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2. On the road to Kabul
A reconnaissance to Turkey and Greece
In the early seventies, going to India and Nepal was extremely hip. I first discovered this when I hitchhiked from Holland to Italy in 1973 at the age of 17. The visit to Turkey and Greece a year later was a natural follow up.
Probably by having a curious mind and not feeling at home in rural southern Holland, amplified by a disappointing teenage love affair during the parties celebrating the end of high school, I decided to go far.
Turkey and Greece in 1973 turned out to be only a reconnaissance trip. There were no guidebooks at the time. Favorite places, low budget accommodation, where to eat and things to do, was transferred by word of mouth or just found by exploring the area using common sense and a bit of luck. A travel plan could change overnight depending who you met on the road. Of course I sent my (ex) high school sweet heart a card from Turkey. Well done and a long distance at the time, but she did not mention this when I visited her a few months after the trip.
I hitchhiked through Germany, catching a ride from a German business man driving nearly 200 km per hour, a high speed for that time, on the oldest Autobahn of Germany from Stuttgart to Munich built by the Nazis in the thirties and still with too many relatively sharp bents. In Austria I had trouble getting rides but got through with a day delay. In Lubjana I stayed in a student apartment complex for free. This I picked up on the road and at the time in socialist Yugoslavia higher education was well funded. In Zagreb I got a ride from an Iranian truck driver to Istanbul. This road was called the death road. Big four axle trucks, packed family cars with Turkish families and slow agricultural traffic all shared the same standard road, just one lanes each way and no separation. Hitchhiking through Yugoslavia was known to be hard work and you relied on foreign traffic and the trick was to get long rides. The Iranian driver had an impressive 16 wheel Mack truck with a 20 gearshift (double clutch of 4 by 5). He insisted we slept together on a wooden board in his narrow cabin. Not wanting to loose the ride but displaying passive protest we bundled up together as if we were a couple sleeping together but nothing else happened that night, except that I didnít sleep much. The rest of the trip was pleasant, he cooked Iranian rice dinners together with other Iranian truck drivers of his convoy and asked me to sleep outside in the bushes the next night accepting some cultural diversity and wanting to sleep well as well. His convoy was part of the Shah of Persia trade route to Iran for importing Western goods from the US, mostly through Rotterdam. I did not understand his insistence on sharing the cabin the first night. Was he attracted by my long blond and curly hair or is this simply hospitality mixed with personal semi-platonic contact in return?
In Istanbul everyone talked about the very high risk in smoking hashish as you would get long prison terms. This was a big change from 2-3 years earlier when this was tolerated but it seems the USA was pressing the Turkish government to enforce this in exchange for military aid.
Here I joined the company of two French physics students who planned to go to Izmir and the Greek Islands. I missed the excavations of Troje near Izmir as no one mentioned this. In Izmir I bought an embroidered Turkish cloth for US$ 60 which was over half my remaining budget. Most memorable was the Island of Samos, a very quiet place. There were only a few student hostels, a lively night terrace by the harbor, peaceful bays surrounded by limestone cliffs for swimming frequented by few tourists. The massive invasion of summer tourists to Greece in the middle seventies hadnít started yet.
Western tourists in those days were called "travelers", being on the road for weeks or months. Many were from the USA and some were en route to India or even Australia, mostly overland. To be qualified a "hippie" you needed the dress right. Most claimed to be a "student" but I got the impression they just dropped out of school and did not dare to tell their parents yet.
On the way home, the journey from Athens to Holland was again different than planned. In Athens I bought a boat ticket to Brindisi with my last money and would have to hitch hike back to Holland through Italy avoiding the long hitch through Yugoslavia. Hanging around at the student travel agency looking for company, I met a Dutch student couple who returned from Israel by plane. They were stopping over in Greece not planning to use the remainder of the ticket to Amsterdam as they wanted to stay a few weeks and the ticket only allowed one day. They offered me the ticket with the male name for free. Extremely happy, I gave my boat ticket to a German who had to travel overland using the very long two lane "death road" through Yugoslavia, and he was very happy with the shortcut by boat and through Italy with good highways. I didnít know if using the air line ticket would work so I was a bit premature, also because I never boarded a plane before, but in those days you were suppose to help each other and the boat ticket to Italy was too precious not to be used.
