Faces of Afghanistan

Its a few weeks since we have gotten back from Afghanistan, and I shared most of my photos in earlier posts.  However, regular readers will know my hubby is a much better photographer than I am, and here is a guest post of his favourite faces of Afghanistan….

 

 

 

Waterfalls in Zambia and Lesotho

Who says weekends need to be ordinary?!?! When I was a relentless corporate warrior in my thirties I used to use weekends for laundry, chores, sorting crap out, catching up on tele, sleep and email. Hmmmmm. Not that much fun.

Now I squeeze as much enjoyment as I can out of life! So, I have figured out you can have some pretty entertaining weekends, travelling or hiking, provided you get creative. Courtesy of some BA miles and a free companion ticket, hubby and I were off to Zambia to revisit Victoria falls (I love it) and then heading up to Lesotho (country 190/197) to check out Maletsuyane falls. I left the office late Thursday and would be back at my desk Tuesday morning.

Seeing the falls in Zambia

An overnight flight to Johannesburg and then a quick transit through to pick up the flight to Livingstone. Jo’burg airport puts European and American airports to shame. It’s clean, functional, has excellent shops and good food.

We landed in Zambia after a quick flight full of posh South Africans, and after a long wait for an inept visa process, found a luminous purple taxi with a soccer mad driver to take us to the hotel – David Livingstone safari lodge (it wasn’t bad as we got a half price deal on booking.com)

Zambezi
Zambezi

We revelled in the African sky. I love the sky in Africa, it’s so close you can almost reach out and touch it, whilst simultaneously being so vast it goes on forever. We had a lazy afternoon lounging in the sun enjoying the view of the mighty Zambezi flowing past and watching the clouds lazily floating by and being entertained by the monkeys trying to steal our food. It’s a tough life.

Victoria falls
Hubby at the falls

Up early, we headed down to the falls. It’s easy to visit both the Zimbabwe and Zambia sides of the falls but we had already been on the Zim side. I liked the Zambia side and got a better appreciation for the geography of the falls…. the wide falls with torrential flow narrowing from a width of 1700 meters, falling 108 meters, to become a fast flowing river through a narrow gorge. It’s an easy stroll to the view points and the baboons are entertaining. Everyone else hired ponchos, but we just enjoyed the soaking :-).

Victoria falls
Border bridge between Zambia and zimbabwe
Knife edge bridge

We headed back to the airport for the afternoon flight to joburg. Sadly given schedules we weren’t able to get to Lesotho in one go, so had to overnight in JNB. If you ever need to, I highly recommend the city lodge at the airport. The service sucks, but the rooms are clean and you can’t beat the location

Jo’burg from above

Landing in Lesotho – the rooftop of the world

Up early, I availed myself of the airport shops to pick up a puffer jacket. In true last minute form I hadn’t checked the weather in Lesotho before leaving the UK. I had packed for sun. But the temperature in Lesotho was max 12 degrees and below freezing at night.

Lesotho is a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa. Famous for being the only country in the world which is entirely above an altitude of 1000m, it’s lowest point is 1400m… hence the nickname the ‘rooftop of the world’. Lesotho became independent in the sixties and was lucky that it was under British rule at a key point in history and avoided being subsumed into a larger South Africa. That said, Lesotho is heavily dependent on South Africa for currency and 60% of the working population cross the border to find jobs.

Lesotho near Roma

The flight to Maseru was on a tiny plane with 40 seats. The airport was tiny, and as is so often the case in tiny countries. We picked up a car and headed out on the long mountainous drive to semonkong.

Heading through the high passes to Semonkong

The landscape was at once completely empty but full of life. The countryside seems totally barren, no electricity wires or signs of life, there seemed to be no one but if you looked there were people everywhere with their cows and sheep, every inch of the land is being farmed or grazed.

Endless highway en route to semonkong

The mountains and high valleys were stunning. The road was a miracle of engineering, although I wouldn’t have driven it at night as it was windy and hadn’t been well maintained after some recent rock slides. The highest point passed thabia putsoa at 3096m, with the road at 2750m. The photos don’t begin to do justice to the vast open spaces.

African sky
Bustling village

The people are as unique as the landscape. Everyone is dressed in a Basotho blanket. The men wear them as capes and balaclavas and look stunning in them on their horses. The women wrap them around their waists like sarongs to keep their bums warm. It is pretty cold here – sunny and up to 12 degrees during the day but minus five at night. We feel like we have been transported to gaucho land in Patagonia, except we are in Africa! Horses and ponies are the main stay of life and even now are how most goods (including quite a lot of beer) gets transported to remote villages.

Semonkong pub
Another semonkong pub
Espresso stop

We drove 2.5 hours to semonkong. We stayed at a rustic lodge, miles from anywhere. When we arrived, we couldn’t quite figure out how to get our 2wd car down the steep rocky ‘road’, so left it at the chiefs house and walked the last 100m to the lodge

They gave us room 4, an old stone rondavel, which is apparently where the king sleeps when he stays (and no it wasn’t that flash).

The waterfall at Maletsuyane – the highest in Southern Africa

We set off to hike to the famous Maletsuyane falls. Going up hill at 2300m isn’t that easy, but we managed to overtake at least one donkey and two horses. It was a glorious walk, exchanging greetings with the locals as we wandered by. The villages and huts are simple but well kept, and there are lots of latrines (pretty unusual on Africa). There were also plenty of corrugated shacks serving as shebeens, even a ladies one, and I got a hearty ululation when I greeted them.

Locals heading home
First sight of the gorge

After about 30 minutes in a high valley we spied the beginning of the gorge. Strolling along the cliff side we eventually saw the falls. South facing, much of the waterfall was frozen, and probably would be for a while. It was lovely, but I imagine it looks even more spectacular in the summer with lush green foliage.

Maletsuyane falls

We hung out in the sun for a while, and then at 4, the sun dropped behind the mountain and the temperature plummeted. We headed back, enjoying the sounds and smells of the locals heading home for the night, looking after the animals and cooking dinner.

Donkeys at work
The sun dropping behind the mountain

We had an enormous dinner of local bread, aubergine chips, steak and malva pudding, sitting next to the fire warming up and playing with Butternut the lodge cat (for sure the happiest cat in Lesotho). but we also dreaded going to bed, as our rondavel was freezing! There was a small fire going in our room when we got back, but it didn’t seem to shift the temperature. We both went to bed fully clothed (and I had a hat and a puffer), and it took me a while to get feeling back in my fingers. Eventually the mountain of blankets seem to start working and I warmed up and fell asleep.

