August 1973 – Journey into the past Although it is only a little more than 500 kilometres from Kabul to Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan province, other travellers have told us that it could take us three or four days, depending on the weather. In the very north-east of Afghanistan, they tell us, one should

August 1973 – Journey into the past

Although it is only a little more than 500 kilometres from Kabul to Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan province, other travellers have told us that it could take us three or four days, depending on the weather. In the very north-east of Afghanistan, they tell us, one should feel like in a completely different world.

The sun has hardly risen when we check out of the Green Hotel. Little traffic on the streets of Kabul and a bit later, on the road to the north. Up to Charikar, about 70 kilometres north of the capital, we already know the route. Here we passed the mountains on our way to the Buddha statues near Bamiyan. Instead of turning left again, we now drive straight ahead, further north.

I haven’t seen street signs in English since shortly after Kabul. But we can’t really go wrong, there is only one big road up here in the mountains. Serpentines, hairpin bends and great views alternate. At some point the Salang tunnel should appear in front of us. According to the map, it is only about 60 kilometres from Charikar to the tunnel. But it’s slow again, the road is narrow and bad and overtaking one of the smoking uphill creeping trucks is always a risk.

Southern entrance into Salang-Tunnel in 2007 – Photo: nigelito

Then finally: in the early afternoon we dive into the tunnel. The two and a half kilometre long tunnel tube was not finished until 1965. After a transit agreement between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, it was largely paid by the government in Moscow. It is the highest road tunnel in the world and in a pretty bad condition. We can’t see much, because the tube is hardly ventilated. The thick smoke plumes from the exhaust pipes of the trucks and buses limit the visibility to a few meters. I can’t see or feel whether the road has a firm surface. Deep, large potholes line up next to each other. Many truck drivers seem to know literally every bump in here. They turn virtuously around the deepest holes, often using the full width of the oncoming lane.

There is no lighting here, breathing is slowly becoming difficult. What will only happen if there is an accident or simply a traffic jam in here? People could suffocate, because especially in the freezing winters up here, no Afghan driver will voluntarily turn off his engine. When we finally see daylight again, we have reached the province of Baghlan and are at an altitude of almost 4,000 meters. The sun on our left is glistening over the mountain peaks. Here and there snow spots can be seen on the northern slopes. Right in the valley, not yet visible for us, there should rush a river. According to the map it bears the name Darah-Ye Du Shakh, which is almost inexpressible for us. It is time to eat something.

At the roadside there are small wooden stalls. In Germany these would be “motorway service stations”. Trucks park in front and in between. We choose the most beautiful stall. Directly behind the restaurant the river rushes. It smells of grilled meat and spicy soup. In the hut there is a carpet on the floor and as soon as we have a look around the corner, we are asked to sit down. A kind of oilcloth is spread out between Monika, Michelle and me, a jug of water and three glasses placed on it. Water. Where does that come from? Most probably from the river behind the wooden house. And where are the toilets?

In the end all three of us drink it and it tastes good. But much better are the meat skewers that lie in front of us after a few minutes. Minced meat, apparently mixed with onions and green herbs, is kneaded around flat, sword-shaped metal rods. Of course there is bread – but completely different from that in Kabul. The flat cakes are much darker inside and have a stronger taste. As in Kabul, this bread is called Naan, but here in the north it is made with millet flour instead of wheat flour. After half an hour we are well saturated and want to go on. The owner of the “Highway Restaurant” demands the equivalent of almost five Deutschmark from us. Differently than for example in Turkey, the salesmen and waiters here in Afghanistan seem to not make mercilessly inflated “special prices” for foreigners.

We’d still like to drive to Pol-E-Chomri. According to our map, this is a somewhat larger city where there are certainly hotels. About 100 kilometres should lie ahead. It goes well and the curves are even more brutal than the ascent to the Salang tunnel. The hairpin bends are so tight in some places that buses have trouble getting around the bend in one go. If there is oncoming traffic, one of the vehicles always has to wait. The river is now to our left, the landscape remains fascinating and I am always tempted to stop to take pictures. Unfortunately we can’t, as we would like to have one (or two?) hotel rooms before nightfall.

At the Salang-Tunnel in May 2014 – Photo: seair21

Then we just barely make it. The sun has set behind the river and mountains minutes ago as we reach the city. Pol-E-Chomri is much bigger than we expected and already after a few hundred meters in the city streets the signs of at least three hotels can be seen. Most of the houses are built of clay, none of the buildings is higher than two floors. Lorries and carts dominate the street scene. The first hotel is already the right one for us. There is hopefully a safe parking place for the car and two rooms for us. Michelle’s cautious objection that one room would be enough for the three of us is ignored by the owner. At the reception there is a typewritten sheet of paper with information about the city. After that Pol-E-Chomri is the capital of Baghlan province and an important traffic junction. A good 25,000 people are said to live here. Many of the men work in the large cement factory built with financial help from Czechoslovakia. The first such factory in Afghanistan. Just outside the town there is a coal mine that has been in operation for decades.