At the Olympic Airways counter, the check-in only looked at the ticket and did not request a passport for identification, similarly at the passport control they did not ask for the ticket. Traveling by plane on regular flight in those days was different. Passengers were mostly neatly dressed businessmen and rarely women and chartered flight were still uncommon. I arranged the second ticket having a female name to be given to an English girl. She was a real traveler with a trendy hippie dress and was already on the road for months. Her plans were to go back to England but her reasons were vague and she looked a bit frail. The two of us were easily spotted in the plane by a very different dress and young age. I still wonder why Olympic Airways let us board the plane. In Amsterdam we departed at the Central Station. After my question, "Where will you be staying for the night?", I was about to suggest her my brotherís place, she mumbled, "I have some friends here", and started walking towards the Red Light District.
In 1974 I decided to go to Iran after switching from a Physics study in provincial Nijmegen to Geology in world city Amsterdam. I only did the first half year as student strikes hit my department the second half year and taking classes was virtually impossible. I joined the protest actions as one of the sympathizers. There was not much else to do except to study perhaps Herbert Marcuse who was very popular among the student revolt movement of the sixties for his belief that we should mistrust the current industrial society.
"In One Dimensional Man (1964), Marcuseís most popular book, he argued for a sexual basis to the social and political repression in contemporary America; the book made him a hero of New Left radicals and provided a rationale for the student revolts of the 1960s in the United States and Europe. His other works include Reason and Revolution (1941),Eros and Civilization (1955), An Essay on Liberation (1969), and Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972)."
As the only person without fear of height, I fixed a large red strike flag and a large cloth with the word "Occupied" on the high chimney of the main heating system. Both were visible for weeks from a far distance until they were ripped off by the wind.
In early May of 1974 I decided there was not much point in staying, moved my stuff to a new room in Amsterdam and exchanged the last NLG 1000 of my student grant into US $340. This would be sufficient for a long trip to the Middle East.
May 20th I left, telling my parents I was going to Iran or Iraq, countries my artist brother visited last year. He warned me for harassment when hitchhiking as he had one bad experience in Southern Iran near Shiraz being harassed by a few men.
This time hitchhiking to Yugoslavia went smoothly but the students I stayed with in Lubjana were not very hospital. In Zagreb, at a truck stop, I again found an Iranian Mack truck driver and persuaded him to give me a ride to Istanbul but this took some insistence. I had no problems this time as he was a very polite and a quiet man with no command of English or German. At the Bulgarian border I met an Italian in his mid-twenties, Antonio, who was traveling with Iranians in two sedan cars and I saw him again at the Turkish border. Here he recommended I join him as my truck would take several hours to do the paper work. A few hundred more kilometers and after 5 days we reached Istanbul.
In Istanbul we parted from the Iranians and they promised we would meet up in 3 days time. Of course this did not work out and we should have insisted on staying with them in the same hotel. Antonio got very upset, especially because I trusted their promises. He had been to Afghanistan before and knew how difficult it was to get long rides.
We visited the oldest hamman of the city, a Turkish bath from Byzantium times, and I still remember the white towels, dim light within gray thick walls and the two Turkish staff giving massages. The Golden Horn harbor and main bazaar were busy places, giving us the first Oriental flavor. The Aya Sofia, now a mosque but previously a Greek Orthodox Church from the 7th century AD, with a floor covered mostly with Persian carpets, provided the first non-Christian spiritual experience.
At he Golden Horn harbor you could see the recently built giant hanging bridge crossing the Bosporus, which was pointing us into an eastern direction. This marked the cultural divide between Europe and the Middle East and crossing it felt like entering a totally different world. Last year I stayed only at the edge in western Turkey and this time the effect was much larger as I would go deep into the Asia.
With the company of Antonio, I decided that hitchhiking would be reasonably safe. Standing outside Istanbul, he was again complaining about the lost ride to Iran in his expressive Italian way but soon we got the first short ride. Ankara was still 200 km and we waited for hours until the bus from Istanbul to Ankara stopped and decided to pay the fare.