Hubby and butternut – the lodge cat

There was no electricity from 10pm to 8 am as it runs on hydro and they turn the dam off, so I decided to skip a morning shower once I figured out it was ice water. I headed back to the lodge and was delighted they had a fire going, which warmed us up while we consumed a huge breakfast. It was a delightful lodge! Highly recommended

Checking out the bars and shops

We meandered back to civilisation, taking tonnes of pictures as we went. We did pick up a Hitchhiker when we went to get our car from the chiefs house, and in a country where transport probably isn’t cheap it seemed churlish to refuse the young lady’s request for a ride, so we took her with us.

The chiefs house in semonkong

There isn’t much in the way of traffic on the roads, probably saw two cars, four minivans and a couple of 4wds in the first 60km after leaving Semonkong. However we did have to deal with a few horse and sheep obstructions – horses in particular have the right of way here over all traffic – mechanical or otherwise.

Pony roadblock

I couldn’t help but admire the numerous pubs and shops along the roadside.

Vatican fast food
Public phone box
Rural gas station

Thabo Bosiu – Moshoeshoe’s fortress

We headed up to Thabo bosiu – fortress home of moshoeshoe – the former kIng of Lesotho. It’s also the best place to view the ‘sharp hat’ rock, so named as it resembles the famous Lesotho hat, so ubiquitous it features on the license plate. There isn’t much to see at the site – some restored huts and some gravestones – but it was a nice walk.

Thabo Bosiu
Hubby on moshoeshoe’s seat

View of the sharp hat from Thabo Bosiu

Is there any gas in Maseru?

After that we headed to the airport, but we’re slightly delayed by having to go to three gas stations. The first two had run out of fuel. No one was sure when they would get more – ‘maybe today, maybe tomorrow’. Such is Africa.

I loved the shack on the right made of empty cans
Bros and sons
‘sharp hat’ on the license plate

The airport is hysterical. Four flights a day max, with 40 passengers max. There were probably 40 people working there. The checked bags got hand wheeled to the departure gate and put on a trolley. The sole immigration guys computer didn’t work, so he just jotted down our names. The sole scanner was powered by a frayed extension lead hanging from the ceiling. The lounge was full of mismatched old sofas. I bought some chocolate at the bar but had to return it, as it was well past it’s best before date. On the bright side, we didn’t quite have enough money for what we wanted to buy, so the barman gave us a discount

Lesotho was amazing. The landscape, the horses, the friendliness of the people. We will definitely be back, though probably in the summer. For runners there is a great ultra trail in November

Extraordinary how much of a holiday you can have in four short days! It was brilliant!!! Now back to work. Seven more to go

July 9, 2018, Maseru

Killing time in Kabul part 2 and 3

Coming back to our lovely guesthouse was like coming home! We went out for a stunningly good local iftar dinner – lamb, lamb and more lamb! It was delicious!!!! Unsurprisingly the streets were deserted at 8.30 when we headed back to the guesthouse, I guess Kabul doesn’t have much in the way of nightlife. Some more tea and another quiet nights sleep.

In the morning, after another enormous breakfast, Kausar offered to take us to the bird market, provided we followed his instructions about how fast we had to move – as we didn’t want to attract too much attention. The market is an extraordinary set of lanes in old Kabul where you can buy racing pigeons, fighting birds, song birds, and just about any bird you might want . We were quick in and out for security reasons, but every time we stopped to take a photo, others would clamour to get in the photo. For some professional photos check these out

Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
A sikh man in Kabul whose family has lived here for 300 years

We stopped to see the Shah e de shamshira mosque -it was built by someone who had been to europe and wanted mimic the design of a church.

Shah e de shamshira mosque

We then visited the Shrine to the murdered girl – Shaheed Farkhunda – on 19/3/2015 she was tortured and burnt to death ostensibly for disrespecting the quran. The monument expresses disgust at the “barbaric ignoramuses” who murdered her. That it happened in Afghanistan didn’t surprise people, but that it happened in Kabul, and was not perpetuated by Isis or the taliban but by everyday citizens, and in 2015! that was the surprise! More here

Farkhunda monument

The traffic was appalling, and we were basically liquifying in the back seat of the van, moving about 10 metres every five minutes so we retreated to the Bookseller of Kabul (as written about in two books of the same name). They have an excellent selection of new and old books, and it was gloriously cool. I didn’t actually buy any physical books (too heavy) but did use the inspiration to buy some good local titles on my kindle.

So far the first book has made for mostly depressing reading about how grim life is as an afghan woman with a life expectancy of 44, (WFP 2014), daughters are a form of currency for their fathers, if they are raped they get arrested for pre-marital sex and/or have to marry the rapist, most women still wear burqas and are illiterate (not having had access to education), and women routinely burn themselves to death with cooking oil to escape domestic violence (The Underground Girls of Kabul, Jenny Nordberg). I don’t expect the other books to be any happier.

As we were leaving the shop we heard reports of a bombing and gunfire at new interior ministry, Originally we thought it was old ministry which we were right next to. The policy of isis and the taliban is to destabilise the government, which they do by attacking government offices and the public. As a result, lots of monuments are closed – multiple shrines, the intercontinental hotel, the land mine museum, and chicken street were all off limits following attacks – but then Isis and the taliban just find other targets.

We popped into to see the last jew in Afghanistan – Zablon Simintov – he has a synagogue on Flower St above a juice bar, and has lived here all his life. His family fled to tel Aviv years ago but he refuses to go. He sounds like he is quite a character (check out his wikipedia entry which details his feud with the other jew who lived in Kabul for a time).

Zablon Simintov in the synagogue
Synagogue windows
Torah

We met a foreign affairs diplomat who had been visiting him, and got into an extended debate about Isis, Iran and eu intervention into the affairs of the region. We lounged around on the matts for a while, ostensibly having a chat, but largely to stay off the street while the gun battle was ongoing at the ministry. Details of the battle here

We headed back to the airport for our flight to Mazar. I was recognised by every security lady – you get patted down at five different checkpoints before you get to the domestic terminal. We are off to Mazar for three nights, back to Kabul for part 3 on saturday morning.

May 30, 2018

Part 3 – returning from Mazar…..

Back to Kabul for the third time after a very early flight from mazar…. it really does feel like home. We had some bread cheese honey and coffee and then went to check out the mini mobile circus for children (afghanmmcc.org). This was the two hours that made me the happiest the whole time I was in Afghanistan, as it was the first time I had seen confident young girls (mostly from refugee/IDP camps) laughing and playing, and more importantly learning to read. The school teaches (for free) circus skills (including acrobatics, pop and parkour), but girls are limited to what they are allowed to do, which is pretty much juggling and acting – well they were some damn good jugglers. Once the families are ok with them coming to circus school, they get persuaded to let them to go real school also, and so they learn how to read

Circus school
Circus school

One particular young girl had beautiful green eyes and was full of energy, but apparently had been woefully malnourished when she arrived. She taught me how to swing on the hoops hanging from the ceiling (am not sure they are used to grown ups doing that). Another was playfully punching the male director, behaviour that would never have been allowed outside of the circus walls, so I gave her a few tips (thanks Jenny Garbutt) for hitting harder and getting your hip behind the punch :-). If you are in Kabul, go visit them, it’s a remarkable organisation, and give a generous donation while you are there.

