The Afghan Journey | Annemarie Schwarzenbach & Ella Maillart, June 1939

Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart with their 18 hp Ford Deluxe Roadster, Kaboul, June 1939
Bala Murgab, The musicians                                                                   Bamiyan, Statue of Little Buddha, 35 m
Band-i-Amir, Natural reserve lakes  at 3000 m altitude                                              Bamiyan, View from the head of the Big Buddha

“On a journey the face of reality changes with the mountains and rivers, with the architecture of the buildings, the layout of the gardens, with the language, the skin colour. And yesterday’s reality burns on in the pain of parting; the day before yesterday’s is a finished episode, never to return; what happened a month ago is a dream, a past life. And at last you realize that the course of a life contains nothing but a limited number of such ‘episodes’, that a thousand and one accidents determine where we can build our house at last – but the peace of our poor minds is a precious good freedom that you should not chase, not haggle over, nor should you bargain for it with the dictators who can set fire to our houses, trample our fields and spread cholera overnight.
Appalling uncertainty…? Appalling only when we fail to look it in the eyes. But the journey that many may take for an airy dream, an enticing game, liberation from daily routine, freedom as such, is in reality merciless, a school that accustoms us to the inevitable course of events, to encounters and losses, blow upon blow.”

Before Kabul, House «moghol»                                                                   Delhi, Mosquée du vendredi
Deh Hassan                                                                                                  Deh Hassan, Dome

“Our life is like a journey…’ – and so the journey seems to me less an adventure and a foray into unusual realms than a concentrated likeness of our existence: residents of a city, citizens of country, beholden to a class or a social circle, member of a family and clan and entangled by professional duties, by the habits of an ‘everyday life’ woven from all these circumstances, we often feel too secure, believing our house built for all the future, easily induced to believe in a constancy that makes ageing a problem for one person and each change in external circumstances a catastrophe for another. We forget that this is a process, that the earth is in constant motion and that we too are affected by ebbs and tides, earthquakes and events far beyond our visible and tangible spheres: beggars, kings, figures in the same great game. We forget it for our would-be peace of mind, which then is built on shifting sand. We forget it so as not to fear. And fear makes us stubborn: we call reality only what we can grasp with our hands and what affects us directly, denying the force of the fire that’s sweeping our neighbour’s house, but not yet ours. War in other countries? Just twelve hours, twelve weeks from our borders? God forbid – the horror that sometimes seizes us, you feel it too when reading history books, time or space, it doesn’t matter what lies between us and it.
But the journey ever so slightly lifts the veil over the mystery of space – and a city with a magical, unreal name, Samarkand the Golden, Astrakhan or Isfahan, City of Rose Attar, becomes real the instant we set foot there and touch it with our living breath.”

Fatehpur Sikri, moghol Palace                                                      Delhi, tomb of a Muslim saint with the offerings of the pilgrims
Firuzkuh, chaîne de l’Elburs, railway bridge                                                           From Peshawar to Lahore

“What does it help me now to think back on the reeling despair that seized me and declare it a mistake! Should I have set out in high spirits with a spring in my step? I did not. Should I have had more faith in the earth's friendly forces and felt certain and invulnerable at the wounding sight of flame-hued horizons? I could not do it, I was terribly vulnerable. Should I have justified myself, raising my eyes to the mountains? Oh, I tried, and always in vain...
And so one day I wanted to break away, not knowing exactly from which fate, seeming to grasp only that I had been struck by calamity, as anyone can be, and now must stand apart, silent. How do the others live, I asked myself, how do they bear this land and the day to come, how do they bear it? But should the dusk of rapture fall once more, this shadowless day ebb, the deer stand on the sloping winter meadow already cloaked in fog; should I be granted one more such innocent hour, I will lower my eyes and repent, and never again lead myself into temptation, but admit: we are at home in but a narrow precinct, can cover but a tiny distance - and beyond, at an immeasurable distance, the ships land on the death's shores.”

Herat, Outside the city Gazergah pilgrimage mosque                                                   Herat, Tomb of Gohar Shad
Indore                                                                             Kaisar, In the garden of the mayor's wife the Palaw 

“The simultaneity of near and far confused me; I thought it possible to find the past, the present and the future united in one place, giving it all that life can hold; but I had grave doubts that at any given moment life might reign both here and there, on this side and that side of the seas and mountains. And such doubts, demanding resolution, may have inspired earliest journeys: I went forth, not to learn what fear was but to test what the names held and feel their magic in the flesh, just as, at the open window, you feel the miraculous power of the sun you'd long seen reflected on distant hills and spread on dewy meadows.”

“If you wish to know the state of a people, turn to its youth: here, nothing is disfigured yet, they express themselves in ways unset by convention, undulled by habit, unswayed by external dependencies and existential conditions; here, ability and zest for life maintains itself with lovely unselfconsciousness.”

Karokh, Dovecote near Heart                                                                         Islam Qala, Jat (Gypsies)
Mandu - An Abandoned moghol Residence                                                     Irak Menschengruppe  

“Perhaps my sense of reality is not very highly developed, perhaps I lack a sound and reassuring instinct for the solid facts of our earthly existence; I can’t always tell memories from dreams, and often I mistake dreams, coming to life again in colours, smells, sudden associations, with the eerie secret certainty of a past life from which time and space divide me no differently and no better than a light sleep in the early hours.”

“It seemed just as clear to me that I would never pick up a pen again, fill a page with writing. The profession seemed too onerous, a perpetual mirror of our unredeemed existence, which I was also so loath to accept and endure. Over and over again to meet the morning hour anew, the day, the ever-estranged world, to touch them and wring one word from your stricken heart - and know this: this will not last, this is the moment of parting, already forgotten. But, still exhausted and blinded by pain, you must set off again, and who will make it worth your while? Is it worth the effort?”

Annemarie Schwarzenbach, All the Roads Are Open: The Afghan Journey, 1939
tr. Isabel Fargo Cole

Mandu, An Abandoned moghol Residence                                                        Mandu, The wild Bhil tribe inhabits
Meshed, Imam Reza                                                                                     Téhéran, Jardins perses
Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs, with its golden temple
Ghazni, view of the city 
Gumbad-i-Gabuz, A Mongolian funeral tower                                                Fatehpur Sikri, Palais moghol 
Shabash, windmills                                                                        Tash Kurgan, Children in the Turkmen «tchapan» 
Shibar Pass, Prayer, end of Ramadan                                      Tash Kurgan, Foothills of the Hindukush.
Haibak, View from the ruins of the Buddhist monastery on Haibak
North Road, a mule track

Photos by Annemarie Schwarzenbach

Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart, June 1939

In June 1939 Annemarie Schwarzenbach and fellow writer Ella Maillart set out from Geneva in a Ford, heading 
for Afghanistan. The first women to travel Afghanistan’s Northern Road, they fled the storm brewing in Europe 
to seek a place untouched by what they considered to be Western neuroses.


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