Travels in Afghanistan: Part I, A Detox with a Difference – Asia

I’ve always been fascinated by countries ending in "stan", including the Central Asian Republics, Pakistan and especially, Afghanistan. My interest in Afghanistan started when an older cousin returned from his travels along the hippie trail in the late sixties, dressed in a colorful mirrored waistcoat with baggy trousers, raving about remote, romantic cities and high mountains – Herat, Kandahar, the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs.

I was hooked and resolved to travel there one day. The intervening years brought chaos, war and destruction to this beautiful land, but because of this, Afghanistan was always in the news and on my mind, and I followed the situation closely over three decades. I rejoiced when the Soviet army withdrew over the ancient Oxus, having been defeated by the invincible Mujahideen in 1989. I devoured any information about the charismatic Tajik leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and was dismayed by the descent into civil war and tribal strife during the nineties, and Massoud’s murder two days before 9/11.

Finally a window of opportunity to travel to Afghanistan presented itself through an internet website. I went with a group of 12 from the U.K., Canada and the U.S., ranging in age from the early forties to the mid seventies. Our tour leader, Geoff, specialises in travel to war zones, including Iraq, Kurdistan and Kashmir. He has been organizing group travel to Afghanistan since 2004.

Our trip commenced in Islamabad and we traveled by minibus to Peshawar, via the ancient Buddhist monastic city of Taxila, where we stopped for a couple of hours to tour the spectacular ruins. Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier, is a sultry, dusty city, thirty kilometers from the Afghan border at the Khyber Pass. As part of the tribal areas along the North-West Frontier, it is a deeply conservative and religious city, yet anything you want is available in Darra, the huge arms and drugs bazaar on the outskirts of Peshawar. Rocket launchers, machine guns, grenades, opium and much more are on offer in Darra. We were able to order a few cans of beer through our local Mr. Fixit, Prince Mahirullah of Chitral, where every man is literally a prince!

We spent the following day on a walking tour of the old city, visiting the museum and the Mosque. Our Prince wanted us to stay for the Friday prayers, but since this is the main Mosque where fundamentalist teachings are preached, we quickly withdrew to a tea house overlooking the open air courtyard where the prayers took place. We had a great view of latecomers hurrying in to quickly wash and join the congregation, while the elderly Imam, whispered his sermon into a crackling microphone. Prince told us that the Imam was very ill, hence the whispering prayers. There wasn’t a woman in sight.

The following morning, Prince accompanied us by minibus up into the distant Hindu Kush to the Khyber Pass, and the real start of our adventures. At the Pass we posed for photos with Kalashnikovs while the border guards in their black wool shalwar khamiz uniforms joined in the fun. Two armed guards from the Khyber Rifles squeezed into our crowded minibus to escort us to the Afghan border. They charge a small fee for this service, as this Tribal Area is notoriously treacherous, and they accompany all visitors for their own protection.

The border at Torkham is a boiling, chaotic town with seemingly no order to the masses of people crossing into Afghanistan. It seemed that anybody could walk over the border without any passport control, indeed the passport office was closed for prayer time. We saw women in dusty burkas and all manner of produce, including our luggage, transported by porters with wheelbarrows across both sides of the border. A long line of colorful lorries belching diesel fumes stretched for miles in both directions. Our bags were not searched, but our water bottles were opened and sniffed, just in case anybody was trying to smuggle alcohol in them! Finally after an hour expiring in the heat and fumes, our group was admitted to the passport office and we were quickly stamped into the promised land.

The first city we stayed in was Jalalabad, a very civilized place, clean with good roads and a prosperous feel to it. We saw no beggars and along the main street were plenty of shops selling shoes, school books, fruit and vegetables and carpets. My roommate, Pat and I decided to buy ourselves burkas to wear. We were to discover that almost all ready made burkas are blue.

Outside every shop was a turbaned man squatting beside a glass case displaying Afghan currency – they were the black market money changers. As our group of very obvious foreigners ambled along the crowded streets, we attracted a large following of bearded men vying for the ladies' attention, but we never felt threatened – we weren’t even groped! A little later in a carpet shop, we discovered that among our Afghan currency we had a 50 Afghani note each from the Taliban era and completely worthless now. However when we discovered that the notes were only worth about two dollars, we decided to keep them as souvenirs rather than return to the bazaar and cause a fuss.

We stayed the night at the Spinzar, where a reassuring sign showing a crossed out photo of a machine gun greeted us at the entrance. The Spinzar is a little seedy and run down, but the grounds are fabulous with a view of the distant Spinzar mountains and great trees with chattering birds. The dining room would not look of place in any four-star accommodation, and the evening meal was excellent. All that for $20.00. On our departure at dawn the following morning, the manager came to see us off and pressed his card into my hand, inviting me to return and bring some female friends! Other guests were just arriving – a group of aid workers in a convoy of U.N. land cruisers and a couple of journalists looking very fresh and clean.

The road from Jalalabad to Kabul was good tarmac until we arrived in Sarobi, a spooky town three quarters of the way to Kabul, where a local warlord had reportedly carried out atrocities and had recently been executed. A rough looking soldier waved our minibus down and pulled a chain across the road. We were surrounded by armed militia asked for a "road tax" of $10.00 and waved on. We were later to discover that this was one of the best roads in the country. The alternative route through the mountains, had there been trouble on this road, was a treacherous gravel track littered with the wrecks of vehicles that didn’t make it.

