Why we travel: Christina Lamb on her career igniting journey to Afghanistan

The chief foreign correspondent at The Sunday Times was just 22 years old when, in the late 1980s, she journeyed up the Grand Trunk Road to Afghanistan — the start of a long and enduring love affair with the country’s colours, flavours and hospitality.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020,
By Christina Lamb
Sweeping views across the Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan.

Sweeping views across the Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan.

Photograph by Alamy

Sometimes, if I catch the fresh scent of pine trees or see a fragment of deep-blue lapis lazuli, it takes me back. Back to Herat, stamping my feet to keep warm in a dusty shop crammed with muskets and antiquities, as I watch Sultan Hamidy, the glassblower, conjure up goblets of jade-green and cobalt-blue, telling me that for every one he blows he breathes the name of one who’s died in the war. Back to Mazar-i-Sharif and the cloud of snow-white doves swirling round the Blue Mosque, where legend has it any grey bird will be turned white. Or Kabul, in November’s pomegranate season, drinking thick juice from a roadside grinder with a giant wheel or sucking on ruby-red pips shining like jewels.

“Perhaps your first assignment as a foreign correspondent always has a special pull, like a first love affair.”

by Christina Lamb

I was just 22 the first time I went to Afghanistan and it turned everything I’d known or valued upside down.

I had no links with the country but had ended up in neighbouring Pakistan after an unexpected invitation to a wedding in Karachi. I fell in love with the place and took a crowded minibus, called a Flying Coach, up the Grand Trunk Road to Peshawar, which any Afghan will tell you used to be part of Afghanistan, and, many believe, still is. 

In my bag was a pack of letters written in black ink by a Pakistani friend to local contacts and a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim

The bus journey ended at sundown in the Old City, which, it seemed, hadn’t changed very much since Kipling’s day. Wooden-framed buildings leaning on each other, streets filled with men wearing black eyeliner and silver-embroidered slippers with curled toes, rifles casually slung across their backs.

Christina Lamb OBE is the chief foreign correspondent at The Sunday Times and author of Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World, published by William Collins.

Photograph by Christina Lamb

I soon found my way to the Storytellers’ Bazaar, where a boy played an accordion and long-bearded elders sipped green tea and talked about battles as if they’d happened yesterday. We had a shared history, Britain and Afghanistan having fought three wars between 1878 and 1919, and they loved to remind me they’d won (well, at least twice). 

Afghanistan lay the other side of the Khyber Pass and the jagged mountains we could see in the distance. I began travelling in and out with the mujahideen, who were fighting the soldiers of the Soviet army, which had occupied their country. The air was so crisp and the mountains full of pines, and the villages where we stayed were the poorest places I’d ever seen. Yet everyone we met shared all they had — a little tea, dry bread and occasionally some yoghurt or dried mulberries. I’d never met people so hospitable, or such storytellers, even though most were illiterate. It made me realise they had values we’d forgotten. 

I never imagined then that Afghanistan would become so much part of my life, a place I’d visit frequently over the following 32 years. Perhaps your first assignment as a foreign correspondent always has a special pull, like a first love affair.

When I hear people talk of the country as a ‘dusty land of men with beards and guns’, it’s true that it’s been at war for 40 years and that Afghans fight, even with kites and boiled eggs. But it’s also a land of poetry and pomegranates, and I dream of the day when there’s peace and I can visit with my son, who’s almost the age I was that first time.

Christina Lamb OBE is the chief foreign correspondent at The Sunday Times and author of Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World, published by William Collins.

Read more tales from our Why We Travel cover story

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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