Visit Sunny Kabul!


I was in Pakistan just a couple of months ago hard up against the Afghan border. Normally, I wouldn't think of returning to the region for a while, but the times they are a changing. My devil-may-care tour guy runs one trip a year to Afghanistan (in July, the hottest time, ugh!), and, with ISAF (the NATO-led coalition) forces scheduled to withdraw by the end of 2014, this could be the last chance saloon.  This sense of urgency is validated by current events in Iraq: within a year of my visit things began to fall apart; many of the places we visited are now unreachable and perhaps gone forever.


Again, it's Delta to Dubai (using miles to sit up front), but this time I arrive in the infamous Gulf summer. Daytime temperatures hit 113° (that's 45°C to you international drug dealers) with maximum humidity; at night it drops to 104° but no letup on the humidity. That's why even the bus shelters are air-conditioned. It's brutal: there is nobody on the streets other than south Asian workers (and me).


After two days of mostly hiding inside my hotel room, I head back to the airport.  There may not be any other tourists, but the rivers of money flowing into Afghanistan plus the considerable contingent of overseas Afghanis justifies daily widebody service to Kabul on Emirates. Items prohibited on the plane, aside from the expected list of weapons and potential weapons, include handcuffs, duct tape, and "measuring devices." Do they fear that hostage will want to see "whose is bigger"?


The flight is full. Everybody in the departure lounge is wearing western clothing and speaks English.  It is not until we land that the headscarfs are donned.


Kabul airport is fairly modern and the arrival formalities routine.  I am issued a temporary identity card (to be surrendered on departure) that should eliminate the need to continually pull out my passport at checkpoints.

Stepping out of the terminal the first thing one notices is that there are no vehicles at the curb.  Understandable: security, car bombs.  There are regular roads and parking areas, but they are completely empty; whoever designed this place was an optimist.  After a long trudge through a gate in a blast wall I arrive at another passenger pick-up area, where there are a few cars, but no one waiting for me.  That's for mid-grade VIPs. It's another schlep to a third area where the hoi polloi get picked up and dropped off.


We are twenty-one: our leader, Geoff, his assistant, and nineteen pax, including me.  Geoff has been running this trip for ten years, and this is by far the largest group he has ever taken.  I am not alone in seeing that the window may be closing: many were turned away because the trip was maxed out.  Brits comprise the largest contingent, followed by Canadians, Australians, Germans, Dutch, and one Italian.


We stay at the Spinzar Hotel, built and once run by the eponymous cotton company (spin zar means "white gold"), at the time the largest private enterprise in Afghanistan.  It has all the mod cons that you would expect in a 50 year old third world hotel, including an elevator but alas, no AC. In contrast to the newer, western hostelries located in fortress-like settings on the city outskirts, it is smack in the central business district.


We arrive in the afternoon.  A quick trip to the adjacent market for supplies and money-changing is for the day.


The next day is billed as "full day city tour."  Unfortunately, it is also Eid-Al Fitr, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, and pretty much everything is closed. At least the traffic is light.  


We drive to the old fort, still a military site and closed to visitors, but a nice backdrop to the Kabul Kar Wash and Oil Change. 

A more recent ruin is the Presidential Palace, wrecked in the 1990's civil war.  Land mines make it off-limits.

A popular place on a holiday is the mughal garden.  Not exactly world-class, but pretty good for a war-wracked desert country.  On Eid-Al Fitr it is customary to dress up in one's finest.




I skip dinner and turn in early.  At 6:00 AM a hotel guy starts banging on my door: he has a handful of keys and is demanding mine.  I go downstairs to see what's up.  Other than an old man in the lobby reading a prayerbook, the place is deserted.  Eventually, the hotel manager shows up and tells me that the group left for Bamiyan an hour ago in three minibuses.  No one informed me of an early morning departure. Not an good start to the tour.


I have sheet of emergency contract numbers.  A call to Geoff's Afghan phone get a recorded message "not activated."  Geoff also has a satellite phone and a UK phone, but the manager does not have enough credit on his phone to make an international call.  We have to wait until 7:00 to buy a top-off card.  Geoff answers the UK phone.  Problem solved: the hotel manager will drive me to Charikar, about 40 miles north of Kabul, where the group will be waiting.


