From Russia to Afghanistan
When leaving Moscow to start work in Afghanistan, I was surprised by the mixed reactions I received. Expatriate friends were excited for me and keen to visit; while Russian friends’ reactions were markedly different. The Muscovites were much quieter about the move and tried to put me off with tales of the ten year Soviet war in Afghanistan. With these mixed reactions and my own doubts, I left Moscow for Afghanistan.
The visa system is a little cumbersome but it is no more onerous than the Russian system, for a European traveller. Once you receive the stamp in your passport, getting to Kabul is easier than you think. There are three daily flights from Dubai (for about US$400 return) and a weekly scheduled flight from Frankfurt (for about US$700 return) on an aircraft which meets European safety standards.
Mud houses of Kandahar surrounded by steep jagged mountain with university mosque (blue dome)
Arriving in Kabul is breathtaking with a steep decent in over the mountains to land on one of the few uninhabited flat pieces of ground. The mud-brick houses, stretching almost vertically up the hills, create unique cityscapes. Kabul, perhaps surprisingly, has most of the trappings of a modern city with ATMs, some street lighting, bustling shops, internet cafes and many bazaars. Despite this, city living is far from conventional, with security service road blocks on every main road. Any interaction with the notoriously corrupt police results in an inspection of passports, visas and registration documents but moving around Kabul is still relatively safe. Western clothes do not look out of place in the city but more conservative dress and head scarves for women will avoid unintended offence. The key to a trouble free trip is to keep a low profile.
The City is chaotic with the traffic reminding you of the Sadovoye Koltso on a Friday afternoon. The feeling of a Mercedes with a flashing blue-light bullying you off the road is multiplied exponentially in Kabul by Afghan and foreign military vehicles too important to wait for a civilian vehicle to get out of their way. Being alert and ready to quickly pull over is important, especially because these lunatics are armed.
Around Kabul there are many interesting sights to be visit and even more Afghanis wanting to show you them. Especially worth a look is the Emperor Babur’s Garden which has been painstakingly restored by the Germans to its 16th century glory. At weekends, this garden on the hillside is packed with families, because it is one of the few green spaces in the City. During the week it is much calmer time and as a foreigner you are likely to get taken around the rose beds (if you like it or not) by the proud gardeners. Not far from the gardens are the impressive remains of the Darul Aman Palaces. They were destroyed by the Mujahedeen during the civil war but unlike Babur’s gardens, look sadly beyond repair. A visit to the long established Kebab and ice-cream vendors in the Shar-e Naw area of town is not to be missed. The owners like to brag that their food has been eaten by most locals, Russian conscripts, armed Mujahedeen, bearded Taliban, American GIs and now the many sunglass wearing foreigners in the city.
The centrally located, Chicken Street is a tourist haunt that has allegedly not changed much since the hedonists came in on the hippy trail in the 1960s. The street is bustling with shops selling everything travellers did not know they needed from Afghan turbans to Khyber Pass copies of Lee Enfield rifles. Not far from this is the old British Cemetery. There the jovial caretaker will tell you a story about how he managed to keep working during the Taliban years in return for a donation towards the “running costs”.
A day trip to the Kabul Golf club is worth while but I advise not to bring your clubs. The only player I saw was a little over par, due to navigating through some serious obstacles including a few games of cricket on the fairway and a family picnic. The location of the course on the shores of Qargha Lake makes a beautiful setting. There are boats for hire and lots of space for relaxing around the turquoise water.
Safe transport is a big issue for any foreigner who does not have access to the US Army’s vast helicopter fleet. It is not an insurmountable problem to move around though. There are a few companies in Kabul who will rent you an armoured car (by hour or day) but maybe a normal taxi is the better and cheaper option. The armoured cars are common in the city centre but really stand out in the suburbs. There are three or four trustworthy taxi companies in Kabul who boast English speaking drivers and can get you around the sights without drawing too much attention to you.
The hotels in Kabul are a mixed bag and whilst there is a lot of choice, safety is the priority. The best bet for a short stay would be in a guest house catering solely for westerners. These guest houses are situated in armed compounds and cost about US$100 a night. The trick when sourcing accommodation is to try and find one which can sell you an alcoholic drink. A favourite of many Brits has to be the Lord Flashman themed, Gandamack Lodge. The lodge is interestingly decorated with 100 year old British rifles and cavalry swords. Other choices included the French themed L’ Atmosphere, with an outdoor pool, or the more conventional Green Village with its small army of Nepali Guards for added safety.
