You Read That Right- I Went To Afghanistan, Voluntarily
…And drug my favorite neighbor (who is basically who I want to be when I grow up) along with me, I mean visiting Afghanistan was her lifelong dream after all…
Have I lost my mind? That’s debatable. In 2018 I didn’t travel quite as much as I did in the previous years and most of the time I was working or doing generalized adulting (don’t get me wrong, those trips were a blast)– so in all honesty, Afghanistan was truly my vacation for the year.
*Sorry, this is a long post for anyone who cares to read it, if you don’t then here’s the re-cap: We survived and we had the most amazing time.
Afghanistan- The Graveyard Of Empires & The Country That Forever Has Our Hearts
What are the odds that two people who are fascinated by Afghan history and culture as well as Post-Soviet Central Asia live next door to each other? After my first solo trip to Afghanistan in 2017 to the Wakhan Corridor I knew that wouldn’t be my last tryst with Afghanistan. All the 2017 trip did was make me even more curious. I had to return to see the “mainland” of Afghanistan.
Oddly enough, I had that feeling of unknown with a touch of nervousness on the flight from Dubai to Kabul. I didn’t think I would. In fact, the last time I had this was when I flew from Dubai to Sana’a, Yemen– my very first trip to the Middle East. The only difference is that I had been to Afghanistan before, so why was this happening? My only guess was that deep down I knew this Afghanistan was a whole different beast from the Afghanistan I met in the Wakhan.
Immediately after I stepped foot off the plane in Kabul and saw the little Afghan girl with her nose and cheeks smashed against the glass of the boarding gate making faces at the people arriving that nervousness went away.
Outside the airport, we were met by the lovely Noor of Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan, the man we had selected to guide us on our trip to Afghanistan which was thoroughly not recommended by any foreign government for travel in 2018.
Welcome To Kabul
Our first stop after dropping our bags at our guesthouse and meeting our kalishnikov-clad and all smiles guesthouse security guard was Bibi Mahro Hill for sunset. This is where the Kabul curiosities got me in the form of the most innocent looking blimp. There’s a cute little white blimp that floats over Kabul at all times. It has cameras on it that watch all the happenings in the city at all times. Kabulians don’t exactly love this thing- in fact, when it gets brought down for weather it oftentimes is riddled with bullet holes.
Get Your Burqas Ready Ladies- We’re Road tripping to Bamyan
On our first morning in Afghanistan, we got the green light to travel to Bamyan– by road. Earlier this year the flights between Bamyan and Kabul halted after a terrorist attack that killed several pilots and created a shortage (this is the most consistent variant I have read & been told).
The trip to Bamyan doesn’t come without risk. It required us to pass through the Parwan Province in order to reach Bamyan. Parwan isn’t all bad, but with that said there are a couple stretches of road where the road passes very near to Taliban controlled area. So to avoid a potential kidnapping, Noor stepped into a bazaar as we headed north away from Kabul and purchased chadri for Jolie and I. The chadri is the name given to the famed ‘Blue Burqa’ of Afghanistan. All in all, they actually are quite comfortable, despite feeling like a prison at first. Hell, I would wear one of these grocery shopping to avoid small talk with people I run into from high school (I’m kidding, don’t freak out).
Everybody in Bamyan Wang Chung Tonight
So the drive to Bamyan went without hitch, glitch or problem. That is until we reached the police check at the border of the Parwan and Bamyan Provinces. Jolie and I had brought in a bottle of vodka with us from Dubai. In case you were wondering, it is perfectly legal for foreigners to bring in 2 liters of alcohol each to Afghanistan. When the woman checking us reached in Jolie’s bag and felt the glass bottle she flashed a toothy grin. I knew we’d never live to finish that particular bottle of vodka.
She smiled and said we couldn’t keep it (in Dari). She called in another woman and man whom were coworkers, they agreed. Noor comes in and gives them the full lecture of the legality of it (they know the rules, but hey why not get a free bottle of vodka if you can demand it?). There was no budging on this topic. So we left without vodka, Noor slightly annoyed for his clients to be treated this way, and I and Jolie laughing because we knew everyone in that general area would be having fun tonight.
Don’t F*** With Ali
After a nearly full day of driving by the skills of no other than our driver Sakhi we arrived to Bamyan with enough time to visit Dragon Hill or Dara e Ajdahar for sunset. The hill does in fact look like a giant dragon split into two. The local legend is that the dragon tortured the people of Bamyan in pagan times. After Ali (he son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed) created Band e Amir (we’ll talk about Band e Amir later), he used his sword named Zulfiqar to slice the monster into two and save the people of Bamyan.