In the bus, a young, well dressed, macho Turkish man with a big black mustache showed me pictures of his boy friend, a similar Turkish man, simultaneously displayed the typical sign of holding the thumb against three fingers up in the air confirming the attractiveness of his boy-friend. Having a boy friend before marriage was seen as normal behavior like we have girl friends. Males walking together and holding hands you see everywhere in this part of Asia, first in Greece and Turkey and all the way to India and Nepal. I never really found out the true meaning of "boy-friend". It was not the lack of access to women but it seems that Oriental cultures are a lot easier on touching, sharing the same bed and intimate friendship. This could explain the innocent behavior of the Iranian truck driver in Yugoslavia last year that insisted we should share the cabin at night. In Middle Age Europe this was also very common but it disappeared in our Golden Eras, presumably first during the extremely religious Calvinistic and later during bourgeois Victorian times. Even now, you see Arab world leaders walking arm in arm, in Europe only done by women and children.
Somewhere along the road I picked up the romantized book of Mary Renault on Alexander the Great, "The Persian Boy". This was a popular book on the road to India. It describes the conquers of Alexander seen through the eyes of his young eunuch servant lover and although Alexander was a true macho, if not a demon according to story tellers in Iran, he tended to have a preference of sleeping with his favorite boy. It was not until Turkmenistan he started to sleep with a woman but he was always loyal to his favorite boy.
We started talking to a blond Turkish student who spoke good English and lived in Ankara. He invited us to his family house and we were treated to a very good dinner and a bed, a good example of hospitality so common in those days. Around midnight, our stomachs started rumbling and we both had diarrhea. I was surprised by the extremes in Turkish society, this family looked very European enhanced by the blond hair. The busy and noisy streets with dark haired people of originally Turkmenistan descent over a 1000 years ago confirmed that we were definitely in Asia.
The next day, we were on the road to Sivas and Erzerum in Eastern Turkey. Half way to Sivas an old big black American car stopped and took us to Sivas. The Turkish man was well dressed with a heavy moustache like many Turks have. He spoke no English and was very silent. At an unexpected police roadblock near Sivas he got very nervous and after checking the papers he was arrested. The policeman in charge explained us that the car was stolen in Adana on the South coast and that taking European hitchhikers was a well-known trick for car thieves in trying to elude the police.
In Sivas we met four Belgians in their broken Volkswagen Van. Their second van was returning to Belgium to pick up a new engine. I found this a bit far for shopping for a new engine but they believed it. At night they showed us that sniffing some sort of chemistís alcohol they bought in a local store could make you high, a substitute for hashish and possibly hard drugs. Indeed something happen but I just remember the bad smell and the anxiety among the Belgians. In Sivas I visited a hospital for a smallpox scratch, as this was mandatory in India. My traveling destiny was now set.
We hitchhiked to Erzerum, the most Eastern town of Turkey. Here we took the bus to Teheran. Getting rides to the first major town past the Iranian border was very difficult due to lack of traffic in the desolate terrain. We passed Mount Ararat, an over 5000 m high volcano, assumed to be the mountain where Noahís Ark landed. This parable may have some truth as around 5000 BC the Bosporus was formed by the rising Mediterranean Sea and the 200 meter sea level difference filled up the Black Sea with a rate of 10 meters per year causing a massive move of farmers living along the fertile shores. Near the mountainous Iranian border the road changed into a dirt road. There were stories that local tribes would throw a sheep in front of European cars or trucks and demand heavy compensation for the killed animal.
Teheran was a big modern city with some interesting bazaars. You could sense the heavy censorship as the secret police of the Shah could be anywhere and a conversation with a hint to politics, so popular in those days in Europe, was quickly rejected. Here I had Iranian beer served in 0.7 liter bottles that was sold everywhere but this was a strong culture clash even for a modern Muslim country as alcohol is prohibited by the Koran and Iran was clearly under heavy US influence. Hashish was strictly prohibited and you risked the death penalty when caught with a significant amount. We met two Iranian men who offered us a grill dinner consisting of roasted cow brains, a very soft and not very tasty dish.
