|A Road Not Taken
by Clement Salvadori
This last March the newspapers were full of headlines about the Taliban regime in Afghanistan destroying ancient Buddhist relics in the remote valley of Bamiyan. The most notorious act was the blowing up of two giant statues of the Buddha, carved centuries before Mohammed ever walked this earth; they're gone now, and I never got to see them.
Though I could have, if I had made a little effort some years ago. And I certainly regret that lack of effort today.
Rolling across northern Iran in 1973 I could see this country was well-funded by oil sales to the energy-hungry world, with good roads, new buildings and cars, a general prosperity. On the Iranian side of the border with Afghanistan stood a large, new building, with the appearance of a huge garage. And it was a garage, where inside west-bound buses and trucks were being stripped to the chassis by American-paid inspectors, looking for illicit drugs; the Iranian authorities glowered at the passing long-haired Westerners.
However, once through the simple weighted barrier that marked the
frontier, it all changed. The Afghan soldiers and officials were quite
cheerful, and the only shake-down was the requirement that I spend $8 on
a one-month insurance policy for the motorcycle. What it actually
covered, I was never quite sure, nor did I care to find out.
Eighty miles later I was in Herat, a gem of a city surrounded by ancient walls and gardens properly watered by the river and by good wells, where rugs and guns and hashish were for sale everywhere. I stayed at one of the more expensive hotels in town, the New Super Behzar Garden Hotel, where a nice room cost a dollar. The motorcycle stayed in the garden.
This was as far as many of the drug-inclined Westerners got. Some of the Hippie Hotels offered a modified European plan, wherein for a set price, often depending on the cleanliness of the sheets, the guest got a room, three meals, and all the hash he or she cared to consume. Herat had history, culture, and cheap restaurants which catered to the Western palate. Broad, tree-lined avenues led through much of town, while in the old quarter the bazaar had as intricate and complicated knot of alleyways as one could hope to find in any den of entrepreneurial iniquity and intrigue.
I did not have to go that far to find my traditional Herati merchant. Next to my hotel a small shop had a window jumbled with old trunks and weavings, brassware and pieces of armor, ancient knives and flintlock rifles. The cheery proprietor asked what I might be interested in, and I allowed as to how I was merely looking.
"Look at this," he said, and brought me into a small room in the back which was like an arsenal, with 20th century weapons being stacked in the corners, on the shelves. Aged British equipment was popular, with Webley revolvers, bolt-action Enfield rifles, and Sten sub-machine guns going for bargain-basement rates. I imagine that more in demand were the current weapons, with a half dozen AK-47s piled haphazardly, and two M-14s. Even an American-made M79 grenade launcher; "Very good, very good," said the salesman, picking it up; "very hard to find ammunition."
My Swiss Army knife would have to do. As we walked out of the armory he reached under a counter and took out a ball of newspaper scrunched around a smallish object. As he smoothed the paper out on the counter I saw that at the middle was a chunk of hashish; he cut me off a small piece, tore off a bit of paper, wrapped it up, and said, "Try this. If you like, I make you special price."
Herat was a tempting place.
Another motorcycling American was at the hotel, Detroit Kenny. He had irritated some dangerous people back in Murder City, and decided to avoid the situation by flying to Europe, buying a new BMW, and making his way home slowly around the world. By the time he got back, he trusted that all would have been forgiven, if not forgotten.
Kenny and I needed to get to Kabul. One road went due east through Bamiyan; a second looped over the northern route via Balkh and Mazar-i Sharif; a third went south via Kandahar. I had heard much about the giant Buddhist statues at Bamiyan and wanted to go there, but a quartet in a Land Rover who had just come from that way counseled against the notion. Bamiyan was superb, but the dirt road to Herat was little traveled and in bad shape, made worse by a total lack of gas for some 300 miles.
I also wanted to see Balkh, once the headquarters of Alexander the
Great, but that road was politically sensitive due to its proximity with
the border of the Soviet Union. I enquired of the authorities, who said
that we would need government permission to ride that particular
stretch, and to secure that we would have to go to Kabul.
In Kandahar a large caravanserai had been converted to budget bedding, with a many-roomed two-story hotel facing onto an acre of courtyard, the other three sides formed by stables of yore. Diligent travelers crouched in the shade of these roofs and fettled their aged VW buses and newer Toyota Land Cruisers.
It was Kabul that had always held the fascination for me, and I have no idea why. But it was what I had hoped for, a wonderful mix of cultures in a city undecided as to its future, with ladies in short skirts vying for the same taxi as purdahed women.
We found inexpensive accommodations at the Friends Hotel, a decaying mansion with acres of ill-tended gardens. The proprietor, a slick-haired man of limited charm, had a large safe behind his desk, whose door was never closed, the interior crammed with bills -- dollars, pounds, marks, francs, he would have probably made you a deal on old Confederate banknotes. Down in the basement was the kitchen, a half-dozen women with kerchiefed hair standing at blackened stoves and turning out all manner of Western food, from hamburgers to a tolerable spaghetti. But while the Friends was home, the city was foreign.
On a main street were a dozen eating and drinking establishments catering to the travelers and to Westernized Afghanis. In the garden of one restaurant was a huge chess set, with the pawns standing some three feet in height, the king over five feet; a very modish Afhgani asked if I would like to play. I have a hard enough time playing a semi-intelligent game of chess when I have a small board in front of me, but this Alice-in-Wonderland approach had me flummoxed. My opponent was the doctor for the Afghani Olympic team, fluent in English, undoubtedly attractive to the hippie girls, and he strongly recommended a visit to Bamiyan. Kenny and I were going up to Balkh in the next couple of days, and the doctor said there was an adequate dirt road going into the valley from the north, and then quite a good one going east, and connecting with the main highway near the Salang tunnel, which passed from the south to the north over the Hindu Kush.
We left mid-morning, as the nights were more than brisk in November, and climbed up to the Salang. We stopped at the entrance to the long, dark tunnel; it was not inviting, but it was the only way through these mountains. Our headlights bounced off the rough-hewn rock as we negotiated the narrow, uneven, muddy road. "Big truck comes, we're dead," yelled Kenny. No truck came. Years later the Afghanis ambushed a Russian convoy in that tunnel, with many hundreds dead.
Then the long descent to the steppes, through an impressive series of canyons, each one seeming to be a dead end, but each one eventually showing a way out, following a river course through the narrowest of openings. These few words do not do such a road justice; the pavement was good, the traffic non-existent, and every ten miles was an adventure.
At Balkh, a decaying town with the remnants of greatness within the crumbling walls, we were offered "genuine" Greek coins by anybody who passed us by. A charming cottage industry, I imagine, pleasing the occasional tourist. We seemed to be the only two strangers in town, and since the local hostel was admittedly cheap, but a bit scruffy even by our loose standards, we went back to Mazar.
I had seen Balkh, and it was a bit of a let-down. And I wanted to see Bamiyan, but I also wanted to get to Kashmir before the snow closed the road. Kenny was up for anything, and I said I would decide when we got to the turn-off. And at that fateful turn, I decided not to go. Ah, fate!
Now the Bamiyan statues are gone. Destroyed by the curse of religious fundamentalism. I could have easily seen them. However, returning to the decadence of Kabul appealed to me more than two days of bad roads. I could have made the turn, I didn't. And that is the way of it. You can't see every place, but I could have seen that one.
I certainly regret that lack of effort today
Rugs and guns and hashish were for sale everywhere
Now the Bamiyan
statues are gone. Destroyed by the curse of religious fundament
text and photography copyright © 2001 Vivid Light Publishing