On 20th October 1972 I was in Shibergan in northern Afghanistan.
Arriving in Shibergan felt like an achievement: we had finished the hard bit and crossed the desert. We found a reasonable hotel to camp outside of and the first running water since Herat. The road outside was paved and there was good pilau at the restaurant near the hotel. After the meal we ordered melon as usual. Beside the restaurant there was a huge pile of melons and other customers had been making their way through them. Serving the melons was quite a procedure: the waiter picked out one he thought was good, he carved it into pieces in a trice, holding it with one hand and cutting it in quick strokes with a carving knife which was more like a sword; if he did not think it was perfect, he threw it away for passing goats and carried on until he found the perfect melon for his guests. These were the best melons I have ever eaten.
It had taken us six days to get from Herat, through what felt like open, untouched country, passing little towns and bazaars. The road was not easy anywhere, but it was exciting to drive it. The most difficult bits were before Bala Murghab and the last bit into Shibergan. From Qala-i-Nao to Bala Murghab the road was earth rather than gravel and deeply eroded and rutted. We stopped for lunch in the gorge of a tributary of the Murghab and then continued along the Murghab itself, finally crossing a broken ancient bridge and finding a humble hotel and a poor meal in the town. The next day we passed two fine caravans of camels going across the plain in the same direction as us, the riders and the camels both dressed in rich colours. In this area people would stop us to ask for medical help; usually they had been to a clinic and were carrying packets of medication and the help they wanted was to know what to do with it. We tried to give instructions in the few words of Farsi we had between us. There was very little other traffic on this route, though several times we saw overturned trucks, whose drivers sat anxiously beside them and whose passengers were fleeing or had fled.
After Maimana, we knew we had to get to the little town of Dalautabad and then cross the desert of Dasht-i-Leili with the help of a guide. That night I recorded:
Found Dalautabad, and got ourselves a guide there who showed us his previous testimonials - not bad, he got a 2CV and VW bus through - but he charged us 500 afghanis. Hans got stuck in mud soon after and we towed him out. Driving fairly easy through the layer of sand - not too many turnings - lots of squirrels and gerbils which burrowed in the sand as we drove over it, lizards and a scorpion - also lots of larks and wheatears. Had lunch on top of hill with good view - whirlwinds or dust devils. Several bits where our guide took us straight through the bush. Road gets much more difficult just before the first gas drillings. Then very thick sand.
When I got back to England I bought a copy of Marco Polo, Penguin, translated by Robert Latham; I dated it 3rd September 1973, so it was very soon after I returned. Marco Polo wrote at the end of the thirteenth century of crossing a desert for six days and arriving in Shibergan and finding there the best melons in the world. Shibergan is an ancient place.
The place names for this area have varied transliterations in English. I've followed the names I wrote down at the time, following for the most part Nancy Hatch Dupree's Guidebook, published in 1971, which we had bought at the Tourist Office in Herat.
I've not found any photographs to illustrate this section, but there are excellent photographs of northern Afghanistan by Luke Powell, taken in 1975, here. Noor Khan also took interesting pictures along this road in 1978, at a much wetter time of year.
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