The Afghan border post at Islam Qu’ala was as different from its modern-built equivalent on the Iranian side as you could possibly imagine. A mile from the actual buildings, just visible in the dusty haze of early evening, an unkempt, ruddy-faced young soldier in an ill-fitting coarse, serge uniform placed his battered rifle on the ground in order to manually raise a barrier, which consisted of a long tree branch painted white. He waved us through with no checks or questions and we proceeded along the road to a mud-walled compound containing various low mud-brick structures, some with domed roofs. It felt as if we were slowly slipping out of the twentieth century. Apart from the soldiers and policemen everyone was dressed in long knee-length cotton shirts and baggy trousers, many with untidy turbans or brightly coloured skullcaps. Our driver stopped outside the customs office and we all disembarked. First it was necessary to take our vaccination certificates to be checked and stamped, meaning that our mini-bus driver now had to return them all to us. Then we walked about a hundred yards to a dusty office where the medical officer got out of bed to open the door and, though he was a bit grouchy at his sleep being disturbed, he hand-stamped our certificates and informed us that we must now visit the police station to have our passports checked. This meant another long trek in a different direction. With the police station found, all our details were laboriously hand-written into a large ledger with a scratchy fountain pen. Passports duly stamped, we set off to find the bank. This turned out to be in a tiny room hidden away at the back of a restaurant, unfortunately, (but not unexpectedly) it was closed, but apparently would open again in ten minutes, (we were informed by two guys sipping chai). It was now dusk and, as the daylight was fading fast, kerosene lamps were being lit. This was amazing… the border post had no electricity. We were definitely sliding back into another time.
Returning to the customs office, in near darkness, a grinning official with a twinkle in his eye and an impressive handlebar moustache asked us if we liked hashish and pulled out a plastic bag containing a slab of shiny black, pressed hash about the size of a paperback book. Was this a trick or was he just amusing himself at out expense? We had no idea and replied with a non-committal mumble. He told us that he preferred whiskey and drank a bottle of Johnny Walker every evening to help him forget his troubles. He threw another log into the wood-burning stove and asked us if we had any musical instruments such as bongos, guitars… or even a piano and laughed loudly at his own joke. Politely requesting that we open our bags, he disinterestedly asked us what they contained and then, without bothering to even look, told us to close them again saying, “OK, all finish”.
After returning to the bank, which was now open for business, and changing 20US Dollars for 1000Afghanis in old, crumpled notes that looked like they might disintegrate at any moment, we climbed into the mini-bus and set off. Leaving the compound we were stopped and made to show our passports and vaccination certificates at a police checkpoint. Our passport photos were scrutinised and compared to our faces. The Inspector asked if we were hippies and we assured him that we most definitely weren’t. Fifty yards down the road we drew up next to a group of six turbaned, bearded men who all climbed aboard and sat down. There was a great deal of shouting and confusion, possibly arguments about the fare, and then, one by one, they all got off again. There were more heated discussions with the driver and then they all, once again, climbed aboard and packed themselves in with the rest of us, and I mean packed. At last we thought that we were finally on our way, but no, there was one more checkpoint before we were allowed to head off into the dark. And I mean DARK!
Usually when you are driving along at night you expect to see lights in the distance or alongside the road or from other traffic but here there was nothing. It was black. No moon. No lights. Nothing. Just the area of road immediately in front of the mini-bus, illuminated by the headlights. We hit a dust storm and the visibility decreased even further, but not our speed. Half-way to Herat, and soon after we’d almost collided with a wandering camel that had suddenly appeared in front of us, the driver pulled off the road and we entered a chai-khana or teahouse. The three or four guys who were already seated made room for us on the wooden benches on either side of a long table and were served with rice, potatoes and nan, which we ate with our right hands in the Afghan way, (the left hand being used for wiping your backside). After the food we were served with chai in individual china teapots. Then, rather unexpectedly, one of the Afghans passed around a water pipe, or shisha, with a large lump of black hash glowing on top of the charcoal in the bowl. It was strong, very strong. Another guy extracted a large, hand-pressed piece from his baggy pants, probably eight or nine soft, pungent ounces, which was passed around and admired. Janette was a little hesitant at handling and sniffing some thing that had been next to his genitals but made a brave effort. I was beginning to feel comfortable with these people, they were relaxed and friendly and very likeable.
