Chapter 18: Afghan Journey

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by Dr. Sydney Ellerton

Afghanistan. So remote and, as I thought, unattainable. It had fascinated me ever since I had followed the work of the great Russian botanist N.I. Vavilov. He studied the question of the origin of our crop plants. He had the idea that, if you mapped the genetic variation in a species, it would be possible to identify a ‘centre of diversity’, and that this was likely to be the point of origin of the crop. I had become slightly involved with this kind of work myself, for in my Ph.D. thesis there are  maps showing the geographical range of certain genes in bread wheat. In some cases it was even possible to trace the spread of genes across central Asia along the old silk routes. Vavilov’s work pinpointed two areas in the Old World, which appeared to have been vastly important in the origin of our food plants. Both remote mountain areas, they were Afghanistan and Abyssinia, later to be known as Ethiopia. Harry Harlan had explored an important part of Abyssinia in the early 1920’s and had stirring tales to tell. I was never a plant explorer and never got to Abyssinia, but in 1965 came a chance to go to Afghanistan not as a plant explorer but engaged in a feasibility study. It was only for a couple of weeks it is true, but it was an exciting prospect. The country still appeared to be politically stable. The king still reigned and the communists had not gained control and it is sad to think of what happened to the country later. My reason for going was that our Overseas Development Administration had given a grant for a study of possible sugar beet development in the country.

I flew to Tehran, where I had previously been more than once on my way to and from Pakistan. Then there was an ancient DC6 to take me to Kabul. People used to make fun of Ariana Airlines, the Afghan national airline, saying that if you could see the ground between the floorboards, it was not wise to travel. It did look a bit tatty, but otherwise seemed to be acceptable. The weather was clear and for once there was an excellent view of the ground below, out of the window, not through the floorboards!

Northern Iran is mostly desert, with occasional inland lakes encrusted with salt. Here and there were the bright green patches of rectangular fields surrounding a village and one could trace the remarkable irrigation system: tunnels under the sand which carried water without loss by evaporation. These had been built and maintained for centuries, with a considerable loss of life through cave­ins and other accidents. The line of the tunnel could be traced from the occasional points of access from the surface.

As Afghanistan was approached it became mountainous and the mountains got higher and higher, until the peaks were snow-covered. They looked rocky and bleak and it was easy to understand what a problem such a country would be to an invader. Down in the valleys were narrow strips of cultivation hugging the rivers and here and there a village of what appeared to be adobe houses, built each as a square looking into a central courtyard. It went on like this to the very portals of the capital, Kabul.

Afghanistan is a strange country, set up as a buffer state between Persia, Tsarist Russia and British India. The people clearly show this diverse origin: in the north, there were slit-eyed, round-faced Asiatics akin to those of Russian Turkestan. In the east there were tall proud­looking Pathans, like those in the north-west frontier areas of Pakistan. In the south and west the people were indistinguishable from Iranians. Languages were correspondingly varied. They all seemed to meet in Kabul, where there was a very clear social stratification, with the mongoloid types clearly at the bottom of the ladder. With a geography like this, the Afghans had become adept in playing one great power against another, in particular getting the Soviets and the Americans into a competition in financing all kinds of capital developments in the hope of getting a friendly ear. It was already obvious, though, that the Russians were building trunk roads to their frontier, roads that were to prove vital when hostilities later broke out.

The broad Kabul River flows through the city, bounded by some fine, though rather run-down buildings which seemed to date from around the turn of the century: buildings often with considerable style, incongruously roofed with corrugated iron. The main city centre though, was a crowded area similar to what I had already seen in Pakistani cities, with open-fronted shops cheek-by-jowl. Shops for each particular commodity were grouped together in one area and there were no general stores. There was one big difference, though, and that was that there were no draught animals, no oxen, camels, buffaloes or donkeys but only humans in the streets. The loads carried on the backs of porters could be phenomenal and if there was a cart, it was pulled by men.

