have, so:

“We flagged down a truck to borrow a wrench. The truck driver, a big mountain of a man with a great bushy black beard, sized up the situation, took over and immediately removed the wheel. Then another truck pulled up and that driver jumped in. The dozen passengers from each truck became interested spectators.

“Cans of nuts and bolts were dumped onto the road and sorted through. The two men started banging with chisel and hammer to make a washer from a piece of angle iron.

“We had given up trying to make them understand that we only wanted the shock removed, not re-installed. When they finally finished, they wouldn’t take a thing for their trouble and time.

“Fifty miles from Kabul, the repair finally gave out. It had lasted over 600 miles of the worst roads we had been on.”

Kandahar offered more insight into how the people lived:

“The vegetable man sits cross-legged among his piles of vegetables and fruits. The Afghans are scrupulously honest about weighing, but the weights they use on their balance scales are really different. For instance, you might get this weight: one ball bearing, a small rock, and a bicycle pedal. Their love of color shows up again with little tufts of flowers nestled among the produce.”

“I got my shoes fixed by a bearded cobbler sitting under a tree. It was a small job, so I handed him three coins totaling about a nickel. He handed me back two! I handed him one back and he refused it.”

“(Ghazni) is just an overnight stop for trucks, consisting of about six tea houses. We went down to one for tea. It was built entirely of mud. Everywhere except a walkway from the door to the stove was raised about four feet. These raised portions, covered with rugs, are actually ducts of an ingenious heating system. The heat passes underneath, making sitting and sleeping cozy and warm.

“A hookah was passed around during tea. The Afghan personality came out again – (the proprietor) refused to take any money, saying we were foreign travelers and his guests. He wasn’t doing much business, either.

“During the Middle Ages, Ghazni was a center of arts and learning, surpassed only by Baghdad. We asked a policeman for directions to the bazaar, and he climbed in and spent three hours showing us around.”

Kabul is a capital city, but it was charmingly unsophisticated. The Kyber Restaurant looked very ordinary but it was “Afghanistan’s finest restaurant.”

“While we were eating, distinguished diplomatic types began arriving. By the time we left, passing the British and Japanese ambassadors, there were limousines arriving flying all sorts of flags. When we left our parking place, there was spirited competition for it between Poland and Indonesia.

“In front of the Royal Afghan Bank, 30 scruffy soldiers guarded a great pile of money sacks. The sacks were being loaded onto an old open truck brightly painted with flowers and Rhine castles.

“A man invited us to his house to welcome us as we were ‘passengers’ in his country.”

Near Jallalabad and at the edge of Tora Bora, “The mountains looked impenetrable but there was a small opening for the Kabul River. The road was spectacular, with switchbacks and tunnels following the river on its tortuous path through the narrow gorges and steep rocky mountains. Noisily passing by our camp all night long were families with their camels and fat-tail sheep, heading down for winter.”

Consider what these fine people have had to endure since the Soviet invasions and our Cold War support of any group against the Russians, then the Taliban, and now our war against terrorists. Most of us, if we think about them at all, may not give these fine, honest, hospitable people the respect they deserve.

Ralph Hitchcock lives in Nevada City.


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