August/September 1973 – Faizabad, on the road to China Here in Pol-E-Chomri, at an altitude of around 600 metres above sea level, it is pleasantly cool in the morning. Michelle is allowed to eat again and the toothache seems to be a thing of the past. Flat bread, cheese, tomatoes, fried potatoes and strong green
August/September 1973 – Faizabad, on the road to China
Here in Pol-E-Chomri, at an altitude of around 600 metres above sea level, it is pleasantly cool in the morning. Michelle is allowed to eat again and the toothache seems to be a thing of the past. Flat bread, cheese, tomatoes, fried potatoes and strong green tea. The sun has just risen, but we are already packed and ready to travel.
A good 100 kilometres to Kunduz lie ahead of us. There we want to take a little break and then another almost 250 kilometres to Faizabad in the northeastern corner of Afghanistan. We make some progress and enjoy the great mountain landscape around us. The peaks to the right and to the left of the road rise far over 1000 meters into the clear sky. For some kilometres we follow a river and there is very little traffic. Some sections of the road are asphalted, mostly we are on gravel or dirt roads. And it is really fast – at least by Afghan standards. After about two hours, it is not even 10 o’clock, we reach the city of Kunduz.
A hand-painted sign at the entrance to Kunduz indicates that the city probably has almost 40,000 inhabitants and lies at an altitude of just under 400 metres. Michelle’s travel guide writes that Kunduz is an important centre for agriculture and that cotton production and processing has made the city rich an popular. Fresh fruit and vegetables are offered at the roadside and we stock up with a water-melon and some ice-cold cucumbers. That should be enough for the three of us until we reach Faizabad – if we can make it today.We*d like to refuel quickly and then we would go on. But at the gas station there is a problem: there is only Diesel available. For days they wait for the tank truck, which should bring the gasoline we need. About 30 litres are still in our tank, another 40 litres in jerry cans. If everything goes smoothly, it will definitely be sufficient to reach our destination. But if something goes wrong? If we have to take a detour? Is there another gas station on the way? Perhaps in Taloqan, half way? The station attendant says, yes, there is – but they are supplied by the same tank truck as the one here in Kunduz – and even there the petrol could be sold out. Should we take the risk or wait here?
Monika, Michelle and I discuss it for almost half an hour. We guess, calculate, look at the map to find out about possible detours. And above all: how mountainous is the route. Finally we decide to take the risk and drive on. “It is just 250 kilometres”, we think…
It is a “long ride” on a winding and miserable road. Potholes alternate with washboard tracks, parts of the road have slipped and are difficult to pass, dozens of defective trucks are standing at the roadside. Shortly after Taloqan we cross a pass, which according to the old rusty sign should have a height of 1,650 meters. It is not listed on the map.
We make annoyingly slow progress. Of course there is no petrol on the way – and also no cold drinks. Outside at the car hangs again our linen bag filled with water, which keeps its contents at least somewhat cool by the evaporation chill. It is terribly dusty, especially due to the wind. The throat is scratching and the most beautiful thing I can imagine is a big sip of ice-cold water. Around 6 pm we haven’t even managed two thirds of the distance – and in the dark I don’t want to drive up here in the wilderness at all.
The hamlet in which we arrive after sunset is called Keshem. 20 houses – maybe 30. 100 kilometres to the destination. We would like to spend the night here. Of course there is no hotel or hostel here. We place ourselves on a parking lot in the middle of the village. A few trucks are already standing here, drivers are getting ready to sleep. It is not easy for the two girls, because nobody should notice that not only men are sitting in our car. So of course I am the one who fetches water from a pump that the truck drivers use as well. To the toilet? No, not a chance for Monika and Michelle (at least not yet).
There are three of us in the vehicle – even if all three like to be close to each other – there is not enough space. It’s going to be a restless night that I finally spend across the front seats. My back hurts, nobody is well-rested, and Monika complains because she urgently needs to go to the toilet. Shortly before sunrise the trucks are gone again. We drive a few kilometres and then find a place for our morning toilet.
Yesterday I thought that the road was bad. I was wrong. Compared to what lies in ahead of us today, yesterday’s pothole stretch was something like a German motorway. Sometimes it goes on only with walking speed. The problem is not potholes – there are plenty of them. But debris is what covers most of the road. It looks as if it had rained heavily and landslides were washed onto the road from the surrounding mountains.
No village where we can get something to eat or drink, no cool, clear creek nearby. It’s a good thing that our water bag is more than half full. It is hot meanwhile and there is no shade for a rest at all. Three stomachs growl and I am about to regret the “detour” from Kabul to the northeast.
For hours a grey-brown river has been flowing to our left in the valley. According to our map it is the Koktscha River which will lead us to Faizabad. The headwaters of the Koktscha River is more than 3,500 meters above sea level in the Hindu Kush Mountains. After the inflow of several tributaries, it flows into the Amudarja as a relatively large river near the border to Tadjikistan. The water of the Koktscha ends finally in the Aral Sea.
Despite the horrible route: Without breakdowns, diversions, or accidents we reach Faizabad, the capital of the province Badakhshan at 6 in the evening. Now we are in the middle of a notorious malaria area.
It looks like there is no hotel, no information for tourists but at least a few restaurants. To get to the city centre we have to cross the river on a narrow bridge. And over there, on the other side, we see two “Guest-Houses”. It slowly gets dark and we were already warned in Kabul that here in Faizabad, at an altitude of about 1,200 meters, the nights can get bitterly cold. The guesthouse, on the right side, diagonally opposite the police station, looks trustworthy.
