June 1973 – The workshop by the river Something cracked. Loudly. Monika just develops a big bump on her head, Michelle’s tears run down her face. The door at my side can be opened easily. The two girls also get out and together we walk around the car. We must have just driven over a

June 1973 – The workshop by the river

Something cracked. Loudly. Monika just develops a big bump on her head, Michelle’s tears run down her face. The door at my side can be opened easily. The two girls also get out and together we walk around the car. We must have just driven over a trunk of a tree a few seconds ago – or maybe flown over. Our driver sobs, trying to explain that she saw the trunk placed across the road too late. It’s a black night and only now do we see a few men standing around us. One of them offers us hot tea from a tin bowl. Michelle’s tears drip into the steaming liquid.

We’re back at a checkpoint. Again we have to sign the big book and again pay our 20 Afghani for the use of the road. One of the men tries to wiggle our front wheels, looks satisfied. Everything seems to be in order. Or not at all: the rim on the front right wheel has a strong bump and now I can also hear how slowly and hissing the air escapes from the tyre. The wheel has to be replaced. Tools are ready to hand, one of our spare tire is fixed at the front of the car on its holder. Less than ten minutes later the new wheel is mounted and we can continue. I want to drive – Monika still doesn’t feel like driving, doesn’t want to drive in the dark anyway and Michelle, as she looks at the moment, wouldn’t be able to take the wheel again. The shock seems to be quite deep.

It takes only a few meters to know: There was more damage to the front axle. I have trouble keeping the car in track, it always tries to break out to the right. Flashlight in one hand I crawl under the VW and it become clear: both a steering rod, which is essential for the steering, and the stabiliser, which is supposed to control the lateral inclination of the body in curves, are heavily bent. We can’t drive as far as Kabul with it. No way. If the damaged tie rod breaks, the vehicle will definitely get out of controll possibly pushing us against a rock or into an abyss. So better slow and carefully on the way to Kandahar?!

After a little of testing the adequate speed it turns out that I can drive at about 40 km/h without losing control. Neither me nor Michelle and Monika didn’t look for signs – we have no idea how far it is to Kandahar. The woman next to me has calmed down halfway and I carefully try to figure out how her crash with the tree trunk could have happened. Very soon it becomes clear that our vehicle was all alone on the road, but she still didn’t turn on high beam. I had mounted additional headlights in Berlin especially for routes like this. “Michelle, why not, you don’t have the eyes of an eagle? And then comes her amazing explanation: “I wanted to save electricity”. I take a deep breath to explain something about the power supply in the car. Then I breathe audibly out again, put my hand carefully on hers and think to later talk to her about power supply in vehicles.

It is midnight now. After a long turn the second largest city of Afghanistan finally appears in front of us. Around 120,000 people live in a huge oasis. The border to Pakistan, in the southeast of the city, is only 100 kilometres away. Somewhere there should be a hotel with the name “New Tourist Hotel”. Not so easy to find the house in such a big city. Even after midnight, when nobody is on the street anyway. Michelle spots a sign. The hotel. So her eyes are really not to blame.

Just before two o’clock. We are standing in front of the hotel. In the inner courtyard voices can be heard. English. A metal door that I knock on and a friendly face that opens the door. There is a room for us. Separate beds for women and man of course – says the man with the nice face. And it’s supposed to cost 10 dollars a night. Allegedly there would even be a shower on the corridor. With as little noise as possible we carry parts of our luggage up to the room. Again the car can be parked in the inner courtyard. And then there are no beds at all in the room. A shaky but big table without chairs and a mattress of approximately 2 x 2 meters. Just right. We chat a little and cuddle, comfort each other and then fall asleep quickly. The night will be short, in the morning we have to look for a workshop.

I wake up just before eight. Bathed in sweat. It’s hot, like in a sauna. The sun is shining right through our window. In one corner of the room there is a fan. Last night we must have missed it. The propeller brings at least some relief. I feel like having breakfast, but let Monika and Michelle sleep. First a shower. A bit down the corridor toilets and washrooms. The “shower” is simply a pipe that comes out of the ceiling. With the help of two chains I can open and close the tap. The water is lukewarm, the tank is probably on the roof, but wonderfully wet and refreshing. As I creep back into the room, the women are awake. After ten minutes both are showered and ready for a cup of tea or coffee and some bread. How nice it is to travel with girls who don’t have to make up or style their hair every morning!

A hand-painted sign points us to the “Breakfast Room”. In reality it is not a room but the inner courtyard, in which a few tables and chairs are set up. The shadow of the building still lies over the courtyard and the air is pleasantly fresh. There is green tea and flat bread with feta cheese and tomatoes. We are asked if we would like a glass of juice. Of course! What kind of juice? “Oh, we have banana, strawberry, pomegranate, apple and melon. All good for juice.” Minutes later there is a small jug of pomegranate juice on the table. Delicious, cool and absolutely fresh. Wonderful!

Kabul-River today. In Summer 1973 the water was still absolutely clean. – Photo: Koldo

I ask the hotel owner for a workshop. As almost everywhere in Asian countries, most garages are close together in a “business”-quarter. He tells me the way – it seems to be easy to find. I offer the two girls that I could go alone let them relax a bit, shop or drink freshly squeezed juice. Monika stays in the hotel, Michelle wants to join me, and it seems to me as if she has a guilty feeling because of the overlooked tree on the road. More than half an hour we cruise through Kandahar. Left turns make quite a bit of trouble, right turns go by themselfes. Then suddenly one workshop next to the other. There is a “real” VW-service only in Kabul, but VW signs can be seen on several buildings. It looks as if they have long since adjusted to the people on the “Hippie Trail”.

