We arrived in Mazar as the sun was going down, checked into our hotel (which could have won awards for the pungentness of the smell of pee and cigarettes), and headed out for dinner as iftar was approaching. Our destination – the king – was closed, so we went to the ‘chife’ burger ( ie chief) across the road. I walked in first and got shouted something in Arabic, and the only word I understood was ‘family’, as the man ushered me out of the room. Result! This means I get to eat dinner with women tonight!!!! I took my four husbands (actual husband, Rob, Kausar the guide and Nowruz the driver) upstairs for dinner. It was pretty noisy as there were kids, which turns out to be an unexpected upside in segregation – no screaming kids over dinner. Dinner was various fried things with a token salads. And after dinner we went to the ice creamery where three strong men literally churn the icecream in big vats in a block of ice in front of you. It was delicious – milk and cardamom and sugar.
We got up at 5.30 to see the famous shrine of Hazrat Ali in the Dawn light. It is extraordinary, and is the most famous shrine in Afghanistan. However, it is unfortunate that they have taken a few modernisation liberties and there are a few too many air conditioners, power lines and down pipes in evidence, as well as some neon signs on the dome. However, it was amazing. The shrine is a little contentious as most Muslims agree Ali is buried in Najaf, however everyone agrees it is a holy place. I enjoyed practising wearing my burqa – it’s bloody difficult, but given we aren’t supposed to photograph women, I figured I could charge rob and hubby baksheesh for walking atmospherically in front of the mosque. It turns out I have the wrong gait for a burqa, and the local kids were in fits when I tried running to get the burqa to flow behind me.
Yes that’s me and hubby in the photo above….
We came back for a wee nap and then had a very weird afghan breakfast of bread, jam and what seemed like clotted cream….. served in a dusty conference room which was last used by the Norwegian refugee counsel. It was delicious but probably not nutritious.
We headed to Balkh – once the most famous city in the world and birthplace of Rumi the poet and Zoroastrianism. We went to see the largely ruined Noh gonbad mosque – oldest mosque in Afghanistan, which had nine domes. They are restoring it, but slowly. In the garden we met a Sufi mystic who lost his family 20 years ago in the war, renounced his life and moved here to care for the shrines and the mosque. He reputedly smokes 250g of hash per day, and I can’t comment, but it smelled impressively strong, so not sure how he remained upright
We then went to see the citadel walls. Alexander the Great conquered Bactria/balkh and married Roxana the former kings daughter – apparently the best looking woman in Central Asia – she decided it was a practical way of staying alive
We went to conservative downtown Balkh (Kausar made us ditch our sunglasses so we didn’t look too foreign) and checked out the Mosque and shrine of Hoja Pasha, which was lovely.
More interesting was the shrine to Rabia Balhi, a female poet. She fell in love with her slave so her husband and brothers tied her to the walls and she wrote poems in her own blood until she died. Now it is a pilgrimage site for romantics
We then had to make a stop at the Shrine and tomb to Baba Ku Mastan, who converted marijuana to hash for the first time ever. Hashish is a big deal here as the Sufi mystics smoke it all day long. Who knew you could be a religious stoner? Sufis come from all over country to celebrate and sing poetry for him.
We headed back to Mazar – passing the ruins of the German consulate, which was bombed out by the taliban last year – there is nothing left and the windows in all the neighbouring buildings were blown out
We stopped at am unassuming mud building which turns out to be the main Cock, quail and dog fighting ring. Not really a sport I understand or support but these men are very proud of their birds and they are apparently very valuable
After that we went for a quick tour around the bazaar. Usual Kausar security rules applied – keep moving and don’t stop too long – but it was tricky to obey when everyone wants their photo taken and to say hi! It was different here than Herat as there were women working on some of the stalls and plenty of women out a shopping, though most in burqas
After another nap and a sneaky non Ramadan snack of fried afghan pizza we went back to the shrine for the early evening. It was an entirely different place. Bustling with people and lots of groups sitting round relaxing. We sat for a while to give Kausar time to go pray and were a source of great amusement to the locals around us who were amused by my burqa, which I was wearing in a style that some local ladies do, with the veil flipped back so you can see and breathe. They had a good laugh when I decided to retreat under my veil entirely. They came over to befriend us and I ended up with some new Facebook friends as Steph had taken some nice photos of them.
We hung out in the setting sun enjoying the amazing sounds of two Sufi singers chanting to god – these were ‘real’ sufis as opposed to the hash smoking ones. And we watched the mosque set up for iftar, where they feed everyone for free, rich and poor together (though women last of course, and in a separate place). There really isn’t much like Ramadan to see the best of Islam, it was a lovely evening.
Another iftar dinner, with more lamb. Lamb cutlets, lamb rack, lamb shanks, lamb casserole and lamb pilau – Kausar likes lamb, and it was all delicious
We are quite close to the border with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, so mazar I sharif is an important cross roads (and has been for thousands of years). As we were driving out of town we saw evidence of that, both in the trucks, shipping containers, shiny Petrol stations and the newly built rail line from Uzbekistan to bring in oil, but also in the numerous camel trains that we passed.
We stopped at Bagh I jahan, the amazing kings hunting lodge. Fascinating architecture designed to keep them cool in the heat. What was more stunning was our first glimpses of the Hindu Kush in the background. The pictures aren’t great as there is a lot of haze, but the colours and the ridge lines are stunning.
Our guide is also a journalist and photographer, so he got us to stop and take some burqa tank photos, which were corny but hilarious. Note to self, next time climb up on the tank and then out the burqa on…. it’s quite hard to climb while wearing one (it’s quite hard to do anything while wearing one – which I guess is part of the design, to keep women partially handicapped).
We went through the tashkurgan gorge – a small break in the line of the Hindu Kush…. stunning! The valley runs for a long way, and after the barren desert, it is lovely to drive through a lush valley full of almond and pistachio trees, herds of goats and mud houses that look they have been here for a millennium, with the mountains rising up on both sides
It was a lovely drive. Nowruz had the afghan beats playing, and in spite of it being 40 degrees it was pleasant in the moving van with the wind blowing through.
The purpose of the drive was to see Takht-e roshtam! Buddhism was the reigning religion for a long time here and since the Taliban destroyed the standing buddhas at Bamian, Takht-e roshtam is the most important and impressive preislamic sure in Afghanistan. It’s a stunning stupa which is dug into the ground like the churches of Lalibela. Part of the stupa has been blown up as one of the local warlords thought there might be gold inside
Close by the stupa is a monastery complex with an amazing dug out temple where the standing buddhas were until the warlords looted them, and an amazing ancient bazaar. The photos don’t really do it justice but it was lovely
By the time we got back to mazar it was 42 degrees so time for another nap! After that, we decided to head back to the shrine to enjoy the ambience of Friday night prayers. And then another iftar dinner – more delicious food, lentils, chicken, kofta, aubergine, spinach dumplings, bread and spinach dumplings. Our delightful driver Nowruz took us out to another ice cream shop as he reckons he knew a nicer place than we had the first night – we tried three flavours – cardamom, mango and cherry. Amazing. Then we needed to get to bed for an early flight. I had found out earlier that night that our driver Nowruz had only ever seen one woman drive a car, so I offered to drive us home, and he said yes. The boys weren’t too keen, especially given it was dark, roads in Afghanistan are pants, and the van was a right hand drive (ie steering wheel near the footpath), but I couldn’t refuse!!!!!!! Well we are now safely home so all good!!!! Back to Kabul tomorrow :-).
Mazar-e Sharif, June 2, 2018