We then popped by to see one more fort on a hill in Kabul – there are many, and the different Mujahideen groups did a great job levelling Kabul from their hilltops as they battled over Kabul when the soviets left.  Most of the buildings have bullet holes and bomb damage.

 

And then finally, for the first time ever in my travelling career, I went to a carpet shop.  I never go to carpet shops, as I am sure I would feel obliged to buy something after drinking tea and chatting.  This time, both Rob and Hubby wanted to buy a carpet.  Hubby wanted a war rug!  These are quite famous in Afghanistan – rugs with kalishnakovs and bombs.   We had seen one once at a friends house in rural England.  Apparently his neighbours had seen it also through his window, as the police turned up to check out they weren’t terrorists (worth noting that my friend was Sri Lankan and it was a very pale English town)….   Anyway, our carpet seller was a former mujahideen commander from Mazaar, so in between tea and carpets we got to hear some of his fascinating history.   And yes, we left with two carpets

2011 carpet
Rob Lounging while shopping
Carpets

 

And then we went for one final wander down Chicken street (so named as it was where you could once buy chickens, but there are no chickens anymore)..  It is as famous as Freak street in Nepal and Khao sahn rd in Bangkok as part of the legendary hippy trail.  I can imagine the hippies having a fabulous time in Kabul in the 70s before the soviets and the Taliban.   There were fabulous souvenir shops – with fur hats, great carpets, wonderful jewellery, but not so much in the way of customers.  I found out afterwards most aid and govt organisations have banned their employees from shopping there after a spate of recent bombings As is often the case, this has made it safer for the few of us still going, as isis and the Taliban have gone looking for other targets.

Chicken St jewellery

To round out our wonderful 9 days we went for dinner at Bukhara.  The family room was deserted and a bit sterile so we went downstairs and ate with the men.  We were joined by Gull and his lovely daughter Mohadesa, and as usual ate far too much!!  After tea and baklava, time for bed, as an early wake up call to head home the next day.

Hubby, Rob, Gull, Mohadesa, Me, Kausar and Big Ishmail

We had an amazing time in Afghanistan, and I will definitely be back to visit Bamian.  Gull has agreed to run the Bamian marathon with me when I come back!   Until then, I hope that security improves for our Afghan friends!

3 June 2018, Kabul

Additional notes if you are visiting

– women’s dress – in Kabul, skinny jeans or leggings with a dress that reaches to close to knee length is appropriate, with a headscarf. Sleeves must go to the wrist and obviously necklines must be high. Outside of Kabul I felt most comfortable on the street in an abbaya (long black ankle length zip tunic) and a headscarf which was still less than most people wore.

– men’s dress – go local! it costs less than $15 for an outfit including the waist coat, and you look great in it. The benefit being you only need to come in the clothes you are wearing…. but two sets of local, wash as require, and then put your original clothes on the day you leave

– guides/tours – I recommend Kausar at untamed borders without hesitation – he was amazing! I will be coming back and would only go with Kausar!

– hotels – am not sharing where we stayed for security reasons as best not to publicise where the foreigners hang out. Suffice to say, they aren’t five star!!!

– drinks – coffee – lots of places either didn’t have it, or had the weird three-in-one packets with sugar added. If you want sugar free black coffee, carry some instant with you. Most places also had a water filter which saved on plastic bottles.

– communications – WiFi is available lots of places but isn’t great. For $14 you can buy a SIM card with 4gb of data which is more than enough for a week or two.

 

Mosques in Mazar e sharif

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.

Mazar -icecream makers

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.

Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar -cleaner
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar -famous holy doves
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar – me in my burqa
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar – non muslims not allowed inside
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar – me and hubby

Yes that’s me and hubby in the photo above….

Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar

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

Noh Gonbad Mosque under restoration
Sufi mystic smoking
Sufi mystic with his crop

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

Old Balkh city walls
Old Balkh city walls
Old Balkh shrine
Nowuz checking up on us

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.

Hoja Pasha mausoleum
Hoja Pasha mausoleum
Hoja Pasha mausoleum
Hoja Pasha mausoleum

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

Rabia Balhi mausoleum
Rabia Balhi mausoleum
Rabia Balhi mausoleum

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.

Sufi at Baba Ku Mastan shrine

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

Mazar bird fighters
Mazar bird fighters
Mazar bird fighters

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

Mazar bazaar
Mazar bazaar
Mazar bazaar
Mazar bazaar
Mazar bazaar
Mazar bazaar
Mazar bazaar

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.

Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hubby at Hazrat Ali Shrine

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.

Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hazrat Ali Shrine

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.

Camels by the road
Camels by the road

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.

Bagh I jahan with the hindu kush in the background
Bagh I jahan with the hindu kush in the background
Burqa and a tank

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

Tashkurgan gorge
Tashkurgan gorge
Tashkurgan countryside
Tashkurgan countryside

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

Takht-e roshtam stupa
Takht-e roshtam stupa
Takht-e roshtam stupa

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

Takht-e roshtam monastery
Takht-e roshtam monastery
Takht-e roshtam monastery
boys in the river

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

History in Herat

The landscape from the plane between Kabul and Herat is like a long rolling wave of rock! It was extraordinary! The people on the plane were amazed to see foreigners , several of the women actually asked me (while I was on the plane or the bus on the way to the plane) if I was going to Herat – well I hope so! I am guessing it isn’t a tourist hotspot these days.

Apparently the dress code in Herat is a little more conservative than normal, and I was approached by a lady in the loo at Herat airport who told me I wasn’t wearing enough clothes – oh well, just as well I bought an abbaya.

Herat traffic – this boy doesn’t look old enough to drive
Herat traffic – tuktuks – mostly with guitar motifs
Herat wheelbarrow men waiting for work

We checked into a glorious hotel which is painted in a riot of pastel colours, and then headed out for iftar dinner. The restaurant was in a delightful courtyard with lounging areas. I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with the place until I realised I was the only woman in sight. Odd!!!! Apparently women have to sit in a different room or in the family room, but I get an exemption as a foreigner. Many quips were made by the hubby and rob about the women’s room – which was obviously the kitchen! Dinner was an amazing feast of grilled meat and bread, preceded by wonderful iftar pastries – glorious combinations of sugar and fat. We were joined by a kiwi guy off my nutters group of Facebook travellers who was coincidentally in Herat staying with a taxi driver and his family, and having quite an experience!

Back to the hotel for a good nights sleep where I discovered I had been eaten by something, I am covered in huge bites!!! Oh well! I scratched most of the night and then we were up early to start sightseeing before it got to hot.

