I was awakened from a deep sleep by a knocking on the door, it was our little man and it was 5:50am. We had ten minutes to get up, panic… then frantically pack our few bits and pieces and hustle ourselves outside for the bus to Kabul. We made it but there was no bus. This wasn’t a great surprise to us and it gave us time to drink chai and wake up. It was a very cold morning so we waited in the bus office, (a tiny, dirty room containing two chairs) until the bus arrived at around seven o’clock. Our bags were unceremoniously thrown up on to the roof and we were off again. This vehicle was not much different to the one we had traveled on from Herat, the bodywork vibrated and rattled, there was no suspension and the seats were, of course, from the Central Asian cushion-free selection.
Leaving Kandahar on the US built road we passed through unpopulated desert with rugged mountains visible at the horizon. Occasionally there would be a green oasis with trees and meadows and a few small mud houses and the bus would stop to pick up more wild-looking tribesmen. We passed a group of Kuchi nomads moving south for the winter, a long line of, what must have numbered hundreds, of camels, fat-tailed sheep and heavily laden donkeys. The smallest children were wrapped in blankets and tied to the camel’s backs while everyone else walked. The women, unlike their burkha-clad counterparts from other ethnic groups, wore brightly coloured embroidered dresses and baggy pants and left their faces uncovered.
As the day progressed so did my discomfort, it wasn’t only due to being bounced around on the wooden seat but I was also developing increasingly uncomfortable gurglings in my gut. This was more than just diarrhoea, my insides felt as if they were fermenting and I began to get terrible stomach cramps. Perhaps I should have asked about the ‘frishness’ of the bakers wares or perhaps I shouldn’t have been so bloody gluttonous. The bus eventually stopped at Ghazni and I was able to stagger off and find a toilet. After a noisy, liquid, bowel evacuation I felt immediately better and, sitting ourselves down on the carpeted floor of a chai-khana, we relaxed for a while with sweet tea and powdery white bonbons. The people here were very friendly and welcoming and we were made to feel very much at ease as we passed our remaining rest-stop time strolling around the stalls and shops. This ancient walled city appeared to be a centre for furs and goods made of sheepskin including the inside-out fleece known in the west as the Afghan coat, much prized by hippies at the time. We looked at some but the smell of the uncured skins was overpowering. You could probably get away with wearing one whilst tending your sheep and goats on some remote hillside but they definitely weren’t for mixed company.
The scenery grew more breathtaking as we roared through the southern passes of the Hindu Kush and we actually managed to roll into Kabul in daylight at around 4:00pm. The bus stopped 7 kilometres short of the city-centre and everyone disembarked. We, the only non-Afghans to climb out, were immediately besieged by hotel touts, who, a few moments ago were probably drinking chai and lounging around, and were now madly waving their various cards and loudly extolling the virtues of their respective establishments. To escape as quickly as possible from this bedlam I picked out a guy at random who bundled us into a taxi, (compliments of the hotel) and we headed for downtown Kabul.
The Khyber Pass Hotel was OK; the people who worked there showed no particular interest in us. We had a windowless cell of a room for 40Afghanis with two beds, cockroaches, a tiny coffee table and use of a shared shower. There was no restaurant but they were happy to deliver pots of chai up to our room. We had the essentials. In the early evening we went out to eat and found the Columbus Restaurant where we had large helpings of omelette, salad and chips followed by banana pie. We were now stoned for most of the time and food had begun to figure prominently in our lives. To our surprise, as we filled our stomachs, two musicians, one on a dhol drum and the other on the traditional dhamboura began to play. It was nice to hear something typically Afghan. Everywhere that catered specifically for travellers played western rock music, which was OK but not really why we came. Of course we could have eaten where the locals ate but the choice looked to be between greasy mutton stew or kebabs. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a cake shop and, after ages spent trying to make a decision, I bought eight giant-sized cookies to munch on later while even more wasted than we already were.
The next morning began well with a hot shower but Janette had diarrhoea and stomach ache. I went out and bought fresh, hot nan, which we had with honey and chai and she began to slowly feel better. It was becoming impossible for either of us to escape the Afghan bacteria. I suspected that our stomach problems were unavoidable if we wanted to eat, there was simply no concept of hygiene in Afghanistan and even the bread was probably made with jube (drainage ditch) water. Of course it wasn’t, perhaps, necessary for us to consume quite so much.
We needed to find the Pakistan Embassy to obtain road permits giving us permission to cross Pakistan to the Indian border. It turned out to be a short walk away across a park where children played and groups of old men with white or orange-henna’d beards sat and talked over games of chess. At the Embassy we filled out the appropriate forms, handed them over with our passports and arranged to pick up the passes at 1:00pm the next day. Second on the agenda was to visit the post office and see if any mail had arrived for us. This was easier said than done. Everyone we asked was incredibly helpful but they all sent us in different directions. I began to wonder if it was a form of politeness; that it may have been considered discourteous to admit to not knowing what we were talking about. Possibly they really didn’t know where the post-khana was and it was more gracious to appear to be helpful than not. Either way, we spent about two hours criss-crossing the city before we eventually stumbled upon it by accident and our reward was a letter from Janette’s parents.