To the Afghan border
The Afghan border is close to the eastern Iranian town of Mashed and we planned to hitchhike the 1000 km. The first ride was to the Caspian Sea town of Bandar Shah from two well-educated middle aged Iranians. They were not married, as marrying is expensive in Iran due to the large dowry to be paid by men. Ironically, in India, the womanís family pays the dowry but in Muslim countries a man can have up to four women and women are too some extent treated as a manís asset. Note the English joke that if you want to know if a word in English is female of male, anything men would like to possess is female like e.g. cars and boats. Many Iranian men could not afford a woman of their own status but they had a system of a shared "mistress", a woman a few men would share and pay for in return for spending a full night at regular times. It sounded like they got value for their money, aimed at intimacy, and even more important, the feeling of having a normal relationship with a woman, unlike the Western system of spending only minutes for surrogate sex. They said that this system has been around for centuries. Indeed I did see it twice in Nepal. Married Sherpa Mountain guides who were considered as being rich, had one or two "girl-friends" or mistresses in the high mountain hamlets in exchange for gifts like silk scarves. This is considered, among men, as perfectly acceptable and I saw it was encouraged on one occasion by the girlís parents. It seems to display a sharing of wealth, not macho behavior. Richness in such cultures is shared with others, certainly with men and to perhaps also with women, resembling a "taking care of" as also preached by Mohammed after he saw so many impoverished women being harassed by men in Medina.
In Bandar Shah we visited the Shahís park-like summer resort which is open to the public and touched the water of the Caspian Sea, a strange feeling as this was a land-locked sea, very far away from home. Also the land in this area was very green to my surprise and the weather was cloudy with occasional rain. This area is the green belt of Iran, separated from the dry desert area to the South by the East-West Elboers mountain range you cross between Teheran and Bandar Shah going North.
The next ride we got from a small Deux Chevaux, a popular small two cylinder 450 cc car and the cheapest at the time, that was already packed with a young family, a young men with his wife and two children but the driver insisted offering a ride. At the next gas station he stopped and he asked us to pay for gasoline in return for the ride which took a while to comprehend as he spoke no English. This is a common habit in the Middle East but we had no idea at the time, bluntly refused and our driver could not negotiate with us. Perhaps he only wanted us to share it but we were sure he asked for the full amount. After hours of waiting, we had to take the bus to Mashed, as hitchhiking was again hopeless.
Mashed is "the city" for buying Persian carpets and the blue Turkoise semi-precious stones. Here I got a high fever as the Smallpox vaccine on my left arm from a week earlier in Sivas developed into a classical Smallpox wound. For the next 24 hours I had a high fever and I still remember the gray high ceilings of the simple hotel room. I now realized that as a child I never received a proper Smallpox vaccine. I never understood why I had no Smallpox scar and my motherís reply to inquiries was that the Belgium doctors told her I was already immune to Smallpox.
The Afghan border is less than two hundred km and we took a minibus to the border. Behind the Iranian border there was a zone of several km of no manís land resembling a war zone. The Afghan customs building was very simple and Afghani soldiers with primitive rifles guarded it. We now entered medieval Afghanistan, our prime target.
To Herat and Kandahar
Herat is a relatively small town with mostly dirt roads. Although the tribes living here are related to Iranians and their language is similar, the cultural difference is very large.
Women have a different position in Afghanistan. In Herat you first noticed the very common usage of the Burka for women, a dress that covers the entire body and hides the face behind a net such that you cannot see the eyes. I noticed this already at the border where an Afghan man displayed his passport to the customs and this had pictures of his two wives with covered faces. Only poor women who could not afford a Burka and female beggars who need to attract attention, showed their face. This is the first time I saw so many beggars and most were women.
Afghanistan is the Walhalla for hashish and Antonio soon made contact with an Afghan man promising us first grade quality. I never smoked hashish or even cigarettes before but Antonio was here for the second time and he was the expert. We tried it in our dimly lit primitive hotel room with no windows. Antonio kept on saying, "I feel something" after another deep inhalation but finally gave up. I could not comment and was coughing after every puff. The man must have sold us real shit. The next day we found a better dealer and we got high easily, not an unpleasant feeling.
