not about art – still worth reading
In my last blog post, I promised to write about my Kabul trip if there was interest. Here we go:
By the mid-1980s, I had finished my dissertation and it was time to trade the comfortable student life for respectable work. A friend I had known for a long time but no longer had any contact with found out that I had studied Sinology. He was one of the few at the time who, like me, was convinced that China would become a very interesting market. We decided to start a company, modest as we were, we called it International Management KG, rented a ridiculously expensive office, and were laughed at by everyone – including our wives. Which was not unjustified, since we had almost no money.
He would set up a department that would focus on training salespeople (Apple, Honda, Kodak….), and I would represent Austrian and German companies in China. We had assumed that the training project would bring in money fairly quickly, but that my cause would naturally start more slowly. And then everything turned out differently.
I wrote to 27 companies to offer them my services. And the very next day, someone called to ask if I could also renovate an office for one of their clients in Beijing. No problem. The interlocutor breathed a sigh of relief because he had been trying to get this thing done for almost 2 years. No big deal. Some structural changes, new walls, and floor, antistatic carpet, as well as some furniture, were shipped from Hong Kong….. Order completed in the shortest possible time, the client showered me with praise and enthusiasm and then asked a crucial question: “Would you also do this in other countries?” Sure. He wanted to consult and contact me in the next few days.
What was it about? My immediate client manufactured data technology equipment and had received an extraordinarily lucrative contract: the offices of the Soviet news agency Tass were to be equipped with the latest technology more or less worldwide. The downside here: the offices first had to be brought into a state where high-tech equipment could be set up in them. An annoying thing was that they just wanted to delegate and they had found the right person in me.
After consultation with Moscow, it was agreed to first renovate and equip the first 5-6 offices. Then it became 8 of them. I had suggested taking a longer trip and going from office to office. It was a “money doesn’t matter” project, which sure made things easier.
I put together the itinerary (some cities were quite easy, Brasilia, Sao Paolo, Cairo…). The difficulties were of a different nature. I needed 2 passports (with certain visas in a passport, like Lebanon or North Korea, you can no longer go to some other countries. So I got a special passport from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a kind of semi-diplomatic passport).
The first stop should be Kabul. We’re talking about 1988 and Afghanistan was still at war with the Soviet Union, so it wasn’t that easy to organize this trip. Now I have an old Afghan friend in Vienna and I called him to inquire among others where I should stay in Kabul. “Hotel Kabul, of course!”. Of course.
I landed in Kabul and a taxi took me to Hotel Kabul. There was one of those arrogant guys working at the front desk. That sort of guy who makes you count your fingers after shaking hands with him – in case you ever do. With an important expression, he leafed through his books and then handed me a key. Obviously, I was the only guest. I made sure that a quiet room would be available for a meeting the following day. “Of course, you can have our conference hall”.
I grabbed my suitcase and went to my room. The first thing I did was to call Mr. B…. the head of TASS in Kabul, and my local contact. Tomorrow morning, 9:00 am Hotel Kabul, conference hall….
I picked up my suitcase again and swung it onto the bed. A cloud of dust rose. Not good. It looked very picturesque because the evening sun shone in from the window and the dust in this cone of light looked golden. I went to the window. Stores hung on both sides. I’m sure these were also white when they were young, before then graying gracefully. I grabbed a corner of a curtain, bent that corner, and it partially broke. Not good.
A lonely refrigerator stood in the hotel room. Not plugged in and the door is ajar. I opened it and found cockroach to cockroach on the two glass shelves of the otherwise empty refrigerator. You couldn’t count them on two hands, that’s for sure. Not good at all. 3 strikes. What to do?
I had the phone number of the Austrian consulate with me and called them. Closing time, nobody in office anymore. What to do? I called the German embassy and briefly explained my situation. “Where are you now?” “Hotel Kabul”. “For heaven’s sake, you should be at the Intercontinental Hotel. Grab your bags right now and make sure you get to the Intercontinental as soon as possible.
