Monthly Archives: August 2021

My first trip to Iran and Afghanistan

Here is a full report of my first Iran-Afghanistan trip in 1972 [I have no photos as I didn’t own a camera, but I have attached some pictures of souvenirs from the trip]:

In February 1972 I turned 21, which was at the time the age of majority in my country Luxembourg. I had worked for Luxair Luxembourg Airlines for over two years.

I decided to celebrate my new independence by traveling as far as possible from Luxembourg and took two weeks’ leave from my job for the second half of March 1972. The company would request a free ticket for me from another airline but there was a limit to how far I could fly based on the length of time I had worked for them. Looking at a map I found that Tehran, Iran was the furthest I could go for free, and I received a ticket from Lufthansa German Airlines for that destination on their once-weekly flight.

I knew practically nothing about Iran. The country had been in the news a few months earlier, in October 1971, when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi threw an extraordinarily lavish party in the desert at Persepolis for royalty and heads of state from 60 countries. Our Grand Duke Jean and Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte, the parents of the present Grand Duke Henri, had attended, and it was prominently covered in the local media. According to the Shah the occasion was the celebration of the 2,500th year of the foundation of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great.

It was late afternoon on 16 March 1972 when I arrived at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport on a Lufthansa Boeing 727. I found a tourist information office that was just about to close for the day. A young lady, the only person on duty, was very friendly and helpful. She booked me into one of the cheaper hotels in the city and also arranged for a taxicab to take me there.

One of the first things I learned in Iran was that local people use water to clean themselves in a toilet rather than paper. At the Asia Hotel the toilet outside my room was a squat version just like our old outhouse, and there was no paper at all, only a jug of water.

I encountered a lot of other interesting things in Iran that I had never known before, and I was fascinated. Even today I fondly remember the rice dishes I ate in Iran, which were always fabulous. I was also extremely fond of Iranian pastries, and dates instantly became one of my favorite fruits.

At breakfast in the hotel on my first morning in Iran I met two young men, one of whom said he was from Kenya and the other from Kuwait. The Kenyan gave his name as Taffy. He was a few years older than I, and somehow he didn’t seem like a typical African. I learned later that his ancestors came from the Punjab, which is today divided between India and Pakistan. He told me he was on his way to Lahore in Pakistan to visit relatives there and was looking for people who would join him for the ride in his car and share expenses on the trip. The Kuwaiti was a friend of his named Mahmood who could not go with him because he had to return home to his country.

Taffy asked if I was interested in riding with him to Lahore or at least as far as Kabul in Afghanistan. Since I wanted to travel as far from Luxembourg as possible I accepted immediately. He proposed to meet again at breakfast the next morning, when he would take me to the Afghan Embassy to get visas for that country.

Later that day I walked around the area in Tehran near the hotel but I don’t remember seeing much of the city.

When I returned to the hotel in the afternoon I ran into Taffy again. He had just seen Mahmood off – I don’t remember whether it was at the airport or a train station. Taffy proposed to go to a nearby movie theater to watch one of the latest James Bond films, and since I was a Bond fan I was happy to join him. [I am not sure I remember this correctly: my memory is not clear about whether this happened in 1972 when I was with Taffy or a year later in February 1973 when I was in Tehran again by myself]

When we entered the auditorium the movie was already in progress. I remember seeing Sean Connery as Bond entering a room with a greeting of “Salam.” It turned out the film was all dubbed in Persian, with no subtitles. Taffy and I had missed that point when we bought our tickets.

At the end of the film we stayed in the auditorium for the next showing so we could watch the first part, which we had missed.

Before the movie began huge pictures of the Shah and his consort were projected to the screen, and all the spectators rose from their seats as a recording of the national anthem resounded through the hall.

