Dear Father and Mother,
Tehran, May Day 1973
Kabul continued to live up to its initial promise - I enjoyed it very much. I was so beside myself that I bought a fur hat (with earflaps!) for Af 200 and fur gloves (mink, no less) for Af 230, several beautiful ice cream cones for Af 10 each, a lot of one-pound plates of yoghurt @ Af 7 and innumerable donuts for Af 3. It's very humbling to find weaknesses like these, the existence of which one never suspected! I gave serious consideration to buying a carpet - or rather, a small mat - and even entered into preliminary negotiations on the subject, but I'm concerned about breaking my camel's back.
I was astonished that the Afghans represented such a pot-pourri: some look Aryan, some Semitic, some Mongoloid, the result, no doubt, of the country's chequered history of invasions. From Afghanistan to Europe, apparently, French and German as a second language are as common as English. German came in useful as a means of communication in a number of shops. In fact, many people have asked me if I am German, even when I speak to them in English. Does some evidence of my ancestry still show, or is my English really that bad?
The varied Afghan faces and the reasonably cooperative people would make it, I think, a serious photographer's paradise. Even a dilettante like myself had opportunity for some good shots. It remains to be seen whether advantage was taken of this.
It was 1700 hours on Thursday 26/4 before the Crazy Bus finally pulled out of Kabul, with a ridiculous overload of people. The trip lasted one hour and came to a grinding halt (this time with oil-pump failure) in the middle of nowhere on the beautiful American-built Kabul-Kandahar road. Jack and I, being sick of the delays and lack of organisation and straightforwardness on the part of the Frenchwoman, asked for a refund of a proportion of our fare and deserted on the spot.
As night was falling, we flagged down a Russian-built truck and agreed to pay Af 50 each for a ride to Kandahar. It was rather uncomfortable riding on very hard bags of salt and the night was bitter cold, but we were glad to be on the way. The truck stopped somewhere for 4-5 hours in the night and eventually pulled into Kandahar about 1030 hrs. K was a hot, unpleasant town but we had to fill in time until 1600 hrs for the bus to Herat. I experienced some xenophobia amongst the locals - they didn't want to serve me with curds and whey and shooed me away from their shops. Rather a contrast to the normal, grasping, tourist-oriented natives. It was Friday and perhaps they didn't want to be seen serving infidels.
The road from Kandahar to Herat was built by the Russians and the surface is not nearly so good: concrete slabs with rough bitumen joins. The long route from Kabul to Herat via Kandahar in the south is necessitated by the mountains in the middle of the country. We passed mainly though broad, tussocky plains with odd-shaped mountains, nomads etc. We bumped on into the night and stopped somewhere for a couple of hours - one would need to be a contortionist to get comfortable in one of those seats - and stopped again at dawn to pray towards Mecca.
We pulled into Herat at 0600 and paid Af 50 for an overcrowded and unreliable minibus to the border, where we spent the usual dreary hours going through formalities on both sides. At least I prefer to be in there doing my own business rather than hanging around while somebody else does it. The Iranians made us swallow three antibiotic capsules (there was some talk of cholera? in Afghanistan) and held us up so we were just in time to be too late for the bus to Mashhad. Rather than wait hours in the heat, I begged a ride for me mate and meself in a decrepit old VW Kombi with an Aust/English couple and their brat.
Mashhad was a real surprise: the contrast with Afghanistan was dramatic. It is a booming, prosperous town (or small city) with modern cars and buildings, a beautiful mosque in the centre (which we weren't allowed to visit) and the very best yoghurt I have eaten! It was also comparatively expensive - it seems our days of cheap living are over. The Iranians seem friendly enough - not nearly as bad as I had been led to believe - and all seem quite well-to-do. Just demonstrates the power of oil. No doubt slums exist, particularly in Tehran, though we haven't been motivated to seek them out.
Jack bought 36 pieces of turquoise in Mashhad (where they are found) and paid 2500 rials ($US1 = 68 Rls) as an experimental business venture. I was too unenterprising or too cautious to do the same. Nor do I feel financial enough to invest in Persian carpets.
At 1130 Sunday we took 3rd-class (wooden) seats on the train to Tehran where we arrived at 0700 Monday - a mere 19½ hours through flat, monotonous countryside, with mountains sometimes visible to the north. I slept on a very narrow luggage-rack. I would still have liked to go by way of the Caspian Sea but we decided that the time factor made it advisable to come straight on here. More soon.