So I grab my suitcase again and hurry down to the reception. Sorry, have to go, don’t need a room today, but I’ll be back tomorrow morning. And I ask him to call me a taxi. “You can’t leave here.” Confusion. It turns out the curfew started at 6pm and now it was much later. I left my suitcase and left the hotel in a hurry, hoping maybe to catch a cab down the street. And indeed, diagonally opposite was a car that looked like a taxi. I waved, and I waved again. The driver stretched his arm out of the window and made a circular motion to express – can’t, won’t, not possible…
Very clearly, I pulled my wallet out of my jacket and pulled out a $100 bill, and waved it in the same circular motion. The car slowly rolled over. “Intercontinental Hotel, 100, now.” Deal. I got my suitcase from the hotel and we set off. I had no idea where the hotel was – maybe around the corner? But it wasn’t and actually, it was a long road. At almost every intersection a soldier in full gear and with an MP. A couple of times we got stopped, I had to show my passport, my driver explained, a look in my briefcase, no big deal.
The Intercontinental is still the best solution today with a beautiful view of the city and the mountains beyond. However, when I first looked out the window, I was almost startled. I mentioned this in this my last post.
it looked like New Year’s Eve with a sky full of bullets. But soon I relaxed: What was flying through the sky like fiery projectiles were harmless projectiles that planes fired at close range, intended to keep Stinger fire, aimed at heat, away from the planes. Many years later the same Taliban used the same weapons in their fight against the producer of those. The logic of war.
I did what I do most of the time, I kept my driver in Kabul the whole time, that works best. He also made a fairly good impression, could speak a few words of English and, with my few words of Russian, communication was quite satisfactory. He picked me up the next morning and we drove back downtown. Now everything looked completely different than during the night drive. Shot up cars (it was the time of the car bombs), now 2-3 soldiers at the crossings and controls at every crossing. I would be late for sure. At the next intersection more soldiers, one with a thing significantly larger than an MG and he had her ready. My driver called out to him and motioned for him to put his gun down. He barked something at the driver and came brusquely to my window. Grim man with a grim expression. Not the type to go for a beer with. “Where you from?” Austria. And then: His face lit up; his expression wasn’t grim anymore. “Austria!?! Waldheim!! Good friend!“. He opened the passenger door, jumped in the car, one leg and his gun half out the window and the next stop was Hotel Kabul. No more control, nothing.
Near the hotel, there was another car that had been destroyed by a car bomb and so I could also explain the concern of the German embassy.
Due to this unexpectedly fast journey, I was a bit early and looked for a seat in the small foyer. Same receptionist, same attitude. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a man, about 30-32, enter the hotel, approach the reception and greet the receptionist with a brotherly kiss. But I don’t bother and let the receptionist know that I’m going to the conference hall. Well, the conference hall sounds good at least. Anyway, I take a seat at a table and take the documents from my suitcase to prepare myself. Shortly thereafter, the door opens and a man approaches me. I still know exactly what was going on in my head then. First: the reptilian brain, alarm signal: There’s something wrong. Then the thoughts came: This guy is too young for a top job at TASS in such a volatile area as Kabul. The guy doesn’t exude any authority – is he an employee? He comes towards me with an outstretched hand. “Are you Mr. Zettl?” “Yes”. “I am Mr. B…”. At that moment it was clear to me: that was the brother-kiss guy at the reception. Afghanis and Soviets so relaxed with each other? No good. A little confused and alarmed, I wondered what to do. I had to buy time and think. So I suggested I order tea and snacks from reception. “Oh no, don’t bother, I just had breakfast. Let’s get straight to the point.” While I’m trying to think of an elegant way out, the door opens. A man of advanced age walks straight toward me without even glancing at the other. “I am Mr. B… It’s best if we leave immediately, my car is waiting outside”.
Since I hadn’t mentioned my contact’s name to anyone, I was amazed at how 2 Mr. B… could come into play. They must have tapped my phone and therefore knew the name.
