Grumpy Traveller Surviving Kabul

The author felt an earthquake in his stomach after a heavy meal of naans and kababs in Kabul
Grumpy Traveller Surviving Kabul
Grumpy Traveller Surviving Kabul

In 1963, like most young men of my background and generation, I found myself in Great Britain. Carnaby Street, the Beatles, Harold Wilson, satire, Ravi Shankar. Four-letter words on television had just been discovered in London. It was a great time to be in a country in the throes of a social revolution.

Nine years later, no wiser or richer, I decided to return home. I had just enough money for an air-ticket but for reasons I cannot quite explain, I was persuaded to take the hitch-hikers&rsquo route to my native town, Lucknow.

From London to Istanbul I relied entirely on the kindness of strangers in cars. Since time was of little consequence, the journey took over three weeks. In Istanbul, however, hitch-hiking was no longer an option. Between the capital of Turkey and the capital of Afghanistan, I travelled by train, bus and foot.

It was called the Land Route. In the early 1970s, adventure, not to mention danger, was ensured on it. I started alone from Victoria station in London, but by the time I arrived in Kabul we were a diverse band of hardened travellers. Hippies, now virtually extinct, made excellent travelling companions provided you didn&rsquot ask them for their money or their girlfriend.

Chicken Street in Kabul &ndash it still exists &ndash possessed a café called Pudding Shop. There 10 of us met with maps, compasses, guide books and visa-forms, planning our journey through the Khyber Pass into Peshawar, then to Lahore and finally to the Wagah Border.

Money was running out fast. We lived in a &lsquosarai&rsquo. It was incredibly filthy, a large hall with dormitory-style beds. The bed-sheets had six inches of grime and the mattresses had bugs. Goats and cockroaches added to the squalor. Happily, such living conditions were by now the norm.

I first ate at the Pudding Shop, but on the second day I could not resist the smell of hot naan and kabab. The Afghani naan is three times the size of its Indian counterpart, the mutton kabab smaller. I indulged myself shamelessly.

Thirty years on my memory is slightly hazy. I remember posters of Hindi films, crowded bazaars, few soldiers, plenty of rotund women&hellip. Politics and the state of the nation was the last thing on my mind. The only concern you have on an inter-continental journey is how cheaply you can get to the next town.

With naans and kababs in my belly, I fell asleep. Just after midnight, I felt an earthquake in my stomach. I rushed to the bathroom. I had the shits. I spent the night and the next week between bed and bathroom. I thought I was going to die. Bananas, a local white powder, soda water, prayer&hellip nothing worked. The group I was with waited 24 hours, then left. So I was all alone in a squalid &lsquosarai&rsquo, clutching my stomach and crying.

Miraculously, on the tenth day, the dysentery was gone. On the eleventh day I was fit to walk. My first port of call was the barber shop. I had a beard longer than Mr bin Laden&rsquos. The barber gave me a massive hair cut and shave, with marked reluctance. I then had a bath, wore clean clothes and headed for the only 5-star joint in town, Kabul Hotel.

Clean plates, clean table cloth, clean napkin, fancy menu, a big buffet. This was luxury. I was going to treat myself, having of course carefully calculated the damage to my budget. The waiter suggested I try the speciality of the day naan and kebabs

I needed a visa to continue. The official at the Pakistan High Commission looked harassed. He was stamping passports with scarcely a glance. I discovered a group of 20 Brits. Could I smuggle my passport through with their bunch Alas, the subterfuge didn&rsquot work. The official spotted my passport, looked at my face and refused the visa. He offered a cup of tea in exchange.

My hitch-hiking thus came to an abrupt halt. For a land routewallah I did the indefensible I took a flight. I arrived at Lucknow railway station via Amritsar, with four rupees and 13 annas in my pocket.

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