Once he went in with a group of nomads, now and then hitching a ride on a horse and succeeding only because the tribe felt sorry for him. Once he went in the rear of a truck, categorized as cargo.

James Michener, who was not to publish "Caravans" until nine years later, hasn't returned ("I never dared do that again") after leaving Afghanistan in 1954 for the third time. But neither did he ever get over wanting to.

"Anyone trained in the traditions of the Bible or Greek and Roman history must realize that life there was much as it had been 500 years before Christ, and that is alluring," says Michener, the historian-storyteller -- or is it the other way around?

That is why Michener affixed his name last February to a small committee of Afghan supporters starting, like caravans themselves, to move into or near Washington, a mecca of hope for exiles.

Within one 36-hour period this week, for instance, talk of Afghanistan and its Russian occupation dominated a Northwest Washington neighborhood wine and cheese party, an ad hoc meeting of U.S. senators, a Capitol Hill press conference, a Smithsonian lecture, a National Press Club news maker breakfast and a visit to Henry Kissinger by two former University of Kabul professors.

It was pure coincidence that Sayd Bahouddin Majrooh and Saduddin Shpoon should arrive in Washington at the very moment the Afghanistan Relief Committee was calling attention to its own work. In fact, Majrooh and Shpoon, pleading for military and political pressure against the Soviets on behalf of Afghan resistance fighters, never met Michener or others busily engaged in raising funds to send for the estimated 1.2 million Afghans who have fled to Pakistan. But their messages did have in common a certain urgency.

Said the professors at the NPC breakfast: "We don't want to say our hope lies with this or that country but there are areas of concentration. The Third World is our world and if they can't support us they are going to face what we are facing now. Believe it or not, if we don't stop them [the Russians] in Afghanistan, they are going to be on your doorsteps next."

Said Michener the night before, sipping a Scotch in a private downtown club after the Smithsonian lecture by French photographers Roland and Sabrina Michaud: "There is dreadful confusion in Iran and Iraq, in Lebanon and Syria. Enormous values are up for grabs."

Michener's odyssey through Moslem lands took him 20 years, starting in Java, the extreme east, and gradually moving westward to Spain. He thinks he may have lived in more Moslem countries than any other American writer. His one great regret is that he never wrote in more depth about that world of Islam to which he devoted so much learning.

"I planned to several times," he says, then thinking perhaps of his 27 books adds, "I can't do everything."

As for Afghanistan's refusal to grant him reentry, it was partly because "Caravans" had aroused some animosity, the scene of the woman being stoned becoming only too vivid just recently when across the border in Iran it was repeated in real life -- "just as I had described it." What did it tell him?

"That the problem of the mullah will be with us the rest of this century. Every country will have to grapple with it. Turkey did last week and other countries are disturbed about it but none of them is going to escape this ethical problem. If not watched carefully they will go the way of Iran."

How is it that Michener, one of America's most prolific writers, is such an expert on Afghanistan? He credits: an education by good teachers who asked questions, a sense of adventure, a desire to know and go to out-of-the-way places. At this stage in his life, he knows it was a valuable course.

"It wasn't trivial or fruitless or accidental," he says.

The great travelers of the world have been German and English; they have made the significant studies, and only recently have the Americans followed -- not many of them at that. But Michener is one and he attributes it all to a sense of obligation about seeing the world and looking into the deepest values of other people.

"I am not being ex post facto when I say I have known this for the last 30 years. I knew a novel about Israel was needed, about Spain, about South Africa. It's so obvious that there will be a million copies of this book ["Covenant"] in circulation."

Speaking with detachment, Michener says it's "very curious that I have been able to do what I have done, to write in so many fields without sensationalism, without sex and to keep an enormous number of readers with you."

If his readers are astonished at times at his output and fields of interest, Michener says he himself is mystified.

Still, when people like him and the Michauds "get into a field early, you know everybody, have a broad background of information and it's a tremendous part of your life."

What's missing today, he thinks, is a "cadre of people, not like me but with my background and experience, to go out and learn the religions, the languages, the cultues of this world and then build upon them year after year so that ultimately they become enormously valuable to society. It's not happening and that's what worries me."

And the point of it all?

"Simply to act as an interpreter and explainer to the American people -- which God knows we needed about Iran. Nobody even knew Iran was Shiite rather than Sunnite."