Journey to the East (2)

What it was like to travel from Hamburg to South India over land, fifty years ago — Afghanistan and the Soviet Union!

After two weeks of adventurous travel through Eastern Europe, Turkey and Iran, described in my previous article, we at last arrived in Afghanistan— where things got really adventurous.

After a night in Herat we headed for Kabul. Google, which traces our route precisely, tells us that today a car (more likely a heavily armed military vehicle) would need 18 hours for the trip. We needed 23 hours.

This was the local country-crossing bus we took on our first trip. We used this route three times, twice in 1969 and once in the early 1970s — and have lived to tell the tale.
On the 1971 trip we took a minivan. The locals, who could not afford the 210 Afghanis (around $3) for luxury vehicles, travelled in less comfortable circumstance.

On the first trip the headlights of our bus suddenly failed, in the middle of the night, on the unmarked, barely paved mountainous road, with steep desert inclines on the side. Efforts to repair the lights were futile, so we were stranded. However, one of the passengers had a normal flashlight, and he shone it from the front door window to illuminate the road — barely. We made it to Kabul, but it was absolutely harrowing.

Kabul and civilization at last. We found quarters in “Sigis Hotel,” a house run by a German in his late 20s named Siegfried. You could get a bed in a double room for around 50 cents, or in a dormitory for around 20¢. A Wiener Schnitzel with potato salad was also 50¢, and in the restaurant, aptly named “Sigi’s Joint,” you would sometimes find lumps of hashish lying on the tables.

Kabul River, which flows through the city, was just a narrow stream at the time …
… and the bridge across the river was simply constructed.

I was in Kabul four times. I also travelled north to Mazar-i-Sharif and slept in a Pashtu tent. The people of this spectacularly beautiful region were rough and dishevelled, but also friendly and hospitable. Even the slightest interaction with a stranger led to an invitation to a festive meal in their home. Today this area is one of the most dangerous places in the world.

But back to Kabul. There are so many stories that I am hard put to select the ones to include. Let me start with a couple of fairly dangerous encounters.

I was petting a camel, and Ingrid took a shot of my incredible bravery. As she pressed the camera button the beast lunged forward and bit me in the stomach. Caught in the act!

At one stage I found this interesting fort, and climbed the embankment to photograph it close up.

Suddenly four men appeared and started shouting at me — clearly I was doing something wrong. Two went back into the building and re-emerged carrying what looked like rifles. They started to descend towards me, and I had the presence of mind to run, as fast as I could. Luckily there was a bus on the road below, and I could get on it before they reached me. I could see them swearing and shaking their fists while the bus left. A close call.

Everyone knew you could not drink water in Afghanistan — it could be deadly. So my companions all stuck to carbonated water you got in Codd-neck bottles. These have a a glass marble in the pinched neck as the closing mechanism. Factory produced and safe?

One day in a restaurant I heard a hissing sound in the back room and went to investigate. There I saw a man sitting next to a large barrel of water, washing codd bottles, pouring in some syrup and filling them from a tap. Then he injected carbon dioxide, shook the bottles and turned them upside down, forcing the marble in the closure position. The bottles were opened with a simple device that pushed the marble down to let the trapped gas escape.

Point is there was not a trace of hygiene or sterile conditions — our group took ill just watching the filling process. I, on the other hand, was full of antibodies against the germs of Asia, having spent early childhood there.

Above you see me enjoying Afghani junk food from a roadside vendor. Nothing happened, I was fine. It was just my travel companions who became violently sick just from watching.

Another interesting encounter: I saw a lovely fox fur blanket displayed outside a shop and asked the shopkeeper how much it cost. Typically, his answer was: “Please come in, let us drink tea.” And there I sat, discussing everything except the price.

Suddenly someone entered the shop: a figure in a full burqa, even the eyes hidden behind black gauze. The shopkeeper spoke to the figure, and both were clearly talking about me. From the tone of his voice I could only assume that he was assuring her I was completely harmless.

Suddenly she pulled off the burqa, all of it. Underneath was a young girl in a very short mini-skirt and net stockings, which had wide runs. Her face was made up with too much bright red lipstick and plentiful rouge. She greeted me cheerfully and joined us for tea. I had met a real Afghani teenybopper!

Tashkent and Moscow

I was in Afghanistan four times, and on the last trip, on the way back from Singapore, I was daunted by the thought of traversing Iran and Turkey yet again. In Kabul I met a group of German students who were going to travel to Berlin via Russia, and I decided to join them.

The first thing to do was go to the Russian consulate to get a visa. I entered the large hallway where a very stern-looking lady sat behind a desk. I told her that I wanted to travel to Germany via Russia and needed a visa. “This is commercial dependence of USSR,” she said, and gave me the address of the consulate. I proceeded to this, and entered a large hallway that looked exactly like the previous one, with a desk and a stern-looking lady. I approached and said: “I would like to…”. She interrupted: “Yes, room four, you get visa there.” The first lady had briefed her by phone on the foreign dude that would be coming over for travel papers.

