The road from the Iran/Afghanistan border to the western city of Herat was no improvement over the one that had got us to the border. The Englishman, an engineer, had Brian back the Bug over an irrigation ditch, so that he could remove the oil pan cover. It had gotten badly dinged by the cobble rocks we had driven over. He improvised a gasket from a piece of cardboard, and it stopped leaking. We had a nice dinner in a local restaurant, where the proprietor had us come into the kitchen to see what was cooking.
We left Herat heading east, on a brand new asphalt road that was being built by the Russians. What a pleasure! Alas, we soon came to a barricade, and were directed to a dirt track, while the new road continued alluringly into the distance. The dirt track went south to Farah, while the new road was headed more directly towards Kandahar, cutting off a big corner. Naturally, we elected to stay on the new road. We stopped to chat with some Russian engineers, who needed some tools, and we got yelled at by an Afghani army officer, for being on the new (closed) road. After a while, we became concerned about finding some gas. And then we saw a Russian construction compound ahead, and drove in. There, huge gas tanks were being filled from Russian tanker trucks. We asked for gas. Shortly, a commissar came up to us and asked if we were French. No, we said, and he then told a worker to give us gas. Ultimately, we came to the end of the paved road, and it was back to the dirt, which was worse than anything we had yet traveled. We were out there in the middle of nowhere. We even saw wolves! Before exhausting our last refill we arrived at a town on the pre-existing route to Kandahar. Kandahar is where the Americans took over the road-building effort. The US and the USSR were competing to win the loyalty of the Afghani king. Kandahar had irrigation ditches full of cold water paralleling the streets and the Afghanis had watermelons cooling in the water. A cold watermelon under the arm was an Afghani canteen. The ditches were supplied by a water transportation system (called “karaz”) that started many miles away in the distant high mountains, and consisted of underground brick tunnels that transported water without loss to evaporation.
We had heard that one could get a burger at the American construction compounds, and started to drive in to the first one we came across. But we were immediately stopped. Unlike the Russian compound we had visited, this one was fenced and gated. The Afghani workers, we noticed, were being frisked as they left. This was a completely different scene. The Russian workers we had met were in good humor. The Americans we met were not. We were being treated to a true iteration of “The Ugly American”. We asked for a burger and were told it would cost an amount that would buy ten dinners in town. So were left.
We were now headed to Kabul. We stopped at a tea house. In front of the tea house was a guy with a big circular grinding stone. He asked if we wanted knives, made while we drank our tea. I said sure. He started with a file, which he ground into a blade, pushing dirt onto the stone with his big toes, as it spun in a vertical orientation. Then he pulled some cow horn out of a water-filled keg and created the rest of the clasp knife. I carried that knife for many years, before losing it while laying in the grass at Grebe Lake, in Yellowstone Park. We discovered a missing hub cap when we left the tea house. We attributed that to the American influence. Kabul was not a big town, with few or no buildings over two stories high. We went to a tea house, where the sugar came in clumps that you broke up to get the amount of sugar you wanted. We were sitting on the second floor, and below I saw a guy enter the courtyard with a huge cow-skin container on his back. He was delivering water. It looked like he was carrying about 200 lbs. Then it was on to the Khyber Pass. The Khyber Pass is not a pass between two mountains, but rather a low point where one exits the plateau of Afghanistan, and drops down a long ravine towards the lowlands of Pakistan. We had driven across Afghanistan without any stops or side trips, and I have one regret about that. We missed Bamiyan, with it’s giant statues of the Buddha. They’re gone now, thanks to the Taliban.
We crossed into Pakistan. It was very much lower and very much hotter than Afghanistan. We went over to a chicken stand for lunch, and we three bit into the chicken simultaneously … and gave each other looks of horror. The chicken was HOT – meaning spicy hot, as with chili (specifically, cayenne peppers)! The food was not spiced with chiles in the countries we had just traveled through.
I visited a government office in Rawalpindi, seeking permission to travel to Skardu, the jumping-off place for the Baltoro Glacier and the Karakoram Mountains. I wanted to walk up the Baltoro to the place known as Concordia, where a number of glaciers join, and where the high peaks crowd around … and from where you can see K2, the second highest peak in the world.
I was told that, since the DAK bungalow (intended for the use of government officials and other visitors) was occupied, I couldn’t go. And that was that. I could not talk them into it. The next opportunity to get into the mountains would, therefore, be in India. We crossed into India, and I left Brian and our British friend in Amritsar.
India will be covered in the next chapter.