My second visit to Central Asia in 2008 started in Kazakhstan and brought me from there to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. As I needed to see something else besides Central Asia I finished the trip in India, my plan to visit Pakistan unfortunately failed.
Things couldn’t go better. I’m sitting in a nice Toyota Corolla, the road is in perfect condition, better than anything I have seen in the last two months across Central Asia with a new power line running alongside, and the AC gently blows cool air into my face. We approach a checkpoint.
Things really couldn’t go any better. After an Uzbek border guard managed to relieve me off 50$ I angrily walked across the Amu Darya. On the Afghan side, I was warmly received and soon found myself taking a picture of the “Welcome to Afghanistan” sign. I’ve entered the country that I was very hesitant to visit and so far, it has been a pleasant experience. We stop at the checkpoint; the moment the soldier sees my German passport he exclaims “Germany good” and gives us a thumbs-up. He doesn’t even want to have a look inside. Mazar-i-Sharif I am coming.
A military convoy is approaching in the distance, as we come closer the driver swerves to the far right of the road and stops. An armoured personal carrier of the Bundeswehr is driving right in the middle of the road pushing everyone to the side. I have seen pictures of these vehicles before but I never realized how big they really are. About ten other military vehicles are following before another APC, again driving right in the middle of the road, ends the convoy. About a kilometre behind another jeep follows, very unprofessional but I take it as a good sign that the threat level is moderate to low.
My interest in the country was first picked on my previous visit to Central Asia in 2003 when I met numerous travellers who had been doing amazing trips in Afghanistan. After the American invasion in 2001, the country was reasonably calm and people travelled all over the North of Afghanistan, explored the central route and had great stories to tell. Afghanistan has long been a destination for travellers, just ask the hippies who went there in the 60s and 70s, and there is no question that the country is worth a visit. Another draw for me was the fact that Afghanistan was widely discussed in the media with people coming with all sorts of advice how to improve the situation. But what did they know about Afghanistan? And what did I know? Did I have an idea how a country at war feels like? How does it work, how does it keep functioning, what rules apply inside the country? How present is the conflict in daily life? All things worth knowing more about. With all the media coverage Afghanistan also felt strangely familiar but still incomprehensible. For me Afghanistan was a similar case to Iran where my visit in 2003 greatly changed my understanding of the country and the world. Would Afghanistan give me similar insights?
Against visiting Afghanistan stands the security situation. By 2008, it had greatly deteriorated, attacks on the local population and foreign forces were on the rise. The United States increased their forces by 80% and on the 18th of August, merely six weeks before I was to enter, French forces lost ten soldiers in a fierce battle with the Taliban. Do I still want to go? I wavered and for months tried to monitor the situation in Afghanistan as closely as possible. I subscribed to the Moby Media Updates so when something happened in Afghanistan, I knew about it.
Afghanistan was part of my original travel plan as I wanted to reach India from Central Asia overland. My direction it was still possible to do that, Pakistan was still receiving travellers over the Khyber Pass but was refusing to grant permission to go the other way. After the incident with the French troops, which did not happen in the unruly south but only about 50km from Kabul close to the main Kabul – Jalalabad road, I explored other options. I enquired about applying for a Chinese visa (to cross to Pakistan via Xinjiang) but the Chinese had suddenly changed the rules and forced people to apply in their home countries leaving many a traveller stranded. In the end, I decided to go anyway and for me it added another point of interest, how would I react to the pressure of being in a potentially dangerous environment. I got myself a double-entry visa for Uzbekistan so that I could leave immediately if I found Afghanistan threatening. In the end, I did not think a single second about returning to Uzbekistan.
Getting the visa required a bit of effort. In Almaty I was told that no visas would be issued, in Bishkek I searched the embassy in three different locations where people told me that the embassy had been here once but no one knew where it was now. A sign of a country in turmoil. In Tajikistan, I tried the consulate in Khorugh but they demanded a letter of recommendation from a German organization (meaning the development organization GTZ which had offices in town) which they never would never issue for a tourist trip to Afghanistan. With little hope, I went to the embassy in Dushanbe and was, within minutes, sitting in the office of the chancellor and receiving my visa. They seemed happy and I was seen off with a cheery “have a nice trip”. Funny how perceptions can be different. I had told them that from Afghanistan I wanted to cross to Pakistan, they told me to be careful, Pakistan, they said, would be dangerous.