To look at the bright side, my low-profile approach must be working: so as not to stand out as western tourists, Geoff wants us to wear local garb.  One of the drivers decided to give a lift to his friend and put him in the front seat.  When they did a head-count before departure, it was still dark and his head was counted as mine, and off they went.


The road north from Kabul is a modern, four-lane divided highway.  It is also the route to Bagram air base and is the best road we will see for the next three weeks.  Kabul is surround by a "Ring of Steel" intended to keep the Taliban out; we pass through a couple of checkpoints, but nothing as severe as in Baghdad. The driver explains that things are quiet in the capital at the moment: days elapse between bombings.


The direct route to Bamiyan runs through Taliban country, which is why westerners normally fly rather than drive. We take a roundabout route that involves going over a mountain pass.  At least it's scenic.  There are several checkpoints along the way, none of which gives us any trouble.  Later on we find out that, according to the drivers, one of them was manned by Taliban.


It takes about eight hours to reach the entrance to the Bamiyan valley, a narrow pass with an army checkpoint. Alongside the road is the wreck of a Russian tank.  The mujahadin were very active here and largely expelled the Soviets in 1981.


In the heart of the valley are the caves which held the giant Buddhas.  They were carved into the cliff face around the year 500 and blown up by the Taliban in 2001.


Fortunately, the crummy hotel where Geoff planned to put us is full, so we get to stay in a nice place. The Highland Hotel, atop a bluff outside of the main town, has the outward appearance of a prison: the building is surrounded by high walls with corner watch towers and a guarded gate, but inside it is new and quite nice.

We have a rather leisurely schedule because travel being so uncertain it is best not to overplan. The next day we take a walking tour of the Buddha caves.  Very impressive.  There is talk of and plans to reconstruct the statues, but I think it looks better as is.  The statues certainly were large but were in rather poor condition. Analogy: the Parthenon was blown up 400 years ago; its ruins today are much more evocative than were it just another weathered temple.

Then we drive a short distance to the ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, "the City of Screams." This was the last outpost of the Bamiyan kings against the Mongols.  Its name derives from the massacre that followed its conquest.


From the here is a good view over the valley. In an arid and rugged country, the fertile river valleys have been the center of trade routes and conflict for millenia.

A few miles away is another small valley where a somewhat smaller Buddha once stood. It too was destroyed by the Taliban.




The valley is actually one of the safest places in Afghanistan.  It is inhabited by Hazaras, a Shiite ethnic minority (they have a Turkic/Mongol appearance).  There is no love lost between the Hazara and the Taliban, who are Sunni and primarily Pashtun (the dominant tribal group): the Hazara fared poorly under Taliban rule, and now return the favor by offering no safe haven in Bamiyan.

The next day we go climbing at Shar-e Zohak, the Red Fort, guarding the entrance to the valley. Genghis Khan's grandson was killed in battle here; his revenge included the massacre of all defenders and those at Shahr-e Gholghola.

We enjoy three comfortable nights in Bamiyan.  There are no hotels between here and Herat, so we can look forward to (i.e., dread), the next three nights in chaikhanas ("teahouses").


An early start takes us to Band-e Amir, a chain of lakes that form the heart of Aghanistan's first national park.  They are a pretty remarkable natural feature, except they look just like the artificial lakes that form behind dams in the American west.  It is a popular recreation area, hence, the swanboats.

After that, it takes all day to drive to Lal, a dusty flyspeck of a town where the gas station consists of loose fuel barrels and a hand pump.  The chaikhana is a large room where everybody sleeps.  Food, such as it is, is prepared and served (on the floor) by the proprietor.  There are no facilities of any sort.


Lal marks the end of Hazara country.  A week or so ago a minibus with fifteen Hazara women and children was stopped not far from here and all were massacred by the side of the road.  Our Hazara drivers are unwilling to go further, so Geoff hires new drivers and vehicles to take us to the next stopover.


