By Richard McGuire ©
In the 1970s, one of the most popular trips for young budget
travellers was the overland route from Europe to India.
India and Nepal were the final destinations along what became known
as "the hippie trail." But getting there entailed passing through a
number of other countries of southern Europe and west central Asia –
Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The least westernized of these,
the most challenging, but at the same time the most rewarding country
was Afghanistan. There travellers encountered a rich culture, proud but
hospitable people and striking landscape.
The days of "Europe on $5 a Day" had come and gone in the 1960s, but
it was still possible for adventure travellers, willing to rough it a
bit, to journey from Europe to India on about $35 in transportation
costs on local buses and trains. In the cheaper hotels, food and lodging
could be had for about $2 a day or less.
Many a North American and European baby boomer was drawn to make the
pilgrimage overland to India on a shoestring. For some it was a chance
to experience the religions of the East as they searched for different
values to fill the void left by 1960s secular materialism. For others,
it was a chance to experience ancient Eastern cultures very different
from their own. For some it was the thrill of adventure and self
discovery in a beautiful but challenging environment. For others, it was
cheap, abundant and often tolerated drugs – hashish and opiates – and a
chance to live without responsibilities. For many, it was some or all of
I made the overland journey twice – once in 1973 and a second time
(both directions) in 1977-78. On my 1973 trip, I was disappointed that I
could not visit Afghanistan. A coup d'état, in which the long-ruling
Zahir Shah was overthrown by Mohammad Daud, had closed the border
forcing me to take an alternate route through southern Iran and
Pakistan's Baluchistan province. I was therefore all the more determined
to see as much of Afghanistan as possible when I again made the overland
trip in 1977.
Afghanistan was the least westernized country along the overland
route. Turkey had been Europeanized early in the 20th century following
the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and under the rule of Kemal Ataturk,
who abolished many of the outward signs of Islam, such as the fez, the
veil, and the Arabic script. Iran, under the American-imposed Shah
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and with significant oil wealth, seemed
determined to emulate the West – often in superficial ways such as
consumerism. Pakistan and India had endured centuries of British
colonialism and therefore had adopted British-style bureaucracy and even
the English language as a sort of lingua franca. Only Afghanistan seemed
pretty much untouched by the West. Indeed, one was more likely to see
products from the Soviet Union among the few available consumer products
that weren't produced by local craftsmen.
Crossing the boundary between Iran and Afghanistan, one was acutely
aware of crossing from West to East. Modern infrastructure disappeared.
Dress changed. The standard of living dropped sharply. And yet I felt
much more comfortable with the Afghani people. Despite Iran's adoption
of western consumer culture – at least in the major cities – there
seemed to be a hatred towards the West that came to a climax not long
afterwards with the seizure of hostages at the American embassy. Islamic
traditions were deeply engrained in Afghan culture, but there appeared
to be more self assurance among the Afghanis toward outsiders. They had
no colonial or neocolonial experience for which to be resentful. I was
consciously aware that to them I could never be as good as an Afghani,
but I didn't feel hated as I did in Iran. On the contrary, most Afghanis
I encountered were open and even hospitable to western travellers – even
while distrustful of our culture.
As a strongly Islamic country, Afghanistan's public face was
overwhelmingly male. Travellers did not deal with or even encounter
Afghani women. The head-to-toe covering that women wore – with only a
small mesh for the eyes – was the most severe I've seen anywhere in the
Islamic world. On the few occasions where you did encounter women, such
as on inter-city buses, they were strictly segregated.
Physically, Afghanistan has a harsh environment, but a rugged beauty.
Its desert climate was scorching and oppressive in the lowlands when I
passed through in June, even though the temperature could be quite
pleasant in the higher elevations. When I returned in January, it could
be quite cold given the lack of modern heating. Yet the desert was by no
means boring and flat. Rocky crag formations made it a rich landscape,
and at times one saw snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush mountain range.