I very soon went to one particular office, up some wooden steps from the bazaar where new and sometimes very decidedly second-hand tyres were sold. One does not expect to have official advice on changing money at an advantageous rate, but I had a typewritten handout from the British Embassy which told me exactly where to go to get a much better rate than the banks would offer. I got 212 afghanis to the pound instead of 180 and, better still, 23½ Pakistani rupees instead of 13.

I stayed at the Spinzar Hotel, modern and built by the Czechs. I was pleasurably reminded that Pils was in Czechslovakia: the imported beer was excellent. At 6,000 feet, Kabul is surrounded by high mountains, covered with snow in winter. The lower slopes are densely packed with poor houses separated by muddy, unpaved streets.

The country might have been ethnically diverse, but it appeared to be uniformly Muslim. The women wore their dark-coloured ‘tents’, down to the ground, fitted with a strip of gauze through which they could see. As elsewhere in the Middle East there were street vendors and I was amused to see one such modestly clad woman haggling with one of them. Spread out on the pavement was a variety of women’s underwear, very modern, very western and very snazzy. It was one’s only glimpse of what went on underneath!

Three or four miles outside Kabul stood the British Embassy. It is (or was?) a quietly stylish building finished in white stucco, with a large traditional English garden with rose pergolas all around. No roses though, for it was winter. After paying respects to the ambassador, I met Gerry Rance, the agricultural attache, who was to accompany me on my mission. We discussed this over lunch and came to the conclusion that the location should be changed. I was booked to fly to the west, to Herat, but the Minister of Agriculture had just made a speech in which he declared that there was to be massive agricultural development in the Helmand Valley in the south-west, so that was where we went. The first step of this was to fly to Kandahar, but before leaving Kabul there was some formality. I met one of the ministers in the agricultural department, H.R.H. Sardar Wali Shah, a nephew of the king, to get his official blessing and the necessary introductions. Then we were ready to go.

Travel in Afghanistan was different. I went to the Kabul office of Ariana Airlines to get my ticket changed. “No”, they said, “that would be a shame. We have an excursion to Kandahar tomorrow at a fraction of the cost. Why not buy a ticket here and cash in your existing ticket on returning to London?”. “But I have too much baggage for an excursion ticket”, said I. “No problem at all”, they said, “just go to the airport with your baggage”. This I did, as did Gerry. It was true, there was no problem at the airport and there was a newish Fokker Friendship to take us: one of my favourite planes, a high-winged monoplane which gives an uninterrupted view all around. We sat next to the manager of Kandahar Airport, who regaled us with disturbing stories about air accidents which had occurred in Afghanistan. Like the troubled DC3, which had made a forced landing on a tree-lined road. Unfortunately the wing-span of the plane was a bit too big and both wing-tips were shorn off! Stories like this were not the best preparation for what followed.

Everybody knows that landing is the trickiest bit of flying and, when we were just beginning our descent, came an announcement. “We are sure the passengers would like to congratulate the pilot, Captain Mohammed Durrani”, the lady said, “this is his first flight with passengers”. There were very many rugged mountains down below and the airfield in the far distance looked to be the tiniest little patch. We all waited apprehensively for the bump but it was the smoothest landing ever.

Kandahar Airport was really remarkable (I put all this in the past tense, because who knows what havoc has been wreaked during the recent years of fighting). The terminal was built, or at least faced, largely with marble, and the locally traditional and very beautiful arch was the recurring motif. It was built by the Americans to the standard of an international airport but it had no international traffic except for a few days each year for the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Typically, to counterbalance this American largesse there was a fine multilane highway covering the fifteen miles into Kandahar, built by the Russians. This seemed to be their speciality, communications, probably as cynically built as Hitler’s autobahns before the war.

I was getting used to Asiatic cities by now. Kandahar had many of the same features but was smaller and simpler, with little narrow side-streets with a smelly drain running down the middle of each. It was a city of tongas, two-wheeled pony traps which served as taxis. Some of the owners had garlanded their ponies with flowers. We did not spend long there, for we had to get out to Lashkar Gar, on the Helmand River, and we had a Jeep with a driver waiting. Before leaving, we issued a short-wave radio message to our destination, to say we were about to start out. This seemed a bit extreme, but we soon realised why. After the first few miles there was no road, only endless desert, the barest desert I had ever seen. There was no sagebrush, no cacti, nor any of the other plants I had become used to in the deserts of the United States: just nothing. It was flat, as flat as could be, but mountains, often, of strange shapes, rose abruptly out of it. That feature, at least, was just like Arizona.

