Thursday, July 1, 2010

Getting there and getting in

The year was 1974 and as a young, recently married couple we set out from the UK in a converted Land Rover to see the world. We'd bought a Series 2A LWB Land Rover the previous year and spent 18 months converting it to a motorhome and repairing or overhauling almost every moving part for the long and unknown trip ahead.
It must have been quite a good conversion because a German tourist complimented Janet on "her very beautiful bus". At least I think that's what he said.


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The fit out
Considering it was 36 years ago it was surprisingly well appointed. We designed and built a pop-top roof, which leaked at the corners, but only when it rained so that was all right.
We had a double bed, a stainless steel sink with an electric water pump and carbon filter to keep all the cryptosporidiums at bay, a gas cooker with oven, a 2 way gas and electric fridge, a portable toilet, a flued gas heater and plenty of cupboard space.
We built several fibreglass water tanks fitted under the front wings, and modified a full length roof rack to hold all our spares and jerry cans. Ironically, we had bought the roof rack second hand off a Land Rover that had just returned from Afghanistan.
Apart from a water heater and shower (we were POMs after all), we had it pretty well set up.
Electricals
In the electrical department, being an electronics engineer, I designed a capacitive discharge electronic ignition system, which also doubled as the inverter for my electric razor, a dual battery system and a fluorescent light inverter.
All of these were years before they became commercially popular, although I did fail to foresee the availability of solar panels, EPIRBs and mobile phones.
We also had a shortwave radio and a tape player (a modern Phillips cassette type, not an old fashioned 8-Track). The tape player greatly impressed the Afghans, and apparently the Pakistanis, who stole our tapes. The only other item that was stolen during our trip was our portable toilet, while we were in Kathmandu. Presumably someone in Nepal needed a new cooking pot.

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Getting There
We'd set out from England in September 1974 and spent 3-4 months around Europe and the middle east travelling through Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran before arriving, with some trepidation, at the Afghan border post on 1st December. That date was to be significant.
Prior warnings
We had been given lots of adverse advice regarding Afghanistan by people who "knew". It was a country where, we were told, people would throw bags of blood at your car and then accuse you of hitting their animals.
We were also advised that if you had an accident in Afghanistan you should head straight for the border, as you were automatically deemed to be guilty on the basis that if you hadn't been there, it would never have happened. Very sound logic.
But once we'd negotiated the interminable passport and customs "writings" in the rambling decaying buildings which passed for a border post, and completed the formalities in the "Public Health Office" (sic), we were in Afghanistan and surprisingly, our initial impressions were immediately favourable.
Contrary to all the "valuable"advice we'd received, presumably from people who had never been there, the Afghans were very friendly, welcoming, a bit reserved even, but never rude, aggressive or devious.
Far from the war-torn aggressive country we had been led to expect, the people were wonderful, sentiments I noted several times in our diary.
We saw no evidence to support the advice we'd been were given, (which in any case contravened Article 32 of the Afghan Constitution in which "Innocence is the Original State"), and maybe, after centuries of invasion and strife, the country was in a status of military equilibrium, which no one wanted to disturb, or maybe not, we couldn't tell.
Either way, it was safe. If felt safe, even on day one. In the month we were there we never felt threatened or intimidated in any way. Nothing was stolen and we were never harassed or knowingly ripped off. We enjoyed it, even the tough bits.
Perhaps the Afghanistan-Online website puts it best, if somewhat egotistically, when they claim:

"Afghanistan: The Friendliest Country in the World, Possibly the Universe."

The CIA website (yes, well I didn't know they had a public website either) provides a wealth of less interesting information about Afghanistan, such as: Length of Coastline: 0 km
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Afghanistan's neighbours

The sense of welcome and tolerance we felt in Afghanistan, however, was in complete contrast to the countries to the west, Iran and Turkey, where we were often the target of harassment, con-men and stone throwing youths. We really didn't like people in either country much, so the warnings about Afghanistan had been worrying.
People in Iran had said that going to Afghanistan would be like going back 1000 years (and we smiled to ourselves since we'd thought much the same thing when entering Iran). But perversely they were right, and how pleasant it proved to be.
Initial impressions
While its neighbours were aggressively striving, with only limited success, for western equivalence, and loosing their past is the process, Afghanistan was still delightfully old fashioned with donkey carts in the streets, camel trains, horse drawn taxis (called Tongas) covered in red pom-poms, mud walled buildings everywhere and happy people. It was like walking into a middle eastern Constable painting.
Jingling horse drawn Tongas in Herat, and a cold, dusty, interesting Afghan street, where no one bothered us

They also had good fresh food stalls, with paper bags made from folded up arabic newspapers, and banks and hotels, even if they were often just a tiny building with a small "Hotel" or "Bank" sign in the window. But their butchers shops are probably best not described here in detail, suffice to say that the kill of the day (sheep, camel, goat etc) was advertised by it's severed head being displayed outside the shop. Presumably you could also buy the head if you wanted to.

