Afghanistan 50 Years Ago

I visited Afghanistan three times in 1970/71 with my parents who were living in neighbouring Pakistan at the time. I was just a boy in boarding school in England and I flew out to Pakistan for my Christmas and summer holidays.

My passport.

Looking back, my first flight out was a hellish journey. From school I took the train to Euston, then the London Underground to Victoria. From there, it was around half a mile to walk to the BOAC Terminal on Buckingham Palace Road, lugging my old fashioned suitcase (no wheels on suitcases those days). The case was far too heavy, full of things I would never need on holiday such as a shoe cleaning kit, conkers, foreign coin collection, Beano annual etc. I remember having to stop every few yards to switch hands. Never again! Finally reaching the terminal I was able to check in the suitcase and catch the BOAC coach to Heathrow.

The flight was dreadful. It lasted forever, stopping at Rome and Damascus before landing at Karachi. There was no in-flight entertainment in those days, I felt sick as a parrot, the meals were disgusting (plastic food on plastic trays) and, worst of all, everybody seemed to be smoking. I must have passively inhaled around 100 cigarettes by the time I reached Karachi. Is it too late to sue the airline I wonder?

As an unaccompanied minor, I was escorted to the Speedbird Hotel in Karachi to freshen up and attempt to get a few hours sleep before I was taken back to the Airport and put on a PIA domestic flight to Rawalpindi/Islamabad. This was a much better flight. It was a Fokker Friendship which flew at a lower altitude and, with big windows, I was able to take a good first look at the scorched and rugged Pakistani landscape. The food was much better too, chicken curry served on a tin plate. The only downside was the rather pungent man in the next seat who spent the entire flight excavating his nostrils and wiping the contents on the armrest. My parents and sister were waiting for me at Rawalpindi Airport and the agony of the journey was soon forgotten in all the excitement of the reunion.

Hollywood Express Dry Cleaning, Kabul

Here are some of my parents’ photos of Afghanistan from 1970/71. Sorry for the poor quality. They are photos of slides projected on a wall.

Kabul sheep market, 1971. Modern housing blocks, in the Soviet style, were springing up at this time.

As mentioned, my parents took me to Kabul on three separate occasions. My Dad drove in his Vauxhall Viva via the Khyber Pass and Land Kotal. He had a British Diplomatic passport so the border formalities at the Torkham crossing were not too arduous although on the return journey I remember the Pakistani Customs confiscated a watermelon on health grounds. Apparently they were concerned that we might be importing a disease into Pakistan which they did not already have.

The car registration plate reads Kabul 317T. Not so many cars on the road those days. Not sure what type of car it is. Russian perhaps? Or is it an Iranian Hillman Hunter?

In many ways, Afghanistan was a very different country those days. The population was around 11 million in 1971, compared to nearly 40 million today, and the roads seemed wide and empty. Kabul smelled different from Pakistan due to the use of Soviet petrol which had a distinctive odour.

Typical Afghan scene.

Afghanistan was still ruled by a king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who tried to steer a careful line between the Soviet Union and the United States, extracting financial aid from both sides. He ruled moderately, introduced free elections and supported women’s rights. The country was free from foreign invaders and largely at peace apart from the usual tribal disputes.

Taking the shopping home.

Kabul was a relative shopping paradise in those days. Afghanistan was a wine producer and my parents always bought a few bottles to take back to Pakistan. My sister bought one of those Afghan coats, which were all the rage those hippy days despite their goaty smell. I remember my Mum and Dad buying me an air rifle and a stamp album. Kabul also had an unregulated foreign exchange market and my father took me to a building full of money changers, many of them Sikhs, who sat at desks piled high with banknotes. My Dad was able to get a much better rate for his transactions in Afghanistan compared to Pakistan and it was one of his main reasons for going there.

The Kabul River contributes a quarter of Afghanistan’s freshwater. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan depend on it. A source of friction in the future?

Crossing The Equator – Not What It Used To Be


While flying back from Surabaya to Kuala Lumpur last month it occurred to me that I was crossing the equator for the fourth time this year. 

Crossing the equator by air these days is a non-event. The Captain does not come onto the intercom to announce ‘ we are now crossing the equator’. There is no rush of passengers to the toilets to check whether the water in the wash basin swirls down the plug-hole in the opposite direction in the northern hemisphere compared to the southern (apparently that’s just an old wives’ tale).

Back in the glamorous days of air travel, up until the 1960s, some airlines used to make more of a deal when crossing the equator. BOAC for example would award their passengers with certificates to mark the event.

Crossing the Equator

On KLM the pilot would dress up as King Neptune and scrub a few passengers with soap and water, an act which nowadays would probably end up in a lawsuit. KLM’s ceremony was a hark back to the traditional ‘crossing the line ceremonies’ held on ships.

The Royal Navy, US Navy and other navies, as well as merchant vessels, and some cruise liners, still pay their respects to King Neptune, Lord of the Seas, on crossing the equator. This requires all those who had never previously crossed the equator to be initiated and usually involves a lot of dressing up in fancy dress and people getting very wet.

HMS Illustrious

My father received his certificate in 1944 while serving in the Royal Navy on board HMS Illustrious. He crossed the equator at longitude 86° East which is in the Indian Ocean, south east of Sri Lanka and about mid way between the Maldives and Sumatra. Actually he says this was the second time he had crossed the equator but the certificate had not been issued on the first occasion (there was a War on at the time).

Air travellers today are not so concerned about the equator or other lines of latitude. We are only concerned with lines of longitude, because these bring jet lag.

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