We made it to the bus depot early and drank chai in a filthy, fly-ridden café with faded pictures of Russian lorries, roughly torn from old magazines, stuck to the walls. After purchasing apples and a large slab of fruit cake for the trip, we loaded our bags on top of a vehicle that didn’t look like it would make it to the end of the street, never mind the 400 mile trip to Kandahar. The bus was constructed from pieces of hammered-flat tin cans nailed to a wooden frame that sat on top of a lorry chassis with huge but worryingly worn-looking tyres. We departed an hour late and headed south-east on the Russian-constructed road that cuts across the south of the country through Farah and Helmand provinces.
The vehicle was jam-packed. Even the roof was piled high with an assortment of goods, including two women in jet-black burkhas and three goats that bleated unhappily all the way to Kandahar. There was no obvious suspension and the hard wooden bench seats quickly brought on maximum buttock-discomfort. For most of the day the landscape was vast and empty desert punctuated by an occasional mud-walled settlement or distant dark-tented nomad camp with camels and herds of fat-tailed, black sheep. I kept seeing mirages of faraway lakes shimmering in the heat waves. Our driver was a grim-faced, bearded Pashtun with a hooked nose, who held the steering wheel with a white-knuckled grip and stared straight ahead at the road as if in a trance. His assistant, a young boy of ten or eleven, periodically decanted water from a five gallon drum into a plastic funnel attached to a red rubber pipe, which carried it directly into the radiator. We drove for five uncomfortable hours without a break and only stopped at a remote, mud-walled chai-khana so that we could all relieve ourselves in the desert and the Afghans could roll out their mats and pray… probably that the bus would make it all the way to Kandahar. We sat in the sun drinking sweet chai and eating Pakistani-made, banana-cream biscuits, so old that they crumbled to fine dust in our mouths.
After a whole day of being tortuously jolted, jarred and bounced around, at 9:30pm the bus eventually rolled into Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, and we were dropped off on the outskirts at the Pamir Hotel. We presumed that this was a regular and mutually beneficial arrangement between the hotel manager and the driver. The building was large, airy and apparently empty apart from us and two other westerners who had traveled on the same bus. After a few minutes of friendly haggling over the price of 60Afghanis for a double room we agreed on 40Afghanis, approximately 48pence. Our room was very spacious with three beds, a sofa, coffee table, a single hard-backed chair plus a wardrobe and dresser. Ravenous after the long journey we located the dining room hoping to find some food but the only thing available was eggs. So we dined on fried eggs and stale, hard nan washed down with lots of chai.
Later, the other travelers, Suzie, an American and Don, a Canadian came to our room. We smoked some hash and swapped traveling tales but as we became more stoned Suzie started acting very weird. For no apparent reason she began doing yoga as if it was the most normal thing in the world to suddenly, in the middle of a conversation, begin contorting her body in front of us. Was she trying to impress us? If so she didn’t succeed. All she managed to do was make herself look bloody ridiculous and irritate the shit out of me. She was one of those strange creatures who was going to India to ‘find’ herself. I wanted to shout, “Look in the fucking mirror”, but I didn’t. It seemed to me that there wasn’t anything much worth finding. But I can be a cruel bastard at times. Eventually, around midnight, and to our enormous relief, they left and we were able to get some much-needed sleep.
Unfortunately we ran into them again at breakfast. We ordered salad, chips and chai and waited. And waited. The other couple had ordered sometime before us and Don was getting really angry at being made to wait for his food and was very off-hand with the waiter. He seemed to think that the Afghans were stupid, uncivilised people and I wondered why he hadn’t just stayed at home. The waiter, with a wonderful air of diffidence, floated above his arrogance and rudeness and soon enough the breakfast was served. Apparently the hotel didn’t keep a stock of food on the premises, (we still appeared to be the only guests) but sent a boy down to the bazaar to buy in whatever was ordered, so although the service may have been slow at least the food was fresh. After eating we had good news, Don and Suzie had decided to move to the Peace Hotel, a place that was more used to catering to impatient westerners. I pitied the poor old Peace Hotel, but perhaps they were used to disrespectful dickheads who thought that they were somehow superior because they came from the affluent west. Anyway, we were relieved to see them go.
Having traveled south from Herat the weather in Kandahar was considerably hotter. We walked slowly into the city centre down long, quiet, tree-lined avenues of the usual one and two-storey mud-brick buildings. We needed to change some money and, as the black market exchange rate tended to be better than the banks, we asked around and found a guy in a shop who gave us 490Afghanis for 10US Dollars, (considerably more than we would have got in the bank). From beneath his jacket he produced a small bird, the size of a sparrow, with red jewelled eyes which at first glance appeared to be carved out of dark wood but turned out to be made of black hash. He also offered us cocaine, opium, heroin and morphine. As we made our way through the bazaar we found that there seemed to be a plentiful supply of all these commodities. The area around Kandahar was well known for its opium cultivation and smuggling across the Pakistani border had always been a traditional and respected occupation.
Finding ourselves quite lost in the bustling streets while looking for the post office, we were taken under the wing of a friendly, turbaned guy in baggy pants and western suit jacket. He led us along a gloomy alley given over solely to metal workers and, after deafening immersion in the din of hammers, we came out of the backstreets into a wide open, sunlit square. In front of us stood a large concrete building, prominent simply because it was constructed from concrete and all the surrounding structures were mud-brick. This was the post-khana, where we spent an hour buying stamps and watching while they were franked. At least we would be sure that the stamps wouldn’t be peeled off and reused, which (according to an oft-repeated traveler’s warning) often (or maybe occasionally) happened. Back in the centre we came across the ‘Your Bakery’ (Apple Pie and Frish Eggs) where we bought two apple pies and two doughnuts and were given free samples of biscuits. This shop was obviously set up to appeal to western dope smokers, it was full of irresistible sweet munchies, we returned later and came out with more pies, ginger biscuits and half a fruit cake. I never thought to ask if it was all ‘frish’, like the eggs. Food was gradually becoming an obsession, no doubt due to our increased cannabis consumption. Needing to book on a bus to Kabul, we visited a couple of offices but we couldn’t make ourselves understood. Either that or they just couldn’t be bothered with us. Finally we came upon the Saidkhan Taransport Bus Company who said that for 90Afghanis each they would pick us up outside the Pamir Hotel at 6:00am the following day and we would arrive in Kabul at 2:00pm. It sounded too good to be true… and of course it was!
Hot and dirty, we returned to the hotel and made our way down the long, echoing corridors with their archways and small windows with illuminated dust particles floating in the shafts of bright sunlight, up to the flat roof where we had a full view of the city. We were joined by a diminutive, moustachioed man in a grubby blue kamiz shalwar, who seemed to appear out of nowhere like a friendly djinn. He had been practicing this silent, mysterious manoevre since we arrived and was, by now, extremely proficient at it. I couldn’t work out whether he was attentively awaiting any random requests we may have or was simply fascinated by us. Later we sat in the restaurant and had rice, vegetables, nan and chai (food again) and retired to our room to get an early night. Just as we were preparing for bed the little man appeared once more, carrying the hotel register which he asked us to sign. Perhaps he was the manager of this peculiarly empty hotel – we never found out. I struggled to convey to him that we needed to be up at 5:00 in the morning to catch the bus and he made a big thing of showing that he understood by repeating the word ‘Yes’ over and over and grinning almost reassuringly, but we weren’t totally convinced.