The terrible events unfolding in Afghanistan have brought back painful memories for lots of people who served there and have made them question what our involvement was all for. The country of the Great Game is not on anyone's holiday bucket list today but once it was a country which travellers heading overland for the Far East passed through, a welcome stopping place on that long trek.
I cannot claim to be as adventurous as Rory Stewart – his book about walking to Kabul is a good read – being someone whose idea of fun is not climbing every Munro in the land. When I go up mountains, I take a chair lift. But I did go there in the days when the Magic Bus ferried travellers from the Pudding Shop Istanbul to the delights of all that lay beyond on their long journey overland to Katmandu, to Thailand and even Australia. The bus from Herat to Kabul passed through the same villages as he did.
One of the perks of The Herald
then was that every four years we got a month's sabbatical which we were supposed to use for something serious and not just to repaint the house. Because I had to take my four weeks of holidays when parliament was not sitting, I managed to add one month to the other, decided that travel broadened the mind, and off I set for Afghanistan, rucksack on my back, armed with a small guidebook. Across Asia on the Cheap
, the book which led to all those Lonely Planets beloved of travelling tourists.
I took the train from Venice to Istanbul to pick up the legendary bus with no great thought as to what I would find or indeed the risks involved. The journey across Turkey went smoothly enough, although the border post to Iran was hard work with bored and obnoxious officials both sides. We had a long wait being processed and the bus itself was a pretty ramshackle affair. However, once across, things went well – the Shah was still in power and to the outsider's eye Iran seemed peaceful and easy to cope with, the hostels for travellers being plentiful. The guidebook's suggested one was found, and the only surprising thing that happened there was being woken up by a Muslim traveller saying his prayers in what seemed the dead of night – something I had never seen before.
By this time, I had collected travelling companions and at the border crossing for Herat, where getting through the customs formalities was also painfully slow, we missed the bus and ended up travelling for a fee in the back of some Afghan's pick-up to the centre of town where we were dropped at a travellers' hotel. It was a world of noise, of ancient buses, of brilliantly painted lorries carrying loads of who knows what, and strange smells – herbs from the stalls in the market and substances with which Afghanistan was awash. We worried about the food and the dictum, was to stick to eating eggs until we had a look in the kitchen where they were being fried and decided to take our chances. We drank Coke and I still have an empty Afghan bottle.
My aim, having grown up reading Kipling, was to get to Kabul, from which all transport round the country left, and go up the Khyber Pass. In the event, I decided instead to take a minibus to Band-e-Amir with its gorgeous lake, round which I went horse riding, and up the steep sides of which I was helped by my younger companions, and to Bamiyan where I smoked pot for the first time sitting below one of the legendary Buddhas carved out of the sandstone cliffs surrounding the valley – wonders of the world which the Taliban were to destroy in 2001.
It was an uncomfortable trip on roads over which the surprisingly strong vehicle hurtled from one pot hole, from one rock to the next, jarring our spines as we were sitting sideways rather than across the van. But there was a tourist structure in place, restaurants along the way and the essential for all who travel – the facilities of which possibly the less said the better, although I have an indelible memory of going out to the orchard behind one cafe, the sun was shining and it looked enticing, only to retreat rapidly. Those apple trees were getting well-fertilised.
A roof for the night when we reached our destinations was never a problem as the owners of the 'hotels' emerged to proclaim the delights of their establishment, the quality of their breakfasts, not to mention the essential facility, occupancy of which was indicated by leaving your toilet roll displayed on the mud brick wall, behind which you were mostly concealed.
The sun shone, the people were friendly, seemed happy, and nothing untoward happened. We were not robbed or attacked but we almost certainly were exploited. In the event, I chickened out of heading south to the Pass and went back to Iran where I spent a few days in Isfahan, a city of mosques and fine hotels, before taking the Magic Bus from Teheran to Istanbul – again the border crossing was a nightmare and I learned that when officialdom is being horrid one has to be ever so polite and do as one is told. In Istanbul, I caught the so-called very decrepit Orient Express to Venice, the only time I travelled on it when there was a a restaurant car which the Turks took off at the border. But at least I did dine in it by candlelight.
I had been out of touch with home for seven of my eight weeks, no texts, no Facebook, no emails, no Google maps, no news – anything could have happened to me and to the world. Looking back, Kabul was a pleasant small flower-filled town scented in the places we stayed with pot. The countryside we passed through was beautiful if wild and the people appeared to be happy enough and friendly. It did not last. The Russian invasion in 1979 put an end to it. But for a little while, Afghanistan was one of the world's enchanting places.
I never went back – times changed. I discovered other lands and Afghanistan became a dangerous, indeed impossible country to visit, although much later I did go up the Khyber Pass from the Pakistan side in a convoy with Geoffrey Howe when he was Foreign Secretary. It was a scary trip because we had a couple of armoured cars for protection and for some reason the gun on the rear one was pointed firmly at the press minibus.
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