The following morning after breakfast Taffy took me to his car. It was a huge American Ford Galaxie 500 XL with a 5-liter engine and Missouri/US license plates. Taffy told me he had bought the car while studying in the United States and had shipped it to England, where he had moved from Kenya with his family in the 1960s. From England he had driven the Ford across Europe and the Middle East to Saudi Arabia to perform the Islamic pilgrimage there, and then he had come to Iran via Kuwait, where he had picked up Mahmood.

At the Afghan Embassy we met a bearded young man who must have been about two meters tall. He was an American from New York who gave his name as Robert Barrett. It turned out he was also headed east, and after a brief discussion of probable costs of the trip he agreed to join us and share our expenses. Staff members at the embassy informed us that it would probably be easier and quicker to get visas from the Afghan consulate in Mashhad in eastern Iran, so we left.

Taffy and I drove back to our hotel to collect our luggage, then we picked Robert (Bob) up at his hotel and headed north out of Tehran.

The city is separated from the Caspian Sea by the Alburz Mountain range, whose highest peak is the 5,600-meter extinct volcano Demavand, Iran’s tallest. The main road north passes close to the foot of the mountain at an altitude over 2,000 meters.

I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Demavand but as we drove into the mountains the view became increasingly foggy and within a short time we were caught in a snowstorm. There were policemen on the road warning drivers of dangerous conditions further up and advising everybody to put snow chains on their tires. Luckily Taffy had snowchains in his trunk, which he had used earlier that winter while traveling on perilous roads in the mountains of Turkey.

I am not sure I remember this correctly but when we fitted the snow chains it looked to me at one point as if Bob the American held up one corner of the heavy car by himself for a moment.

We drove on through the mountains but could not see much other than a short portion of the road in front and the snow swirling around us.

Some time later we left the snowstorm behind as we traveled downhill through a forest on the northern side of the Alburz range towards the town of Amol, about 180 km from Tehran. We turned east just south of the Caspian Sea, and night fell before we reached the town of Sari.

After spending the night in a shared room at Nader Hotel in Sari we continued our journey east. I remember Bob telling us he had deserted from a US Army base in Germany and was on his way overland to Australia, where he had a girlfriend.

The weather was pleasant most of the day until some time in the afternoon when we drove up a hill on the way towards Bodjnurd, about 450 kilometers from Sari. The sky darkened and snow began to fall. Soon we couldn’t see more than 20 meters ahead. At one point I had to get out of the car to remove a large stone from the road in front. As we continued the snowfall got thicker and thicker, and a strong wind blew.

Not much later we had to stop because a car was stuck in the snow just ahead of us. Taffy got out and trudged to the front to see what was happening. He came back and told us the road was blocked by several cars that were unable to move. We had to wait for the storm to pass.

A minibus filled with passengers stopped behind us, and the driver left the engine running to keep the interior warm. We didn’t have that option because there was not much gasoline left in the Galaxie’s tank.

By the time darkness fell we were shivering in the car and we huddled together to try to keep warm. There was only one blanket, which we shared as best we could. Outside, the snow kept falling and a strong wind blew. We did not sleep much if at all that night.

By the time the sun rose in the morning the storm had let up and the sky cleared. Inside the car the windows were covered with a layer of ice from our breaths. It was very hard to open the doors as we had to push away the snow that had piled up hip deep outside, and it was impossible to keep the stuff from pouring into the car.

The engine of the minibus behind us was still running, although the driver must have stopped it once or twice during the night to top up his fuel tank from some jerrycans he had on board. Taffy, Bob and I visited the minibus and the driver allowed us to stay inside for a short while to warm up. I remember that some of the passengers carried live chickens with them.

The landscape outside was beautiful, all white. There were snowdrifts in some places on the slope more than 2-3 meters high, and even on the road it was not much less than one meter.

We scraped the ice and the snow to clear the car’s windows, and Taffy tried to start the engine. Luckily it sputtered to life after several increasingly desperate attempts.

