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

There were plenty of women shoppers turning their heads to stare at us through the gauze grilles of their burqas. On our way to the Citadel, we stopped to see Herat's Sardaba, or covered cisterns, cold water reservoirs brought into these high-domed brick cisterns through covered aqueducts from streams and springs outside the city. Built by the Persian Safavids in 1634, these huge cisterns are currently under restoration by the local government. The massive 800-year-old arg or Citadel was built on the original foundations of a fort dating from the time of Alexander the Great, and we were lucky to be admitted after a little baksheesh changed hands. There was evidence of excavations being carried out as well as restoration.

We climbed the immense ramparts which gave a fantastic view all over the city, from the covered bazaar to the five remaining towers of Queen Gowhar Shad's Mausoleum, next on our list of the sights of Herat. Walking through the covered passages of the Citadel, we noticed ingenious holes cut out of the roof to let in daylight, and down near the entrance, a beautiful hamam was being restored with fabulous old murals in crimson, blue and yellow decorating the walls.

We walked in the early afternoon heat to the Musalla complex which is now bisected by a dual carriageway! Of the original nine minarets only five remain, the others having been destroyed by war and earthquakes. One of the minarets was leaning precariously and it had a large hole near its top, caused by a stray missile, made it look as if a giant had taken a bite out of it. The complex was commissioned by the renowned Queen Gowhar Shad, wife of Shah Rukh and daughter-in-law of Timurlane, in 1417, and her Mausoleum is topped by a ribbed dome, similar to her father-in-law, Timur's tomb in Samarkand. The complex also houses a Madrassa and Mosque.

We found a great restaurant near our inn, serving delicious Iranian dishes. Seated on a luxuriously carpeted platform, our backs resting on huge soft cushions and bolsters, our smiling waiter served steaming platters of saffron chicken, fragrant rice topped with red berries, salsa style tomato and onion salad and wonderful warm naan bread fresh from the oven. For drinks we were served pure, clean iced water, freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice, and even coffee, a rarity in Afghanistan. The bill for four of us came to $20.00, including tips! We had found our little piece of heaven, and as it turned out, the restaurant is owned by the father of our hotel receptionist.

Later that evening I decided to go there for a late evening coffee, and the charming young receptionist insisted on driving me the short distance to the restaurant. There, I met a tall, dark and very handsome Afghan expat from San Francisco, and with true native hospitality, he insisted I join him for dinner. There was a great DVD playing Iranian pop with dancing girls shimmying away in fabulous costumes on the big screen in the corner, and the manager made me a copy on the spot.

A large group of bearded Herati men, recently arrived back from Iran, raised their dainty tea cups in a salute to me, and I was assured by Nasret that their teapot was full of Johnny Walker! We also met a helpful American and his bodyguards who were supervising the construction of the Herat-Kandahar road. He gave us good information on the local security situation and travelling conditions. My new friend, Nasret, hailed a taxi for the three-second ride back to our inn. The taxi driver promptly dumped four women and their children onto the pavement!

The following day, Nasret and I explored the bazaar and over lunch he told me of his twenty years in exile in San Francisco, where there is a large community of Afghans. His family physician is the writer Khaled Husseini, author of The Kite Runner. I was also invited to join him for the rest of his journey through Afghanistan. He was travelling the fun way, with a spotless pick-up truck, imported from Iran, and a Quad bike on the back for those troublesome mountain tracks! He was going in the same direction as our group, north to Mazar-i-Sharif, but taking his time, visiting relations on the way. I decided to stay with our group and maybe meet up with him along the road.

Meanwhile, our group leader, Geoff had been busy organising an almost new minibus for our next leg of the journey to Maimana. We gaped at the super clean Toyota with proper seats and tyres, a functioning tape deck and only one crack in the windscreen! Our three drivers, Kamal, Karim and Mahmoud were half brothers who left us with the bus at 5:00 a.m. on the northern outskirts of Herat to organise a permit of some kind. As they spoke no English, we had no idea what was happening, and we tried to get some sleep. We noticed an incongruous bicycle track on this stretch of the road, painted pink with a broken yellow demarcation line. The sun was splitting the stones when Geoff and the guys returned at 11:30 with a sack of cold drinks. Geoff told us that a policemen had shouted at the driver as we turned into a roundabout near our hotel as we were leaving, asking him for his permit. The lads got cold feet, and had left us to camp outside the police station, waiting for the chief to arrive! This was only the beginning of what would become an almost farcical journey.

About two hours out of Herat, we were in the middle of a yellow sandy desert when suddenly we heard a pop and the bus ground to a halt. We had a flat tyre. The lads jumped out and pulled out two spares, both of which were flat! They walked up a hill and started praying, leaving us scared and bewildered, hours from anywhere and with no sign of civilisation, other than a ruined mud-brick village in a far-off valley. Their prayers completed, our three heroes rolled a big joint and squatted in the dust smoking.