Buildings were typically single-storey constructions of mud bricks.
In the countryside, it was not uncommon to see black tents of nomads.
Crude irrigation brought lush green to some of the valleys, but the
dominant colours were the tan-brown dried mud and sand of the desert and
the deep blue skies.
Herat is the first city one encounters travelling from Iran. It was
my favourite city of Afghanistan and a good introduction. Arriving from
Iran, one first saw the ancient minarets of Herat on the edge of town.
From the distance they looked like tall smoke stacks, but from close-up
these rounded structures still bore many of their original blue tiles.
The centre of the city was dominated by the ancient mud-walled citadel,
Pai Hesar. Elsewhere in the centre, an attractive 800-year-old
blue-tiled mosque provided another central focus. Its minarets appeared
better maintained than the old ones on the edge of the city.
Surrounding these landmarks were many winding streets of the bazaars.
They sold a mix of food, hardware and consumer products aimed at the
local population, and crafts and clothing aimed at western travellers.
Most were small shops, and in many production was hand-crafted on site,
sometimes using centuries-old techniques. Buckets, shoes and rope were
made from old tires. Welders did metal work. Sheep skins were made into
leatherwork, often for tourists. Merchants in the bazaars were friendly,
and though obviously eager to make sales, were less obnoxiously
aggressive than those in other cities such as Istanbul. Afghanistan had
a more relaxed pace of life. I frequently wandered through the bazaars,
taking pictures and meeting people, sometimes stopping for tea, without
feeling overly pressured to buy.
Contrary to the warnings westerners often heard not to photograph
people of the Muslim faith, I found many of the men and children wanted
to have their pictures taken. My camera was a novelty. My only problem
was convincing my subjects not to pose rigidly, but to relax and be
In the early summer heat, the middle portion of the day was often too
hot to do anything but relax in the shade at my hotel, one of the cheap
budget accommodations that dotted the "hippie trail" to the East. My
room was a fly and flea-infested dormitory shared with other western
travellers. Some of my dorm mates sat around the hotel all day smoking
hashish, seldom venturing into the town. I got better sleep at night
sleeping on a frame and rope bed outside under the stars, so I used the
dorm mainly as a place to leave my less valuable possessions. Typically
I rose around 6 or 7 a.m. before it got too hot, then wandered the city
until 11 a.m. when the extreme heat drove me into the hotel's shady
courtyard to read or write or snooze until around 4 p.m. I spent several
days in Herat, getting to know its streets and markets, and occasionally
walking out to the minarets on the edge of town. On such walks, one
often saw men with camels, sheep or goats. To the many children I
encountered, I was a novelty.
Some aspects of Afghanistan were difficult to get used to. Levels of
sanitation were abysmal. Many of the streets were skirted by open
sewers. I often saw this filthy ditch water used to wet the sidewalks to
keep the dust down. Sometimes I even saw it used to wash the fruit of
vendors. There were flies everywhere – some said the flies respected the
Iran-Afghan border, but I think this was more a consequence of better
sanitation in Iran. Frequently I saw chunks of animal carcasses hanging
on hooks in the markets and crawling black with flies.
Eating often was a major problem, especially in more out-of-the way
places. Herat had several restaurants with good-quality Afghan food, but
these were beyond the price range of real budget travellers except as an
occasional splurge. The hippie hotels sold pseudo-western food of
dubious quality made from local ingredients. The restaurants for the
locals sold mainly greasy mutton kebabs and sometimes greasy rice. I
tended to dine on flat bread (nan), yoghurt, and fruit such as apricots,
finding little else to my liking. Some travellers told me the Afghanis
have bellies of leather, and I tended to believe them. Unlike the food
of other countries on the overland route, such as Turkey or India, which
could be very enjoyable, eating was the most difficult part of the
Toilets, where they existed, also took some getting used to. I was
already familiar with Asian-style toilets – a small hole on the floor
that you squatted over while trying not to slip from filthy little foot
platforms. In Afghanistan, these seldom had plumbing of any kind. More
often men simply squatted (even just to urinate) by a ditch. I never did
figure out how women coped.