Herat roadside stalls
Herat roadside stalls
Herat roadside stalls

The lovely Mahboob picked us up in his beat up van with the cracked windscreen and drove us round to the mosque. The street near the entry was lined with scholars who write letters and applications for those who are illiterate- which is apparently quite common here.

Herat writers
Herat writers

There is a lovely tile factory adjacent to the mosque entry where craftsmen make beautiful mosaics in the same way they have for thousands of years, it’s extraordinary work, and was lovely to visit.

Herat tile factory

The main mosque was delightful….. huge and very much still in use. There was a cadre of wizened old men who were busy cleaning up after morning prayers with brooms whose design probably hadn’t changed for centuries. It is easy to see why the locals often come and rest and meet their friends in the mosque as it is a wonderful place to lie down and chat, far from the cacophony of the busy Herat streets.

Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque – nap time
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque- cleaners
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque – happy man
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque

We wandered back to the van, passing a famous souvenir shop as we went. While I thought I was fitting in with the locals, it is obvious I stand out, as quite a few women stopped and stared at me – it’s probably a combination of my sunglasses and kiwi walk!

Herat souvenir shop
Herat souvenir shop owner
Herat -boys wanting a photo taken

Next up the Herat fort. A stunning piece of architecture! We paid the curator some baksheesh and he let us into the royal palace, the highlight of which was the queens bath!

Herat fort
Herat fort
Herat fort
Herat fort
Herat fort – me in my abbaya

Driving around the streets is fantastic – there isn’t a spare piece of space which isn’t being productively used for retail – from trucks of watermelons to wheelbarrows of soap. The vendors are all men, and for some weird reason many of them are in cowboy hats. The driving in Afghanistan is generally chaotic, it is the first place I have ever seen anyone go the wrong way round a roundabout! No one seems that bothered as the traffic moves so slowly everyone has time to react.

Herat roadside
Herat roadside
Herat roadside

We headed up the hill to the jihad museum – a tribute to the mujahaddin who had died fighting the ten year occupation of the Russians. The gardens are full of old helicopters and anti aircraft guns. It also had lots of wonderful fruit trees, so we were surreptitiously stuffing our faces with apricots and mulberries while the guard wasn’t looking (naughty given everyone is fasting). The museum had a wonderful diorama showing Afghans bearing Russian tanks with stones and sticks…. if it wasn’t so serious it would have been hilarious

Herat Jihad museum
Herat Jihad museum
Herat Jihad museum
Herat Jihad museum
Herat Jihad museum

Next up the wonderful shrine to Ansari. It is the first time I have seen a mosque type building filled with graves. Women were allowed on one side and men on the other. There was a woman at the shrine wailing and banging her head against the concrete. The women around her were giving me hostile stares and ignoring her. Eventually one intervened and held her to stop her doing it. I have no idea why – but have to assume she is in mourning. You do see quite a few female beggars here, they have lost their husbands in the war and apparently their families often won’t have the means to take them back. I saw very few women working in public in Herat, so I imagine it is difficult for these women to look after themselves. Kausar is terrific at sharing around donations to different people in need, in keeping with good Muslim tradition.

Ansari shrine
Ansari shrine
Ansari shrine
Ansari shrine

We picked up some snacks and retreated to the hotel for a break. It is hot here! There is a wind that blows 120 days a year, and it drives the locals bonkers, but I love it for the respite from the heat. My abbaya is a big black sweat sack – I bought it for £12 from amazon – it’s made from polyester and isn’t very breathable. I took a shower, turned up the AC and lay down in my underpants for two hours to cool down!

Refreshed, we went off to see the shahzada abdull qasim mausoleum- two shines with wonderful Sufi scholars, one of whom interrogated us about Jesus and encouraged us to convert.

Scholar shahzada abdull qasim mausoleum
shahzada abdull qasim mausoleum
scholar shahzada abdull qasim mausoleum

We drove by a bread shop, and had to stop for our fix of fresh bread. The guys invited us in to see it made – it’s an extraordinarily efficient process with no labour waste – and the bread cooks in 30 seconds. We hurriedly stuffed our faces in the van (we aren’t supposed to be eating in public, so we were hiding) before arriving at the Gauwar Shawd mausoleum.

bread shop- 15c per loaf

She was the legendary daughter in law of Timurlane who lived to 79, and was responsible for much of the early development of Herat.

Gauwar Shawd mausoleum

Next to her mausoleum are 5 lovely ancient minarets. There were originally 21 but the British bombed the rest in the 80s as they thought they were Russian watch towers.

Minarets

Next some more shrines. The tomb of Molana Abdul Rahman Jami which had some stunning gravestones. And then finally we headed to the Khaltan shrine – famous in Herat for having a female Sufi. It is also at this shrine that you can get your wishes granted if you roll along the gravel with your eyes closed – i did it, but the boys weren’t keen.

tomb of Molana Abdul Rahman Jami
Man at tomb of Molana Abdul Rahman Jami
Female sufi at Khaltan shrine

By this time I was starving, so I have no idea how Mahboob and Kausar were still functioning. Another lovely restaurant with an amazing feast of mantoo dumplings, local samosa, shashlik, lamb shank, pilau, beans, salad, bread and watermelon. The food here is amazing. Fully iftar stuffed we headed home! I got an ok nights sleep punctuated by waking up to scratch my huge bites.

Our hotel are delightful, and make us breakfast every morning even though they don’t get to eat. This mornings feast was a random but sumptuous assortment of eggs, soup, sour yogurt, bread, jam, cheese and pudding, together with the local mahmood instant coffee which is brutally strong!

A slower start this morning. We went to see the lovely shrine near the fort which has a unique arch made of silver. The kids from the madrasah were hard at work studying the Quran under the watchful eye of an old man.

We then had an amazing few hours wandering around old Herat. Kausar knows where all the ancient and hidden caravanserai can be found, and he showed us all of them. The local men were all eager to chat. They see few tourists here, and all were willing to have their photo taken. If you took a photo of one guy, his friends would want one too. They were all genuinely delightful and most would summon up their best ‘how are you’. While we are still dressed as locals, we do stand out….

Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar – wheelbarrow man
Herat tailor
Herat tailor
Herat child who followed us around
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Old caravanserai in Herat bazaar
Old caravanserai in Herat bazaar

We stopped off at one more shrine – the tomb of sultan agha. It had more security than usual as it was a Shia shrine and is apparently an Isis target. They also had an imprint of Ali the prophets foot!

Tomb of Sultan Agha

Mahboob the driver had arranged some amazing musicians to play for us for an hour before we went to the airport. They were extraordinary! Two men, two hand drums and a harmonium, and amazing voices. What a way to end our visit, eating melon and drinking tea!

