University of Bristol Trans-Continental Expedition 1960 — 61


Malcolm McKernan wrote 20 feature reports for the Western Daily Press in Bristol

Report 4

Afghanistan, October 1960

Published Tuesday December 6th 1960

Stories of Afghanistan

No one could travel eastwards through Asia without hearing stories of Afghanistan - how the countyside is inhospitable and the people more so,their fundamental trait a fierce independent of spirit and woe betide anyone who ventures into their land.

These add to the impressions gained from a schoolboy diet of hair-raising tales from the North West Frontier, mostly about wild tribesmen with long noses, long beards and even longer rifles So, as we crossed the border,we felt we could blame nobody but ourselves; and we had been advised to go south through Baluchistan (West Pakistan), and yet here we were.

And to spoil the story - I can say we never regretted it. our route from the border town of Taiabad was south to Kandahar, north to Kabul the capital - then out through Jalalabad and the Khyber Pass 1,119 miles. The roads continued much the same as in Iran,but the cars must have been getting accustomed to them and made no complaints. Perhaps it might have been different if we had suffered breakdowns and been compelled to stop out in the wilds. Other people might have had completely different experiences.

Nomadic tribes

The nomadic tribes did show some signs of traditional behaviour; once we were approaching too close to their awning like tents (perhaps because of the presence of the women?) , and an angry bearded gentleman - on quite another occasion- threw a stone at us. At first we thought this was a hand grenade ; but in any case he missed.

The villagers counselled us against camping in the countryside,and thanks to their hospitality we never needed to. They were uniformly courteous and helpful. Once, drawn by unusual music,we found ourselves at a ceremonial tea party under the trees outside a village. Immediately we were escorted to a place of honour. Clad in our dirtiest travelling kit,we were ushered across the beautiful carpet and seated on divans behind small tables. From all around the rectangle of chairs-mostly less comfortable than ours-fine aristocratic looking men in spotless turbans stared solemnly at us.

At the party

Not being unable to explain ourselves we were uneasy,fearing some case of mistaken identity.But as it turned out we had been invited into the ceremony for the no better reason than because we happened to be there, it being unthinkable to them to turn us away. So we sat eating melon and drinking tea while watching with little understanding, a Minister of the Government presenting medals and citations from the King, Mohammed Zahir Shah,to deserving local citizens. Afterwards we spent a free night in the local "hotel".

The method of tea preparation favoured here seems to entail boiling water,tea,milk and sugar all together. This creates a strange and very sweet flavour, but it is reassuring to know that both the water and the milk have been boiled. The melons were our great lifesavers at this time. On the road we never eat a mid-day meal, in the unrelenting sun we used to find a few slices of this juicy fruit quite delicious. So several times a day we paused for this snack and watched the many little whirlwhinds bowling busily along.

On the Road

They look like a geni escaping from a bottle and can grow to a couple of hundred feet. The foot always remains in contact with the ground as it hurries along its zigzag course, here and there, down ditches and up, across the road and away. The top of the column lags behind trying to catch up, giving the impression of a self-important waiter scurrying from table to table with his coat-tails flying!
The heat was quite as high as in Iran. When skirting the Desert of Death in South Afghanistan the temperature, in the shade of the cab of a moving vehicle with all the windows open, was 105 degrees - out on the sand it must have been over 125. It was impossible to stand out on the desert, the heat seemed to beat you into the ground.

Covered women

Under these circumstances the dress of the women is quite amazing. One rarely sees them - none were at the ceremony described above, for example, nor were any working in the "hotel".
In Iran, the women, being Mohammedans, are in "purdah" in spite of the efforts begun by the last Shah to abolish it.
This involves wearing a cloak that can be drawn across the face - often leaving one eye peeping coquettishly out! In Afghanistan they wear complete purdah. The women - from the age of about 13 - are covered entirely from head to foot, including arms and hands, by a one-piece garment. In front of the eyes is a piece of fine silk or a rectangle of open-weave material to allow some slight vision.
They flit along quietly and quickly, looking - particularly when dressed in white - like the popular idea of ghosts. They do not come into society and they do no work except in the house.
Consequently all the traditionally female tasks must be done by men.