Just out of town we stop at the police station and pick up some security.  The governor has gotten word that foreigners are passing through, and he does not want any incident that would reflect poorly on him.   Trucks with mounted guns take the front and rear of a minibus mini-convoy.



The scenery is starkly beautiful — it looks like Utah with the occasional green river valley.  There is no real road, just a dirt track.  One reason the trip is in July is because this is the only time of year that the riverbeds will be dry enough to cross (there are no bridges).

As we reach invisible boundaries, our escorts periodically hand us off to a new set of police vehicles. Except for the fresh photo-ops, it's all pretty ho-hum; the only excitement is when we pass through the poppy-growing areas where we are under strict orders: no cameras, no photos.


It takes all day to reach Chaghcheran, a provincial capital.  It's the biggest place we've seen since Kabul, but not big enough to have a proper hotel, so it's another night in a chaikhana.  We are not even allowed to leave the building.  The guards stay with us through the night.


We depart early for the drive to the Minaret of Jam, the object of this overland ordeal.  It is prominently featured on tourist posters and literature; what is rarely mentioned is that it is in the middle of nowhere and reachable only by three days of rough travel. Let me quote from the wikitravel entry on our route:

The central route to Kabul via Chagcheran and the Minaret of Jam is a very rough 3-6 day journey, sleeping in chaikanas along the way. It used to be a possible route until 2010 when several travelers reported no safety issues. However the situation has considerably worsened in recent years and as of Sept 2013, the Taliban have large or total control across all the eastern districts of Herat province and the western districts of Ghor province (i.e. west Chaghcheran, including the Minaret of Jam), with no plan of the government troops to retake the area (or even increasing the police presence) any time soon. Visiting the Minaret of Jam, as of Sept 2013, is no longer possible as the district is one where the Taliban have asserted full control now

 Aw, what do they know?


Our discomfort level increases about a hour into the drive when one of our minibuses breaks down.  We cram into the remaining two and proceed.


Did I mention that the Minaret is in the middle of nowhere?  I mean REALLY in the middle of nowhere.  There is no town, no road, no nobody.  I don't know if the drivers are following the police or vice-versa.  After a few hours we descend into a gorge and there it is!

The Minaret was built by the Ghorids around 1190.  It is mysterious in every respect; the only thing that compares is the Qutab Minar in Delhi, which was directly inspired by it. Archeologists have located traces of the adjacent mosque, but there are no remains of a city to been seen.



This is a feather in my travel cap: lots of folks have visited Afghanistan, but very few have been to Jam.  And now that I am here, I might as well take plenty of photos.  (I will spare you the surfeit.)


We stay for a couple hours, then follow the river westward. In mid-afternoon we reach a town where our police escort abandons us.  We are surrounded by guys with guns who, if not Taliban, could be cast for the part.  We sit inside the vans while various discussions take place among them.  Are we being taken captive?  A mullah shows up and seems to take charge.  After a long and very nervous wait, we are given leave to proceed and a new escort:  a jeep with two armed militia.  Later on, they are replaced by two guys on a motorbike, AK-47's slung over their backs.

It is dark by the time we reach the town of Chist.  Another chaikhana night. Chist holds nothing to see except for two side-by-side Ghorid ruins (one of which is on the Lonely Planet cover).  We catch a view of it as day breaks.

We have uniformed police and a marked vehicle to escort us on the final leg of the journey.  The road improves considerably as we leave the mountains and enter the Herat plain.  It also gets a lot hotter as the terrain becomes classic desert.


In early afternoon we reach Herat.  At last, a real hotel!  With beds and plumbing! The rooms have evaporative coolers instead of real AC, but in this dry, desert climate they work just fine.


Herat is the second largest city of Afghanistan.  Once part of the Persian Empire, its commercial ties remain with Iran. The main attraction is the 800 year old Friday mosque.

Inside is a workshop where ceramic tiles used in restoration are made in the traditional manner.


The other big sight is the Citadel, first constructed by Alexander the Great and rebuilt and expanded several times since.