In the same way that Moscow differs from the other regions of Russia, getting out of Kabul is worthwhile as it feels remarkably different from the rest of Afghanistan. The atmosphere in each province is so diverse, as they have their own variations in dress, language, cuisine and culture. Throughout rural Afghanistan the nomadic Kuchi people can be seen herding their goats along the side of the road. Interestingly, the women are not covered head to toe in the blue burkah and instead wear colourful dresses and shawls of vivid reds, blues and greens. Going south, along the A1 Highway from Kabul, is dangerous, hot and dusty and in between the few big towns are many small mud-brick settlements strung along miles of irrigation canals. The architecture of these settlements is reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s home in Star Wars and life here has not changed much in the last thousand years bar the addition of mobile phones and AK47 rifles.
300 miles south of Kabul lies the second city of Afghanistan, Kandahar. The image that the international media portrays of Afghanistan fits Kandahar better than it does Kabul. Kandahar is a traditional Pashtu city and has strong ties with the previous Taliban regime. There is none of the large shops, glitzy neon lights or even visible women. That said it is still a bustling trading town about the size of Tomsk. The city is surrounded by jagged mountains and has frequent sandstorms blowing in from the red Registan Desert, giving it a surreal feel.
Kandahar has been fought over for centuries and this has resulted in numerous, decrepit, monuments in honour of its different rulers. The most visited is the monument to the first Pashtun King, Ahmad Shah Durrani. Beside his grave is a small but famous mosque containing the Prophet Mohammed’s coat. This garment is of immense importance to the Afghani people and is normally not on display. It was last worn in public by the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, to rapturous applause no doubt, when they captured the City in 1996. There are no photos of the elusive Mullah Omar, in the coat or otherwise but handing him over to the American military will see you earning US$25 million in bounty.
Next to Kandahar lies the troubled Helmand Province, famous for its beautiful purple poppy fields, large drug lord palaces and less well know for its pomegranates. This Province is beautiful but is very unstable and local advice should be sought before taking a trip here or anywhere South of Kabul. Kandahar residents think it will be five to ten years before Southern Afghanistan is safe for the average unarmed tourist.
In contrast, the Northern Provinces are so much more stable that you would be forgiven for thinking it was a different country. When going north on the ring road from Kabul, the land becomes notably more lush and mountainous. The Panjshir province, lying slightly to the East of the main highway, is famous for its gems and you could pick up a bargain if you know what to look for. Further north, the highway passes through the mammoth, Soviet-built, Salang Tunnel. The tunnel is the only route between Kabul and Northern Afghanistan that is able to stay open during the harsh winter months. Along the way you can see many hulks of rusting Russian tanks, which serve as a reminder of this areas troubled past.
Mazar-i-Sharif lies north of the tunnel. This City is predominately Tajik and is famous for its Mosques and resistance to the Taliban. It is also the home of the Afghan sport, Buzkashi. Buzkashi is an aggressive game of players on horseback trying to grab a decapitated goat from the opposition and score by dropping it into a circle at the end of the pitch. The season starts in January and ends in April with some matches lasting days.
South of Mazar-i-Sharif, on the old silk route, is the infamous town of Bamiyan. This is where the Taliban intentionally blew up the pair of 1,500 year old Buddhas. They saw these 50 metre high statues as idolatry, conflicting with their strict view on Islam. Despite the destruction, many tourists still flock to see the remains and their associated rock carvings. Talks of rebuilding the Buddhas have come to nothing so far but entrepreneurially, Bamiyan has started to offer skiing to its visitors. Like almost all sport, skiing was banned under the Taliban regime. Half jokingly, some locals advise that you should wait until there is over 1.5m of snow before hitting the hills to eliminate the threat of landmines. With some ski guides in training and an odd assortment of skis, this “resort” is far from Krasnaya Polyana. Nevertheless, like so much of Afghanistan, it has great potential and its unique character is shaped by the people’s struggle against the odds.
The next few years will be hard for Afghanistan but it is open to the very determined tourist. If you are prepared to be flexible and take lots of local advice then Afghanistan promises to be unforgettable.