“To travel with Afghans is a pleasure and something of a humiliation. I am referring to lorry travel, which is a test of manners and character. Unfortunately, few Europeans can do more than remain patient and polite after a dozen hours jolting over a bad road and a good many more doctoring a recalcitrant carburetor or tying on chains that slip with every skid. But the Afghan regards all these matters as the concomitants of an ordinary existence and, unlike the Westerners he admires and distrusts, he has no quarrel with life.” So wrote Rosita Forbes as she journeyed from Kandahar to Kabul.
Forbes, an Englishwoman, made travel history when, in 1935, traveling alone and using every conceivable means of transportation, she made it from Peshawar to Samarkand and beyond. Long before Kabul, Kandahar, Bamiyan and Mazar-i-Sherif had become the familiar names in the West that they are today, she lived and mixed with the locals in these towns, frequented the bazaars and made friends with the Afghans, Tadjiks, Usbegs and Kazaks. In Forbidden Road, a chronicle of her adventurous journey through this part of the world, she writes in great detail about the splendid natural beauty, the majestic monuments built by the Sultans, the kindness, simplicity as also the craftiness of the locals, and of the humor even in the midst of chaos and misery.
Forbes’s experiences and encounters among the various cultures make for an entertaining read. While in Mazar-i-Sherif in Afghanistan she sits coyly sipping tea and maintaining a respectful distance from the menfolk as is expected in traditional Islamic cultures, life in Bokhara in the Soviet Union is a complete turnabout. Here an Usbeg officer sharing her rundown bathroom with a “Do not disturb yourself, Comrade, I will use the other tap,” is nothing out of the ordinary.
The text is interspersed with sepia-tinted photographs of the beautiful Hindukush mountains, the gigantic Bamiyan buddhas, the nomadic people dressed in their splendid attires, and the busy markets of Central Asia. The narrative is simple and regales readers with delightful episodes and mouth watering description of Afghan delicacies. My favorite: the artistic plov made of succulent lamb and rice, delicately spiced and cooked on slow heat over hours. How delicious that might have been to our ravenous and weary traveler is not difficult to guess.