Travelers concentrated in specific hostels and restaurants and we met several going to and coming from India. Two Swiss nurses, one blond and one brunette were an exceptional female presence. They were neatly dressed, very polite and of course very bourgeois. Other girls wore the typical hippie dress and they fitted better in the current fashion trend.
After switching to a traveler hotel, we met a Spanish hippie in our dormitory. He spent nine months in India and was wearing the Indian style clothes with long curly and dull, unwashed hair, the very hip dress code for that time. He looked a bit beaten up but to us he was very interesting. The next morning he came back to the dormitory with tired but shiny eyes and a big smile, telling us he got laid by the blond Swiss girl. This made him even more interesting and the Swiss girl quickly became less bourgeois. Later on I found out that especially girls who had several sex partners along the road to India suffered from untreated venereal diseases.
One evening we were invited by an Afghani man to attend an Afghan wedding of the young son of an important man in town. Though I never found out who this person was but possibly he is now one of the WarLords of Afghanistan. We entered a big house with a large enclosed courtyard. A band was playing Afghani songs and the male guests in the courtyard put dozens of tape recorders in front of the band. The second rank visitors like our host were watching from the upper floor balconies surrounding the courtyard. A very young boy, around 12 years old, dressed in white was the groom. I did not see the bride or any women and they had their own party somewhere else. Another example showing how different the Afghan Medieval culture is from the other, modern Middle Eastern countries.
After a week we left for the 12 hour ride to Kandahar, half way to Kabul. We were warned not to hitchhike in the barren land, not just because it was unsafe but you could be dropped off anywhere and stay there for days without food or water in the hot dessert. The bus ride was inexpensive and the two bus drivers were wearing sandals made out of car tires. Their feet had thick corns with deep cracks and they needed a treatment with pumice stone you could buy on the local markets. We traveled with other travelers including the two Swiss nurses. A Brit of around 25 who went to India before, had a lot of information on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. These were the best persons to meet as they were living guidebooks. He was very travel wise, told us that on his last trip to India he sold his passport, bought a liter of Hash Oil, ensured he smelled dirty and looked filthy, and asked the British Embassy in Delhi for repatriation. Customs did not dare to touch or even check him and he sold the Hash oil in England at a significant profit. Even after repaying the expensive repatriation using a full economy plane ticket, he could travel again. He now traveled with a seventeen-year old boy, just 2 years younger than I was and so far the youngest I met next to myself. Most travelers were in their mid-twenties and claimed they were students but most already dropped out of school.
Kandahar is a desert town with many low clay and brick building along dusty roads. Here we had the best hashish ever in the middle of the street. Afghanis offered us to try a water pipe with a large amount of pure hash. The smoke was cool and clean so it did not make me cough and it quickly made me high. Kandahar was not very interesting and our group only stayed for a day. Kabul was another 10 hours by bus.
At the time there were only a few main asphalt roads in Afghanistan. The Americans built the southern road, from Herat to Kabul, and the Russians the norhtern road, from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif. Along the road to Kabul, young boys were herding camels and I was glad I wasnít hitchhiking in this rough terrain. The sparse traffic mainly consisted of trucks and buses. Trucks were outfitted with colorful displays also common in Pakistan and India. Only the buses of the most luxurious bus lines were rather new and had the same quality of those in Iran and Turkey but most buses and other vehicles were badly beaten up.
The capital of Afghanistan is a large town with a mix of traditional culture like the eye-catching women dressed in Burkas and modern girls wearing blue miniskirts and white blouses but the modern girls were a minority. Perhaps 1% or less of the women dresses in Western style but these are mostly from the small proportion of middle to upper class. Ironically, woman beggars donít use a Burka either. A McDonalds was present downtown and Coca-Cola was again the real stuff with new lids instead of the imitation with rusty lids found in Herat and Kandahar.