Being in Mazar-i-Sharif feels so absolutely normal that I start to think I must be dreaming. People look a bit different, people dress different but all in all this is not different from many cities in Central Asia. The town is centred on the beautiful Shrine of Hazrat Ali (Blue Mosque) that sits in a park that has a festive atmosphere. People sit around, children play, candyfloss is being sold. People are interested in me, of course I stick out, and especially young people want to talk with me. A fair number can speak some English. Nothing feels threatening at all and the city is not visibly prepared for conflict, only a UN compound in a side street is protected by concrete barriers and barbed wire. I ponder if I should get myself some ice cream. As night falls, I return to my hotel. There are even other travellers, namely two blond girls from Slovenia. We head to a nearby restaurant for dinner, it is Afghan style meaning there are no tables or chairs just raised platforms with carpets where you are supposed to sit and in the middle of the platform runs a plastic sheet where you are supposed to have your plate on. The girls are not wearing a head-scarf or anything and we are an attraction. One man on the platform next to us tells us that he wants to marry on of my companions. The waiter speaks no English but understands Russian, invaders come and go.
The girls are weird. They came to Afghanistan in search of Bactrian coins that they wanted to sell at a premium back home. They seem to have absolutely no concerns about security issues. They are struggling to find the coins though and have made some friends which they now suspect of being involved in the drug trade. These friends gave them a car with driver to get to Mazar-i-Sharif. As we get back to the hotel one of them leans towards me and says “do you want opium?”. “No”, “it’s just that we have some”. I better keep my distance.
Transportation in Afghanistan is not without (security) challenges. Basically, there is one road, the ring road, connecting the most important cities. The region around Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, Kabul in the east, Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west. The north-western corner of the ring road does not exist meaning that all traffic to Herat has to go through Kandahar and the unstable south.
The line running in the middle of the map from Kabul to Herat is the so-called Central Route, a terrible road that can only be attempted in summer and which might take a week for the 650km (as the crow flies) from Kabul to Herat. In 2003, travellers went all across the north, tackling the central route on local transport, with trucks, on bikes. In 2008 the central route is considered very unsafe, Bamiyan (remember the Buddhas?) and the nearby Band-e-Amir lakes (“the bluest blue I have ever seen”, I was told) are tricky and heading to the south would be a suicide mission. I settle for a safe travel plan and decide to follow the lead of rich Afghans and take the plane. From Mazar-i-Sharif to Herat, from Herat to Kabul and from Kabul I can take the road to Jalalabad and on to the Khyber Pass. This way I miss out on the road trip from Mazar to Kabul but I cannot press everything into the week I have.
At Mazar-i-Sharif airport my bag-pack gets examined by hand seven times and I have to walk through a metal detector 3 times. Still, the checks are totally unprofessional as they always start at the top of my bag but never reach to the lower part. I would prefer one check but performed in a professional way. I start to talk with an Iranian who later nearly gets into a fight with one of the guards as he insulted Iran. We wait in a small tent for the aircraft to be ready. A German military plane takes to the air, the airport is dual-use and the German base is just beside it. What is the plane up to? This might not just be training, this might be real.
Herat is an amazing city. An old town and several monuments of note like the Citadel (unfortunately closed), the shrine of Shahzada Abdullah or the shrines at Gazar Gah. A heart-breaking sight are the Musalla Minarets. Formerly a complex of a mosque, a madrassah and a mausoleum of great beauty it had more than 20 minarets. In 1885, British military advisers feared a Russian attack and persuaded the governor to let them destroy the buildings to have a clear line of fire. The Russian attack never came but the buildings were gone for good. Two further minarets fell to earthquakes and as the Russians (in their Soviet form) finally really came they also did some harm. A piece of artillery is still standing around. All in all, there are five minarets left standing, they are in bad condition and one has been secured with steel ropes against falling.
As the evening approaches, a friendly young man walks with me part of the way and he enquires several times about where I am staying. I don’t tell him, I say I can’t remember the name of the hotel, part of my security protocol. I don’t think that he has any bad intentions but no one will learn from me where to find me. I try a few other strategies to keep me as safe as possible. I took an effort to acquire some words of Dari, I can usually tell a taxi driver where I want to go and negotiate the price in Dari, I monitor my surroundings more than I normally would. I try not to repeat my ways, try not to get into any routine that would allow someone to guess where I will be or where I will pass. In the hotels, I check for possible exit routes in case of any emergency. I do all this because I decided to do so before coming to Afghanistan, not because the country feels in any way threatening to me. On the contrary many people are very friendly and take care of me. As I sleep a bit longer one morning the owner of the hotel comes to check if I am okay.