I had travelled across Turkey and Iran with several other young men I
met in Istanbul – two Cockney Englishmen, John and Alan, and a German,
Gerhardt. Travellers tended to form instant friendships with people they
might never get to know in other circumstances. It was easier to deal
with buses, trains and hotels when there were several of you, and you
had company for the long bus and train rides. Often such friendships
were formed where the "hippie trail" narrowed, with travellers then
splitting to go their own directions when different trails fanned out,
only to meet again later on the road.
For most travellers, the next stop after Herat was Kandahar in the
south of Afghanistan, along a fairly good American-built road. I wanted
a different Afghanistan experience, so instead decided to travel on my
own via the northern route through Mazar-i-Sharif. There is safety in
numbers, but I also find that travelling in groups with other
westerners, one is less likely to meet the local people and get to know
The road from Herat to Mazar-i-Sharif was rough and mostly unpaved.
It crossed several mid-sized ranges of craggy mountains, a few lush
river valleys, and vast expanses of sparsely populated desert. It took
several days of physically demanding and exhausting travel between such
small towns as Qala-i-Nau, Bala Murghab, Maimana, and Shibarghan.
Travel was in little Russian-built jeep-like vehicles that seemed to
go by the generic name of "motor." These had open backs with several
hard benches. Passengers and baggage were packed as tightly as possible
into the back. On the rough mountainous roads passengers and baggage
swayed around. In the blazing heat and in intimately close proximity to
your fellow passengers, the rides were extremely uncomfortable.
The "motors" were in poor shape and frequently broke down, often
stranding passengers for hours in the blazing desert with no shade
except to crawl under the vehicle while the drivers worked to fix it.
One "motor" I rode had a leaking radiator, so the drivers had to stop at
puddles wherever they saw them to fill the radiator. The passengers
would fill an old oil can at these same puddles, passing it around to
drink from – reinforcing my suspicion that the Afghanis have leather
bellies. I preferred to drink warm tea that I carried in a Spanish wine
On one stretch of the journey between Qaisar and Maimana, late in an
exhausting day, there were roughly 30 people jammed into the back of the
"motor." Four of them were policemen escorting two prisoners shackled in
handcuffs and leg cuffs. One of the policemen literally sat on my lap
for lack of space elsewhere. Livestock such as chickens or goats were
also sometimes passengers.
Except for mechanical problems, we made few stops. I began to suspect
that in addition to having leather stomachs, the Afghanis also had iron
bladders. Occasionally we did stop at tea houses. Tea is the main drink
in Afghanistan, though unlike the countries influenced by the British
Raj, it is drunk clear without milk. Although sugar was available, it
was more common to drink tea without sugar, instead holding a hard candy
in the mouth while sipping.
Communication was difficult for me in this northwestern isolated part
of Afghanistan. I learned enough words of Dari (a Persian dialect) to
ask for the basics, and I used a lot of sign language. Some people knew
a few words of English, but few spoke it well, in contrast to the more
heavily travelled towns along the "hippie trail" where English is
I frequently attracted large crowds of curious children. In one tea
house I was evicted and thrown out into the street when a crowd of
children followed me inside. They often tried out their few English
words on me: "Meester, meester! Hello meester!" It was a novelty at
first, but soon the lack of privacy became annoying. I could not chase
them away. At one point I waved my hands madly as though going berserk
and roared like a lion. This caused a few of the timid ones to drop
their school bags and run in fear, but within seconds they returned,
even more fascinated by this crazy foreigner. Bringing out my camera
didn't work either – they just grinned and waved and tried to pose. I
was surrounded by children until again it was time for the "motor" to
The "motors" did not run on any fixed schedule, but rather waited
until there were enough passengers to make the trip profitable. The
drivers would never give you a time when they would leave, so you were
forced to wait around, sometimes hours. In Qala-i-Nau I was awakened at
my hotel by a driver at 6 a.m., only to wait around until afternoon for
the "motor" to leave. I entertained myself watching village life – the
people including young children wearing colourful traditional costumes.