Fruit stall in Khulm
"Hotel" in a small village
Carpets "ageing" near the Kabul river

Minaret in Ghazni
Camping Arrangements
In most of Iran and Turkey there were no caravan parks or camp grounds, so we had to camp at police stations or in the walled grounds of big hotels for protection. If we didn't we were rounded up by police and taken there anyway with threats of dire consequences and fingers drawn across the throat.

In Afghanistan we could camp near public buildings or small hotels, at minimal cost and without hassle, because they wanted us to not because we had to. We got the impression that they actually enjoyed having tourists around. It made them proud to have us there and to keep us safe. We were not seen as just the source of foreign exchange.
Food was cheap and available, fuel was cheap (although it was Russian and smelt awful), the people were happy and their haphazard, bureaucratic services just seemed to work. What more could you ask?
If you do an internet search on travel in Afghanistan you will find much the same reaction from other travellers.
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How did it compare with Pakistan, India and Nepal?
Both India and Pakistan have immensely colourful, cultural histories and there was and is a lot to see in both countries. But neither country compared favourably with Afghanistan in the overall sense of ease of travel and fun of adventure.
Yes, there were magnificent sites to visit and exotic experiences awaiting us but they were always overawed by the pressure of population and overcrowding. They were mostly hot, dusty and dirty places, and poverty was everywhere. There was no peace and quiet, no privacy and because of people pressure we seldom felt safe or at ease. In 1974 the Indian population was 600 million and you couldn't move for people. Now the population is over 1 billion and how it doesn't burst its seams is a mystery.
While they were very interesting places to visit culturally, life was a struggle, navigation in India was a nightmare (we used the sun mostly), finding safe camping spots was difficult and they were not really nice places to be in, (unless you were in an environmentally insulated tourist bus, in which case you might as well visit India on the Internet, it's cheaper and you won't get sick).
We spent 6 weeks in India and it's a country we still talk about a lot but didn't really like while we were there. It was just a difficult and frustrating place to travel in.
And Nepal?
Nepal was a bit different. Once you negotiate the lower foothill mountains from India, the Himalayas are an awe-inspiringly mind-blowingly beautiful sight and wherever you go in Nepal, especially at the western end, they are always there, huge, gleaming white, distant but seemingly close enough to touch.
Despite their impressive 15,000 ft (4,000 m) height in their own right, the foreground hills are completely dominated by the higher, snow covered peaks reaching 6-8,000 m (22,000 - 28,000 ft).

The Annapurna Range (pics 1-3) from Pokhara, and a telephoto view of Mt Everest (160 km away) from the Nagarkot Hills, outside Kathmandu
There was less poverty or people pressure in Nepal and the people, who were a mixture of Indians and Sherpas (Tibetans), led a more rural, laid back lifestyle. So in that sense it was similar to Afghanistan, as was their Buddhist heritage. But Nepal is much smaller than Afghanistan and the terrain made it difficult to get around, hence the mountain trekking industry.
In 1974 the air was clear and crisp and even distant Mount Everest (which is an incredible 160 km away and would be well over the horizon but for its 8.8 km height) could be clearly seen from the Nagarkot Hills outside Kathmandu, clouds notwithstanding. However, current advice from travellers is that pollution and population increases have made the air dirty, and glimpses of the Himalayas are now a rarity whereas for us they were a daily revelation.
So in retrospect, of all the 15 countries we visited on our trek from the UK to Australia, Afghanistan still ranks as our favourite for scenic adventure, ease of travel and interaction with the local population. Nepal would come in second, and maybe the subject of another article?
But having successfully made it into Afghanistan, we could now start the next section of our Afghan adventure, from Herat to Kabul. Click here to see that report.

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