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The Triplegem Afghan Expedition VII – Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan

The Triplegem Afghan Expedition: Mazar-i-Sharif

Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan

15 August 2005 – Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif
Kabul is quiet at 4:30 a.m.; quiet and dark and a bit spooky standing beside the nearly deserted street outside the Mustafa trying to flag down a taxi. If you can’t speak Afghan Dari, be sure to have someone at your hotel write down the address on a piece of paper. I got to the Serai Shomali, at the North end of town, by 5:00, so I had no problem snagging the shotgun seat of a shared taxi – it slowly filled and we were on our way out of town at first light, just before 6:00 a.m.

The ride quickly turned hot, but the view was still pleasant, and then we started winding up the switchbacks of the Hindu Kush. Three years before there hadn’t been a bridge left standing, but this time they had all been repaired so the drive was quite fast. As we wound higher and higher the landscape became stark. It got cold as we approached the 3,400 meter high Salang Tunnel. I was surprised at its condition – the bomb holes had been repaired, the wrecked armored personnel carriers removed and it was open to two-way traffic.

Walking to School
Walking to School
There was another quite readily noticeable improvement as well – many children in school uniforms, especially girls with their black dresses and white scarves and book bags, were walking along the sides of the roads. It was the very same school uniform worn by girls in the early ’70s in Kabul, back during the reign of Zahir Shah, the last King of Afghanistan. On the last trip I had seen it in Mazar and Kunduz, but this time it was not just in the larger villages, it was everywhere. Being an educator myself, I know that this bottom-up approach to solving Afghanistan’s long-term problems probably has the best shot at success. Education is one of the best ways to stop extremism and fundamentalism in places like this – but it is a deep, long-term commitment that won’t bear fruit for nearly a generation.

The steppe lands to the North of the Hindu Kush baked in the hot, dry noonday sun. The altitude of Mazar-i-Sharif is only 377 meters, whereas Kabul is over four times as high – 1797 meters – thus the difference in mid-August temperatures. By 1:00 p.m. we pulled into the city, and the taxi let us off not too far from the main square. I flagged a local cab as I wasn’t sure exactly where the Amo Hotel was located, and it was way too hot to lug a pack aimlessly through the dusty streets.

He gave me an extra circle of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali to make me think that we going farther than we really were, but I didn’t mind – in this heat I was happy for the breeze and the view of the Shrine, and I had been planning to tip him well in any event. He dropped me right in front of the Amo Hotel, the best of the budget hotels if you get a view of the Shrine. The prices had gone up from 2002, but they had put a new coat of paint on the walls and there was Mazar’s only Internet Café on the second floor! I was amazed what a difference three years had made – during the previous trip the only public email connection in the entire country had been at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. I got a corner room on the third floor in the front. There were three beds and the whole room was $20 per night. I took it, but it sure would have been cheaper with traveling partners. It was in a separate section on the left through a door, four rooms around a common room with a fairly clean shower and toilet. The view was spectacular, the fan worked and the heat was oppressive, so I relaxed, listened to music and read until 4:00 in the afternoon.

Dressed in my light-brown shalwar-kameez, black and white cotton scarf, and pakol hat I left the hotel and immediately hit the juice stands set up in the open area next door. My first stop was at the lemonade stand. I was starting to get dehydrated so it was delicious. My stomach had no problem with it, but I wouldn’t recommend it as safe to everyone, as they use ice from who-knows-where, probably the same unknown source as the water. My usual MO is to drink whatever the locals drink, but my body has a pretty good immunity built up over the last 30-odd years. I still get the random cases of bacterial dysentery, food poisoning, from badly-washed glasses, but that goes with the territory – everyone gets sick in Asia, the degree varies from person to person.

Next I checked out the three mango milk shake stands and chose what looked to be the best. I’m addicted to mango milk shakes in the Afghan summer, and these were pretty good – not as tasty as the ones I had in Peshawar, but it sure hit the spot in Mazar.