Compared to Kabul, it feels like we made a journey into the last century. Men on horseback on the dusty road, donkey and oxen teams, tractors like from the fifties and craftsmen working with tools that in Central Europe can only be found in museums.

Michelle has toothache and needs a dentist. The hotel owner says there are even two and describes the way to the dentist he thinks is better. It is less than ten minutes on foot and his practice can be seen from afar. On the façade of the house hangs a large metal sign with a painted picture of an oversized molar. At the bottom of the building is a pharmacy and there we ask for the doctor. “That’s me,” says the pharmacist in understandable English. “Go up the stairs and wait a few minutes.” He is serving a woman who is presenting a prescription and giving her an antibiotic.

One floor up, there are a few old-fashioned chairs. This must be the waiting room. Next to it is a small corridor closed by a curtain. Obviously the surgery. After a few minutes the dentist arrives, opens the curtain and asks Michelle to his treatment chair. Monika is allowed in – I have to stay outside but the curtain remains open. The practice has certainly seen better days. The seat and back of the chair have been scraped off and torn open in some places. After all, it is hydraulically adjustable – even if it is not really functional. Pedals are used to pump the seat slightly upwards and the backrest to the rear. Something seems to be leaking, Michelle sinks slowly down again, including the chair. She has sweat on her forehead. Maybe she saw the drill. An electric motor is mounted slightly away. From there, via a complicated joint system, a flexible shaft runs to the handle. The doctor, a pharmacist a moment ago, doesn’t even know where Michelle is in pain, but he takes the drill which looks like it went out with the ark into his hand. I sneak into the treatment room, the doctor recognises, but doesn’t say anything.

She looks at the “doctor” with her anxious eyes almost the size of a soup plate and tries to explain that it is one of her molars that causes her pain. By lightly tapping with a kind of spoon, the right tooth is quickly found. Since the nearest X-ray machine is probably located in Kabul for about a day’s journey south, the dentist has no choice but to drill open and then take a look inside the tooth.

The prehistoric drilling machine makes as much noise as a propeller plane. The specialist presses a small spray bottle of water into my hand to cool the drilling site, while Michelle clings to the armrests of the chair. Making noises like “Häängr, häängr” – or alike. The drill has made it through into the cavity of the tooth, the nerve seems to be completely intact, Michelle rears up, the doctor shrugs back, a scream echoes through the pharmacy building.

After the girl has slowly regained her breath, she lets the man get back to her tooth. Without the drill. With the directed light of his head lamp and a mirror, “Herr Doktor” tries to examine the inside of the tooth. Result: slight inflammation, nerve has to be removed, tooth has to be filled. Oh ah! “Nerve must go out”, doesn’t sound good at all. “No problem at all”, the dentist tries to calm Michelle down. He would have a wonderful anaesthetic to pull the nerve “completely painless”.

Now the woman, with whom I am still freshly in love, trembles. But she doesn’t want to drive into the unknown with toothache – and she doesn’t want to go back to Kabul either. The pharmacist comes with a mysterious bottle but Michelle asks for an injection. He gives an unequivocal answer: “No way!”. All he has left is enough anaesthetic for two injections – and he has to save that for really difficult cases.

Time to think about it for Michelle, because a bell rings downstairs in the shop. She reaches for my hand, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I’ll do it,” she agrees to the special anaesthesia. Doctor comes back, looks at her questioningly – she nods. A wire with a piece of cloth at the end is dipped into the bottle, the tooth dabbed with the liquid. Two or three times. Then a kind of very firm tweezers is used, Michelle twitches, cramps, but keeps her mouth wide open. Gosh, what power has the woman in her hand! Sweat beads on her forehead and with a triumphant look the nerve hanging from the tweezers is presented.

What kind of narcotic was that? Something like hydrogen-chloride-ether perhaps? Then everything goes very fast. The inside of the tooth is cleaned mechanically and chemically and almost painlessly. Then comes the filling, which is painstakingly mixed by hand. The mass is pressed firmly into the cavity. Finished. Michelle is not allowed to eat for six hours and only drink water. The bill is presented – Michelle has to pass almost 20 US dollars over the counter of the pharmacy.

Rest for the evening. Monika and I don’t eat out of solidarity either. The next morning we want to get up early. There are still more than 300 kilometres to Faizabad. It could be close, but we want to try to cover the distance in one day..

The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 26. February 2019. It’s title will be “August 1973 – Faizabad – The Road to China“.
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) (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

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