We all checked into a low budget hotel for travelers and shared a mixed dormitory. Here an older German man, probably in his thirties, well tanned and already on the road for several months, had an irritating voice and presence and clearly was not seen as a hippie but a deranged hard working German. Within a day he and the brunette Swiss nurse shared his single bed. A few days later they already had the typical "husband and wife" quarrels and we kept at a distance.
June is a warm month in Afghanistan and as the shower in the hotel was primitive, we decide to go swimming in a lake outside Kabul. Unaware of the cultural difference we put on our skimpy bathing suite. The blond Swiss girl looked very sexy after the swim in her netted bikini with visibly large nipples. This turned out to be a favorite spot for Afghani men for watching undressed Western tourists as several men were observing us from a nearby hill.
I took a walk in the desert and noticed a small scorpion lifting its poisonous tail towards us. I covered it with a towel, trapped it with the inside of a matchbox and closing it slowly by sliding the other box along the inner box. I put the matchbox in my rucksack and did not look at it for days, feeling guilty for the capture. The scorpion must have died a few days later and completed dehydrated. I still have it.
On Friday night the American Embassy had its weekly drinks and we went along with a few Americans. Inside an American crewcut, probably a CIA agent as this was a very uncommon length of hair in those days, was showing us magazines in Russian on suburban American life. Outside, near the pool a big joint was passed around. In the seventies, the USA managed to ban hashish in Iran and Turkey and tried to do the same in Afghanistan but did not even succeed in their own embassy. On the way back, we got completely lost as we were all stoned from the embassy hashish and finally were taken back by a taxi.
Afghanistan struck me as an agricultural society based on very simple tribal laws. The country has 55 tribes within the 10 major cultural groups and a multitude of languages. Elders rule the tribes and every tribe is like an independent state.
Already in 1974 Afghanistan started to become overpopulated resulting in people looking for work and a tiny fraction turning bandits. If only 1 in a 1000 of the people in a country turns to corruption or stealing, you have a major problem but this did not happen at that time. The emphasis was still on sharing and honesty explaining their hospitality. The common Western behavior of stinginess and greed is unheard of. I had the feeling that cheating and dishonesty was considered a capital sin.
Hippies trying to buy hashish in large quantities for shipping home were warned to be careful as quarrels over deals could result in death when this went out of hand and this was not uncommon as the Western dealers were definitely not to be trusted being true "freaks". The men I met were very friendly, inviting and completely honest and I never had any problems except the hassle of bargaining for nearly everything but this is more driven by economics. I did not think they took religion very seriously and their habit of dressing women in a Burka was based on something else. Even in rural Spain, Italy or Greece you still have the habit of married women dressing in black.
Afghanistan in 2001
The 11 September 2001 attack by Bin Ladenís Al Quíida organization must have disgusted most Afghanis. At one stage even the Taliban realized that this was the limit given their tribal laws of good and evil. Life is very simple, as a guest you must respect their culture and be honest. Disrespecting the basic unwritten laws may be a capital offense. The 1000 Mullahs decided that Bin Laden betrayed their hospitality and asked him to leave. This was enhanced by the intermingling of the Arab Warriors with internal affairs and daily life displaying fanatic enforcement of Islamic Law. Even the Taliban disliked them despite being the core of their army. Following their tribal laws, they should have put Bin Laden to trial, and if found guilty, he would be executed. The preferred scenario would be that if found guilty, he would be delivered to the International Court in The Hague.
At one stage it seemed that even the USA understood this but when the bombs started falling a month after 11 September, trying to let the Northern Alliance take over, any hope for a peaceful internal solution for Afghanistan and squashing terrorism using international law was thrown out.
What will now happen to Afghanistan after 10 years of severe problems? At least the Taliban brought order so needed after 6 years of the Mujahidin rule causing total chaos. The new disorder in their society will enable corruption and bandit behavior. War lords sensing huge amounts of development aid money may take over and demand a slice of the pie. Bandits will chase small booty, already resulting in the killing of several Western Journalists. The analogy to Yugoslavia is about to happen.
Ironically, a similar number of innocent civilians died in Afghanistan as a result of US bombs in late 2001 as in the terrorist attack on September 11th.