Starting from the tail of the dragon we made our way along the long sword-cut that killed the dragon all the way to the horns on it’s head near to where spring water bubbles magically out of the ground. Needless to say, the sunset out here is nothing short of spectacular over the desert landscapes.
Band e Amir- Not The Afghanistan You Ever See In The News
Next to visit was Band e Amir, Afghanistan’s first National Park. Band e Amir is definitely up there on the list of most beautiful destinations I’ve ever stepped foot.
Here’s the local legend: Ali created the 6 lakes of Band e Amir to save the people in the area enslaved by a king. Ali created the six lakes with his sword and even some cheese, which one of the lakes- Band e Panir gets its name from. From east to west the names of the lakes are Band e Zulfiqar, Band e Pudina, Band e Panir, Band e Haibat, Band e Ghulaman and Band e Qambar. Remember earlier I said don’t f*** with Ali?
The 6 lakes all of various shades of blue, turquoise and greens are set in the Hindu Kush Mountains at about 3,000 meters in altitude. It is one of the very few natural travertine lake systems in the world.
The travertine walls that form the natural dams that separate each of the lakes are created by the carbon dioxide-rich waters that seeps out of cracks in the ground below. Deposits form from the calcium carbonate precipitate that over the years has built up into these walls.
Bamyan- The Heart Of The Hazarajat
Buddha Niches: In March 2001 the Taliban was finally successful at destroying the massive Buddha Statues that once stood in the now empty niches that are viewable from the city of Bamyan. The statues are believed to have been constructed between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD. Unfortunately the niche of Salsal- the larger Buddha assumed to have been male is full of scaffolding because there is fear of the niche collapsing, but we were able to climb through the caves and stairs of Shakhmama- the slightly smaller and assumed to be female Buddha.
Shahr e Zohak, The Red City: In the 6th century construction of the Red City that sits perched high in the mountains guarding the entrance to Bamyan Valley began by the ancient Ghorid people. Legend has it that after the murder of Genghis Khan’s favorite grandson and his rampage of terror through the Bamyan Valley lead to the red coloring of the rocks, stained by blood that Shahr e Zohak is built upon.
Shahr e Gholghola, The City of Screams: Shahr e Gholghola was the Ghorid’s final stand against Genghis Khan and the Mongol Hoards in the Bamyan Valley. The Mongols finally gained entrance to Gholghola by the daughter of Bamyan’s ruler who was angry of her father’s recent remarriage. The screams of the Ghorids being slaughtered by the ruthless Mongols is what gave Shahr e Gholghola its nickname the City of Screams.
This is where I met a lovely family originally from Mazar e Sharif, living in Kabul and taking a family vacation to Bamyan. The mom was so excited to meet foreign tourists in her country. She went on to ask me what I though of Afghanistan and I told her it was beautiful and fascinating. She agreed and then went onto say that Afghanistan also hosts many problems and she cries for Afghanistan every night.
The Long Way Around: Bamyan To Mazar e Sharif By Road & Donning The Chadri Some More
We left Bamyan at 6am. 6am was rough, but at least the guys at our guesthouse were kind enough to boil us some water to take with us to mix with our instant coffee packets to accompany our cheese, tomato and cucumber sandwiches chef Noor whipped up in the front seat. We put our chadri on before we left the guesthouse as Bamyan is very quiet this early in the morning and we wanted to avoid anyone noticing Jolie and I in the car and potentially tip off anyone along the road off further ahead.
I think I probably forgot to mention earlier that the road through Parwan Province and Bamyan Province is nice and smooth. What waited ahead after the turnoff back on to the main highway from Kabul to Mazar e Sharif has got to be one of the worst roads I’ve ever driven down. You’ve probably read about my travels along the Bartang Highway in Tajikistan (seriously, one bump was so big I bounced out of my seat and hit the ceiling of the Pajero), and I’ve even braved some roads in remote Peru that would make a grown man cry. But the stretch of road over the Salang Pass leading from Parwan into the Baghlan Province was what I would define as truly bone-crushing. I mean it’s gotta be an adventure right? This is Afghanistan after all.
