After an early morning hot shower and a pot of chai we went out and found a new place to stay, the Shabistan Hotel on Kocha-e-Morgha, better known as Chicken Street. It was the same price as we had been paying but would hopefully have less wildlife. We returned to the Khyber Pass, packed our bags and paid the bill. For some reason we were undercharged by about 100Afghanis which almost made up for having to share with the roaches. We moved into room no.108 at the Shabistan, (why it was room 108 I had no idea, there couldn’t have been more than a dozen rooms in the whole building). It was furnished with two beds and nothing else, but it did have a window that overlooked Chicken Street so we could watch all the comings and goings. We smoked a spliff and set off to find the Tourist Office to see if we could pick up a street map of Kabul. After a couple of hours wandering around and asking people who had no idea what we were talking about, we finally found it, following directions given by two Sikhs who spoke a little English. Of course it was closed, until one o’clock a little old man told us. We sat in the nearby park and watched a mountain of melons being offloaded from handcarts and then sold to the passers-by. Returning to the Tourist Office at 1:10pm we found it open, but the young man behind the counter told us it was closed until two o’clock. We decided to take a walk and had a discussion about how it was possible for the Tourist Office to be open yet closed at the same time. There was no logical conclusion to be reached; things were simply the way they were. There was no point in taxing our brains over it. In the large square where the water fountains were permanently switched off I found a dog-eared paperback copy of ‘Straw Dogs’. I was desperate for something to read having devoured every word of the ‘Woman’ magazine I’d picked up in Teheran. Once again we entered the Tourist Office, this time to be met by an enthusiastic, beaming man, every inch a Tourist Board official, who welcomed us in as if we were the only visitors he’d had that month. Unfortunately he wasn’t much use to us, as the Tourist Office didn’t have a map of Kabul, unless we were willing to pay 150Afghanis for a glossy guidebook which contained one, which we weren’t. I pocketed a couple of leaflets and we retraced our steps back to Chicken Street, bought chocolate brownies in the little cake shop and proceeded to get very, very stoned. I read my book from cover to cover in one sitting and then felt cheated. I thought it would have lasted for longer than that.
Thinking that it would be good to have a change from Sigis we tried a nearby restaurant called Laughing Gravy, (where did they get these names?). We ordered vegetarian pizza, chips and rice pudding. The pizza arrived fairly quickly; this was followed by the rice pudding, which tasted a bit strange. When I mentioned this I was told that it was because it was ‘special’. The chips were served half an hour later and were more than a little under-cooked. Half-cooked I would have said. We decided not to go there again. Unable to stop myself, I popped into the bakery shop opposite our hotel, the one with squeaky screen-door hinges, (similar to the hotel door in the Jacques Tati movie, ‘Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday’) and came away with a giant ring donut and something that gave the impression of being lemon meringue pie. It wasn’t long before I was too stoned to resist them. They were disgusting, especially the pseudo-lemon meringue pie. But they were sweet and I devoured every last crumb.
I woke up with the shits again. Not surprising really. We had breakfast at a restaurant just around the corner called ‘ The Place With No Name’. It was a vegetarian restaurant run by an Afghan-American called Sharif who, though born in the States to an American mother and Afghan father, had lived most of his life in Afghanistan, (2 fried eggs with nan please). He’d opened the restaurant six months previously after working as a Frigidaire electrician and learned to cook by watching the chefs in hotel kitchens, (and chai for two). He also ran his own garage where he worked as a mechanic, (and the bill please). We left before he’d bored us into total immobility.
Now fuelled by a substantial breakfast we hiked out of the city and into the countryside intending to visit Istalif, a village overlooking the Bagram Valley that was famous for its delicate blue pottery, (at least that’s what it said in one of the leaflets that I’d picked up in the Tourist Office). We walked for miles but, having no real map or sense of direction, we eventually had to admit that we had no idea where we were. A soldier stopped us and informed us that we had to walk on the left-hand side of the road, (although he didn’t say why), which we did, although we still didn’t find any signs to Istalif. We did come across a sign for Paghman and looked it up in our tourist brochure. It said: ‘At the foot of the Paghman Mountains, west of Kabul, 20mins by car, favourite summer outing place with many parks, woods and streams.’ It sounded quite nice so we headed in that direction. Before long a truck pulled up alongside us and a young guy leaned out and shouted, ‘Paghman? We had a lift. Clambering up into a cab made up of old, nailed together, packing cases, we squeezed ourselves in alongside two youngish men and a boy. The truck rumbled along, passing Qarga Lake, which looked almost empty, and into the Paghman Valley with the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush stretching away into the distance. Here we found ourselves in a very fertile area with green meadows separated by rows of silver birch and poplar. The village had a main street with shops and houses running along one side of the road and a steep hill behind. On the other side was a stream and beyond that were fields where wheat had recently been harvested.