Cannabis was legal in Afghanistan until 1974 when the law was changed due to the usual US anti-drug pressure and the promise of economic aid. It had been a part of the culture for centuries and the clampdown on this cash crop only served to increase the cultivation of the opium poppy. Afghan hash was known at the time for its dream-inducing high and extreme potency.
Soon we were off again, this time with a couple more passengers somehow jammed in, and we were all completely wasted. Occasionally now, we would see the approaching lights of another vehicle. As we got closer one of the drivers would switch off his headlights completely, which was more than a little unnerving. Sometimes both drivers would turn them off and the outside world would be plunged into total darkness with two vehicles potentially heading straight for each other, which was downright terrifying. We realised that there was no dip function on the headlights of any of these vehicles and the lights were disengaged to stop both drivers being dazzled by a full beam at the same time. This was Afghanistan and things were beginning to get crazy. Or was it just that we were so stoned? No, things really were beginning to get crazy. We stopped to let out all the Afghans in the middle of nowhere with the dust storm still blowing. They wrapped the ends of their turbans around their faces, leaving only their dark, khol lined eyes visible, and disappeared into the night. We carried on to Herat, the city built by Alexander the Great and invaded by both Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and a whole bunch of dope smoking hippies.
As we unloaded our bags I noticed that the wind had dropped and Herat was completely silent apart from the sound of distant barking dogs and the occasional horse-drawn taxi with its tinkling bells. A small boy showed us to the Hotel Tahery where we obtained a large clean room with three beds and a huge window that opened up on to the street below. The beds were, what are called in India, charpoys, wooden frames with knotted rope tied across to support a thin mattress. The room cost 30Afghanis, about 44pence. The hotel also had its own restaurant catering to the tastes of westerners and playing wobbly cassettes of rock music that had been left by others who’d passed this way before us. We took a walk but there was very little open apart from a couple of fruit stalls and a strange little place called the Herat Pudding shop. We were invited in by a young, hippiefied Afghan who chatted to us in broken English over a pot of chai before returning to the hotel to drift into a deep sleep.
Our first full day in Herat was to begin with a visit to the post office but we were waylaid by a grey-haired gentleman in a jaunty Qarakul hat, who invited us to take tea with him. He lived in a tiny windowless room next to the hotel kitchen where he boiled water on a kerosene stove and offered us sweet, white bon-bons to accompany the chai. We talked for a while and it was obvious that it was his habit to spend time with people passing through. He was very dapper in his traditional clothes and had a rather unsettling piercing stare.
Walking what seemed like miles along dusty streets to the post office was a revelation. We really had entered a place that was relatively unaffected by the outside world. The first thing that hit us was how quiet it was. There were very few motorised vehicles, only the occasional highly decorated truck or ramshackle bus. The traffic policeman standing at the crossroads controlled a gentle flow of horse-drawn taxis (tongas), heavily laden donkeys, wild looking tribesmen on horseback with rifles over their shoulders and the odd camel or two. He wore a slightly shabby full uniform with peaked cap and white gloves and looked very serious and quite out of place. A boy of no more than eight years old asked me if I wanted to buy hashish and when I showed interest he led us into a chai-khana where two old men with long grey beards were sitting on the carpeted floor drinking tea. We had to wait for his friend and business partner to arrive. The friend, who looked to be about the same age, produced a plastic bag from behind the rafters in the ceiling from which he took a piece of hash weighing about four ounces. Initially he wanted 3Afghanis a gram but after some hard bargaining we came away with an ounce for 80Afghanis or about £1.20. On top of this we agreed to give each of them a 5Afghani tip for their trouble. Janette and I were both impressed by their business acumen, especially as they were only children. We carried on to the post-khana to find that the Poste Restante section was in fact a very large cardboard box full of letters which we were handed and invited to look through. Presumably the Afghans, who use Arabic script, found deciphering European languages too problematical and this was the best solution, self-service. The counter assistant who sold us stamps also offered to supply us with hashish.