We had been baking in the sun for an hour when we spotted a trail of dust in the distance behind us. A landcruiser approached and pulled up beside our stricken vehicle. The driver promptly gave us his spare tyre mounted on the back, but it was much too big. We had only gone about two kilometres when the new tyre shredded! We somehow made it to a village some distance away, trundling in on an almost bare tyre. We all had to donate money to patch up the three tyres, and we left the spare landcruiser's tyre to be collected by its owner on his return trip. So far our 70-kilometer drive had taken six hours, and worse was to come.

The tyre repair man told Kamal that there was trouble on the road ahead, with an inter-tribal dispute having caused 13 deaths the previous day. Our drivers wouldn't continue without an armed escort, and three young soldiers were crammed into our minibus. Now there was no room for us all, and Geoff had to ride on the roof with all our dusty luggage. We had driven on yet another appalling track for about three hours when the driver decided he didn't want to drive any further, so we pulled into the next town of Qala-i-Nau, looking for the chai-khana.

A crowd of angry looking men surrounded the bus, and then three soldiers pushed through the crowd brandishing guns. They seemed very nervous and jumpy and were speaking in rapid Dari. My limited knowledge of the language came in handy at this point – I understood, "Where is your translator/guide" and "problem" and "go with them"! A potentially tricky situation was averted when we discovered that the Chaikhana was packed to overflowing with men who had come in from the surrounding region, anticipating a tribal stand-off.

Geoff groaned that this meant house arrest, but we had no choice, we followed in our minibus to a large metal gate surrounded by a high wall. Once inside we were escorted by a guard to what turned out to be the Governor's Bungalow. It was probably the most comfortable lodging on the trip so far, with four bedrooms covered with thick rugs and proper beds. There was even a bathroom, with taps but no running water – but our "butler" filled up buckets at the pump outside, and delivered bread and a great thermos of tea, the first food and hot drink we had since the previous evening. We dined in style on ornate reproduction Louis IV furniture in the Salon, sharing our bread, mouldy processed cheese and noodle soup mixed with green tea, and retired at 9:00 p.m. to our comfy beds.

The next morning, after a great night's sleep and some green tea for breakfast, an unusual occurrence, we were all optimistic that we'd surely reach Maimana that afternoon and Mazar-i-Sharif the next day, but it was not to be. After driving for a couple of miles, Mahmoud, the chief joint roller, prepared a smoke for Kamal and Karim, our drivers. First he emptied out the tobacco from a cigarette into his hand and mixed it with hashish, then he scooped it all back into the cigarette without spilling a single flake! Once the lads had smoked their morning spliff, their driving got progressively slower and as usual the road got worse and worse until we were barely crawling along, with our drivers giggling with the fun of it all and the huge money they were making from us!

Our next stop after several hours of extremely slow progress was Bala Murgab, another small town where we were once again surrounded by armed police who were anxious to get us under house arrest at another Governor's Mansion! This turned out to be a huge bungalow with about 15 rooms, no electricity and a water pump in the grounds. Kamal seemed anxious to "take care" of me by pumping water into two buckets and carrying them to an outhouse, where he stood guard outside while I washed the dust off. There was about an acre of dry, dusty garden where the drivers squatted with their evening joint. Tea and bread were brought and another comfortable night's sleep was had by all.

We finally reached Maimana late afternoon the following day. This is a big town with a sports stadium and lively bazaar, where friendly vendors offer freshly squeezed fruit juice, colourful materials, carpets, shoes and clothing. Our hotel was a standard Soviet era institutional style, one-storey building with an ancient swimming pool filled with rubble and one hour of electricity in the evening, enough to switch on the bare light bulbs in our rooms so we could eat our bread. Outside in the corridor later that evening, a row was brewing between our three drivers and Geoff, who had deducted the cost of the tyres for which he had paid from their fee. Kamal barged into our room yelling presumably about being ripped off, and asking for baksheesh. The other two guys were doing the same to the other members of our group, and there was much shouting and door slamming. The situation was resolved when we all chipped in a few dollars each, and the lads shook hands with us and disappeared to their room.

The last leg of the journey to Mazar-i-Sharif got easier the closer we got. The road improved greatly about an hour before we reached the northern city and the temperature climbed to 110 F. A gas pipeline from Uzbekistan ran along the side of the road, testimony to the local Uzbek warlord, General Dostum's influence in the region. Although Dostum is now part of the government, he was notorious for brutality, torture of his opponents and switching sides during the civil war of the early '90's. We passed one of his mansions on the outskirts of Mazar, all blue tinted windows behind high stone walls, strangely situated beside an expanse of waste ground where minibusses and lorries were serviced. We also passed by acres of wrecked tanks, debris left by the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Our accommodation in Mazar, the Farhat, was the best so far, almost luxurious by previous standards, with a large clean en-suite bathroom, and threer comfortable beds, a television that didn't work and a fridge which overheated, so that our water came out boiling! Our tour group was given a whole floor to ourselves, with huge sofas and polished wooden tables in our lobby, a veritable palace where we could get together in peace and privacy. The only problem was the absence of electricity, and the floor manager wanting to seduce the ladies with offers of Johnnie Walker in his office!

