When I first started travelling nearly fifty years ago, I made a habit of sending a picture post card every week to my parents just to let them know I was alive. There were no smartphones in those days, and even an ordinary phone call was troublesome. Often one had to wait for hours at a telephone exchange to get a line, and it was expensive. Way beyond my budget at five dollars a day. My mother kept all these postcards, and after she passed away a few years back, I got to keep them. I’ll share some of them with you.
Afghanistan – October 1976.
Before arriving crossing the Afghan border for the first time in my life, I was by many travellers told that toilet paper was a commodity in scarce supply. In a way it reinforced my preconceived idea of Afghanistan as a backward country. As soon as the immigration procedures at the land border travelling towards Herat from Iran was completed, there were actually tens of makeshift shops selling – toilet paper. I am still wondering why these false rumours were spreading around travellers at that time. Afghanistan was the highlight on the overland trip, whether you were looking for “goodies and necessities” as a sign in our hotel reception announced, or if you wanted to dive into the history and culture of this proud nation. A post card with the famous Buddha status from Bamiyan I though being an appropriate image to send to my mother.
These Buddha statues were once the largest standing Buddhas in the world, until the Taliban in 2001 blew them apart and left everything in rubble. They are from a time before Islam travelled to the central Afghanistan region. The message on the back of the card was not so much about the art and the history of the Afghans, but much more about the recurring stomach upsets that limited my adventurous ideas of tracking out to remote areas of the country.
Built in the 6th century, before Islam had travelled to the central Afghanistan region, the two Buddhas of Bamiyan were famous for their beauty, craftsmanship and of course, size. The taller of the two Buddhas stood at more than 170 feet high, with the second statue at nearly 115 feet. They were once the world’s largest standing Buddhas. In March 2001 Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar ordered the Buddhas destroyed. They were subsequently blown apart and left in rubble.
Bijapur, Karnataka, India – January 1978
In the northern part of the Indian state of Karnataka I arrived one day in early January 1978 at the city of Bijapur. A medieval city from the 11th century with a city wall, minarets and mosques, and a lively commercial area with shops and bazars. Located six hundred meters above sea level, the temperatures during the winter evenings are pleasant for a European. There were hardly any western travellers around and wherever I walked my white face called attention. If you had problems people staring at you, India was definitely not the place. Wherever you went in India, there were people everywhere. People pushing their way around trying to survive the day. Although the population of India in the late seventies were only half of what it is today, it was still over crowded – or at least it felt that way.
Bingöl, Turkey – September 1976
Bingöl literally translate as thousand lakes – bin=thousand and göl=lake. Being a mid-size town in the eastern part of Turkey where the majority of the people are Kurdish, it was a stop-over on the hippie trail of the seventies. A grey dusty town, where people only stopped for the night, if they stopped. Despite its name there were hardly any beautiful lakes around to see or visit. The reason we stopped in September 1976 was our plan to visit an even smaller town named Lice, south of Bingöl, on the way to Diyarbakir – the capital of the Kurdish cultural region. I wrote my mother that people are extremely friendly in this part of the world, tourists and travellers are so few and far between that we are treated like kings. We met some people on the street that invited us to a barbecue in the fields outside the town, accompanied by live music and bottles of the local wine. Despite being in the middle of Ramadan.
In those days, long before tourism made its way into Turkey, few foreign languages were spoken. Fortunately, the hotel host spoke German, and he claimed that many of the menfolk of the town were in Europe to work – even in Norway. While the hotel lobby doubled as a prayer hall five times a day, we took the opportunity to sightsee the small town and to admire the local Atatürk statue. Every village, town, and city in Turkey had a statue of the father of modern Turkey – Mustafa Kemal, popularly known as the father of Turkey: Atatürk. A name that was granted to him officially by the Turkish government in 1934.
Check Point Charlie, Berlin – July 1981Check Point Charlie was the name given by the Western Allies to the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the cold war. After the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and the reunification of Germany, the building at Checkpoint Charlie became a tourist attraction and is now located in the Allied Museum in Berlin.
While visiting West Berlin on an assignment for a national newspaper in Norway, my colleague and I made an afternoon visit on a Saturday in July 1981. The crossing was simple after presenting our passports and we were allowed to roam around freely in the Eastern part of the city. However, most things were closed, only a few drab-looking Bier Stuben (beer bars) were open and I remember we tasted the “communist” beer at a price of less than half a dollar for a pint. We paid with East German marks, Ostmark as it was called, that officially exchanged to the Western counterpart at par. Black market rates were five to ten times higher.