Demanding Peace in War-Torn Afghanistan
About 60km before we reached Mazar e Sharif we passed by a line of men walking along the side of the road in a single file. Naturally we both start to pull up our chadori and ask Noor what the men are doing.
It turns out this was the Peace Caravan. The Peace Caravan was born out of a suicide bombing executed in Lashkargah, the capital of the Helmand Province. A small group of men had had enough. If you didn’t follow much of the War in Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion- Helmand has seen the most devastation of the more recent Afghan War. Ranging in age from teens to elderly men, the group began marching north on to Kabul. Word spread about the caravan and they picked up more and more marchers on the journey. The Peace Caravan did eventually march on Kabul after meeting with many politicians and even Taliban members along the journey. They demanded peace and vowed to continue to Mazar e Sharif. We met them two days before arriving to Mazar and got to speak with them.
Noor asked us if we’d like to stop and talk with them, and that we did. We stopped the car and each and every man marching stopped, said Salom and shook our hands or did the ‘hand over heart + slight bow’ that’s common in Afghanistan. Some of the men even stopped to explain why they personally were marching. Some were even barefoot.
It turns out that these guys are frequently interviewed by the Afghan media for their efforts. We even learned that they had originally planned to march from Kabul to the Badakshan Province before looping back around and heading for Mazar but upon reaching the Province of Kunduz, local Taliban leaders turned them around because of the violence and danger in Kunduz. So there we were at sunset meeting some of the most inspiring people in Afghanistan.
Word is that they plan to continue and travel on foot to demand peace from Taliban, warlords and politicians in every province of Afghanistan.
Hitting A Bong With A Baba Next To The Oldest Mosque In Afghanistan
The next morning we set out from Mazar e Sharif to explore Old Balkh and some of its famous nearby sites with Noor’s brother Mahdi (who also guides) and our driver for the next couple of days Illyos (Another tourist of Noor’s was coming to Mazar e Sharif from the Uzbek border that day). Our first stop was at the Haji Piyada Mosque, thought to be the oldest Islamic structure in Afghanistan.
The Mosque estimated to have been built around 794 atop the remains of a Buddhist monastery was heavily damaged during the Afghan Civil War. At present a large ceiling has been built over it to shelter it.
On our way out from the mosque’s grounds an elderly man in a turban popped out of what seemed like nowhere. It turns out he’s a hashish man. I mean when in Afghanistan right? So we followed him over to the small building he lived in. Sitting outside with a couple puppies hopping around us our hashish man pulls of his collection. He carefully loads up his bong and let’s the first bowl rip and he waves me in to take my turn next.
So after a couple rounds and getting nicely toasted on a warm Old Balkh morning we set out toward the Great Wall of Balkh.
Stoned & Teetering On The Great Wall Of Balkh, Khoja Parsa Mausoleum & A Visit To A Zoroastrian Cave
Balkh Walls: The ancient town of Balkh is surrounded by fortified walls, on average about 30 feet high. At that point I was beyond happy to have gotten high before exploring the narrow, and in places crumbling walls of the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Bactria.
After we came back down, from the wall that is, we were invited in for more hashish by some squinty-eyed, bushy-bearded, and blazed men in turbans (you know, like the men in Turbans your Mom warned you about in high school). We politely declined, citing that we’d already hit the hash pipe. The men smiled, waved, and gave us a warm ‘khoda hafez‘
Shrine of Khoja Parsa: In the middle of the Central Park in Balkh sits the Mausoleum to the late Abu Nasr Parsa, an important spiritual leader in Herat in the 1400’s. It is believed his tomb is here at the shrine, however, it’s never been proven by researches that the tomb is actually here.
Just next to the Mausoleum to Khoja Parsa is the Shrine to the tomb of Rabia Balkhi- a famous Persian poet who was locked in a basement by her own brother after finding out she had been having an affair. She wrote her most famous and well known poem in her own blood on the walls of the basement as she was dying.
Visiting An Ancient Zoroaster Cave: Zoroaster, who founded the religion of Zoroastrianism was in fact born in Balkh. One of the oldest caves that the religion was practiced in is located on the side of a main road near the ancient walls of Balkh, with a sign placed right in front of it.