Beautiful Buildings
Beautiful Buildings
Refreshed, I crossed the street to the Shrine and slowly walked around it, snapping pictures and admiring the blue tiled arabesques that shimmered and danced in the golden late afternoon sun. In Islam it is a source of merit to give alms to the poor, so famous shrines like this attract a great many beggars, mostly widows with young children and old men missing limbs from the Soviet war itself or the landmines left behind by the years of fighting and civil war. In such a situation it is a good idea to carry a large amount of small change – in Afghan Dari it is called pul-i-seyah – ‘black money.’ The next trick is to keep moving – if you stop you could be swarmed by a pushing, shoving crowd of small beggars. I make it a policy to only give to those who were sitting down, and after the round I only had two dirty little beggars trying to pester me into giving them baksheesh to make them go away. I cursed them in Dari and told them forcefully to leave instead, then crossed the street to the carpet shops on the east side of the square.

As much as I love old carpets, I knew I had a long, hard road yet to travel and no room for the extra weight. I was focusing on antique beads this trip, and there were plenty available. Being a gemologist, I had always specialized in stone beads, but this year I had been doing research on antique glass beads – many go back over 4,000 years. My first round of the shops was just about checking what was available and what the first prices were. I checked out the old men selling junk on blankets, but that was all crap, plastic or new imitations of the real antiques. My best find was a strand of Buddhist Period green glass beads discovered in a buried vase, plus some old lapis, a bronze bead and a 1,000-year-old Islamic glass bead, all for 2,000 afs. These I eventually bought after walking out at least three times, coming back, bargaining and walking out, finally buying at the end of the day – the usual procedure for buying anything rare in Afghanistan. I also met two brothers who had a shop with the best selection of old beads in their upstairs room at the back of their shop. Rafi and Asif were quite knowledgeable, and they instantly recognized the quality of the beads I was wearing around my neck. My necklace even has real ‘Dze’ beads on it – the rarest beads in the world. They were the only shop that had a large selection of authentic antique beads. Naturally, they had their best stuff at home, so I made an appointment to come back the next day to see their ‘real’ collection.

At sunset I wandered the backstreet bazaars, getting a feel for the pace of life in Mazar, stopped at an open-air restaurant and had kabuli pillou sitting on a carpet-covered bench. I finished off with desert at the hand-made ice cream stands at the northeast corner of the square. Delicious. I sauntered back to the Amo under a bright moon, stopped in to check my email at the Duniya (‘world’ in Dari) Internet Cafe, and even talked to the proprietor, a youngish guy in jeans whose mother was a university teacher. I used their computers until the electricity failed, then went back to my room to listen to music until I crashed.

16 August 2005 – Mazar-i-Sharif
I awoke with a queasy stomach – no puking like in Peshawar, but still a bit off, probably from all the ice I had had in the drinks the day before. Hah, look who’s been giving people warnings about the ice! Still, throwing caution to the dust-laden wind, I went down to the juice stands and had another banana milk shake for breakfast, then returned to my room for a rest, a shower, and another email session to finish what had been interrupted by the electricity failure the night before.

I went out again mid-morning, did another round of the Shrine, giving away all of my small bills, and returned to Rafi and Asif’s shop to see what beads they had brought for me to buy. I ascended the rickety ladder to the narrow back room, and saw a large, cloth-wrapped bundle in the middle of the floor. Rafi smiled slyly as he undid the knots and my mouth started watering at the huge selection of antique beads that were suddenly revealed. There were stones beads from the Neolithic era, Bronze-age lapis and turquoise, etched carnelians from the Indus Valley civilization, Buddhist era stones and glass, Islamic glass beads and cut-cornered lapis, all the way up to Venetian glass beads from the 1850s – a real treasure trove! I spent hours sorting the beads into piles, high-grading the ones I was interested in, and going over the prices I wanted to pay in my head. Boy-oh-boy! I was wallowing in hog heaven! But the prices he was asking were way too expensive. I had stopped in on the Afghan bead dealers at the Chatachuk market on the weekend in Bangkok to check bead prices and practice my Dari. He was asking more for strands of Islamic Period glass beads in Mazar than I could have bought them for in Thailand – though in neither case did I put it to the actual test and commence the bargaining dance. When engaged in serious buying, as opposed to shopping for souvenirs, don’t start what you aren’t prepared to finish. It could ruin any possibility of future business. Their etched carnelians were also way overpriced at $15 each, but I did find a deal with the lapis and black-banded onyx, though I had to buy $300 worth, instead of the $250 I wanted. Once I saw that he was going to stick to the minimum price I switched gears and, instead of going for a discount just started to throw more beads into my pot until I’d added enough to make up the difference and we were both happy. In other words, I’d paid the $250 for the amount I wanted but also bought $50 more at the same rate. Tricky, but all part of the game of bargaining in Afghanistan.