Herat’s most impressive sight is undoubtedly the Great Mosque. A masterpiece of Islamic architecture it also has an air of tranquillity. People take a rest, they read something, they take a nap in the corners and I am just very welcome to do the same. Tourist-wise I have it all to myself. The next day I just return, the mosque doesn’t stop to amaze me. A man approaches, he works in the tile workshop and shows me the whole process how to produce replacement tiles. He is very friendly but I always expect him to come with some demand for money at the end. Nothing like that happens, he just pulls out a little guestbook where he asks foreign visitors to leave a message. I hope that I will one day return to this beautiful place.
Like Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat feels just like a normal city. I do not have the feeling at all that I am in a conflict zone. People go about their normal life, they shop, they rest and they put hearts on the windows of their buses. It is the small things that remind you about where you are. As I come to the airport American special forces have some business there. They come in massive SUVs without number plates and carry no markings on their clothes, I assume they are American from their accent only. They behave like they own the place. I learn that you can also help someone into a parking space with a gun drawn in the other hand.
The airport is essentially a tiny building with the words “food kantin” painted on the side. The baggage checks are by hand again but more professional than in Mazar-i-Sharif. On the plane, there is an announcement that as an IATA member they have to make a security announcement and it sounds like an apology. They read the text in English without anyone showing anything.
As I step outside my hotel the clouds are dark and the wind is blowing dust into my face. Kabul feels different. Whereas conflict felt far in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat it feels close here. Many roads have a concrete barrier in the middle preventing suicide bombers from swerving into the oncoming traffic. It is already afternoon and I approach the city my usual way, I just walk to check the place out a bit before making more detailed plans for the next day. I look in my guidebook (thank you Lonely Planet for producing an excellent guidebook for Afghanistan in 2007, the best LP I have ever read) and decide it’s time to head to the Kabul river. There is a checkpoint and the guards want to see my “card”. I have no card but I have a passport. An interpreter arrives, he checks my documents, he does not seem to find the Kabul river something worth going to, the guards check my camera bag, they let me pass. The next half hour I will be exclusively surrounded by concrete walls two to three metres high only broken by massive steel doors of equal height. No one else seems to be around. It is oppressive, I don’t even really know where I am but it is obviously an area with additional security. There is the occasional camera so I dare not taking any pictures. As I leave the area, I find the Kabul river. I fully understand the interpreter now, I find a mostly dry riverbed with more rubbish than water inside.
Kabul still has a fair number of things to visit, Kabul Museum has lost much of its collection but is still worth a look. I check out the Bird Market and numerous mausoleums. The European cemetery has received additional graves in the last years, the royal Palace of Darul Aman has been a ruin since the 1990s. The Aga Khan foundation has been active restoring some attractions like Babur’s Gardens and in general there have been attempts to make the city more liveable. Still, the poor neighbourhoods cover the hills. As in the other Afghan cities the people are friendly. I am honestly surprised by this friendliness; they have suffered a lot at the hands of foreigners.
Unfortunately, I feel a bit sick one day and take it easy, just taking a taxi to the museum. I miss out on a possible trip to the Panjshir Valley because of that. The hotel manager makes a lot of good tea for me.
It is time to leave, the next morning I plan to head to the Pakistani border. A moneychanger offers some Pakistani rupees, and I change some. I have them until this day. As the last part of the preparation for my journey I go online and check the news. Pakistan is having a rough time, every few days a suicide bombing claims five, ten, twenty of even more lives. Three weeks ago, 57 people perished at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. The strikes get close to power and the Pakistani state seems unable to stop them. On the 9th of October 2008, the day I check the internet again, there are four attacks in Pakistan. One at the police headquarters in Islamabad killing eight and one, killing eleven, on the road over the Khyber Pass that I am supposed to take the next day. I decide not to go. The 10th of October 110 people will die in a single suicide attack.
I need a flight to India, my guidebook shows the location of the office of Air India, it is opposite the Indian embassy. As I come closer and see the ruin of the embassy I know that I came in vain. I start to remember reading about the attack that left 58 people dead three months ago.
A travel agent helps me out, he hopes for better times, it has been bad in Afghanistan for far too long. At the travel agent I also finally, for the first time in Afghanistan, see a local woman without a headscarf, stay strong, do your thing. The next morning, I head to the airport. A thorough check of my bags (by x-ray and hand), on the tarmac in front of the plane every passenger has to identify his bag before it is loaded onto the plane. Atop the stairs, Air India has put up a little table and crew members check all the hand luggage themselves. It is a beautiful flight; I sit on the left side and in the distance the Himalaya forms a seemingly impenetrable wall.
My journey left me with a much better understanding of a country in times of conflict and with deep respect for the Afghan people and the suffering they unfortunately still have to endure. I hope I will one day be able to return to a peaceful and safe Afghanistan.