Night Vigil

A number of the people carry arms. Very late one night we drew up to inquire the way of a villager. A man climbed casually down a ladder from a nearby flat roof, in normal civilian clothes, with a 0.303 rifle slung over his shoulder! Fortunately he was quite friendly. However, we decided not to stay! In fact we drove on through that night to the capital, Kabul.
Night driving is fascinating; many forts, the legacy of Afghanistan's troubled past, drift by in the darkness, and constant vigilance is need to avoid making the 12 or 15 foot drop through the many broken bridges.
The floods must be formidable, since they destroy all the smaller, and many of the larger, bridges. Detours along dry beds of streams and rivers are necessary. During the rains, sudden waves of up to 10 or 15 ft. high can rush down hitherto dry gorges and are both deceptive and dangerous.
We were fortunate to make the descent to Kabul from a 9,000-foot pass at dawn. Ahead lay the foothills of the Hindu Kush made up of succeeding barriers of purple hills, and the roads were filled with camel trains and whole families bringing their livestock into the markets.


Eastern Afghanistan is by far the most impressive area. One can understand why it is said that no one should be allowed to enter the country except by this route. Kabul itself is an unexciting city built in a U-shape around a hill. Our strongest memory is of a dingy, rambling police station full of unshaven policemen who completely lacked the usual noble aspect of the countrymen.


Between Kabul and the frontier a new road is being constructed through the Tangi-Garu gorge. This really is something like a gorge. It reaches a depth of 2,000ft. The road stands three deep upon itself at times, hanging precariously on the rock face and plunging into tunnels often to emerge in an entirely different direction. We christened our 16mm cine-camera here and the spectacular scenery and work certainly deserved this honour.
We heard that Americans, Russians and Afghans were responsible for different sections. If this is so it makes an interesting case of co-operation. And for Afghanistan an unusual one.
Both America and Russia are doing a great deal of development work here; but whereas the Americans are concentrating, too altruistically perhaps, on long-term and very necessary rural development - such as irrigation in the Helmand Valley, the Russians carry out all their work in or near the capital - building roads and factories. Thus the people are tending to become accustomed and reconciled to the presence and influence of their traditional enemies from the north.

Land unrest

We passed through the border lands during a period of unrest between Afghanisatan and Pakistan, but saw little manifestation of this. In the villages public radios shout excited diatribes against the iniquitous Pakistanis and the unfairness of the non-ethnological Durrand Line agreed upon in 1893 - but nobody pays much attention.
As we passed further south, the Pakistanis were insisting that the Afghans had been stirring up and arming Pushtu-speaking tribes on both sides of the border. They also claimed that loyal Pakistani villagers had no difficulty in repulsing these half-convinced marauders. Border skirmishes seem to be frequent.
Near the frontiers all police are replaced by heavily-armed soldiers in forts or look-outs, perched on every rocky pinnacle. One police check-point had a machine-gun mounted on the roof and we had been warned that they shoot at any car foolhardy enough not to stop.

Smooth road

We stopped. A pity in a way, it would have been entertaining to return with a bullet-hole in the car. However, there is still South America, I suppose!
Suddenly we were presented (never a word more apt) with a beautiful, smooth road - a forerunner of those in Pakistan and India - and on this unfamiliar velvety surface we bowled up to the border.
In Pakistan we heard birds sing in the trees and English is spoken, and we had to reorientate ourselves to driving on the left hand side of the road….we might almost have returned home.

Text: Malcolm McKernan

Photos:Tony Morrison

When published in 1960 this Report contained one photograph as some may have been lost in the mail.
Roger Tutt in the Dasht-e-Margo the Desert of Death - southwest Afghanistan
These colour pictures were taken at the same time on Kodachrome and processed by Kodak in Bombay [now Mumbai] They were carried with the team until the return to Bristol in 1961
Near HeratKandahar
Beside the Kabul river Don Pilton tests his skill at throwing a stoneThe Tanji-Garu ravine

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