As we were running low on Afghanis we also needed to find somewhere to change money and the information that we had (from the BIT publication)was that the cloth market in the bazaar near the Pul-I-Khishti Mosque, was the best place. As per usual we wandered haphazardly through the maze of rough alleyways and once more entered a timeless culture devoid of western influence. Most of the bazaar was geared towards local needs except around the edges where we found items such as silver jewellery, kuchi dresses and antiquities on sale. The men we came across were generally happy to be photographed and I took quite a few shots in the grain market. Janette was treated like an honorary man and was frequently called ‘Didi’, meaning sister in Dari. There was a feeling of mutual respect for our different cultures and beliefs and Janette never felt threatened or in any danger unlike in Iran or Eastern Turkey. An Afghan’s standing in society is partly related to the generosity shown to strangers and, in general, hospitality is shown to all visitors regardless of their religion, nationality or sex. This respect for others comes partially from the Afghans particular code of honour but also from the teachings of Islam, for example; ‘Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should honour his guest,’ said The Prophet.
I managed to change ten dollars in a tiny jewellery shop where Janette bought a crudely-made silver ring with a polished grey stone. It would have been nice to be able to afford some of the beautiful lapis but, cheap though it was, it would have been an extravagance. Having completed all our tasks for the day we returned to the hotel carrying a bag of apples and a half-pound of ginger biscuits. Our clothes hadn’t been washed since we had left Istanbul and were filthy, so we hand-washed nearly everything we had and hung it up to dry. I spoke to the hotel manager about the possibility of him arranging a trip to the rock carvings of the Buddha at Bamiyan for us and received an enthusiastic, if rather indefinite, response. Leaving it in the hands of Allah and returned to our room to smoke and rest up before going out to eat. We had decided to visit Sigis restaurant, another legendary place among travelers in the early seventies, but nearly half way there Janette had a recurrence of her earlier stomach problem and we had to hastily return to the hotel WC.
But we did get there eventually and even though it was one of those western traveler-oriented places there was a great ambiance. Passing through a sturdy wooden door from the street we entered a large courtyard illuminated by strings of different coloured light bulbs. To our left was an outdoor dining area with tables and chairs under a canopy that stretched all the way down to the building itself. To the right and taking up a large part of the garden was a huge chessboard, each square measuring a foot with three-foot tall pieces on which two guys were having a game. It was all very surreal. Taking off our shoes at the door, we entered one of the large, carpeted rooms, sat down on cushions and ordered our meal. We were briefly greeted by the owner, Siegfreid, a tall German in his forties with blue eyes and short blonde hair. He’d obviously named the place after himself. Psychedelic music was playing and people were sitting in small groups swapping road stories and snippets of information. It was places like this where you got the latest news about border situations, visas, rip-offs, good and bad hotels etc. The food was delicious, mixed vegetable salad with noodles followed by Afghan rice pudding flavoured with cinnamon and sultanas. The mint tea was free and simmered gently on a brazier just outside the front door where you helped yourself from an enormous aluminium kettle. There were two house rules, no dope smoking and no sleeping. You would be asked to leave if found doing either. We didn’t break either of the rules but left early anyway due to Janette’s dysentrous insides.
The Afghan bacteria were beginning to get the upper hand. Janette was up and down to the toilet in the night and I woke up with the same problem. We kept dosing ourselves with Lomotil, which had some effect on the diarrhoea but not on the root causes. We were simply eating too much due to having almost constant munchies and it was impossible to know what was safe and what wasn’t. We awoke too late for the hot water but showered anyway and thawed ourselves out with hot chai. We got the thumbs-up from the hotel manager for a three-day trip to Bamiyan and the lakes at Band-I-Amir and handed over 600Afghanis each. As this was scheduled for Thursday we had a couple of days to laze around in Kabul.
At about one o’clock we staggered out into the blinding sunlight, through the park to the Pakistan Embassy. The place was heaving with travelers and we waited around for an hour to get our road permits. We were informed that the reason why everything was taking so long was that this department was short-staffed but there no sense of urgency was evident in any of the Embassy staff. Our role in this was to us to show patience and understanding and not for the staff to be hurried along in any way. With patience and understanding still pretty much intact and permits safely stashed away, we made our way down the road to the Bank Da Afghanistan to change a ten-dollar traveller’s cheque. On arrival at the bank the token security presence, a very young, rifle-carrying guard in a dirty, threadbare, grey uniform, duly informed us that it was now closed for the day. Opening hours were from 8:30am to 12:00 noon. We walked into the centre and across the Kabul River to the post office where we bought cheap postcards and wrote brief messages to friends and family whilst sitting in the sun on the steps outside.