One of these mechanic booths seems to us to be particularly inspiring. We try it. Nobody speaks English here, but after I have crawled under the car with one of the mechanics, it’s clear what the problem is. Curiously they look at the track rod, bump in the rim and the interior of our car. But much interested are the three guys in Michelle. Obviously. Even as she does not correspond to the Afghan beauty ideal at all. Neither does she have particularly large breasts, nor a big butt. Posters and pictures in the newspaper suggest that big boobs and a “massive” bottom are what men in Afghanistan dream on. Television does not yet exist in this country…

The front right track rod, the connection from the steering to the right front wheel, is removed. It should be absolutely straight, but it’s not at all. Just bending it straight again, that could be dangerous. If the material is too brittle, the rod will break. With a welding torch the metal is warmed up to shortly before red heat. Then they carefully straighten it. Not bad! But I am still sceptical. If the rod is partially fractured by the accident, it could break completely at the next pothole or at the next bump. The right front wheel would not be controllable any more.

It’s damned difficult to explain: I want them to reinforce the 40 or 50 centimetre long tie rod for safety’s sake. Either a suitable iron pipe must be pushed over the rod and welded, or two flat irons must be fastened accordingly. Somehow it is possible to explain my wish and a short time later one of the three arrives with an iron pipe. Michelle has withdrawn into the car. Does the staring get on her nerves? Loud hammering besides me. They pulled the tire off the rim and now one of the men tries to straighten the rim with a sledgehammer. It works. After two or three minutes everything looks normal again, the tyre comes on again and after another ten minutes we know that it is tight again. At least there are no air bubbles in the water bath into which the wheel is pressed.

One of the mechanics comes in with a big bag of onions, a few tomatoes and eggs. He will make lunch they want us to join them. Sure, we do. A few tennis ball sized onions are peeled and chopped, the tomatoes are cut into fine pieces and all this is fried in hot oil. After a few minutes a few beaten eggs over it. Done. Some salt and crushed chilli and it tastes good.

That’s it! The stabiliser remains as it is, I would like to have the new adjustment of the front axle done at VW in Kabul. They charge us about 500 Afghani, almost 30 Marks. Lunch included. Probably completely overpriced?! Back in the car Michelle flings her arms around my neck, hugs me and gives me back the money I just paid for the repair. Not bad either. All of it.

It’s early afternoon and I have the feeling I can’t stand the heat. The small thermometer hanging in the garden of the hotel indicates 44 degrees Celsius in a shady place. In our room it is much hotter, despite the fan. The only way to survive seems to be just lying in the shade and drinking cool fruit juice. That’s exactly what we do, we decide to stay one more night and drive on towards Kabul tomorrow morning. There are still about 500 kilometres ahead of us. If we start early, we should be able to do it in one day.

In the evening I manage to call Berlin for the first time after a number of weeks. The call had to be registered with the post office hours before. In the evening at six the (of course manually switched) connection came through. All well at home, our newspaper articles appear regularly, but the one from Tehran was illustrated with a photo from Istanbul.

In the morning the three of us are already on our feet at five o’clock. The luggage is quickly stowed away in the car and shortly afterwards we are “on the road again” without breakfast. Right in front of us the sun slowly rises, Michelle teaches us a not quite decent English song and the car drives almost straight. We can go with 100 km/h again – but we still have to watch out for fords. The landscape is quite monotonous. Desert, scree, a few mountains and shortly before we reach the town of Ghazni, it is already early afternoon, we see a long camel caravan, loaded with crates, boxes and carpets.

About a dozen kilometres before we reach the capital. We are approaching Kabul from the west. The traffic gets denser, many taxis on the roads and soon we reach the Kabul River. Over rapids the clear water rushes towards the city centre. The road runs parallel to the river almost all the time. Markets on the right and left, women washing their clothes in the river. First of all I would like to go to the VW dealer’s workshop. Maybe we’ll have to make an appointment? Our Volkswagen manual says that the workshop should be located a little east of the city centre, directly on the right bank of the river. That’s exactly where we find it. A huge blue VW sign and brand new cars in front of the door.

A man with blond hair approaches us, sees our Berlin license plate and greets us in German. A few minutes later the car is placed on the lifting platform, the workshop boss and me underneath. “We don’t have a new track rod here, but the repair looks good,” he says. “We don’t do anything there. The stabiliser can’t be straightened, it would probably break. With this construction you can still drive halfway around the world without any problems”. We agree that we will come back tomorrow and that the due inspection will be done here and the front axle will be newly adjusted. The workshop is impressive. So clean one could eat from the floor. The German, he tells us a little later, is not the boss, but a trainer sent from Wolfsburg.

Off towards the hotel. Already in Tehran we had been recommended the Green Hotel in Chicken Street. It should be located in the middle of the city and be the best of the affordable ones. The further we get towards the city centre, the more colourful the hustle and bustle becomes. There doesn’t seem to be any dress code here in the capital. Women with Burkha are to be seen as well as Afghan women with a simple headscarf or with open hair, with T-shirt and jeans. Men and women go hand in hand – at least in Kandahar this would have been “unseemly”. There are guys with turban, others with hat or cap. Most of them simply without any headgear.

Translated with the help of www.DeepL.com/Translator

The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 4 December 2018. It’s title will be “Jun3 1973 – Is that what paradise looks like?”.
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.

Dieter Herrmann

Translation from German to English with the help of www.deepl.com

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