Herat boasts various other shrines and tombs.


In the carpet bazaar I buy two rugs at what in the west would be absurdly low prices.  Also, my shalwar kameez (a cross between a leisure suit and pajamas) is pretty dirty by now, so I visit a tailor and have a snazzy one bespoke.  Sporting my new duds, I visit the ladies' fashion mart, where burkas of every (one) color, (one) style, and size are on offer.

We have three nights in Herat.  Some in our group take a taxi to the nearby border with Iran (the Turkmenistan border is also close by), but I opt to enjoy the perquisites of urban civilization.


I meet an interesting guy in the hotel: a college student from Khandahar.  He and his friends (staying 8 to a room!) are here for a week of recreation — compared to Khandahar, which is effectively under Taliban rule, Herat is practically Disneyland.  There is no fun allowed in Khandahar; there he gets chastised even for wearing trousers.  


After Herat, our group diminishes:  although the full tour is three weeks, there is a two week option; six pax are flying back to Kabul, while the rest of us will visit the north. The itinerary calls for an overland journey Mazar-e Sharif, but to my great relief it's too dangerous to drive so we will have to fly. Fifty minutes on a A320 vs. three days of off-road bouncing in a non-AC 4WD minibus.  Praise be to Allah! 


At the airport gift shop I pick up some Herat safron, which vies with Iranian safron for the claim to "world's best." 

 (image taken from the Afghan Safron website)


Mazar, the principal city of northern Afghanistan, has, courtesy of the Germans, a shiny new airport terminal.  Our hotel is also relatively new. First a flight in a real airplane, and now we get a hotel with real air-conditioning! (It is HOT in Mazar.) Talk about first-world travel!


Mazar is linked by road to Uzbekistan and its inhabitants are largely Uzbek. The Northern Alliance, which defeated the Taliban, was based here. It is on the map for one reason: the Shrine of Hazrat Ali.  The burial place of Muhammed's son-in-law was originally a secret.  Muslims generally accept that it was Najaf in Iraq; Afghans believe that his body was taken to a hill near the city of Balkh.  It became a pilgrimage site and new city was built, at the exact center of which is a magnificent shrine on the supposed site of the tomb.




A few miles north is Balkh — more accurately "was" since all that remains is a small town amidst the ruins of a great ancient city. Back in the day, it was known as Bactria.  Zoroaster was born there, and it is where Alexander the Great married Roxanne.  Balkh was destroyed by the Mongols and it never recovered: all that is left are crumbled city walls, some unexcavated mounds, a few shrines, and, amidst the cannibis fields, the ruins of a 9th century mosque.  

Apparantly believing that we haven't suffered enough, Geoff drags the group to the remote towns of Andkhoy and Maimana.  Not that there is anything to see, but the trip covers much of the route that we would have taken had we driven here from Herat.  Include me out!  I will wait in the air-conditioned hotel.  The grumbling when they return the next day vindicates my decision.


We turn south to complete our circuit. In theory, it's an easy 5-7 hour drive from Mazar to Kabul, but stops and detours make it a two day journey.


At Takht-e Rostam are the remains of a Buddhist stupa and monastery.


The Hindu Kush mountains divide Northern Afghanistan from the rest of the country.  Until 1964, the isolation was complete during the winter months when snowfall closed the mountain passes.  In that year the Soviets opened the Salang Tunnel, which remains the only road connection between north and south. A switchback road leads to the tunnel bored through the mountain just below the actual pass. The approach is so high that the surrounding icefields stay frozen at the peak of summer. The tunnel currently operates at a multiple of its design capacity, is in terrible shape, and is kept open only by constant emergency patchwork. It is customary to stop and offer a prayer of thanks after a safe passage, and our drivers honor the tradition.


Unfortunately, it's one more night in a chaikhana, although this one is slightly less dire.