A few hours later we saw a group of Iranian soldiers in winter uniforms approaching on skis. They all carried backpacks filled with bread, cheese and I think even some dates, which they proceeded to distribute to the people stranded in the snow. They were certainly welcome. They told us there were machines on the way to clear the road and free our vehicles but that the snow was so deep in some areas they might not be able to finish the job until the next day. They said workers were clearing a path leading down the slope on which people could walk about a kilometer or so to a place on the road where buses from nearby Bodjnurd would pick them up so they could spend the next night in the town.

As luck would have it the path branched off the road very close to where we were. Taffy got the idea we might be able to drive down that path, which Bob and I thought sounded crazy. He inspected it even as workers were clearing the stretches on the slope where the snow was too deep to walk through.

It was already late in the afternoon by the time the workers finished their job. Taffy, not wanting to wait until there were too many people on the path, decided to risk driving down in the Galaxie.

The upper part of the slope directly below the road was quite steep, so we quickly picked up speed going down. The heavy car bumped up and down so much on the very uneven path that our heads hit the ceiling several times (there were no seatbelts in those days). It got so bad we feared the Galaxie’s suspension might collapse.

Suddenly Taffy noticed the steering was not responding when he turned the wheel. The car just kept going straight no matter how much he tried to change direction. I think we were very lucky there was no major curve and the wheels didn’t turn sideways, otherwise the Galaxie would have overturned.

We breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the end of the path and were back on the road, which was covered with a layer of ice and gravel. Taffy stopped the car and we got out. Then he put a jack under the front of the Galaxie and lifted it up. He was holding a length of cable with which he hoped to fix the steering system temporarily so that we could drive down the road to Bodjnurd.

When he slid under the car I remember worrying that the jack might slip on the icy road and he would get crushed.

After a few minutes he was done. We got back in the car and slowly drove towards the town as night was falling.

In Bodjnurd we found a garage where Taffy could have the steering system welded back together. We spent the night in a shared room at Izadi Hotel, very happy to sleep in warm beds again. According to some notes I wrote down that time the room rate was 150 rials, which was about 86 Belgian francs or not much more than 2 Euros today without adjusting for inflation. Unfortunately these notes I kept cover only my spending and contain very little information about the journey and my impressions. My total budget for the trip was 4,500 francs (7,830 rials) or a little over 100 Euros.

The next morning we left Bodjnurd for Mashhad, about 270 kilometers away. This part of the trip passed without incident.

When we arrived in Mashhad we did a little bit of sightseeing. There were large crowds in town as it was Nowruz, the Iranian new year. I remember being very impressed by the huge Imam Reza Shrine complex with its golden dome but because there were so many people in the area I decided against going inside.

As I recorded in my notes we spent the night at the “Tourist Hotel” for 150 rials. The next morning we went to the Afghan consulate and were issued 15-day visas for that country. It was the second day of the first month of the year 1351 in the Iranian/Afghan Islamic solar calendar (22 March 1972 CE).

When we arrived at the Afghan border at Islam Qala I found out I needed to prove I was vaccinated against cholera. My vaccination certificate was good only for smallpox, which was all that was required for Iran. Taffy talked to one of the officials there who, for a small baksheesh, stamped the back page of my certificate with a note in the Afghan language Dari saying it was accepted.

The first thing we did after entering Afghanistan was replenish the Galaxie’s huge gasoline tank at a filling station. Bob immediately asked a young boy there if he could sell us some hashish. Sure enough, the boy disappeared briefly in the small building of the station and returned with a bag. Bob showed him some beautiful turquoise stones and within a short time they agreed on a trade.

As we drove on towards Herat, the main city in western Afghanistan, the three of us were taking puffs from joints Bob had rolled and shared with us. Even though I was a fairly heavy cigarette smoker by this time I was afraid to inhale the hashish smoke deeply as Bob and Taffy both did. It was a first for me but because I didn’t suck it into my lungs I felt almost no effect.

In Herat we found a room at the Behzad Hotel for 80 afghanis per night for two people, according to my notes. Taffy and I were planning to spend just two nights there before heading southeast to Kandahar, the country’s second largest city. Bob said he wanted to spend more time in Herat and would not continue traveling with us, so we split up and he went to look for a cheaper hotel in town. We didn’t see him or hear from him again after this.