Meandering back to the hotel we stopped in the gardens of a small, whitewashed, domed shrine where we shared oranges and small talk with the street-kids who sold packs of cigarettes from wooden trays hung around their necks. Back in our room we relaxed, smoked dope and caught up on our letter writing before returning to Sigis for our evening meal of omelette, fried potatoes and apple pancake. The pancake seemed to be taking forever to arrive and when I asked the young man who was serving the food why; he apologised and said that they had run out of apples. But we weren’t to worry because he had sent someone to the bazaar and he would surely return soon. Well it wasn’t soon… but he did arrive back eventually and we did get our apple pancakes.
The following morning we were both suffering badly with dysentery. Along with the Lomotil we popped some Tetracycline which had been prescribed for us by a friendly GP at home. We had our teapots of chai and fresh nan for breakfast while waiting for the wood-burner (which heated the morning shower water) to be lit. We waited in vain. I spent some time with the kitchen boy, Mohammed Ali, in the ‘soon to be opened’ hotel restaurant, drinking over-sweet tea. I got him to draw me a map that would help me find the office of the Pakistan Government Bus Company (they had the monopoly on the route from Kabul to Peshawar). Unfortunately, once I was out on the street, the map made no sense at all so I set off for the bank to cash my ten-dollar cheque. I walked through the park where, to my utter amazement, I discovered a Marks and Spencer’s store. It’s true, I saw it. This was no hash hallucination. I even went inside. It still seems unbelievable but hey, this was Afghanistan, an unbelievable place. Carrying my astonishment with me I passed the Pakistan Embassy, turned right and then left, skirted the gardens around the white shrine, past the half-asleep armed guard and into the bank. Once inside I was trapped, along with many others, in a snails-paced bureaucratic system where every detail had to be hand-written with fountain pens and the ink carefully blotted. It was two hours before I finally had the exchange calculated and then another half-hour to get the cheque cashed and then they had the cheek to charge me 42Afghanis for the transaction. Feeling more than a little irritated, I carried on to the post office only to find that the Poste Restante section was closed. The irritation increased. Finally, I found the bus office, but would you believe it? It had closed at 11:30 and wouldn’t open again until 3:00pm. The day wasn’t going too well so I gave up on it and returned to the hotel to see how Janette was doing.
She was feeling a little better so I took her to the restaurant for chai and toast. I really had a craving for toast, but, even though it was on the menu, Mohammed Ali had no idea what it was, so I attempted to instruct him in the art of toast making. There was a variety of white-sliced, western-style bread available in Kabul; small loaves of sweet-tasting stuff with a waxy consistency that I thought could be used. But the boy didn’t get it at all and it was quite understandable, why would anyone want to burn perfectly good bread? I gave up and we left.
We took a gentle stroll back to the bus office where there were a lot of people waiting. There was a notice saying that all the buses were full for the next two days and some of the other travelers were pretty pissed off. Although due to open at three o’clock, no one from the bus company turned up until after four and by then a lot of people had run out of patience and left. We found ourselves near the front of the queue and bought tickets costing 100Afghanis each for a bus leaving at 8:00am on the following Monday. Back at the hotel we were visited by the manager who informed us that he was, ‘Very sorry, but the mini-bus to Bamiyan will not be going’, and returned our money. This was a real blow, not only would we not get to see the gigantic statues of the Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley but now we were stuck in Kabul until Monday, another five days. We could have changed our bus tickets to Saturday, or failing that, Sunday, but the Bus Company would have charged us 25Afghanis each for the transfer and that would be 50Afs we could spend on something else…like food..
Remembering something that I’d seen on my jaunts around the city, we went to check out the National Hotel, which had a sign outside advertising trips to Bamiyan. The guy inside said that he could only do it for six or seven people, not for two. So we went to Sigis and drowned our disappointment in mint tea, quickly followed by a bowl of chunky vegetable soup and topped off with delicious cold, stodgy, cinnamon rice pudding. Ultimate comfort food! It was there, in Sigis, that I realised that the constant hash consumption was, perhaps not surprisingly, making everything feel a little unreal. Not just there and then but all of the time. We sat there holding our swollen stomachs until we couldn’t bear to hear the same tape of Chicago play for the third time, and departed. On opening the door to our hotel room we were confronted by the cockroaches, they completely covered the walls and ceiling. There were thousands of them, golden brown and shining in the light of the dim bare bulb. Within a couple of seconds they had scurried away and disappeared behind the coarse matting that covered the walls. Of course we knew that we shared the room with cockroaches but had no idea that there were so many. We slept with the light on that night, neither of us able to bear the thought of what the room would be like if it were off. A move to a different hotel was definitely on the cards.