Herat wasn’t originally on our itinerary, we were only here as couldn’t get to Bamian, but it was lovely and am so glad we came!!!!

Herat, 29 May 2018

Killing time in Kabul (part 1)

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!

Kabul streets
Kabul streets

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.

British cemetery
British cemetery

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.

Swimming pool hill
Swimming pool hill
Boys playing Karoom
Boys playing Karoom

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.

Old Kabul fort
Kabul streets
Kabul streets
Kabul streets
Kabul streets
Kabul streets
Kabul streets

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.

Sakhi tomb
Sakhi tomb
Sakhi tomb
Sakhi tomb

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

A dilapidated playground
Bread shop

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.

National museum
Students from the Chinese dept at the National Museum
National museum
National museum

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.

Kabul streets

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.

Babur gardens
Babur gardens
Babur gardens
Babur gardens
Babur gardens
Babur gardens

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.

Vending machine

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.

Chilling in Sao Tome

Arriving in Sao Tome (especially from Angola) is like having a balm applied to your soul. The immigration guy was so friendly he even gave me a big thumbs up. No visa required here for under fifteen days, so nice relative to many African countries. Nunes was there to pick us up, and we cruised down the island in the languid evening heat listening to local beats. And breathe out…….

We are staying at a ridiculously lovely Airbnb. A typical Sao Tome stilt house perched on the edge of the cliff above the pounding waves in Santana. We passed out almost immediately on arriving (it was 1am and we hadn’t slept for 40 hours) lulled to sleep by the breeze and the sound of the water. Delightful!

Santana- view from the villa
Santana- view from the villa

After a slow wake up, we got our rental car – no insurance, no license check, and a general request to put some Petrol in it at some point- and headed into town. The capital (a word I use loosely) has some amazing examples of crumbling Portuguese architecture. It always amuses me the sheer audacity of the colonists who turned up in Africa and expected through force of will to-recreate their homelands and religions in the African jungle! The religion has certainly endured with pretty little churches on almost every corner. The architecture is lovely but hasn’t endured so well, but for me that is a lot of the charm.

Seventh Day Adventists
Praca Amizade
One of the oldest cathedrals in Africa

We meandered around town, ooh-ing and aah-ing as we turned every street corner at the buildings. It was a relaxing few hours taking in all the main squares and streets, with an obligatory espresso break (the coffee is pretty good here). The locals are friendly, but the guys can’t help but give you a smile and a bit of a wink. I am sure if I was alone I would be getting whistles, it certainly makes a difference having hubby in tow, though here the whistles are more opportunistic than threatening.

Sao Tome town – tiled building
Sao Tome town
Sao Tome town – health centre

we wandered our way through the cultural quarter and the parque populaire and eventually made it to the fort and the national museum. We sat for a while on the top of the fort being amused by the kids laughing, doing back flips and paddling on makeshift paddle boards. It started raining, but even the rain here is relaxing – plopping gently down, just enough to cool you down and not enough to make you wet and cold.

A good looking french man at the fortress
Fisherman’s church Sao Tome
Sao Tome harbour – boats and litter

We found a restaurant serving local food and got stuck into some calulu and feijoada! (Delicious salty fish stews with breadcrumbs!!!)

Calulu and rice

While eating I started reading the Bradt guide on my phone, I never really read it until after I have seen everything. Fun fact – I am in the middle of the world – Sao Tome is the closest land mass to where the line if zero longitude(Greenwich) crosses zero latitude (the equator). After eating, we needed another coffee to get moving. Everything here is leve-leve, easy pace, and no need to rush, and we are fitting right in. I love it here, all the groove and spice of west Africa without any of the hassles :-).

Sao Tome town – coffin maker
Sao Tome town – retail
Sao Tome town
Sao Tome town
Sao Tome town – main market

We meandered back along the coast road to Santana stopping at the local market to try and buy provisions for the next day. Steph was tempted by the flying fish, but I wasn’t super keen for a fishy breakfast – so we got some fresh eggs and some bread rolls that were so dense they should keep us going for a few days

High quality taxi
Sao Tome town – school

Back to the villa….. aaaaaah….. nothing to do but sit and watch the waves roll in. I feel like I have been here a month and want to stay another. After an hour the skies opened up and entertained us with a stunning rain storm. It must be a kiwi thing but I find the sound of rain on the roof immensely reassuring. What a way to spend the afternoon.

Even better we had asked Yves to sort out dinner for us, so we were delighted when this three course feast arrived at 7.30. The local cat arrived at the same time and managed to commandeer a decent share

yum – dinner

After a wonderful 8 hours of sleep, I woke up to the waves. The friendly cat hadn’t left (we couldn’t lock him out of the open air house) and the minute we opened the bedroom door he made himself right at home in the middle of the bed. I put up with it until I saw the fleas…. and then he got evicted

It was a glorious sunny day so we set off to drive down the island at a relaxed pace. You couldn’t go too fast, it’s Sunday, and clearly laundry day, with all obvious surfaces covered by laundry including the sides of the main road. And it’s a communal industry, I even saw some men chipping in

Our first stop was the Roca Agua ize. Apparently it is still a working plantation, and it was the first cocoa plantation on the island, staffed with 50 Europeans and 2500 contract workers. It’s not obvious it’s working today, but it was Sunday. We checked out the old hospital – am amazing ruin with a fab view. And then wandered around the streets of the small town which would have been built for the European workers. The pastor wasn’t having a great day, with less than ten in attendance. But the rap beats were pounding out from a variety of industrial speakers.

Roca Agua Ize – workers houses
Roca Agua Ize – workers houses
Roca Agua Ize – hospital
Roca Agua Ize – Palm Oil Factory
Roca Agua Ize – Palm Oil Factory

After that we stopped by the boca de inferno – the Mouth of hell – and watched the spray come up through the blowhole

Boca de Inferno

Then more slow driving, avoiding dogs, laundry and kids using the big hills as a skateboard ramp as we headed south down the island, admiring the intermittent views of the pico- an unusual rock formation sticking up like a needle in the middle of the island

Cao Pico

We made it to the idyllic restored plantation at Sao Joao and wandered round the grounds checking out his art gallery and sculptures. We wandered around town too, to work up a bit of an appetite – as apparently this is the best restaurant in the country. It’s a beautiful shady terrace with a lovely breeze and an outstanding view over the sea.

Roca Sao Joao plantation house
Roca Sao Joao art gallery

Lunch turned out to be a 14 course degustation of local flavours! I felt quite impressed with myself for accidentally organising a lovely lunch for my hubby (who is being a very good sport this year and accompanying me on some bonkers trips with no complaints when the travel arrangements all go tits up at the last minute). The food was excellent, great fish, herbs and plenty of local flavours of coconut, mango and vanilla. The swordfish and manioc was excellent as was the cerviche, and the salted cod with with palm oil and banana was amazing. The chopped squid with a fried rice ball might have been the best but hard to judge. The chef/owner/artists came round during some courses and explained the local provenance of the food – it was quite a performance, he was almost singing.