The driver stopped outside his house and invited us in for chai. The large building he led us to was set in an orchard criss-crossed by gurgling irrigation ditches. We entered through a huge wooden door, climbed a flight of stairs and found ourselves in a semi-circular room containing only a bed and many pots of crimson pelargoniums. He went off to get the chai and when he returned, empty-handed, he motioned for me to follow him downstairs, which I did. I presumed that he was going to show me where the toilet was but he ushered me into a room with a sofa, (also full of pelargoniums) where he began to make obvious sexual advances. He chattered away in Dari, pointing at my crutch and then at his own and then made a half-hearted attempt at unzipping my jeans. At this point I yelled at him and he stopped and left the room. A silent old man shuffled in with a tray of chai and stale nan, placed it on the floor without looking at me and exited. As I sat and waited Janette was receiving the same treatment. He held her hands, told her that he loved her and made a feeble attempt at kissing her. She reacted in a similar way to me; she shouted loudly and then burst into tears. At this he gave up, came and got me and we all sat together drinking chai and chewing on nan as if nothing had happened. Before we had even finished eating and drinking I told him that we were leaving, there were no protestations, he showed us out and asked if we wanted a ride to Kabul. But we were both so freaked out by what had just happened all we could think about was getting away from him.
We walked up the hill and found ourselves in an old cemetery with an amazing view of the valley. The trees were in their autumn glory, the leaves in shades of yellow, red and orange and no sign of other people as we carried on down the other side. Coming upon a large house enclosed by a tall mud-brick wall, a small boy greeted us from the flat rooftop. He vanished and then suddenly appeared on the path next to us and was soon joined by three brothers and two sisters. They were very friendly and inquisitive, I guess that they didn’t get many foreigners wandering past their house in the woods. We took photographs of them with their smiling faces and ragged clothes. Following the path we passed other houses and frequently had to stop to talk to children. We met women carrying water and old men sitting in the sun who all greeted us with a ‘Salaam’. Unfortunately the general air of friendliness was temporarily blown away when a gang of young boys decided that they would use us as target practice and began to throw large stones. We tried to simply walk away but they persisted and, after being hit in the back, I lost my temper and yelled angrily at them. A nearby woman also began berating them in a piercing, croaky voice and they ran away, disappearing into the trees. We retraced our footsteps and came on to a dusty lane, which led us into the famous Paghman Gardens, apparently a popular weekend picnic spot for Kabul residents. Apart from us the place was deserted and peaceful. Here we stopped to eat some nan and smoke a spliff before heading back in the direction of the main road. Once more we received a great deal of attention from the local kids and took the photographs of those bold enough to come close to the strange, foreign visitors.
One of the children had told us that we could get a bus back to Kabul for 3Afghanis so we walked out of the village hoping to flag one down. A mile or so down the road we came upon a truck being loaded with bales of straw and, as the driver approached us, we realised that it was the same guy who had picked us up earlier. He was the last person we wanted to meet but he insisted on taking us to Kabul and pushed us both into the cab. After a quick discussion, Janette and I decided that we were far from happy with this arrangement and as soon as the guy was once more busy with the loading we jumped out of the truck and began walking, ignoring the shouts from behind us. Thinking that it wouldn’t be long before he caught up and not wanting anymore hassle I flagged down the first vehicle that came along, which was a pale brown Mercedes. It stopped and we climbed in.
We were now in the company of a well-to-do couple in their forties. The man, who drove, was an Afghani and his wife was Swiss. She had lived in Afghanistan for twenty years and said that she hated it but stayed to be with her husband. They spoke French to each other and passable English to us, although the man didn’t say much at all, he just drove. She invited us to have tea with them and we stopped at The Spozhmai Hotel, overlooking Qarga Lake. Feeling a little out of place, we sat on the patio of the ritzy restaurant and were served tea and real toast with marmalade by a white-coated waiter. At last I’d got the toast that I’d been craving. We talked about Afghanistan and the trip we were making and were shown a photograph of their ten-year-old daughter, all agreeing that she was very beautiful. After our refreshment we returned to the car and set off in the direction of Kabul but suddenly turned north on to the Mazar-I-Sharif road. We were informed that that we were taking a short detour to visit the last King of Afghanistan’s ‘meat farm’. This, as it turned out, translated as ‘private zoo’ and country retreat. In July, King Muhammed Zahir Shah had been deposed while out of the country by a group of young military officers and Afghanistan declared a republic. The house was locked up but we walked around the empty cages and saw, what we were told was the only railway in the country. This was a short stretch of line with no train or rolling stock and seemingly no apparent reason to be there except to fulfil some eccentric royal fantasy. The place was deathly quiet, so quiet that when a flock of birds flew overhead you could clearly hear the rustle of their wing feathers. We were driven back to Kabul and dropped off on Chicken Street right outside the Shabistan Hotel at around 5:00pm. Talk about an eventful day!