So we drove to the Tass office, I inspected and did my job. The printers stood on banana boxes and the heavier telex machine on a wooden fruit crate…. Later when we were sitting in his living room, he said it was of course a nice thing that they now got all this new technology and equipment but that would be for his successor as he would be retiring in 3 months. “And you can’t imagine how much I’m looking forward to this day. I will only play tag with my grandkids and grow big fat beans in my garden. Come with me, I’ll show you something!” Vis a vis from the window front there was a small telephone table, next to it a chair. A bullet hole from a large caliber gun above the chair. “2 minutes before the bullet hit, my wife was sitting there and was on the phone.”
Mr. B…. was a nice guy, we were on pretty much the same wavelength and so I later asked my client after a return from Moscow: “Have you also met Mr. B…. is he already retired?” Unfortunately, I learned that shortly after our meeting he had been the victim of a car bomb and had lost both his legs. No playing tag with the grandkids, no big beans.
On the day of my leaving Kabul, the departure time was supposed to be 8:00 am, but you had to be at the airport 3 hours beforehand, so I was sitting early in the lonely departure hall. Nobody far and wide, freezing cold. A German came in and sat down with me, telling me that he is the agent for Mercedes Benz in Kabul. That didn’t seem to me to be an economically successful model, because the number of Mercedes was certainly limited. At the same time, he was also the representative of the Iranian region. It was just even more chaotic there, so the branch in Kabul was left as it was.
Of course, 8:00 departure did not happen. At some point, however, we were asked to walk far out onto the runway and went up the gangway in the rear of the aircraft. It was a relatively large machine but only 6-7 rows of seats could be seen, then a thick, heavy velvet curtain. We took a seat just behind it and after takeoff enjoyed the spooky-looking projectiles being fired from the plane. This time we saw them from a different perspective, up close.
Again and again, I heard some noise beyond the curtain and so at some point curiosity got the better of me and I peeked through the curtain: no more rows of seats, everything empty. Except for 5 young Afghans who were sitting on the floor in a circle on orange-colored cloth napkins. And in the middle is a cooker, with an open fire. Maybe they were just heating water for tea, but open fire on an airplane seemed like a rather original treat to me.
A sack full of money
Finally, a funny incident. I had planned 3-5 days for each of my destinations. What I had to do I generally managed in 2 days. The rest of the time was for sightseeing. I also wanted to do some shopping in Kabul.
Ever since I was a student, I have always collected antiques and curiosities, traded them, and thus partly financed my studies. So I also wanted to browse Kabul and I explained my wish to my driver on the second evening. Yes, that’s doable: “I do”. I explained that I only had western currency and that we should first go to a bank. “No bank”. Should I change money at the hotel? “No good. I do”. That was fine with being because I know that the exchange rate on the black market is much better.
He picked me up in the morning and after a while, I got confused because we weren’t heading for the center but out of town. The area became more and more rustic and desolate and suddenly he stopped in front of a weighbridge. I didn’t understand anything anymore. Next to the scales, there was a small cottage for the worker. My driver disappeared into it and then waved me inside. A somewhat shabby man was standing at a desk. I gave him $100 and he folded the money and put it in his breast pocket. Then he opened the desk drawer, rummaged around in it, and pulled out an old, worn plastic grocery bag. Beside the desk was a large wicker basket, similar to our laundry baskets. He lifted the lid and his hand reappeared with a wad of money. He reached back in and again, carefully hefting the sack in his hand, adding a few more bills, and signaling the deal was complete by pointing to his heart—where the dollar bill was.
Indeed, I found what I was looking for in a shop and purchased 3 beautiful solid sterling silver bracelets with stone inlays.
It was still quite cold in Kabul. The next stop was Saigon, with bad, muggy heat, and then again Beijing and Pyong Yang with sub-zero temperatures 😊…..
I couldn’t manage one city, Beirut. Things were a little livelier there than in Kabul. As soon as I had a visa, there were travel warnings again and so we gave up after 3 attempts.
Blog posts on these and similar topics are posted regularly on https://zettl.blog/journal/