In one of those scenes so typical of Afghan village life, I watched a
group of men felling a tall poplar tree beside the road. There were no
chain saws or even axes. One group dug around the roots of the tree,
while another group pulled on a rope attached to the top of the tree. At
one point the rope snapped, sending the men tumbling backwards. Finally
the tree came down with a thud, lying completely across the main street,
which had almost no traffic. Then, in the Afghani style of wasting
nothing, herds of goats and sheep were brought out to strip the leaves
from the fallen tree. I sat drinking tea and watching these timeless
slices of life.
Such long waits were quite common. Some days later, travelling
between Pule Khumri in the northeast and the spectacular ancient
Buddhist town of Bamiyan, the "motor" came to an abrupt halt in the dark
when it was noticed – fortunately in time – that the road was completely
washed out and had fallen away into the river. After sleeping the night
outside under the stars, I awoke at 5:30 a.m. with three old bearded
Afghan men who were fellow passengers. None spoke any English, but it
was made clear to me that the road would not be fixed anytime soon and
our best hope was to climb the mountain around the landslide in the
hopes of finding a vehicle on the other side. I hauled my backpack, and
the hardy old men carried their belongings wrapped in rugs, as we
scrambled up mountain trails over loose stones. We skirted the top of a
steep rocky cliff with the fast-flowing mud-brown river straight below
us where the road had been. Finally, after much scouting around, we
descended by a dried river bed. Several times I nearly slipped while
trying to keep up with these agile old men, who had removed their shoes
for better traction on the rock.
Sure enough, there was indeed another "motor" waiting on the other
side, but of course it was broken. I spent much of the day waiting and
trying to escape the hot sun, searching out any shade I could find, and
eventually was forced to crawl under the broken-down "motor." Slowly
other Afghan travellers filtered out of the hills, and eventually in the
late afternoon another "motor" came along to carry waiting passengers
further up the road.
My visit to Mazar-i-Sharif was marred by serious illness. The mutton
kebabs and other dubious food caught up with me and I was struck with
severe dysentery. Although I made the effort to see the blue-tiled
mosque and to visit the remaining earthen walls of the nearby city of
Balkh, once controlled by Alexander the Great, I spent more time
visiting the lavatory.
Bamiyan was a different story. Set on a fertile plateau, this town is
noted for its huge Buddha figures carved into the side of a cliff more
than 1,500 years ago. The Buddhas were literally defaced by Muslim
conquerors many years ago, but they remained in good condition,
preserved by the dry climate. In Bamiyan, I rejoined the "hippie trail"
– or at least a branch of it – after many days travelling in the more
isolated and less travelled parts of Afghanistan. In the high elevation,
Bamiyan’s climate was more inviting. It made walking more pleasant, even
though I was still struggling with illness. Along the cliffs, sometimes
very high, were numerous man-made caves, once meditation cells for
Buddhist monks. Some of the caves at the base of the cliff appeared to
be lived in still, though often they had adobe additions.
I spent several days at Bamiyan, recovering from the difficult
journey, and enjoying its beauty and magical atmosphere. But I was
anxious to journey on to the deep blue lakes at Bandi Amir. At a high
elevation, the journey there afforded views of the snow-capped Hindu
Kush mountains. Travel was in one of the same "motors" that were common
in western Afghanistan, but this time my fellow passengers were
virtually all westerners rather than Afghanis. Climbing steep hills, at
times some of the passengers had to get out and walk so the vehicle
could handle the grade.