When we were many miles out, our Jeep came to a halt with nothing but desert all around, to the farthest horizon. The driver knew exactly what to do. In a flash he was out on the sand with his prayer mat, facing Mecca and asking Allah for help. After a few moments he got back in, pressed the starter button and we were off. He was a happy man. Praise be unto Allah! What he didn’t know was that, while he had his head down in prayer we had lifted the bonnet and found that its support rod had slipped out of its clip and had fallen across the battery. Jerry and I soon clipped it back and the battery had a little time to recover. We did not disillusion the driver. It would have been a shame.

Back in the 1930’s the Americans had built a huge, integrated scheme for irrigation and power generation in the Tennessee Valley. It had been a model of the way in which wealth could be brought to a depressed area. They had now been doing the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale, in Afghanistan, all as a part of their financial largesse or more likely a part of the business of keeping up with the Russians. It was this scheme which had drawn us there. Lashkar Gar was alongside the river, in part a miserable line of shacks, but also with some good houses and larger buildings of which quite the largest had been built to house American workers. It was the U.S. ‘AID’ staff guest house with room and good food provided for about £3 a day. It was there that we stayed. It was not simply because Gerry had diplomatic privilege, for all visiting foreigners seemed to be staying there too: indeed, apart from camping, there was nowhere else. We heard that a couple of weeks later there had been something of a row about all this, for the American ambassador had arrived on a visit and found the place so full of foreigners that there was no room for him.

Now I had to look at the feasibility of sugar beet growing in the Helmand Valley and to come up with a recommendation. The problem was similar to that seen in other hot climates: the crop would have to be sown in the autumn and harvested in the searing heat of summer. Harvesting sugar beet involves cutting off the tops and leaving a large exposed surface on every root, sugary and nutritious for all the fungi and bacteria which happen to be about. At the fairly low temperature of an English October or November this is not a serious problem and there is no great rush to get the beet to the factory. The hotter it is, however, the faster all the invaders multiply and even without that, the higher the respiration of the beet, burning up the stored sugar. Within a very few days the process of sugar loss and putrefaction has advanced so far that the roots are just about unprocessable. So the harvested crop has to be rushed into the factory and extremely efficient transport is necessary. The valley was long and the irrigated zone was narrow. In the Imperial Valley of southern Arizona the Americans have this same problem, but they have fine roads and all the transport they need. In the Helmand Valley, long and narrow and with a single, not very good road and no highly developed transport system, I concluded that it just wasn’t practicable and so I advised against it. We held a meeting with the local Afghan administrator to give him the bad news. I remember vividly his richly furnished house, the elaborate pieces of furniture and the ornaments made largely or wholly of onyx, with its varied patterns of soft colours, and also the fine carpets. He accepted the verdict quietly and might even have been relieved by it.

I am still slightly haunted by a strange phenomenon near Lashkar Gar. Just across the broad, swiftly flowing and rather muddy river was a town. Quite a large town with many buildings, often two storeys or more high. It looked complete and yet I was told that it was totally uninhabited and none of the limited number of people I met could tell me why. It could not have been water shortage, right by the river. Was it conflict, epidemic disease or what?

Now we had to return to Kandahar and thence to Kabul. It would so often be nice to linger on these journeys, but usually they are tightly packed with appointments. I did go to see the Minister of Agriculture to report our conclusions and revisited the British Embassy for a meeting with the ambassador and a lunch with the Commercial Secretary, but then it was necessary to catch a flight to Peshawar in Pakistan. Not even a day could be squeezed in to enjoy an experience I had been offered: a trip by road through the Khyber Pass in an embassy Land Rover. That would have got me to Peshawar in a much more interesting way.

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