Drawing a Crowd During Sunset At The Shrine Of Hazrat Ali
The Shrine of Hazrat Ali (also known as the Blue Mosque) beyond lives up to the photos you see of it in books and online. It’s massive, the tilework is impressive, and at sunset, it feels like the entire city of Mazar e Sharif is there. When Afghans see you have a big camera it seems to attract them and many times people would walk up and ask to have their photo taken. Oh, and you will be asked to be in at least 100 selfies before you leave. Girls and women tend to be more reluctant to ask, but I noticed that groups of girls would be smiling over and watching me, so I’d walk up and say, Salam. This seemed to be the icebreaker almost every time and within an instant, at least one girl in the group would bust out her smartphone with some selfie-beauty-app open to snap a photo with you.
Needless to say, taking photos at the Shrine of Hazrat Ali ended up being so much fun (it’s seriously one of the most photogenic places I’ve seen) I asked Noor if we could all return early in the morning near sunrise to continue.
The Sad Tale Of Takhmina & Rustam
After a quick visit back to the Blue Mosque for some early morning snaps and a quick visit to the Mazar e Sharif Bazaar so I could pick up a new shalwar kameez (I seriously cannot own enough of these), we made our way back to Samangan Province- but this time to pay a visit to Takht e Rustam.
Takht e Rustam is an ancient Buddhist Stupa and one of Afghanistan’s most impressive pre-Islamic sites that has not been destroyed. The stupa appears to be on an island with a 8 meter trench all the way around it. Just down the hill from the Buddhist Stupa is the remains of a large bazaar that was held inside of a cave development.
Takht e Rustam gained its name, not from its Buddhist history, but because this was where the legend of Persian culture- Rustam allegedly married Takhmina. Rustam’s horse Rakhsh goes missing and Rustam winds up being taken in by the King of Samangan. The King of Samangan has a daughter named Takhmina and that evening Takhmina declares her love for Rustam (things move quickly in ancient Persia). Rustam married Takhmina at the site of the ancient Buddhist temple and gives her a jewel.
Well, a short time later Rustam finds Rakhsh and leaves Takhmina in the dust to return to Iran. 9 months later Rustam’s son Sohrab is born (even in ancient times there were deadbeat dads) Fast forward a few years and Rustam accidentally kills Sohrab in the final battle of Iran-Turan and discovers the jewel he had given Takhmina, revealing that he had just murdered his own son.
No one lived happily ever after. The end (or maybe Rustam did, I’ve never finished the whole story of Rustam’s life).
We Invite You To Wait & The Most Hilarious Grandma
When we finally got around to leaving Mazar e Sharif we had to fly because our next stop was Herat. Nearly everyone on our original flight that morning got ‘bumped’ to a flight that departed a couple hours later from Mazar to Kabul for unknown reasons.
Of course since we got put on a later flight we missed our mid-morning connecting flight to Herat, At this point Kam Air, and I quote “Invite you wait”. No one mentioned that the invitation to wait was for 9 whole hours to see if it would be possible to get seats on the evening flight from Kabul to Herat. Luckily we met a little elderly Hazara women who was in our exact same debacle with us. She was off to visit her sister who lived in Herat that she hadn’t seen in 30 years!
We did get on the evening flight and as we boarded we quickly learned that seating on this particular flight was an absolute free for all. Grandma Mazar e Sharif had taken quite a liking to me and ushered me into two empty seats side by side. She then asked me if I had a chador (this is a different cloak-style garment that’s very popular in Herat and other areas near to the Iranian border, typically black in color). I said no but I had a chadri and she said “khoob” (good in Dari) and then motioned her finger across her neck, said “Taliban”, closed her eyes and cocked her head to the side, and then started laughing hysterically (don’t worry I did along with her).
Then I busted out my phone with Jolie and I’s chadri selfie, which she thought was funny, until she saw the, what I like to call ‘upskirt chadri shot’, and she was nearly in tears laughing so hard. Next, she was intrigued by my lip piercing, so I showed her that it did in fact go through my lip and she told me she’d pray for me while laughing some more. Seriously, can I take her home with me?
The Highlights Of Herat, Including Saffron Ice Cream
Okay first things first, let’s address the saffron ice cream. There are two ice creams in this world I have ever fallen in love with, the first being the chocolate ice cream at New York Sweets in Nicosia, Cyprus, and now this marvel in Afghanistan. There’s an ice cream shop on the corner of one of the main roundabouts in Herat, you walk up some stairs and it’s like an 8 year old girl’s room meets discotheque exploded up there filled with canoodling teenagers on secret dates. On the menu? Saffron ice cream. It’s bright yellow and tastes like heaven. This is what living is all about.