Roca Sao Joao- squid and arancini
Roca Sao Joao- pickled tuna and green papaya
Roca Sao Joao- aubergine and fried swordfish

After lunch we cruised back up the coast….. and had a well deserved siesta before heading to the airport for our flight home (a vile three flight red eye a day early given taag’s uselessness – see why below). I loved it here! We will come back but next time will definitely pop over to Príncipe for a few days. If you want a lovely easy leveleve African experience, come to Sao Tome!

Roca Sao Joao- church – jesus is love

9 more countries to go…..

Additional info

  • Definitely stay at divine ocean villas or one of Yves other properties at Santana, they were amazing
  • Yves can arrange a rental jeep for €40 a day and it gets delivered to the door and you can leave it at the airport
  • Definitely eat the degustation at Sao Joao

Side note 1 – I hate flying in Africa

Due to the vagaries of African airlines (and European airlines that don’t rate their African clientele) this had been a hell of a trip. BA cancelled our flight two days before departure and made no effort at all to find us an alternative (and as yet haven’t refunded me). This necessitated a last minute, very expensive purchase of an indirect flight to Luanda. The next leg from Luanda worked fine to Sao Tome (albeit on the crappiest plane I have seen in years with seats as hard as rock). But then we figured out (by accident) that TAAG had moved our return flight forward 18 hours, so instead of a civilised flight out with a good connection to our BA flight, we were now on a 3am flight with a 17 hour layover in Luanda, and as we were using different airlines in and out of Luanda we wouldn’t even be allowed out of a transit room until four hours before the next flight (apparently there’s no food or water in the transit room), and we couldn’t clear immigration as it takes weeks to sort a visa. Crap!!!!! Oh well, that’s what credit cards are for, and we have found a faster route home, with bonus stops in Accra and Lisbon, but the downside is we only have two nights and days in Sao Tome! Sigh!

Art at Sao Joao

Side note  2 – hubby to 100

It turns out hubby has been keeping a track record of his country count. He’s at 70 which is pretty impressive for someone who is not trying to visit lots of countries. The amusing thing is that he has been to Bhutan and Mauritania and Sao Tome (and is coming to Afghanistan later this month) but he has not been to Germany or Ireland and a bunch of other ‘normal’ European countries! We have decided next year we are going to do a dinner date in a European city each month to at least tick off the main countries in Europe :-), as would be nice to get him to 100

Sao Tome, 6 May 2018

Looking around Luanda/affluence in Angola

Angola is hard to get into and blimmen expensive when you get there.  The government are notorious for not issuing visas, and aren’t keen on visitors (unless you are Russians buying their oil).    It was a portuguese colony until 1975 when Agostinho Neto (lots of monuments and pictures of him later) became the first president, and then the country descended into some pretty complicated civil wars that lasted until 2002 displacing one third of the population, with 15 million landmines laid down.   Angola is one of the richest countries in Africa (lots of diamonds and oil) but is a global leader in corruption, and economic growth has been extraordinary since the end of the war – but the benefits only seem to be going to very few angolans.  Luanda – the capital, is a apparently one of the worlds most expensive cities, but more than 3/4 of the inhabitants live in slums.  Africa’s richest woman, is the president’s daughter. Isabel was appointed to head the state energy firm Sonangol in 2016 by presidential decree and she is worth an estimated $3bn.  But the average wage in Angola is just under $2 a day.

The seventh day adventists are everywhere

My friends who had lived in Luanda had told me it was vile, so we weren’t planning to stay long,…. but as is often the way, we had an amazing time and there was plenty to see.  Our new friend Candido drove us around town, making sure we took photos without the police harassing us (you often have to take them from a moving car so the police don’t bother you) and sorted us our our black market foreign exchange (you get twice the value on the street, but get a local to do it for you).

We stayed on the Ilha- a long skinny peninsular with an odd combination of posh restaurants and 4wds on one hand and barefoot fisherman and people squatting illegally in abandoned buildings .  Mornings are lively with fisherman selling their wares and people doing pushups and bootcamp on the beach.  We made sure we went all the way to the end of the Ilha to see the lighthouse and the view back into town.  our hotel offered to loan us paddle boards, but I wasn’t excited about the smell of the sewerage 🙂

Lighthouse on Ilha de Cabo
Advertising rocks now used as sand stabilisers?

We went on a tour round town to check out the wonderful colonial architecture with the central bank being the best example and the cathedral of the sacred heart being quite lovely also.

Central Bank of Angola
Cathedral of the holy saviour

We also liked the palacio ferro – the iron palace, a very groovy yellow building which is made out of corrugated iron.  Apparently it was designed by Mr Eiffel (of the tower fame)

Palacio de Ferro
Palacio de Ferro

The ‘high city’ ciudad alta is where all the glorious parliament buildings were, with more police than you can shake a stick at.

National Assembly
Ciudade Alta

The fortaleza was worth checking out – it felt like every school kid in Luanda was visiting, as well as a bunch of soldiers who were learning their history.    It has stunning views over the Ilha and downtown, as well as lots of guns and cannons.  Part of the view is down into a shantytown, but the government is systematically moving the occupants out to the suburbs (without giving them a choice) as they want the view to be nicer from the fort…. hmmmmm….

Fortaleza
Agostinho
Paintings in the military history museum

But my favourite thing in Luanda was the monument to Agostinho.  Apparently it was half built by the Russians in the eighties, and finally finished by the Koreans in the early 2000s.  It is an amazing bonkers space needle type construction, which also serves as the parade ground for the military.   Definitely worth checking out.

Agostinho monument
Agostinho monument

We ate well while we were there, but it wasn’t cheap.  Lunch would have been $100 for two mains, and one dessert and two diet cokes if we had gotten the official exchange rate, but even on the black market rates it was $50.  Good hearty portuguese food!

Downtown
Downtown
view of Downtown from the fort

Additional info

  • on the recommendation of friends, we stayed at Thomson Art Hotel on the Ilha. rooms were small but perfectly formed.  breakfast was great.  we booked airport pick ups and drop offs with them also
  • there is apparently a new visa on arrival system – good luck! We used the old system which required a tonne of paperwork and a few elephant tears at the embassy
  • definitely use the street market for changing money – the rate is double the bank rate, and seemed safe (we stayed in the car while someone came to the window)
  • Immigration are some of the slowest in Africa – get to the airport on time on your way out

Luanda, May 4, 2018

Passport stamps in Nepal

Now I am getting close to completing visiting all of my list of 197 countries, I have started a nice geeky spreadsheet with all the dates of entry for the different countries and noting which of my various passports has the entry stamp. In the process I realised that I had misplaced my very first kiwi passport. Most of the countries I had visited in that era (ages 14-23) I have already been back to more than once, but not Nepal. Twenty years ago I spent a few weeks hiking in Nepal and loved it, and I am sure I have some photos somewhere but I could only find one photo of someone who looked vaguely like me in front of a stupa in Kathmandu. But, as I was in Delhi for work, I decided I may as well pop up to Kathmandu for the weekend – it’s not far! I could get in at 9am and leave the following evening around 6 – allowing two full days for sightseeing …..(and fulfil my OCD need for some ‘proof’ I went there :-))…..