I had quite an interesting experience while I was sorting the beads. I already knew that Rafi and Asif had a good reputation amongst the diplomats, NGOs and ISAF personnel stationed in the city. Several NGOs had visited the shop the previous day while I was there. So, when I heard the British-accented English down below I just assumed that they were NGOs, especially because of a beautiful woman’s voice that caused my heart to jump. Have you ever fallen instantly in love with a person’s voice? Most men of my generation know that feeling from the first time they heard Grace Slick sing ‘Somebody To Love’ while their minds were seriously in the ozone.

At any rate, I couldn’t concentrate on my sorting while they were in the shop. Suddenly, I heard the woman’s voice draw closer, and then the ladder started to shake – she was climbing toward me! Naturally, I smiled and leaned out so as not to startle her. She was as beautiful as her voice, curly blond hair under a beret, cornflower blue eyes, a pert nose, red lips, camouflage uniform, Kevlar jacket and automatic rifle slung, muzzle down, from her shoulder! She was with the British ISAF forces recently stationed in the more secure North to maintain the peace. We chatted for a bit, but she was quite well-armed, so I was too taken aback to really chat her up and ask for a date – I’d read in LP about a good Indian restaurant that served beer. I still sometimes wonder what would have happened if…

After the British ISAF soldiers had left and I’d bought my beads we sat down to a kebab lunch, they baksheehed me a short strip of hand-woven, narrow Turkoman tent band used for tying the wooded frame that supports the walls of a yurt. I had been looking for a hatband for my Tilly’s Hemp Hat, the T4, the Lamborghini of sunhats, guaranteed for life, and this was perfect – a dark brown geometric pattern on a white background with two, subtle maroon lines to frame the pattern. They recommended that I visit Balkh in the afternoon and come back afterwards and they’d help me arrange a shared taxi to Maimana. I knew I could share a jeep all the way to Herat, but I wanted to spend a day in Maimana on the way. I knew it would be easy to get onward transportation there.

Dancing With Birds
Dancing With Birds
I returned to my room and rested under the cool fan until 3:30. I bargained with a few taxi drivers, agreed on a price and off we went to Balkh. Three years ago I’d been the guest of a Muj commander in his tomb-raiding village next to the walls of Balkh, one of the high points of adventure during the previous trip – this time it was just a taxi. Rafi said that the ISAF and government had been cracking down hard on the local tomb-raiding, hence the higher prices. What mostly came onto the market were the random finds of farmers plowing their fields. I’d been visiting Balkh for over 30 years, but it was always beautiful. First I stopped to pay my respect at the tomb of the sufi saint, Baba Khoo, but the malang who cared for it was away, I don’t know where. We stayed for several hours, driving to various mosques and tombs and ancient points of interest. I filled the memory stick on my Cybershot, so I had to make sure I remembered to download them to my iPod so I would have room for tomorrow’s journey across the plains.

After I returned and loaded up on lemonade, I conferred with Rafi and made arrangements to meet him at 5:00 a.m. in front of the Hotel. I told him he could just write the address in Dari and I’d find it myself, but he insisted. He also gave me the name of a friend in Maimana to look up when I got there. I had dinner and another ice cream before returning to the hotel for the final Internet session, packing and relaxing before turning in early.

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