Saturday, May 1, 2010

Herat to Kabul Highway

From Herat eastwards lies the only real road in the country, their equivalent of Highway 1. It runs from Herat, skirting around the central spine of the Hindu Kush mountains through the deserts in the south of the country, to Kandahar, Ghazni and Kabul. It then carries on northwards over the Hindu Kush mountain range to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and the Russian border.
I mention this because it's politically charged. Afghanistan has long been the centre of attention from east, west and north as a strategic crossroads between Asia and the Middle East. It still is.
[In fact until the early 1900's, Afghanistan wasn't even acknowledged as an independent country, but "as a buffer state within the British sphere of influence to prevent any British soldier from directly facing his Russian opponent" (excerpt from "The Afghans" by Willem Vogelsang, see]
Foreign aid funding for construction programs was therefore targeted at gaining political brownie points with various Afghan ethnic majorities.

Banked curves on the Herat to Kabul highway
Sections of the highway in the south around Kandahar plus the superb engineering feat of the Kabul Gorge road were built with American aid, while the western, eastern and northern sections were built by the Russians.
Some Russian built sections are of concrete slab construction like many US freeways and the curves are banked like the Indianapolis Speedway. These were allegedly built strong enough to support a tank and tyres clunk over the junctions between each slab. American built sections are made of bumpy bitumen.
The Russians also built the famous Salang Tunnel (the highest road tunnel in the world at the time at 11,000 ft or 3,300 m) which, even in 1974, obviously had a future strategic objective. We were to experience that tunnel in a later adventure, but first we had to get to Kabul.

Farahrod Hotel

About 150km south of Herat, at Farahrod (Rod=River), we came across a brand new, multi-storey, modern looking hotel in the middle of nowhere alongside a small creek. This looked so out of place from what we had expected that we just had to stop to investigate.

Apparently this Russian-built hotel was a gift to the Afghan people and the manager welcomed us in. He was at great pains to show us the rooms, complete with modern electric fittings and western sanitation. However, he then sadly told us that he couldn't let us stay there since, despite all the mod cons, there was no mains power to the hotel, which meant no lighting or heating, and no power for the water pump so no sanitation either. In fact no one had ever stayed there.

The manager blamed the Russians for the lack of planning, a comment that we were to hear many times during our stay. The Russians were blamed for everything that went wrong, was broken or didn't work. In this case he might have had a point. That night we camped in the hotel's empty car park, so they at least had some guests.

[The hotel is still there although there has been some redevelopment since 1974, and you can see it on Google Earth at 32° 44.852'N, 62° 36.299'E].

All along the road were small villages built on the lower slopes of nearby hills. They were nearly invisible since the mud they are constructed from was the same colour as the surrounding countryside.

In other areas nomadic families were camped in blackish-grey yurts. In retrospect, this area of Afghanistan, where the road crosses the Desert of Death (Dasht-i-Margo), was strangely reminiscent of parts of Australia, with endless sandy plains and far away hills. Very cold in winter, but where summer temperatures can reach 50ºC.

Crossing the "Desert of Death" between Farah and Kandahar

As we drove further on it became apparent that Afghanistan was still a tribal country. Every few miles there were checkpoints comprising a thick pole suspended across the road near a small wooden hut, presumably marking the boundaries of earlier tribal areas.

We had to stop at every one and show our passports and vehicle documentation, the details of which were laboriously entered into a dusty ledger. These were the "writings" that we had to endure several times a day. It was courteous, friendly but bureaucratic. Sometimes there was a toll. And these check points were not lit at night so they posed a real hazard to driving, but local donkey carts just drove around them without stopping anyway.


Kandahar is currently well known as a small town with a large centre of American military activity, but in 1974, it was just a large provincial Afghan town with a small army encampment.

Being further south and at a lower altitude, it was much warmer than Herat, 20ºC and bright and sunny. We walked up the 100 very steep steps to a look-out over the town, in-tow with an Afghan army officer. We could go anywhere we like but we couldn't take photos from the top since the army base was nearby. A pity because the view over Kandahar was spectacular.

A walled fort on the road to Kandahar (31° 36.503'N, 65° 4.745'E)

The water supply

It was here that we discovered that the water supply in Afghan towns is a bit suspect. Their water runs through small towns and villages in a jube or drain, which is dual purpose. It both provides the water supply to shops and houses but also takes away the waste water.

Luckily we only ate well cooked bread and food and never drank unfiltered water except for bottled Coke, and we never got ill.

The "Jube" in Khulm

The lost wallet

However it was also in Kandahar that I lost my wallet. I don't think it was stolen, there had been no prior opportunity. I think it had been on my lap or in a pocket and fell out when I'd previously got out of the Land Rover. We searched in vain but it wasn't a major disaster as it only contained a few hundred Afghanis (about $20) and my American Express card.

It was the latter item that we were most concerned about since although we still had plenty of cash to carry us past India, we would need the Amex card to go further, or return. There was no American Express office in Kandahar but there was one in Kabul, so we put off worrying about it until later. They had very little use for credit cards in Kandahar in those days anyway.

We camped that night at the New Tourist Hotel in downtown Kandahar.

Approaching the Walled City of Ghazni


Ghazni is a fortified town with towering mud walls surrounding the old town. It was rougher than Herat and Kandahar, but no less welcoming. It was clear but there was snow about again and it was very cold. We parked the Land Rover and walked up and down the main street for a couple of hours, looking at the myriad of interesting shops and stalls, but worried over what we might find when we returned to the car.