I had forgotten about the fog in Kathmandu. I was at the airport at 5.40 am, but our flight ended up being delayed for six hours due to the airport being closed in Kathmandu. Hmmm! Not ideal. Looking around the gate, it is obvious that things have moved on in Nepal. While there were a few happy hippies in flimsy embroidered tops and grubby trousers, (two with guitars,) there were also impeccable equipped japanese and American hikers with shiny new boots and even some business men. I was excited to see how different Kathmandu would be after 20 years.

We eventually got on the flight and landed in a wonderful sunny day in the kathmandu valley, which is surrounded by stunning mountains. Obviously air india don’t have great relationships at the airport as they have their own dedicated beaten up bus, and the door wouldn’t even close. I did my usual power walk through to immigration, paid the fee, smiled nicely at the immigration dude (apparently i was supposed to have two copies of something and I didn’t) and was first out of the airport.

bhaktapur

I found a driver and negotiated a fee for the afternoon (the guy I had booked had given up hours before) and headed out to Bhaktapur. When you think of Kathmandu, the gateway to the mountains comes to mind, but I had also forgotten that Kathmandu has worse air pollution than Delhi! .  it was vile, and i wasn’t surprised to see one young girl violently throwing up out the bus window next door given how bad the fumes were.

Taumadhi square
Bhairavnath

Bhaktapur was lovely. I had clearly come late enough in the day to miss most of the tourists, and the afternoon light was perfect. Nepal has a clever policy of charging special prices to tourists – not a bad idea given they need to get foreign currency from somewhere – so it was $15 to enter, but worth it. I wandered around the four main squares (Durbar, Taumadhi, Pottery and Dattatraya).

Bhairavnath

Dattatraya was my favourite, largely because there was an enigmatic goat who kept posing for me in front of the main temple. The streets of Bhaktapur are wonderful and although as over-run with scooters as most of Nepal, they are car free and pretty walkable.

Old house on the streets of Bhaktapur
Dhattatraya Square
Patan

We then headed to Patan. I left the driver in the carpark and wandered up the street. Before long I ran into three lines of what looked like riot police, and behind them a crazy loud crowd. I was mildly worried I had accidentally run into some demonstration,but there were a lot of women around so I decided to follow one of them and we squished past the police and forced our way along the sides of the crowd – quite tough in a narrow street. There were hundred of locals out celebrating some festival – honestly no clue what it was about, and i couldnt’t understand the name of the festival from the guy who started telling me about it (his accent was incomprehensible), but it seemed to be a challenge to haul what looked like 50 metre christmas trees down to the square.

the weird christmas tree pulling festival
the police
soldiers attending the festival at Patan
crowds at Patan waiting for the tree

Patan was badly damaged during the 2015 earthquakes, and many of the temples are still being rebuilt. However I loved it more than Bhaktapur purely because I timed it when the locals were in full celebration. After wandering around and chatting to some of the local ladies, I made my way to the hotel for a much needed shower to get the Kathmandu grit out of my hair

crowds at Patan waiting for the tree
Ladies dressed up for the festival
Patan being reconstructed
Old men gossiping

I am staying in Thamel, the backpacker haunt of the 70s (and for me in the 90s). It hasn’t changed a bit but is also totally different. Its still grubby, full of touts, blessed with unlimited momo shops and lots of counterfeit outdoor brands. And it is still over-run with tourists. But the tourists are much better dressed, everyone has a smartphone and every cafe has wifi (we didn’t even have internet last time the first time I came here). Its kinda odd. I wandered round and stopped for a crackingly good pizza at Fire and Ice and retired to bed in my small but perfectly formed room at the Oasis guesthouse

I managed to sleep in spite of all night construction works next door including concrete laying at 4am. The Australians next to me at breakfast were complaining vociferously about the noise, but in a country with limited regulation, construction entrepreneurs will use all the hours available.

Thamel and durbar square

After an amazing breakfast of masala omelettes and chapatis I wandered through Tamel down to Durbar square. Much of the complex was badly damaged by the earthquake. It is still worth a visit as it is lovely and very much still in public use with crowds of people performing their morning puja to Hanuman (the Hindu monkey god). This is clearly a tourist hot spot as the beggars are orderly and organised. I was amused by an aged wrinkly hippy with his dog who has likely been here since the seventies, who made his rounds giving alms to equally wizened beggars. The sadhus (holy men) are equally out in force to profit from the western photographers who get uncomfortably close to their faces.

Hippy distributing cash to the beggars
Hanuman shrine at Durbar Square
Man selling bird feed at Durbar Square
Tourist taking a photo of Sadhu (for a negotiated fee)
Temple being reconstructed at Durbar Square
Temples at Durbar Square

swayambhunath

Arjun picked me up and we headed out to Swayambhunath temple – monkey temple (so named for the many aggressive monkeys :-)). The traffic was not so bad as it is Saturday but the air quality really is awful! I saw quite a few tourists walking the route from Thamel, but while I love walking, I wouldn’t willingly do it here with all the fumes. Arjun took quite some persuading that I wanted to walk up the famous steps to the stupa rather than be driven up. It was a lovely shady stroll on the hill with lots of devout locals making puja. The monkeys provide tonnes of entertainment and you have to hold on tightly to anything shiny! The stupa is lovely!!!!!!!!

Buddha at the base of the steps to the stupa
One of the many monkeys on the steps
the last flight of stairs (the pilgrims are quite unfit, i overtook most of the people in view after taking this shot)
The stupa from different angles
The stupa from different angles
The stupa from different angles
boudhanath

We then headed across town to Boudhanath. A lovely stupa surrounded by coffee shops. Kathmandu is third world but wonderfully organised for tourists, you are never far away from a flat white, WiFi and a clean loo! It is certainly much nicer than it was 20 years ago. After circumnambulating twice I restored myself with an excellent flat white and a banana muffin :-).