As I was trying to find a socket to charge up my phone in the lobby, a giant of a man strode in and stopped in startled astonishment to see an unveiled woman in his presence. This tall, handsome stranger spoke good English and he turned out to be a Taliban supporter and journalist called Saba'woon. After his initial surprise at my unveiled hair, he sat beside me and inquired if he could ask me some questions about my impressions of Afghanistan so far. The conversation went as follows:

Saba'woon: "What do you think of the American invasion of my country?"

Caroline: "Well, as an Irish woman who lives in a country which has been invaded and colonised, I would not support an invasion of any sovereign country, but let me ask you what you think of the foreign invasion of your country by Taliban and Al Qaeda enemies from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Algeria, Sudan, Egypt and other states from Central Asia etc?

Saba'woon: "I never thought of that."

Caroline: "And what about Red Cross and UNICEF reports about the Taliban's treatment of women and girls, the denial of their education and health care?"

Saba'woon: "I do not believe these reports, this is propaganda coming from the West."

Caroline: "Do you have a wife, daughters, sisters, a mother, grandmother, any female relations or friends?"

Saba'woon: "Well my mother is in Peshawar, and I don't know my female relations, they have their own lives. I've been fighting warlords and criminals who tried to corrupt my country. But I invite you to read my blog on the Internet and contribute as much as you can."

Caroline: "So how can you know what women have suffered under the Taliban regime? If you have no contact with even your close female relations, how do you know what's true and what is propaganda?"

Saba'woon: "Even young boys and men had no education or health care, this is a very poor country, only in the Madrassas did they learn about the Holy Koran. That was the only education available during that time."

Caroline: "O.K. I take your point, but now with all the money coming into your country for the past five years, why can't the Taliban and their supporters at least allow human rights, education and health care for everybody, women and men? Do you want to live with this tribalism and war for ever?"

Saba'woon: "It is our custom and women do not need education, they need protection."

He stalked out of the lobby, with, I hope, some food for thought.

Next morning, after an unusually great breakfast of fried eggs, toast and jam, we were off in three taxis to see the remains of the ancient city of Balkh, called the Mother of Cities by the Arabs when they invaded during the 7th century. Dating back at least five thousand years, Balkh, known as Bactria in ancient times, was the birthplace of Zoroaster, and Rumi, the founder of the Whirling Dervishes. It was invaded by Alexander the Great in 329 BC and he married his wife, the Bactrian princess, Roxanna here.

Kushans, Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Seljuks and Soviets to name but a few, followed down through the centuries, and only the ramparts of this once great city remain, having been destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1220. Situated on a wide plain between the Hindu Kush and the mighty Oxus River, this once great city was ideally suited to irrigation and agriculture.

We climbed to the top of the sandy-coloured mud walls and looked out over the green and brown fields, where tiny figures winnowed chaff as if time had stopped still millennia ago. It felt strange walking in the footsteps of the bygone heroes, saints and tyrants, steeped in the past of conflicting bloody and enlightened events. We climbed an early 3rd century BC Buddhist stupa nearby which had the remains of a Soviet machine gun emplacement on top pointing towards Mazar, yet another reminder of the region's violent past.

By 10:00 a.m. the temperature had reached 110 F, and we were all sweating when we reached the shrine of Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa, which was built after his death in 1462. A beautiful example of late Timurid architecture with unique spiral columns, the mausoleum complex also houses the tomb of Rabia of Balkh, one of the first female Sufi saints who fell in love with her man servant and was martyred by having her breasts cut off.

The tree-filled park was full of children, teachers, elderly people and pilgrims having picniks. On the way back to Mazar, we stopped at a small ancient mosque, standing in a marijuana field containing the wrecks of scores of Soviet tanks. The No Gumbad or nine domes mosque is the oldest Islamic monument in Afghanistan, and although the domes have long since collapsed, the columns and capitals of carved stucco are in good shape due to ongoing restoration. Protected by a metal roof, the little mosque dates from the 9th century and is a copy of a similar one in Samarra, Iraq.