Herat feels like a completely different Afghanistan, well really everywhere we visited this was the case. The black, cloak-like chador is the preferred outfit by the women over the blue chadri and even the bazaar and buildings look substantially different. Now on to what we saw in Herat:
…And at this point, this post is getting ridiculously long and I’m sure most of you have quit reading by now, so to avoid wasting more of both of our times I’ll give you this quick synopsis…
We wandered around the Herat Citadel from which you can see the old bazaar and even an ancient caravanserai as well as visit the Museum of Technology & Natural History Museum within its walls.
Paid a visit to the Mausoleum of Abdullah Ansar which is a Timird style Tomb of the famed Sufi mystic.
We also were able to go inside the impressive Gowar Shad Mausoleum and the leaning minaret next to it (it’s being held up by several ropes bolted into the ground) as well as the nearby Musallah Complex which was dynamited by the British in 1885 in preparation for a Russian invasion (that did not happen, that is until much much later), way to go Britain.
The Friday Mosque (The Great Mosque of Herat) is one of the cities most impressive sites which we spent a morning at. I don’t believe I’d ever visited a major mosque on a Thursday so we got to see the work going into the preparation for the upcoming Friday prayer, including beating the dust out of the carpets and washing them in the main area.
Just next to the Friday Mosque houses a living museum to artisans that hand make tiles for use in Herat where we watched the processes from carving to glazing and into the final product.
And the craft field trip doesn’t end there! Near to the Herat Citadel is a shop selling traditionally make blown glass, where you’re more than likely to meet the man who has made many of the pieces in the shop and is renown for his works.
Just a short drive south of Herat brought us to the Pul e Malaan- a 12th century 22-arch bridge crossing the Hari River believed to have been built by two sisters named Bibi Nur & Bibi Hur.
To get a glimpse into the multifaceted and complex Afghan Civil War we paid a visit to the Civil War Museum in Herat.
And last, but not least we had the chance to explore around the Mosque of the Cloak of the Prophet Mohammed. There is a much more famous mosque of the same name in Kandahar, but the one in Herat is definitely with a visit. The mosque was built during the monarchy of King Zahir Shah.
Of course leaving Herat couldn’t go without issue. Our flight was canceled to Kabul. This time the flight hiccup was allegedly due to hellacious winds in Kabul. This sent us back to our guesthouse in Herat for an extra night to try again in the morning, somewhat messing with our plans in Kabul.
Daytripping To The Panjshir Valley
After a 6 am flight from Herat to Kabul we made the drive to the Panjshir Valley. Of course, it was Friday, so the traffic getting out there was insane since visiting the Panjshir Valley is a popular weekend activity. Panjshir in Dari translates out to ‘5 Lions‘ and is the home to the biggest concentration of ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan. It’s easy to see why the Tajiks settled in the Panjshir Valley if you’ve been to Tajikistan previously- it bears a strong resemblance to the Zervashan Valley and Fann Mountains.
As soon as we entered the Panjshir Valley we were greeted with what seemed like hundreds of posters of Ahmed Shah Massoud- the leader of the Mujahideen that fought the Soviet Occupation, as well as the British and the Taliban relentlessly until his assassination in 2001.
Entering the Panjshir Valley required us to pass a military checkpoint where we were questioned briefly before continuing on to visit the old tanks leftover from the war and Massoud’s office and tomb.
Ready, Set- Kabul In One Day
With the couple of setbacks we had with flights we were left with a day to see Kabul. We managed to squeeze in a visit to the Gardens of Babur and some shopping at Chicken Street (and even a drive-by of Sakhi Shrine) before catching our 7 pm flight to Istanbul and only Kam Air flight to depart on time and without issue.
What Is The Reality Of Traveling In Afghanistan?
Afghanistan easily became an instant favorite in my travels, up there with the likes of Tajikistan and Yemen. Of course, I knew visiting the remainder of the country would be something truly special after having visited the Wakhan Corridor in 2017. With that said, Afghanistan isn’t the easiest place to travel or cope with. The poverty is in your face, the drug addictions are very real, the scars of war from bullet-pocked buildings to maimed survivors are everywhere. With a country that’s been pillaged, attacked, and warred within for as long as Afghanistan the realities of battle are unavoidable but tell an important story of the country that photos of happy people, beautiful blue tiles, and jaw-dropping natural sceneries just don’t paint and prove Afghanistan’s undying resilience.
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