Among the very few things I remember about Herat were young boys we encountered in many places who were asking for handouts. In Iran I had given some coins to beggars, too, as I recorded in my notes, but I think they were mostly older people or women. I also recall the open sewers in the city streets and the myriad small shops often minded by young boys. Unlike in Iran, women and girls seemed almost invisible as they either shunned the streets or were hidden inside all-enveloping burqas.

In Herat I visited a beautiful large mosque. It was the first Islamic house of worship I actually saw from the inside, as I had not entered one in Iran. I remember a local Afghan man I met there telling me that poor people were allowed to sleep in the mosque at night. This surprised me as I could not imagine our Catholic churches staying open during nights to serve as sleeping quarters. Much less could I have believed at the time that nine months later I would spend part of one night resting on some steps in the big mosque of Mecca, the Muslims’ holiest place.

After two days Taffy and I were on our way to Kandahar, about 570 kilometers away. The road, Asian Highway 1, appeared to be covered with rectangular slabs about 20 meters long, like very large tiles. There were small ridges between the slabs where they were fitted together, and the Galaxie’s tires made a popping sound every time we crossed one of those.

In many places along the way there were swarms of small birds like sparrows sitting in the middle of the road. When we approached they flew up but some of them were not quick enough and ended up smashed and stuck to the front of the car or the windshield. I asked Taffy to slow down so they would have time to escape but he seemed to be in a hurry to get to Kandahar.

At one point we stopped at a gas station to refill the Galaxie’s tank. After a short while there a scruffy-looking man walked up to us and plucked the dead birds from the front of the car, dropping them in a metal pot he carried. We assumed he was going to cook and eat them.

The weather was good and the road ahead of us seemed to glisten in the light of the sun as if it was wet. We were about halfway to Kandahar when, suddenly, this mirage became real and the car splashed into water. The road was flooded more than knee-deep over a stretch of about 50 meters, and the Galaxie’s engine quickly sputtered to a halt. — We were lucky. A bus had stopped on the far side of the flooded area and some of its male passengers were wading in the water. When they saw that our car was stuck they came to help us and pushed the Galaxie to the other side. Taffy and I thanked them profusely.

In Kandahar we stayed at Spozhmay Hotel on the main road into the city for 100 afghanis in a 2-bed room.

At the hotel we met an American hippie couple who told us that during the opium harvest the whole city smelled of the drug. Among the very few things I remember from Kandahar is a bus I once rode into town that seemed to be made mostly of wood, with chickens and some goats among the passengers.

The day after we arrived it was already 25 March, and I felt I should not continue traveling to Kabul and beyond with Taffy because I might not be able to get to Tehran in time to catch my once-weekly flight back to Europe only five days later, on a Thursday. I had to get back to my job at Luxair the following Monday, and I didn’t think I had enough money to fly back to the Iranian capital from Kabul.

The following day we left the hotel. Taffy took me to the bus station in Kandahar and then drove on towards Kabul and Lahore.

I arrived back in Herat by bus late that afternoon and went straight to Behzad Hotel, where I spent the next night, then in the morning I took another bus to the Iranian border.

At the Tayebad border post on the Iranian side I was asked to show my cholera vaccination certificate. When I showed the officials the stamp one of their Afghan counterparts had placed on the back of my document a few days earlier they were not impressed. I was immediately taken to a room in the building that looked and smelled like a dispensary. A man in a white coat prepared a needle and then jabbed it into my shoulder so hard I was sure he had hit the bone. I winced but didn’t complain. The pain, however, bothered me for quite some time afterward.

I had to wait a short while in another room where I was soon joined by a young Sikh man wearing the typical turban, two older Afghan men and a small Afghan boy. The five of us were taken by bus to Tayebad quarantine station, a place that looked like a small fort in the middle of a desert-like landscape. To tell the truth I don’t remember much about what it was like but this was the impression left in my memory.