Bandi Amir was a village of mud buildings that seemed to exist almost
solely for tourists, apart from a few nomads in the area. Nonetheless,
with its deep lapis lakes set against the desert mountains, it is one of
the true natural beauty spots of the world. Some of its several lakes
were formed by natural dams. The lakes teemed with abundant fish. I took
several hikes, building up strength for the final push to Pakistan and
Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, lacked the charm of Herat and Kandahar
(the latter I visited returning west in January 1978). A small city,
Kabul was fairly quiet, without the hustle and bustle of such larger
cities on the overland route as Istanbul, Teheran, or Delhi. Western
travellers tended to congregate around Chicken Street, noted for its
cheap hotels, tea and pie shops, and other shops aimed at travellers.
Kabul’s downtown was spread out and seemed to lack a focus. A very
impoverished-looking district was built on the side of a hill, but most
of the city was on flat land below. Again I explored the bazaars, amazed
at the myriad of items from beds to tire shoes being hand manufactured
in the streets.
Several of the travellers I met told hard-luck stories of losing or
having passports or money stolen. One couple, an Englishman and French
woman, told me the man had spent time in jail for losing his passport.
She got little sympathy from the British or French embassies. Another
Frenchman I met was walking barefoot in Kabul. When I warned him about
parasites one can contract that way, he didn't care. After a long ordeal
resulting from losing his money and passport, he was on his way back to
France that afternoon. His plane ticket and some money had arrived,
loaned by his parents who were anxious for him to return home as quickly
as possible. Others were less lucky. I sometimes encountered travellers
whose funds had run out and who were reduced to begging or selling their
blood for money to continue.
I made the journey from Kabul to the Khyber Pass, which separates
Afghanistan from Pakistan, travelling by local bus. The bus descended
the steep Kabul gorge, passing many graphically displayed vehicle
wrecks, serving as reminders of the hazardous road. Much lower down, the
city of Jalalabad was insufferably hot. There I caught a bus to Torkham
on the border. Once we were past the guard posts on the edge of
Jalalabad, the driver's assistant let me ride on the roof – by far the
most comfortable place to ride in the heat. Some of the Afghani men also
chose to ride up there where you feel the hot blast-furnace air, but at
least there is a breeze. From the roof, I could see the country and
village life, the turbaned tribesmen and colorfully dressed tribal
women, who wore veils, but thankfully not the heavy shrouds worn by
women elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Half a year later, after spending time in India and Nepal, I returned
to Afghanistan, this time travelling north from Quetta in Pakistan to
Kandahar in Afghanistan's south. In January, the climate was crisply
cool, but at least the sun was bright. I enjoyed laid-back Kandahar. Its
bazaars were more geared to local needs than to travellers. Orange trees
bore fruit. This and a final brief visit to Herat were my last chances
to relax before making the long overland trip across Asia and Europe
through the depths of winter, and then back to North America.
I was barely back in Canada a couple months when I learned of the
coup d'état in April 1978 when the communists took power. The following
year, the Soviet Union invaded and the country descended into a bitter
and brutal civil war.
Some newspaper pundits wrote of how Afghanistan was no match for its
powerful Soviet neighbour, but I knew otherwise. I had seen the tough,
proud and determined Afghan people and their infinite endurance in the
harshest of environments. I knew of their history, how conquerors had
come and gone, but the people never really succumbed. Of how they
resisted and drove off the British a century earlier. I knew something
these pundits didn’t know – that the Afghanis would fight to the last
man if necessary. Of course in the end it was the Soviet Union that
collapsed instead – no doubt at least in part a consequence of its
Afghanistan debacle. What I didn’t bargain on was that the killing would
continue, this time, sadly, with Afghan murdering Afghan.
I have often thought since about this beautiful country and wondered
how many of the people I met are still alive, and how many have been
forced into exile. I’ve wondered about splendors of Herat and how much
of it has been reduced to ruins. Thankfully I had a chance to visit
Afghanistan and experience it in a more innocent time. It is a memory I
will always cherish.