As it happened we needn't have worried, it hadn't been touched, and even though the locals would seldom have seen such a vehicle before, none of them went near it. We found this respect for our presence to be prevalent everywhere in Afghanistan, even in small remote villages where vehicles and foreigners of any kind were a rarity.

The walled city of Ghazni

Spice shop in Ghazni. No plastic bags here!

Priceless antiques were very easy to find in Afghanistan, but we were warned not to buy them since exporting them was illegal and they would be confiscated at the border.

When we visited one of many antiques shops in Ghazni, the owner refused to let us leave until we had taken his photograph. He stood proudly to attention in the doorway of his small shop and shouldered arms with an old rifle while I took his photo. Strange, considering that he would never see the results of the exercise.

Antique shop in Ghazni

In the bread shop the baker tried to tempt Janet to try her hand at slapping the dough on the inside of the mud walled oven set in the floor, but the heat of the wood fired oven was too intense to approach. In the oven, the dough sticks to the side and the skill, apparently, is to pick it off when it's cooked and just before falls into the fire.

Shopping was interesting in Afghanistan. You had to bargain for everything (except fuel, the price of which was government controlled) but they always had a smile on their faces and obviously enjoyed the interaction. And unlike Iran where some stall owners sullenly refused to serve Janet or even recognise her existence, in Afghanistan, women shoppers were fairly common, although always covered from head to foot in blue or black burkas.

The only area where we had to watch out was at petrol pumps where the operator would sometime "forget" to reset the rusting old pump dial right back to zero (which is just a dot (٠) in Arabic). They complained that the pump was broken or cried Backsheesh if you made them do it, but not for long and it was all good fun. In Iran they were much more devious and stood in front of the pump and started pumping before you had a chance to notice. We got caught once there.

The Minarets of Bahram Shah

A couple of km north of Ghazni are the remains of 2 huge minarets dating from the 12th century which were part of the mosque of Bahram Shah. Although they look similar, their design and inscriptions are completely different and originate from India.

The minarets were originally double their present height and were topped with a cylindrical tower as in the b&w photo. The top towers have since collapsed but cones and concrete bases have been added to protect what remains of 2 very interesting relics.
We camped at the Ghazni Hotel but it was a freezing night, so we put our 2 sleeping bags inside one another. Thickness improved the warmth and we were slim and agile in those days but it was still a very tight fit. The water pump froze up over night so no morning tea that day. We bought pairs of thick goats wool socks, rough but warm.

The snow covered Hindu Kush mountain scenery was becoming more magnificent as we approached Kabul. When we reach Afghan capital we found it was a large densely populated city bustling with people and cars, mostly Russian built Volga's and VW's. It had roundabouts and traffic police, rudimentary super markets and even a department store selling mostly expensive German goods.

So, after 9,614 miles (15,472 km) from London, we had achieved something we could barely have dreamt of months earlier: we had made it as far as Kabul. These days you have to join the army to do that.

Main Street in Kabul with Hindu Kush mountain backdrop

Kabul is in a valley set against a backdrop of snow covered mountains and the rocky hills surrounding the town were covered in white painted houses which glistened in the clear sunny air. At night the air was filled with the aroma of wood fires as all the inhabitants lit their cooking fires which twinkled on the hillsides. We camped in the grounds of the Jam hotel, which still exists today, but it cost us Afg15 (about 75c) per night.

White painted houses in Kabul

The next morning we went to the Tourist Office and talked with a man there about our visit. He told us where the American Express office was and then insisted on taking us to lunch at a small city restaurant, which he paid for. It was a tiny restaurant with a trough of running water at the entrance for guests to wash their hands in before and after eating. I can't recall the meal but I do remember rushing back to the Land Rover afterwards to take some antibacterial tablets, just in case.

Kabul River in winter, low water level before the snow melts

Later we sought out the American Express office. It was part of the Hertz Rent-A-Car office in a dilapidated building with peeling paint, down a small side street. Was this to be the place to solve our financial crisis?

The man behind the dusty counter spoke perfect English and took down the details of our problem. He said he could arrange for a replacement American Express card and asked where we would like to collect it from. We had to think about that for a moment, not knowing exactly where our travels would take us. Australia was the long term objective and we knew we would have to go via Singapore even if we changed our minds and returned to the UK, so Singapore it was. But we silently doubted that this small dusty office in the back streets of Kabul was going to be our financial salvation.

[Months later, as we were being whooshed up in a high speed lift, to the American Express office on the 37th floor of one of Singapore's shiny new skyscrapers, our minds were taken back to that small crumbling building in a Kabul side street, and our low level of confidence. Undaunted, we walked into the shiny new air conditioned office and there was our shiny new Amex card waiting for us, just as planned. Against all expectations, the system had worked. We knew it would.]

But back in the hotel gardens it was getting darker and colder, and that night we had 9 inches of snow. We woke up to one of those white, silent winter mornings that Britons will remember after a heavy snow. The Jam Hotel and its grounds had all but disappeared under a blanket of white and everything was quiet, all noise having been damped by the insulating snow.

The gardens of the Jam Hotel after snow

We slept soundly all through the snow storm

Shopping and sight-seeing was a sloshy affair for the next couple of days and we took to wearing plastic bags on our feet to keep our shoes dry. Not haute couture, but practical.

Snow falling on Janet in her plastic bag slippers

We now set about planning our next adventure, to see the immense statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley, about 250 km west of Kabul in the centre of Afghanistan.


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