Monday, February 1, 2010

Leaving Afghanistan

The drive from Kabul to Jalalabad took us down through the spectacular but dangerous Kabul Gorge (also called the Mahipar Pass).
Built by the Americans in the 1960's, this is an amazing engineering feat during which the road drops down more than a mile from a freezing 7,000 ft (2,000 m) to a subtropical 1,700 ft (500 m) in only a few km of ziz-zag road carved and tunnelled into vertical cliffs.
The sides of the gorge are so high and steep that you can't see the road below as you hair-pin your way down, and there's no Armco, only a crumbling low stone wall in places. The 100 m high Mahipar Waterfalls were part way down but taking our eyes off the road, even for a second, was not an option.
[It was along this very section of the gorge, that General Elphinstone's entire British Army of 16,000 people, which included soldiers, their wives, children and followers was wiped out by Afghan tribesmen in 1842, with the exception of one man, Dr. W. Brydon, who was spared to tell the British of the destruction of their forces.
Retribution quickly followed and, "infuriated by the sight of the bleaching skeletons that thickly lined the roadway", a new British army entered Afghanistan and took its revenge. But the British had paid bitterly for their mistake in occupying Afghanistan and "the bones of a slaughtered army paved the road that led to Kabul". See this article.]

The road through Kabul Gorge to Jalalabad, devoid of traffic in 1974

The stunning photo below of the Kabul Gorge road, taken by Hajji Ahmad Shah Nasrat from a similar location in 2007, (orignal can be seen here), and shows more graphically the road tacked to the sides of the gorge. Now packed with traffic, there were only 3 vehicles in 1974 but more than 50, nose to tail, on the same section of road in 2007.

The same section of the Kabul Gorge Road full with traffic in 2007.
(Panoramio photo courtesy of Hajji Ahmad Shah Nasrat)
The gorge is visible on Google Earth at 34° 33.531'N, 69° 30.129'E (the location where the photo was taken) and from about 4km eye altitude, but the image is currently in shadow so the road is difficult to make out.

Then watch this current day video of the journey up the gorge (warning: file size 47MB) and look out for crazy overtaking manoeuvres.


After an hour or so of tunnels and steep hairpins the road flattens out and you realise that you have left Kabul and it's cold climate behind. Suddenly it's warm and sunny and everything's green. One last tunnel through the mountains and there are palm trees, orange groves and green fields everywhere. We are in Jalalabad and the raging Kabul River has become a flat lake.
We found a small hotel, the Spinchar Hotel with a palm fringed garden to camp in.
Warm campsite in Jalalabad, New Years Eve 1974
Next morning we did some maintenance on the Land Rover, walked around the shops without coats on, bought some dried fruit and played cards until midnight. It was New Years Eve.

Leaving Afghanistan
New Years Day 1975 and we were leaving Afghanistan after a month of really enjoyable travelling and sight-seeing. We had seen and experienced things few other people will ever have the opportunity to do, especially now, but there was one last hurdle to jump.
We set off for the border in warm sunny conditions, stopping regularly to top up Mike's water. After a while his water pump jammed completely and we were stuck. We didn't find a replacement pump in Kabul, and with no water pump the engine would soon overheat, so we had no other option than to tow their Transit to the border and on to Peshawar in Pakistan. There they could get it fixed.
Export Controls
When we got to the border post at Torkham with Mike in tow, we had to negotiate all the formalities in tandem. To ensure we weren't exporting anything illegal, the border guards insisted on searching the Land Rover. They didn't know what they were looking for, or what they found, and one of them opened a box and held up its contents with a confused expression. But just how do you explain to a burly Afghan border guard what a box of tampons is for? Anyway after a while we twigged and offered him a small bottle of shampoo. He gleefully accepted our gift and the search was over. Round one to us.
The Visa Problem, months ain't months
We arrived in Afghanistan on 1 December 1974. We were leaving on 1 January 1975, exactly one month later in accordance with our visas, or so we thought because the visas were written in arabic script.

But when we were getting our passports checked, the Afghan customs officer said "your visa is for 30 days and you've been here 31 days", (our months and theirs are apparently of different lengths), "you'll have to return to Kabul to get your visas extended". Well we certainly didn't want to do that, up through all those mountains with Mike in tow, so we considered taking a hard line and arguing our case, but the thought of a stay in one of their decaying jails was a bit daunting. Just then the customs post was inundated by Afghans from a bus wanting to cross the border the other way, and wilting under their relentless pressure he shrugged his shoulders and passed us through. Call this one a draw.
We had made it, almost.
Border Crossing, the final frontier
In Afghanistan they drive on the right. In Pakistan they drive on the left. The border posts are about 100 metres apart and in that 100 metres of no-mans land, all vehicles have to somehow change from driving on the right to the left or vice versa. With trucks, buses, donkey carts, and our Land Rover towing a Ford Transit, all trying to change sides from both directions it was a bit of a free-for-all. Some people changed sides immediately, some stayed on their side until reaching the other border post, some didn't know what to do. Well after about 1/ 2 an hour of swearing, horns blaring and weaving in and out we managed to make it unscathed to the other side. Game, Set and Match.
It was finally over
So our month long, very enjoyable visit to Afghanistan was over. All that was left to do now was to tow Mike and Sally over the Kyber Pass, and negotiate the tribal North West Frontier province to Peshawar.
But that, as they say, is another story.


During our travels through Afghanistan, we saw mosques and shrines, minarets and monuments, mud walled towns and ancient sports, ice and snow, orange groves and palm trees, valleys and mountain passes, we were both enthalled and challenged, but all in a spirit of surprising friendliness and safety.
After visiting so many beautiful mosques, shrines and monuments in Afghanistan, it's hard to understand how a culture that was capable of conceiving and constructing such magnificent buildings can be languishing under turmoil, destruction and in-fighting. You would think that the Afghan people should be able to resurrect, with a bit of outside help, the culture and spirit that enabled such pre-eminent developments to be accomplished.
Wars, invasions, insurgencies and internal instability are the corrosive elements preventing the re-establishment of a once proud nation, and it's a crying shame since Afghanistan is such a beautiful country, and the Afghans are such wonderful people.
We would love to make a return visit to Afghanistan because there are quite a few places we weren't able to see in a month, especially in winter, like the Minaret of Jam, the Band-e-Amir Lakes and Panshir Valley, but we're very apprehensive of what we would now find.
Quite apart from the destruction of buildings and infrastructure, and the dangerous relics of war left scattered across the countryside, what we fear most is that the people might have been changed by the decades of turmoil and no longer be the warm, welcoming people we met in 1974. Looking at pictures on the internet we now see a culturally impoverished nation, beggars when before there had been none, and an enforced westernisation of the country by foreign forces, however well intentioned.
This we would not like to see and fear it would ruin our memories of Afghanistan for ever.
Afghanistan, we will never forget it.



  1. Wow. That story is just stunning. Thank you for taking the time & preparation effort that obviously went into putting it all on the Internet.

  2. I don't know why but it made me sad to read this. I cannot imagine what Afghanistan might have been like back in 1974 - but what's happened to it now is so heartbreaking. I wish i could have visited it. I still wish I could, but with the conditions there now, I don't know if it's a wise idea. I'm sure you must've made it to Bamiyan

  3. A ripping read! Followed you across three years later. Just writing an account of the whole overland trip for my grandson, and you have jogged some very good memories. I'd forgotten how hassle-free Afghanistan was compared with the countries on either side.