I have been wanting to come to Afghanistan for the longest time, and had finally booked. Hubby had even agreed to come with me, though he was quite sceptical about security and had even packed our emergency locator beacon. We had planned a 9 day trip with the highlight being a trip to Bamian to see the ancient buddhas and the lakes at Band almir. Unfortunately that part of the trip was not to be. The bombing at the intercontinental hotel in January had killed many of the Ukrainian pilots who fly the domestic flights, and others had decided to leave, deciding that even earning five times the Ukrainian wage it wasn’t worth it. As a result there aren’t enough pilots to man the Bamian flights, so we are heading to Herat instead, as well as checking out Mazar I sharif.
Our flight companions from Istanbul to Kabul were what I had expected – mostly men, mostly locals, with a smattering of politicians, aid workers, military and mercenaries. There were very few woman! We arrived without incident, and the plane was greeted by a couple of generals, several posh cars and an armoured van for the US embassy staff. Apparently the embassy staff aren’t allowed to travel by road, so after they have cleared private immigration they get picked up by helicopter and flown to the Kabul embassy – which we realised later is the size of a small town!!!!
We cleared immigration – the service was silent but efficient – and queued up for our registration cards, and then wandered out of the airport to find Kausar our guide, who was with our long time friend Rob, who had decided to join us a few weeks ago when he realised we were coming.
Kausar is a cofounder of untamed borders, and is one of the few people I would trust to help navigate the region. Other agencies offer guides and guns, but Kausar has a strict policy of keeping a low profile and avoiding guns. In his view, and I agree, having an armed guard makes you look like a target. More importantly, the main problem here are subside bombers and if you shoot them, you are in effect triggering the bomb. So we are staying in guest houses with no names that aren’t on websites, travelling in a low profile beat up van and are wearing local clothing! This has its upsides – rob and hubby look pretty fetching in the local waistcoats!
We checked in to our low key guesthouse – a marvel of architecture – it was clearly built and then extended over the years using whatever materials were available at the time. It’s a mish mash. We had our briefing and some breakfast and then headed out to see what Kabul had to offer. Ideally we wouldn’t have spent any time in Kabul, but given the vagaries of flight schedules we would end up spending three nights in town – fingers crossed there was good stuff to see!
Ironically our first stop was the British cemetery. It was a lovely peaceful cool enclave in the city. But somewhat disturbing to see all the graves of soldiers, tourists and kidnap victims. Apart from war the most common way to die here appears to be road accidents – as Kausar says, you might be able to dodge the taliban but it is hard to dodge the traffic.
From there we drove through the drug lord district. Their houses are called poppy palaces, or ‘narcitecture’ – what happens when you blend money and narcotics and architecture together – a lurid mass of corrugated iron and bad taste. Kausar pointed out the home of one of the notorious warlords who was responsible for 500,000 people being murdered in the war – and yes he is still in parliament.
The politics here are beyond complicated. For thousands of years the afghan people have been at the crossroads of the world and a pawn in bigger global disputes, and they have the scars to prove it. I won’t bother trying to explain the current politics or the history as could never do it justice – but Kausar is a scholar on the history and has at least managed to get my understanding to novice level.
We then headed up swimming pool hill, which is a surreal place. It is famous as being one of the preferred execution locations for the taliban. However the site is incongruous in any case as it is a diving pool on the top of an amazing hill looking out over the sprawl of Kabul. The town goes on forever and you can tell the rich areas by the trees. The population is estimated at about 6 million but noone really knows. We hung out for a while chatting to some of the young boys and photographers hanging around waiting for tourists and playing expert games of Karoom to pass the time.
We drove past the US embassy. Phones don’t work as they jam the signal and we have been advised to take no photos as American soldiers shoot first and ask questions later. It is probably fair to say the locals aren’t wildly enamoured with the ‘American occupation’. Official figures have US military presence at 15,000, but the locals reckon it is more than 100,000. It is not a surprise that the Americans aren’t popular, given most of the military only interact with the local population down the barrel of a gun.