In the morning we visit the Panjshir Valley.  Only  two and a half hours from Kabul, the valley proved to be a Soviet graveyard.  Entry is only through supremely-defensible narrow gorges.  The mujahadin leader Massoud, "The Lion of Panjshir" not only kept out the Russians out of Panshir, but used it as a base for attacks on nearby Bagram airbase and military convoys approaching the Salang Tunnel.  A foe of the Taliban, he was assassinated by agents of Osama bin Laden on September 10th, 2001, just hours before the planes hit the towers.  Now safely dead and removed from factionalist disputes, he is honored as a national hero.


The valley has three things to recommend it: its natural beauty; the tomb of Massoud; and the fine collection of Soviet detritus.


The final stop before reaching Kabul is a pottery village.  Most of the stuff is both crude and hideous, but I manage to find a rather attractive vase for less than $5.


Not having encountered any serious delays and with the benefit of the flight to Mazar, we get back to Kabul a day earlier than planned.  The Spinzar is full, so we stay across the street at a place turns out to be superior in every respect save that the elevator doesn't work.


Kabul is in the middle of an economic boom. The streets are bustling, the shops are crowded, the roads congested with traffic, and new construction is everywhere. Yet the prosperity is entirely artificial: 90+% of economic activity consists of spending, stealing, and recycling foreign aid. The real economy consists of subsistence farming; apart from opium, hashish, a bit of saffron, and rugs, Afghanistan produces almost nothing anyone else wants.  (There is a wealth of minerals under its mountains, that that is a story for another future.) War refugees and economic migrants have swelled Kabul's population from a few hundred thousand (the size its infrastructure can handle) to over three million. Prediction: when the money spigot is cut off, the merry-go-round will stop and it will all collapse. 


A visit to the Kabul Museum: some good stuff, but Baghdad it's not. The Taliban worked hard to destroy all traces of pre-Islamic culture and smashed most of the pieces. Some have been reconstructed.  The gold hoards escaped discovery but are on international tours or remain hidden in bank vaults.  But as consolation the musuem offers an exhibit not even The Louvre can match: the president's (obsolete) mobile phone.  (And lest you forget that he is also a friend to the nation's children, billboards around the city remind you.)


Outside under sheds are unrestored old trains and antique and classic cars.  I am surprised that they have not yet been sold off to some collector.


Historically, Kabul was no so much the capital of a coherant nation-state as it was the residence of the warlords recognized by the British as kings. Royal residence equals royal tombs, and Kabul sports a couple of 20th century examples.

Kabul offers something else you don't see everywhere: a landmine museum.  There are also displays of booby-traps, IED's, and the infamous "butterfly" mines dropped by the Russians: colorful little geegaws with just enough explosive charge to blow off the hands of a curious child who picks one up.  Admission is free but it's $20 if you want to take a photo.  (So I don't.)


We are free to wander about on our own.  I don’t see a single westerner on the street.  There are plenty here, but they are not allowed out of their hotels.  Foreigners concentrated in the international hotels create their own targets; despite layers of security, they are still subject to periodic attacks.  In contrast, in my shalwar kameez and turban I might not fool everyone but at least I don’t have a rotating beacon above my head.  


Afghan carpets are distinctive, beautiful, high quality, and dirt cheap, and I go a bit overboard on rug shopping.  I end up with four more, including a modern war rug. (I already have one from the Soviet invasion.)  The dearth of customers has put the rug merchants in a dealing mood.


The day before my flight out I get an email from Emirates offering to upgrade me to business class for 10,000 frequent-flyer miles so I accept.  It’s a good deal: with all my rug shopping I would otherwise have to spend at least $200 on excess baggage charges.


Getting into and through the airport is a bit of a hassle, but nothing like it was at Baghdad.  At the check-in counter, I get to use the short line where I get a very pleasant surprise: an upgrade to first class, especially welcome because with all my rugs and souvenirs I need the full 50 kilo luggage allowance.  On board each seat up front is a private suite.  The the food is superb and talk about top-shelf pours: $800/bottle cognac. Best. Flight. Ever.


I overnight again in Dubai.  After Emirates, the Delta front cabin experience pales.  Hope I’m not getting too spoiled to keep traveling.




Trip date: July-August, 2014



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