It had become apparent since we left Europe that when in a new and strange place I had a tendency to wander aimlessly. We were not package tourists who flew in, checked out the main attractions and flew off to the next place. I needed to soak up the atmosphere, to see how people lived and to be part of the movie and the only way to do that was just to dive right in. We spent the rest of the day doing just that. In the bazaar life was going on as it must have for hundreds of years; carpets were being hand-woven on wooden looms, nans were being baked in underground ovens and stacked for sale, there were shops selling brightly glazed shishas and metal cooking pots, while honeydew and watermelons were piled high next to stalls where sultanas, raisins and pistachios in open sacks were being weighed out. Butchers hacked up the freshly slaughtered carcasses of sheep or goats and hung the pieces on hooks where they instantly became black with flies. The odour of skewered kebabs cooking over glowing charcoal permeated the air. The men varied in appearance from high cheekboned Tajiks to tall dark-eyed Pashtuns. The few women we saw wore sky-blue burkahs with even their eyes hidden behind fine mesh. We found that we could go anywhere and although the people noticed us, we were no big deal. They didn’t stare like in Turkey and Iran, in fact they didn’t seem particularly interested in us at all. We had arrived in a unique place with a medieval charm where life carried on much as it had for centuries. Despite the filth, the lack of sanitation and electricity there was a feeling here that people knew who they were and had no great desire to change. They had no need for what in the West is called progress. Herat was still struggling to get into the twentieth century.
Through the crowd came a fierce looking Pashtun with kohl-lined dark eyes. He was well over six-foot tall, black bearded, turbaned and in traditional dress with a rifle slung over his shoulder. His bearing was noble and self-assured and he looked kind of dangerous. He strode through the bazaar holding a small red rose under his long nose. This image was to imprint itself in my memory and was to always represent Afghanistan for me.
Later, at the hotel, we ate a meal of vegetable soup (which appeared to consist mainly of boiled grass) followed by rice with potatoes and a small dish of more (but cold) cooked grass. Being a vegetarian in this country was not going to be easy if this meal was to be typical of our diet. We would find that it was very difficult to find good local food in Afghanistan and the Afghans themselves were reputed to have stomachs of leather. In the evening we were joined in our room by the old man who we’d met earlier. He told us that he had taken some acid in the morning and then proceeded to list all the incredible things that he had seen. We remained polite throughout but actually the only thing more boring than hearing about someone else’s psychedelic experiences is hearing about their dreams. We didn’t know what to make of him. We shared his chillum and all fell into a stoned-silence, which seemed to go on forever. Eventually, to our relief, he departed, leaving us a gift of a half ounce bag of ganja.
It was the 1st of November and I awoke to the sound of tonga bells and the clip clopping of horse’s hooves. Janette had a bad stomach, which cleared up after a breakfast of fresh, hot nan, honey and apples. Down the street in the area where the bus companies were grouped, (you couldn’t really call it a bus station) we visited various decrepit offices to compare prices and travel times for the next leg of our journey, the 400 mile southern route to Kandahar. Many of the buses left at 2:00pm and we were assured that they would arrive in Kandahar by 9:00pm which seemed totally unrealistic to me. After discussing it over a pot of tea each in a nearby chai shop, we decided to book with a company leaving at 10:00am and due to arrive at 9:30pm. We bought a melon and returned to the hotel to consume it accompanied by a smoke of the hash we’d acquired the day before. Pleasantly intoxicated we undertook the long walk to the post-khana only to find that it was closed and wouldn’t open for another two hours, (there didn’t appear to be any set opening times). So, once again, we meandered the streets of old Herat, taking in the sights and absorbing the atmosphere, ending up back at the Tahery Hotel where we rested, had a smoke and set off once more for the post-khana. This time we were informed that it was now closed until tomorrow so we bought a couple of pomegranates from a nearby stall and made our way slowly home. That evening, due to our dope consumption we ate far too much; egg and chips (which arrived without any eggs) supplemented by nan and mast (ewes milk yoghurt) followed later by a quarter of a melon and more nan. It was too much for my stomach and before I went to bed I vomited most of it back up and fell asleep feeling very ill.
We woke up to another bright, sunny morning but I had the remnants of a nightmare still hanging on. In the dream large rocks were being placed on top of me until I was completely covered and on the top of the pile was a rock with my name on it. A claustrophobic, buried-alive dream. I was glad to get up and shake it off. We couldn’t wash because the guy whose job it was to hand pump the water from the steel oil-drum on the ground floor into the pipes on the second floor had forgotten to do so and even though he was apparently intending to do it no-one seemed to know when. ‘When’ was obviously not a word of much importance in Central Asia and we, so called, civilised people used to living our lives by the clock, simply had to accept the fact. Things happened when they happened. And they only happened, ‘Insh’Allah’ – if God willed.