The owner already can see our car and hurries towards us. Oh my god! The man doesn’t speak English, but French. Now I have to dig up my unloved school French… But it works quite well, because even his French is far from perfect. Two rooms (we didn’t dare to ask for just one) for at least two days and a safe parking place for the car.In the house it is totally dark, only every now and then the weak light of a kerosene lamp helps. In the rooms we realise that no electric lighting is installed at all. From the corridor one reaches a bathroom and a toilet and there is only warm water, which obviously comes from a cistern on the roof. The owner promised to prepare us some meat skewers and a cool drink.
Half an hour later, it is now pitch dark outside, we sit on the floor in a kind of guest room in the ground floor. There are no tables, the food is served on a small carpet in our middle. Five glasses, five plastic plates and five tablespoons in our middle. So someone else seems to be coming. In fact, it only takes minutes and a couple joins us. They are our age, come from Canada and both speak fluent English and French. Both of them have been in Faizabad for several weeks and are looking for gems. They say.
From them and with their help we learn a lot about the town. Around 5,000 people are said to live here, most of them Uzbeks and Tadjiks. There is no electricity in the whole provinve – a few shops have small generators. Food and drinks are cooled in deep cellars and in the river. Tap water is also not available. Water comes from the river and small creeks or private deep wells. Somewhat above the town, however, a large cistern is under construction from which public water points in the town will be supplied in future.
It is “only” about 500 kilometres to the Chinese border in the northeast. At least five day trips and only passable with off road vehicles – that’s what the Canadians tell us. After all, the two were there and saw that there is an official border crossing. Too bad, it won’t work out for us with our VW minibus. I would have liked to drive to the Chinese border. After all, Marco Polo has already completed the route in 1274, but is said to have been on the road with his caravan for several weeks. Three years ago, a research expedition of the Graz University of Technology began mapping the area between Faizabad and the border with China, the so-called Wakhan Corridor.
Badakhshan, the province whose capital Faizabad is, is the poorest province in Afghanistan, says the host. A few sentences later, however, he explains that the region of the town of Faizabad is the number one poppy-growing region in Afghanistan. At the same time Badakhshan has the world’s largest deposits of the semi-precious stone Lapislazuli and in several mines between the city and the border to China rubies, emeralds, amethysts and gold are mined. A strange world up here in the north…
A wonderful night, restful sleep and a rich breakfast lie behind us. In the morning we realise that the Canadian couple officially lives in two separate rooms as well. Michelle, Monika and I want to walk through the village for a few hours. The market alone is a worthwhile visit. From stalls made of boards, branches and tarpaulins things are offered for sale that we would never have expected here in the northeast of Afghanistan. Spare parts for bicycles, kerosene lamps in every shape and size, hand-operated dynamos, medicines with melodious names, mechanical sewing machines, clothes in every shape, colour and size, tools, parasols and almost infinitely many other things.A bit upstream we find a large building made of natural stone. It looks like an old caravansary, with gates that seem well suited for camels. But the building seems to be empty. The frames of windows and doors rot slowly and also a kind of footbridge, down at the river, looks rotten and wobbly. We stroll through the place, here almost at the end of the world and have the feeling to be 100 or 200 years back in time. Only a few cars can be seen, most of them trucks. A lot of oxen and donkeys. The majority of the transport carts are pulled by men. Impressive is a market stall where almost exclusively bras are sold. Exhibited in front of the stand and completely unhidden.
In the early afternoon the streets and alleys are almost empty. A few children romp around in a shallow place in the water of the river. It meanwhile is unbearably hot and we flee to the inn. I am sure that the innkeeper is exaggerating, but he claims that the temperature has risen to over 40 degrees. Tomorrow we want to make our way back to Kabul and plan two overnight stays on the trip.
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 12 March 2019. It’s title will be “September 1973 – Obstacles on the Way to Kabul“.
New chapters will follow fortnightly – more than 60 will be published in total.
Dieter Herrmann, the author of this Afghanistan diary, lives in Australia, reports from there for German television stations and is editor-in-chief of the only German-language newspaper in Australia.
He is known as a media trainer for radio and television stations all over the world as well as media trainer for senior managers, officers and pilots.
To get in touch with the author and for further information on media training by Dieter and his crew please use the “contact”-button or send an email to dieter(at)australia-news.de (please replace the (at) with the @-sign!)
My first trip to Afghanistan started in the early summer of 1973. Since then I have been to the country at the Hindu Kush more than 100 times and in total have spent several years in Afghanistan. I got to know all political systems from the kingdom up to the today’s Islamic Republic.
In about 60 chapters, based on diaries and memories, I describe my experiences in the country, which has not come to a rest since 1973.
Among many other experiences, I was arrested and imprisoned twice during this time, had to live temporarily in the bunker of the Turkish embassy and had an amazing interview with Mullah Muttawakil, the personal spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Omar and later Taliban Foreign Minister.
I describe my personal feelings and doubts as well as political and human events, movements in the population and developments in the country.
Nothing about this manuscript has been invented or added – however, to avoid endangering anyone, I left out some of my experiences. I changed some names to protect friends and informants.
Whether the last chapter will ever be finished is questionable. I was supposed to be back in Kabul in 2018, but the security situation is so bad that my clients are unlikely to get me into the country. “German media trainer murdered by Taliban” would be a catastrophic headline for everyone involved.
Translation from German to English with the help of www.deepl.com