In room four I was confronted by a surly official who interrogated me and provided the visa. I asked him if I was allowed to take animals through the Soviet Union. There was a very specific reason for this question.

A couple of weeks earlier I had visited the Madras Snake Park, run by Romulus Whitaker (whom I recently met again after forty years). Rom had given me snake eggs to take back to Germany, but they hatched in Kabul. “What kind of animals?” the consular officer asked. “Insects,” I said — you do not start with “snakes”. He thought for a moment and then said, “No, you cannot take, because of the craps.” The crops, he meant. To dispel any suspicion I told him it was a dead, mounted butterfly. After further consideration he said that was okay, and did not note anything in my papers.

One other thing I asked was about currency. Yes, he said, I could exchange dollars for rubles at the airport in Tashkent: one ruble would cost $1.15. Later on the streets of Kabul I was approached by a beggar boy who told me he hadn’t eaten for days and asked me for a few puls (cents of the Afghani dollar or pashto). He looked really desperate, so I gave him a couple. “You want change money, sir?” he asked. Yes, maybe… Did he have rubles, I wanted to know? Yes he could get me some, 75 rubles to the dollar. He disappeared into a doorway and emerged with the few hundred rubles I wanted.

When packing my things, on the spur of the moment, I decided to conceal the Russian currency, all old and used twenty ruble notes, in a special way: I unrolled some toilet paper, and put the notes between the layers when I rolled it back again. This went into the bottom of my backpack. And the baby snakes? I cut the filters of a pack of cigarettes off and glued them together. The snakes went into the bottom of the cigarette pack with the filters above them. I kept the pack in my inside coat pocket.

The trip through the Soviet Union involved flying to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), spending a couple of days there, then flying to Moscow. Getting on the plane to Tashkent was an unusual experience. It was an Ariana Afghan Airlines flight in a propeller machine, and looking out the window I found it discontenting that ground workers positioned themselves with fire extinguishers in front of each engine before it was started.

Succssful takeoff, nothing caught fire. What a relief!

Airport Tashkent: a battery of immigration officials was there to check us. And they did this with a vengeance. One of the German students was an artist, and they pressed out samples from each tube of paint and took them away for analysis. I knew I was dead, when they started to take item after item out of my bag, examining everything carefully. They even flipped through a book I had with me, making sure it was not in any way subversive. It was about reptiles, and it was the only time I saw a smile. “You are scientist?” he asked, clearly pleased at that. I did not deny anything. When he got to the bottom of the bag he pulled out the role of toilet paper, squished it, and replaced it in the bag. That is the reason I never got to see Siberia.

Next problem: pro forma I had to exchange some currency. I bought rubles for ten dollars, and got a clean, crisp five ruble note and a few ones, in return. In Tashkent we were always accompanied by an Intourist guide, who watched our every move. No way I could pull out a used 20-ruble note to pay for anything — in any case nothing, not even an opera visit, cost more than a ruble. So I got on the flight to Moscow with all my hidden rubles intact.

The plane to Moscow was frightening. It was another propeller machine, and at boarding they took your bags and locked them in a kind of cage. The plane vibrated in a way I had (and have) never experienced before. You could hardly talk, your teeth chattered, your voice came out in a stutter. Unfortunately the little snakes in the cigarette pack, in my bag in the cage, did not survive the ordeal, and all but one was dead when I unpacked them in the hotel in Moscow. And the last one died the next day.

In Moscow we could travel more freely — go shopping in fact. I gave the student companions some of my rubles and we went to GUM.


This is the State Department Store on the east side of the Red Square. It was quite spectacular, with hundreds of shops, but with almost nothing to buy. One record shop had LP records, and I found a collection box of piano pieces by the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter. I bought it — and own it to this day. But it cost less than ten rubles, which barely made a dent in my currency stash. I remember one of the German students, armed with my rubles, asking a shopkeeper: “Don’t you have something more expensive?” An evening at the ballet or opera was just a couple of rubles (I have described it here), and a meal in the hotel was the same.

I should mention that the waiters were in no way interested in serving you, and usually shouted “nyet!” when you sat down: this table is not being served. The menus were in Cyrillic and not easy to decipher. After a while you get tired of having borscht, the hearty Russian soup, at every meal. In the lobby there was a food bar, and I longed for the delicious-looking sandwiches — but did not knoe what to call them. A little research revealed that the word was бутерброд (buterbrod), which is pretty much the German word: Butterbrot, butter and bread. Listen to it here.

Also read

Journey to the East (1) — Eastern Europe, Turkey, Iran…

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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