Tourist heaven – muffin and coffee
Boudhanath stupa from different angles
Boudhanath stupa from different angles
Boudhanath stupa from different angles

pahsupatinath

After that we headed to Pashupatinath – one of the largest complexes in Nepal and definitely the most important….it is where local Hindus are cremated and is said to represent Shiva’s head (his other main body parts are in India). The three most beautiful temples are off limits to non Hindus but it is a lovely place to wander around. The more ghoulish tourists spend ages watching burning bodies and trying to get close to take photos….I learnt years ago in Varanasi that I didn’t want to smell bodies cremating as it put me off food for a long time. I also wonder how we would feel if someone put an enormous lens in our faces while were burying our loved ones in the cemetery. I wandered around and got invited to join a family for a picnic. I sat in the shade and chatted to some kids for a while, but my Hindu is limited to two words :-).

Blessings
Small temples at Pashupati
Main temple at Pashupati (no entrance for non hindus) behind the cremation ghats
Kids cleaning in the river
Body being prepared for cremation
Time for a snooze
The three nicest temples were off limits to non hindus

After that back to the airport to head home the long way, via Delhi and Dubai. It was lovely to be back, but reminded me that there are amazing mountains in Nepal so am contemplating signing up to the mustang trail race in 2020. Let me know if you fancy coming

April 21, Kathmandu, Nepal

Additional info

* stayed at oasis guesthouse. Clean, great location, very good management and excellent breakfast

* can negotiate taxis from place to place but I am lazy and found it easier to get a driver. Rate was $45 for a full day

* all the cafes are excellent, I tried several java Nepalese, the local Starbucks and they were good

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Fruit vendors Thamel
Rickshaw rank Durbar Square
Flower vendors Durbar Square
A shrine made out of coins nailed together

Cheeky weekend in the Seychelles

I was off to Dubai for work, and so figured out how to sneak in a weekend in the Seychelles while there.  Hubby wasn’t super keen to come as it is a bit far for a weekend so there I was, solo on a flight jam packed with honeymooners and couples!  Flying into the Seychelles, you can see stunning beaches, wild rainforest, and huge rocks that seem to be falling from the mountain tops into the ocean.   The island survives on tourism, and rightly so!   I was first off the plane, and picked up a wonderfully dodgy rental car.  A crapped out Kia Picanto that  last saw it’s clutch in 2015, and I was going to rue the crappy engine more than once over the weekend.
Hindu Temple, Victoria, Mahe
I drove into town looking for the Larue apartments.  There are no street numbers here, but thankfully google maps knew where I was going.   The kia picanto couldn’t make it up the very steep wet driveway, and I was very embarrassed when I had to call the owner to come and get me – he drove my car up!.  Apparently it happens every time a guest arrives (and don’t worry I got up fine every time after that).  The Larue apartments are basic but lovely – it’s high on the hill in bel air with stunning views overlooking Victoria.   Accommodation is ridiculously expensive here so I was happy to find a whole apartment for 80 Euro a night, it actually had three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
Replica of Big Ben – Victoria, Mahe
The afternoon wasn’t sunny so went down to check out the bustling metropolis of Victoria.  Its tiny, lovely and indisputably African.  I checked out the ‘sights’ – a cute Hindu temple, the church and a replica of the clock tower in London.  And then I followed the local ladies to the market to buy food for the weekend – eggs, avocado, beans, corn, tomatoes and eggs.  I couldn’t resist the bakery either and ended up with some delicious deep fried fish cakes that were so spicy my nose started running, and a ‘coconut gateau’ that was halfway between the consistency of a scone and a rock, but surprisingly good.  I had an early dinner of veggies and eggs, and then passed out as the jet lag hit me like a rock
Church, Victoria, Mahe

I slept a solid 12 hours, and roused myself at 8am to get some hiking in.  I was staying at the edge of the national park on purpose as I prefer hills to beaches.  I had lined up three hikes, which should have taken me about six hours.  The first – Trois freres – named for the ‘three brothers’ – huge rocks which overlook the town of Victoria.  It was supposed to take 2 hours return, but took 30 mins.  It was a lovely  view though.

Trois frères trail
Trois frères trail – steps cemented to the big rocks
Next up the ‘casse dents’ (broken teeth) which was sadly closed due to too much rain eroding the track.  So I headed next to Morne Blanc.  I picked up some local girls hitching on the way.   They were hilarious, as they were ‘hiking’ with their university, but effectively they were walking on the road for the whole day.  They were a bit tired going up the ‘big hill’ so I gave them a ride.  I have to say the Kia picante didn’t do well with four ladies on a steep incline – it was first gear all the way.
View down to Victoria from Trois Freres
Hillside Trois Freres
I stopped at the trail head for Morne blanc and tried not to worry about the two blokes with machetes hanging around the trail head.  That ’90 minute’ trail took 30 minutes, but was wonderfully steep up and down, so it was a nice jog.   To round out the morning, and as I was finished early, I also ran a few km on the Mont d’or trail for good measure  (accessed from Port Gilaud).  All of the trails are well marked, but you can find them on the Gaia app.
View south west from top of Morne Blanc
View north west from top of Morne Blanc
Typical village house Port Glaud

I then headed to the top of the island. I passed a big resort and a crowded beach and kept going until I found a delightful private beach to myself for a swim.   Afterwards, clean and restored, I drove to the end of the road to Cap Ternay, and then turned around to head back to a nice posh resort for lunch  – Constance Ephelia.   It was a nice place but overrun with kids and pink tourists, and out of my budget but I did have a very good lamb kebab!

My private swimming beach

I had no plans for the rest of the afternoon, so I put some good tunes on the car stereo and cruised down the west side of the island, stopping frequently to take photos or to jump in the water to cool off.  Driving here is not for the faint hearted.  Your rental car is bound to be rubbish, mine ground the gears every time from second to third.  The roads are narrow, slippery, and windy!  I rarely got above 40km, and spent most of the time in the mountains in second gear.  Add to that the local kids and dogs who will randomly dart in front of you from nowhere.  I narrowly avoided running over a dog fast asleep in the middle of the road.  Don’t drive here if you have a weak heart!!!  The old local buses belch out black smoke, and you don’t want to be stuck behind one going through the interior or you might suffocate, I pulled over a few times to get further away from the buses and try to breathe.
Port Glaud Church
Port Glaud
It was a brilliant afternoon, I loved the drive.  The west side of Mahe island is much quieter than the east side, and highlights were Grand Anse and Anse Takamaka.   It was a strenuous afternoon driving with one hand on the wheel, and one arm hanging out the window ……with the music blasting I looked just like one of the locals.  I rewarded my effort with an icecream and a nap on Takamaka beach.    After that I cruised back into town, and had another stroll around before dinner.  A perfect day as a tourist 😃
Grand Anse Beach

I would highly recommend the Seychelles for a weekend, and if you love beaches there is tonnes to do for a week – I am just not great at sitting on a beach all day!
Baie Lazare
Anse Boileau Church
That was the last lovely country of the 197…., thanks Seychelles no. 186, just 11 more to go
Victoria, Mahe, 14, April, 2018