In the evening we visited ‘The Place With No Name’ twice. The first time it was full but the second visit found us dining on rice and vegetables with nan and mast followed by mast and fresh fruit. As we were sipping our chai a German man came to our attention. He was tall and gangly with a handlebar moustache and was speaking in a deep, slurred voice to one of the kitchen workers. His name was Binno and he was stuck in Afghanistan because his passport had been confiscated due to him overstaying his visa. Now he was stuck in a situation where he couldn’t apply for an exit visa because he didn’t have a passport and the authorities were threatening to put him in Kabul Prison. He appeared a little crazy and dangerous and spent the whole time we were there rolling opium and hash into small balls and swallowing them with mouthfuls of chai. Sharif had a go at him for using his place to get wasted and for regularly crashing out on the table and they had a ridiculous argument that made very little sense because Binno was completely off the planet. Eventually things calmed down and, the entertainment over, we left for Monsieur Hulot’s bakery and a paper bag full of donuts.
The following morning we woke up at 6:30 and it was cold so we smoked a spliff and went back to sleep for another two hours when I dragged myself across the freezing street to buy warm, freshly baked chocolate brownies from the bakery and mandarins from the fruit sellers barrow. These we ate huddled in our sleeping bags followed by more spliffs. We slipped back into dreamland until lunchtime when we finally made it out to the Afghan Meli Bank and changed a 1000Afghani note for smaller denominations. No one ever had change in Kabul. Next was a visit to ‘The Place’ for lunch of plain rice with butter followed by pancakes, it was very nice but took so long that we decided to return to Sigis for our evening meal. Our obsession with food was becoming more and more ridiculous. It was definitely time to be moving on but we were unavoidably stuck here for two more days. We spent the best part of that day holed up in the hotel attempting to get through the considerable lump of hash that we still had left before we had to leave for Pakistan on the Monday. The day was a blur. Watching the movie of Chicken Street with its comings and goings from the hotel room window. The regular creak of the bakery screen-door. The overstuffed shops of antiquities, camel hangings, carpets and dusty bric-a-brac with their smiling, bearded and turbaned proprietors ushering in any Westerner who showed the slightest interest. Little boys running past, propelling old bicycle wheel rims with sticks. Young ruddy-faced conscript soldiers in ill-fitting, itchy looking uniforms. A trip out to buy cake and biscuits. In the evening we ate some dope and visited Sigis for more food, wonderful vegetable soup and banana milk shake. We tripped out to the Beatles ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ soundtrack. Time slipped away from us and it felt as if we had been there for days but it was only eight o’clock when we arrived back at the Shabistan, overfed and completely wasted.
It was Sunday morning. The hotel boy brought chai up to our room. After an apple for breakfast we walked out into the dazzlingly bright sunlight and strolled along to the Peace Hotel where I’d been told I could change US Dollars for Pakistani and Indian Rupees. It was all very melodramatic. We met the guy, who really looked the part with his moustache and greasy, grey suit, in the hotel courtyard and were shown down a sunless alleyway into a dark, pokey little room where we sat either side of a table and exchanged our banknotes. The deal done we stood up, shook hands and parted company. The transaction was illegal but the rate of exchange was high enough to make the risk of smuggling the currency into Pakistan and India worthwhile. At a roadside stall I part-exchanged ‘Straw Dogs’ for ‘A’ by Andy Warhol, bought three-quarters of a pound of ginger biscuits from a bakers shop and returned to the Shabistan to see if there was any hot water for a shower. We spent the whole afternoon smoking and waiting for someone to fire up the boiler but it never happened. The kitchen boy came up to collect the teapots and glasses and to present us with the 12Afghani chai bill. I gave him a 50Afghani note and he was gone for about an hour changing it. Munchie-hungry again, we went around the corner to ‘The Place’ and had a veggie-cheeseburger each. It was delicious but I couldn’t understand why it took so very long to make, what were these people actually doing in that little kitchen? Perhaps they were as stoned as we were. We never found out. We returned to the hotel, consumed more dope and, with our appetites still not satisfied, set off for Sigis for one last time. There we spent a couple of stoned hours stuffing our faces and listening to the sounds before returning to the Shabistan to pack our bags for the morning and use up the very last of the hash.