Next up, the old Kabul Fortress with an old cemetery. We stopped at the sheep market and chatted to some locals and some school kids. Most of the locals are fascinated to find out we are tourists and impressed with our clothes.
By this time we were tired and thirsty so we snuck into the Ramadan equivalent of a ‘food brothel’ – somewhere pagans and naughty Muslims can go for food. There were a few of them. We fortified ourselves with banana juice and green tea and chilled out for a while.
A quick drive by of the kings palace which was destroyed in the war and is undergoing restoration, and then we ended the day with sakhi tomb, which is a lovely mosque and tomb. There was an attack recently where 150 people were killed by a suicide bomber, but it was quiet the day we were there.
We stopped on the way back to the guesthouse for fresh bread. The bread is amazing but is at its best in the first 20 minutes out of the oven. Given everyone else was still fasting we hid in the van stuffing guilty fistfuls in our faces – it was excellent
Back to the hotel for a nap and then an excellent iftar (dinner at the breaking of the fast), and the end of an excellent first day in Afghanistan.
I had ten 10 hours sleep, and slept like a baby, in spite of the 3am prayer noise. Our guide who is fasting would have been up at 2am for food and prayers, and gone back to sleep at 3am with no food allowed until 7pm in the evening. Fortunately for us, the Afghans are hospitable and let us eat (discreetly) during fasting hours. We had packed a big stash of protein bars to keep us going making the assumption we wouldn’t get to eat much…. I should have had more faith! Breakfast was a feast of bread, honey and wonderful soft cheese with a delicious omelette.
We headed to the National museum, passing the busy street markets and floods of school kids en route. There is not much left in the museum, the contents were looted by various warlords, or destroyed in the war with the Russians, and then the taliban destroyed everything they didn’t like the look of out of what was left. It must be pretty challenging being a guide in a country where you end up spending most of your time explaining who destroyed what. The museum was lovely and was heavily focussed on the Buddhist history – Afghanistan (or the Kushan empire) was one of the first Buddhist empire states. The exhibits were lovely. We caused quite a stir in the museum, as we met a group of local university students who are studying Chinese. They were mightily impressed to meet rob who speaks impeccable mandarin (which looks incongruous coming from an Aussie body) after ten years in Beijing. We also saw terrific photos of the gold exhibition which is currently touring the globe, which I will definitely try and go see.
Driving back up the main road we past the ‘shooting galleries’, which are where the local addicts congregate on the median strip on the highway and shoot up. We also passed the lovely Hazara mosque.
Although our van doesn’t have opening windows, it does have a sunroof, so Kausar let’s us pop up quickly and take photos through the roof so we don’t get the reflection from the glass. I feel like I am driving in the pope mobile. )
Then a lovely couple of hours of respite at the Babur garden. It is a lovely retreat climbing up the hillside of Kabul with stunning views and lovely gardens. It is named for Babur, who was initially buried in Agra but wanted to be buried in Kabul, so he was reinterred here with his son and grandson. Shah Jahan also built a lovely pavilion, and we got to check out the paintings in the restored caravanserai.
Then it was off to the airport. You get body searched four times before getting to the terminal building so we arrived early. But the security staff here were without question the friendliest I have ever met, and the ladies were highly complimentary about rob and hubby’s local attire.
After the sweltering heat of town and being in the back of the van with no windows or AC it was actually quite nice to hang in the airport in the AC. We amused ourselves by looking at Afghanistan’s first vending machine, which had a guy full time sitting next to it to help you use it and give you change. Being Ramadan we couldn’t politely eat in front of Muslims who are fasting, and my plan to have a quick sneaky snack in the loo was thwarted when I realised how bad the loos smelt. Oh well, I guess we are fasting by accident.
We got on the bus to the plane, and I was amused as no one would sit down until I did, as all the other ‘old ladies’ had a seat. If only the good folks commuting on the Piccadilly line had such good manners. Bye bye Kabul for a few days.