A differentAfghanistan A different Afghanistan

Impressions and photos from Afghanistan in the late 1960's

Text & photos: Erik Pontoppidan
Copyright: Erik Pontoppidan

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Market i Kabul in early spring, 1969.

I remember a different Afghanistan. A country without roadside bombs and NATO soldiers. A peaceful and exciting country, which fully satisfied my expectation of an adventurous destination. A country, which still today - more than 40 years after my visit - evokes images of a peaceful and friendly, but strong-willed desert people drinking tea, smoking hookah, playing chess or riding in the desert with their camels. And in the horizon the ever-visible blue desert mountains. Or - in the Kabul horizon - the snowy, very high Hindukush mountain range. If there had been no war in Afghanistan since the 1970’s, the country would definitely have been close to the top on the list of exotic and adventurous destinations.

We are in February, 1969. I am on my way by land from Copenhagen Central Station by public transport along “The Overland Hippie Trail" to Kathmandu in Nepal. I have been travelling by train and bus, crossing mountains and deserts through Europe, Turkey and Iran and have now reached the border of Afghanistan. So far, it has been a tough, but exciting trip. The cold in the city of Erzurum in the Anatolian highlands of Eastern Turkey was much worse than the Danish winter, and the further eastward journey was delayed a couple of days due to huge masses of snow near Mount Ararat. However, after the border town of Dugboyazit, the temperature rose remarkable, and when we reached the Iranian capital of Tehran, there were spring temperatures.

From Tehran, I went by train to the northeast city of Mashhad, where I got my visa to Afghanistan. The bus from Mashad to the Afghan border went through a foggy desert landscape on miserable dirt roads to a no man's land near the border, where we waited for hours in the darkness. Finally, the border was opened, and we drove into the promised land. First to the city of Herat, and later southwards in fog and cold. But after passing a certain mountain pass, the weather changed radically, and suddenly, we were driving through a sunny and hot desert landscape with plenty of turban-dressed Afghans along the road with their camels.

In the late afternoon - just before sunset - the bus stopped in the town of Geresk, which at that time looked like a scene from “One Thousand and One Nights”. The town gave an impression of harmony, with people sitting along the streets drinking tea, smoking hookah and playing chess. Later in the evening, we arrived to Kandahar. What I primarily remember from Kandahar was the smell of shish kebab and firewood mixed with the sound of bicycle bells in the warm evening.

Street in Geresk in Afghanistan in early spring, 1969.

Like today, Kabul was a dirty and noisy city. I clearly remember the characteristic smell of the city, which was a mixture of the stench from the open sewers in the streets and the bulging fruit and vegetable markets. Unlike today, Kabul was not more dangerous than any other city in Europe.

The trip further eastwards through the legendary Khyber Pass into Pakistan was an experience of great contrasts. After numerous hairpin bends, an area as flat as a ground floor became visible at the end of the mountains, apparently continuing endlessly eastwards. We were now approaching India - and it was a great experience to have traveled all the way without flying!

On the way with the local bus between Herat and Kandahar in early spring, 1969.

This was about 1/10.000 of what I saw on the trip. Compared to today's transport where most people enter a plane and arrive to their destination a few hours later, the trip was hard and strenuous, but it left very deep impressions to those who made it. To several, the trip along “The Overland Hippie Trail" became a substantial part of their education, and for my part, the trip had decisive influence on many of my later attitudes, habits and routines.

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