Kabul lies at about 6,000 feet above sea level, and despite the heat and dust, the air was clean and sharp. We all were faintly dizzy from the altitude. Bumper to bumper traffic, land cruisers bristling with antennae and military convoys, street vendors selling drinks, newspapers and phone cards all caused gridlock on the road into the city. We crawled past the ISAF military compound which seemed to go on for miles, and the Embassy quarter, with private schools behind high walls.

It took us two hours to drive nine kilometers to our inn, the Spinghar, a green monolith of Soviet style identikit architecture, which is in the city centre, right beside the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. Beggars, donkeys and carts, amputees, turbaned men squatting over open, waste-clogged sewers and homeless women in tattered burkas lined the streets around the Spinghar, mingling with smartly-dressed office workers dodging the chaotic traffic. The noise was deafening, with buses and jeeps honking their horns incessantly, and shouting street vendors vying with the Hindi pop music blaring out of the shops. I wondered how we’d sleep that night!

The dusty rooms at the Spinghar were huge, with balconies overlooking the bustling street and bathrooms with a trickle of cold running water. Electricity was intermittent, rendering our television and wall sockets almost obsolete. Only when the generators were switched on for a couple of hours was there hot water in the showers, and since there were no land lines, the telephones didn’t work. On the plus side, the rooftop dining room had great views over the city, and the waiting staff were very friendly and apologetic about the dreadful food, or lack of it!

Our breakfast consisted of a spoonful of sweet clotted cream, a huge rectangular piece of tough naan bread, a pot of green tea, the only beverage always in abundance, and some rock hard eggs which must have been boiled during the Soviet invasion! We all looked forward to our first night on the town – dinner and maybe some beer at the Mustapha Hotel, the notorious hangout for journalists, aid workers and military personnel. We ran the gauntlet of beggars and hawkers on the street and down in the underpass, where a poor beggar woman and her two little children squatted on a piece of cardboard, arms outstretched imploring for money. It was a heartbreaking sight to see filthy, half naked children sleeping in the middle of the bare, concrete pavement as the sun went down, while the crowds stepped over them. This was happening in the fashionable Shahr-I-Naw district of Kabul, around the corner from our accommodation.

The bar and restaurant were upstairs in the Mustaphal, while an armed guard stood downstairs at the entrance, alert to the presence of troublesome fundamentalists. A few days before our arrival, the Ministry for the Suppression of Vice and Promotion of Virtue had been resurrected, and a notice on the door downstairs informed us that alcohol was now banned once again, unless you were a member of the NATO forces. However, in the darkness upstairs, lit only by the glow of the television showing B.B.C. World and some candles, a few cans of warm Heineken were produced, along with the menus.

Due to the shortage of electricity, the generators could power the televions. or the one fluorescent light, but not both. Our dinner order was a take-away from an Italian restaurant nearby which arrived in plastic airline containers, but tasted great after the monotony of the usual Afghan fare of mutton and naan bread. We walked back to our inn in the cool night under the full moon. The men in our group boxed me in as I had left my headscarf behind, and they were trying to hide me. This is an issue in Afghanistan, since for women to go about bareheaded would be like a woman walking the streets topless in the western world. The women in our group, no matter the age, had worn headscarves religiously since Peshawar.

I woke early with the noise of the streets, donkeys, street hawkers marking out their territory, and the incessant traffic. I went out onto the balcony, bareheaded, to drink in the atmosphere of the Kabul dawn. A man walking with his wife and young children happened to look up and see me – I was about to retreat back into my room, but he waved and gave me the thumbs-up. Soon a small crowd of taxi drivers and spectators were staring up at the bareheaded foreigner, pointing and even clapping. I felt like a visitor from another planet, but a welcome one.

We were off for a tour of Kabul’s sights by eight that morning. We piled into three yellow taxis to visit the Bala Hissar, an ancient palace now a military fort. After many wrong turns, it appeared that our taxi drivers hadn’t a clue where they were going. They had returned a couple of years ago from exile in Pakistan, and were completely unused to tourists wanting to see the sights. After asking directions from locals, we finally found our way and were cordially refused entry to the fort by armed guards, due, we were told, to the large amount of UXO's and landmines, but it looked magnificently ancient – a huge mud brick fortress on a hill, with turrets and crenellated walls overlooking the city. Our next stop was the sixteenth century Babur Gardens, a peaceful retreat in the hills above the Kabul River, in the process of being restored after years of war. Families were having picnics under the trees, and students were studying their maths before their exams. There is a lovely tea house, a small mosque built by Shah Jahan and the Emperor Babur’s beautiful marble tomb at the top of the terraced garden, where the friendly workmen who were busy with the restoration welcomed us in to pay our respects.

We drove back along the river bank to the heartbreakingly ruined Darulaman Palace, set on another hill opposite the Kabul Museum. The beautiful building, which was the former home of the Afghan royal family, is a stark reminder of Afghanistan’s conflict-ridden past, with smoke-blackened walls, weed-filled grounds and the domed roof open to the sky. The newly restored museum didn’t escape its share of damage either, since during the Taliban years whatever artifacts hadn’t been destroyed or looted during decades of war, were soon defaced or smashed by the Taliban. However the museum’s display is excellent, with many Buddhist, Zoroastrian and even Greek artifacts dating from the Alexandrian era, huge stone statues of Buddha from the Ghandaran era, prehistoric jewellry and clay figurines from Balkh. An interesting room houses a collection of pagan, life-sized wooden ancestor effigies from the former Kafiristan in the north-east of the country.

Our final visit was to the Christian graveyard, where such notorious explorers as Sir Marc Aurel Stein are buried, and there is a poignant reminder of recent casualties, a plaque on a wall pays tribute to some of the European soldiers of the Isaf forces who have died during the recent occupation.