We strolled around Mazar later when it was cooler and visited the immense shrine of Hazrat Ali, the prophet Muhammed's son-in-law. A tradition relates that in the 12th century, a local Mullah dreamt of a tomb which was the true resting place of Ali, and legend was born that a brick tomb containing a Koran, a sword and the preserved body of the Prophet's son-in-law was discovered. The Seljuk Sultan Sanjar built a shrine over the site which was destroyed by Genghis Khan. Later the Sultan Baiquara commissioned a new shrine in 1481, and today it is a fabulous vision of twin domes of blue tile set in an enormous courtyard. It has been much restored over the centuries and many of the dazzling blue tiles date from the 20th century and come from the workshops of the Jami Masjid in Herat. The shrine is a sacred pilgrimage site attracting thousands of people seeking miracles and to celebrate Nauruz, the Persian new year. There is a tree in the massive courtyard which is always full of beautiful white pigeons which look like flowers, and there is a legend that if grey pigeons flock to this tree, they will turn white in 40 days due to the holiness of the shrine. Every second man walking through the courtyard was an amputee with or without prosthetic limbs, some of them beggars or storytellers.

We all went for dinner at a great Indian restaurant that night, where the food was delicious and the gin and tonics flowed. Afterwards my roommate and I took a stroll around the main street opposite our hotel, and were invited into a small streetside carpet stall where two lovely young brothers who spoke good English offered us cold drinks and a good chat about the situation in the north of Afghanistan. General Dostum seemed to be taking care of Mazar-i-Sharif in terms of security and energy supplies, and the city was obviously thriving economically, with well-stocked shops and a few good restaurants. There were far fewer beggars on the streets compared with Kabul, Herat and other cities, but despite the seeming peace and prosperity, electricity was still intermittent and mostly generator-driven, and there was a disproportionate amount of amputees on crutches without prosthetic limbs around the shrine.

We had the next day to ourselves to do some shopping, and I visited some antique shops off the main street. One shop was selling all sorts of antique jewellry, bracelets, rings, necklaces etc. for $5.00 a piece, and the proprietor led me up a steep wooden ladder to a treasure trove of antiquities excavated from Balkh dating back to the Kushan and Alexandrian eras. I bought a little brass lamp, discoloured green with age from the Timurid dynasty era for $12.00, and a few pieces of old jewellry. While I was still upstairs, a contingent of ISAF soldiers appeared downstairs bristling with weapons and communications gear. Business was going to be good tonight for the elderly owner, who pressed a piece of sticky black opium into my hand as we said goodbye – obviously I had paid too much for my artifacts!

Growing of opium in this part of Afghanistan has increased significantly since 2005, in an area which previously had little or no production, although cannabis grows wild all over Balkh province and is widely used. I met up with my roommate, Pat for a late lunch and chatted with friendly street vendors in a mixture of languages ranging from Russian and French to German and English – many of these men had lived in exile for years and were hoping to make a go of it back home. I spied something that looked like chicken breast fillets sizzling on one of the streetside barbeque stalls – I started salivating and rubbing my hands with delight in anticipation of a chicken kebab. The proprietor spoke no English and seemed alarmed when a mad woman and her tall, blonde friend started jumping around his stall, flapping our arms and making strange clucking noises. He kept shaking his head when we pointed to the pink skewered meat, indicating that we'd like at least five each!

A helpful gentleman led us inside to a table and had a quiet word with the chef over his grill, and we were served two plates with five kebabs each. I bit into one and it tasted very airy – what could this be, we wondered. A young lad who spoke a little English came to join us and asked if we knew what we were eating. I was beginning to think it was some form of tofu, but we were surprised when our new friend pointed between his legs. This was our first taste of sheep testicles and would probably be our last! The man who had brought us inside the street stall was the owner of the testicles and had slaughtered several sheep for his evening delicacy, and with typical Afghan generosity and hospitality had given them to two crazy ladies.

My father had been ill for several months before my trip, but had encouraged me to go and fulfil my childhood dream. I barely had enough charge on my mobile phone to receive a message from my partner in Dublin that dad had died two days before. With no electricity to charge my phone, I was in shock and frantic to touch base and call home, but there are no landlines functioning and my battery was dead. I ran out of the hotel in a panic and accosted every strange man with a mobile phone or sim card vendors.

My language skills had completely deserted me, but luckily an Indian man saw a damsel in severe distress and intervened. He could speak Dari and he introduced me to a lovely young man called Homayoun, who said I could use his phone for as long as I wanted and call anywhere in the world – yet another example of typical Afghan hospitality. He even tried to comfort me when I spoke to my family about dad and the funeral arrangements, which were to be held in London the day after I returned. Homayoun was waiting outside the Farhat Hotel at 7:00 a.m. to see me off – by now I had learned that men, especially Afghan men, can be incredible heroes for absolutely no reward, and my perspective of Central Asian men had changed radically – they are more moral, kind, sweet and natural than many western guys, and do not expect any "favours", they just want to be human. It was a revelation.