April 27, 1978. Around midday, the Afghan military attacked its own Presidential Palace, overthrowing and killing then-President Daoud Khan. That coup and counter-rebellions led to the 10-year Soviet invasion of Afghanistan starting Christmas Eve, 1979. Afghanistan has been at war ever since.
Rewind seven months to September, 1977. My parents, Alec and Jan Forman, had just crossed the border from Iran to Afghanistan on their year-long overland travel across Africa, Europe, and Asia. Between 10 years of Soviet occupation, continued civil unrest with the Taliban rule, and U.S. intervention since 2001, the Afghanistan my parents explored has vanished. By 2001, more than 50% of Afghan villages had been deserted, with 80% of the roads destroyed.
Their memoirs describe a way of life, stunning landscapes, and experiences that are either inaccessible to Western visitors today or no longer exist.
Afghanistan was not on my parents’ original route to India, and they had not researched the country much. At their first stop at a campsite in the grounds of a hotel in Herat, they met Jean-Luc and Martine, a Swiss couple, and Simon and Rose, a fellow English couple.
Two routes led from Herat to Kabul — north and south. My parents decided to team up with Jean-Luc and Martine and Simon and Rose and take a third route, a 900 mile cross-country central trail into the Hindu Kush pass. According to the law, they had to travel in convoy and apply for papers to cross this remote area, which they did.
Their journey met a rocky start as Simon and Rose’s vehicle lost a wheel on the first day, damaging their brake drum and causing the couple to break with the convoy and head back to the paved routes. The convoy was down to two, both Land Rovers, travelling through the rugged and beautiful countryside.
“We drove through stunning valleys, passes, and gorges. We saw many nomadic encampments with black tents pitched and fires glowing brightly where the women were cooking,” my mum Jan recalls. “Children ran to the roadside, waving excitedly to welcome us. We waved back with joy.”
To celebrate my mum’s 26th birthday in September, 1977, my parents stayed at Band-e Amir and hired horses to ride around the lakes and enjoy the spectacular landscape.
Their onward route took them past farmland, villages, graveyards, and lorries packed with merchandise and people. They stopped to explore villages, a water-powered flour mill, and crossed one very precarious bridge.
A few times, the terrain posed immense challenge. My dad recalls one such misadventure:
“At a fork in the road we unknowingly chose the wrong track. A group of children waved us down and pointed in the other direction. The correct track was a narrow, rough road that climbed steeply and zigzagged over the pass. We then drove deep down into a tight gorge to follow the path of the river. The Land Rovers were literally climbing one wheel after the other over huge rocks that lay on the dry riverbed.
“Then — behold — we turned a corner, still in the shadow of the walls of the gorge, and saw ahead the Minaret of Jam towering high in all its glory, centre-stage in the spotlight. The steep walls of the gorge framed the spectacle in the V-formation, backlit by the bright sunlight beyond.”
At another spot, my parents attempted a rugged route in search of a majestic view — only to have their Land Rover nearly tip over a steep ravine.
Beyond sight-seeing, my parents loved interacting with local people on their travels. They made time to host or help as circumstances allowed, and were helped by locals many times in return.
At one stop in Afghanistan, a woman in an intricate traditional dress knocked on their Land Rover with a horrible toothache, asking for help. They helped her and one other woman with some clove oil and paracetamol. Word spread, and the next morning my parents had a line of patients with medical ailments. My mum, a nurse, helped each one as best she could with their supplies. Their last patient, a twenty-something man who was very weak and ill, was brought by his elderly father. My parents ended up taking him along with them to the next hospital, two days’ drive.
In another rural area, they struck up a conversation with a man who invited them into his home to serve them tea. Made of thick mud walls, the house was centered around a chimney and fire fuelled by dried plants, dung patties, and wood. Their curious hosts consisted of the couple and their two toddlers, two elderly women and several pregnant teenage girls.
“The young man’s wife kindly gave us each a glassful of sweet black tea,” my mum recalls. “She then took down a bundle from a shelf hollowed in the mud wall and knelt down, placing it on her lap. I was intrigued. From out of the small rolled-up, woven rug she took a wonderful loaf of bread. Tearing off a hunk, she handed it to one of the pregnant girls to pass on to me and repeated the same for Alec, Jean-Luc, and Martine too.
“As we took our time to sip the tea and eat the delicious bread, I felt privileged and humbled by the generosity of these villagers.”
Since the coup in 1978, Afghanistan has vastly changed. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan starting on Christmas Eve, 1979, caused millions of Afghans to flee as refugees, with 100,000 Soviet troops occupying the land for a decade, and one million civilians killed. Civil war continued from the Soviet Union’s withdrawal (1989) until the Taliban’s takeover and the U.S. invasion. By 2001, more than 50% of the population had been affected by displacement, injury, or death, and many of the villages my parents passed through are now deserted.
Beyond the human cost, priceless cultural sites are at risk, including one of their favourite sites was visiting the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two colossal Buddha statues chiseled into towering sandstone cliffs. The statues — the largest Buddha figures in the world — date back to the 6th century. In March 2001, the Taliban obliterated the statues as part of a campaign to eliminate non-Islamic relics from the land.
When travelling internationally, peace and stability are never guaranteed, but with a little humility and adventure, you can make memories and connections to last a lifetime.
During this portion of their near 40,000 mile journey, travelling in convoy also proved to be a huge advantage as they were able to share knowledge and supplies with their fellow travellers. Jean-Luc and Martine had extensively researched the area and were able to share travel knowledge with Alec and Jan. My parents’ skill sets — as a mechanic and nurse — were immensely valuable in return, as their companions faced mechanical troubles and did not have the training to make vehicle repairs on their own. The benefit of the overland community in assisting each other continues to this day, making long, solo ventures less alone.
Interested in what comes next? Alec and Jan’s next chapter takes them to the highest road in the world — atop the Himalayas — where they find a rule that’s worth breaking. Read more or purchase the book, ‘Strangers Like Angels: With a Devil or Two to Boot’.