At the station a doctor told us in English and Persian or Dari that we would undergo a test the next day and would then have to wait there for another 24 hours for the evaluation, which would show whether or not we carried a cholera infection. The Sikh man immediately protested loudly, saying his wife was sick in a hospital in Tehran and he had to get there as quickly as possible. The doctor insisted we had to wait 24 hours, but after some discussion he agreed that we could take the test right away rather than the following day.

He took each one of us to a separate room for the test. What I remember is that he asked me to stand facing a wall, and to drop my pants and underpants. Then he asked me to bend forward and hold my buttocks apart so he could insert something into my anus. It turned out to be a long stick with some gluey substance stuck to the end, which he pushed quite a long way inside. I gasped, but then I worried about how the little boy would take this treatment.

It turned out the most difficult patients were the two older Afghan men, who almost got into a fight with the doctor — or at least it sounded like that to me.

We spent the night and the following day at the station, and the next evening we were taken to Tayebad town. After this I don’t remember seeing any of them again. I found a bus that would take me to Mashhad, with very few other passengers on board.

By the time I arrived in Mashhad it was already quite late at night. I didn’t recognize any of the few places where the bus stopped in the city, so I just got off at the terminal. The streets in this area were mostly dark, with only a few lights here and there. I walked around a bit, lugging my heavy seabag and looking for anything that might be a hotel.

There were hardly any people in the streets this late in the night. I saw one man a little older than I and asked him in English if he knew a hotel in this area. He seemed to understand but answered in broken French that there were none as far as he knew. We went on to talk a little bit in French, and he told me he was a sports teacher at the Ghazali school. His name was Gholamreza Gholami, as he wrote on a little piece of paper that I still have.

He invited me to spend the night in the house nearby where he lived. I ended up sleeping alongside 8 or 9 other men on a mat on the floor of one of a few small rooms around a central courtyard in an old brick building. There was a manual pump in the middle of the yard, which we activated the next morning to get water for drinking, for tea and to wash ourselves.

After a simple breakfast Gholami and one of the other men took me in an old car to the center of Mashhad. I had told him I needed to get back to Tehran to catch a flight back to Europe. At first I considered traveling by bus or train but I was worried that if there was any kind of delay I might get to Mehrabad Airport too late to catch my flight the next day 30 March. On Gholami’s suggestion we went to an Iran Air office to see if I could fly instead. I had only 2,100 rials left but it turned out a one-way ticket to Tehran cost exactly 2,000, so I bought one and gave Gholami the remaining 100 rials.

The flight was enjoyable and uneventful but shortly after I arrived at Mehrabad Airport I almost collapsed with pain from severe stomach cramps. I also had a very bad diarrhea and had to run to the toilet every half hour or so for the rest of the day and throughout my last night in Iran. And I had no money left to buy anything to eat or drink.

Next morning I went to the Lufthansa office to check if there were seats available on the flight to Frankfurt, since I could not have a reservation. I was lucky: several places were free. A young Iranian man who worked for the airline took me aside and asked if I wanted to earn some money by doing him a favor. I guess he had noticed how miserable and disheveled I looked.

I asked him what he needed, and he said he wanted me to buy two bottles of Black & White whiskey at the local duty-free store and take them on board the airplane, where he would come to pick them up just before the flight left. [I think it was two bottles, though I don’t remember clearly and it might have been just one]. He would give me money for the purchase and a couple of hundred rials extra for myself. I happily agreed to do it, because I was quite hungry by this time. He gave me a bag in which he wanted me to place the whiskey bottles once I had boarded the plane.

After checking in I bought the two bottles of whiskey, took them on the plane and then put them in the bag the man had given me. Sure enough, shortly before the plane left the gate he came on board and took the bag with him.

When I returned home from this adventurous trip I found it hard to go back to my daily routine. Almost everything seemed boring, especially at work.

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