When I think of Afghanistan, I remember a poor but proud country that was just able to keep its head above water. In 1972 when I was last there, King Zahir Shah was still on the throne. The government controlled the main cities along the main roads, but tribal chieftains, for all intents and purposes, were a law unto their own in the interior. People had just enough to eat in the countryside, but real hardship was never far away. They were not starving, however. And international aid agencies didn't have to supply the country with anything.
Oddly enough, one of my fondest memories of Afghanistan was the food. You could get wonderful fresh fruits in the markets. The many varieties of melons were especially good as were the apricots -- both fresh and dried -- as well as the grapes. Not to mention the dried goodies such as chickpeas, melon seeds, raisins, and mulberries. Then there were the kebabs, which, when the meat wasn't tough, were splendid. I still remember the smell of those skewers of lamb cooking over braziers filled with charcoal. But my favorite was something called "Ashak", which is a sort of giant pyramid-shaped ravioli some 6 or 7 cm on a side. This was filled with a superb minced meat, vegetable and herb mixture and smothered in a yoghurt sauce that was reminiscent of an Indian raita but not quite so tart or sour.
But all of this must be gone now, for Afghanistan has entered a new Dark Age under the cruel, criminal, and oh-so-sanctimonious Taliban. But I don't want to launch into a polemical diatribe. I want to recall what Afghanistan was like when I was there.
In essence, Afghanistan had two varieties: superb and unspeakably awful. The good ones had been built by the Americans and the Russians in some perverse Cold War competition that the Afghan government happily took advantage of. The Americans built the route from the Iranian border to Herat. It then went south and east to Kandahar (more correctly spelled Qandahar) and on up to Kabul (pronounced KAH-bool and not kah-BOOL as so many mistakenly think.).
The Russians, for their part, built the road from the Soviet border south to Mazar-i-Sharif and on to Kabul via Kunduz. This route may have been considerably shorter than the American one, but it was infinitely more difficult, for it had to cross the formidable barrier of the Hindu Kush, the northwestern extension of the Himalayas. At its highest point, the Salang Pass, they built a very long tunnel (about 10 kms as I recall) that was also reputed to be the highest highway tunnel in the world as well. It was a remarkable bit of civil engineering and it cut hours off the trip between Kabul and Mazar. When I left, the plan was for the Russians to continue building the highway in order to connect Mazar to Herat. In effect, the plan was to build a system of highways that would encircle the country, connecting all the major population centers together. Whether that was ever fully accomplished, I don't know, because I lost track of those details. They may also have already had plans for the invasion that would eventually come in 1979.
The native Afghan roads were, however, something quite different. I don't think there were any that were paved. Certainly, the ones I was on were basically only dirt tracks. No gravel. No real roadbeds. Their only saving grace was that they were rarely muddy because Afghanistan was essentially a desert -- even in the mountainous heights. Once they got wet, though, villages could be cut off for days or even weeks from the outside world.
On the Road to Bamiyan
I remember with great fondness my trip to Bamiyan and Band-i-Amir. Together with a few friends from one of the cheap "freak" hotels I was staying in Kabul, we caught a ride around 5:30 a.m. in the back of a truck, which took us some 40 or 50 kilometers up the highway to Mazar-i-Sharif. This leg took less than an hour. Then we turned off the highway. This was a different story. I'm not sure if it was a road or merely a series of ruts that we followed. Ensconced as we were in the crevices between large burlap-covered bundles of God-knows-what, we were comfortable enough, save for the fact that the truck was almost never truly horizontal: we jerked, jolted, and rocked our way for the remaining 100-odd kilometers and it was to take some 18 hours to get the rest of the way to the Bamiyan Valley. We didn't proceed nonstop, of course.
Scenes from a Tea House
We stopped at two or three local chaikhaneh (tea houses), which were always a spectacle. Made mostly of mud brick, they were very basic: inside these little buildings there would be a few crudely hewn tables often with linoleum glued to the tops. Tea was served in little enameled metal teapots, which you poured into a small glass almost universally made by the French company, Duralex.
You would also get sugar cubes, but these were not the perfect and pristinely white cubes one usually thinks of. These had been chipped from a much larger block of sugar that had a slightly brownish tinge to it. I often wondered what else it might contain, but I never got sick from eating it, so it must have been okay. Anyway, the local tea etiquette involved dipping the sugar cube in the tea very briefly, placing it between your teeth, and then drinking the beverage more or less through it. Sometimes you sat on somewhat wobbly chairs, but more often the seating consisted of Indian-style charpoys, bedsteads made of lathed wooden legs and struts held together by hemp rope. Sometimes there would be a cotton-batting filled cushion, which was laid atop the hemp rope webbing in the center. Mostly, you just sat on the rope webbing. The customers were another story.
There were, of course, no women to be seen, unless it was a Western woman traveler who happily flouted all the local rules dictating the separation of the sexes. In the villages the women were all in purdah, the religiously-imposed isolation that restricts women to their homes, allowing them out only in the company of a male family member, whether father, brother, or husband. When they did go out, they always wore the all-enshrouding burqa, which consisted of material gathered and sewn around a scull cap with a tiny 5x8 cm crocheted grill through which they could barely see. The men were dressed in what was effectively a uniform consisting of a pair of one-size-fits-all string trousers that, when flattened out, are about 1 1/2 meters across the waist. Cut rather like jodhpurs, the crotch is about at the knees, and the legs narrow to some 12 or 13 cm at the ankles. They are, clearly, extremely loose and baggy, but they're very comfortable. Above those is a shirt that is about knee-length and worn over the top. And since Afghanistan is often very cold, men will usually wear a very dirty, nearly worn-out Western-style suit coat. The crowning glory is, or course, a turban made from a length of (once) white cotton some 3 meters long and wrapped around a scull cap. One end of the turban is allowed to fall behind and usually hangs down below knee-level. Anyway, there would always be a few of these characters sitting around a chaikhaneh and almost to a man, they would be carrying a rifle, which they never let go of let alone lose sight of. But don't imagine them to be unfriendly. They would always greet you, and, if you spoke a few words of Farsi as I did, would try as best they could to carry on at least a basic conversation. Still, I always made sure I didn't cross them! I had no idea what might have happened...