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

Mali – in the ancient town of Djenne

Djenne a home of the world’s largest mud mosque, a famous Monday market and protected from the surrounding flood plains by a virgin sacrifice! What’s not to like!
Djenne is famous for having the worlds largest mud mosque! It’s a lovely small town set in the middle of flood plains so depending on what time of the year you visit, you might drive in or you might take the ferry, as Djenne becomes an island in the rainy season. The locals say Djenne has never flooded though as a younger girl was sacrificed to ensure this would never happen (‘of course it had to be a girl I said to my guide’). You can visit her tomb on the edge of the village.


The town is lovely to walk around, with life very much conducted in the open. Doors aren’t closed and everyone knows everyone’s business. Kids run from house to house, dodging the gunk and water in the open drainage system which runs in the middle of every alleyway. Given its the height of the summer it doesn’t always smell great but at least the sewerage systems are all self contained in each house (effectively they just dig the deepest hole possible for the toilet and use a pump to empty it out every ten years).


People here are incredibly friendly and we’re helpful with directions every time I got lost! And kids ran after me saying ‘toubab, photo’ most of the day. None of them wanted money they just wanted to check out what they looked like on screen. And, thankfully, no one asked for bonbons.

 

Fully loaded truck arriving at Djenne market
Djenne also has one of the liveliest markets in Mali every Monday, and luckily I was there to see it. I was up early and started wandering around town around 7am. Spaces were filling quickly and enormous overladen trucks were arriving bursting with sacks of goods, with passengers packed on top, and various carts and stall fixtures hanging off the side. It took a good hour to unload each truck (and there were many coming from all directions).

 

 

Wholesaling mangoes
Young local boys were marshalled with their hand carts to take goods into the centre of the market for the stall holders. Often in the rainy season this process takes even longer as the trucks must stop at the outskirts of town, unload onto donkey driven carts, which are then transferred onto handcarts. It’s an opportunity for everyone to make a little money.
At the same time the bush taxis arrived disgorging their passengers, mostly women buying and selling. Bush taxi conductors are good business men who are geniuses at space optimisation. Everything and everyone fits in. More importantly he always remembers who has paid and who hasn’t. It is typical for people to pay for the transport at the end of the day, after their sales have been made. If they have had a bad day, they can normally pay the following week – the conductor won’t forget.

 

 

Kids practicing their Quranic verses
Against this frenzied back drop, local life goes on and I watched the young boys and girls in their separate groups at their pre breakfast Quran lessons, memorising passages from their tablets (the stone version not the electronic kind).

 

 

Market stall
The goods are typical of a west African market and each category has its section – live sheep (typically run by men), chickens, abundant displays of fruit melons, mango and cucumbers, staples like rice, beans and millet, spices, herbs, fresh fish, smoked fish.

 

 

Smoked fish
Then of course you have the obligatory clothing section which is probably half football gear – everyone wears football shirts here, from the 2 year old to the 60 year old lady, and they all love Messi and Barca. Then the second hand European clothing stands – if you ever wondered where your charity shop donation of the Zara tshirt went, you can rest assured it is probably getting a useful second life in west Africa somewhere.  

 


Finally the Chinese tat section – plastic sandals, mobile phone chargers, cheap electricals etc…. the locals say that the Chinese perfectly understand the African mentality to buy cheap, even though they know the products don’t last. Adjacent to the market are the services… skinny men under a tarp with ancient foot operated singer sewing machines, the bike repair men and the ever present mobile phone vendors. Dotted throughout the market are women selling water, drinks and deep fried donuts (the perfect sustenance for a hot day).

The highlight of town is the grand mosque, which they ‘re-mud’ every year before the rainy season. It is a spectacular building which changes colour during the day with the light. Historically non muslims are not allowed to enter. However, I was approached by the son of town chief who told me they need money for ongoing repairs, and if I was willing to make a donation he could show me around. I passed.

 

The Grande Mosque is the backdrop for the market
It got hotter and hotter as the morning wore on, and even observing the action from a shady bench was a sweaty endeavour. I had a wee break in the blessed AC in my hotel, and then joined the lovely Ibrahim, his wife and daughter for lunch in their house. Local river fish and rice, followed by more mango….. it was delicious. The highlight of lunch was their 10 month old daughter who was gorgeous, however whenever she looked at me she started crying….. she hadn’t seen a toubab before.

 

 

View of Grande Mosque from neighbouring building 
Later in the afternoon I wandered back to the market. ‘La pluie est le poussiere menace’ I was told…. ie there was a storm coming. The dust started blowing and people started packing up earlier than usual. I bought a few supplies – some local biscuits, more mangoes, a melon and some water bags. The long winded process of the early morning happened in reverse with everything being stuffed back into trucks and buses.

 


The poorer kids in town were crowded around the fruit stalls gorging themselves on the rotten mangoes which wouldn’t sell another day….. apparently they often get quite sick doing this but still can’t help themselves. The pile of rotten discarded mango skins was almost obscured by the flies. By late evening there was little evidence apart from discarded plastic that anything had happened at all in town that day, and Djenne would stay her sleepy habitual self until the next Monday.

 

Dried onions
Additional notes
I stayed at campement Houber which is located in town and very close to the mosque. It is basic but clean and had AC. Don’t expect water all day as there are regular shortages.

 

I had a local guide when I was there, arranged through Papillon Reizen. You don’t really need a guide, but it isn’t a terrible idea as I would have gotten pretty lost in the windy alleys without him, plus he took me to the great viewpoints and fed me s delicious lunch

May 22, Djenne, Mali